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At the beginning of his book What is the Bible?, John Barton points out how “The Bible and Shakespeare” are often referred to as if they come as a pair:

Castaways on Desert Island Discs have always been asked which book they would like to have with them in their exile ‘apart from the Bible and Shakespeare’ – which are to be provided as a matter of course.  Few have the impertinence to suggest that one (or both) might be removed, to make room or other choices.  Desert islands, like libraries, bookshops, and homes, would not be complete without these two enduring parts of the heritage of all English-speaking people.

In my own research I’m keen to examine the ways in which these two books – and the ideas, values and images they are assumed to represent – are contrasted or juxtaposed with each other.  I’ve been pondering the possible connections between the critical positions implied by “Bardolatry” and “Biblioatry”, thinking about the ways the King James Only movement and the First Folio enthusiasts approach their texts, and noting the way the Victorian creation of Shakespeare line-references and concordances permitted Shakespeare “proof-texting”.

Barton continues:

Yet to put it that way immediately reminds us of the differences between them.  Shakespeare comes in many editions, but the words (give or take details of spelling and a few variations) are the same in them all: the English words Shakespeare himself wrote. 

I’m going to stop there, before the Shakespeare specialists amongst you starting throwing things at the screen or writing outraged letters to The Times. I share your feelings, though I do have a certain amount of sympathy with Barton: if you’re looking across at the Shakespeare canon from Biblical Studies, the view must appear wonderfully smooth and simple, insofar as it involves small Latine and lesse Greeke, and absolewtly noe Hebrewe or Aaramaick…  At first that passage struck me as just an example of one field caricaturing another in order to make its own complexities clearer – like a literary scholar saying that physics has obviously right or wrong answers that you can test, or a musicologist suggesting that playtexts contain all the necessary information for the play, because playwrights get to use words so they just say what they mean.[1]  I assumed it was just proof that the two disciplines need to speak to each other more.

But after reading more work by Barton himself, James Barr, N.T. Wright, Rowan Williams, and John J. Collins, I began to notice more and more references to Shakespeare.  Though these writers obviously have significant differences in their attitudes, they share an engagement with the historico-critical approach and the importance of appreciating literary structures within the Bible as a means to better understanding, so it makes some sense to put their work next to each other.  Their writings seem to have something else in common, which I hadn’t expected: the appearance of Shakespeare as a ghostly figure of authority.

This isn’t true of all the references to Shakespeare I found – some of them simply drag him in for a quick analogy because he’s the most famous (author/ influence on literature/ icon of cultural value/ dead person people revere/ dead person people invent conspiracy theories about) who springs to mind.  Particularly in books aimed at a more popular readership[2], these analogies are an expected way of trying to get ideas across.

There does seem to be a pattern, however, to the moments Shakespeare is invoked, and the status attributed to him.  In the passage I cited from What is the Bible, “Shakespeare” is shown as relatively present in a text which bears that name, offering a secure link between the author, the act of writing and the resulting work we possess.  I’m less interested in this as an opinion on the state of Shakespeare’s texts than as a use of Shakespeare.  What is the Bible? follows on, in some senses, from Barton’s earlier work People of the Book?, in which he roundly criticised Biblical literalism, the over-investment of authority in Biblical writings, and general “Bibliolatry” as he saw it.  The later book was partly a response to criticisms which saw People of the Book? as providing too much critique of other people’s positions, without enough positive suggestions as to how the Bible should be understood or used.  We can situate this book amongst Barton’s other works, and read it as part of a longer project, which he and James Barr engaged in, to claim back the “true” authority of the Bible from what they saw as over-blown and dangerous attitudes.  Barton was thus at pains in What Is The Bible? to demonstrate the authority and significance which he felt it did possess, whilst making clear the difficulty and risk of taking as if that authority was simply and unproblematically transmitted in the texts we have.  It’s at this point that Shakespeare is invoked, a ghostly authority figure who seems to represent the hope – lost or deferred – that a text can make manifest its author.

A similar ambush by spectral Shakespeare can be found in John J. Collins’  The Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age.  Collins sets out to give an account of how far he feels the new “diversity of approaches” which postmodernism has brought can enrich Biblical interpretation, though noting that “my brain has not incubated in the languages of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, or Stanley Fish (if indeed incubation is what happens to a brain in these environments.)”  Snark-infested liquids aside, Collins declares that “it also seems to me that there are some valid concerns and insignificant insights in the welter of new approaches”.  One of the new approaches he weighs up is deconstruction, considering Yvonne Sherwood’s discussion of the Book of Hosea, and his evaluation contains this passage:

Perhaps the most fundamental challenge posed by deconstruction to traditional Biblical exegesus, however, is expressed by Sherwood in a summary comment on Derrida’s essay on the tower of Babel: “Derrida treats Yhwh, as most literary critics do, not as an entity but as a construct of the text.”  Again, there is no reason why a historical critic should object.  The whole drift of historical criticism has been away from the view that the Bible is a timeless revelation of God, and an insistence that its writings are time-conditioned products of human authors, and that its wisdom, to adapt a phrase of Stanley Fish, is ‘of an age and not for all time’, at least not in all cases.

I quoted it at length to show the gestures he’s making before Shakespeare appears, and because it never hurts to give a little buildup to the payoff.  Collins may be quoting Fish, but he’s also quoting Ben Jonson’s famous declaration about Shakespeare that “he was not of an all, but for all time”.  It seems to me that Shakespeare plays during his brief similar role in his appearance here.  His echo (he’s not even named, of course) is heard as Collins is wrestling to find an equilibrium between the subversive energies of deconstruction, which may threaten to annihilate the authority of the text even as they investigate it, and the processes of historical criticism which assume that a text means something, at least.  To hold these forces in tension, to allow space for the discussion to happen, Collins seems to vaguely invoke the fixed point of Shakespeare, to gesture towards the ghost of authority.  Whilst denying that these texts can reproduce the authority they claim, his writing cites the spectral icon of a meaning stably present for all time.  The hedging of “to adapt…at least not in all cases” (which is footnoted “Fish would not, I think, accept the qualification ‘not in all cases’”) requires an imagined simple authority in order not to collapse in upon itself, which is represented – at however many removes – by Shakespeare.

N.T. Wright’s Who Was Jesus? provides a spray of Shakespeare references, some of which veer between analogy, metaphor and an explicit discussion of intertextuality.  Two of them are particularly striking when placed next to the examples above.  Wright, like the other two critics I have mentioned, is writing back against particular attitudes to the Bible, specifically those of A.N. Wilson, Barbara Thiering and John Shelby Spong.  Who Was Jesus? was written as a response to Wilson’s Jesus, Thiering’s Jesus the Man: A New Interpretation from the Dead Sea Scrolls and Spong’s Born of  a Woman, and attempts to explain the various phases of the Quest for the Historical Jesus for a general readership whilst also making clear that none of these writers count as “valid” parts of the Quest.  This necessarily involves him making apparent “concessions” – explaining what he considers credible areas of doubt and speculation – whilst also defending his own assertion that these do not undermine the basis of orthodox belief.[3]  As you may be unshocked to hear by this point, Shakespeare makes an appearance at some of these moments.

Criticising Wilson’s lack of historical rigour, Wright points out that he suggests Jesus got the image of the mustard-seed from the Palestinian Talmud.  This is a problem as:

The Talmud is basically a commentary on the Mishnah, which was itself… written in about AD 200.  The Talmud itself wasn’t written down until about AD 400.  If Wilson is worried about the Jesus of history not being able to do the extraordinary things credited to him by Christianity, I think we are entitled to ask Wilson whether his historical Jesus was capable of reading a book written four hundred years after his own day.  It is like suggesting Shakespeare got his ideas from Tom Stoppard.

Having got Wilson on the historical hook, Wright administers the flourishing coup de grace with Shakespeare: it’s a less obvious tension than the previous examples, but behind it lies the assumption that Shakespeare is original, authentic and that ideas flow from him, not towards him.  Taken literally, it could be a simple historical point, equivalent to saying that John Milton didn’t get his ideas from John Rawls, but the humour or acerbity (depending on how you read the line) depends on our instinct that it is silly to suggest that Shakespeare could be derivative.  Following the overall pattern of his argument in Who Was Jesus?, Wright has signalled areas where doubt may legitimately be entertained, and then snapped shut the argument.  It is at this point that Shakespeare’s name arrives, to forestall and ridicule the idea via a joke which draws on his assumed authority.

A similar arc is in evidence when dealing with Thiering: Wright explains the argument of her book and lays out the points in favour of it.  He then critiques it, particularly rubbishing her notion that various people who appear in the Gospels are “actually” the same person: that Mary is also Dorcas the widow, John Mark is also the Beloved Disciple and Simon Magus is both Lazarus and Ananias.

The net effect of all this fantastic name-swapping is rather like the effect you’ll get if you try to stage a Shakespeare play with a cast of five actors.  The same people keep reappearing in different identities.  If the audience get confused that’s just too bad.  Thiering’s readers might feel the same way.

Because this comparison really doesn’t work the way it seems to be intended, I think it’s easier to identify the cultural work being done by Shakespeare here.  Of course you can stage Shakespeare with five actors[4], and indeed fewer[5].  Shakespeare’s plays did in fact involve the doubling of roles in the Early Modern theatre, out of necessity or to make a metatheatrical point.  All of which should alert us to the fact that Shakespeare’s works in production, let alone in book form, are being invoked here as the ultimate stable site of meaning.  After discussing the Dead Sea Scrolls and what they may add to our understanding of the Gospels, Wright brings in Shakespeare to snort at Thiering’s ideas on the assumption that we will laugh at the image of a fictional character not being attached to one (and only one) actor.  At this point Shakespeare is such a powerful guarantor of authority, which is transmitted so effectively through his texts, that a performance of his plays can be summoned to represent fixity of meaning.  Reading the New Testament might admit of some reasonable doubt, Wright’s image suggests, and we can bring the full battery of historical, textual and philosophical approaches to bear on defending an orthodox understanding of the writings which constitute it.  But Shakespeare is another matter.

This piece is just an outline of some of the work I have been doing, and I hope to follow it up soon with some more sketches of where the research has taken me.  Come to think of it, the references to Hamlet by Rowan Williams and Alfredo Ottaviani might provide an interesting comparison…  As I’ve said, my interest here is not in the accuracy of these references to Shakespeare from a scholarly point of view, but the use being made of them: I don’t mean to carp or bring an unsuitable criterion to bear.  In the meantime I’d be very interested to hear people’s thoughts.  I understand that not everyone in either field may be necessarily comfortable to have Shakespeare and the Bible juxtaposed in quite this way, but I think there are productive exchanges to be had between the disciplines.


[1] And anyone who can identify which musicologist I’m thinking of gets a small prize.

[2] Whether or not the readership saw it coming and dodged.  That’s unfair in the case of these critics, but I have put down more than a few “popular” books about the Bible to avoid an oncoming metaphor which I could see would end badly…

[3] This produces a tension between the first and second halves of the book, which perhaps explains why Geza Vermes gets a hard time early on before being brought in later to slap John Spong down.

[4] There is, for example, a Tempest touring right now with a five-person cast I’ve heard very good things about.

[5] Just ask Dr. Peter Kirwan about the two-man Comedy of Errors, and brace for enthusiasm.  Think he called it one of the top five Shakespeare performances he has ever seen.  And he’s seen a few.

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