Jewish and Christian Voices in English Reformation Biblical Drama

Enacting Family and Monarchy

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Chanita Goodblatt
Routledge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture
  • New York, NY: 
    , February
     270 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Chanita Goodblatt, in this wide-ranging study, argues that biblical drama from early modern England—specifically, plays based on narratives from the Hebrew Bible—responded interpretively to exegetical cruxes in the scriptural text. The plays themselves, she argues, offer interpretations which were linked to a newfound Protestant interest in the literal meaning of scripture, as opposed to older dramatic presentations (such as medieval mystery plays) which highlighted figurative interpretations of scripture. Goodblatt’s claim about how drama is conversant in theological and exegetical debates, while not entirely new, is distinct because of its directness, guaranteeing that this study—fueled by the special attention that the author paid to the Hebrew text and subsequent Jewish exegesis—will reinvigorate previous discussions.

Because many of the Reformers, including Luther and Calvin, turned to Jewish commentators for their linguistic and interpretive expertise, Goodblatt is able to demonstrate that attention to Jewish and Christian readings of such interpretive cruxes can helpfully inform our understanding of the playwrights’ decisions. Goodblatt focuses on three plays: The Enterlude of Godly Queene Hester (1529-30), The Historie of Jacob and Esau (1552-53), and The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe (1594), and finds that their interpretations of the Hebrew narratives highlight concerns about “the revelation and implementation of knowledge, the legitimacy of the law, and the issue of identity” (4). 

Goodblatt states briefly in the introduction that her interest lies in intertextuality—her focus is not only on the plays, but on an interlinked network of textual responses whose meanings shape one another. The introduction offers, in the form of a table, an overview of the impressive number of texts Goodblatt analyzes in this intertextual conversation, ranging from Christian and Jewish commentaries, other dramatic accounts of the biblical narratives, contemporary plays (non-biblical), and relevant historical documents. To give a sense of the scope of Goodblatt’s analysis, for The Enterlude of Godly Queene Hester, she references fourteen other texts: a German play of Queen Esther, the English play Respublica, four Jewish commentaries, an English commentary, two sermons on the book of Esther, and four political texts. This range is impressive, and will certainly provide readers, particularly those interested in these little-studied plays, a broad sense of cultural context. 

The strength of this book—the author’s intertextual engagement—is also, at times, the source of one of its weaknesses. Specifically, Goodblatt’s use of “intertextuality” seems under-theorized, despite her engagement with the work of Julia Kristeva, who coined the term in Desire in Language (Columbia University Press, 1969). Goodblatt also regularly cites the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, whose ideas influenced Kristeva’s attempt to understand how language is shared among texts; how authors, readers, and listeners reuse units of language; and how meaning is determined in part through the semiotic referentiality of a text beyond itself. In this work, although intertextuality is part of what drives Goodblatt to consult so many other texts—dramatic, literary, and exegetical—to elucidate the significance of the three biblical plays, it seems that all the textual relationships she considers are not the same, and distinctions among different kinds of intertextuality are not made. It would be helpful to see the connections that make intertextuality compelling within a given “textual system” (Kristeva’s term). 

For example, when discussing George Peele’s The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe, (written in 1594 and published in 1599), Goodblatt compares the play to the account of David’s life in the Cornish Ordinalia, a cycle of plays written in Middle Cornish and dating to the late 14th century. However, she provides no commentary on why such a far-removed text might be referenced by or alluded to in the early modern play. While the older cycle does provide an interesting counterpoint—both are dramatizing the same biblical story, and both plays utilize a chorus—it is not altogether clear that this puts the earlier play in an intertextual relationship with the later drama. If it does, then it seems like this typeof intertextual relationship is different from the relationship between The Love of King David and the three 16th century plays Goodblatt discusses, all of which date from the 1580s and 1590s (just before Peele’s publication), or the French play of David’s affair, which dates to 1601. It is clearer how these later texts may be “transposing utterances” (in Kristeva’s terminology) from one another, or even from the biblical texts, but how would it be possible for the same transposition to be at work between the medieval Cornish text and the early modern English play? While Kristeva’s own development of the concept of intertextuality goes beyond the question of the influence that one text has on another, some form of textual transmission still seems to be a requirement. It would be helpful if Goodblatt had more clearly outlined why some of her pairings constitute an intertextual relationship, and whether her many primary sources actually allow for a further consideration of different varieties of intertextuality. 

What Goodblatt does very well is to demonstrate how the many texts she considers all respond to the biblical text. She begins each section with a brief but illuminating consideration of the Hebrew narrative, with particular focus on the “interpretive gaps” in the text. This preliminary analysis allows her to consider how all of the later texts respond to shared lacunae. To give one example, her consideration of Rebecca’s agency in Genesis 25  (where the prophecy regarding Jacob and Esau’s enmity is given) is traced through a number of texts—Jewish and Protestant commentaries, Protestant devotional guides, and the play itself—resulting in a strong argument about the significance of representations of female agency. While some further development of the concept of intertextuality would strengthen the monograph, Goodblatt’s efforts will be useful for those interested in the study of literature and religion more broadly, as it helpfully demonstrates the complex ways in which texts from different religious traditions and varying genres can be linked.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger is Assistant Professor of English at Gordon College.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chanita Goodblatt is Professor of English and Comparative Literatures at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel.


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