I was delighted to recieve a copy of this book in the post, as it combines a number of my passions in one ‘handy’ volume. Regular readers will know that I am passionate about reading, the Bible, and books in general. Old friends will also know that I had a limited career at A-level as an English student, considering and critiquing Shakespeare and culture in that pontificating way that only teenagers can. You can imagine my delight, then, when Nottingham English Academic Dr. Jem Bloomfield released this book, ‘Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible’. This is a book about books – two of the primary books that have shaped English/Western culture – written by someone who loves books. And I read it as someone who loves books. Thus, this is my review.
For a book about books, ‘Words of Power’ is straight and to the point. Bloomfield is eminently readable – wearing his scholarship lightly but firmly – and amusing as he presciently skewers sacred cows and entrenched perspectives. This is not a book for the faint-hearted – some of my oldest friends will be offended, and my present paymasters may be miffed – but it is a book that rewards reading alongside the two canons it examines, the plays of William Shakespeare and the Bible. Broadly split into two parts – ‘The Text Itself’ and the rest of it – ‘Words of Power’ is a brilliant guide to how and why we read the books we think are important, in the ways we do.
The opening chapters, ‘The Text Itself (I): Questions about the Canon’ and ‘The Text Itself (II): The Words on the Page’ are fundamental – here Bloomfield explores the two texts we have, and the ways that we have come to have them. This is fascinating – scholars of the Bible will be amused an infuriated as Bloomfield breezes through centuries of criticism, whilst also nodding sagely at his honesty and brevity. As someone less au-fait with the Shakespearian canon, but broadly familiar with it, seeing its origins and development shelved in the same space as that of the Bible was a helpful exercise. The reader is shown how the texts are different yet distinct, and the unique features of the two shed light on the way that the other has come to be, and come to be read.
The question of how texts have come to be read the way they have – and what impact this reading has had on culture and human life outside the texts – is writ large throughout Bloomfields work here. There are fascinating examinations of different ways the texts have been read and performed throughout recent history – alongside close questioning of the ways that different groups have read and ‘used’ the texts. In his 4th chapter, ‘Performing the Word’, Bloomfield compares and contrasts Jesus’ injunction about praying in private with an extract from Hamlet, noting suspicion around ‘performance’, and drawing in the way that texts are used in different contexts to mean different things.
Ultimately, this is a readers book. This book is for people with enough familiarity with Shakespeare, the Bible, or (dare such a person exist) both, to read and enjoy and reflect on the way that we read and take seriously books. Throughout, Bloomfield is careful to reflect upon and respect the diverse ways that communities have gathered around texts (From the modern Globe theatre to the evangelical quiet time, through Augustine’s view of Scripture reading!) whilst asking probing questions about what this reading actually means.
In conclusion – and I would like to go on, and could, but will not today – this is a really excellent book. From a professor of English comes a book about reading that offers insight and challenge to those of us, like myself, who call ourselves ‘people of the book’. This is a respectful book – but one that respects different views enough to criticise and challenge them. I would recommend this book to those studying theology – at any level and for any purpose – as well as those studying Shakespeare or historical English literature and wanting to get a handle on just how texts can shape people. For those in church leadership, regardless of tradition, this might be a more difficult read, but the rewards could be valuable in shaping and refining how we read Scripture publicly, and integrate reading powerful books into our shared life.
As a closer, y’all should follow Jem on Twitter and check out his blog too.