William Shakespeare and Martin Luther lived at the end of the medieval world, each a major figure in generating the modern world's dawning consciousness.
Two exhibits at Emory University examining the two men's lives and works give a revealing study of sweeping changes 400 to 500 years ago. Their age of technological innovation, economic turmoil and religious and social tumult seems distant yet familiar.
A rare First Folio of Shakespeare's plays is on display at Emory's Michael Carlos Museum through Sunday, one of several Folger Library First Folios being exhibited across the United States to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.
Published in 1623, seven years after the playwright died, the First Folio established the complete canon of Shakespeare's plays. The Folger First Folio at Emory is shown along with the university's own copies of the subsequent second, third and fourth folios, all landmarks of the early days of commercial publishing following the printing press' invention.
Born around 100 years earlier than Shakespeare, Luther also benefited from the printing press. He launched the Reformation with his 95 Theses - apparently not really nailed to the cathedral door - challenging the Catholic Church's selling of indulgences, based on his St. Augusine-derived belief that human salvation comes from faith rather than good works. The printing press disseminated his ideas to a broad, increasingly literate public.
Luther's work and his partnership with the artist Lucas Cranach the Elder is marked with an exhibit at Emory's Pitts Theology Library, a short walk away from the Carlos. Cranach did wood press illustrations for Luther's writings and prepared his work for publication. The exhibit explores two pillars of Protestant theology: "Law and Grace," as developed by Luther and illustrated by Cranach, and his son, also an artist.
Like Shakespeare, Luther established his native language as a literary vehicle. translating the Bible into German. Luther's translations inspired the English translations that influenced Shakespeare's work. While Chaucer earlier established English as a literary language, Shakespeare is known as English literature's dominant writer. An informational panel notes many of the common expressions first spoken in Shakespeare's plays. However, recent scholarship has downplayed Shakespeare's influence over the language.
The First Folio, in which many of the plays were based on his company's production scripts, marks the establishment of Shakespeare as the greatest writer of English literature to be read, as well as of scripts to be performed in the theater.
The continued relevance of Shakespeare is reflected in the exhibit's Second Folio. The book is turned to the title page, which has an anonymous poem an exhibit note attributes to the young John Milton. Milton's "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise Regained" also contributed many familiar expressions to the language, but the epic poems are read only by specialists now. In contrast, Shakespeare's plays continue to receive new and fresh productions, and inspire new plays and novels.
The First Folio exhibit is understated, a refreshing change from the overhyped extravaganzas that dominate cultural life. Under glass, the folio is turned to Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" speech. Reflecting on the two exhibits, I recalled that Hamlet in the play had returned from study at Wittenberg, Luther's university.
The Shakespeare exhibit's explanatory panels lacks in-depth scholarly information, mainly rehashing familiar assertions of the playwright's greatness. Perhaps the audio guide offers more in-depth scholarly insights.
The Luther exhibit seeks to make a connection with the World War II Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who found a moral justification for efforts to murder Hitler and was later killed by the Nazi regime. The Bonhoeffer tie with Luther is a stretch, since Luther was notorious for his writings calling for persecution of Jews, a disturbing predecessor to Hitler's Holocaust.
Luther also supported the German rulers' suppression of peasant revolts, inspired by Luther's writings and defiance of the pope to revolt against the nobility.
Despite his anti-Semitism and acceptance of authoritarian rule, Luther stands as a hero of free expression.
Shakespeare, coming nearly 100 years later, lived in a time when increasing exploration and technological change brought new challenges to the old order. The clash between Catholicism and Protestantism instigated by Luther continued in the new world discovered by European explorers, a new age Shakespeare examines in "The Tempest."
While submitting to the dictates of Queen Elizabeth and King James, Shakespeare's works were subversive and world-changing. He examined a new individual consciousness of self-examination and inner conflict, for which Luther served as the prototype. From different vantage points, both men imagined the modern world.