Academic journal article
By Austin, Michael
Papers on Language & Literature , Vol. 32, No. 4
To the extent that we can identify a "public sphere" in seventeenth century England, we must acknowledge that it was a public sphere constructed, maintained, and negotiated by the near-absolute rhetorical legitimacy of the English Bible.(1) During this century of revolution, the Bible served as both an agent for radical change and as the basis for preserving the status quo. Christopher Hill goes so far as to assert that the seventeenth-century English Bible was "the source of virtually all ideas, [and] it supplied the idiom in which men and women discussed them" (34). Hans Frei, commenting on this same phenomenon, describes the three basic interpretive assumptions at the center of the 17th century, s understanding of biblical history: 1) that the stories in the Bible referred to and described actual historical occurrences"; 2) that the different narratives in the Bible reflected a single, continuous narrative thread in which it was possible to make all of the different narratives constituent elements of one great story; and 3) that, since the continuous narrative of the Bible reflected "the one and only real world, it must in principal embrace the experience of any present age and reader" (2-3).
What these assumptions ultimately mean is that the English public during the seventeenth century was involved in a collective effort to write themselves into a sustained master narrative of sacred history. This great narrative began in the Garden of Eden as described in the Book of Genesis and would not end until the Battle of Armageddon as described in the Book of Revelation, somewhere within the narrative framework established by these events could be found supposedly accurate representations of all of the political turmoil that the seventeenth century produced. Writing about the way Dryden engaged biblical themes for political ends, Steven Zwicker coins the phrase "political typology" to describe the kind of narrative construction in which contemporary political events were connected to biblical narratives as integral parts of the same coherent whole. According to Zwicker, the purpose of political typology is to "shape contemporary events in a manner that allows the reader to see how the present day embodies the past and, through that association, comes itself to participate in an eternal repetition of the events that the Bible records." Dryden, like all of the great writers and thinkers of his day, was intimately involved with the construction not merely of a history, but of a historical totality. And, as Zwicker concludes, "the biblical metaphor ... and the contemporary political applications are all working to transform the Restoration present tense and the biblical past into a symbolic eternal tense" (101).
In such a rhetorical environment, any debate about social, political, cultural, or economic policy was, at least to some degree, a debate about what the Bible said or meant for the modern world. And since the modern world in seventeenth-century England revolved, to a great extent, around questions of kingship and royal prerogative, what the Bible had to say about kings was of critical importance to almost everybody. As the century marched from the Parliamentary Revolution through the Regicide, the Interregnum, the Exclusion Crisis, the Glorious Revolution, and towards the next century's succession crisis, both royalists and revolutionaries alike found themselves obliged to construct their visions of both the present and the future of England around interpretations of the biblical narratives involving kingship and royalty. Fortunately, there is no shortage of such narratives. Seventeenth-century literature, philosophy, and political discourse regularly featured contemporary political allusions cast in the guise of writings about Nimrod, Nebuchadnezzar, Sennarcherib, Jeroboam, and Jehosophat, and nearly every other monarch mentioned in the Old or New Testaments.
By far, though, the most important royal narratives are those contained in the Books of Samuel, centering on the pivotal and controversial figure of King David. …