Biblical Shakespeare

by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor

William Shakespeare (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shakespeare Fun Fact

The Book of Psalms from the Anglican Prayer Book is most commonly referenced by Shakespeare in his works.

Contrary to a popular misconception, Shakespeare didn't contribute toward the translation effort to produce the King James Bible. Shakespeare probably wasn't even that familiar with the KJV Bible. Translation began in 1604; the finished product wasn't even published until 1611, five years before Shakespeare's death. All the same, Shakespeare frequently alluded to Biblical stories throughout his works, more than any other Elizabethan playwright. But here's the rub: we can't always tell which Bible he was alluding to.

English Bible Editions

The history of the English Bible is one full of strife and intrigue, tied utlimately to the legacy of Henry VIII's fraught relationship with the Catholic church. From progenitors such as John Wycliffe and William Tyndale to the first authorized "Great Bible" of 1539, the Bible in English was seemingly always a work in progress—and ever a source of religious and political controversy.

By the year 1564, when Shakespeare was born, the foremost English Bible in common usage was the Geneva Bible. Common, that is, everywhere but in England; the first edition of the Geneva Bible wouldn't be published there until 1576. This had much to do with the Puritan/Calvanistic leanings of the Geneva Bible, which the Anglican bishops saw as subversive. The Geneva Bible was popular among the masses but little loved by English government.

In response, the Church of England led by the Archbishop of Canterbury published an official successor to the Great Bible in 1568, known as the Bishops' Bible. This was revised in 1572; the last full edition was published in 1602 and would serve as the foundation upon which the King James Version was built. But the Bishops' Bible was published for churches, not for homes. While the Bishops' Bible would have been familiar to all as regular churchgoers, by and large the Geneva Bible remained in wide circulation in domestic households.

FInally, in 1604, King James I convened the Hampton Court Conference to resolve ongoing disagreements between the Puritans and the Church of England. This would lead to the creation of a 47-member committee of scholars (all but one of whom was clergy, and none of whom were noted playwrights) that would translate from Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts to produce the first authorized King James Version version in 1611.

So which Bible did Shakespeare use?

Shakespeare's Biblical Sources

We can rule out the King James Bible since, as mentioned before, it only started printing in 1611. By that time, Shakespeare was pretty much done with writing plays and had left London for Stratford. So it would seem that Shakespeare was influenced by both the Geneva and Bishops' Bibles, as were many of his contemporaries. The main scholarly consensus is that Shakespeare very likely grew up with the Geneva Bible in his home and at grammar school. At Holy Trinity, services would have used the Bishops' Bible; Shakespeare would have grown up hearing passages from it. He was also quite familiar, as his writing suggests, with the Psalms as presented in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Study of the subject began in earnest in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Scholars established that in general, Shakespeare began his career relying primarily on the Bishops' Bible until approximately 1598. Afterward, particulary in the late tragedies and romances, his writing overwhemlingly draws on the Geneva Bible. Later scholarship also points to several allusions that may derive from the Rheims New Testament (which was published in England in 1582).

It is also worth noting that many Biblical allusions, because they are not direct quotes, make it difficult to narrow down to one distinct edition.

Biblical Allusions in Shakespeare's Works

To start, there are some issues surrounding this sphere of Shakespearean scholarship. First, the Bible was the common literary denominator of that age. Many everyday expressions would have derived from biblical verses, and Shakespeare could have gotten them from other sources in many (but not all) cases.

Second, many of Shakespeare's allusions are not verbatim quotes of verses; rather, they're word plays upon the language and/or phrasing. In some examples, however, the allusion points not to the verse, but to margin notes, which can help narrow down its source.

Third, practically all later English Bibles drew on the work of Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale, and other predecessors. The confluence of their work means that in some cases attribution can rest on a single word of a phrase—or point to several sources at once.


Below are a few specific examples from the works. This is only a fraction of instances throughout Shakespeare's canon; see the Sources/Suggested Reading section for more thorough research on the topic. Emphasis in bold is my own.

1) in Love's Labours Lost, Act IV, sc. 3, Longaville uses the phrase "Thy love is far from charity" in chastising Dumain.

Scholarship points to Romans 13:9-10 from the Bishops' Bible, which translates as "Thou shalt loue thy neighbour as thy selfe. Charitie woorketh no ill to his neyghbour, therefore the fulfilling of the lawe is charitie [sic]." In Geneva and other translations, "love" is used in place of "charity."

2) In Richard II, Act I sc. 1, an exchange occurs between Richard and Mowbray:

Richard: Give me his gage: lions make leopards tame.
Thomas Mowbray. Yea, but not change his spots....

This is an allusion to Jeremiah 13:23 of the Geneva Bible: "...or the leopard [change] his spots?" Significantly, all other English Bibles used the phrase "catte of the mountain" in this particular verse. Only the Geneva text translated the passage to read "leopard."

3) Later, however, in Richard II, Act IV sc. 1, the Bishop of Carlisle says, "Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny/Shall here inhabit, and this land be call'd/The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls."

This is a passage from Matthew 27:33 (or Mark 15:22): "And when they came vnto the place called Golgotha, (that is to say, the place of dead mens skulles)." This is absolutely a Biblical reference, but the commonalities among various editions obscure the exact source of origin.

Sources/Suggested Reading

Shakespeare and the Bible; Shakespeare and the Geneva Bible; The Bible in Shakespeare (Hamlin, 2013); Biblical References in Shakespeare's Plays (Shaheen, 1999), History of the Bible in English (Bruce, 2002) Shakespeare and Holy Scripture with the Version he Used (Carter, 1905); Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge and Use of the Book of Common Prayer (Noble, 1935)