The Bible on the Shakespearean Stage

Cultures of Interpretation in Reformation England

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Thomas Fulton, Kristen Poole
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , May
     318 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This impressive collection of twelve essays, The Bible on the Shakespearean Stage, touches upon a field of research that has witnessed a resurgence in recent years. It diverges from similar recent studies such as Anthony D. Baker’s Shakespeare, Theology, and the Unstaged God (Routledge, 2020) in that it focuses on the biblical text. Thomas Fulton and Kristen Poole’s intention is to help scholars “integrate the study of Shakespeare’s plays with the vital history of Reformation practices of biblical interpretation” (i)—in other words, to draw attention to how biblical allusion in Shakespeare’s plays relates to biblical interpretation in his time, and not only among the elites but also among the populace and thereby the audience of his plays.

Following the editors’ introduction entitled “Popular Hermeneutics in Shakespeare’s London,” are two contextualizing essays, which are followed by essays on specific plays or groups of plays. The volume concludes with a thoughtful afterword by Julia Reinhard Lupton on “Shakespeare’s Biblical Virtues” (222–29). The volume is the result of numerous conferences, including a session at the Shakespeare Association of America in Boston in 2012 and at the Renaissance Society of America in San Diego in 2013.

The editors emphasize the manifold ways in which the Bible was present in the culture of the early modern populace (1). They review recent scholarship in the field (2–3), pointing to Naseeb Shaheen’s attempt to catalog all biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays (Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays, University of Delaware Press, 1999, a volume frequently quoted throughout, see 253n18, 267n27, 280n9). Hannibal Hamlin’s chapter on Acts (chapter 8) and Adrian Streete’s chapter on Lamentations (chapter 7) further this line of inquiry. The editors claim that “an explosion in printed Bibles and a rise in literacy rates contributed to the cultural ubiquity of biblical texts” (3), which Bruce Gordon further explores in his opening contribution “The Bible in Transition in the Age of Shakespeare: A European Perspective” (17–32).

Poole and Fulton emphasize that scholars in this volume are attentive to the oral communication of the biblical text and its paratexts in sermons and performances (4). According to Poole and Fulton, numerous authors who “sought to bring the Bible to the masses” were “motivated by anti-Catholic politics and biblical imperative” (7). Sermons at St. Paul’s Cathedral could draw a crowd of up to 6,000 people, whereas the Globe Theatre could accommodate approximately 3,000 (6). They consider it absurd to seek an understanding of “the most methodically scrutinized text in early modern England” (4) by restricting inquiry to the written, or even printed, word. This inevitably means embarking on the arduous path of reconstructing early modern orality. Here it may strike the reader that in their discussion of John Winthrop’s famous sermon on the “city upon a hill,” the authors do not make any reference to Daniel T. Rodgers’s important study As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon (Princeton University Press, 2018).

Pointing to the “seismic changes” (32) still under way in how the Bible was printed, read, and interpreted in Shakespeare’s lifetime, Bruce Gordon (chapter 1) prepares the ground for more detailed studies. He rejects the myopic discussions of the Bible in England that ignore linguistic scholarship and international developments shaping the primary English Bibles of the later 16th and 17th centuries, namely, the Geneva and Bishop’s Bibles. In “The Trouble with Translation: Paratexts and England’s Bestselling New Testament” (chapter 2), Aaron T. Pratt demonstrates the extent to which publishers and printers dictated the sale of the sacred word to the public. Rather than topical additions, these well-conceived opening studies provide an important background for the case studies of the biblicity of Shakespeare’s plays, which is the focus of the volume.

Several contributions make clear that Shakespeare and his audience were familiar with hermeneutic issues that arose from the Reformation and with various trends in interpretation. This is mirrored in how Shakespeare’s characters “make sense of their worlds through modes of biblical interpretation” (5). Hamlet asserts to Horatio that there is a “divinity that shapes our ends” (5.2.10) and later supports this, as Jesse M. Lander discusses (chapter 11), with a potentially Calvinist reading of Matthew 10:29, “there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (5.2.220) (199–200). Tom Bishop argues that in Richard II, Richard employs the idea of collocation and repugnancy.

On a critical note, Poole and Fulton use the term “counter-Reformation” repeatedly without further qualification (1, 20, 209), even in the opening synopsis of their book, and without acknowledging the persistent scholarly debate surrounding this topic. Chapter summaries, a commented cumulative bibliography and an index of biblical references would have helped readers to find their way through the wealth of material gathered in this volume and would have made this volume into a more useful tool for future research. On the whole, this book represents a major step in the study of Shakespeare and the Bible. The “eternal conundrum” of positioning Shakespeare’s work within the Protestant–Catholic divide remains a desideratum that will doubtless build on the insights of the present volume.

The book is well written and edited, includes a list of illustrations (ix), notes on contributors (x–xiv), extensive endnotes (230–84), and an index (285–304). It sets a benchmark in studies on Shakespeare’s theology and may serve as a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of Western Christianity and literature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philipp Reisner is visiting lecturer in American studies at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany.

Date of Review: 
February 10, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Fulton is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

Kristen Poole is the Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of English Renaissance Literature at the University of Delaware.


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