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Reviewed by:
  • The Bible on the Shakespearean Stage: Cultures of Interpretation in Reformation England ed. by Thomas Fulton and Kristen Poole
  • John E. Curran Jr.
Thomas Fulton and Kristen Poole, editors. The Bible on the Shakespearean Stage: Cultures of Interpretation in Reformation England. cambridge up, 2018. 318 pp.

though somewhat uneven and a bit lacking in unity, the essay collection The Bible on the Shakespearean Stage has much to offer. Some of the book's limitations are simply common to the academic essay-anthology genre, which lends itself to the superimposing of an overarching thesis in ways that can seem forced or contrived. Here, the introduction has it that this volume's distinctiveness comes from going beyond biblical allusiveness to biblical hermeneutics as a cultural discourse—the suggestion is that the essays treat not only Shakespeare's engagement with the Bible but also his and his culture's modes of engagement with it (11). But not consistently do the essays manage to tease out much about how Shakespeare makes an issue of interpretive method per se, and at times it seems rather remote, with essays going in quite different directions. The opening pieces by Bruce Gordon and Aaron T. Pratt are densely learned and informative history-of-the-book accounts, the former of the saga of sixteenth-century Bible production in England and the latter a more detailed look at how material presentation could outweigh translation in determining a particular Bible's influence. Neither is much concerned with biblical hermeneutics as a Shakespearean issue, and yet the same could be said of the essay most concerned with hermeneutics, Tom Bishop's riff on Richard II's lament at Pomfret, for it has more to do with the application of deconstructive theory. Beatrice Groves's analysis of how ideas of Jerusalem infuse the Henriad is wonderfully insightful and has almost nothing to do with the Bible.

At least one general conceptual problem is peculiar to this book, however: the premise that Shakespeare's cultural milieu would have been given to self-consciousness about biblical interpretation. This might be a viable way to imagine Elizabethan and Jacobean religious life, with its cacophony of conflicting voices, but it is far from certain and cannot be assumed, and the book presents thin evidence for it. More likely, in my estimation, is that [End Page 143] Protestants and Catholics were rather entrenched in their respective positions and experienced little anxiety when they drew on the Bible for support. This questionable idea of interpretive anxiety underlies a number of the essays, especially Jay Zysk's reading of Measure for Measure and Kristen Poole's of Hamlet, which both set out to show how Protestant literalism was much less literalist than advertised. Poole purports to explore a Protestant Hamlet's "multivalent literalism" (75), but would Protestants have felt the distinction between literal and figurative to be so tangled? I doubt it. Rather, Protestant literalism was marked by a confidence that literal and figurative were readily parceled out; if Jesus clearly and obviously spoke in figurative terms, as he did at the Last Supper, then the figurative sense had to be taken as the sense. Thus, not always are the essays' forays into hermeneutics persuasive. In Poole's case, the problematizing of literalism has a handy resolution she never acknowledges: maybe Hamlet mocks the literalism of Polonius (82–83) because Hamlet at that point speaks for a basically catholic intellectual orientation? Similarly, Zysk's mapping of Eucharist controversy onto Measure for Measure is cleverly conceived, but the notion that in Eucharist debates "the opposition between 'literal' and 'figurative' breaks down" (56) is quite insecure, while the much simpler explanation for aligning literalism with hypocrisy is overlooked. This blind spot in Poole and Zysk is symptomatic of another, less significant but still noticeable blemish in the collection, and that is the omission of much relevant scholarship. Commentary on Shakespeare is so vast that slips are inevitable, but I still think it reasonable to expect to see consulted, for example, Kaufman on the religious, especially the Protestant, climate, Beauregard on the factoring in of the Rheims Bible, and Womersley on what Thomas Fulton's essay terms "political theology."

That said...


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