- Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book: Contested Scriptures ed. by Travis DeCook, Alan Galey
The Bible and the Shakespeare industries are remarkably alike: in the appeal of their base product to a broader, less critically educated public; in their capacities to keep professional scholars supplied with text-editorial work to do and lines to type into their CVs; and in the sheer, cussed contentiousness that can obtain in their special sessions at annual meetings of the Modern Language Association and the Society for Biblical Literature. The Contested Scriptures of the subtitle is, then, a reminder that to study the relationship between sacred and secular scriptures is often to prompt musings of a decidedly metatextual and professional sort.
But the expression “form of the book” might alert us to one of the most striking scholarly alignments in this collection. The Christian Bible and the plays of William Shakespeare are both rough-and-ready composites but have often been treated (not only by their uncultured devotees but by scholars when it suited them) as singular texts expressing the verifiable opinions of their authors. After centuries of higher critical scrutiny, however, neither Will nor God can be quite so straightforwardly traced to the words purported to be theirs. This is hardly surprising when we consider that the books of the Bible and the plays of Shakespeare have no written originals: they began their lives in oral and dramatic forms. Such unstable, scrappy beginnings can lead to scholarly and editorial contests.
And, as here, to intriguing new findings. The essays here cover many different forms of the plays—from the early quartos to the First Folio, Early English Books Online, and new digital editions. They show far less technological savvy with the Bible, however, preferring to confine themselves almost entirely to the King James and Geneva versions and to those stalwarts as delivered in good old ink and paper. Hamlet is analyzed in its Kindle version, but not the Revelation to John (currently an extraordinarily popular download). The scholars, all from departments of English, thus begin with Shakespeare and obliquely run; their Bible, like the center of Donne’s compass, remains fixed.
No need to mourn; this simply demonstrates that literary, especially Shakespeare, scholars are awfully game, willing to study another field’s methods and texts. The hermeneutics on display in Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book are solid, and the grasp on the history of biblical translation steady. But this reviewer would like some day to see a collection on this same topic with a multi-disciplinary roster of essayists—and she would nearly perish from the excitement were she ever to encounter a volume of essays on Shakespeare and the Bible written entirely by notable professors of biblical studies.
The eleven essays in this volume all merit close attention: there isn’t a dull one in the lot, and most interesting is the range of Shakespearean interests on display overall. The editors provide a brisk rundown of the history of Reformation translation, remind readers of the broad outlines of several critical and methodological [End Page 385] approaches to Shakespeare (paying most attention to new historicism and its younger cousins, cultural materialist histories of reading and writing), and tell us their task has been to “uncover the cultural work performed by the links” (2) their authors make between the plays and the scriptures. The question whether Shakespeare was a Protestant or a Catholic is not much in evidence here, an oversight for which we can all be grateful, nor do we get any of that default position about Shakespeare’s humaneness, which is also refreshing.
The volume’s overall brief is to explain how scriptural knowledge has influenced the way readers have approached Shakespeare’s works both formally and metaphorically. Notable here are Barbara A. Mowat’s short, sweet master class in how to evaluate textual influence in an age steeped in Biblicism, as well as Alan Galey’s clever triangulation of...