Today sees the launch of my new book, Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery. Despite the sound of the title, I haven’t started writing historical detective fiction with a religious twist. The book’s subtitle explains it further: “Did Shakespeare help write the King James Bible?”
The Psalms Mystery is an investigation of the curious literary legend that Shakespeare was involved in the translation of the Authorized Version of the Bible. It’s a story which I’ve heard from various quarters over the years, and which reappeared in an email last spring from Shakespeare’s Globe in London. One of their staff had been asked by a member of the public if the legend was true, and wanted my confirmation that it wasn’t.
The story runs like this: if you take Psalm 46 in the King James Bible, and count 46 words from the beginning, you get the word “shake”. If you count forty-six words from the end, you get the word “spear”. This hidden message is either Shakespeare signing his name to let future generations know he was called in to help produce the most famous English version of the Bible, or it is a mark left by the translators to show their admiration of the great poet.
The legend isn’t true, I should add. I don’t think there is any real historical evidence that Shakespeare was involved in the translation of the King James Bible, or that the translators hid his name in it as a exploit of ecclesiastical fandom. But to prove this, I had to marshal evidence from the period, to show that this was not only unlikely but verging on impossible.
So the first half of this book is an investigation of the Psalm 46 legend from a historical point of view. I discuss the situation of the theatres in Shakespeare’s time, the process which led to the appearance of the King James Bible, the various English Bibles, the poets who wrote poems based on the Psalms. I set out the context and background which demonstrate why people at the time would not have thought of Shakespeare and the Bible as occupying the same cultural space.
This involves the story of John Rainolds, a clergyman who played the role of Queen Hippolyta in a play as a teenager, but who later wrote polemics about how the theatre corrupted society and encouraged unnatural lust. It involves examining the poetic metres into which the Psalms were translated, and which eventually produced the hymn “All People That On Earth Do Dwell”. And it involves seeing how Mary Sidney and Edmund Spenser wove the same psalm into their own poetry, and the bravado, piety, and smut they made of it.
All of which is done to prove that the legend isn’t true – but also to show that there are much more interesting stories to be told about Shakespeare and the Bible than this minor conspiracy theory. I’ve called the book Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery because the legend purports to tell a secret, but actually distracts our attention from the deep mysteries of these texts. The history and texts of these works contain far odder and more engrossing things than this numerical coincidence.
So having argued that the legend isn’t true in the first half, in the second half I set about exploring why anyone might have thought it was true. I suggest that this theory is an accidental result of the way Shakespeare’s Collected Works and the King James Bible became revered in the nineteenth century. They have an oddly parallel trajectory in some ways: both seventeenth-century texts which were sneered at and scorned in later years until they became revered as divinely inspired in the Victorian era.
By the end of the nineteenth century, some people were discussing Shakespeare and the Authorized Version as if God had a direct hand in both – in some ways the Psalm 46 legend was inevitable, given the joint place they occupied in English-speaking culture. I trace the books’ reputation by the late nineteenth century, and show how novels of the time were steeped in the language of both. This involves tracking echoes of Shakespeare and the King James Bible in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the novels of Anthony Trollope, and an early work by P.G. Wodehouse. (I had far too much fun writing this bit.)
In the next chapter I put the Psalm 46 investigation on hold to look at a story Kipling wrote, suggesting that Shakespeare and Ben Jonson helped write the King James version of Isaiah. Again, this is not true – and to be fair, Kipling didn’t think it was. I explore this piece of historical fantasy with reference to John Buchan, Terry Pratchett, Puck of Pook’s Hill, beliefs about folklore in the early twentieth century, and Kipling’s own belief that some of his literary works had been inspired by his own “daemon”.
Moving on to the present day, I investigate the legend’s appearance in a major US Bible commentary in 2014. Why did a publisher like Eerdmans put the story of Shakespeare helping to write the King James Bible alongside scholarly notes on the Babylonian creation myths and devotional notes on how the Psalms should strengthen modern Christians’ faith? I argue that the story’s appearance here is the outcome of the controversies over the value of the Bible in the twentieth century in the United States.
In the conclusion I ask why people find the Psalm 46 legend compelling. What view of religion and culture does it encourage? What attitudes to literature and poetry? Given that this story is so improbable, why does it keep popping up in various places? It’s less a Question To Which The Answer Is No, and more a Question To Which The Answer Is Why On Earth Would You Ask That? I suggest that the cultural politics of the twentieth century, especially as it concerns Shakespeare and the Bible, makes this legend an encapsulation of a lot of what people want to believe about history, literature, religion and the authority of the past. But, as I have insisted all the way through, this myth directs our attention away from the real mysteries and wonders of Shakespeare and the Bible.
I hope people will find the book of interest – it has been an odd combination of great fun and careful labour to write. I’m glad that it’s going to be available at a considerably lower price than my previous book on Shakespeare and the Bible – currently £8.99 (or $11.99) for the paperback, and £3.99 (or $4.99) for the Kindle edition. If you pick up a copy, I’d appreciate it if you left me a review on Amazon or GoodReads – or indeed email me and let me know what you thought of the book!