Thursday, 30 July 2009

Shakespeare and the Bible

I have just finished reading Shakespeare and the Bible, by Steven Marx. 
It looks at where and how Shakespeare may have drawn on Biblical narratives in some of his plays, and where he makes allusions to the Bible. It also places some of the plays alongside books of the Bible, allowing such an exercise to evoke discoveries about both the Shakespearean and Biblical texts. 
I found it an interesting exercise. 
I didn't agree with all the conclusions, and I am not convinced that we can make claims about Shakespeare's purpose in using texts, or the comments he was intending to make. But what we can do is explore how biblical and Shakespearean texts handle similar themes, and consider what the texts say, and how they contribute to our own meaning making. 
Marx puts The Tempest alongside Genesis and Revelation, examining how Prospero is a god-figure, themes of creation and resolution of the/a world. He then explores the historical types of Moses, David and Henry V, concluding that both biblical and Shakespearean texts offer ambivalent portrayals of monarchy; favoured, divinely installed, but failing. Daniel Smith-Christopher, in his Cato lecture at Assembly, critiqued a biblical theology of monarchy on the basis that the monarchy is ultimately not the best way for the people of God to be ruled, culminating in the servant messiah of Christ, who turned the expectations of the people on their head. 
The discussions I found most helpful in Shakespeare and the Bible were of Job and King Lear and The Merchant of Venice and Romans. As I read both of these chapters I found myself imagining theatre productions that explore the issues Marx was highlighting. What would it be like to juxtapose the stories of Job and Lear on stage? How do their similarities and differences challenge us, move us, inspire us by offering new perspectives on two ancient and well known stories of suffering. It is interesting to note the possibility for both texts that the endings have been tampered with; that the story of Job doesn't necessarily originally end with the restoration of his prosperity; that the story of King Lear doesn't necessarily end with the possibility of hope in the words of the King. I've been sitting with Merchant for a decade, wondering how I would tell the story today. As I embark on the Esther Project, with its possibilities for conversation with Jewish and Muslim communities around our shared stories, I find Merchant a very difficult play indeed. For me, the play buys into anti-Semitism enough to suck the original audience in as it then portrays the Christians as not necessarily justified in their actions. Perhaps, though, it is too subtle in this message. Perhaps the need for the play to make a profit in the box office, and the very dangerous times in which Shakespeare wrote made such subtlety necessary. Or, on the other hand, perhaps I read too much into the play, and it does actually affirm the anti-Semitic behaviour of Elizabethan England. I would probably rewrite some of the commentary of this chapter on Romans and the comparisons made thereon with Merchant. I'm not sure about some of the claims that are made for Paul's attitude to Judaism - for example, that Paul wasn't furthering Judaism, but was definitely wanting to establish a new religious tradition. I'm just not convinced that is what Paul was doing. It certainly wasn't what Jesus was on about; he was a Jew, and states that he has come for Israel. 
I'm also not sure about the chapter that explores Measure for Measure alongside the Gospels. Measure is another difficult play, with its characters claiming morality and acting with blatant hypocrisy, and the Duke manipulating everyone. I didn't find this discussion as convincing as some of the others. 
This isn't a very good book review; I've been writing in an attempt to work out what I thought of the book for myself, and if you read this you get to eavesdrop on my thoughts. I'll go back and read the book again, if for no other reason than for its bringing together of the two collections of stories that speak to the deepest part of my being. 


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