Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 156
For most of the 1700s, Shakespeare was considered a very good playwright. But in the 1800s, and especially during the Victorian period, Shakespeare became a prophet. Ministers began drawing their lessons from his texts. Scholars wrote books about the scriptural resonances of his words—often while taking those words out of context. Shakespeare’s works, the Victorians believed, offered religious revelations.
In his new book, The Victorian Cult of Shakespeare: Bardology in the Nineteenth Century, University of Washington Associate Professor of English Charles LaPorte examines this moment in literary and religious history. We invited him to join us on the podcast to tell us how people in the 19th century thought about Shakespeare, how the moment helped give rise to the “authorship controversy,” and how sometimes, even today, we read Shakespeare like the Victorians. LaPorte is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Dr. Charles LaPorte’s The Victorian Cult of Shakespeare: Bardology in the Nineteenth Century was published by Cambridge University Press in 2020. His previous book, Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible, was named Best First Book in Victorian Studies by the Northeast Victorian Studies Association in 2011.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published November 24, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I Am No Thing To Thank God On,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
Shakespeare and Solace
Folger Director Michael Witmore and Director Emerita Gail Kern Paster join us for a special podcast episode about drawing comfort and wisdom from Shakespeare.
Shakespeare and Religion
Scholar David Scott Kastan explores the religious divisions of Shakespeare's world in this podcast episode.
MICHAEL WITMORE: If you were in English class and you said this: “Shall I compare thee, Jesus, to a summer’s day?” It’s pretty likely people would look at you funny. 125 years ago, though, there were people who’d hear that and they wouldn’t bat an eye.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. That passage I just read—putting Jesus in the middle of Sonnet 18—is a paraphrase from a book called Shakespeare and the Bible: Fifty Sonnets, with Their Scriptural Harmonies. Its author was named Charles Ellis and it came out in 1896, squarely in the time we call “The Victorian Era.” What Ellis actually wrote was that Sonnet 18 tells us, “Shakespeare trusts in the constancy and all-sufficiency of Christ for all good in this life, and in that life which is to come.”
Ellis is an example—and not a radical one—of one way Shakespeare was read in the late 19th century. It was a simple task to find books with titles like Bible Truths with Shakespearean Parallels; Shakespeare and Holy Writ; Sacred and Shakespearean Affinities: Being Analogies Between the Writings of the Psalmists and of Shakespeare. They took Shakespeare passages, placed them side by side with the Bible, and drew parallels that placed Shakespeare next to God. Preachers in the era did this too.
This seems like an odd pairing in the 21st century. It would have probably seemed like an odd pairing in the 16th century and the 17th. But as you’ll hear, by the end of the 19th century, it was considered absolutely conventional. That was a different time, and in his new book, The Victorian Cult of Shakespeare: Bardology in the Nineteenth Century, Charles LaPorte offers us a window into it. Dr. LaPorte is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Washington, and his book gives us a new understanding of the Victorians and—arguably—a new understanding of Shakespeare. He joined us to talk about all this recently for a podcast we call “I Am No Thing to Thank God On.” Charles LaPorte is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Well Shakespeare has such a vaunted reputation now that it’s not that unusual for people to say something like, “Shakespeare and the Bible seem unable to escape each other,” which is a quote from your book. But that’s definitely not how people felt in the early 1700s. You say for the Victorians that that became a tenet. So, remind us, where are we starting? Shakespeare was considered what, in the early 1700s?
CHARLES LAPORTE: In the early 1700s, Shakespeare was considered a very good playwright. Shakespeare’s works were always being performed; they were often being freely adapted. By the end of the 19th century, that would be a sort of active iconoclasm, almost.
He was a good playwright. My book is about the next hundred years, when he goes from being a good playwright to being, sort of, the god of English literature.
BOGAEV: So, he was good, but just not extraordinary? He was a playwright among playwrights. And people looked to David Garrick and say, “Oh, that that he made—this is the moment when Shakespeare happened.” Although because he’s still seen as a playwright, people recognize the bawdiness and his work was considered base, like any other theater—theatrical work.
LAPORTE: Scholars, looking back—by which I mean 20th-century scholars, and then 21st-century scholars—noticing that Shakespeare at the beginning of the 18th century is just another very good playwright. In the 19th century, he becomes seen as a real religious influence.
Scholars looking back look back and say, “So when does this happen?” And they settle upon sort of David Garrick’s Jubilee of 1769 and say, “This is really the moment where Garrick hypes up Shakespeare for his own sort of commercial reasons; gets this ball rolling.”
Broadly speaking, it's true that it’s in the second half, really after in the 1770s and following, that Shakespeare tends to be regarded in loftier and loftier terms. But part of the point of my book is that, what happens at the end of the 18th century is, in a lot of ways, sort of qualitatively different.
BOGAEV: Right, and you pretty much describe it as a one-eighty when we get to the Victorians. Can you give us some examples of how… just how definitive these expressions of Shakespeare’s god-likeness, or near divinity are?
LAPORTE: I would differentiate between expressions of Shakespeare as a divine artist and practice in the Victorian world. The expressions, by the time you’re in the early years of the 19th century—you’ve got lots of expressions of Shakespeare’s divinity; you have people like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet, saying that, “Shakespeare is rather to be looked upon as a prophet, than a poet.” You have Thomas De Quincey, in the famous essay that he writes On the Knocking of the Gate in Macbeth, where he says, “Oh mighty poet, thy works are not as those of other men.” Where they’re really saying Shakespeare is special and very different.
In the 19th century—over the course of the 19th century, you increasingly see Shakespeare used in sermons delivered by Christian ministers from their pulpits. And part of the thesis of my book is that this is a different sort of investment in the idea of Shakespeare as a sort of a religious figure. You see books emerge that have quotations from Shakespeare on one side, and quotations from the Bible on the other. But the thesis of my book is that when you’re looking at this practice, or these kinds of practices, you notice that what the Victorians are doing is simply different from romantic hyperbole. Does that make sense?
BOGAEV: Yeah, so it sounds like it’s qualitatively different. That they’re kind of making Shakespeare into a god in a very nuts and bolts way.
LAPORTE: Exactly, precisely, yeah.
BOGAEV: And I’m fascinated by these devotional books, but I want to ask you about the preachers first. This idea that preachers were jumping on the bandwagon and quoting Shakespeare in their sermons. Because you describe it as, “The clergy predicting that believers would soon celebrate Shakespeare’s inspiration across the Christian churches.” That’s a quote from your book. So, why did preachers believe this was going to happen? What was this prediction based on?
LAPORTE: Yeah, great question, and it’s a little bit complicated. The short answer is that Shakespeare’s status as a source of religious insight was such that it was perfectly reasonable for Christian preachers, in various denominations, to say, “Hey, you know, Shakespeare should really be recognized by us as a religious authority.”
At the end of the 19th century, you have one of Queen Victoria’s own chaplains arguing that Shakespeare needs to be recognized as a divine source of wisdom. That’s really interesting, and that’s not something you would have seen in David Garrick’s generation or Coleridge’s generation. It’s that kind of endorsement by the clergy, is a remarkable sort of historical happenstance to my eyes.
BOGAEV: Okay, I have a lot of questions about this; what did preachers do with the bawdy bits? Just ignore them?
LAPORTE: Yeah, it’s really interesting because we look at Shakespeare, and we’re like, “How could you possible go there?” But it must be said that there’s lots of sex and violence in the Bible as well, right? So, they had some practice, right?
It’s interesting to us see them pick up something like the sonnets, and say, “This is really a religious revelation.” You know, that raises an eyebrow for us, but it’s also true that that’s sort of how sacred hermeneutics work. If you look at “Song of Songs” in the Bible, we know now, and indeed in the 19th century they knew already, that it was sort of a late edition to the sacred canon.
LAPORTE: That you have people like the Rabbi Akiva, in the first century saying, “This is really a central text,” even where he has to make the argument for its centrality.
BOGAEV: Okay, here’s my question, and I don’t mean this facetiously, but preachers follow trends too, you know?
BOGAEV: I mean, was Shakespeare a convenient tool to use as inspiration or to fill out a sermon and keep parishioners in the seats?
LAPORTE: No, but that’s what’s so interesting, because that would be true, if what I meant by Shakespeare sermons were simply, like… you’re giving a sermon and you’ve said everything that you can say about the gospel of John… so, now you’re going spice it up with Measure for Measure. Right?
LAPORTE: That would be one thing, but when I say that they were writing Shakespearean sermons, what I mean is that they were taking the Shakespearean text as their sacred text. Where a preacher in Seattle would say, “Look, I take my text from Measure for Measure,” and that’s what’s extraordinary.
And also, not just extraordinary, but also a religious movement that we in retrospect find—I mean we can’t not find it a little bit weird that they did this with Shakespeare. Although, as you begin by saying our opinion of Shakespeare could hardly be higher.
BOGAEV: That’s true, I guess I was picturing it like a Victorian equivalent of Christian rock, or the minister who plays guitar and wears leather pants or something and sings Christian-inflected pop songs.
LAPORTE: Yes, no, I think that’s right to an extent, but I think it’s also true that they were really making the case, right? Someone like C.W. Stubbs, in making the argument that Shakespeare should be viewed as a sacred text is… it’s an argument when he’s giving sermons. He’s saying, “This is important, we should be doing this.” It really was a religious mission. I guess I don’t know enough about Christian rock bands and what all to know.
BOGAEV: Well, forget that. But why? What do preachers get at this time out of doing that? Why deify Shakespeare?
LAPORTE: I understand the question, but I guess, for me, I believe that they were invested in the inspiration itself. In some ways, it’s like saying, “Why do Christians talk about the Bible?” They talk about the Bible because they’re persuaded of the importance and truth of the revelation.
I mean, the same thing is true for Shakespeare. They were like, “This is true. This is important. Let’s listen to Shakespeare. Shakespeare is an inspired…” and it must be said that it’s not only Shakespeare who is regarded in the 19th century as a divinely inspired poet. You see something similar happening with, you know, William Wordsworth. You see something similar happening with Victor Hugo. You see something similar happening with Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Shakespeare is like the ne plus ultra example; he’s the single most important poet in Anglophone culture in the 19th century by far. I pick up Shakespeare because he's the main guy.
BOGAEV: Yeah, and you’re really getting to a central point of your book. Maybe I’m illustrating it by my line of questioning, but that back then, “Religious ideas animated people’s very frames of reference.” That’s another quote from your book, and that’s so hard to understand. It’s hard to get in that headspace, of secular people living… living now. And you cite a scholar named Hannibal Hamlin, who has—first of all a great name.
LAPORTE: He does.
BOGAEV: And a great analogy for us, which is he wrote that… imagine if there was a tv show that everyone watched and your parents and grandparents had watched it. Everyone in other countries watched it too in their own languages. Now imagine it was illegal not to watch it, and that’s the Bible at that time.
LAPORTE: Right, right, precisely, and he’s talking about the 16th and 17th century. So, this is from Hamlin’s book called The Bible in Shakespeare. It’s a beautiful book. What he’s doing is saying, “If you want to understand Shakespeare’s relationship to the Bible, you have to understand that it’s pervasive”. He finishes that long metaphor by saying, “It was always in reruns, and it never went off the air.” Right?
BOGAEV: So right.
LAPORTE: Which… it’s beautiful, and it really gets to, sort of, the importance, just the pervasiveness of the Bible as a medium for thought about everything really.
Part of the reason I love that quotation so very much is that he’s talking about Shakespeare’s own lifetime. And one of the points that I want to make in my book is that it’s still true three centuries later, right? When you’re looking at the mid-Victorian period. If you’re not talking about Shakespeare, but you’re talking about Charlotte Bronte, everything that he says in that quotation is still true, except that it’s no longer illegal not to attend services, right?
BOGAEV: Right, so, you’re saying it just gives you this tremendous head start on understanding what’s going on in, with the Brontes. And you also write, the Brownings, or Tennyson, or Charles Dickens.
LAPORTE: Right. If you understand that the Bible is so very pervasive, then you really have a huge head start in understanding what’s going on in the 19th century, in the 1800s.
BOGAEV: So, is the same thing going on simultaneously with the romantic writers in America? Can you give us some examples?
LAPORTE: So, I’m trained as a Victorianist rather than as an Americanist, but there’s no doubt that Hannibal Hamlin’s description is no less true of basically any 19th century American writer that you can name: Emerson or Whitman or what have you.
The cultural importance of poetry as an expression of the divine is no less true in America. Unquestionably, that Walt Whitman reads Emerson’s essay on The Poet in which Emerson is saying, you know, “Really we need new revelations from poets.” And Whitman writes Leaves of Grass, and he’s like, “Here I am.” Right? Where he was very open about aspiring to a prophetic status.
BOGAEV: Okay, and here’s another very 21st-century question though; how do we know that, for instance, when Elizabeth Barrett Browning says something like that she, “Believed reverently in the miracle of Shakespeare’s poetic range,” as you quote her in your book. How do we know she wasn’t being metaphorical?
LAPORTE: Because, obviously you can look at Barrett Browning’s level of what we might call hyperbole and compare it to Coleridge at the beginning of the century and say, “You know, it’s really just the same thing.” My feeling is, one, I’ve read a lot of Barrett Browning’s works, and she was deeply invested in the idea that modern poetry is a new revelation.
But the other is that again the reason why in my book, I concentrate on things like Shakespeare sermons or Shakespeare devotional books or the arguments of the Shakespeare societies and how they intersect with theological discourses. The reason I do that, is that that’s not hyperbole, right? I mean, this is like the Shakespearean bon mot that, “Action is eloquence,” right? I mean, they’re making things in Victorian culture that they don’t make in earlier cultures. Those actions are also eloquent, right? So, when you look at Barrett Browning in that context, there’s no reason not to take her seriously.
BOGAEV: We’ve skipped over a big shift, or maybe we’re getting to it right now, in thinking about Shakespeare as a playwright to thinking about him as a poet in this time. So, could you explain that a little bit more, and who are the people doing this? Because there’re still people going to see Shakespeare plays, or parodies of Shakespeare plays, or comedy that’s based on Shakespeare plays. But there are people who are reading Shakespeare and thinking about him as this prophetic poet as opposed to playwright. So, what is that? Is it class-based, or is it scholars versus the hoi polloi or…?
LAPORTE: I don’t think it’s… well, let me tell you what I do think it is. It’s a scholarly commonplace that Shakespeare—people’s investment in Shakespeare over the course of the 19th century, sort of moves from the stage to the page. Obviously, it’s still on the stage and robust in growing over the course of the century; there’s fabulous scholarship on this.
But what happens is, the discourse about poetry and the embrace of Shakespeare as a poet, and as a poet as sort of divine voice, this discourse takes hold in the kind of pervasive way that I was talking about. This is what makes… I think, Shakespeare’s divine status is connected to these poetic discourses, if that makes sense. It’s the—his presence on the stage doesn’t remove it, and they exist sort of side-by-side.
BOGAEV: Well this idea of Shakespeare as a poet; how does it contribute to your thesis about his rise to this level of a godhead or of the divine? And you phrase it in this really provocative way. You write that, “There’s a vein of Victorian literary theory that treated poetry as a solution to religious problems.”
LAPORTE: Yeah, I’m willing to stand by that. I think it’s unquestionably true of 19th-century poetic theory that there’s a big discourse about how poetry should be doing the work of religion. It’s connected to, sort of, the progress of biblical scholarship where the Bible is no longer received by everyone as god’s dictation. That god is saying, “Hey Moses, write this down,” and then he recites Torah. Or you know, an angel comes and whispers into the ear of Saint Matthew what to write in his gospel. This is a traditional understanding, and if you go to the Louvre or the Uffizi, you’re going to see a whole bunch of paintings of angels whispering into the ears of the evangelists.
In the 19th century—well, in the 18th century and increasingly over the course of the 19th century—more and more people move away from this model of inspiration. The model they move toward is to say that the Bible is inspired, yes, but it’s not god’s dictation. The Bible is inspired in the way that poetry is inspired, and this does things to Shakespeare’s reputation.
BOGAEV: Meaning that you could look at Shakespeare and say, “Well just forget about the plots. Just look at the language. That’s what is important. The poetry.”
LAPORTE: Yeah, I mean Shakespeare wrote a lot of blank verse. So someone like Barrett Browning, or even before Barrett Browning, someone like Charles Lamb would say that when you put Shakespeare on stage that really, sort of, waters down the beauty and the importance of the poetry, that it’s the theater of the mind that Shakespeare is so wonderfully powerful in creating, and then other people follow suit; someone like Matthew Arnold. Goethe. I mean there’s endless number of folks in the 19th century who when they talk about Shakespeare, talk about Shakespeare as a poet, as of course, he was.
BOGAEV: That is such an interesting parallel, because you can get around the stuff that contradicts what people are learning about science at that time by looking at the Bible that way. And you can also divorce Shakespeare from the base bawdy bits, by exalting him as a poet of divine inspiration above being a playwright. But were there Victorians though who disagreed with this whole canonization of Shakespeare?
LAPORTE: I mean, there were definitely Victorians and other people whom we could name in the 19th century who raised an eyebrow at it. Ralph Waldo Emerson is one; he was very slow to come around.
When he writes the essay on poetry that made Walt Whitman so very excited, Emerson says, “I’ve been flipping through this anthology of centuries of English poetry and I don’t see a single inspired bard.” That’s amazing. Shakespeare is in that anthology, right? He’s got this ideal of poetry that’s so exalted that no poet lives up to it. That’s where the discourse about poetry came to. Or another prominent Shakespeare skeptic is Leo Tolstoy, in Russia, where he’s, like, rolling his eyes and smashing his head against his forehead in frustration at Shakespeare idolatry.
Herman Melville has this wonderful quotation where he complains that—I want to get it right—he says. “That the absolute and unconditioned adoration of Shakespeare has grown to be part of our Anglo-Saxons superstitions.” He’s just frustrated. He was frustrated among other things because he was like, you know, “I’m an American,” right? He wanted to promote American literature. He wanted to see American literature promoted. The idea that Shakespeare is God and no one can say anything against Shakespeare, this is Melville in the middle of the 19th century really frustrated and writing a book about a whale, and hoping people will like that too. Right, are you with me?
BOGAEV: Yeah. I love these iconoclasts, you know, these rethinkers banging their heads on their desks over Shakespeare. And maybe this is a good time now to shift gears and talk about these devotional Shakespeare volumes. You started to describe them earlier, but what exactly were they? And who was writing them?
LAPORTE: A number of different people were writing them; I think I came to write this book because there were so many. There’s a number of different ways that they did it, but it was quite frequent for a Victorian scholar to say, “I want to put Shakespeare’s verses in conversation with the scriptures and show how that you can move from one to the other and that they’re doing the same thing.”
One of the examples that I give in my book is W.H. Malcom’s Shakespeare And Holy Writ from 1881. He’s got Shakespeare in a beautiful gothic font at the top of the verso page and Holy Writ on the top of the recto. Then he’s got a series of headings like “kindness” and “knowledge,” and he gives little quotations that he’s pulled totally out of context from the plays or from the Bible and he shows how they each one corresponds with the other.
Among other things, it clearly promotes the idea that Shakespeare and the Bible are saying the same thing. And so, the way that kindness is treated in Timon of Athens, you will notice right away that it correlates to the way that it is spoken of in Proverbs.
He does this. Many 19th-century compilers of these books do this. Sometimes they organize them in different ways. Sometimes they’ll sort of give a biblical text and interpolate little bits of Shakespeare. There are different ways of organizing them, but what interested me is that there are so many.
BOGAEV: There are so many? So, these are scholars and you just—in the course of your research—just stumbled on a whole cash of these or what?
LAPORTE: Yeah, so, the way that I got to this project in the first place is that I was working in the special collections library at the University of Michigan, back when I was a graduate student. I was there to look for something completely different, but the special collections librarian knew that I was doing research on 19th-century religion. And so, the special collections librarian, she goes, “I want to show you something,” and so she brought me a number of these volumes. I was like, “Boy, this is amazing.”
BOGAEV: Oh, that is so wild. You must have been so excited and worried someone else was going to come out with a book?
LAPORTE: You know, I was, because I was like, “This is such amazing material. Surely someone else was going to do it.” Because the thing about Shakespeare scholarship is that as—I don’t need to tell you—it’s like a sea, right? I mean, the amount of Shakespeare scholarship is really…
BOGAEV: It’s a biblical flood.
LAPORTE: It’s a biblical flood. Right? So, I was really anxious that someone would. And the reason why I think no one did, is that for generations, scholars have really been embarrassed about this kind of Bardology, what George Bernard Shaw called Bardolatry. Scholars have known that the 19th century had what seems to us an excessive investment in the religious truths that Shakespeare is articulating, but no one really knew what to do with it. I think scholars were embarrassed.
BOGAEV: It’s interesting, because when I first read about this in your book, I thought, “That’s really wild.” But weren’t the scholars, in a very comparative literature style way, taking the Bible and putting it side-by-side with Shakespeare and picking out the influence of the Bible and of Christian doctrine on Shakespeare, and how you see it in Shakespeare? But that isn’t really what the scholars were doing?
LAPORTE: Well it is in part what the scholars were doing, and again, I would emphasize that they were scholars. Sometimes there were terrific scholars. When I point out how curious it is that they do this in their books, I don’t wish to be understood to be making fun of them, or… I don’t hide the fact that it’s a really wild thing to do from our perspective, but at the same time, they were very close scholars in some cases.
But then, sometimes the pairings that they give, just any undergraduate, if they said, “Look this is just like this, this passage of Malvolio and Twelfth Night, saying there is no darkness,” or—I’m so sorry, Feste, the clown, in Twelfth Night saying, “There is no darkness but ignorance,” where he's speaking to Malvolio. And someone like Malcolm says, “Look, this is just like the book of Proverbs; that the soul be without knowledge, it is not good.”
I mean, that’s a crazy thing to write. If my undergraduates wrote it, I would be like, “You know, you’ve really got to go back to Twelfth Night,” right? Because Feste is sort of pulling stuff out of his rear and reciting it to Malvolio, who’s locked in the lumber room.
But yet, part of the thing I want to acknowledge in the book is that scholars, we do take things out of context all the time really. Good scholars do. I went and I listened recently, Barbara, to the interview that you gave with Michael Witmore and Gail Kern Paster at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic.
BOGAEV: Oh, about solace?
LAPORTE: About solace, yeah. And you were asking them, “Do we turn to Shakespeare for solace?” It was a very Victorian question, although you were not, probably, consciously being Victorian in asking. And part of what interested me about the exchange is that Witmore’s answer was also very Victorian. Where he said, “When I think about Shakespeare in terms of solace,” in terms of like real sort of existential, here we are in the midst of coronavirus pandemic, kind of soul searching. He said, “I think of short phrases, little phrases,” that he freely acknowledged to take out of context.
So, I actually wrote down what he said. He said, “What I want to hear from them,”—the phrases from Shakespeare—“Are not the same as what they mean in the passage. And that’s okay.” So, in a lot of ways, Witmore is a great scholar and he’s doing the same thing W.H. Malcom is doing in the 1880s. He’s saying, “This gives me life.” Does that make sense?
BOGAEV: Absolutely, and thank you so much for listening to the show so closely.
BOGAEV: And that really was so interesting, because when he said that, I was picturing and listening to his… the phrases that give him solace and picturing a talisman.
LAPORTE: Yeah, totally, totally.
LAPORTE: Again, fabulous scholar, right?
LAPORTE: So, I don’t want to be understood as making fun of the Victorians for their religious approaches. I want to be understood as, sort, of honoring it, while acknowledging that we as scholars also—I suppose I’m chiefly thinking of sort of English department scholars, such as myself, but I would extend that to other people who find meaning in Shakespeare, in other literary texts. Of course, we do that all the time.
BOGAEV: This is all really wonderful stuff, and it brings up so many of the issues that we talk about in Shakespeare’s scholarship, especially one of the central ones: the Shakespeare authorship controversy. You draw a link between the Bible and that. And it involves this German book about the life of Jesus. So, what am I even saying here? What was going on there? Tell us about this book and sketch that link out for us?
LAPORTE: Everyone knows, or everyone who listens to this podcast, will know about the Shakespeare authorship controversies. Beginning in the 19th century, people ask themselves, “Is the person who wrote this magnificent body of literature actually William Shakespeare from Stratford?” In a lot of ways, this too is a function of Victorian religious culture. Because one of the ways that biblical criticism in the 18th and 19th centuries really took hold and changed the ways that people were thinking about their religious life was asking the question about who wrote the various books of the Bible. All that was really thrown into question in the first half of the 19th century.
So, the book that you mention, David Friedrich Strauss, Das Leben Jesu, is a book that he writes in the 1830s. George Eliot translates it in 1846. So in the course of the 18th century, lots of scholars say… the critique is made earlier, but the 18th century is when there’s a scholarly consensus. Strauss is the one who applies it to the Christian scriptures. So, I should clarify, in some ways, part of what the argument that I’m making is not an argument about the origins of these ideas, it’s about the way that they take hold in the culture. Does this make sense? So that Coleridge was already there.
BOGAEV: Let me ask you then.
BOGAEV: Are you saying that because everyone’s swimming in this soup of biblical—of the equivalency of the Bible and Shakespeare, and since there’s an authorship issue with these religious texts, there’s must also be an authorship issue with Shakespeare? That it’s not so much… it’s more like concurrent. It’s not so much that the whole Shakespeare issue has its roots in this?
LAPORTE: Again, it’s a tricky argument because correlation is not the same as causation.
LAPORTE: But my point is, when does it happen? Right? It happens at the moment that a poet like Arthur Hugh Clough is bemoaning the disappearance of the evangelists, right? Where he’s writing little poems like, “Matthew, Mark and Luke and holy John / Evanished all and gone,” right? Where he’s saying, “Wow, what just happened?”
We had this sort of long tradition in which we had faith in authorship, and now we no longer can. And that’s when all of a sudden, not just in one place, but a number of people independently say, “How do we know about Shakespeare?” I don’t think you have to say one causes the other to say that this is what’s in the air.
The first major revision of the Bible to happen in the anglophone world since King James, happens in the 19th century, where they make this international committee, which turned into two committees, both in North America and in Britain. They want to revise the Bible and make a new revised version of the Bible, which appears in 1881 and 1885. In which they want to nail down the text in a better way, using modern sort of scholarly sources.
One of the things that new revised version makes very clear, is that there are variants. You can’t give a perfect version of the Book of Mark because when you look at the existing manuscripts, you find differences. This is clearly the same thing that happens in Shakespeare’s scholarship. When you have people like F.J. Furnivall’s new Shakespeare’s Society and they’re going through trying to crunch the numbers, nail down a perfect text. You can’t make a perfect text of Hamlet and it’s a reality of scholarship.
BOGAEV: Yeah, it’s a holy grail. But really all of this that you’re talking about sounds very familiar and very similar to what people are always saying about Shakespeare, which is that every generation reads it and takes the tools of the moment, or the trends of the moment, or the prevailing mindset of the moment and reads something different into it than people did in the past. We adapt it to our moment and our skills and our preoccupations. And you do seem to suggest that this is also a kind of deification of Shakespeare. That it’s just something every generation does; we come back to honoring him that way.
BOGAEV: So is that what we’re seeing you think in with Shakespeare and the Victorian era?
LAPORTE: Yeah, without a doubt. I mean, the Victorian Shakespeare that I’m looking at is a very distinctively Victorian phenomenon. I’m interested in it, not least of all, because university departments of English get created at the end of the 19th century out of this atmosphere.
It is interesting for me, not least of all because, when I think about how it is that I talk to undergraduates about anglophone poetry for a living, I’m deeply in debt to this Victorian ideal. Shakespeare scholarship—Victorian Shakespeare scholarship, again, is like the ultimate instance of this. Shakespeare is the ultimate poet who… Shakespeare did most to create the atmosphere in which English departments could arise.
BOGAEV: That’s very personal for you.
LAPORTE: It’s personal, sure, yeah.
LAPORTE: Yeah. People have known for years about Victorian, you know, what Shaw called Bardolatry. I guess my contribution is not, “Look, this is so…” But I pick up the archive and I say, “Look, it’s compelling in various ways. It’s super interesting in various ways,” and I’m not at all ashamed to embrace it as meaningful.
BOGAEV: You know, every time I think that I can’t think about Shakespeare a different way, someone like you comes along and completely rearranges my whole understanding. Thank you so much, it was really interesting talking with you.
LAPORTE: Thank you, it’s nice of you to say so. I’m honored to be on your show.
WITMORE: Dr. Charles LaPorte is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Washington. His book, The Victorian Cult of Shakespeare: Bardology in the Nineteenth Century was published by Cambridge University Press in 2020. His previous book, Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible, was named Best First Book in Victorian Studies by the Northeast Victorian Studies Association in 2011. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast, “I Am No Thing To Thank God On,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
As always: If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please rate and review us in the Apple Podcasts store. That’s the best way to let people know what we’re doing.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.