I continue to find it astonishing that the two books often said to be found in American log cabins were the King James Bible and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In so many ways both books—the quintessential literary expression of a small island kingdom at the beginning of the seventeenth century—seem out of place on the American frontier with its rough and tumble values and its hardscrabble life. Yet perhaps it is just in such challenging circumstances that these two books would offer the powerful imaginative stoking that otherwise bleak lives require.
Shakespeare doesn’t offer a direct view of the beginnings and ends of Creation, yet his works are replete with versions of heaven and hell and with characters who imagine themselves under the eye of God. Think of King Lear on the heath, calling on the all-shaking thunder to “strike flat the thick rotundity o’th’world!” or Iago comparing himself to devils who “will the blackest sins put on” or the guilt-ridden Macbeth recognizing that the “taking-off” of the good King Duncan is a “deep damnation.”
The gorgeousness of Shakespeare’s figurative language differs greatly from the magisterial plainness that the King James Bible translators aimed for, yet we often forget that some of the most striking effects in the plays come from the plainest of locutions—Hamlet’s despairing words to Ophelia, “What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?” or the hunch-backed Richard’s bitter self-description, “I have no brother, I am like no brother” or Prospero’s enigmatic, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”
So, let me take back my astonishment: if I were in a log cabin, I would be happy to have a warm fire, a bubbling pot of stew on the stove, and these two books to keep me company. A person could do much, much worse.
Gail Kern Paster is the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The recently opened Folger summer exhibition, Fame, Fortune, & Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio, continues through September 3; it will be followed by the Folger exhibition of Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, opening September 23. For more about Shakespeare in American culture, see the Folger website Shakespeare in American Life.
June 11, 2011 | Categories: At the Folger, The KJB in History | Tags: American West, Authorized King James Version, Duncan, exhibitions, Folger Shakespeare Library, frontier, Hamlet, Iago, King James Bible, King Lear, log cabin, Macbeth, Ophelia, Othello, Prospero, Richard III, Shakespeare First Folio, stew, The Tempest, William Shakespeare | 1 Comment