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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: February ::
Shakespeare and KJV--and Cranmer's Psalms
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0132.  Tuesday, 20 February 1996.

From:           John Velz <
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Date:           Monday, 19 Feb 1996 20:54:11 +0200
Subject:        Shakespeare and KJV--and Cranmer's Psalms

It is very satisfying to have Richard J. Kennedy's constellation of laudatory
remarks about the KJV and no less his account of the virtually anonymous and
entirely unrequited labors of 54 translators.  But it would be strange indeed
if Shakespeare had been tapped to join them.  He had no theological
credentials: no University degree with its theological emphasis, no holy
orders, no distinction as a man of religion, no publications in the field, and
only competent, not an expert's, Latinity. Even if a poet might be tapped, as
W.H.Auden was tapped by the Episcopal Church of U.S.in the mid-1970s to work on
the Psalms for the new Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare would not have been
thought a major literary figure, because until 1616 when Ben Jonson defiantly
included in  "The [Folio] Works of Benjamin Jonson" his plays and masques, no
one ever had regarded a contemporary English play as a work of literature.  It
is strange to realize that the plays of Shakespeare were until Jonson's venture
no more literature than TV scripts are now.  Indeed, Sir Thomas Bodley
instructed his Keeper of Books, Thomas James, not to purchase any quartos of
plays, as he did not want to clutter up the growing Bodleian Library with
"Baggage Books" or "riff raff". (2 letters written after 1598 when Bodley began
gathering his library and before 1613, when Bodley died).

Someone earlier seems to have thought that Thomas Cranmer translated the whole
Bible, unless I misread the statement.  He did not, of course, but translated
the Psalms for the vernacular Book of Common Prayer, the third edition of
which, 1559, was the "Elizabethan" B.C.P. which Shakespeare heard read from in
Holy Trinity Church, as Richmond Noble knew.  Scriptural readings except Psalms
would be from the Bishops' Bible and Psalms always from the BCP in Cranmer's
translation.  Once about 30 years ago in Washington National Cathedral, I was
present at Evensong and noticed a man about my age near me without a BCP during
the reading of a Psalm.  I made to hand him my book, open to the correct Psalm,
and he waved it off, and--hearing him reciting with the rest of the
congregation as naturally without book as he might have recited the Lord's
Prayer--I realized to my embarrassment that he had this Psalm, possibly the
whole Psalter, committed to memory. (This would have been the 1928 Prayer
Book.)  Shakespeare seems to have had such a memory for Cranmer's cadences as
this man had for their much later redaction.

J.W.Velz
 

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