[Access article in PDF]
The Biblical Presence in Shakespeare, Milton and Blake
The Biblical Presence in Shakespeare, Milton and Blake, by Harold Fisch; xi & 331 pp. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999, $80.00.
The "biblical presence" in English literature is usually the focus of Christian inquiry, as Roy Battenhouse has recently shown in Shakespeare's Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Criticism. Even without Battenhouse's heavy editorial hand, his collection clearly indicates that critics in the second half of the twentieth century have done ample justice to Shakespeare's Christian heritage. But the Bible is not, of course, the sacred book of Christians alone, and Harold Fisch's book represents a distinctively Jewish response to three canonical writers in English literature. As such, it is an important addition to reflection on its chosen subject.
It is distinctive, first of all, in its hermeneutical stance. Battenhouse is unusually doctrinaire among Christian critics, in deriving a method of typological interpretation from Augustine. Fisch's practice, in contrast, is something like what he calls "covenantal hermeneutics" in Milton, which derives ultimately from midrash (p. 159). Interpreters submit to the authority of what they are interpreting, while retaining (or being granted) a freedom to interpret "within a framework of a covenantal transaction" (p. 160). To use other terms, [End Page 236] interpreters both stand under the authority of the text, and in that sense under-stand it, even as they are enabled to stand over it as interpreters inspired by it.
Fisch is a sensitive and gifted reader, and he seldom fails to illuminate the texts he discusses in fresh and thoughtful ways. Often these have to do with the "presence" of stories and sayings from the Hebrew Bible. He thus brings Antony's assertion in Julius Caesar "you are not stones, but men," into conjunction with Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26: "I will take the stony heart out of their bodies, and will give them an heart of flesh" (p. 20); but for Fisch this is more than a "source," "echo," or "reference." It is in fact not recognized as a "reference" by Naseeb Shaheen (Biblical References in Shakespeare's Plays), and for Fisch too it is "an absence which is really a presence" but which therefore identifies something about this play: the influential presence of the absent Pompey or the absence of real "antique" Romans from the world of 1598, when the play was first performed. This is a striking and original way to understand "biblical presence" in later literature.
To be sure, not all the biblical "presences" that Fisch identifies are equally compelling, and sometimes he pursues a vein of his argument with little or no reference to biblical presence at all. This is true for two of Fisch's four chapters on Blake (Chapters 8 and 9), which might be said to elucidate the Miltonic presence in Blake, rather than the biblical. The principal burden of Fisch's reading of Blake is to show that the "dialogical, covenantal aspect of the discourse [in Milton is what] . . . the Romantic reader and critic of Milton missed" (p. 160), and he makes a persuasive case. His close analysis of Blake's engravings for the Book of Job elucidates what Fisch calls "incarnational hermeneutics," as opposed to "covenantal" (p. 289), and his point becomes brilliantly clear, while adding substantially to our understanding of Blake. Still, to read Blake against the covenantal hermeneutics of Milton is different from reading Blake against the Bible.
Fisch is also distinctive in the catholicity of his taste and references. While he is especially good on pericopes from the Hebrew Bible, he by no means confines his attention to them. References to the Christian scriptures abound, though unfortunately biblical allusions are not indexed, so it is difficult to gauge the proportions of Hebrew and Christian citations. "Present" in the conspirators' washing of their hands in Caesar's blood in Julius Caesar is Pilate's washing of his hands in water in Matthew 27:24 (p. 10), which Fisch links again, in a...