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29 July 2006

A Gallimaufry of the Gospel

I don't get out much.

Think about it. I've travelled across an ocean and a couple of islands and several countries to get to Oxford, and now the furthest I travel each day is around the block to the library. Then I sit all day in once place, only travelling in my mind. But, O! the places I go!

So I thought maybe I'd share what I'm writing now, little by little. It's a ridiculously massive paper, but it's a massive topic. My biggest concern is whether or not I'm being spiritually honest in what I'm writing. I believe that Shakespeare probably believes it, and that it is possible for someone (me) to make the point I'm making validly from the text, but theologically I'm a bit dubious. See, the conclusion (spoiler warning) is something like:

"Shakespeare’s text is hard to figure out. It has both Catholic and Protestant features. The Bible must be hard to figure out, since 2000 years of debate has not solved the Catholic/Protestant divide. Shakespeare does not come down on one side of these big theological questions. Critics of The Winter’s Tale, like Christian theologians, take the same text and come up with opposite, fully-convinced, well-argued, logical, solidly supported conclusions. This is not to say that there are no correct answers, nor that all interpretations are equally valid. Rather, it is to say that a good piece of writing generates more pieces of writing. Viewing The Winter’s Tale through the literary edifice of the Bible has the reciprocal effect of offering a possible Shakespearean interpretation of the fertility of Church History and the Biblical text."

But I don't believe that the Bible is in any way indeterminate, nor that the Bible equally supports Catholic and Protestant readings. Do you see my problem? But anyway, OK, here's a rough draft for the opening of my paper. I've taken out all the parenthetical citations just to make it tidy; no fear, there's no plagarism in the real thing.


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Two Fools . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


A Gallimaufry of the Gospel:
Mixed Genre and Scriptural Structure in The Winter’s Tale

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for
and certain of what we do not see.
This is what the ancients were commended for.
—Hebrews 11:1-2

Like any good preacher, Paulina begins the conclusion of her on-stage/back-stage sermon with “It is required / You do awake your faith.” It is a commonplace in Evangelical churches that every sermon must come around in the end to either the person of Jesus Christ or the listeners’ need for faith in Him. But is it as obvious that Paulina—or Shakespeare—is evoking a specifically Christian, let alone Evangelical, or even Reformation, faith? After all, if The Winter’s Tale is a romance, as little to be believed as a fairy tale, its injunctions apply only to the on-stage crowd and have no metatheatrical application or literal religious reference. Furthermore, the play is set in a vaguely Classical time and place, the gods of the Olympic pantheon freely and explicitly invoked. The name of God does not appear anywhere in the play, although “gods” and “goddesses” do. Yet again, Scripture quotations interspersed throughout the text, and allusions to Christian theology, specifically Pauline doctrine and Mariological practices, abound. Scholars’ religious interpretations range from exact, point-by-point Calvinist allegories through comparisons with Catholic practices relating to the worship of Mary and the veneration of images. Certainly Renaissance authors were comfortable functioning in a dual Christian/Classical universe, but it would be poor scholarship to suppose that the specific mixture and organization of these elements in a given work has no significance.

It seems to me that the structure of The Winter’s Tale resembles that of the Christian Bible. The play is not, however, a simple Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative. Rather, its generic development from tragedy to comedy with a pastoral interlude resembles that of Old Testament-Intertestamental Period-New Testament. Internal thematic elements support this reading, which in turn sheds light on the whole question of what faith Paulina requires and which Faith, if any, Shakespeare endorses. Finally, viewing The Winter’s Tale through the literary edifice of the Bible has the reciprocal effect of offering a possible Shakespearean interpretation of the indeterminacy of Church History and the Biblical text.

6 comments:

Iambic Admonit said...

and further more, I don't like the terminology I use in order for my writing to be acceptable here: "religion," "the Christian Bible," "the Biblical text." Is it good to be writing about Christian things in any manner at all (whether from false motives or true, at least Christ is preached...) or should I just write on secular, objective topics (whatever those might be) while I'm studying at a secular institution?

How have any of you handled these problems?

Rosie Perera said...

Great word! I had to look up "gallimaufry" -- all it reminded me of before checking a dictionary was "galumphing" :-)

I think if you have something intelligent to say about Christian things (which I believe you do, both in this instance and in general), then you ought to be able to say it in a secular institution and be respected. In some ways, this postmodern era is the best time ever to be doing so. It gives Christians an equal place at the academic table (in theory anyway). But only Christians equal to that task should be taking such a place. I think you are one such.

I have not had the opportunity or challenge of being in a secular institution while writing from a Christian perspective, so I haven't had to solve this problem in my own life. I did work for many years in a secular corporate environment, but at that time I hadn't figured out how my faith had anything whatsoever to do with my work. So I lived a compartmentalized life. Now I would probably approach things quite differently.

The Bible is not indeterminate, but it is a great piece of writing which invites many levels of interpretation, all valid. There can be multiple different apparently contradictory and yet equally self-consistent interpretations only because we are too limited in our understanding to figure out how to encompass all of them in one grand interpretation. There are of course some interpretations which are downright wrong, which we can tell because they are inconsistent with other parts of Scripture. But I suspect that in a lot of cases where the interpretation of one faith community seems to be in contradiction with that of another, there is an explanation that would show we each have a bit of the truth but not all of it. That is probably true about the Catholic/Protestant differences. I think both traditions need each other to reach the fullness of understanding what it means to be in Christ, to be the body of Christ, to follow Christ, to be co-heirs with Christ, to be saved by faith in Christ, etc.

Greg Johnson said...

although GMD keeps me returning to my Renaissance lit, and Shakespeare in partic (he claims that there was nothing he read more, other than his Bible....and, you know virtually no-one has done work on his engagement with Shakespeare [his acting of it, critiques, commentaries, engagement with it in his fiction]....yet another project for you!!)...none-the-less, I haven't time to revel in it much right now, and your writing just reminds me how lovely it is to do so. And you couldn't have chosen a better time to be in England and luxuriate in live performances -- I'm wistful!

Greg Johnson said...

hmmm...that's kejj again
(on her bi-monthly check-in)

Iambic Admonit said...

I've rewritten the conclusion. Here it is.

This tension, or duality, of Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant features does not necessarily prove that Shakespeare is ecumenical; that is more than we can know. One point of view is that The Winter’s Tale “registers a deep interest in complicating the very strictures of faith and belief that make the apprehension of theology possible in the first place…. The Winter’s Tale has an inordinate preoccupation with the subjects of truth and knowledge, and with the difficulties (or impossibility) of gaining access to both.” Certainly, Shakespeare’s text is hard to figure out. It has both Catholic and Protestant features. The Bible also must be hard to figure out, since nearly five hundred years of debate has not closed the Catholic/Protestant rift. Critics of The Winter’s Tale, like Christian theologians, take the same text and come up with opposite, fully-convinced, well-argued, logical, solidly supported conclusions. This is not to say that there are no correct answers, nor that all interpretations are equally valid. However, the indeterminacy of The Winter’s Tale’s resolution does illustrate the artistic fertility of the both Biblical and the theatrical text. A good piece of writing generates more pieces of writing. Creation inspires subcreation; a text motivates interpretation. By aligning The Winter’s Tale with the literary structure of the Bible and its ambivalent theological emphases with the ongoing Catholic/Protestant debate, I hope to have shown that Shakespearean texts, Church history, and the Biblical canon are not dead ends, but life-giving sources of multitudinous inspiration.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks for your great comments, everyone, and Rosie especially for your encouragement. For all my doubts about how to write Christian stuff in a secular institution, I am very glad not to be living a compartmentalized life. And I enjoyed what you said about many different levels of interpretation which are all valid, and there being some which are downright wrong, inconsistent with other parts of Scripture. Yup. In a couple of hours I will find out if my interpretation of Shakespeare is downright wrong!

It is lovely it is to be here now, and I am soaking up every minute.