Book Review: Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book: Contested Scriptures

Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book: Contested Scriptures, edited by Travis de Cook and Alan Galey, Routledge, New York and London 2012.

Published in Religion and Literature 44:2, Fall 2012

This is a collection of essays about relationships between the production, dissemination and reception of books and the pairing of two books: Shakespeare and the Bible.

Many recent scholars have studied the either the Bible or Shakespeare in terms of the history of the book”ways that material media have determined their form and message.  Intertextual relationships between Shakespeare and the Bible is also a familiar, if sparse, field of critical inquiry.  But investigating the coupling of Shakespeare and the Bible itself with the methods of textual materialism is a novel and narrowly focused undertaking.

The editors’ discussion of Rudyard Kipling’s whimsical 1934 fantasy about Shakespeare’s drafting language of the King James Bible introduces the book’s overall polemical argument that the consideration of historical and physical conditions of texts should counter the tendency to canonize them and “naturalize” their assumed unity and completeness.

The book’s first group of essays examine ways in which Shakespeare’s use of the specific editions of the Bible he’s presumed to have read affected plot, characterization, theme and language in individual plays.

Barbara Mowat finds in the glosses and cross references of the Geneva Bible sources for Shakespeare’s recurrent links between scriptural allusions to stories of sibling rivalry and concerns with early modern primogeniture.  She claims that other Geneva Bible marginalia account for his deliberately ambiguous use of the phrase “measure for measure” in the play of that name to refer both to the Hebrew Bible’s lex talionis and its repudiation by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.  These particular marginalia don’t provide convincing evidence for the Geneva edition’s influence, since both themes are apparent to readers of the uncommented text.  Other Geneva glosses, such as those justifying deception on the part of God or his surrogates, or the Geneva’s epigraphs and illustrations emphasizing the defeat of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea are more likely to have attracted Shakespeare’s special attention.

Randall Martin’s “Paulina, Corinthian Women, and Revisioning of Pauline and Early Modern Patriarchal Ideology in The Winter’s Tale,” argues that that this outspoken feminist character represents Shakespeare’s daring mock of the Apostle Paul. She adopts Paul’s characteristic rhetorical stance of Parrhesia, or “speaking truth to power,” but uses it to challenge and eventually overcome the misogynistic tyranny that her antagonist Leontes has adopted from Paul’s own condemnation of female authority and public expression. In support, Martin cites the Geneva gloss on Corinthians to the effect that “disorder was in the church that women usurped what was peculiar to men,” and also modern scholars’ speculations that the objects of Paul’s disdain were priestesses and prophetesses influential in early Christian communities. He also mentions a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Anne Dowriche, who performed analogous appropriations of Pauline doctrines. But in his discussion of Paulina’s staging of one of Shakespeare’s numerous fake resurrections, Martin doesn’t entertain a broader implication: Paulina may be successfully carrying out Paul’s mission of “awakening faith” with the use of rhetoric and theatrical illusion.

The next two essays link the pairing of Shakespeare and the Bible with theoretical issues raised by textual materialism–each of them provocative but set forth in an associative style of argument difficult to fully engage.

Travis Raley’s “The Tablets of the Law: Reading Hamlet with Scriptural Technologies,” yokes together two unusual couplings around the book’s tripartite theme.  The contrast between erasable wax tablet and permanently printed book made by Hamlet in his pledge not to forget the ghost implies a Biblical allusion to the permanent and definitive inscription of the ten commandments by God. The biblical inscription of the tablets provides a verbal and visual backdrop for Steve Jobs’ launch of the ipad tablet in 2009. Such inscription is enshrined as Scripture–an idealized concept of a text that is complete, authoritative, and self-validating, ignoring the contingent material conditions of its production, preservation and dissemination. Both the Bible and the monumental volume of Shakespeare’s First Folio have been accorded false Scriptural status. However, Raley concludes, the contrast between inscription and scripture evaporates on close scrutiny: the first version of the decalogue inscribed by God was shattered by Moses and then rewritten by him at dictation.  Hamlet has trouble remembering what he inscribed. The erasable ipad’s first Shakespeare app is a falsely definitive rendition of the multiform possible renderings of the play texts.  A worthwhile sequel to this essay might include discussion of the non-scriptural status of present day digital texts because of “bit-rot” resulting from material decay of encoded data and obsolescence of coding software.

Edward Pechter’s essay, “Shakespeare and the Bible: Against Textual Materialism,” counters the perspectives of most of the contributors to this volume.  He contrasts their materialistic, analytical, deconstructive approaches with the “recuperative” efforts of critics like Johann Gottfried Herder, Matthew Arnold and Northrop Frye, all of who accorded both the Bible and Shakespeare the status of “Scripture” based on aesthetic value and secular significance which could be illuminated by insightful empathic literary criticism. Citing the example of Stephen Greenblatt, who championed the rejection of such recuperative work thirty years ago but has recently returned to it, Pechter asserts that this book’s mission has already run its course.

The next three essays explore ways Shakespeare and the Bible were conflated by 19th century scholars and the reading public. In “Going Professional: William Aldis Wright on Shakespeare and the English Bible,” Paul Werstine documents the way an otherwise judicious and precise editor of the King James Bible (AV) Concordance and of Shakespeare fell under the spell of the pairing of the two and made up inaccurate cross references between them. “‘Stick to Shakespeare and the Bible. They’re the roots of civilization.’: Nineteenth Century Readers in Context” by Andrew Murphy traces how use of the AV translation as the only reader in early 19th century church schools for the working class paved the way for adoption of Shakespeare in later secularized public education by making 17th century diction and usage familiar.  Charles LaPorte’s “The Devotional Texts of Victorian Bardolatry” studies popular 19th century compilations of parallel Biblical and Shakespearean quotations.  He exposes their absurd distortions of meaning out of context but acknowledges that collecting such commonplaces of doctrinal wisdom and proverbial eloquence has deep roots in both literary and devotional traditions.

Like his co-editor’s essay, Travis DeCook’s “Apocalyptic Archives: The Reformation Bible, Secularity, and the Text of Shakespearean Scripture” generates fertile speculation out of far-flung examples and the book’s central conjunctions.  The early Jewish and Christian notions of the Bible itself as a universe, parallel in scope and completeness to the rest of Creation, was elaborated in the sola scriptura doctrine of Luther and Tyndale. This notion was applied by numerous Victorian writers to Shakespeare’s First Folio. The essay concludes with a study of bizarre nineteenth century “cryptographic” readings of the Shakespeare text as coded work by Francis Bacon whose true meaning will surface at the end of days.  Such apocalyptic Bardolatry”also explored in Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books–illustrates the extremes to which idealised and unhistorical thinking about the Bible, Shakespeare and the Form of the Book eventually leads.






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