The journal Christianity and Literature has just published an article by me, entitled “Spectral Authority: The Presence of Shakespeare in Biblical Scholarship”. This topic has been part of my thinking about Shakespeare and the Bible for the best part of a decade now, and I’m delighted to see the article in print.
Here’s the abstract, and a PDF of the full piece:
Recent scholarship has seen a spate of interest in the intertwined interpretation histories of Shakespeare and the Bible, especially in how Biblical hermeneutics shaped Shakespeare’s reception. This article inverts that trend by investigating the presence of Shakespeare as an analogy, reference and model in Biblical Studies at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century. It demonstrates how Shakespeare has provided a set of images around authority and performance on which Biblical scholars have drawn to frame and articulate their ideas about the Bible, and it suggests future possibilities for interdisciplinary work.
This is a subject that obtruded itself on my notice whilst I was mostly looking for other things – whilst reading about the Bible, it’s history and reception, I kept stumbling across Shakespeare being used as a metaphor. Often it was simply an example of a famous book, but the references caught my eye, often because they jarred to a greater or lesser extent with the view of Shakespeare I had from within early modern drama. (Perhaps the most striking cases were John Barton remarking that whatever Shakespeare means, at least we know the Complete Works are his words by him bound up together in a book, and N.T. Wright deriding a theory about the Gospels by comparing it the impossible situation of a troupe of actors playing Shakespeare whilst performing more than one part each.)
I tended to notice this appearances of Shakespeare and hurry on to the scholar in question’s point, but I began to see patterns in the references. Shakespeare often seemed to be present not just as a casual example, but as a source of ideas or associations which shaped the meaning of the argument as a whole. In one place Shakespeare could provide a model of what Biblical texts could look like, if they were read as a closed system without inspiration of kerygmatic potential. In another, Shakespeare offered a space where a notion of textual authority could be left, once it had been winnowed out of Biblical discussions, later to be brought back. Several critics seemed to be using Shakespeare as a model of textual performance across the centuries, a way of negotiate ideas of the meeting of past and present in embodied rituals.
So this topic might have looked initially like a minor case study in Shakespearean reception studies: what a small group of people embarked on a specialised project used Shakespeare to mean. But it rapidly became a more interdisciplinary project, in which I was trying to trace how Shakespeare was woven into the strategies and concept of Biblical scholarship from the late twentieth century. What models did it offer, what assumptions did it smuggle in, what theoretical and historical resources did it make available? Thus the article which resulted both shows what Shakespeare does inside some examples of Biblical scholarship, and tries to connect the fields in a way which will be productive for future work.
I have a strong suspicion that the involvement of Shakespeare in thinking about the Bible which I trace in this article has roots about a hundred years earlier. There is some really interesting scholarship on the subject being done at the moment, which I mention in the introduction, which is complicating the way we’ve thought about these texts and the groups which use them. I believe Gary Taylor refers to Shakespeare as the “secular Bible” of the Victorians in one of his 1990s works – I’ve always wanted to ask what that means in more detail, given that the Victorian period changed how people imagined the Bible, and that Shakespeare has had an influence on the textual communities which form around (and perform) the Bible.
So this article is part of that intellectual project, which also includes my first and second books, Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible, and Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery. Shakespeare seems to haunt the Bible in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and vice versa – as doubles, as opposites, as examples of what “we” don’t do, as opportunities for what “we” could do. I believe that unravelling some of these connections could eventually allow us to make better use of the texts, and be more true to our various callings.
I’ve been living with these ideas for some time. I’d like to thank the Biblical Seminar at the University of Nottingham for inviting me to give a paper on the subject and the Thursday Seminar at the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon for doing the same – and many thanks for the enthusiastic, generous and probing questions which they asked afterwards, which shaped the eventual piece. Looking at the references reminds me of all the places I’ve worked on bits of it: the back room of the St Andrew’s bookshop on St Clements, the garden in Lenton, the subterranean reaches of the Gladstone Link. I hope some of its ideas might be of interest, if you’d like to read the article itself.