Shakespeare as The Bible

My freshmen roommate in college once told me that if you’re having a bad day, or something’s troubling you, you could flip open the Bible to a random page, and you’d find your answer.
Over the last couple days we’ve been hotly debating the underlying message in Shakespeare’s works – did he write himself into the plays, or are we just reading ourselves into it? It’s certainly true that many people over the years have taken comfort in the wisdom and philosophy they find in the words of Shakespeare, regardless of how and why they got onto the page in the first place.
See where I’m going with this?
We may *want* Shakespeare’s works to be some sort of recipe for what it means to be human, his gift to the infinite, a tome where you can, literally, open up to any random page and find the answers to all of your troubles. The Bible, on the other hand, is supposed to be exactly that. It was written, the story goes, by a group of people who *were* being guided by an overseeing force, expressly for the purpose of being just such a book.
So, then, what’s the difference?
Each book tells stories of people in situations similar to our own (albeit dated, usually, and often with language we no longer understand and must have translated). We watch as these people react, and then we get together and discuss why they reacted in that way, and whether we would do the same thing.   
So then how come one book is fiction and we assume that any universal message we get out of it must only be our own projection of ourselves into what we want the message to be, while the other is assumed to be true and any messages we find in it were put there for us to find in the first place?
Imagine if it was the other way around.

17 thoughts on “Shakespeare as The Bible

  1. Fascinating question! Bloom has some potent thoughts on this in "Where Can Wisdom Be Found?".
    Not to open up a larger argument (specifically the "how much of Shakespeare is in the character Hamlet" argument), but I assume that Shakespeare agreed at least in part with Hamlet's assertion that the end of playing is to hold, as it were, the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the age and body of the time his form, and pressure. That, paired with Goethe's observation that "Shakespeare is a great psychologist, and all that can be known of the heart of man can be found in his plays" helps us to understand the significance of Shakespeare's body of work in terms of serving as a reflective document. That Shakespeare dealt in poetry rather than dogma shouldn't lessen the import of the observations and questions in his work. In fact, to my way of thinking, poetry and allegory are capable of conveying the highest truths to which people have access.
    You can read the Bible in the same way, of course- and many people do. Personally I'm a sort of optimistic gnostic, and I read the Bible as myth, symbol, and poetry- and I still find it filled with incredible wisdom. I take infinitely more comfort in it, in fact, than I did when I was a Christian and read it literally.
    When you get down to it, though, I believe that every form of art is filled with wisdom that can inform our day to day lives- whatever any given individual finds in the world to connect them to something greater should be treasured.
    In that spirit: Happy Holidays and a wonderful New Year to all! And I got BBC's "Age of Kings" on DVD, as well as McKellan's "Acting Shakespeare" one-man show. I'm super excited to sit down and tear into both.

  2. I'll get ripped for this, but oh well. It's simple really.]: The Bible tells you how to live life here and be happy eternally ever after. Shakespeare can only help you live life here. Greg

  3. Jonathan wrote: "In fact, to my way of thinking, poetry and allegory are capable of conveying the highest truths to which people have access."

    I fully agree. Allegory, myth, and fictionalized accounts asking the great questions about life are, according to the philosopher Joseph Campbell, our way of talking about truths we're incapable of comprehending fully. (As a sidebar, since this question occurred Duane, you might be interested in Campbell on "Myth". A genius on the subject in my opinion)

    Poetry and allegory heighten and magnify issues about our feelings on truth so that we can take a closer look and possibly understand an underlying larger element more clearly.
    To me, the major difference between the Bible and Shakespeare is that while both explore similar issues, one claims to be THE literal truth.

    To Anonymous: If we live life here well enough, why need we worry about the eternally hereafter? 🙂

  4. JM, I left my name. I just don't have a Google account, so I had to post an Anonymous. We'll never agree on this. You can't live life here well enough–only well, which is why, I believe, a person needs spiritual guidance (there are many kinds, I know. I'm thinking Christianity). As much as I love Shakespeare and what he wrote, it's still only entertainment at the core. Greg

  5. Greg, you said "The Bible tells you how to live life here and be happy eternally ever after." You should have said that you believe that The Bible tells you that. You are entitled to your beliefs, and not to "get ripped" for them, but you should accept them as beliefs that you hold, and not as universal truths. To accept The Bible as the word of God requires a leap of faith that not everyone is willing to take. Many people are happier for taking that leap, many are uncomfortable with it, and many, I think, are unhappier for it because of the conflicts it raises. To each his own.
    I would agree that wisdom can be found in reflection, whether it be shown to us by Shakespeare's works, the Old Testament (leaving out the jealous, wrathful destroyer of Baal-worshiper parts), or Jesus' parables.
    Although it is essential not to take Shakespeare too seriously, his works are more than "only entertainment." Only the most narrow vision can fail to see Shakespeare as enlightening.

  6. Greg, I wasn't "ripping" you. What I meant to indicate was that according to any of the great dogmas, even those in the Bible, living life "well" seems to be the 'ticket' to the hereafter.

    A seeker of Truth can find himself on many paths in a lifetime. Above all, honesty about which of those paths seem to dead end is paramount in my estimation.
    I'm the product of twelve years of Christian education and further study of philosophy, theology, and psychology at the university level. For me, Shakespeare opens up many more avenues to explore than does the Bible. It's far more than just entertainment. And far from being dead ends, those paths more often lead to others. Unlike the Bible, Shakespeare allows for exploring those paths– asking those questions– without reprisals.
    If you feel you've found the *Answer* in the Bible, fine. I won't put that down. As Carl said, "to each his own".

    Maybe you're right, "we'll never 'agree' on this". But I'm still looking. And, like you, I'm sure, I don't like my quest being minimized either.

  7. Honestly I just don't think there's much comparison to be made between 'the book' and 'the canon'.

    Shakespeare's works were written ~400 years ago. They were written by a poet, lover, and artist in a society that is now antiquated, but structured much the same as my own. He told great stories and claimed nothing more.

    The Bible was written ~2000 years ago by nomadic goat herders of the middle east, who claim it is the unerring truth and the words of an unknowable sky wizard who will put you on his naughty list if you eat shellfish or refuse to stone your daughter to death when she disobeys you.

    Shakespeare encourages me to ask questions about what it is to be human. The Bible tells me being human is inherently evil and that asking questions is a sign of weakness. Shakespeare explores all elements of humanity and The Bible says that parts of my own nature are off limits to even think about.

    I don't believe The Bible has any wisdom to share that can't be found in Shakespeare, and in addition it is full of advice that is just plain dangerous and wrong.

    Hamlet and Hal have better daddy issues than JC, and the Sonnets can be my hymnal. As far as I'm concerned Shakespeare belongs on my mantle and The Bible belongs beneath it.

  8. Christopher, far be it from me to extol the virtues of The Bible over Shakespeare, but to claim that The Bible lacks any wisdom that cannot be found in Shakespeare may be stretching matters a bit.
    For the Old Testament, I would suggest that there is much in Proverbs from which one can find instruction that might be missed on reading the Shakespearean canon.
    My own background is strictly OT, but I think there is also much wisdom to be found in the parables of Jesus. So thought Jefferson, who wrote his own version of the New Testament, eliminating what he felt were myth-like embellishments, leaving only the philosophy of Jesus. Much of what one reads in the New Testament are not pronouncements from Jesus, but examples from which his listeners must judge for themselves what is good. Much like a Shakespearean play.

  9. Carl, you 'suggest' that the proverbs hold wisdom that can't be found in Shakespeare, and you 'think' that Jesus's parables might have some too. Can you cite any actual examples?

  10. Christopher, I happen to have some citations from Proverbs handy:

    …fools despise wisdom and instruction.

    Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gets understanding,
    for the gain from it is better than gain from silver and its profit better than gold.
    She is more precious than jewels and nothing you desire can compare with her.
    Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.
    Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.
    She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.

    Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.

    The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom and whatever you get, get insight.

    A prudent man conceals his knowledge, but fools proclaim their folly.

    He who guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.

    He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is kind to the needy honors him.

    A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

    He whose ear hears wholesome admonition gains understanding.

    Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.

    Pride goes before destruction,
    and a haughty spirit before a fall.

    Pleasant words are like a honeycomb,
    sweetness to the soul and health to the body.

    16:32 (KJ)
    He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.

    Grandchildren are the crown of the aged,
    and the glory of sons is their fathers.

    Fine speech is not becoming to a fool; still less is false speech to a prince.

    A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding
    than a hundred blows into a fool.

    17:12 (KJ)
    Let a bear robbed of his whelps meet a man, rather than a fool in his folly.

    A cheerful heart is good medicine…

    17:27 (KJ)
    He that hath knowledge spareth his words…

    A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
    but only in expressing his opinion.

    If one gives answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.

    19:17 (KJ)
    He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord; and that which he hath given will he pay him again.

    Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.

    Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?
    There is more hope for a fool than for him.

    He who meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.

    For lack of wood the fire goes out; and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.

    Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.

    As for parables, my favorite is the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Matthew, chapter 20.


  11. P.S., if you are going to read The Bible, I strongly recommend the King James version–it is the most beautiful and literary. The best of the New Testament, in my opinion, is The Gospels, the first four books, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If you want a really brief version, you can pick any one of them, they repeat much the same material.

  12. Carl, I have read The Bible already. More than once. I would never say that I didn't like a book that I hadn't read.

    I guess I wasn't clear about what I was asking. I was interested in what wisdom you think the Bible holds that Shakespeare doesn't, not just which proverbs and parables are your favorites.

    I could go through and respond to each of these. For example:
    Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.

    Not wisdom, just instruction. Anyhow, King Lear is a good example of this idea, which is found throughout Shakespeare's canon.

    Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.

    Much more elegant is: 'Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit.'

    Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.

    Shylock. 'nuff said.

    Shall I go through the rest? I'm happy to, but I think the point is clear. Do you really think these ideas can't be found in Shakespeare?

    Can you provide any specific wisdom (not just quotations), that can be learned from the bible but not from Shakespeare?

  13. CRS: point taken, but the biblical and Shakespeare canons are both quite large. I would only venture to say that they both contain wisdom and I would be hard pressed to say that either contains all of the wisdom of the other.

  14. Not being at all Christian myself, Shakespeare's works have always been sort of my substitute for the Bible. I use it in exactly the same way. It comforts me when I'm feeling down, to sit down and read a bit of one of my favorite plays, or recite a little to myself. I guess because really Shakespeare and to some extent the arts in general are my religion, so of course his works comfort me as any Bible would comfort a Christian.

  15. I'd just like to get in on this a little bit by pointing out how deeply steeped in the Bible and the Elizabethan Prayer Book Shakespeare was. He ate the entire thing, digested it, and wrote plays that put the extraordinary depth of wisdom and truth of the Bible into a new form. Indeed, some passages and events undergo a complete "sea change / Into something rich and strange."

    But the relationship between biblical passages and Shakespeare isn't simple. It's very rarely allegorical—you can't say King Lear is Job, Polonius is Jephthah, or Macbeth is Hazael and leave it at that. But there are resonances of these characters in the biblical figures.

    The more I read of both, the more I find they speak to each other. Remarkable.

    kj (Bardfilm)

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