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    Recommended Reading

    Peter J. Leithart, Brightest Heaven of Invention

    by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith (1999)

    If you are only going to buy one book about Shakespeare, one book to introduce his plays from a Christian perspective, it should be Peter J. Leithart's Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays. The book is simply excellent. In addition to being a first-rate theological scholar and an excellent writer himself, Leithart also has the kind of literary sensitivity and critical judgment that are necessary for a Christian approach to Shakespeare. Add to this the fact that he has three years experience teaching Shakespeare to junior high and high school students.

    Leithart's book is written specifically as a guide that may be used either in a Christian school or home school. He introduces six plays, including two histories, Julius Caesar and Henry the Fifth, two tragedies, Hamlet and Macbeth, and two comedies, The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing. Each is discussed from a mature Christian perspective, but in language that high school and college students can follow. I think most junior high students would find it rather difficult. Home school parents, too, will find it extremely helpful for their own study, especially if they have never had a course in Shakespeare or taken time to consider the Christian dimensions of his plays.

    To give the reader some idea of Leithart's approach and the kind of insights available through his work, I offer the following rather extended quotation.

    Just as we learn a new language by reference to a "master language" or a "native tongue," so we learn literature by reference to a "master story," a "native story" that we already know. As Christians, our "native story" or "master story" is the story revealed in the Bible, the real life story of God's works in history. In fact, the Bible gives us several of what I am calling "master stories" or "model stories." Once we have grasped the architecture of these stories, we can make comparisons with other examples of narrative and dramatic literature.

    The first of these model stories is the "fall story," which follows basically this sequence of events: God makes a world and places human beings in it. He gives them instructions about how to behave, but they don't listen and they violate His instructions. Because of their sin, they are punished and their fall into sin leads to a decline. This story can be pictured as a upside down U: the character starts in a low position, is raised higher, but from that height, he descends on account of his sin.

    The first and most familiar fall story in the Bible is of Adam and Eve, and it sets the pattern for other fall stories. Adam and Eve were given great privileges and blessings; God instructed them not to eat of the tree of knowledge, but they disobeyed; as a result, they were cursed in various ways. Though this is the most familiar fall story, it is far from the only one. The line of Seth, the "sons of God" fell into the sin of intermarriage with the heathen (Genesis 6). Because of their sin, God did not merely remove them out of the garden but removed all living things from the world through the flood. Saul's history is a fall story: he was a member of a small and despised tribe; God chose him to be the first king of Israel and raised him to the throne; and for a while Saul was an admirable figure, a great warrior and a good king, whom 1 Samuel subtly compares with the greatest judges of Israel's history. But Saul refused to listen to the Lord's prophet, and eventually the Lord abandoned him. Saul is an Adam whose kingdom is taken from him. The whole history of Israel can be seen as a "fall" story: Israel was elected by God in Abraham, brought into the land, where they abandoned the Lord and went after idols. After calling them patiently to return to Him, the Lord finally drove them into exile. Though they returned, they later rejected their Messiah, and the kingdom was given to another nation (Matthew 21:33-46).

    The upside-down U pattern appears in literature outside the Bible, so often that it is one of the basic narrative patterns of world literature. By studying the various fall stories in the Bible, and by comparing literature outside the Bible to these "master stories," our understanding and appreciation of the extra-biblical literature will be enhanced. For example, we shall see that Macbeth is a "fall story," which focuses on what comes to pass when an ambitious man impenitently commits murder. Comparing Macbeth to the "master story" in the Bible leads us to make many fruitful comparisons: Macbeth's murder of King Duncan is something like the original fall of Adam; Lady Macbeth, who encourages and tempts her husband to commit murder, is a combination of Eve and the serpent; just as Adam's sin led to a curse on the earth, so Macbeth's plunges Scotland into a dark age. Some fall stories will diverge significantly from the biblical pattern. Oedipus, for instance, falls because his fate has been unchangeably determined, not because he sins.

    The other "master story" the Bible tells is a reversal of the fall. Where the fall story has the shape of an upside-down U, this other story has a U-shape. We can call this a "redemption story." This is the main story the Bible tells, the main point of the story of history. Man fell into sin, and became alienated form God with his whole life under God's curse. God rescued him from sin, death, and Satan and brought those who believe into fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit. The redemption story can take a number of forms. The gospel is an adventure story: Jesus is a Hero who comes to rescue his people from their enemies. He is the Stronger Man who binds Satan and plunders His house, and the gospel is the story of His holy war against Satan and his triumph over death and sin. When you read an adventure story, as a Christian you have a built-in model to compare it to. Every hero in an adventure story is something of a "savior," and all his opponents have something of the demonic about them. The gospel is also a Romance. Jesus is the Lover who comes to rescue His Bride. To put it differently, he comes to recover His unfaithful Bride (cf. Hosea 1-2).

    Again, the master redemption story of the Bible can be compared and contrasted with the stories found in other literature. Though Macbeth is in one respect a fall story, it ends with Malcolm's triumph over Macbeth and the beginning of Scotland's restoration. We will find it useful to compare Macbeth's fall from power to Jesus' triumph over Satan, "the ruler of this world," and to consider Malcolm and Macduff as something like "Christ figures." The death and resurrection sequence that is at the heart of the gospel is brought out in various ways in the works studied in this volume: Hero in Much Ado About Nothing goes through a mock death and resurrection; Katherina, the shrew, is killed by the "kindness" of her husband, Petruchio, and emerges as a new creature; Scotland goes through a winter of tyranny under Macbeth, but good king Malcolm comes to renew spring.

    Much literature combines these two patterns. Some characters find redemption while others are judged. The Odyssey is a good example of this double story line. Odysseus spends the epic trying to get home form the Trojan War, encountering various trials and tests along the way. At home in Ithaca, his wife, Penelope, is beset by suitors who insist that Odysseus is dead, pressure her to marry again, and meanwhile eat Odysseus out of house and home (as Odysseus' son Telemachus describes it). For Odysseus, the story has a redemptive shape, for he returns and is reunited with Penelope. The suitors, by contrast, are slaughtered when Odysseus returns; theirs is definitely a story of fall and judgment. For this type of story too there are biblical models, for the gospel involves not only the redemption of the Bride but judgment of her oppressors.

    This gives you some idea of Leithart's writing style and approach. I do not know of any introduction to Shakespeare that offers clearer Biblical insights to literature and the Bible than Leithart's. If you don't already have a copy, buy one now!


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