American Theatre

Scripture Is Changeable, But Shakespeare? Heaven Forfend

Oregon Shakespeare Fest’s new translation project pits purity against clarity, 400 years of reverence against a few hours’ traffic of the stage.

By Rob Weinert-Kendt | October 6, 2015

Christopher Hitchens was an atheist—just one of my many disagreements with him—but he was right about one religious matter: The King James Bible is something of a linguistic miracle, and Western civilization is fortunate (on balance) to have it. This 17th-century translation-by-committee project, an effort to elevate Christianity’s central text into a piece of writing at once lofty and vernacular, demotic and divine—in short, to make a book worthy of both its subject and its age—ended up, at Hitchens once aptly put it, “rather more than the sum of its ancient predecessors, as well as a repository and edifice of language which towers above its successors.”

This could also describe the work of one of that translation’s singular contemporaries, an ambitious actor/playwright named William Shakespeare. There’s no point in guessing at proportions here, but it’s fair to say that a lion’s share of the language we still speak and write and dream, even or perhaps particularly in America—where the first Bibles were in English, and Shakespeare has seldom been scarce onstage—can be traced back 400 years to two Williams, Tyndale and Shakespeare.