Read: bits of books on Elizabethan printing methods
The course I am taking this summer at Oxford is entitled “Material Shakespeare.” Here I would like to set out a few of the concerns of the course in order to relate them to criticism of the Bible. The first part of this post will relate to Shakespeare and cultural/material conditions of his time that contributed to the writing of his plays. The second section will illustrate how I see this relating to an understanding (or, in some cases, misunderstanding) of the Bible, and the last will contain a few Scriptural examples.
“Material Shakespeare,” as defined in my course, is all the other stuff—besides the brain and hand of a man named William Shakespeare—that helped to write his plays. At first this seems like an offensive topic: are you suggesting that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays? Well, no and yes. No: he did write them, but cultural and social and practical necessities influenced his choice of words. Yes: there is no way of knowing, in every case, exactly which word Shakespeare actually wrote down on an original and final draft. Other people and factors changed his texts.
Today I’ll post on the negative aspects of this kind of criticism. Then tomorrow I’ll discuss the positive side.
1. From draft to book. Shakespeare, we assume, wrote rough drafts, perhaps revising many times before sending plays to the playhouse. These manuscripts were not treated with the reverence we imagine we’d give to them today. Maybe the prompter made changes, the censor cut things out, the actors altered lines. Furthermore, at a first performance the audience voted at the end whether they liked it or not, and the author might revise it based on their response. By the time the play got to the printer, it was very different from what the playwright originally crafted. Furthermore, he might have made versions of various lengths, some shorter for traveling, some longer for the printer.
2. Printing house. Next, words might get changed accidentally or on purpose in the printing process. Type setters often (but not so often as you might fancy) made mistakes. Just yesterday I found in one copy of Romeo & Juliet (“Q2,” in case you care):
I do protest I never injuried thee,
But love thee better than thon cans’t devise….
Thon? What has happened here is that the printer has put in the letter “u” upside down, creating an “n.” Sometimes, if the compositor couldn’t read the handwriting, he would make a guess and throw in a likely word.
Now, these are both rather negative readings, showing how the text we have may or may not be Shakespeare’s. Perhaps you can see how the principle behind these cultural readings could be applicable to the Bible. At first, this sort of analysis could be threatening to a literal understanding of the Scriptures. Here’s a useful link about criticism of the Bible:
Especially helpful is the section entitled “Reaction of conservative Christians to biblical criticism.”
If we apply the idea that “Shakespeare’s texts are not Shakespeare’s texts” and “there is no way of finding the true original behind all the various copies of his plays” to the Bible, you get some very disturbing conclusions. They would be something like this: “Scripture is not traceable back to any one, determinate text which can be said to have been directly inspired by God.” If we believed that the words originally written were changed, misunderstood, lost, altered on their way to the printed books we have today, that would be very disturbing to our faith.
I have a theory that most modern forms of lit. crit. are, in some deeply hidden subconscious, seeking an intellectually satisfying reason to ignore and discredit the Bible. However, Evangelical Christians, while understanding (of course) that our translations may not be 100% accurate (that’s why our creeds say we believe the Bible is inerrant in its original transmission) do believe we have a very good text of the Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic. From this we make reasonably good translations. We can appropriate the very principles of literary theory that seem threatening and use them to unlock, open, and shed light on our traditional understanding of the Scripture. Tomorrow I’ll give examples of how to do that. Don’t go away mad!