This week Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible is going to be released. To be precise, it’s coming out on Thursday 26th May, and I am terribly excited about the prospect. Words of Power is my first book, so almost everything about the process has been quite thrilling, and I suspect I have slightly wearied Angharad, my editor at Lutterworth, with rather foolish questions. (What font is that? How is an index? Why even are proofs?)
I’m even having a book launch, at the Blackwell’s on the University of Nottingham’s Uni Park campus, at 6.00 pm on Thursday – if you’re in the area, do come along! There will be an author talk and book-signing, according to the flyers. This has caused my wife to advise our friends to try to get hold of one of the rare, unsigned copies which collectors will treasure in years to come. Even more splendidly deflating was the question from one of my students, who asked interestedly “So, the author signing books…will that be you?” Undergraduates are such a useful check on the ego.
I first had the idea of writing a book about Shakespeare and the Bible some years ago, when I was doing a lot of reading in both fields, and noticed how often Shakespeare scholars use the Bible as an analogy and how often Biblical scholars used Shakespeare in the same way. Both often clarified the meaning of what they were saying by contrasting it to the other text. Often these analogies slightly misfired, but they made me notice just how often “the Bible and Shakespeare” were joined together as a pair. Part of the point of making contrasts between them seemed to be that they were often regarded as similar.
Words of Power looks at Shakespeare and the Bible as “sacred texts” within our culture: books that are treated in distinctively different ways to other books. For a start we (as a culture) tend to accord them much more authority and importance, whether we individually like or agree with them or not. When I was a student, for example, there was an entire “paper” (the equivalent of a module) on Shakespeare. The other papers were largely periods of time, so the Renaissance got a paper, the Victorians got one, the Anglo-Saxons got one, and Shakespeare got one.
Just him in that paper, as if he’d transcended time entirely and was an entirely separate category of literature. That’s not a bad example of how Shakespeare is treated as a “sacred text”, since it involves acting as if the normal rules of time and space don’t apply to him. Indeed, if you watch the Doctor Who episode entitled The Shakespeare Code, you discover that those rules apparently don’t apply to him, though that’s slightly another story.
We can see something of the same attitude in the way many people read the Bible. When a passage is read out during a church service, or during a quiet time of personal prayer and reflection, many people report feeling that particular verses have an immediate meaning for them. This can be as powerful as a sense that someone is speaking directly to them through the words, to give advice or help or comfort. Perhaps the most famous example of this is St. Augustine’s conversion which involved (in the account he gives) picking up a Bible at random and reading a verse which told him what to do with his life.
Less dramatic versions of this are part of the lives of many Christians, and it’s a distinctive way of reading a text. Instead of setting the passage in historical context and explaining why this particular historical text might have been composed in response to a particular religious controversy of the time, or be a reaction against certain developments in political life, the listeners regard themselves as the “intended” audience for the words. Again, this involves treating the Bible (like Shakespeare) as if the normal rules of time and space didn’t apply in the same way to this book as to others.
In Words of Power I examine the various ways in which our culture handles the Bible and Shakespeare, and I examine something of the history behind the books we have now. So I trace the disagreements over which Biblical texts and which play texts should be included in the official canons, and how it was decided which actual words belonged in those texts. I survey some of the ways in which they are interpreted, from psychological character criticism to spiritual allegory, and I look at how people perform the texts in public (or how they value private reading instead.) I also have a look at the ways these books are used which does not involve reading them, such as the presence of the Bible in the US Presidential Inauguration.
Along the way, I found myself trying to understand – or to explain – some odd moments in their history. Why, for example, did St. Augustine become a bit passive-aggressive when he found St. Ambrose reading the Bible silently to himself? Why did Charles Lamb think Shakespeare should never be performed on the stage? Why did a peer in the House of Lords tell a story about Peter Cushing’s performance in Hamlet during a debate of the age of consent for gay sex? Why was Caroline Spurgeon convinced that finding all the references to spaniels in Shakespeare’s plays could reveal his psychological scars?
These questions are more than intriguing trivia (or at least I hope they are) because the meaning of Shakespeare and the Bible is so tied up the with the process of reading them. Questions like which books should be in the canon arose because of the different interpretations people had of them, and the painstaking process of textual scholarship often involves comparing the meanings of different versions of a line as it appears in different manuscripts or printed books. There is no neutral, objective meaning to this pair of sacred texts: on the contrary, even deciding that “the Bible” is one specific set of words and “Shakespeare” is another specific set of words is an assumption which comes out of hundreds of years of other people reading and expounding these texts.
It’s also healthy to come up against the kind of bizarre moments I mentioned above because it reminds us that there is no “normal” way to undertake this task of reading. People in the past were simply doing what seemed totally obvious to them, just as it seems totally obvious to us to treat Shakespeare and the Bible in the ways we do. Looking at the past can make our own time seem strange, as for a split-second we see ourselves through the eyes of the past, and can give us a better chance to understand why we do things. Or indeed to change what we do.
In Words of Power I grapple with some of the strangeness of the past and present, and I hope it will start some conversations about how and why we read these books. I’m very grateful for the readers and writers which this blog has allowed me to connect with – in many ways Words of Power is the result of the kinds of conversation I’ve been having by blogging and reading over the last few years.I’m looking forward to hearing what people think of the book, and what lines of thought it might start. And if you’re around on Uni Park at 6.00 pm on Thursday 26th May, come along to the launch!