Words of Power, my book on Shakespeare and the Bible, has been out for about eight months now. After the excitement of launching it, and speaking at a few events, the next stage in the book’s life were the reviews. Some arrived relatively soon, and others have been coming out in the months since. They provide a really useful insight into what various readers thought of Words of Power, and – perhaps more surprisingly in some cases – what people thought the point of the book was. I’ve been intrigued, and even taken aback, by where reviewers saw the book fitting into the discussion of Shakespeare and the Bible, and the uses they imagined for it.
This theme was noticeable in the review John Halton kindly wrote for Curlew River, on a pre-release copy of the book. His review includes this passage
This short book is not only a book about the Bible and Shakespeare, but on the nature of texts in general: how they are formed and performed, how they become ‘sacred’, how they form communities and function within cultures, and how they can help us appreciate the ‘remarkable strangeness’ of both the past and present
I was glad that he liked Words of Power, and his sense of its purpose broadly matched my own: that it could encourage thought about how these texts are used and how that shapes other activities around them.
Over at Admiral Creedy, Tom Creedy was kind enough to praise the book for offering “challenge and insight for those of us…who call ourselves ‘people of the book’”, and for being both erudite and readable. Alongside this was a note which surprised me rather more, as he suggested that he found the book valuable, though “some of my oldest friends will be offended, and my present paymasters [InterVarsity and SPCK] may be miffed” by it. I must admit I hadn’t considered that Words of Power might be offensive or controversial.
This isn’t a complaint about the review – it’s rather exciting to discover one might be mildly shocking to some people – but a genuine matter of surprise. The review ends with a similar comment, implying that the book’s value might be due partly to its potential to unsettle:
For those in church leadership, regardless of tradition, this might be a more difficult read, but the rewards could be valuable in shaping and refining how we read Scripture publicly, and integrate reading powerful books into our shared life
A review at Legion’s Eagle provided another view of the potential readership, and what it might offer readers. I’m absolutely delighted with the review, which is both extraordinarily kind about my writing (“a gentle, questioning erudition which has the same flavour as Rowan Williams reading ‘The Lost Elephants of Denbigh’) and reads the book through the critical lens of fandom. I won’t try to summarise the argument here, but it can be found through the link above. She did raise the issue of the book’s length, objecting that it raised too many more questions than it answered, and that it was more of an amuse-bouche to raise the intellectual appetite than a full meal to satisfy it. With great generosity, she reflected that this might be part of the book’s function:
It’s the sort of book which a teacher could easily push into the hands of a bright sixthformer and find it had much the same effect as E.H. Carr’s What is History? had at a similar date for me. The sense of having one’s mind palpably stretched at the right age is more powerful than anything else. It’s certainly opened my mind to areas I could now see myself doing further reading in, which I hadn’t before.
I came to Carr much later than Legion’s Eagle, so I have a rather fresher memory of how that book expanded my intellectual horizons, and I appreciate the compliment. Again, I hadn’t considered the possibility of Words of Power being presented as an introduction to Big Books, The Humanities, And Suchlike, but I later heard that it has been put on the reading list for a Foundation Degree.
A very different judgement came from the review in Times Higher Education, where Peter J. Smith dismissed the book as “a fool’s errand”. His piece insists that Shakespeare despised religious institutions and authority, and that the “creativity and humanity” demonstrated by the poet’s works have nothing in common with the stifling and intolerant intellectual world of Bible readers. Again, I found myself surprised: not by the opinion that Words of Power was a bad or useless book, but that it was a pointless book.
I had never thought that my book was suggesting we should read Shakespeare and the Bible alongside each other, since that seemed so startlingly obvious. To find a critic who believed that it was obviously ludicrous to do so, and that I had been trying to make an argument for such reading (which had failed it was a ridiculous enterprise) took me rather aback. It was a valuable insight into how few of my assumptions in writing Words of Power might be shared by some of its readers, and the resistance which might exist to the possible value of the reading I had undertaken.
The Expository Times has just published a review by Alison Jack, in which she greets the book as a useful work for scholars in either field wishing to know a bit more about the other. (This was one of the functions I had assumed it might potentially carry out, especially given my own slight experience of what people interested in each area assume or know.) One particular area which caught her eye was apparently the move towards a conception of Shakespeare as a literary, rather than a dramatic or theatrical, text during the nineteenth century.
She regrets the parallel tendency of the book and the way it deals with the two works alongside each other, rather than producing richer readings from their interactions: the neglect of investigation into how Shakespeare was influenced by the Bible seemed a particular gap to her. Having heard Dr.Jack at a conference a couple of months ago, speaking on the interactions of Shakespeare and the Bible in a specific genre, I was very glad she thought the book of value.
Overall, then, I’ve been very cheered by the reception of the book, and the way it seems to have provided enjoyment and material for thought. If these reviews are anything to go by, the histories of Shakespeare and the Bible seem to interest a number of people, and to offer new areas for exploration. But, as I’ve said, the real surprise throughout the experience of reading about my book has been what people thought it was for, and what uses they envisaged for it.