Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Author Archive

Looking Back, and Far Ahead

The Jerusalem Chamber. (c) Westminster Abbey.

The Jerusalem Chamber, (c) Westminster Abbey.

I’m writing this from Borough High St. in Southwark (London), a few blocks from Southwark Cathedral, and in the vicinity of what used to be Winchester Palace, the London residence of the Bishop of Winchester. Lancelot Andrewes, translator of the King James Bible and perhaps supervisor of the First Westminster Company, was granted the bishopric in 1618. He is buried in Southwark Cathedral and is represented in effigy lying on top of his tomb.

London is full of reminders of the translation of the English Bible. Across London Bridge, which is just up the road and on the right, is the church of St. Magnus Martyr. Miles Coverdale, who translated the first complete English Bible (apart from the Wycliffites), is buried there, since he served for a time as rector.

William Tyndale. English translation, Pentateuch. 1530. Ohio State University.

William Tyndale. English translation, Pentateuch. 1530. Ohio State University.

William Tyndale, translator of translators, is buried in Vilvoorde in the Netherlands, where he was strangled and burned, but his sculpted head is included as a decorative architectural feature at St. Dunstan-in-the-West, where he lectured. John Donne later preached at St. Dunstan’s.  A little south of St. Paul’s, where Donne was dean, stood the church of Holy Trinity the Less, destroyed in the Great Fire. John Rogers, the man responsible for Matthew’s Bible (1537), was rector there a few years earlier. He was later burned alive as a heretic at Smithfield, a 10 minute walk north, near the church of St. Bartholomew the Great. Benjamin Franklin worked briefly for a printer in the Lady Chapel of St. Bart’s.

Of course, Westminster itself, the location of two companies of the King James Bible translators, is down the Thames to the west. Thomas Bilson, Bishop of Winchester (before Andrewes), member of the Second Cambridge Company, and one of the revisers of the final King James Bible text, is buried in Westminster Abbey, as is, of course, King James I. Archbishop Matthew Parker, who supervised the translation of the Bishops’ Bible (1568), is buried at Lambeth just across the Thames.

Erasmus. Novum Testamentum. 1519. Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Erasmus. Novum Testamentum. 1519. Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

The celebrations of the King James Bible anniversary have died down here. There are no upcoming events listed on the website of the King James Bible Trust. And in the United States, the tour of Manifold Greatness comes to end on July 12—oddly enough, my birthday. Perhaps more appropriately, it is the date of the death of Erasmus (1536), who produced the Greek text of the New Testament that became known as the Textus Receptus, an essential resource for translators from William Tyndale to the King James Bible companies.

As I reflect on the long history of Manifold Greatness, from its inception and planning, to the years of research, to the exhibition at the Folger, to the long journey of the panel exhibitions, I wonder what lies ahead for the King James Bible in 2111. Will the 500th anniversary be celebrated as were the 400th and the 300th? Will the King James Bible still be in use in some churches? Will American presidents still be sworn in on it? Will the King James Bible have an afterlife in the 21st century? Will some lecturer refer back to the 2011 anniversary celebrations at the Folger, as I referred in my opening lecture to celebrations in New York and London in 1911? Few of us will know. As Matthew writes, “of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, was co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Walt Whitman’s American Bible

Whitman, Leaves of Grass. 1856. Drew Univ. Library, gift of Norman Tomlinson, Jr.

Whitman, Leaves of Grass. 1856. Drew Univ. Library, gift of Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr.

Happy Birthday, Walter! Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is deeply indebted to the King James Bible, despite Whitman’s claims to be utterly original. In fact, Whitman wrote of his work as “the Great Construction of a New Bible.” The first, slim, volume of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. Whitman paid for it himself, and there were fewer than 800 copies. The rest of Whitman’s poetic life was spent revising and adding to this collection, culminating in the final “Deathbed” edition of 1891. The original 95 pages had swollen to almost 450, and the 12 poems of the 1855 edition had become nearly 400.

Various explanations have been offered for Whitman’s title, “Leaves of Grass,” including the obvious pun on the “leaves” of a book. But somewhere in the background is probably the statement of Isaiah that “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass” (Isaiah 40:6-7). Isaiah’s grim prophecy of death is transformed by Whitman into a celebration of the natural cycle, in which death is part of life and the poet, like all the people he sings of in his poem, returns to the earth from which he came. As Whitman writes in “Song of Myself,” “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/ If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

Walt Whitman. From a copy of Shakespeare's works associated with Whitman. Folger.

Walt Whitman. Engraving in Whitman’s former copy of Shakespeare’s works. Folger.

“Song of Myself,” the first poem in the 1855 edition, may also derive its title from the Bible. The great Old Testament celebration of love is the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon, an erotic dialogue between a man and a woman rich in metaphors of spices, fruits, animals, and birds. Whatever the original author intended, Jews and Christians have both traditionally interpreted the poem as an allegory for the love between God and humanity. Whitman’s “Song,” typically and radically, is not of God, or even a lover, but of himself: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.”

One striking feature of Whitman’s poetry is his rambling but rhetorically powerful prose-poetic line, often full of lists of people, places, and things. He adapts this line, just as William Blake did before him (and Alan Ginsberg after), from the parallelistic prose of Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets, in the King James Version. Leaves of Grass may be a new American Bible, but in some ways it sounds a lot like the old one.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, was co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Note: You can read (or hear) about the Whitman engraving shown here on the web page Personalizing Shakespeare, by Louis B. Thalheimer Head of Reference Georgianna Ziegler.


Casiodoro de Reina and the Bear Bible

1569

La Biblia. Basel, 1569. Folger.

Yesterday was March 15, the anniversary of the death of Casiodoro de Reina (ca. 1520–1594). And that made us think of the Bear Bible, or Biblia del Oso, first published in 1569. The translation was largely the work of de Reina, a Spanish Reformer who began his religious life as a monk in the monastery of San Isidoro outside of Seville.

Persuaded by the writings of Martin Luther, de Reina fled Spain when he aroused the suspicions of the Inquisition. After a brief stay in Geneva, which he found uncongenial, de Reina traveled to England. In 1559 he became the pastor of the Spanish Protestant exile community in London, who worshipped at the church of St. Mary Axe, named after a neighboring tavern whose sign bore the image of an axe.

Seemingly trumped up due to the machinations of Spanish agents, accusations against de Reina included an astonishing array of crimes, among them dishonesty, embezzlement, immoral conduct with female congregants, and sodomy, as well as doctrinal and ecclesiastical errors. He fled England with his family in 1563 and devoted himself to the translation of the Bible, as well as to writings criticizing the Inquisition.

1569 Bear Bible

La Biblia. Basel, 1569. Folger.

There had been earlier Bibles in Spanish, but de Reina’s, first printed in Basel, was the most influential. The de Reina Bible was revised in 1602 by Cipriano de Valera, originally a member of the same monastic order as de Reina, who was, from 1559, a professor at the University of Cambridge.

Though it was revised again several times up to the twentieth century, this Spanish Protestant translation is still known, and still in use, as the Reina-Valera Bible. It has a status among Spanish Protestants somewhat equivalent to that of the King James Bible among English speakers. The charming printer’s mark of the bear climbing a tree for honey identifies the work of the Bern printer Mattias Apiarius, whose name (in his native German, “Biener”) means “beekeeper.”

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, was co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Looking Back

Rockwell Kent. Plattsburgh State Art Museum. Bequest of Sally Kent Gorton. Copyright 1930, R.R. Connelley & Sons, Inc and the Plattsburgh College Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved.

 

Well, as I write this, Manifold Greatness is coming down, making way in the Folger’s Great Hall for the next exhibition. I’m in Columbus, but I can imagine the Bibles and books being carefully carried back down to their usual resting places in the Folger vaults. The couriers are sealing up loan items to transport them back to their homes at the Library of Congress, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Graceland (Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.), the Bodleian Library, Lambeth Palace, and elsewhere. The Hamlin Family Bible will find its way back to me. The ever-resourceful Caryn Lazzuri will no doubt find a storage space for the antique radio she scrounged up for the exhibition, and the pulpit and pew we borrowed from the Lutheran Church of the Reformation will be returned.

It’s been a remarkable experience planning, making, mounting, and writing and talking about Manifold Greatness. Thinking back on how much it involved is almost dizzying. And I’ve learned so much. I remember coming (online) upon the John Alden Bible at Pilgrim Hall, for instance, and how exciting it was to think that this might have been the first King James Bible in America. We almost got a Bible owned by Bob Marley, a photo of which we did use on the traveling panel exhibition. That loan, like some others, didn’t work out, but Elvis’s King James Bible was a fine addition. It was fun to see this loan, and Manifold Greatness, advertised at Graceland, which I visited in November. We borrowed Bibles and other books from around the world; the Library of Congress and the Bodleian were especially generous. Steve Galbraith, Caryn, and I sat down with Mark Dimunation, the Library of Congress’s Chief of Rare Books and Special Collections, and he showed us some gems: the Massachusett Bible of John Eliot, the first Bible printed in America, and Robert Aitken’s “Revolutionary” Bible, America’s first homegrown KJV. We made a pitch for the KJV Abraham Lincoln was sworn in on, but it had been traveling too much and needed a rest from exhibitions. A happy alternative was the George Washington Family Bible, which we found at the George Washington National Masonic Memorial, across the Potomac in Alexandria, Virginia.

John Bois’ manuscript notes of the proceedings. Courtesy of Corpus Cristi College, University of Oxford.

Especially momentous was the loan of the “Big Three,” the only surviving manuscripts from the KJV process itself. Manifold Greatness brought these together for the first time; they’re normally at the Bodleian Library, Corpus Christi (Oxford), and Lambeth Palace (London). They met first in Oxford’s exhibition and then travelled to the Folger, their first visit to America as well. I was fascinated, as visitors were, by the Bishops’ Bible with the inscriptions of one of the KJV translators, deleting a word here, adding one there, noting changes in the margin. I gave at least half a dozen tours of the exhibition, and it was a treat to be able to read aloud from this document, showing how the specific language of this most influential of books actually came into being.

My memories stay with me, but I’ll miss the physical experience of the exhibition. I loved the contrast between  the massive and luxurious Bishops’ Bible of Queen Elizabeth I and the tiny, spare Bible brought to sea by Justinian Isham. The case of Literary Influences (also viewable as an interactive timeline on the exhibition website) was another favorite. I hadn’t realized until they were all in place what a radical bunch of biblical writers we’d assembled: John Milton, John Bunyan, William Blake, Herman Melville, Allan Ginsberg. You could practically hear their rebellious roaring through the glass! Finally, being able to walk from the case with the fragile little leaves from Tyndale’s 1530 Pentateuch across to the 1968 photo of Earthrise, listening on cellphone to the Apollo 8 astronauts reading Genesis from outer space—that was an amazing leap across the centuries. Manifold Greatness indeed.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, was co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Myths Debunked: King James and the King James Bible

Trevelyon Miscellany. 1608. Folger.

OK, more myths to bust. King James I did not translate the King James Bible, and he was also no saint! I’ve seen at least one recent book (a collection of KJV excerpts) entitled King James’s Bible. The implicit claim of this title is true, to the extent that the KJV was commissioned by King James, and it was presumably the Bible he himself used from 1611 until his death in 1625. But, in this last sense, it was pretty much everybody else’s Bible, too.

James certainly did not do any of the translating of the KJV. He was a very scholarly king, interested in theology and the Bible. Among other works, he wrote a book on demonology (1597) and a learned exposition on several chapters of Revelation. He also translated some of the Psalms into meter, but this practice tended to involve turning English prose versions into verse, rather than rendering the original Hebrew into English. Lots of people wrote metrical Psalms at this period, and most didn’t know Hebrew.

James set the KJV ball rolling, but once it was in motion he more or less left it alone. The eminent scholars worked away on the project for years, without any involvement from the monarch. The dedicatory Epistle to King James at the front of the KJV refers to the king as the “principle mover and author of this work.” However, the word “author” in this case doesn’t mean what it does in a phrase like “the author of Shakespeare’s works is William Shakespeare.” It’s closer to our word “authority,” or really someone who authorizes or instigates (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it).

James I at the hunt (standing, right). Gascoigne, The noble art of venerie or hunting. 1611. Folger.

It’s interesting that the British tend to refer to the KJV as the “Authorized Version,” while Americans prefer the “King James Bible.” The term “Authorized Version” dates from only the nineteenth century, while as early as 1723, according to one writer, it was “commonly called King James’s Bible.” In the seventeenth century, most people just referred to it as the new or latest translation. For the first American edition of the KJV, the “Revolutionary Bible” of 1782, the printer Robert Aitken carefully removed any reference to King James.

I’ve also occasionally heard the KJV described as the “St. James Bible.” Maybe people have the “St. James Infirmary Blues” going through their heads, or they’re thinking of the many churches dedicated to St. James (there are actually several saints by this name, including St. James the Great, St. James the Less, and St. James the Just). I don’t know. But the only James associated with the KJV is King James I, and he was never canonized. Not only was he less than saintly in his behavior (a bit of a party animal), but he was not a Catholic, which seems a fairly basic requirement for sainthood.

We can keep calling it the King James Bible, but we shouldn’t let that nickname mislead us into giving James more credit than he’s due.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library, on view through January 16, 2012.


The Hamlin Family Bible

Hamlin family Bible on display at Folger Manifold Greatness exhibition. 2011.

It was a particular treat to be able to include a Bible from my own family in the Family Bibles case of the Folger Manifold Greatness exhibition. My fellow exhibition curator Steve Galbraith, exhibition manager Caryn Lazzuri, and I had been looking for a nineteenth-century Bible to represent the later history of family Bibles, when publishers provided pre-printed genealogical pages. We also thought it would be good to use an American Bible, continuing our transatlantic story.

Around the same time, after my father’s death in January 2011, I came across an old Bible in my parents’ home in New Haven. It was an old, somewhat worse-for-wear, King James Bible, printed in Boston in 1841 by B.B. Mussey. A battered plastic wrapper around it still had a mailing label attached, addressed to Louise Hamlin, known to me in childhood as “Cousin Louise.” On looking through the Bible, I found some family history recorded on blank leaves between the Old Testament and the New, one of the places often used for this purpose. The information related to, and was presumably written by, my great-great-great grandfather, Hannibal Hamlin.

Campaign banner. 1860. Library of Congress.

Hannibal Hamlin is actually of more than family interest, since he served as Vice-President of the United States from 1861 to 1865, during the first term of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Hamlin entered politics in his home state of Maine, where he was a member of the House of Representatives. Hamlin later served as U.S. representative, U.S. senator, and Governor of Maine, before becoming Vice President. He started out as a Democrat, but in a move that caused considerable shock in Washington, he crossed the floor of the Senate in 1856 to join the new Republican Party as a protest against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Hamlin was a life-long opponent of slavery, which was part of the reason he was dropped from the ticket for Lincoln’s second presidential campaign.

In the Bible, Hamlin records his two marriages, first to Sarah Jane Emery. Sarah Jane died in 1855; Hamlin must have liked the family, since he married her sister Ellen Vesta Emery the next year. The births of Hamlin’s children are also recorded in the Bible. Charles and Cyrus were the most important historically, both serving as officers during the Civil War. Cyrus championed the enlistment of African-American troops, and led a brigade of black soldiers at the Siege of Port Hudson. On retirement he was awarded the honorary rank of brevet major general. He died of yellow fever in 1867. Charles fought at Gettsyburg, and retired with the honorary rank of brevet brigadier general. Charles and his sister, Sarah, were at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot.

Charles had a number of children. One of them, Cyrus, was my great-grandfather. Another, Charles Eugene, was the father of Louise, to whom the Family Bible was passed down, along with much other family memorabilia. I still have Hamlin’s baby rattle, the walking sticks that got him around Washington, his copy of Byron’s works, and lots of pictures. Charles Eugene also wrote a biography of the vice president. I’m lucky to have so much information about my family history, but like so many American and British families, I have some of that information stored in the old family Bible.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Shakespeare and the King James Bible: Ships Passing in the Night

Shakespeare. Double-sided enamel. 1769. Folger.

Since at least the great Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769, Shakespeare and the King James Bible have been yoked together as the twin pillars of English culture. Dozens of books in the nineteenth century printed extracts from Shakespeare and the KJV, often on facing pages, showing that they were morally and spiritually equivalent on matters such as the Sabbath, the World’s Dissolution, Fears, Adultery, and Wisdom.

The association of these two works (and neither of them really is “a work”—they’re both anthologies) encouraged the idea that there must be a stronger link between them. I’ve written before about the nutty notion that Shakespeare was a KJV translator. But even the idea that Shakespeare read and was influenced by the KJV is mistaken.

Shakespeare did read the Bible, and he heard it in church. We can tell this because of the hundreds of biblical allusions and references in his plays and poems. In fact, there is no work that Shakespeare alludes to more often than the Bible. Bottom garbles Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen…”); Richard II compares his tormentors to Judas and the Pharisees; Shylock cites the story of Jacob and Laban from Genesis; King Lear alludes (unconsciously) to the Book of Job. Shakespeare makes these allusions, counting on his audience to recognize and interpret them, and so add deeper meaning to the play.

King Lear. Unknown artist. 1874. Folger.

The KJV was published only in 1611 (possibly even in early 1612, since England was still on the old calendar with New Year’s in March), and while parishes in London and some other dioceses did acquire copies of the new Bible fairly quickly, it was not immediate. Up until this time, Shakespeare, like everyone else, had known other English Bible translations. The Bishops’ Bible (first published in 1568) was the official translation read in most English churches. The Geneva Bible (1560) was by far the most popular, though, and Shakespeare obviously had a copy that he read from, since most of the biblical allusions in his works that are identifiable with a specific translation are to the Geneva.

The KJV simply arrived too late for Shakespeare to know it. Even if he did see a copy or hear it in church, it didn’t supplant the Geneva from his ear and memory. Moreover, by this time Shakespeare had only a few more plays to write before he died: perhaps only the Fletcher collaborations, Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost Cardenio. It’s probably unreasonable to put too much emphasis on one Bible translation or another, however, since most of the translators (KJV companies included) saw themselves as revisers, and the succession of translations from Tyndale and Coverdale on as just stages in the development of the English Bible. Shakespeare knew the English Bible intimately—just not in the revision known as the KJV.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


The First King James Bible in America?

The John Alden Bible. 1620. (c) The Pilgrim Society. Pilgrim Hall Museum.

As we approach Thanksgiving, perhaps thinking of those Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower and feasted with the Indians, we might think about the English Bibles they brought with them. (We ought to note, though, that despite the popular myth about the Pilgrims founding Thanksgiving, it was actually Abraham Lincoln who fixed the official November date after the Civil War. The Pilgrims had a feast of “thanksgiving” in 1621, but it was hardly the state holiday we know today.)

As the hotter, more godly variety of Protestants, the Pilgrims used the Geneva Bible. It was far the most popular English Bible until the mid-seventeenth century, but especially so among those termed Puritans, given its associations with Calvinist Geneva. John Alden, however, brought a copy of the King James Bible printed in 1620. Though Alden became a prominent member of the Plymouth Colony, he wasn’t originally a member of the Pilgrims, but rather the ship’s carpenter on the Mayflower. This may explain why he carried the KJV.

Virginia before Jamestown. Thomas Hariot. A briefe and true report. 1590. Folger.

Alden’s 1620 KJV may be the first copy of this translation on American soil, but it’s impossible to be certain. The Roanoke Colony was settled long before the KJV and the colonists had disappeared by 1590. Jamestown was founded in 1607, again too early for the KJV. The first colonists probably brought Geneva or Bishops’ Bibles.

The question is, were copies of the KJV brought to Jamestown between its first printing in 1611 and the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620? Alden Vaughan, professor emeritus at Columbia University, informs me that there was considerable traffic across the Atlantic in those years, and it might yet be possible to determine whether Bibles were part of the cargo.

On the other hand, as Kenneth Fincham pointed out at the Folger Institute conference in September, English churches did not immediately purchase that KJV when it was hot off the presses. Within a few years most London churches acquired copies, but in other dioceses churches were using the Bishops’ Bible, the Geneva, or even the Great Bible, well into the 1630s and 40s. It all depended on whether presiding bishops were keen on the idea.

So who knows what happened in Jamestown? That’s a story waiting to be told, if we can ever find out enough to tell it! For now, we’ll remember the King James Bible John Alden brought over on the Mayflower, which is now on display in the Great Hall at the Folger, and which after January will return to its permanent home at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Manifold Greatness at Rhodes College

L to R: Naomi Tadmor, Vincent Wimbush, Hannibal Hamlin, Ena Heller, Robert Alter. Notice the Manifold Greatness panel at left!

I just got back from Memphis and the fabulous 1611 Symposium organized by Scott Newstok at Rhodes College. A professor of English at Rhodes, Scott organizes the annual “Shakespeare at Rhodes” Symposium. This year, Scott decided to capitalize on the KJV anniversary by combining several events into one. The symposium itself brought together five international scholars to talk about different aspects of the King James Bible and its rich history: Brian Cummings (Sussex), “In the Literal Sense: The Protestant Bible and the Theory of Reading”; Naomi Tadmor (Lancaster) “The Social Universe of the King James Bible”; Ena Heller (Museum of Biblical Art, New York), “Against the King’s Wishes: Art and the King James Bible”; Vincent Wimbush (Claremont Graduate School), “White Men’s Magic: The Black Atlantic Reads King James”; and me (Ohio State), “Reflections after 2011: What I’ve Learned about the King James Bible.” The distinguished literary critic, biblical scholar, and Bible translator Robert Alter (Berkeley) was the respondent, and he also delivered the Naseeb Shaheen Memorial Lecture, “The King James Bible and the Question of Eloquence,” at The University of Memphis the previous evening. Many audience members attended both events, and they also had the opportunity to see the panel exhibition of Manifold Greatness, which had arrived at Rhodes earlier in the week.

Traveling panel exhibition at Rhodes College.

The Manifold Greatness panels were displayed brilliantly, fanning across a beautiful sunlit room in Rhodes’s stunning Barret Library. Hats off to the librarians, and to Scott, for this location! The exhibition, supplemented with some early English Bibles from the Barret collection, was officially opened Friday morning, with remarks by Scott, some brief background on Manifold Greatness by me, and a lovely reception. The guests included a who’s-who of Memphis, from scholars and teachers at Rhodes, U. Memphis, and other local colleges and seminaries, to the Director of Opera Memphis, board members of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company, and other civic, religious, and cultural leaders. I really had the sense that the whole Memphis community was coming together for these several days.

Robert Alter’s lecture was brilliant, delving into aspects of the KJV style and the work of its translators in a way few others could. How many scholars can legitimately speak of the KJV translators as colleagues? The symposium was a rich and exciting exchange of ideas. Brian Cummings wasn’t able to come due to a family emergency, but his intriguing paper was read by Rhodes professor Michael Leslie. The packed audience was diverse, bringing together students and faculty from several institutions, as well as members of the community.

Naomi Tadmor and Hannibal Hamlin during special Graceland tour. Scott Newstok.

Even after five papers and a formal response, the audience was keen, asking an array of questions for another couple of hours. At several points, we broke for refreshments, and the discussion simply spilled out into the reception area. Conversation continued among all the presenters and several faculty members at a dinner kindly hosted by Scott at his home.

The next day, we had a VIP tour of Elvis’s home Graceland, our special status owing to the Folger’s borrowing of Elvis’s Bible for the Manifold Greatness exhibition. I actually saw the Folger exhibition announced on a videoscreen in the Graceland lobby. And the gentleman who took us on the tour also knew about the Rhodes conference from an article in the local newspaper. We had lunch at the “world-famous” Gus’s Fried Chicken, and there was a “1611 Symposium” poster on the wall. Memphis definitely did Manifold Greatness proud!!

The Manifold Greatness traveling panel exhibition is on display at Barret Library at Rhodes College in Memphis through December 21.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


My Favorite Exhibition Item?

William Tyndale, Hertford College Chapel, Oxford, photo (c) Tim Rawle

What is my favorite item in the exhibition (which opens, of course, later this week)? There are so many to choose from, and the scope of our exhibition is so broad, but here are a couple of items I’m particularly fond of.

First, the fragments of William Tyndale’s 1530 translation of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) are truly remarkable. That they survive is nearly miraculous in itself. There is only one complete copy of this book known to exist, in the collection of the British Library. These few leaves of another copy, lent for the Folger exhibition from The Ohio State University, were discovered in an entirely different book, where they had been used as binding waste (scrap paper used by printers for book covers, spine linings, or endpapers). Tyndale’s translation was printed cheaply and designed for practical use by eager Protestant readers. The fact that so little survives of this book suggests that it was simply read to dust. Yet what an enormously important little book!

Tyndale. Bible. Old Testament (fragment). 1530. The Ohio State University.

Tyndale is the real hero of English Bible translation. A remarkable linguist, Tyndale must have learned Hebrew, in order to translate the Old Testament, somewhere in continental Europe, since few in England knew the language. He worked under extreme duress, in hiding and on the run from authorities, and yet his translation proved so powerful that it shaped all other English Bibles for the next four hundred years. Statistics that claim that 85% (or other figures) of the King James Bible is pure Tyndale are misleading in their mathematical precision, but anyone who reads the two translations side by side can see that they represent a genuine truth. For all the praise heaped on the literary magnificence of the style of the King James Bible, it is Tyndale who largely created this style. In his own way, Tyndale was a writer of the rank of Shakespeare, Milton, and Bunyan. His influence on the English language may be greater than all these. For his great pains, Tyndale was publicly strangled, and his status as a writer has suffered because of our modern prejudice against translation in favor of “original” literary works. I hope our exhibition does something to increase awareness of this remarkable man and his literary achievements.

My other favorite (among many others) is Linus reading the Nativity story from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Linus and Charlie Brown in an earlier scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). CBS/Photofest.

Despite the fact that the show is an animated short based on a popular comic strip, Linus’s attempt to explain to Charlie Brown the “meaning of Christmas” is deeply serious, cutting through the crass commercialism that has enveloped the holiday (and in 1965!! imagine what Charlie Brown would think in 2011). I’ve watched this show dozens of times, and I still love it. Culturally, and speaking for myself, it’s as important a part of Christmas as Handel’s Messiah, Christmas carols, or a Christmas Eve service. I’ve heard and read Luke’s Nativity narrative more times than I can count, but I always hear Linus’s sweet, slightly lisping voice in the back of my head. I’m glad we could include it in Manifold Greatness.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Martin Luther King and the King James Bible

Martin Luther King Memorial, August 2011.

Tomorrow (August 28) was to have been the day for officially opening the new and long-awaited Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC. Hurricane Irene delayed these plans along with so much else. (Check the Memorial’s website for updates on the ceremony plans for the future.) August 28 remains, of course, the anniversary of King’s famous “I have a dream” speech from the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

For the past week, the site on the Tidal Basin, on a direct line between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, has been open to visitors, though, who could view the impressive sculpture by Lei Yixin and the many quotations from King’s speeches and writings engraved around the site. The Memorial has generated some controversy, first for the choice of a Chinese sculptor. It’s also been pointed out that one of the engraved quotations is broadly paraphrased rather than quoted exactly, and another, though spoken by King, was originally from a sermon given a century earlier by Theodore Parker.

Be all that as it may, the sculpture, “The Stone of Hope,” looks impressive, though I’ve as yet seen it only in photos. The concept derives from a line in King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered 48 years ago tomorrow, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. King said that with faith in the dream, “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Yixin has shown King himself as a kind of stone of hope emerging out of the marble block. King’s language here, as so often, is deeply biblical. My uncle, Carl Scovel, a Unitarian minister, attended the March on Washington in 1963 and heard King and others speak. He said to me it was striking how biblical King’s rhetoric sounded, far more so than any of the other speakers. Hewing stone comes up a lot in the King James Bible. King may not be thinking of any particular passage, but there are several that he might have had in mind. Moses is commanded by God to hew two tables of stone that will become the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:1-4), for instance. And Jesus is buried in a tomb hewn out of the rock, with a stone rolled in front of it (Matthew 27:59-60). The Temple in Jerusalem is built by the workers of David and Solomon hewing stones out of the mountain (1 Chronicles 22, 2 Chronicles 2).

Martin Luther King Memorial, August 2011.

One of the inscriptions on the walls of MLK memorial contains a passage from the prophet Amos that obviously spoke to King: he used it often, including during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and later in the “I Have Dream” speech. The wording on the memorial is from the Montgomery speech: “We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs ‘down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'” In 1963, King modified the words slightly: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'” The quoted verse is from Amos 5:24 and the language is that of the KJV, with the single exception of the word “justice.” The KJV translators chose “judgment” instead, but the word was altered to “justice” in the American Standard Version (1901), which King may have been remembering as well. (He could also have known the Revised Standard Version of 1952, which also has “justice,” but it changes “mighty stream” to “ever-flowing stream,” so King wasn’t remembering this translation.)

The language of the King James Bible, its word choices, its rhythms and patterns of speech, have been a part of American public oratory for the country’s entire history, especially, though not exclusively, among African Americans. (Lincoln’s speeches were highly biblical.) Appropriately, at the inauguration of American’s first African American president, Barack Obama, the Rev. Joseph Lowry repeated the verse from Amos’s prophecy that was so important to Martin Luther King. In his benediction, Lowry looked forward, as King had done, to the time “when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” That final time of Justice might not yet have arrived, but Lowry must have been thinking that at least some of those waters had rolled down since 1963. King had looked down the Mall toward the Capitol as he shared his dream of racial equality, but Lowry, and Obama, looked back the opposite way from the steps of the Capitol itself.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Remembering William Blake (1757-1827)

Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell, c 1790-93. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Bridgman Art Library.

William Blake, who died on August 12 in 1827, was one of English literature’s most eccentric poets. Even the word “poet” doesn’t fit him very well, since he was also a painter, an engraver, and a printer, and many of his works were really multimedia productions, with words, images, and designs all working together to one aesthetic effect. Blake was also a radical in politics and religion, resisting hierarchy, authority, and inequality wherever he perceived it, in the State, the Church, or the Book of Genesis. Blake was a religious poet who strove to overturn traditional religion, a biblical writer who rewrote the Bible. The God of Genesis, for Blake, was an authoritarian tyrant, and Satan’s rebellion against him was not sinful but heroic. For Blake, who considered himself a Christian, Christianity was about forgiveness, not morality. And forgiveness did not depend upon God or the Church but was to be exercised by everyone. True divinity was within every individual.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a page of which is shown here, is an early work (c.1790-93) that shows how deeply Blake was indebted to both the ideas of the Bible and the language of the King James Bible translation. In this section, “Proverbs of Hell,” Blake imitates the style and diction of the Old Testament Proverbs, but resists biblical ideas of wisdom and morality; Blake’s “Hell” is really his view of Heaven, an inversion of the traditional Christian one. Thus, for Blake, “The nakedness of woman is the work of God,” and “Prison are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.” However radical his ideas, Blake’s parallelistic rhetoric is traditionally biblical. Also like the biblical Proverbs, Blake’s are sometimes gnomic or riddling, suggesting mysteries that need puzzling out: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.”

Blake’s use of what today we would call prose poetry, borrowed from the lines of Isaiah and Jeremiah in the King James Bible, influenced the similar styles (if different thinking) of later American poets Walt Whitman and Alan Ginsberg. In fact, Blake’s reputation as poet and artist is considerably higher in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than it was in his own day, perhaps partly because his rare, hand-printed and -colored works can now be widely reproduced.

Read more about the influence of the King James Bible on a variety of literary works in the Literary Influences timeline on the Manifold Greatness website.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


The Bible and The Tempest

Pamela Coleman Smith. The Tempest. Caliban. ca. 1900. Folger.

The King James Bible was published in the same year that The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last single-authored play was produced: 1611. The KJB translation thus appeared too late to influence Shakespeare’s writing, but he was deeply influenced by its predecessor translations, especially the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible. The Bishops’ was the one read in English churches from its publication in 1568, but the Geneva (1560) was more popular for the general reader. It was available in cheaper formats, and it had an elaborate set of interpretive aids like introduction, marginal notes, and indexes––it was really the first “Study Bible.”

All of Shakespeare’s plays contain important allusions to the Bible, just as they allude to classical works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Virgil’s Aeneid. The Tempest is no exception. The story is the old one of shipwreck on a desert island, like the later Robinson Crusoe or even Gilligan’s Island. Shakespeare’s interest in this plot has to do partly with exploring humanity in isolation from civilization. What happens when people are forced to fend for themselves, without the aid of law or civic institutions? Seventeenth-century explorers to the New World were asking similar questions as they encountered native people living seemingly in a state of nature. Were such people brutal savages, in need of civilizing, or were they noble innocents, free from the corruptions of European society? The Tempest explores such questions, often in biblical terms.

Shakespeare’s island is a kind of Eden, presided over by the God-like figure of Prospero, with Ferdinand and Miranda as a version of Adam and Eve, and Ariel and Caliban and angel and devil. As in the Genesis story, temptation and obedience are crucial: Prospero charges Ferdinand and Miranda not to have sex before they are properly married, anxious about the temptation they offer each other alone on the island. Prospero and his brother Antonio may also have a biblical model in Cain and Abel, the first brothers and the first murderer and death. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the Bible was the place to go for puzzling out life’s big questions: can siblings really get along? can anyone? are humans inherently wicked or just corrupted by society? are forgiveness and redemption possible in this world?

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


The King James Bible and the U.S. Civil War

Drummer boy, Manassas 150th anniversary, July 2011. Copyright Jeff Mauritzen and Discover Prince William & Manassas, VA.

Yesterday, July 21, was the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas or Bull Run, the first major land battle of the Civil War. The coincidence of the anniversaries of the U.S. Civil War and the publication of the King James Bible offers an opportunity to reflect on how important the KJB was for this crisis in American history.

For both sides, South and North, the war was conceived in biblical terms. As Abraham Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural Address on March 24, 1865, “Both [North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” In the mid nineteenth century, the King James Bible was overwhelmingly the Bible of American Protestant Christians, with the American Bible Society alone publishing a million KJBs annually. Lincoln was sworn in on a copy of the KJB, just as George Washington and other presidents were before him. The key issue in the Civil War was slavery, and for Southerners the Bible provided its justification, as argued in works like Josiah Priest’s Bible Defense of Slavery (Glasgow, KY, 1852). Yet Northern Abolitionists from John Brown to Frederick Douglass (as discussed in this earlier post) found their justification in the Bible too.

In fact, though the KJB, along with Christianity, was introduced to slaves by their owners in hopes it would encourage obedience, the slaves turned the religion and the book against their masters, finding in them instead a source of hope and a manifesto for freedom from bondage. The spiritual “Go Down Moses,” for instance, interprets the story of Israel’s Exodus out of Egypt as a promise for the exodus of blacks out of slavery. The language of African American religion, music, literature, and public oratory has been steeped in the rhythms and phrases of the KJB ever since.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Gregory Peck Moby Dick Released Today – 1956

On June 27, 1956, the film of Moby Dick was released. Directed by John Huston and starring Gregory Peck and Richard Basehart as Ahab and Ishmael, the film was released by Warner Brothers Studios. The screenplay, more faithful to Melville’s novel than other early film versions, was co-written by Huston and sci-fi author Ray Bradbury. At around the same time, Orson Welles had been thinking of making his own film of Moby Dick, but he gave up the plan on hearing about his friend John Huston’s project. In recompense, Huston gave Welles the memorable part of Father Mapple. From his ship-shaped Nantuckett pulpit, Mapple gives a powerful sermon on Jonah, the biblical book so important to the story of Moby Dick.

“Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters–four yarns–is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a poignant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-handed lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God.”

For more on the influence of the King James Bible on Moby Dick, see “Literary Influences” on the Manifold Greatness website.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Happy Birthday King James I!!

James I. Miniature, ca. 1620. Folger.

Happy Birthday King James! James I of England, whose birthday is this Sunday, June 19, is the “King James” of the King James Bible. He became King James VI of Scotland at the age of one in 1567, after his mother, Mary (Queen of Scots) was forced to abdicate. Mary was implicated in the death of her second husband (and cousin), Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, James’s father. As retold in novels, plays, opera, and films, Mary herself was imprisoned, and eventually beheaded, by her cousin (once removed), Elizabeth I of England. When Elizabeth died in 1603, James inherited her throne. One weirdness in this succession is that James inherited the crown from the queen who executed his mother, but since Mary was likely involved in the murder of his father, he probably had mixed feelings about her death.

When James came down from Scotland, his new English subjects were naturally concerned about their new king’s religious views and the future of church organization and worship in England. To settle matters, James convened a conference in January of 1604 at the palace of Hampton Court. Though it was not on the agenda, the project for a new translation of the Bible originated in these discussions.

Despite popular misconceptions, James himself had little to do with the translation, apart from setting it in motion,and providing it with royal sanction. (The translators prominently dedicated it to him, too.) He was a learned monarch, deeply engaged with theological questions, and he wrote a number of metrical versions of Psalms. But his learning was not up to the level of the translators.

Map of Christian's journey from Pilgrim's Progress

His one area of contribution to the translation was in shaping the guiding principles for the translators (written by Archbishop Richard Bancroft), especially in the decision to avoid marginal interpretative notes. Such notes had been a popular feature of the Geneva Bible, but a number of these, written by Protestant exiles during the reign of Queen Mary, were sharply critical of monarchs. The King James Bible, as it came to be known, was to be free of such a radical taint. Little did James know that the Bible he sponsored would become the Bible of the radicals John Milton, John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim’s Progress, right), and William Blake, as well as of America, the British colonies that threw off their king to become a democratic republic.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Ohio State Conference

Thompson Library, The Ohio State UniversityWell, I should have posted this a couple of weeks ago, but conference organizing takes its toll apparently. I came down with a cold a few days before our conference at Ohio State (May 5-7) and I’ve been struggling with it ever since.

The conference, The King James Bible and its Cultural Afterlife, was a great success, though, and all the participants I’ve heard from (we had about 150) enjoyed themselves and the lively exchange of ideas. We had eminent literary scholars from across the world: New Zealand, Belgium, Taiwan, England, Scotland, and across the United States. Universities represented included Oxford, Glasgow, Leuven, Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand), Yale, Georgetown, William and Mary, Maryland, Purdue, Rutgers, and many more. David Norton (author of The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today) gave the keynote address, which focused on biblical language and allusions in Jane Eyre. The plenary panels offered superb papers by scholars of the Reformation, African American literature, English Romanticism, Milton, Gay and Lesbian Studies, and biblical scholarship. Many of the presenters–Stephen Prickett, Jason Rosenblatt, Adam Potkay, Gergely Juhasz, Katherine Bassard, Heather Walton, Michael Wheeler–were contibutors to The King James Bible after 400 Years, but they were joined by Gordon Campbell (Bible: The Story of the King James Bible, 1611-2011), David Jasper (The Sacred Body: Asceticism in Literature, Religion, Art, and Culture), Leland Ryken (The Legacy of the King James Bible), and many others. These books were on display outside the conference theater, along with the book for the Folger-Bodleian exhibitions, Manifold Greatness, a copy sent to us hot off the press.

Another feature of the conference was a reading and talk by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Edward P. Jones. He read passages from his novel The Known World as well as his short story collections about characters in Washington, DC, all chosen to highlight the influence of the King James Bible. He spoke afterward of how the minimalism of the Old Testament narrative had shaped his own style, avoiding unnecessary adjectives and adverbs and minimizing authorial intrusions.

Not only was the discussion outstanding over the several days, but the weather weirdly cooperated with us, giving us the only sunshine Columbus had seen for many weeks.
 
Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Mythbusters 2: May 2 Publication Date of KJV

Queen Elizabeth I (Penelope Rahming) and Sir Derek Jacobi cut Shakespeare’s birthday cake at the Folger Shakespeare Library, April 2008. Claire Duggan.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about the King James Bible. (See my earlier post on Shakespeare as translator.) On both sides of the Atlantic, people are celebrating today as the publication date of the KJV. Even Garrison Keiller has used the date in his Writer’s Almanac. The date even seems to have a certain venerable tradition, since the date is noted as far back as 1866 in A Reference Book for English History by Alexander Charles Ewald. It’s been in lists of famous dates ever since.

The problem is that it’s not true. Never mind that there’s no documentary record of May 2 as a publication date — the more important point is that the whole notion of a “publication date” did not exist in 1611. Even pinning down the year of publication of books can be tricky. Some were given fake imprints with falsified dates (many 17th century Geneva Bibles, for instance). In other cases, especially with a book as huge as the Bible, printing took a rather long time, and it is not at all clear when the finished product was finally made available to the public.

The one record that does help approach the time of publication is the Stationers’ Register, but there’s no record of the KJV, because it was considered a revision, not an original book. David Norton, who knows more than anyone about the text and printing of the KJV, describes it as having appeared sometime between March 1611 and February 1612 (the earlier system of dating, beginning the New Year on March 25, is a further complication). So it’s actually possible the KJV didn’t come out in 1611 at all!

We are uncomfortable with uncertainty, it seems, especially anniversaries. Look at Shakespeare’s birthday (photo above!). No one knows on which day in late April he was born, for the simple reason that all we have is a baptismal record, not a birth certificate (there wasn’t such a thing). We want to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, though, and April 23 appeals for two reasons: he died on April 23, and we like the symmetry of matching birth and death dates; and April is St. George’s Day, patron saint of England.

It doesn’t seem that May 2 has any particular associations, but we do want to a day to celebrate. Never mind if it’s the right one.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Shakespeare did not write the King James Bible, no way, no how.

In Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Walter “Monk” McGinn (played by Brendan Gleason, here to the right of Liam Neeson) says, “Do you know who Bill Shakespeare was, sonny? He’s the fella that wrote the King James Bible.”

The occasion of Shakespeare’s birthday—traditionally celebrated April 23, though no one knows the precise date—is a good time to offer some reflections about a persistent myth. Since the late nineteenth century, some people have suggested that Shakespeare was involved in the translation of the King James Bible. Just to be clear,

NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. THIS IS NOT TRUE!!!

The reasons this legend developed are complex, and not entirely known, but the idea is preposterous in itself. We know the names and identities of the roughly four dozen King James Bible translators (the number is rough because over time some died or dropped out and had to be replaced). All but one of them were clergymen. The exception, Henry Savile, was included because of his prodigious learning and particularly his exceptional knowledge of Patristic Greek. Indeed, save a few political appointments, all the translators were eminent linguists, the very best scholars of ancient languages—Hebrew and Greek, but also Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic—in England. Some, like Lancelot Andrewes and, judging from the Translators’ Epistle to the Reader, Miles Smith, were also fine writers. But this was not why they were chosen. The translators were not especially interested in what we think of as literary style, and they certainly were not aiming to produce a masterpiece of English prose. Their overwhelming concern was to produce to the most accurate English translation possible of the Bible. The many years of work involved hours and hours of discussions of the most minute details of language: points of grammar, syntax, vocabulary; careful comparison of verses, clauses, and individual words in all the ancient languages, including Latin, as well as contemporary translations in European languages, and all previous English Bible (Tyndale, Coverdale’s Great Bible, Geneva, Bishops’, Rheims); also discussion of theology, ancient history, archaeology. Not very sexy, but that’s what made the KJV!

Literal accuracy was the goal, which is why the English of the KJV sometimes sounds foreign, as in using the word “to know” for having sex (Gen. 4), or Hebrew idioms like “the skin of my teeth” (Job 19) or “the apple of my eye” (Deut. 32), which make little sense in English. Shakespeare, according to Ben Jonson, had “small Latin and less Greek.” This was a little unfair. By our standards, Shakespeare’s Latin was excellent, he just wasn’t as remarkable a scholar as Jonson. There’s no evidence, though, that Shakespeare had more than a little grammar school Greek, and he likely had no Hebrew at all. He lacked the basic skills necessary for Bible translation. He was also not a clergyman; since many clergymen considered players as next-door to brothel-keepers, it’s inconceivable anyone would have considered him as a candidate for the translation team. Finally, although Shakespeare and the King James Bible have been lauded as the twin pillars of English literature since at least the Victorians, they aren’t really much alike. Shakespeare can write fine prose, but he more often writes in verse, and what sets his style apart from other playwrights is the metaphorical density of his language and his invention of words and idioms. The King James Bible is entirely in prose and generally eschews complex metaphor. The vocabulary is also extremely limited. The language of Shakespeare and the language of the KJV aren’t the same.

The one piece of evidence often hauled out in support of the “Shakespeare wrote the Bible” argument is a bit of “code” from Psalm 46. All sorts of people mention this, from Bishops to conspiracy theorists. It goes like this. In the KJV, count 46 words from the beginning of Psalm 46: “shake.” Count 46 words from the end: “spear.” Shakespeare turned 46 in 1610. Thus, so it goes, Shakespeare has encoded his signature in the psalm to mark his secret involvement in the translation. (The more committed cryptographers delve into Kabbala and further supposed number patterns, but I’ll leave this wackier stuff aside.) So many problems with this! First the second 46 count has to leave out the word “selah.” It’s not a word from the actual Psalm but an indicator of performance (no one knows quite what it means), yet it is there on the page, and if you include it “spear” is 47 words from the end, not 46. Furthermore, “shake” and “spear” are in many earlier English Bibles as well, in roughly the same places (45-47 words from beginning and end). Spears are plentiful in the Bible, because they were in ancient Palestine, and people with spears tend to shake them. No great mystery. What’s really in evidence here is an amusing coincidence, discovered by someone with codes on the brain, probably in the 1890s. No one seems to have noticed it before then, which makes it seem rather ineffective as a signature. It’s absurd that Shakespeare would have been involved in translating a Bible, but it’s even more absurd that if he had been involved he would have left his mark in so obscure and meaningless a fashion. Some compare this to medieval stonemasons who inscribed their names on stones in place no one could ever see, presumably as a declaration to God. Shakespeare was not an anonymous craftsman, however, but a popular and successful playwright, whose name appeared prominently on his published work. The more you know about Shakespeare, and the more you know about the King James Bible, the sillier this idea becomes. Imaginative writers like Rudyard Kipling and Anthony Burgess have played around with the myth in their fiction, but that’s where it belongs. In fiction, not in reality.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


The KJV Trail in London


My trip to London (see earlier posts) wasn’t focused on the Bible but English literature—Dickens, The Beggar’s Opera, Shakespeare, Wordsworth—but we crossed paths with the KJV translators many times. Lancelot Andrewes, the prodigiously learned Dean of Westminster, was director of the first company of translators at Westminster (his ornery brother Roger was on the first Cambridge company). I and my students toured Westminster Abbey, where Andrewes and his team worked, in the “Jerusalem Chamber” where King Henry IV died, as described in Shakespeare’s play. We also went to Southwark Cathedral on the Southbank, which wasn’t a cathedral in the seventeenth century, but rather St. Saviour’s Church. The image above is of Lancelot Andrewes’s fabulous tomb in that church. Wherever you go in London, church and theater overlap. Also buried in Southwark Cathedral are playwrights John Fletcher (who collaborated with Shakespeare) and Philip Massinger, Philip Henslowe (who ran the Admiral’s Men), and Shakespeare’s younger brother Edmund. Many of the players at the Globe, the Rose, and other theaters, were members of St. Saviour’s. As Bishop of Winchester (from 1618), Andrewes’s palace was next door. He was probably often in St. Saviour’s, though after Shakespeare’s death in 1616. Long before then, however, Andrewes also preached regularly at the court of James I. Since the King’s Men often performed there too, he and Shakespeare may often have been under the same roof. James Shapiro writes about one such possible occasion at Richmond Palace during Lent in 1599. Shakespeare may not have worked on the King James Bible (more on this next week), but he certainly lived in the same city with men who did.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Back from London

Well, I’m back from London. As per my previous post, I was there for a week (and two days in Stratford) with a class on “Literary London.” Fabulous as always, though I hadn’t expected a solid week of sunshine. Lots going on over there for the KJB anniversary. We toured the New Globe Theater on the Southbank and saw posters for their onstage cover-to-cover KJB reading.

The Globe is also staging some Bible-related plays in their upcoming season: Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (nothing to do with KJB but certainly wrapped up in religious issues), and Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn, which features James I, William Tyndale, and John Reynolds, as well as the title character. The Royal Shakespeare Company is getting in on the act too. I had dinner with Michael Boyd, the RSC artistic director, and Jacqui O’Hanlon, the director of education, and they talked up a new play about the translation of the KJB, Written on the Heart, by David Edgar, that they’ve commissioned for their next season.

There are more KJB books out now too that I hadn’t seen yet, Derek Wilson’s The People’s Bible, for instance, and one soon to be released by Melvyn Bragg, The Book of Books. My own The King James Bible after 400 Years, co-edited with Norman Jones, sold out its first print run in a couple of months. Cambridge is scrambling to get another printing out soon. What an appetite there seems to be for KJB books, play, readings, and shows! And wait til Manifold Greatness is launched on the world — website, book, panel show, the mother exhibition in DC!! Steve Galbraith and I have already had several queries about visiting lectures from libraries hoping to host the panels. All very exciting.

At various points on our London tour, guides and docents would ask if we knew about the KJB anniversary. I felt rather proud to be able to say I was at the epicenter of KJB activities on the other side of the ocean.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Off to Literary London!

Claes Jansz. Visscher. London. ca. 1625 (Detail). Folger Shakespeare Library.

Visscher. View of London. ca. 1625. Folger.

Well, I’m off to Londontown, UK, taking a class of undergraduates from Ohio State for a week-long trek through “Literary London.”

We’ll be standing on ground of huge importance to the making of the King James Bible and its subsequent history. We’ll tour Westminster Abbey, for instance, where two of the six teams of translators were ensconced; they worked in the Jerusalem Chamber, a location Shakespeare also mentions in Henry IV, Part 2. We’ll also visit St. Paul’s and Southwark Cathedral, where English Christians have heard the KJB read and sung for 400 years. Some of Shakespeare’s theater colleagues worshipped at Southwark (then St. Saviour), since it was near the Globe; his brother Edmund was buried there. The playwrights John Fletcher and Philip Massinger are also buried at Southwark, as is the great preacher Lancelot Andrewes, one of the KJB translators.

Our last two days are in Stratford, and we’ll visit Holy Trinity Church, where it’s possible Shakespeare himself heard readings from the then-new King James Bible. He retired to Stratford about the time the King James Bible was published, and this was supposed to be the Bible translation used in English Churches from then on. Whether Holy Trinity actually purchased and put to use copies of the KJB before Shakespeare’s death in 1616, I don’t know.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


In the beginning …

It seems amazing how far we’ve come since I first broached the subject of doing something on the KJB at the Folger when I was a fellow back in 2007-2008.

What started out as an idea for a Folger exhibition has snowballed into a joint exhibition with the Bodleian and the Harry Ransom Center, a traveling panel show, and a major website, funded by the NEH, and a collection of essays to accompany all this, The Making of the King James Bible, published by the Bodleian. Since I was already organizing a conference at Ohio State and editing a book for Cambridge – The King James Bible after Four Hundred Years – before the Folger events were even thought of, the last few years of my life have become pretty much all KJB, all the time.

But these many months of labor are starting to bear fruit. I’m excited to see the fabulous website now in its final stages, ready to launch in mid-April, to hear about libraries and colleges across the country that are applying to the ALA to host the panel exhibition, and to see, with my co-curator Steve Galbraith, and Caryn Lazzuri, Exhibitions Manager, the exhibition itself start to take shape, as decisions are made, texts are written and rewritten, and loans secured from across the country and overseas. One of the panel titles is “Many Forms for Many Readers,” referring to the variety of shapes and sizes in which Bibles were printed. We could say the same about the whole exhibition – many forms for many readers, viewers, listeners, and visitors at the Folger and beyond. Amazing!

Hannibal Hamlin, an associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 68 other followers