The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.2044  Monday, 22 November 1999.

[1]     From:   Mike Jensen <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Friday, 19 Nov 1999 08:36:35 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.2024 "Gnostic" Gospels

[2]     From:   Graham Bradshaw <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Saturday, 20 Nov 1999 13:39:02 +0900
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.2024 "Gnostic" Gospels

From:           Mike Jensen <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Friday, 19 Nov 1999 08:36:35 -0800
Subject: 10.2024 "Gnostic" Gospels
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.2024 "Gnostic" Gospels

My apologies to John Velz.  Indeed, it was I who first mistakenly used
the expression "gnostic gospels" when I thought I wrote "apocryphal

John did use the gnostic expression, which puzzled me, but reading over
the posts I notice that I inadvertently used the expression first, and
John put it in quotes since he was responding to that expression.

No blame on John; all blame on me.  I apologize.

Credit to John for the gentle way he responded to my correction.  I hate
it when I do that.

Mike Jensen

From:           Graham Bradshaw <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Saturday, 20 Nov 1999 13:39:02 +0900
Subject: 10.2024 "Gnostic" Gospels
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.2024 "Gnostic" Gospels

Dear all,

Since the references to the gnostic heresy seem to be causing a bit of
confusion, may I recommend the lucid (and exciting) account in A. D.
MARLOWE, MILTON, AND BLAKE (Oxford University Press, 1998).

Meanwhile-or in addition-a comment of my own. Offered in (amateurish)
humility, as well as in opposition to the "infallible" Polish actor/pope
(whose equally "infallible" wartime predecessor is now a candidate for
beatification on the one hand, and vilification on the other-for his
connivance with the Nazis in matters relating to the Jews).

"Heresies" are often, or usually (perhaps just because of relative
unfamiliarity) more difficult to grasp than the (usually more familiar)
orthodox position they oppose. The Gnostic heresy is much easier to
grasp, it seems to me, than the peculiar orthodox opinion it opposes,
because its most heretical element addresses what many fine but
unorthodox minds have found peculiarly difficult in Christianity.

Witness David Hume, the greatest British philosopher, who observed that
one peculiarly difficult feature of Christianity resulted from its claim
that God is both omnipotent and benevolent. To believe in a creator who
was/is omnipotent but not benevolent isn't so difficult, given the evil
and pain in the world; likewise, it's not so difficult to believe in a
creator who was/is benevolent but not omnipotent-something of an
"under-achiever", as Woody Allen once put it. But to look at the world
we know, and believe that it was created by some being who was both
benevolent and omnipotent is, well, difficult.

This problem looked very different in the Renaissance, because
Renaissance science offered no alternative account of creation. So, it
was more easy, or even compelling, to present "atheism" as lunacy, as
well as sin. This is one reason why the literature attacking atheism
predates texts confessing atheism by some two centuries (cf David
Berman's history of atheism).

I.e. the word "atheism" doesn't, or couldn't, mean the same thing or
things in 1600 that it did, or could, after the late eighteenth
century.  This historical difficulty has bred much transatlantic
confusion, I suspect, because so many American critics follow Greenblatt
in maintaining that "atheism" was almost "unthinkable" (as distinct from
unprintable!) in the Renaissance, whereas so many British critics like
Dollimore and Sinfield (as well as the historians they read, like Keith
Thomas) maintain that "atheism" existed in the Renaissance. Censorship
distorts everything, but when St Oliver relaxed censorship in the brief,
blessed Interregnum, even St Oliver couldn't endure radical (real?)
Christians like the Levellers on the one hand, or Renaissance Lollards
who appalled him by saying, e.g. "The only heaven is woman, and the only
hell is marriage"...

So far as the basic issue is concerned, it seems to be, whether "God"
conforms with our notions of "good". Of course people like Calvin reject
that question altogether, but it still troubled people like Erasmus (in
his dispute with Luther), or Donne (in "Satyre III"), or Milton (in
setting out to "justifie" the ways of God to man). It didn't trouble
some people so much, who weren't so much concerned with OTHER people's
appalling sufferings (e.g. George Herbert, whose universe was, despite
his interest in proverbs or folk wisdom, rather thinly populated:
usually, there's just God and George). Robert Burns and James Hogg are
good on this!

So was William Elton, in "King Lear and the Gods". Elton provides
copious evidence of the existence, in Shakespeare's lifetime, of that
anti-providentialist position which, in the later seventeenth century,
Browne would call "secondary atheism": the idea that God withdrew, from
and after, creation...

So, going back to the Gnostic heresy, it can seem most heretically
attractive because it dismantled the orthodox trinity and supposed that
God the Father was in conflict with Jesus. This is William Empson's
territory: what is the moral nature of a God whose lust for vengeance
(the destruction and damnation of most of his own "creation") could be
appeased only by the agonising self-sacrifice of his only begotten son?

It's also William Blake's territory, as Nuttall so wonderfully shows.
Some Gnostics supposed that Jesus himself was the serpent, who (unlike
Nobodaddy) wanted Adam and Eve to "know" the difference between Good and
Evil. Nuttall doesn't mention one (so far as I know, unique) Blakean
title-page for the "Songs of Innocence and Experience" which shows the
bird of paradise flying back (up) to Paradise-with the apple in its

Sorry to take up so many kilobytes, or whatever they're called. But the
whole issue seems terribly important. Not least because so many people
(post-Honigmann, and the famous conference) are getting absorbed by the
question of whether Shakespeare was ONCE (in those romantically-named
"lost years") a Roman Catholic. Might the critically interesting answer
be, of course he was, once-for a while!--before he, like Donne, Ben
Jonson, William Chillingworth, and countless others beyond those
overlapping circles, gave it up?

Isn't it the case that in Shakespeare's tragedies Christianity often
figures as a source of further terror, but never-ever-as a source of
consolation? How do we explain that?

Graham Bradshaw

Subscribe to Our Feeds


Make a Gift to SHAKSPER

Consider making a gift to support SHAKSPER.