Thursday, April 23, 2009

Did you know that Shakespeare helped write the Bible? It's true! He even signed the thing. Biblical scholars and fundamentalist Christians go into a hissy fit if you mention it, but his name is right there in Psalm 46. It's in the King James Version, of course. King James, a writer himself, was a big fan of Shakespeare. Knew him. And when he hired the wisest writers of their time to pen the definitive English translation of the Word of God, of course he had Bill proofread everyone's work. Got the best poet in the kingdom to smooth out the Psalms. Why wouldn't he?

The King James version was published in 1611, and heavily revised in the nine months preceding. Shakespeare would have been 46 years old, writing in his prime, and finishing up The Tempest -one of his final and greatest works. Check out Psalm 46. Count 46 words into it and you get the word "shake". Now count 46 words backward from the end and guess what word you get? "Spear." See? He signed it!

He probably did it because he was peeved that "William Shakespeare" was not listed among the team of 46 scholars and translators -all of whom were priests of the Church of England- who were commissioned for the translation. Every writer craves immortality, and this would have been the single most revered piece of English in his time. But I mean, come on, Bill! How would it look for His Royal Highness to hire a celebrity playwright to translate THE HOLY BIBLE? It would have been like hiring Steven Spielberg to rework the Declaration of Independence!

Also, Shakespeare happened to be Catholic, which was against the law in England at the time.

You don't have to believe it, (many don't) but it makes sense. Shakespeare had an unearthly, massive vocabulary of nearly 22,000 words -the most for any writer, ever, and by far. Amazing, considering that his parents were illiterate, that he never received more than an eighth-grade education, and that the average vocabulary of Elizabethan England was less than 500 words. Even by today's standards, the most celebrated authors do not exceed an average of 7500 words.

And Shakespeare knew the Bible. (Odd, considering that there were few English translations of it at the time, all of which were prohibited by the Vatican.) His works are littered with biblical references, and his themes echo divine wisdom repeatedly, which in my mind contribute to his lasting affect. He is, after all, the greatest writer since God Himself wrote the Bible's original draft (in Hebrew.)

And Shakespeare delighted in puns and puzzles, which color all his plays. It would be just like him to plant an Easter Egg in the Bible, of all things. The King James Version was meant to be translated as anonymously as possible, and for good reason, as you can well imagine. So: what an audacious bastard! I mean, who would dare? Cracks me up. (But he only got away with it because he didn't change anything. He was audacious, but he wasn't stupid.)

Many scholars today agree that the King James stands as the most powerful of all the translations, with its strange, lyrical qualities. And why wouldn't it, with Shakespeare at the helm? As it goes, many other scholars feel that Shakespeare never even existed at all, that his writing is just too good to be believed, and since there is so precious little evidence of his life besides. Whatever. We have the plays. We have the Bible. I, for one, thank God for them both.

Today is considered Shakespeare's birthday, April 23rd. Interestingly, it's also the day he died. I'm sure Will would have loved that perfect symmetry wrapping up and closing his own character arc. It's not clear how he died. Some say it was kidney failure, some say he was murdered, and some say it was after a long night of heavy drinking with his buddies. (I prefer the latter.) He'd written his will just a few weeks before, so perhaps he knew it was coming. On his tomb it reads mysteriously:

Good friend for Jesus' sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be ye man yet spares these stones,
And cursed be he yet moves my bones.

As a result, no one has ever dug up the grave to see if he's really in there. (One crazy American lady tried with a pick axe late one night, but she got busted before she got anywhere with it.) I like to think he is buried there, however immortal. His good friend and professional rival, Ben Jonson, said at his funeral: "He was not of an age, but for all time."

And so he is. 400 years later I read Macbeth in high school and was forced to memorize "The Dagger Soliloquy". I can still recall a good portion of it. And I remember in college when I first read and watched A Midsummer Night's Dream and actually, finally, got it! It was like a brilliant revelation, and, in many ways, I think it changed me. Later, lost in my twenties and at a dark, low, period, I read and re-read the famous "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy, and was somehow buoyed to realize that I was not the first to tread the cold despairs of life. And when finally I wisely and happily wed Mrs. Ditchman, we had my friend Carey read Sonnet 116 at the ceremony, which I happen to think is damn near perfect. It turns out all of Shakespeare's comedies end with a marriage. (Oh, the irony!) When I retire, after finishing Moby Dick I will read and learn King Lear, on whom Captain Ahab is based. Lear is a play for an old man, and some say can only be understood by such.

So it's Shakespeare, whom everyone agrees was divinely inspired. His greatness is unassailable and "as long as human beings persist in being human beings and live in this world, he's going to have something to tell us," one professor put it. And, yes, so many of us cower and shake at the mere mention of the name SHAKESPEARE and it's a pain in the arse to read, I know, since it's written in that foreign tongue, the King's English, but I don't think those plays could be written today -modern English just isn't good enough. If you think you could never handle reading Shakespeare, at least learn the themes. Shakespeare knew what made men tick, as only God, the very clockmaker Himself, did. But you should try. Everyone should try. If you read nothing else in life, read some Bible and read some Shakespeare. If you don't get it, that's okay, just keep reading. You will eventually stumble upon something that moves you immensely.

(For a terrific, accessible, and engaging lecture on the bard, check this out. It used to be a podcast, but was in such demand that they pulled it and published it on CD for thirty measly bucks. I'd be happy to email you a copy of the old podcast, if you're interested.)

And, for good measure, you can count the words yourself. It reads like something straight out of the The Tempest:

Psalm 46 (King James Version)

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.

There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.

The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.

The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth.

He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.

Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

[Incidentally, the King James Version of the Bible is still protected under perpetual copyright law by the English Crown. I won't get busted for reprinting here, though, because Crown copyright law doesn't apply outside of the British Commonwealth.]