Giles Fraser: In praise of Shakespeare, not Jesus?

23 March 2011

IT WAS a pleasure to share a plat­form with the playwright David Edgar recently, and to discuss his new play about the creation of the King James Bible. Written on the Heart is going to be an RSC production at Stratford later in the year, and, read­ing the draft script, I am sure it is going to be one of the best things about this 400th-anniversary year.

Indeed, there are a great many things about this anniversary that we ought to celebrate: that it has en­couraged more people to listen to the Bible, that it has generated a greater sense of the Bible as a work of literature, and that it has got people such as Edgar engaged with complex issues of theology.

So why is it that I still can’t be 100-per-cent enthusiastic for all the events that are taking place this year?

During the course of the dis­cussion, held at Stationers’ Hall, where the King James Bible was compiled, Samira Ahmed from Channel 4 News, who chaired the debate, asked whether all this hoopla about the anniversary year was really nostalgia for a world where it was much simpler to know what it meant to be British.

She nailed my anxiety: that the KJB speaks to people too much about British language and history — more about the world of Shakespeare, and not enough about the very different world of a first-century Jew.

Even when it was being translated at the beginning of the 17th century, the King James Bible was a work of nostalgia. The language that so many adore, the “thees” and “thous”, were sounding old-fashioned even as this new Bible was published. And it was not really until the beginning of the 18th century, and a resurgence of Restoration nostalgia for the by­gone glamour of Stuart monarchy, that the KJB found its popular audience.

It was things such as Handel’s Messiah (the libretto for which was brought together by the reactionary Non-juror Charles Jennens) that made the KJB that great flag-bearer for the English language.

I do not have a tin ear for the grandeur of the language, more than 80 per cent of which was borrowed from William Tyndale. But I fear that among the reasons why we now revere this 17th-century period piece is that it takes people back to a world before multiculturalism, when being British seemed much more straight­forward.

This is the King’s Bible, inscribed with an establishment theology of monarchism. It reminds us of a picture-book Britishness of the sort beloved by American tourists. Thus it easily becomes a reflection of some nostalgic fantasy and a focus of dis­content for those for whom modern life is too complicated. This is not the message of the scriptures.

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