November 22, 2017

Shakespeare's Bible

Stephen Nichols
Shakespeare's Bible


William Shakespeare is, of course, known as one of the greatest names in English literature. And one of the fascinating things about Shakespeare is how extensively he quotes and refers to the Bible. In fact, one scholar has put together a book of biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays, and it is a big volume that totals more than eight hundred pages. The Bible is all through Shakespeare.

When we’re looking at Shakespeare’s use of the Bible, one of the first questions to ask is which version he used. Scholars, after looking at the references in his poems and plays, have concluded that he used three versions. The main version he used is the Geneva Bible, which was published by English and Scottish refugees in Calvin’s Geneva in 1560. It’s very likely that Shakespeare owned a copy. Shakespeare also refers to the Great Bible, which was commissioned in 1538 by Thomas Cromwell. It first appeared in 1539 and was widely circulated during Shakespeare’s time. The third version was called the Bishop’s Bible. A revision of the Great Bible, it was produced by a group of bishops between 1561 and 1564, hence its name.

So, those three Bibles in the English Bible tradition are the versions that Shakespeare used, with the Geneva Bible being the one he went to most often. Scholars have determined this by comparing the text of Shakespeare with the language of the various versions of the time. So, for example, in Richard II, Shakespeare writes, “Lions make leopards tame. Yea, but not change his spots.” That is a reference to Jeremiah 13:23: “Can a leopard change his spots?” Fascinatingly, only the Geneva Bible has “leopard” in that passage. All of the other English versions of Shakespeare’s day have the word “cat” as in big cat, but it’s the Geneva Bible that has “leopard,” so that is the version that Shakespeare was depending on in this case.

Shakespeare was fascinated by Revelation. Again, in Richard II, Shakespeare writes, “My name be blotted from the book of life.” And that is taken right from Revelation 3:5: “to blot out the name in the book of life.” In fact, that shows us that Shakespeare was reading the Bishop’s Bible, because it was only the Bishop’s Bible that uses the phrase “blot out.” The others use the expression “put out.”

Of the books of the Bible, Shakespeare quoted the Psalms most often. In As You Like It, he writes, “How brief the life of man, the stretching of a span,” referencing Psalm 39:6: “Thou hast made my days as it were a span long.” And in Timon of Athens, Shakespeare writes, “Who like a boar too savage does root up his country’s peace.” This is a reference to Psalm 80:13: “The wild boar out of the wood doth root it up.”

Sometimes Shakespeare quoted the Bible directly, sometimes he quoted it indirectly, and sometimes what Shakespeare wrote merely resembles and reflects the words of Scripture. But one thing is clear: among the many fascinating things in Shakespeare’s plays, you will also find many references to the Bible.