Saturday, November 17, 2012

Shakespeare and the Bible

Anthony Burgess and W. Somerset Maugham, the two novelists who meant a lot to me as a boy, lived for a time in Malaya and they wrote extensively about life in Malaya then.  Their novels evoke all the romanticism of the Far East so that as you read them, you can almost hear the crickets after a torrential thunderstorm and smell the fresh wild frangipani, the aroma of which the tropical breeze wafts pleasantly into your bedroom through the verandah of your attap-roofed house on stilts.  On my 16th birthday, my Mum got me his latest book which I devoured like I did all his other novels.  I won't reveal the title of the book because that would give away my age and I want this blog to remain totally anonymous so that even my age and gender remain a mystery but I will say this of the book my Mum bought for me - if she had known that the novel contained a re-writing of the creation story in Genesis so that the Adam and Eve union became a gay union, she would never have bought it.  The book also led a lot of people to assume that Burgess was gay but he denied that in his 2-volume autobiography.  But W. Somerset Maugham was subsequently found to be gay and I remember being rather disappointed when I read that he was a closet homosexual and when I read in one of his novels a long description of a naked young man on an Indonesian island, I could not help wondering if he might not have been motivated in his vivid description by homosexual lasciviousness which was of course unjust of me since it bothered me not one bit if descriptions of naked females by heterosexual male writers were motivated by heterosexual lasciviousness.  Those were the days when I, together with most of the world, was ignorant of what sexuality really meant and I mistook a different sexual orientation for immorality, a judgment that I am today ashamed of and I would only go so far as to raise for myself the defence of youth and ignorance if anyone should lay at my door the charge of homophobia.

But let's get back to Anthony Burgess who died in the early 1990s and whom I caught a glimpse of just before his death, signing books for fans at Waterstones.  He was dying of lung cancer and would cough ever so often but still he soldiered on stoically, signing books.

In one of his studies on Shakespeare, Burgess gives his opinion that Shakespeare was in all probability one of those in the august panel of translators of the greatest version of the Bible that the world has ever known, the King James Version, also called the AV or Authorised Version.  This version of the BIble soon became the definitive Bible in the English-speaking world as it pushed Roman Catholic versions into obscurity and ensured the supremacy of Protestantism as the dominant religion of English-speaking countries and it relegated Roman Catholicism to being at best a "foreign" (ie. Italian or French speaking) religion or at least it seemed to most of us in the former colonies.  Quotations from any other versions of the Bible would raise eyebrows in literary circles and were generally regarded with suspicion because of their inelegance when compared with the King James Version which became the indisputable authority on the English language, alongside Shakespeare and Milton.  The Roman Catholics started a poor imitation of this Bible which they called the Douay-Rheims Bible but it is nothing more than a poor imitation which nobody has really heard of.  The King James Version is so elegant in its simplicity and vivid in its imagery that when it's read in a cavernous cathedral, the echo of its beautiful lines resonates as if God himself is giving utterance.  It defies belief that a work of such immense beauty could have been composed without the aid of the Bard himself.  Burgess gives some rather fanciful evidence for Shakespeare's authorship of the King James Version but I won't repeat it here.

What motivated me to write this post is a book I recently started to read again after having chanced upon it on one of my shelves.  I had been looking for this book for a while but because my books have outgrown my house and they lie strewn all over my bedroom and the sitting room, looking for a book can be quite a daunting task.  Here's the book:

The extensive pencil markings on almost every page of the book bear testimony to the fact that I used to read it in my student days.  But for all the time spent poring over this book something in it completely escaped my attention then.  What totally missed my attention but which I've only discovered recently is that in one of Shakespeare's plays, a reference is made to something quite profound about the Bible.

Before you get the wrong impression, let me explain a little more about the book.  Frank Kermode was a renowned Shakespearean scholar.  He was born around this time about 9 decades ago and he died two years ago.  His book, as the title states clearly, is about Shakespeare's language.  It takes no interest in biblical contradictions.  That is the reason why the small little point about biblical contradictions escaped my attention when I first read it as a part of my undergraduate course on Shakespeare.  Today, with no more examinations to sit, I couldn't care less what a stichomythia and all its variants are.  Tracing Shakespeare's increasing sophistication in his use of imagery from his early plays to his more mature later plays is something that I can read today and forget tomorrow without any serious consequences.  So I have more time to look out for things that don't interest the Shakespearean scholar but are fascinating to me and if you have read my blog, matters concerning my religion have a way of gripping my interest that no other subject can.

First a little book review.  Frank Kermode's book is excellent in its comprehensive coverage of not just all of Shakespeare's plays but his poems too.  I highly recommend it to anyone who truly loves Shakespeare and who has read most of his plays and poems.  I think it would be awfully boring if all the Shakespeare you have read are the texts you did at O levels and A levels.  The book is easy reading for the general reader but the writer does not waste his time explaining the background to the plays and poems he writes about.  He quite rightly expects the reader of such a book to be at least familiar with most of Shakespeare's works.

We must remember that there was heavy censorship in the days of Shakespeare and any open statement about contradictions in the Holy Bible would mean immediate arrest and imprisonment.  All stage plays had to go through the scrutiny of the Master of the Revels whose job it was to look out for unholy profanities and ungodly lines.  Shakespeare could not do a Richard Dawkins in his plays but then again, he did not show much interest or knowledge in religion in the first place and there were no atheists in those days.  But that one remark is enough to suggest to me that perhaps Shakespeare wasn't that ignorant about the Bible which he might very well have helped in the translation process.  He was not unaware of the many problems in the Bible and the numerous contradictions.

The remark I'm talking about appears in one of the soliloquies where a direct reference is made to contradictions in the Holy Gospels or, as Shakespeare puts it, "the word is set against the word" and for an example, he gives the free and welcoming invitation Jesus gives to all children to go to him on the one hand and his harsh insistence that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  This isn't the sort of contradiction that any atheist would pick on today.  This isn't even a real contradiction and if an atheist wants to attack the Holy Bible, there are far more damning contradictions to pick.

But let's look at these two examples that the Bard cites.  Christ's welcome to children to go to him does in some way contradict his blanket rejection of rich people from the kingdom of heaven.  Presumably, some of these children may very well grow to be wealthy men and women and it does appear petty to be so effusive in welcoming them as kids but to reject them when they become adults.  But in the time of Christ, the children were probably poor and would grow up to be poor men and women.  Society was very much stratified and historians tell us that one of the criticisms of Christianity in the first century was it was the religion of the poor and uneducated.  Given that setting, the children Christ welcomed must have been children from poor families and they would most certainly grow up to be as poor as their parents.  When Christ gave his condemning remarks about the rich, he was addressing the rich young ruler, one of the few occasions he actually addressed anyone who wasn't poor.

But of course the church had to quickly reinterpret Christ's aversion to the wealthy.  Christianity soon grew from its humble roots and became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, particularly when the Emperor himself espoused the religion.  Negative remarks against wealth had to be given a fresh interpretation so that Christ's sharp and unequivocal condemnation of the rich is somewhat blunted.  The usual "although Christ said this, he didn't mean it this way" is how the church today interprets any verse that does not seem to square with our understanding of what is right and wrong.  That is how we ignore biblical support for slavery and reinterpret verses which clearly show slavery to be a holy institution of God which received the full support and active encouragement of St Paul.  Morality is fluid and it changes with time, place and culture and every religion needs to be able to reinterpret its holy books.  Failure to give a fresh interpretation to verses in a holy book can lead to very serious trouble especially when fanatics insist on their literal meaning.  In some instances and for some verses, this can mean discrimination and even cruelty to women, violence against non-believers and even the terrorism we see in recent years.  It's the duty of the church and every religious organisation to review its holy book regularly and to prune the parts that need pruning and to give a whole new meaning to verses which may be outdated or just downright evil.

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