Shaky Shakespeare

manuscript-3-1418231-639x960.jpgShakespeare’s play The Life of Henry V was published in 1600. According to Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, this edition was a quarto, a “pocket-sized” book that was rife with errors. So error-laden, in fact, it was believed to be the product of actors recording their lines and stage directions from memory of recent performances.

Two more quarto editions were printed in 1602 and 1619. Q2, as it’s called, was essentially the same as Q1. Q3, however, introduced significant changes that couldn’t be attributed to misprints or typos.

Then the larger Folio edition was printed in 1623. This seems to be a more reliable (but not entirely) version of the play, as you like it.

All this seems like much ado about nothing, but I believe it illustrates something vitally important, particularly this sentence from the Folger Shakespeare Library edition of Henry V edited by the aforementioned Mowat and Werstine:

Nevertheless, as today’s scholars reexamine the narratives about the origins of the printed texts, we discover that these narratives [e.g., that Q1 came from actors’ recollections] are based on either questionable evidence or sometimes on none at all, and we become more skeptical about ever identifying how the play assumed the forms in which it came to be printed (Henry V (Folger Shakespeare Library), KL 672, emphasis added).

A play written just over four hundred years ago has a rather shaky provenance. What’s the big deal, you ask? All’s well that ends well, right?

When we hold the Scriptures in our hands, we hold documents that are at least five times older than Henry V. Revelation was likely written sometime around AD 95; Galatians and James were written sometime in the AD 50s (ish). Zechariah 1:7-6:8 is based on a vision given on February 15, 519 BC. Jeremiah and Daniel lived during the Babylonian exile around 586 BC. Isaiah prophesied in the early 700s BC. David and Solomon reigned around 1000-900 BC, and we have their Psalms, Proverbs, and writings. Moses wrote sometime in the mid-1400s BC.

We have more confidence in the accuracy of the Old and New Testaments, which go back nearly 3500 years, than we do a four-hundred-year old play. As well-known and admired and loved as Shakespeare was and is, the provenance of the text we have today is in the hands of editors and scholars making informed decisions.

But when it comes to the Scriptures, there is such a wealth of manuscript evidence (Greek copies, translations of the Greek copies into other languages, quotations in lectionaries and letters and books, etc.) spanning so many centuries that there’s no doubt whatsoever that the text we hold today is an accurate, faithful translation into English of what Moses wrote 3,400 years ago. Of what David wrote 3,000 years ago. Or Jeremiah 2,600 years ago. Or John, 1900 years ago.

What could possibly account for such an ancient text being so well-preserved? Other writings were just as popular. Other plays were written and performed before the time of Christ. In fact, Paul quotes from a few in his epistles. Why aren’t we as rich in them as we are in biblical manuscripts?

Aye, there’s the rub. There has to be something, Someone, protecting and preserving the Old and New Testaments from the tempest of time, unlike Homer or Aeschylus or Aratus.

The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever (Isaiah 40:8).


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