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Thomas Fulton and Kristen Poole, eds., The Bible on the Shakespearean Stage: Cultures of Interpretation in Reformation England
by Jonathan Sircy

Thomas Fulton and Kristen Poole, eds. The Bible on the Shakespearean Stage: Cultures of Interpretation in

Reformation England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018)


Antonio’s warning in The Merchant of Venice, ‘Mark you this, Bassanio, the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’ (1.3.91-92), functions as a motto for the competing cultures of interpretation explored in The Bible on the Shakespearean Stage, a collection of twelve essays edited by Thomas Fulton and Kristen Poole. The contributors demonstrate that scriptural citation is always shaped by hermeneutic protocols and that this interpretive energy circulated between the Reformation pulpit and theatrical stage. Although Spenser only comes up a couple of times in the book, and often as a point of contrast with Shakespeare, Spenserians will find much to ponder in this volume where scholars work through issues of book and reception history in Shakespeare studies. More than just an investigation into the connections between the Bible in Shakespeare, the collection raises issues relevant to all early modern literary scholars because it investigates how intertextuality works. The essays ask not just how the Bible appears in or helps to provide a thematic structure for Shakespeare’s work but how reading and interpreting the Bible shaped everything from the perception of language to personal identity. It is a book engaged with not just textual influence but also reading and interpretation, issues of profound importance for Spenserians.

The book has four sections. The first, ‘Europe, England: Contextualizing Shakespeare’s Bible’, offers new ways of historically situating the Bibles Shakespeare heard and read. The second, ‘Stagings: Reformation Reading Practices in the Theater’, surveys specific methods of biblical interpretation and their use in Shakespeare’s plays. The third, ‘Interplay: Biblical Forms and Other Genres’, examines the ways in which Shakespeare’s engagement with the Bible and its interpretation interacted with his use of other non-biblical texts. The final section, ‘Enactment: Hermeneutics and the Social’, focuses on the impact these interpretive methods had on society in terms of religious and political identity. The editors open the volume with an introduction on ‘Popular Hermeneutics’, where they insist that the interpretive protocols in Shakespeare’s England were neither elitist nor arcane. Fulton and Poole establish the book’s basic premise: that the Bible was Reformation English culture’s most important text, that its importance necessitated a whole host of rules for hermeneutics, and that Shakespeare and his audiences were familiar with these protocols so that ‘questions of how to read a text pervade’ Shakespeare’s plays (5). The essay focuses on period sermons to establish the interpretive commitments Shakespeare and his audience would have taken for granted. The sermons testify to the popularity of biblical interpretation and commentary in the period and provide ample evidence of the ways in which the Bible and its interpretation were taught from the pulpit. Fulton and Poole use Laurence Barker’s 1599 book of sermons [1] in particular as a way to show the variety of preaching styles available to the public as well as that public’s reception of those styles. Barker’s commentary points to what Fulton and Poole call an ‘educated mob’, auditors that would have been conversant with the complex theological themes and patterns the volume’s contributors go on to elucidate (10).

The volume’s first section—which provides deeper context for investigating the Bible and Shakespeare—contains two essays: ‘The Bible in Transition in the Age of Shakespeare: A European Perspective’ by Bruce Gordon and Aaron Pratt’s ‘The Trouble with Translation: Paratexts and England’s Bestselling New Testament’. The section is in many ways an outlier, and Gordon and Pratt are the only two contributors who do not work in English departments. Rather than focus on the context of performance, Gordon and Pratt investigate translation and book history. The essays themselves are deeply informative and offer necessary context for the study of any Reformation English literature. Bruce Gordon shows how the Geneva and Bishops’ Bibles that Shakespeare engaged with and were part of a ‘linguistic movement’ that produced numerous translations across the continent; revived the philological study of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac; and generated polyglot versions of the Bible (17). All of this work lies behind the Geneva Translation which its translators billed as the ‘most learned Bible in English’ (29).

Pratt argues that our tendency to privilege particular biblical translations ignores paratextual considerations. This means that if we focus exclusively on the translation, we obscure what kind of Bible Shakespeare might have used. Pratt proves his point by focusing on the New Testament octavo with annotations Richard Jugge and Christopher Barker published beginning in 1553 informally known as the Cheke translation. The book was in print until 1619, and printing records indicate it may have been the most widely owned vernacular Bible in the period. The dilemma is that in 1568 the book kept the same frontispiece and paratextual material while changing translations from a revision of Tyndale’s text to the Bishops’ Bible. Despite the change, this Bible was still referred to as the Cheke translation. One takeaway is that Shakespeare’s New Testament references tend to come from the Bishops’ Bible, so he may have been using this widely available vernacular Bible with its more consistent paratexts.

The book’s second section tackles familiar questions: how did people interpret the Bible in Reformation England and how does Shakespeare fold those reading practices into his plays? Jay Zysk deliberates on the period’s debate over figurative and literal interpretations by reading an oft-debated passage in John 6 alongside Measure for Measure and Angelo’s claim that he can ‘only chew [God’s] name’ (2.4.5). Zysk’s focus underscores the way the Eucharistic controversy highlighted a tension within interpretive communities. The normally literal-minded Protestant readers demanded that Christ’s statement in John be read figuratively while the figuratively-focused Catholic readers wanted Christ’s words in John to be literal. Zysk stresses the way that when applied to secular law, hermeneutic issues concerning literal and figurative language can be a matter of life and death. Next, Kristen Poole reads Hamlet for ‘figurative literalism’ or what Brian Cummings calls ‘Protestant allegory’ by investigating Hamlet’s penchant for puns, the compression of multiple meanings into a single word (72). Poole’s point is not that Hamlet is distinctively Protestant but that Hamlet’s puns demonstrate a familiarity with the complexity of biblical hermeneutics.

Next, Beatrice Groves argues that critics have incorrectly read Henry IV’s death in the Jerusalem Chamber at the end of 2 Henry IV as ironic. Instead, Groves maintains, the moment is part of a larger cultural typology that linked Jerusalem and London. Groves reads the Henriad as welcoming the national unity promised to Zion in the Old Testament. In the section’s final essay, Tom Bishop argues that despite Reformation efforts to harmonise scripture—a process called ‘collocation’ where, in Richard II’s phrase, ‘the word itself’ is set ‘[a]gainst the word’—the process often revealed how ‘unstable’ words were ‘in relation to themselves’ (112). Through a deft reading of Richard’s prison soliloquy, Bishop explores Richard’s two scriptural citations: Christ’s invitation to the children and his rebuke of the rich. Bishop shows, for example, how various interpretations of the camel and needle’s eye indicate ‘cross-tensions’ rather than harmony in scripture. Bishop argues that Shakespeare’s use of these cross-tensions extends not just to the way he interpreted the Bible but to his sense of the ‘pleated temporality of theatrical performance itself’ (117).

The book’s third section about Shakespeare’s mixing of biblical and non-biblical texts begins with Adrian Streete’s question: ‘Can extreme emotion be represented in rational terms?’ (121). Through a close study of Roman oratory and the Book of Lamentations, Streete reads Titus Andronicus as an attempt to parse the tensions between classical rhetoric and Judeo-Christian lament. Shakespeare includes those tensions, Streete concludes, in order to refuse his audience ‘the stability and comfort of a rational path of experience’ (139). Hannibal Hamlin next provides a careful reading of Pericles, dubbing it a biblical romance or secular conversion narrative. Unpacking the scriptural allusions in the play which range from the Old Testament’s Jonah to the itinerary of St. Paul’s missionary voyages, Hamlin argues that the play contains ‘a theatrical equivalent of the miraculous’ (168). The biblical resonances in Shakespeare’s romances also interest Richard Strier who asks why Shakespeare mingles classical and biblical allusions in A Winter’s Tale. While the play’s conclusion borrows from Pygmalion, Strier shows how Shakespeare alludes to a host of Old Testament prophets including Elijah, Elisha and Habbakuk. He finally argues that the connection between these classical and biblical allusions has to do with idolatry and the way that Shakespeare saw a connection between Reformation iconoclasm and the humanist elevation of life over art.

Shaina Trapedo opens the final section on ‘Hermeneutics and the Social’ with a meditation on the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice and introduces the helpful term ‘performative exegesis’, which she defines as ‘an explication of biblical narrative through theatrical enactment’ (180). She focuses on the competing invocations of Daniel by Shylock and Gratiano and argues that the struggle over Daniel’s prudence ends up revealing what is similar between Judaism and Christianity—an interest in justice— without eliding their doctrinal differences (180), and that Shakespeare’s methodology is more human than specifically Jewish or Christian. Jesse Lander corrects the notion that scripture replaced ritual during the Reformation. Rather, Lander argues, scripture provided the authority that undergirded ritual both in sacraments and ceremonies. He looks at Hamlet as a play filled with a post-Reformation disenchantment where religious ritual is problematised but not dispensed with altogether. Hamlet’s final allusion to ‘special providence’ shows him preparing for death by appealing to scripture, not with ritual but with the promise of order in the face of ‘wild and whirling words’ (1.5.35).

In ‘Political Theology from the Pulpit and the Stage’, Thomas Fulton examines how Shakespeare commented on statecraft through his play’s churchmen. The key verses for the Reformation view on the relationship between politics and theology came from Romans 13, and Fulton shows that this passage is ‘the most commonly referenced biblical passage of this length…in all of Shakespeare’ (208). After examining the pertinent moments in Sir Thomas More, Richard II and Henry V, Fulton concludes that Shakespeare ironises Paul’s admonition in a way that presages the English Civil War. Finally, Julia Reinhard Lupton’s ‘Afterword’ synthesises the volume’s essays by giving a taxonomy of Shakespeare’s virtues, here glossed as principles of connection, care and renewal that have their shared source in Shakespeare and scripture. These virtues include learning, respect, performance and wisdom, and Lupton affirms their importance because ‘formative and transformative dialogue between Shakespeare and Scripture…affords formation and transformation in students and teachers alike’ (229).

Lupton emphasises dialogue between the collection’s ‘post-Reformation hermeneutic cultures’ and while most of these essays place Shakespeare at a remove from these cultural controversies, setting these essays against each other, à la Richard II, reveals some tensions (14). Kristen Poole and Jesse Lander both focus on Hamlet’s ‘whirling words’, but while Poole sees Hamlet’s focus ultimately being the ‘self’, Lander emphasises the ‘providential order’ that lies beyond and thus remains mysterious to that ‘self’. While Beatrice Grove has Shakespeare typologically redeeming Henry IV and unifying the country through Henry V’s conquest, Thomas Fulton has Shakespeare ironizing the command to obey those in authority and thus presaging the nation’s civil conflict. Finally, the volume offers no definitive statement on Shakespeare’s Catholic or Protestant affiliations, but particular essays imply Shakespeare’s sympathies with one over the other. [2] Jay Zysk associates Measure for Measure’s Angelo with Protestantism, arguing that he not only ‘equates his profane prayers with carnal eating’ but also ‘resorts to figures of speech, which themselves create gaps in his own literalist arguments’ (63). Since, as Zysk argues, the play criticises Angelo’s interpretive protocols, Shakespeare would be by extension favouring the more complex form of Catholic interpretation. Numerous other essays, however, including Lander’s and Fulton’s, make a case for Shakespeare’s post-Reformation relationship to everything from language to politics. All this is to say that the volume is more a provocation to additional work on its subject than a unified statement on biblical interpretation and Shakespeare.

If the collection has a shortcoming, it is that it fails to take advantage of the contextual essays by Bruce Gordon and Aaron Pratt at its beginning. While the volume’s essays are far from insensitive to matters of translation and paratextual material, it may be that Spenserians, those spectators in the theatre for worldlings, have more to learn and apply from Gordon’s and Pratt’s insights than the Shakespearean-Stage-focused essays in this volume. Still, this is a volume with much to praise, and there is no doubt that the essays provide a welcome dimension to the study of Shakespeare’s relationship to the Bible. Focusing on ‘performative exegesis’, whether it be of the Bible or drama, helps us negotiate the complexity of the Reformation’s legacy within Early Modern literature as a whole. In particular, the volume makes a convincing case for rereading Shakespeare in light of the Hebrew Bible’s prophets, and the essays point to exciting work still to be done not only on Shakespeare but other Early Modern playwrights.


Jonathan Sircy

Southern Wesleyan University

[1] Laurence Barker, Christs Checke to S. Peter for his curious question, out of those words in Saint Iohn: Quid ad te? …In sixe seueral sermons (London, 1599).

[2] Editor’s note: see also Adrian Streete’s review of Claire McEachern’s Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing in this issue of The Spenser Review.


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Cite as:

Jonathan Sircy, "Thomas Fulton and Kristen Poole, eds., The Bible on the Shakespearean Stage: Cultures of Interpretation in Reformation England," Spenser Review 49.2.14 (Spring-Summer 2019). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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