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What William Tyndale did
William Tyndale changed the world with words. His translation of the Bible into common English coincided with Gutenberg’s new printing techniques. The conjunction of a translation that was comprehensible to a wider population with the means of “mass” production reshaped the world. Tyndale was born in 1494 and executed for heresy and treason in 1536. The idea of extending access to the mysteries of religion ran counter to the elitist orthodoxies of the time. Nevertheless, Tyndale’s work paved the way for the King James translation and was responsible for the first step in a process that embedded the Bible into the consciousness of the English-speaking world for at least four centuries. He was a revolutionary.
The dissemination of the Bible did more than impact faith; literature in English reached deeply into biblical sources for creative energy and common reference. As a consequence, over centuries literature existed at two levels: the events and figures recorded in the works, and points of biblical reference commonly understood by readers. There was a shared context that, at a minimum, gave readers a field of common understanding. It is of course possible to read Shakespeare, Marlowe, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, T.S. Eliot (and a myriad of other English and American writers) and enjoy, at some level, intriguing stories. However, without at least a rudimentary knowledge of the biblical references the work is diminished. The reader is disconnected from the full meaning and is able to engage only at a relatively superficial level. An analogy with the visual arts is appropriate. How would an art historian understand the tradition of Western art without some knowledge of its critical sources? Without that awareness, we have a bunch of pretty and horrible pictures.
Illustration: Early printing press, 1568 (public domain)
If we want students to understand the literature and art of our past, they must be taught something of the Bible. This is simply obvious. In contemporary higher education we have moved away from this responsibility. Of course, we may decide that the teaching of the Bible as a text of faith needs to be compromised by the imperatives of diversity. Outside of theological studies, the Bible as a Judeo-Christian sacred text will probably not be a core element in a secular curriculum. However, if we want students to understand their own identities and to read the literature that shaped the conscious of the English-speaking world we have an obvious obligation to teach something of the Bible. Otherwise, we propagate ignorance and superficiality.
The Bible is not only a critical source for literature and art. It is also at the heart of global conflicts that have shaped the world for centuries. It was interpreted to encourage historical aggressions such as the Crusades; it was used to justify slavery and, paradoxically, the struggle against slavery. There are any number of spirituals that draw upon biblical sources to establish parallels between the plight of African-Americans and that of the Jews, for one of many possible examples: “Go down Moses, / Way down in Egypt land / Tell ol' Pharah / To let my people go.” It was used to justify imperialism and inspired ant-imperialism. Jomo Kenyatta, with wit and wisdom, described the role of the Bible in the colonisation of Kenya: “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.” In short, it offers important perspectives upon our histories.
Photo: public domain
We have an obligation to empower students to understand those influences. I am not arguing that we go back 300 years and require intensive biblical studies as an essential element of a university education. I am not proposing that the Bible should necessarily be studied as a religious text. However, to know nothing of the Bible as a source of shared consciousness, even in a rudimentary form, cuts connection with our past, is a form of intellectual deprivation.
Shakespeare and the Bible
Shakespeare’s maturity as a writer coincides with the writing of the King James Bible. The King James Bible was written between 1604 and 1611, a period that witnessed the flowering of English rhetoric and was, arguably, the greatest period of creativity in the history of our language. These are also the years of profound creativity for Shakespeare.
The Bible, and religious beliefs deriving from that source, create points of meaning beyond the literal meaning of the words. By way of illustration, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is probably his best known work, and the best known speech is, probably, the soliloquy “To be or not to be.” People who have never read a word of Shakespeare or seen the play can recite the opening line. It creates a field of emotional intensity and a familiar angst that may especially resonate with the young. Without knowing the religious references, the reader can understand something but they will miss much.
When Hamlet asks himself whether he should commit suicide or not he is asking a question that contrasts life’s anguish with the possibility of liberation from the troubles that beset him: “by a sleep to say we end / The heartache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to.” This has a simple contemporary meaning that is accessible to all readers. However, Hamlet balances that relief with the “dread of something after death / The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns.” Three levels coexist. At a literal level, the choice is between life and death; however, the “undiscovered country” is not a metaphor but a concrete location. His encounters with his dead father demonstrate that the dead inhabit alternative worlds that are not inventions or symbols. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is in a place called purgatory: “I am thy father's spirit, / Doomed for a certain term to walk the night / And for the day confined to fast in fires / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.” This place would be understood by Shakespeare’s audience as a literal space, as real as the palace at Elsinore, located somewhere between Heaven and Hell. In this construct, the soul is not an abstract concept but a sentient entity.
Photo: CAPA alumna Sally Nguyen learning about Shakespeare in England
Another level of meaning relates to the fact that suicide is a mortal sin that condemns the soul to damnation. Hamlet’s choices are not simply between life and death but present a dilemma that defines an eternal fate. The act of suicide, as he makes clear later in the play, defies the will of God: “O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!”
An uninformed audience will also only partly understand the meaning of “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” They will read “fortune” as luck rather than as a complex set of circumstances that derive from God’s will: the idea of outrageous fortune also resonates with the suffering of Job. The line does not simply signify bad luck but references again the idea of a pattern of experience beyond human understanding.
Hamlet says that “conscience does make cowards of us all.” For an audience unaware of the religious context, “conscience” will be read as personal or ethical beliefs that restrain actions. For Shakespeare’s audience, conscience transcends the personal and signifies awareness of providence in the lives of humanity. There is a direct connection from this point to Hamlet’s mature submission to the will of God. Thus, towards the end of the play he achieves this insight: “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.” The reference to the fall of a sparrow draws directly upon the Gospel of Matthew 10:29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.”
Providence or fate describes a pattern of events that reflects the will of God. Hamlet’s submission to that will is a profoundly moral action that his audience will recognize at a level beyond the concrete political world of the court of Elsinore. Thus, the action contrasts the human environment with a spiritual dimension that is, for Shakespeare’s audience, as real as the earth they inhabit. Students need to be taught that in Shakespeare biblical reality is not only a matter of metaphor or myth.
Photo: public domain
Hamlet’s soliloquy ends with the arrival of Ophelia and his impassioned instruction enforces the fact that his concerns are not limited to the physical world: “Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remembered.” A contemporary audience can understand that Hamlet is asking Ophelia to pray for him; to confess his sins. They may also understand the ambiguity of “nymph” which implies beauty but temptation. What is less obvious, and is dependent on some awareness of religious environment, is the significance of sin as a deviation from God’s order that, without confession, will lead to damnation.
The Biblical Context
There is no need to belabour this point. There is hardly a play of Shakespeare in which a Biblical context is not of critical importance. John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) is literally incomprehensible without some familiarity with the Garden of Eden. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) is saturated with biblical references that create another level of meaning lost to the reader who has no knowledge of these sources. Even Melville’s names resonate with specific meanings. The biblical Ahab angers God. Ishmael is a wanderer in the desert – a role well-suited to the observer -narrator wandering the oceans. The nature of sin and redemption is also at the heart of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) which contrasts rigid Puritanism with New Testament ideologies.
This is not just a matter of understanding literature (though that is important enough). Tyndale began a process that created biblical consciousness in the minds of generations. The Bible inspired acts of great grace and hideous cruelty. Bob Dylan succinctly offered this relevant insight: “For you don't count the dead / When God's on your side.” However, the Bible also led to the creation of literature and art that enriched our civilization. Without some knowledge of the Bible, understanding of global conflict is limited and the works of our literature are diminished, significances hidden.
Photo: public domain
In the context of creative arts, an ignorance of the Bible severs connections with the riches of our past. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot reminds us that we belong to a tradition that defines us:
Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.
I do not believe in the Bible in any literal sense, but I believe that the Bible is profoundly important. This has nothing to do with faith but everything to do with what it means to be an educated person connected with sources that are critical to understanding the world in which we live. An educational agenda that does not include some knowledge of the Bible is impoverished.