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
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!