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Criticism 43.3 (2001) 355-358
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Book Review

Shakespeare and the Bible

Shakespeare and the Bible by Steven Marx. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. x + 165. {39.95 cloth; {18.95 paper.
The Shakespearean canon has been exhausted by generations of critical interpreters; at least, this is the myth that many of us working in the early modern period tell ourselves. The reality is that much critical work remains to be done with Avon's bard. Shakespeare and the Bible is a perfect example of the kind of refreshing and important work still needed in Shakespearean studies. Its author, Steven Marx, claims that "until now" no critical book has been dedicated to illuminating the connections between Shakespeare's plays and the Bible (2). While his scholarly predecessors have utilized articles and books for individual comparisons between a Shakespearean play and a biblical book, Marx fills something of a void with Shakespeare and the Bible. He compiles critical works, identifies current arguments within the field, and lends his own interpretations. The final product is a comprehensive and insightful contribution to Shakespearean scholarship. 

Of course, a study of such immense subjects could have become unwieldy, but Marx has settled on a reasonable and productive focus. He notes that "only six out of forty-six biblical books and five out of thirty-six Shakespeare plays are fully treated, [but] they make for a representative selection and a coherent sequence" (17). Marx is too modest about his "coherent sequence," as his organization hints at an artistic flair. To mirror Shakespeare's pattern of the five-act dramatic structure, Marx divides each chapter into five subsections (17). The primary constants shared by the chapters are the identification of how Shakespeare diverges from the Bible and the context of the [End Page 355] individual play and book within their larger collections, the Folio, and the Geneva Bible. Beyond these similarities, each chapter is uniquely crafted. Marx capitalizes on the assets of the individual works by adapting his approach in each comparison. He alternates between typology, midrash, and multiple critical theories, while identifying any potential for biblical allusions within the plays. A summary of select chapters will further suggest Marx's flexibility. 

Following the preliminary chapter, Marx demonstrates connections between The Tempest and Genesis. The premises are that both pieces open their respective collections, and that they share the form of the creation myth. After identifying thematic parallels, such as time and space, Marx suggests that Genesis's God and The Tempest's Prospero share the roles of creator/author, subject/protagonist, and receding ruler. Structural changes are said to mark the retreats of both controllers. Genesis evolves "from primal myth into longer, more complex, even novelistic units" while The Tempest shows "increasing length and dramatic complexity of scenes as the play proceeds" (23-24). As both works move toward concerns of procreation, their creators use "qualifying tests" to determine "the selected" who will be given conditional rewards (29). Marx then glides into a discussion of Genesis's shifting concern from paternity to fraternity, and how The Tempest mirrors this change. He proposes that "stories of Joseph and Prospero, the providers, overlap the stories of Joseph and Prospero and their brothers" (30). As the detailed similarities grow in number, readers will be tempted to retrieve copies of Genesis and The Tempest in order to hold the two side-by-side with renewed interest. Should they be able to delay such desires, readers will be rewarded with Marx's intriguing justification of Shakespeare's clown scenes. 

Another interesting chapter compares Measure for Measure and the gospel. Marx identifies the play's resemblance to a medieval allegory, based on its pervading biblical references and character names; simultaneously, the plot lines imply a biblical parable, thematic elements suggest a history play, and the play's conclusion follows the formula of a comedy. Aside from the timeless debate about how to categorize Measure for Measure, Marx acknowledges the disagreement about how to perceive Duke Vincentio. Is he portrayed "as a benign embodiment of divine power, a malicious abuser of it, or a mere mortal who aspires to be God and fails" (81)? Marx believes that such uncertainties are appropriate, given the play's association with the gospels—which are the subject of their own multiple controversies; but he recommends that this play's clarity may be improved by tracing the parallels between Measure for Measure's Vincentio and the New Testament's God. Both figures are said to use the same strategies of positioning deputies in power, testing these chosen enforcers, adopting human disguises, implementing interrogation during entrapment, and dramatically revealing themselves once humanity appears most humiliated. Just as God uses and directs Christ, the Duke does so with Isabella. Marx [End Page 356] also makes the innovative connection that a "body substitution at the heart of the bed trick constitutes a comic version of the ransom story of atonement at the centre of gospel theology" (89-90). The limited awareness of the audience and stage characters are described as an "elaborate arrangement of sight-lines and obstacles" that work to emphasize the Duke's omniscience (92). Perhaps Marx shines an unkindly light on the New Testament's God, but he works miracles to vindicate and elevate the character of Vincentio. 

In a later chapter, Marx shows great awareness of and respect for personal ideologies. Rather than rush into the vehement and sensitive debate that surrounds The Merchant of Venice, Marx eases into his comparison between the play and Paul's Letter to the Romans. The historical contexts of both pieces are provided, as well as the possible sources that Shakespeare might have used: Italian prose fiction, the Bible, the tradition of England's mystery drama (104). Marx suggests that Shakespeare expanded his original sources in order to theologize the comedy and render theology as entertainment (104). The multiple levels of the play's biblical allusions are given brief examination before Marx notes that the manner in which "one construes the play's biblical allusions seems hard to separate from what ones feels about Judaism in general" (107). He also clearly asserts that his personal agenda in this chapter is "to dispute traditional invidious comparisons between the Hebrew and Christian Bibles that have been discredited by modern biblical scholars but which occasionally still are reinforced by literary critics" (107). The work of Barbara Lewalski, among others, serves as the critical backdrop to Marx's argument that allusions allow the presence of Shakespeare's Shylock to do "as much to tarnish as to burnish the image of the Christian he was meant to foil" (124). This chapter shows Marx's sensitivity with delicate subjects and his dexterity with the presentation of research. 

The final chapter especially highlights Marx's talents. By returning to The Tempest, Marx creates something of a framed study. The rationale is that this play holds the paradoxical positions of being the first in the Folio and last complete drama (according to general consensus) in the career of its playwright; The Tempest simultaneously echoes the Bible's Genesis and The Revelation of St. John the Divine, also called the Apocalypse. Marx makes some general references to his earlier comparison involving this play, wisely avoiding redundancy; but he also advances new insights. For example, he shows that The Tempest and the final book of the Bible share shifts in chronological sequences and settings as well as a four-part structure, and he contrasts the dramatic form of the masque with the origin of apocalypse. Toward the chap-ter's end, he shows how the two pieces differ, placing particular emphasis on the Bible's closure and The Tempest's open ending. Rather than making closing remarks on his examination, Marx creates his own open ending, thus encouraging readers to re-approach the Shakespearean canon with a new [End Page 357] understanding. Marx hopes to motivate others to make their own similar contributions to Shakespearean studies. 

Marx's Shakespeare and the Bible should be recommended reading for any serious Shakespearean. For students, the terms are clearly defined, and the subject is made approachable. It would make a wonderful introduction to the world of interdisciplinary studies, especially at a time when students are far too reliant on the footnotes of editors. Shakespeare specialists will also benefit from this reading. Whether as an aid in teaching, research, or interpretation, Marx's book is a strong resource. Most importantly, an improved understanding of the plays, and perhaps the Bible, is everyone's reward. 

Harmonie Loberg
University of South Florida