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The conclusion to The Victorian Cult of Shakespeare addresses Victorian reading practices in light of various twenty-first-century hermeneutics of sympathy: Eve Sedgwick’s “reparative reading,” Michael Warner’s “uncritical reading,” Rita Felski’s “post-critical reading,” Emma Mason’s “pastoral reading,” Lori Branch’s “post-secular studies,” and so forth. It urges that professional literary studies might do well to view devotional Victorian responses to Shakespeare with greater sympathy than we have to this point, that such sympathy may be, after all, closer to the heart of our collective mission.
Chapter Three, “The Sonnets and the Messiah” shows how Victorian enthusiasts did with Shakespeare’s lyric expressions exactly as they had done with his plays. Charles Ellis’s astonishing collection, Shakespeare and the Bible: Fifty Sonnets, with their Scriptural Harmonies (1896) deliberately juxtaposes Shakespearean sonnets with passages from scripture so as to demonstrate their mutual accord. This chapter untangles the peculiar theological expectations implicit in Victorian reading to show how their conception of Shakespeare’s divinity served to ensure and to perpetuate unlikely interpretations of the sonnets.
Chapter Two, “The Harmonies and Beauties of the Substitute Bible,” takes up mid-Victorian devotional guidebooks that reprint lines of Shakespeare alongside or in conjunction with parallel quotations from the Bible: works like Frederic B. Watson’s Religious and Moral Sentences Culled from the Works of Shakespeare, compared with Sacred Passages drawn from Holy Writ (1843), J. B. [“Selkirk”] Brown’s Bible Truths with Shakespearean Parallels (1862), James Rees’s Shakespeare and the Bible (1875), and G. Q. Colton’s Shakspeare and the Bible: Parallel Passages and Passages Suggested by the Bible with the Religious Sentiments of Shakspeare (1888). Such nineteenth-century texts offer signal evidence of how the Victorians read Shakespeare as a religious expression in his own right, and in such a manner that lines from the plays fall parallel to, or serve as equivalents for, lines of scripture. Many of these texts in their original context would seem to have nothing to do with religion, but here they become reframed as unexpected expressions of the divine.
Devotional approaches to Shakespeare were typical of Victorian era. George Bernard Shaw famously coined the term “Bardolatry” to disparage his age’s devotional rhetoric, and his ambivalence has been succeeded by well over a century of critical embarrassment or ambivalence in the academy surrounding religious approaches to literature. By contrast, this chapter adopts “Bardology” as a less pejorative alternative to Shaw’s “Bardolatry,” and it proposes that even the most outré Victorian devotional approaches to Shakespeare may be studied profitably, without any special embarrassment or disapprobation. Such study can teach us about both literary art and religious movements in the modern era.
Chapter Five, “Shakespearean Clerisies and Perfect Texts,” concerns the activities of the Victorian Shakespeare societies and the ways that textual debates about Shakespeare throughout the century reproduce and inflect similar debates among Biblical scholars. Shakespeare’s cultural apotheosis raises persistent questions not just about the nature of his authorship, but also about the integrity and order of his oeuvre. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as David Scott Kastan puts it, “the desire to recover the lost perfection of [Shakespeare’s] text becomes ever more intense.” Here, once more, we see a clear parallel to Biblical studies. For Shakespeare’s oeuvre, like the Bible, admits endless questions about which readings ought to be most authoritative. And in both cases, the textual problem became a theological one for believers who held that an inspired text ought to be uniform and consistent. Moreover, since textual difficulties in sacred texts have higher stakes than in secular ones, so too Shakespeare’s emergence as a companion to the evangelists prompts further exegesis and, eventually, helps to bolster the development of academic criticism.
Chapter Four, “The Elusiveness of the Divine William” traces how nineteenth-century Biblical criticism and theological controversy brought about the so-called “authorship controversy” by bringing to light the uncertainty of Shakespeare’s personal history. In it, I demonstrate how Shakespeare’s person becomes a great mystery in the aftermath of D. F. Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu, translated by George Eliot in 1846 as The Life of Jesus. Nineteenth-century Biblical studies had by this point progressed to the point that their philological and textual tools were widely applied to other distant figures, from Homer to Sappho, and – more importantly – Biblical scholars’ conclusions had also become publicized enough that they were irresistible for Shakespeare scholars. Strauss’s epoch-marking work, for instance, carefully unfolds just how little reliable evidence we have for saying anything historical about Jesus. At just this moment in the history of Biblical criticism, suddenly Shakespeare, too, loomed as an exalted figure about whom real questions lingered.
Chapter One, “Shakespearean Sermons and other Pious Texts,” examines Shakespeare’s treatment in the Victorian pulpit, especially his place in what were then called “Shakespearean sermons.” This subgenre effectively begins at the celebratory religious services for Shakespeare’s tercentenary in 1864 and continues into the first decades of the twentieth century. Initially, Shakespearean sermons sought chiefly to evidence Shakespeare’s familiarity with scriptures. But progressively the genre developed strong claims that Shakespeare’s texts served as a “Lay Bible” that served better for sermons – and perhaps for souls – than the original Bible. By the fin de siècle, some preachers could prophetically boast that believers would soon celebrate Shakespeare’s inspiration across the Christian churches. Claims like this one derive from a well-developed Victorian hermeneutics that sees Shakespeare’s wisdom as both universal and given to sacred exegesis.
In the Victorian era, William Shakespeare's work was often celebrated as a sacred text: a sort of secular English Bible. Even today, Shakespeare remains a uniquely important literary figure. Yet Victorian criticism took on religious dimensions that now seem outlandish in retrospect. Ministers wrote sermons based upon Shakespearean texts and delivered them from pulpits in Christian churches. Some scholars crafted devotional volumes to compare his texts directly with the Bible's. Still others created Shakespearean societies in the faith that his inspiration was not like that of other playwrights. Charles LaPorte uses such examples from the Victorian cult of Shakespeare to illustrate the complex relationship between religion, literature and secularization. His work helps to illuminate a curious but crucial chapter in the history of modern literary studies in the West, as well as its connections with Biblical scholarship and textual criticism.