Disclosures of Form: Shakespeare, N.T. Wright, Malcolm Guite and An Unexpected Journal

This week sees the publication of an issue of An Unexpected Journal including an article of mine.  I didn’t write it solely because I wanted that journal title on my scholarly CV, but I won’t deny that it’s a pleasing extra.  In fact I’ve been aware of An Unexpected Journal for a while, since it specialises in Christianity and imaginative apologetics, and has published some splendid articles on Narnia, not least by Michael Ward.  When I heard they were planning a special issue on Shakespeare and cultural apologetics, I was considering writing something for it, and when the guest editors (Sarah R.A. Waters and Joe Ricke) got in touch to ask if I had anything suitable, I was already pondering what I’d send.

An Unexpected Journal focuses on exploring Christian truth via reason and imagination, a project which obviously connects with my interest in C.S. Lewis, and specifically the literary aspects of his novels.  This issue, however, was about Shakespeare, and I took the opportunity to extend the strand of research I have been carrying out for some years on the relationship between Shakespeare and the Christian tradition.  My first book, Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible, looked at the ways these texts are read in modern culture, and how Shakespeare is treated as a “sacred text” in some sense.  My second book, Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery, delved into an odder corner of this history, and probed the legend that Shakespeare helped in the translation of the King James Bible.  He didn’t, by the way, but I was intrigued by the way this legend wanted to associate Shakespeare and the Bible, and to examined what cultural or religious ideas were being expressed by the repeating of the story.

A few years ago I continued this line of thinking, with an article called “Spectral Authority: the Presence of Shakespeare in Biblical Criticism” – this appeared in the journal Christianity and Literature.  This article started from the observation that Shakespeare was frequently cited by scholars writing about the Bible, and scrutinised how these allusions worked within their books.  I wanted to see what work was being done by Shakespeare in these works on the Bible – what he was assumed to represent and what his presence allowed the scholars to say.  Shakespeare turned out to be a useful dialogue partner for the Bible for a number of Biblical scholars – and I traced the arc of larger ideas around authority and performance which he seemed to bring into the discussion.

This is where my article for An Unexpected Journal began.  It is called “Disclosures of Form: Theological Poetics and Shakespearean Analogies by N.T. Wright and Malcolm Guite”, and started with me thinking about Wright’s use of Shakespeare as a model for relating the Bible to the world outside it.  In The New Testament and the People of God, he used the idea of an unfinished Shakespeare play to imagine how we should engage with the Biblical texts.  I considered how the ideas of theatre and textual authority which made this comparison work were shaped by the history of Shakespeare.  It only worked as it did, I thought, because of Shakespeare’s own cultural image and the distinctive reception history of his works – it was another example of Shakespeare as a dialogue partner in thinking about the Bible.  I was particularly interested by the reliance Wright put on the idea that the processes of acting and watching drama could demonstrate a sort of truth or fidelity to the meaning of a text.  There seemed to be something specifically aesthetic about the exploration of truth in his image – a use of the artistic faculties to intuit where something was logical or fitting.

This emphasis on aesthetics and form was even more pronounced in the set of poems which Malcolm Guite included in his recent book My Theology: The Word Within the Words.  Whilst discussing his conversion, his experience of the spiritual life, and his sense of the connection between poetry and faith, Guite quotes a passage of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a gloss on the opening to John’s Gospel.  He then goes on to include a series of sonnets in the text, which seem to me to wrestle with the theological possibilities of the Shakespearean sonnet form.  At various points Guite appears to use the conventions of the form to explore scriptural interpretation, Biblical typology, and the open-ended quality of our religious experience. 

The Shakespearean sonnet, with its volta and couplet, seems to articulate both Guite’s excitement at religious insight, and his anxiety that it could become too glib and formal.  I really enjoyed tracing the ways in which theological ideas and the aesthetic form of poetry work together in this volume – how artistic features can offer a vision of religious meaning.  This is a religious poetry which does not depend on the experience of beauty “proving” something to be true, but which uses our experience of reading poetry to allow an intuition of order and meaning beyond the poem itself.  I even suggest in the article that the last poem of My Theology breaks down the sonnet form and gestures towards liturgy as the book ends.

The article is open-access, so it is available to read for free on An Unexpected Journal.  It’s part of an ongoing scholarly project for me, as I’ve mentioned, and this strand of my work is increasingly moving towards the exploration of how literary and theological meaning relate to each other.  Which is a rather dry way of phrasing such an enjoyable – even occasionally exhilarating – activity.