Book review: The Bible in Shakespeare by Hannibal Hamlin

[published in Renaisssance Quarterly, Fall 2014]

This book begins with the assertion that “no one has yet published a full-length critical study of Shakespeare’s practice of biblical allusion and the implications of biblical allusion for our understanding of the plays.” Its author is eminently qualified to remedy what he calls this “deficiency,” having published several books on aspects of biblical culture in Early Modern England and co-curated an exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Impressive in its learning and packed with original discoveries of biblical and extra-biblical Shakespearean references, the book is written in concise, lucid and lively prose. Its “argument” is incontrovertible: the Bible is a pervasive source and object of reference in Shakespeare’s plays. The recognition and contextual reframing of hundreds of biblical allusions was part of the experience of earlier audiences, whose familiarity with the Bible was guaranteed by their cultural environment. The book’s task is to restore such experience to the modern reader lacking this familiarity.

Part I, titled “ Shakespeare’s Allusive Practice and its Cultural and Historical Background” opens with a vast array of evidence for the saturation of Shakespeare’s culture with Biblical narratives, characters and language. Chapter 2 traces discourse about the Bible and Shakespeare from early editorial glosses through 19th century elevation as paired pillars of British Civilization to recent debates about Shakespeare’s religious beliefs.

Chapter 3 offers a theoretical definition of “allusion,” including useful observations that it implies covert reference triggering the reader’s memory of a prior text, producing meaning “by the continuing back and forth resonation between the two literary works,”(84) that allusion has a “ludic” or playful element which creates a moment of direct communication with the author, “one of the most profound experiences available in reading,”(81) and that the Bible itself exemplifies how a “constellation” of multiple allusions can weave a tissue of meanings that deepens and unifies a whole work. The definition is illustrated with instances of Shakespeare’s richest uses of the device, Iago’s demonic parody of God’s “I am who am,” Shylock’s retelling of the story of Jacob’s goat-breeding, and Nick Bottom’s parody of St. Paul’s “description of the wondrous mysteries of God’s love.”(108)

Part II narrows the focus of analysis. Chapter 4 explicates allusions to Genesis 1-3 in plays dealing with themes of creation, procreation, gender, sexuality, love and power. Chapter 5 treats anachronistic references to the New Testament in the Roman Plays. Chapter 6, “Damnable Iteration,” examines the parodies of pious Puritans’ habit of scriptural quotation and other biblical echoes that complicate evaluation of character in the four plays featuring Falstaff. Chapter 7 delineates passages in Macbeth that recall the fearsome language of the Apocalypse, intensifying the play’s atmosphere of violence and its moral ambiguity. Chapter 8, “A Hidden God,” takes up the perennial critical investigation of connections between the Book of Job and King Lear. Calvin’s 159 Sermons on Job and other theological texts that rationalize its representations of God as tyrant are cited as sources of characters’ efforts to find some moral sense in the universe, but the author concludes that “Shakespeare was a more skeptical reader of Job than was Calvin, and a skeptical reader of Calvin too….”(333)

This statement comes as something of a surprise, since the author’s usual approach, building on the work of Naseeb Shaheen, is to uncover local references to Bible passages and commentaries without surmising how Shakespeare might have regarded such texts. This approach precludes the kind of “strong readings” of the Bible in Shakespeare produced by Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom and others, generated by what Robert Alter calls “global allusion.”

Though he states elsewhere that “…in their contrastive and ironic use of biblical allusion, Falstaff and Shakespeare do have a striking amount in common,”(270) in practice, Hamlin cites only the normative exegeses of Scripture proposed by orthodox commentators. He ignores extra-theological readings like Machiavelli’s discussion of religion as realpolitik in the Hebrew Bible or Sidney’s interest in what today has become known as the Bible as Literature. He overlooks passages in the plays dramatizing skeptical attitudes toward the Bible itself, such as Richard II’s reflections on its internal contradictions(5.5.12-17), Richard III’s fraudulent use of pious quotation(1.3.332-336) or the power struggle between Jewish and Christian manipulations of allusion itself throughout The Merchant of Venice. And what of evidence that Shakespeare’s audience enjoyed some of his irreverence because they shared it?

Such considerations might have widened the book’s interpretive horizons to allow exploration of issues like Shakespeare’s attitude toward St. Paul, (e.g. naming the anti-misogynist female architect of resurrection in The Winter’s Tale “Paulina” and depicting her miracle as a feat of theatrical illusion) or his preoccupation with characters who resemble the Bible’s God and the playwright himself (e.g. Duke Vincentio and Prospero) as authors of narratives over which they lack full control.

2 Responses to “Book review: The Bible in Shakespeare by Hannibal Hamlin”

  1. Paul A. Fried Says:

    An excellent review. I have also enjoyed your “Shakespeare and the Bible,” with its exploration of the plays as midrash, and your writing regarding Shakespeare and pacifism, which I found very rich in its insights. Shaheen and his predecessors like Carter and Wordsworth really excel at identifying allusions that are close to the original wording, but fall short on identifying the more paraphrased allusions, the clusters of repeated, or thematically-related allusions, and the plot echoes. Also, they don’t interpret what these allusions might mean, or what they might mean taken together in a single play. I am working on a book related to biblical allusions in just one Shakespeare play, and hope to send you a copy when it’s done. Thanks for your rich scholarship and interpretations.

  2. steven Says:

    Thanks for your generous comment. I look forward to see your work when it’s ready.

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