In the lead up to the publication of his new title Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible, we were able to catch up with Prof. Jem Bloomfield to ask him some questions about himself and his work!
1. What inspired you to write about Shakespeare and the Bible?
They’re both texts – or collections of texts – which have had a real effect on my life, and the lives of a lot of other people. That can be true in a positive sense: theatres and churches are places where I feel at home, and where people come together around the profoundest questions of our lives. But it can also be true in a negative sense: Shakespeare and the Bible are often used to limit people’s lives, or to determine who is seen as the “right” kind of person in our society. Almost everyone in English-speaking culture has some experience of these books, and even if they’ve never read them they’re aware of the enormous power and authority vested in them. That makes them a vital subject for me.
2. What does your writing process consist of?
I read a lot. That’s the foundation of my writing process: I’m always seeing connections or associations between things I’ve been reading, and I want to make sense of them. One of the benefits of having a blog is being able to think out loud about ideas in progress, and hearing other people’s thoughts. Often I’ll sit down to write something, look at my blog, and realize that I played around with this idea or this author in a different form some months before.
When it comes to putting it all into book form, I tend to have a set target of words per day, usually between 500 and 1,000, and I often start by copying quotations or passages I want to discuss into the chapter, and then discussing and analysing them. Ever since my days as a postgraduate student, I tend to feel uncomfortable if I go too long just telling the reader things, without quoting another writer, or presenting an excerpt from a historical source or literary work. I like to let the reader hear from the past voices that I’m drawing on, and even to read the same material I’m interpreting and come to a different conclusion.
3. What are the main ideas that the book explores?
The central idea is that Shakespeare and the Bible are both “sacred texts”, that they have a particular status in our culture that other books don’t, which means that we read them in different ways. When we find an inconsistency or a difficulty in a novel, we might just think the author made a mistake, or that the book isn’t much good. When we encounter a discrepancy like this in a sacred text, we’re likely to look for a deeper meaning, or what it tells us about a character, or even if we accept the text contradicts itself we might use that as evidence about the history of the text. How we interpret sacred texts depends on the assumptions we bring to them, and those assumptions are often shared between Shakespeare and the Bible.
The other ideas in the work flow from that central concept, and they examine how Shakespeare and the Bible are read, interpreted, performed, quoted, etc. I emphasize that these are texts with a history: they didn’t just appear in their modern forms, and they’re the result of centuries of editing, interpretation and performance by groups (such as churches and theatres) which thought they had great value. I’m also keen to show how much the meaning of these texts comes out of the different activities they’re used in, from coronations to jokes, and from sermons to bumper stickers. They aren’t static containers for meaning, but rather texts from which meaning can be made.
4. Which writers / academics do you think have had the greatest impact on you and why?
When it comes to academics, I owe a great deal to Pascale Aebischer and Jane Milling, who supervised my doctoral research, and who coached me through the process of turning lots of exciting conversations and disorganised scribblings into a coherent argument which readers could follow. I’ve learnt a lot from Michael Dobson’s work on Shakespeare and John Barton’s work on the Bible: they both showed me how intense concentration on historical details can produce incredibly exciting ideas.
Emma Smith’s writing is a wonderful example of asking questions which no-one else would think of because we’re so used to what we think we know (“was Shylock Jewish?” and “can you actually read the First Folio”? for example.) I’m also a huge fan of Ronald Hutton’s books on religion, magic and witchcraft, and how he handles issues which really polarise people with scholarly rigour and sensitivity. On a really good day, rereading a chapter I’m pleased with, I sometimes feel “that’s the kind of objection Smith might have made” or “I’ve done a bit of a Hutton, there.” Then I reread one of their books and the feeling evaporates entirely!
5. Who do you think the book will appeal most to?
I hope it’ll appeal most to people who aren’t specialists or professionals in either book, but who like to think critically about the world around them. I’ve deliberately structured it so that the early chapters deal with historical issues, and textual criticism: questions which most people might find interesting, but which they won’t be able to answer without a university department, twenty years of learning ancient languages, and access to priceless manuscripts. It’s worth knowing that there are Gospels which didn’t make it into the Bible, or printing variations in early Shakespeare editions, but for most of us that’ll enhance our reading experience rather than allowing us to enter the scholarly fray on the subject.
The later chapters deal with questions which everyone is qualified to ask and answer: what do we mean by “Biblical values”, why do politicians quote Shakespeare, how should read these books? There are still plenty of historical examples as I explore questions like this, but as the reader gets further into the book, they’ll find issues which might affect them directly, and which they can give their opinion on. I suspect Words of Power will appeal to people who have strong opinions – whether positive or negative – about Shakespeare and the Bible, and their place in our lives.
6. What are the most obscure notions the book explores?
Those would probably be the ideas I explore in the chapter called “Performing the Word”. This focuses on the idea that Shakespeare should never be performed in a theatre, which might strike modern readers as decidedly odd, but which was genuinely held by some people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought it was a bit of a shame to actually perform some Shakespeare plays, and the critic Charles Lamb thought it totally ruined them. I then move onto a passage in St Augustine’s autobiography where he recounts finding St Ambrose sitting reading the Bible quietly to himself, and then feels the need to explain to the reader why it was absolutely fine for St Ambrose to be doing that, even though it might look a bit suspicious.
Those are pretty obscure notions to us today. In that chapter I investigate why people thought those things, and how it made sense in the context of their other beliefs about theatre, Scripture, and so on. It’s fun finding deeply weird things people believed in the past about Shakespeare and the Bible, but it also helps us to understand how drastically differently these books have been treated throughout history. Appreciating that might make us regard some of our own beliefs and activities as equally strange and thought-provoking – our own world might begin to seem as strange as the ancient desert, or Lamb’s study, and we can scrutinise it critically.
7. Who are your favourite authors?
That’s a really hard question – especially as it’s always a temptation to reel off a string of impressive names, to make yourself sound terribly intellectual and cultivated! In keeping with the emphasis in Words of Power on what we do with books (rather than what we say we believe about them), I’ll have to name the authors I reread most often. So Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen and Patrick O’Brien.
8. Having been featured on BBC One’s The Big Questions recently, do you think you would like to pursue a new route in television?
Appearing on the show was great fun, if rather daunting, and I was very pleased when a close friend told me I talk exactly the same way on TV as I do in person. (They didn’t say they liked how I talked, come to think of it, just that I did it the same way…) I’m not sure TV audiences are exactly hankering for a beardy and tweedy bloke who has Had Some Thoughts About Shakespeare And The Bible, but if anyone wants to build a show on that basis, I’m willing to give it a go…! In the meantime, I’ll be in my usual habitat – a haphazard maze of second-hand books.
9. If you could be one character from a Shakespeare play and the Bible, which character would you be and why?
Another very tricky question. For Shakespeare it’d have to be someone from Twelfth Night, because I love that play so much. Maybe Viola, though she gets a rather emotionally tumultuous time of it, with all the cross-dressing and falling in love with her boss. Feste, perhaps? The twanging a lute and making profound yet cryptic remarks to people could be fun.
When it comes to the Bible, I know exactly. Qoheleth, the preacher named in the Book of Ecclesiastes. It’s one of my favourite books, not least because of its wry sense of humour and wrestling with whether life has meaning. I’d quite like to be Qoheleth, wandering around demanding why the rivers are all running into the sea and the sea isn’t even full yet, and what even is the point when you come to think of it, or exclaiming “Who is as the wise man? And who knoweth the interpretation of a thing?” Who indeed…
10. If you were stranded on a desert island and had to choose between the Works of Shakespeare over the Bible…which would you choose to keep and why?
This is a deeply unfair questions, since one of the reasons I found myself writing this book is that I couldn’t ever choose between them! On Shakespeare’s side, there is so much richness of character and language. You could spend years reading those plays to yourself, or indeed reading them out and Doing The Voices. Hobbling round the beach declaiming bits of Richard III, or leaping around doing the fairy song from A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be a good way to assure yourself that the solitude hadn’t finally turned your brain.
But the Bible has such resources for the lament and reflection that you’d need in that situation. The Psalms, the exile narratives, the Book of Job, the aforementioned grumblings of Qoheleth, you could lean on all these to try to make sense of your lonely marooning. And the Bible does have a bigger range of kinds of literature than Shakespeare, so there’s more variety. I think I might have to go for the Bible, though it’s a close-run thing.
Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible is available NOW!
For more on Jem, extracts and for your copy: http://tinyurl.com/jsr9bvx