A couple of years ago I published Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery, a book which examines (and debunks) the legend that Shakespeare helped write the King James Bible. One of the questions I was most interested to address in that book was not whether it was true, but why people persisted in believing in it. In my conclusion I reviewed this idea, and suggested how this legend might fit into certain ways of looking at the world, certain attitudes to literature and religion, and certain habits of reading, in the twenty-first century – I’ve reproduced the passage below.
The previous chapters have laid out a response to the Psalm 46 legend in two different directions. I have discussed the historical, textual and literary reasons why I think the legend is not only unproved but deeply unlikely. I hope my arguments have been reasonable, and based on the evidence available to us about the context of both Shakespeare’s works and the translation of the King James Bible. I must admit that I have felt it difficult at times to argue against the legend along the accepted lines of scholarly debate, since the legend itself seems not to be proceeding along those lines (or perhaps “playing by those rules” would be a better phrase.) In marshalling the evidence against the idea that Shakespeare helped write the Authorized Version I sometimes felt at a slight disadvantage compared to my usual scholarly work, since I cannot see that there is any evidence that he did, and so it is difficult to address that evidence. Nonetheless, I have treated it as a possible hypothesis, and tried to set it within the historical literature about the early seventeenth century, in order to show how far it does not fit. As I mentioned in the introduction, I do not suggest that the legend is totally impossible. It purports to be a theory about a group of people who were alive in the same country at the same time, and a collection of texts which were familiar to all of them. The Psalms of the KJV are a set of early modern poems (in some sense), and Shakespeare was an early modern poet. His involvement in the project does not require any suspension of the laws of historical causation as we understand them: we do not have to posit that Shakespeare somehow influenced the temple psalms of Israel despite living centuries and centuries after their composition and compilation. Nor do we need to involve any of forms of intervention which mainstream historiography has ruled out: aliens do not need to have borrowed the manuscripts of the psalms, nor does Shakespeare need to have seen the poems in a vision. From this point of view, the theory is positively plausible, and if documents turned up proving it to be accurate I would be both intrigued and delighted, though this book would then need a bit of rewriting. Indeed, if a better and more erudite scholar than me (and there are at least twelve of those within a casual stone’s throw of the desk at which I am writing this sentence) showed that in fact the evidence we possess does support the theory, I would be willing to listen and be persuaded if I could see their point. It is simply that, at the moment, it seems so extremely unlikely that I can rule it out of my mental picture of England in the early seventeenth century. If it were true, I would not only have to accept it as a fact, but I would also need to reassess the aspects of history which rule it out as a reasonable possibility. If the theory were accurate, it would not simply add another fact to the accumulation of data we possess about the early seventeenth century, but would have an impact on our interpretation of other data. We would have to ask whether we had been right in our understanding of social attitudes towards the theatre, of the history of the Biblical text in English, of poetic practice in the period, and various of the topics I have discussed in previous chapters. All of this is possible, but it would involve bringing the Psalm 46 legend within the ambit of historical and literary scholarship, and asking how it affected that mesh of narratives and debates.
Given that there is no serious evidence for the legend, beyond the numerical coincidence (which needs some selective misreading to make it persuasive), why is the Psalm 46 legend attractive? Why are people willing to believe it, and why does it continue to crop up in different forms? The specific examples I have examined in the previous chapters suggest some particular reasons and some general trends. The story seemed plausible in the late nineteenth century because Shakespeare’s reputation as both a writer and a transcendent genius coincided which the enormous respect accorded to the King James Bible as more than simply a good translation of the Bible. Their parallel arcs through history collided in a story that suggested they had been connected all along. The Kipling story showed a gifted author musing on the great literary reputations of the two texts, and using them to reflect on his own personal form of literary inspiration and his feelings about the history of the English landscape. Kipling’s short story imaginatively reconstructed the early modern period via his own experience of mysterious textual creation, and (conveniently) placed his works in the line of inspired writings which included Shakespeare’s plays and the KJV. The entry in the Bible commentary demonstrated Shakespeare being used to emphasize the literary qualities of the Bible, and to assert the religious text’s connection with a touchstone of cultural value. After a twentieth century in which the Bible had become less central to the public cultures of Britain and the US, this retelling of the story placed the Bible in the context of education, literary value and social aspiration.
Beyond these individual cases I think there are suggestions we can make about the appeal of this legend. This is not to suggest that everyone who found the story compelling or believed it did so for the reasons I am proposing, nor that doing so involves signing up to a complete set of cultural and political beliefs. Nonetheless, I think the Psalm 46 legend sits within a particular set of narratives about the past and cultural values, both expressing them and reinforcing them in a minor way. It connects two literary and religious artefacts from the past, providing a narrative which explains how they were related. On this level it undertakes the same work as the historical scholarship which I’ve suggested disproves the legend, in a different way. Given that these two collections of texts have survived from the same period, some explanation of their relationship is reasonable, and the Psalm 46 story gives one kind of explanation. It does so, moreover, in a way which fits conveniently with a modern view of the texts, which adds to its appeal as a narrative. It does not require the listener to adjust their sense that the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare are the most important books from this period, nor to imagine a past in which this was not obviously the case. This is part of the problem with the legend from a historical point of view, but I suspect it is also part of its appeal in the present. It offers a story which projects the modern situation of these texts as cultural landmarks into the past, and implies that our attitudes and ideas are sanctioned by the testimony of that past. Relatedly, it implies that the canon of texts which exists currently – the group of books which are studied, taught, read and regarded as possessing surpassing cultural and literary value – is both correct and sufficient. Correct because this group of books (or Shakespeare and the Bible, their pre-eminent members and representatives) is apparently not subject to the vagaries of time or fashion: they were the most important texts four hundred years ago, and they remain so now. Sufficient because the story builds a connection between the texts which both binds them more tightly together, and which does not require any other text or context in order to make sense. We do not need to delve into the life of Laurence Chaderton, (of whom we have never heard) or scrutinise the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, (which is arguably not very good) in order for the Psalm 46 legend to work. The texts with which we are already familiar are the most significant ones, and all the necessary texts have survived. If Shakespeare (in some small way) explains the Bible, and vice versa, then the canon is in that same way reinforced in both its internal connections and its external boundaries. The Psalm 46 legend tends to support a small-c conservative attitude to the past and the values of the present, though (as I said), this does not mean that everyone who finds it persuasive or attractive holds those beliefs.
There is also an element of mild conspiracy in the legend which may add to its appeal. It offers the listener an insight into something which was deliberately hidden from most people, allowing them to be part of an inner circle with special knowledge. This perhaps partly explains its attraction for Baconian groups in the nineteenth century, who argued that Bacon, rather than Shakespeare, was the author of the works attributed to the latter. Despite the legend showing how Shakespeare’s name could be found in the psalm, rather than Bacon’s, the element of conspiracy and secret codes seems to have appealed to those who were already committed to a conspiracist view of this period of literary history. This vision of the past, in which the dominant historical narrative is not only wrong, but the result of a deliberate plot to trick everyone, encourages the division of the world into those who are aware of the deception and those who are not. Some believers in the theory that Shakespeare is not the author of Shakespeare’s works have even gone so far as declaring that scholars have deliberately ignored or covered up evidence against the playwright, perpetrating an ongoing fraud on the public for their own supposed benefit. This is hardly the case for the Psalm 46 legend, since no-one (except the Baconians) has suggested that the connection between Shakespeare and the King James Bible is evidence of a grand political or literary deception. It does, however, have certain elements in common with other conspiracist views of Shakespeare and the past: a secret code, a fact hidden from most people, collaboration between powerful figures. When the secret is revealed, however, the outcome is to confirm, rather than question, the legitimacy of the literary and religious establishment in Britain and the US. In this way the legend continues to fit into the small-c conservative approach to the world I mentioned above. It does not undermine the high value placed on Shakespeare or the Bible by many people. It does not suggest that they were forged, or lacking in some way, or subject to improper influence during their compilation. A study of the history of their production is more likely to do that. On the contrary, the conspiratorial element of this story offers a reassuring message, proposing to tell a secret which bolsters the legitimacy of traditional cultural value. It would have been “radical” and subversive to established power in some sense to hide Shakespeare’s name in the Biblical text during the seventeenth century. It is not subversive to claim to have found it there in the twenty-first century. Indeed part of the attraction of the Psalm 46 legend may be its vindication of a traditional canon and vision of cultural value in a period when many people feel these are under threat, a evidenced, for example, by Alan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind, or the argument over the proposed removal of the King James Bible from the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs. It has some of the hallmarks of a secret, subversive interpretation of history, but with an outcome which confirms a relatively traditional view of cultural values.
This sense that the texts may contain a secret code, and that they will reveal connections to each other, encourages a certain mode of reading which also supports a traditional approach. The legend’s plausibility depends on close attention to the words of the texts themselves: it is from the verbal details of the psalm that the figure of Shakespeare appears. An emphasis on the specific words of the text in their specific order is characteristic of the style of literary criticism known as New Criticism, practised most famously by scholars such as I.A. Richards and Cleanth Brooks, and which became dominant in much of school and university English literature teaching during the early twentieth century. Its practical methods, which involve a sustained attention to the text’s meanings as they are demonstrated by word choice, grammar, syntax and form, are sometimes referred to broadly as “close reading”. This contrasted with the often impressionistic and biographical literary criticism carried out in the nineteenth century, and also with the later twentieth century’s critical interest in lenses like race, gender and class. To those who champion the kind of close reading which New Criticism made popular, the careful and rigorous attention given to the details of the words and their order involves taking the literary work seriously as a piece of art. It emphasizes the value which is inherent in the text itself, and will always be present, since it depends on the formal and technical properties which do no change across time. From this point of view, when Milton (for example) wrote a sonnet, he constructed a verbal work of art which has an internal logic and coherence which continues to exist today. In contrast, analysing literature from the point of view of class, gender and race would feel to a traditionalist as if the answers were being sought outside the text. Such critics, who might be represented today by Harold Bloom, would allege that the critical lenses of race, class and gender are too often attempts to “catch out” the author, to discredit the literary work, and to hold it to account by modern social and ethical standards. The practice of close reading is thus often associated with a canonically-focused attitude to literature and history, which would see itself as reading the works on their own terms, exploring their inherent value and respecting the inheritance of the past. A somewhat similar contrast can be seen in modern reading of the Bible between an approach which emphasizes the Bible as a whole and coherent text which contains everything necessary to understand it, and a more sceptical and critical sensibility which seeks to explore the textual history of the books, the conditions of their production, and the historical forces which shaped the text as we possess it. The former approach is usually associated with a more theologically conservative agenda, which stresses its respect for the Bible, its humility before the text as the revelation of God and the harmony of the Biblical material when read on its own terms. The latter is sometimes criticised as seeking to pick apart the text, thus obscuring its spiritual and moral demands on people in the present, and arrogantly elevating modern scholarly techniques over the wisdom contained within the Bible. The Biblical scholar Brevard Childs summed up this critique when he suggested that modern scholarship was eager to reduce the Bible to “inert shards”. (These are, of course, rather caricatured sketches. There are many theologically conservative people who are deeply engaged with critical scholarship of the Bible, and many critical scholars who place a high value on the intricacy and spiritual meaning of the text. This is how the two emphases are often portrayed, however.) The mode of reading which the Psalm 46 legend depends upon is a close scrutiny of the text in its specific details, and the discerning of a connection to another significant text within it. It thus has something in common with the approaches to both literature and the Bible which sit comfortably within a more conservative view of the world, especially at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The legend potentially also satisfies another impulse in reading Shakespeare and the King James Bible: it personalises the story of two great and complex collections of texts, which have had enormous influence on later people’s religious and literary lives. There is something instinctively unsatisfactory about the facts that Shakespeare’s works are a large corpus of plays and poems which were not all composed in an orderly way for us by the author, and printed directly from manuscripts bearing his handwriting. The irregular and commercial business of playbooks being printed by theatre companies were responsible for the quartos during his life, and a memorial (and also commercial) project by two of his associates after his death gave us the First Folio. The disagreements over which plays contain material by other playwrights, and where in the texts that material might be, continue amongst scholars. The intricacies of textual scholarship break down the works into tiny units, looking at lines and fragments of lines, and subject them to minute analysis. All this scholarship is very worthwhile, and its results can have enormous and radical effects on our understanding of Shakespeare’s work and times, but it often lacks the strong persona narrative many people find compelling in history. The “hand” of Shakespeare can feel very far away from the texts as we possess them today. The same might be said of the Bible in English, especially the King James Bible. The historical account, as we have it, is a story of political disagreements, of wrangling over individual words, of committees reviewing, consulting the terms of reference for their project, and appreciating the force of precedent. That story has been fascinatingly told by Adam Nicolson and Benson Bowbrick, amongst others, but it can lack something of the same personal quality that many people look for in the story of Shakespeare. If there is a temptation to ask gloomily where the hand of Shakespeare is in the story of the Complete Works, there is a similar temptation to despair of finding a significant hand in the story of the King James Bible. Where is King James’ hand? Where, even, is God’s? I suspect the Psalm 46 legend satisfies some of this desire for the immediate and the personal in these influential texts.
These seem to me the most likely explanations for the popularity of the legend, and its reappearance in different guises across the twentieth century. (I have assumed that explanations are needed because I think the story is not true and is not supported by any evidence, otherwise much less thought would need to be given to why people believed a particular historical fact.) As I have stressed, these suggestions are not a psychological or political map of people who believe in the legend, nor of those who find it compelling, attractive or interesting. I am not suggesting that a belief that Shakespeare’s name was hidden (by him or others) in the forty-sixth psalm is a clue to voting record, social background or religious affiliation. I would, however, argue that the legend fits more easily within certain cultural attitudes than others, given the history of Shakespeare and the Bible over the last century or so. Indeed I suspect that the legend’s popularity (on a general rather than individual scale) is an expression of more traditional attitudes to the canon and to cultural values, and bound up with a sense that these values are under threat in the modern world. As a story, and as a textual trick, it satisfies impulses and desires around the authority of the religious and literary canon, the correct way to read that canon, and the continuity of current values with those of the past. It suggests, however vaguely, that Shakespeare and the Bible belong together and should be read on their own terms rather than being picked apart or contextualised.
These are texts which have been enormously influential over the past four hundred years, and which continue to be valued and read today by millions of people. It is worth noting that they are read in different ways from the majority of other books, and not only in terms of the respect they are accorded. Shakespeare and the Bible are both regularly performed, whether on Broadway productions and end-of-term school plays or in liturgies and Bible readings in church. A large number of people have the experience of not only reading these texts, but reciting them, speaking their lines as if they are their own words, and placing themselves in the role of the figures within the books. Novels, TV shows and lyric poems frequently encourage a strong level of identification between the reader and the characters, but performing Shakespeare requires a kind of inhabiting of the text which takes this a stage further. (Cosplay and other aspects of fan culture might be regarded as providing this kind of “immersion” in the text, in another mode.) The Bible is not (usually) printed in the form of a script, but the services of most Christian denominations involve the public reading of the Scriptures, which are often highly dramatic and involve reported speeches. In the Prophets and the Epistles particularly there are many passages which repeatedly use the second person singular and plural, “you”, as if the text is directly addressing those listening. In the more traditional and liturgical services of denominations such as the Roman Catholic and Anglican/ Episcopalian churches, much of the liturgy involves the ministers and congregations speaking and responding to each other using Biblical texts, as if these words are their own. (Obviously it will vary as to which version of the Bible is used so these are often not the words of the KJV.) The institutions which study and revere these texts encourage a level of participation in them, a kind of inhabiting of the text, which is unusual in its intensity and widespread nature. In this kind of engagement with Shakespeare and the Bible the historical and critical analysis I have been carrying out in this book is likely to seem deeply unimportant, at least in the moment of performance. When I attend a Shakespeare play or take part in a church service, I am not usually running over the textual history of the passages being recited in my head. If I were doing so, I would suspect that something had gone wrong with either me or the performance/ service. Thus it is hardly surprising that the issues of textual and production history might be swept aside for some people when a story like the Psalm 46 legend is repeated. It is not illegitimate to engage with these texts in ways other than the historical and analytical: quite the contrary. Nonetheless, as I have argued throughout this book, the Psalm 46 legend fails to do justice both to the texts of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and to the astonishing histories of which they are a part. The political, social, religious and literary worlds which gather around these books are far more puzzling, dramatic and absorbing than this little conspiracy theory claims. It claims to tell a secret, but points us away from the heart of the mystery.