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Hippolyta's View

Hippolyta's View: Some Christian Aspects of Shakespeare's Plays

J. A. Bryant
Copyright Date: 1961
Pages: 254
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    Hippolyta's View
    Book Description:

    Scholars have already demonstrated that Shakespeare 's language abounds in Biblical allusions and references, but Mr. Bryant now undertakes to show us how such details may bear on the full meaning of the plays. Seeking to interpret Shakespeare's plays as Christian poetry, Mr. Bryant has developed in this significant work a new critical approach which may have far-reaching consequences for future Shakespearean scholarship.

    In an introductory essay the author shows that the typological view of Scripture was a familiar one to the Christians of Shakespeare 's time; he suggests that for Shakespeare, as for many of his contemporaries, the Bible had only one subject -- Christ -- to which everything in both Testaments in some way referred. This interpretation of Scripture, Mr. Bryant believes, had an appreciable effect on Shakespeare's handling of many of the traditional stories on which he based his plays.

    The author then demonstrates, in twelve essays, how typological patterns may be traced in the plays and how Biblical allusions suggest and strengthen these analogies. In bothRichard IIandHamlet, Mr. Bryant finds references to the story of Cain and Abel which give a new focus to his reading of these plays. Passages from the Gospels bear upon his interpretations ofTroilus and CressidaandMeasure for Measure, and the epistles of St. Paul upon his readings ofThe Merchant of Veniceand the two parts ofHenry IV. Mr. Bryant then attacks the popular idea that tragedy is incompatible with Christian doctrine; his essay defining Christian tragedy is illustrated in chapters onMacbeth, Antony and Cleopatra,andOthello. The concluding essays deal withCymbelineandThe Winter's Taleas tragicomedies given depth by their Christian materials.

    Mr. Bryant's fresh and challenging interpretations of these representative tragedies, histories, and comedies will not meet with universal assent, but they are certain to provoke the interest of both scholarly and lay readers. The increasing number of students who wish to trace the relationships between secular literature and Christian thought will find in this pioneer work a new insight into the nature of Christian poetry.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6229-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
    J. A. Bryant Jr.
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-18)

    There are many legitimate reasons for calling Shakespeare’s work Christian. Some critics have done so because his plays contain numerous Christian allusions, some because they deal occasionally with demonstrably Christian subject matter, and others because here and there they seem to lean upon Christian dogma. Yet none of these reasons—nor, for that matter, any combination of them—can justify one’s saying that Shakespeare’s work is fundamentally Christian poetry. Numerous as his references to Christian topics are, Shakespeare obviously had a great deal more to say about such things as history, politics, and human conduct—topics which concern everybody, not...

    (pp. 19-32)

    However one looks at it,Richard IIseems to mark a kind of transition in Shakespeare’s development as a dramatic poet. To his contemporaries it may very well have seemed a relatively tame performance after the exciting combination of historical material and Senecan villainy inRichard IIIand the lyrical movement of his sophisticatedRomeo and Juliet.For us it is perhaps easier to see that Shakespeare had reached a terminus of sorts in both of these early plays.Romeo and Julietis something that we should not willingly part with, but we should be reluctant to acquire many more...

    (pp. 33-51)

    There is no doubt about the relevance of Christian materials toThe Merchant of Venice.A child with a set of Bible verses and the memory of his confirmation class could establish that. But there has always been doubt in the minds of many readers about the essential Christianity of the play. Even those who are ready to excuse the “inhuman” treatment of Shylock on historical grounds tend to find something uncomfortably pious about Antonio and Portia and stop short of accepting Bassanio, who has scarcely grown out of his adolescent irresponsibility by the time the play has ended. Some...

    (pp. 52-67)

    At the conclusion of his famous “I know you all” soliloquy in1 Henry IV,Prince Hal promises the audience, “I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill / Redeeming time when men think least I will” (I.ii. 239-240). To almost any reader the phrase “redeeming time” must seem an apt one, but to readers familiar with the Bible it has especial power, suggesting possibly Colossians IV. 5, “Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time,” and almost certainly Ephesians V. 15-16, “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, Redeeming the time,...

    (pp. 68-85)

    To survey all the things that have been said aboutTroilus and Cressidawould be both tedious and needless. It is enough to say that many readers have been intrigued by the play and almost as many repelled by it; for in it Shakespeare had the audacity to do what we do not often allow any playwright to do—that is, to present a tale in which the protagonist finds life both unbearable and inescapable. Troilus’ fate is to go on living with nothing left to live for, and that fate is so disquietingly common that most of us derive...

    (pp. 86-108)

    Since the appearance of G. Wilson Knight'sWheel of Firein 1930, Christian interpretations ofMeasure for Measurehave appeared with surprising frequency. Among the more interesting ones that have been put forward are those by R. W. Chambers, Roy W. Battenhouse, Elizabeth M. Pope, and Nevill Coghill;¹ and all these writers have based their work upon an assumption, based in turn upon their consideration of the play, that Shakespeare here studied George Whetstone’sPromos and Cassandra(1578) and reworked it in terms of recognizably orthodox Christian presuppositions. Miss Pope, who examines the play with reference to Renaissance commentary on...

    (pp. 109-115)

    Anyone who attempts a Christian interpretation of Shakespearean tragedy must be prepared to answer a special set of objections. The modern reader is not usually averse to every suggestion of a divine analog for comedy or to the tracing of providential maneuvering in a history play, but he is likely to insist that Christianity and tragedy are incompatible. Sylvan Barnet in an essay on Christian interpretation gives a representative statement of this point of view:

    Christianity is dramatic, but it is not tragic, for, as historians from Raleigh to Hegel have realized, Christian teleology robs death of its sting. ....

  11. Eight HAMLET
    (pp. 116-138)

    It has been a long time since Shakespeare’sHamlethad a proper audience, if indeed it ever had one. The principal difficulty in our time seems to be the readiness with which various logically coherent aspects of the action sliver off from the whole and relate themselves, sometimes with incredible neatness, to our own areas of experience. During the past fifty or sixty years so many interpreters have recognized so many different things in the play that modern readers often despair of distinguishing the central light from the multitude of reflectors that have been set up around it. Professor Tillyard,...

  12. Nine OTHELLO
    (pp. 139-152)

    Nowhere in Shakespeare does the presence of some kind of Biblical analogy suggest itself more readily to the receptive reader than it does inOthello, especially when the reader learns of some of the changes Shakespeare made in the tale by Cinthio from which he got his story.¹ That Iago has been blackened, that Othello has been turned into a paragon of simple virtue, that Desdemona has been transformed from a Venetian lady capable of carrying on an intrigue with a young married captain to a sweet innocent who can scarcely pronounce the wordwhore—such facts as these, readily...

  13. Ten MACBETH
    (pp. 153-172)

    UnlikeHamletandOthello, Macbethis not only a tragedy but a history play with obvious and significant implications for Shakespeare’s audience. Like theHenry IV—Henry Vplays it says something important about the reign in which it was first produced. We are shown, among other things, how Scotland in days gone by was purged so that she might in time produce a monarch worthy to wear the triple crown. We are assured, moreover, that all this was providentially directed. But no matter how one looks at it, whether as history or as tragedy,Macbethis distinctively Christian. One...

    (pp. 173-191)

    On the surface it might seem that no story could be less promising as material for Christian tragedy than that of Antony and Cleopatra. As Franklin M. Dickey in his book on Shakespeare’s love tragedies has shown, writers from classical times to Shakespeare’s time almost unanimously condemned the foul and wasteful passion of the two lovers;¹ and, if Dickey is right in his interpretation of the play, Shakespeare has preserved the essential ingredients of this condemnatory tradition. Not all critics, however, will agree with Dickey’s reading of Shakespeare’s play. Dickey himself lists a number of respectable critics, including A. C....

  15. Twelve CYMBELINE
    (pp. 192-206)

    Partly because of several resemblances to Beaumont and Fletcher’sPhilaster(performed in 1609) and partly because of an unusually heavy reliance upon “romantic” material, Shakespeare’sCymbelineis often compared with popular Jacobean tragicomedy. One must concede that the play does have certain points in common with this genre. For one thing, it has an unusually complicated plot for a Shakespeare play; for another, it has a set of characters whose behavior as the play moves along is not always predictable with reference to given motivation. Both plot and characters have something of the untransformed cliche about them; and this quality...

  16. Thirteen THE WINTER’S TALE
    (pp. 207-226)

    InThe Winter’s TaleShakespeare continued his transformation of tragicomedy. We sometimes hear it said that this play, likeCymbeline,is simply a kind of tragicomedy, more or less after the manner of Beaumont and Fletcher and very likely designed for performance at Blackfriars. It is certainly true that many things aboutThe Winter’s Taleremind us of those tragicomedies which were becoming popular with Jacobean audiences, and it is reasonable to suppose that the Jacobeans themselves, in retrospect at least, thought of Shakespeare’s play as another specimen of that form. Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s startling restoration of Hermione in the last...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 227-234)
  18. Index
    (pp. 235-240)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 241-243)