By order of King James I…

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Robert McCrum’s piece in yesterday’s Observer about the 400th anniversary of the King James I Version of the Bible (11 May 2011 is the big day!) chimes nicely with the beginning of my week here at the Shakespeare Centre.

I was up with the lark for a pre-dawn meeting with a colleague from our Library and Archive team. We were due at Holy Trinity Church with our 1610 Geneva Bible (donated a few years ago to The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by Stanley Wells). This morning it was filmed by the BBC with Melvyn Bragg for the second of two programmes due to be broadcast next year.

Holy Trinity Church has a first edition of the KJV, given to all churches in 1611. The translation came too late to have any real impact on Shakespeare’s career. His reading copy seems to have been the Geneva Bible. The version he heard read week after week was The Bishop’s Bible (one of several attempts at a ‘national’ bible from the mid to late sixteenth century). It’s fair to say that Shakespeare’s knowledge of the Bible suggest that it was the most influential of all his literary sources.

Together with the 1662 The Book of Common Prayer, the KJV has helped to shape the nation’s religious conscience for the greater part of four centuries. Shakespeare starts to be mentioned in the same breath as the KJV from the early part of the nineteenth century. The KJV and Shakespeare together become shorthand for literary greatness, the apotheosis of the English Language. Holy writ and the National Poet become closely joined in the popular consciousness. Why?

Part of the answer is surely to be found in the rhetorical shaping of the language. The KJV is only one of two translations I know of that were intended to be read aloud (the other is The New Jerusalem Bible). Open it at ‘The Song of Songs’, for example, and the resonant musicality of its poetry leaps from the page. These were the kinds of linguistic shapes that Shakespeare and his contemporaries lived and breathed. But its pedigree is even richer because behind the KJV are several others, not least William Tyndale’s radical work (the most influential of all early versions), long praised for turning the language of God into the language of the ploughboy. The KJV is more Latinate in its vocabulary than Tyndale’s, and more Latinate than Shakespeare, too. Some of the best minds of their day worked on the translation, completing their task in just eight years. I was delighted to hear recently that the choices which were made for the KJV are still compelling in the way they represent the ambiguities of the original Hebrew and Greek.

McCrum’s Observer article ends on a slightly embarrassed note. How can we celebrate a single religious book in a multi-cultural and ever increasingly secular society? McCrum asks if anyone is doing a complete reading of the KJV next year in a prominent literary festival?

I think we can be clear that what we are celebrating is a major academic achievement which has succeeded in holding its own for four hundred years. It is a literary work which is life-giving in its style and resonance, whatever one’s personal or religious beliefs. Wearing my Director of The Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival hat, I’m certainly keen to mark the anniversary in next July’s programme. But it won’t be by a full read through. When Holy Trinity Church’s congregation took it in turns to read the whole Bible two years ago (the KJV version), it took us the better part of four days, with nightshifts: a bit too long for a single sitting.

But how would you like to see the 400th anniversary of the KJV and its associations with Shakespeare celebrated?

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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