In Twelfth Night, before his tormentors realise that the imprisoned Malvolio is unable to see them, they get the professional fool, Feste, to dress as a priest in order to vex their prisoner with theological and philosophical riddles. As he assumes his disguise, Feste wearily remarks of his cassock, “Well, I’ll put it on, and I will dissemble myself in’t, and I would I were the first that ever dissembled in such a gown.” Feste’s disdain for the histrionic trappings of organised religion demonstrates a rift between Shakespeare’s bracing agnosticism and Elizabethan religious orthodoxy. The hypocritical pieties of Measure for Measure or the bumbling ineptitude of Friars Laurence and John in Romeo and Juliet, the Machiavellian Ely and Canterbury in Henry V or the revolting sanctimony of Christian “justice” that enforces Shylock’s agonised conversion at the end of The Merchant of Venice – all look back to Chaucer’s anti-ecclesiastical satire and forward to William Blake’s sacerdotal contempt.
Shakespeare’s scepticism towards the institutions of religious observance is hardly surprising, given the bloodbath that surrounded him as the wrecking ball of Catholic/Protestant compliance swung to and fro, levelling, like the scythe of Andrew Marvell’s Civil War mower (only four decades later), everything in its path. Indeed, it would be surprising if such a humane and curious intelligence were able to conform cosily to one or other belligerent orthodoxy.
While Jem Bloomfield is undeniably right to insist on the similarity of the canonical status of both the Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio, the lacuna that runs down the middle of Words of Power testifies to the gulf between the sacredness of the Holy Scriptures and the ways in which institutionalised religion stifles the creativity and humanity epitomised by Shakespeare’s works. Bloomfield’s effort to demonstrate how similar are the Bible and Shakespeare overlooks this fundamental separation. Biblical exegesis and literary criticism are, of course, a bit like each other, but their resemblance is superficial. This explains the typical structure of Bloomfield’s chapters – separate sections on the Bible and Shakespeare that glance past each other but never converse; they provide “parallel suspicions” and run “alongside each other”.
Indeed, Bloomfield asserts that ways of reading the Bible have “been shaped by the aims and assumptions of that project” and have little to do with other kinds of reading, including (unfortunately for him) Shakespeare. Much of the material here is to do with the hair-splitting of exegetical wrangles and the contested canonicity of various Scriptures, but these have nothing to do with Shakespeare: “the emergent Rabbinic movement…emphasised the Hebrew versions of the Scriptures over the Septuagint” and so on. Contrariwise, Bloomfield’s concise accounts of, say, New Criticism or performance studies never so much as mention the Bible.
Although this book’s subtitle implies a connection between reading Shakespeare and reading the Bible, the case for their concatenation is never persuasively made, nor, given Shakespeare’s manifest heterodoxy, could it ever be. Shakespeare’s apotheosis is only ever figurative or, in the case of George Bernard Shaw, derogatory. The Shavian term “Bardolatry” illustrates the vainglory of investing the Folio with a sacred essence, and it also underlines the absurdity of a belief system that serves to limit the playwright’s imaginative expansiveness.
Peter J. Smith is reader in Renaissance literature, Nottingham Trent University, and a trustee of the British Shakespeare Association.
Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible
By Jem Bloomfield
Lutterworth Press, 176pp, £20.00
Published 26 May 2016