Shakespeare and the Geneva Bible

Shakespeare's indebtedness to the Bible is a subject of neglect in mainstream Shakespeare scholarship.  This is surprising, inasmuch as the relevant data has been compiled by a coterie of Shakespeare scholars, most notably Naseeb Shaheen in his book Biblical References in Shakespeare's Plays. [1]  The story of Shakespeare and the Bible is partly the story of Protestant English Bible translation in the sixteenth century.  Shakespeare was the beneficiary of a movement in which English Reformers poured their energies into translating the Bible.  In fact, English Bible translation in the sixteenth century galvanized a society in a manner that invites comparison with the building of cathedrals in the Catholic Middle Ages.  The Protestant Reformation also created an edifice--an edifice of the Word.
That edifice transformed England into what Christopher Hill has called "a biblical culture." Children learned to read by way of the Bible.  Renaissance historian John Strype painted this picture of the ferment caused by the appearance of the vernacular Bible in England:
It was wonderful to see with what joy the book of God was received, not only among the learneder sort and all the vulgar [uneducated] and common people; with what greediness God's word was read, and what resort to places where the reading of it was.  Everybody that could bought the book and among the elderly learned to read on purpose. And even little boys flocked among the rest to hear portions of the Holy Scriptures read. [2]

One biographer of Shakespeare wonders if Shakespeare was among the boys who listened to the Bible being read outside of ordinary church services at the local Anglican church.

The statement "without Tyndale, no Shakespeare" has become a cliché among historians of the English language, and someone has offered the verdict that without Tyndale's New Testament and Cranmer's Prayer Book "it is difficult to imagine William Shakespeare" the playwright. [3]  Clearly this is a subject that bears looking into.

A Brief "Fact Sheet" on Shakespeare's Use of the Bible
The most frequently repeated figure on the books of the Bible to which Shakespeare refers is 42 books--eighteen from each of the Testaments and the remaining from the Apocrypha.  Shakespeare's writing contains more references to the Bible than the plays of any other Elizabethan playwright.  A conservative tally of the total number of biblical references is 1200, a figure that I think could be doubled.

Numerically the book with the most references is the book of Psalms, and usually Shakespeare refers to this book as it appears in the Anglican Prayer Book.  Other biblical books that are high in the number of references are Genesis, Matthew, and Job.  The Bible story that appears most often--more than 25 times--is the story of Cain and Abel.  There are so many references to the opening chapters of Genesis in Shakespeare's plays that scholars make comments to the effect that Shakespeare must have had these chapters nearly memorized.  Shakespeare's allusions are sometimes generalized, as for example to characters in the Bible, but often the parallels are linguistic and specific, requiring a specialist's knowledge.
Which English Bible Did Shakespeare Use?
With a multiplicity of English Bibles on the scene as the sixteenth century unfolded, it naturally becomes relevant to ask which of them Shakespeare used.  As far back as 75 years ago, it became accepted that up to 1598 Shakespeare's biblical references were primarily to the Bishops' Bible, but after that to the Geneva Bible.  Today it is axiomatic that during the second half of his career as a writer, a period that includes Shakespeare's great tragedies and the romances with which he concluded his career, Shakespeare primarily used the Geneva Bible in his plays and presumably in life.

In turn, the Geneva Bible is loosely known as the Puritan Bible, so our curiosity is naturally aroused.  All that we know about Shakespeare's church life paints him as a mainstream Anglican.  The Geneva Bible was the "mass Bible" of its day, more portable and affordable than other English translations.  But there may be more to the story than this.

We know that Shakespeare was a lodger for several years in the home of the Mountjoy family on Silver Street in London.  The Mountjoys were religiously fervent French Huguenots--refugees from anti-Calvinist persecutions in Frances.  The scholar who has pursued the religious aspect of "Shakespeare the lodger" (to quote a recent book title) most minutely is John W. Velz. [5]  Velz speculates that Shakespeare would have heard the Geneva Bible read at family devotions and would have seen the Bible open on the table.  Just incidentally, Shakespeare's first acquaintance with the Geneva Bible would have come as a student at the Stratford Grammar School when he translated passages from the Geneva Bible into Latin and then back into English. 
Not all of Shakespeare's acquaintance with the Geneva Bible could have been oral, because he sometimes refers to the marginalia of the Geneva Bible.  In fact, in Hamlet he even alludes to a comment made in the preface to the Geneva Bible about the critical apparatus of that Bible.  Late in Hamlet, when negotiations are under way for the duel that Hamlet will fight with Laertes, an affected courtier named Osric spouts off technical jargon from the world of dueling.  Hamlet's friend Horatio quips, "I knew you must be edified by the margent ere you had done."  A colloquial version of that would be, "I knew you would need an explanatory marginal note to figure that one out."  "Edified by the margent:"  this is an allusion to a statement in the preface to the Geneva Bible, where the editors tell the readers that for "good purpose and edification" they "have in the margent noted" certain things.  "Edification ... in the margent;" "edified by the margent."

Was Shakespeare a reader of the Geneva Bible?  John Velz does not hesitate to claim that it "is nearly certain" that Shakespeare "bought a Huguenot Bible sometime around 1596 and read it seriously."  The question of how Shakespeare acquired such extensive knowledge of the Bible as his plays show to him possess is a big topic that lies beyond the scope of my present article.  The most thorough inquiry of the topic is an essay by the acknowledged expert on Shakespeare and the Bible, Naseeb Shaheen. [6]

Shaheen's essay ends on a note that was a moment of revelation for me.  Shakespeare's contemporaries were already picturing him as an untutored genius who made everything up from his own fertile imagination.  John Milton thus pictured Shakespeare as someone who "warbled his native wood-notes wild."  But Shaheen pictures Shakespeare as having his own private library and spending time reading his books.  It could not have been otherwise:  Shakespeare is one of our most "bookish" writers.  As Shaheen notes, we know that Shakespeare was busy borrowing story material from books that were hot off the press.  Shaheen's most noteworthy observation is that "it would be strange if the most often printed book of the day was not part" of Shakespeare's library.  The most often printed book was of course the Geneva Bible.

The Biblical Presence in Shakespeare
As I turn now to brief illustration of the ways in which the Bible actually enters Shakespeare's plays, I will begin with the most useful piece of methodology that exists, namely, the distinction that C. S. Lewis bequeathed between the Bible as the source for a writer and the Bible as an influence:  "A Source gives us things to write about; an Influence prompts us to write in a certain way." [7]  The Bible was not a source for Shakespeare; he did not take story material from the Bible the way Milton did.  Instead we can see how the Bible influenced Shakespeare in his handling of his chosen subject matter.

Scholars regularly postulate a category of biblical references that were so much a part of common parlance and everyday usage in the marketplace and church that Shakespeare may well have unconsciously used biblical phraseology.  As Ross and Macduff strategize in act 4, scene 3, of Macbeth, Ross states, "Now is the time of help" (l. 187).  "Time of help" would have a familiar ring to any churchgoer in Shakespeare's day and today:  "God is our . . . helpe in troubles (Ps. 46:1); "that we may . . . finde grace to helpe in time of need" (Heb. 4:16); "O Lord, . . . be thou . . . our helpe also in time of trouble" (Is. 33:2); "in an acceptable time . . . have I helped thee" (Is. 49:8).

A related category of references is conscious allusion.  One of the most evocative examples in Shakespeare's plays comes near the end of Hamlet.  For four acts of the play Hamlet has tried to set the world straight in his own strength, and the attempt has been a litany of failures.  In act 5 Hamlet is transformed into a model of Christian fortitude as he comes to trust in divine providence instead of human initiative.  As he prepares for a duel with Laertes, Hamlet confides to Horatio that he has had pains around his heart.  When Horatio suggests that Hamlet call off the duel, Hamlet replies, "Not a whit, we defy augury.  There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow."
Hamlet's statement about trusting divine providence alludes to Jesus' famous statement about the sparrow:  "Are not two sparrows solde for a farthing, and one of them shal not fall on the ground without your Father?  Yea, and all the heeres of your heade are nombred.  Feare ye not therefore, ye are of more value then manie sparrows" (Matt. 10:29-31; Luke 12:6 virtually the same).
At a slightly more interpretive level, there are passages in which reference to the Bible is not strictly required to construe what Shakespeare has written, but where we are invited to see an allusion or echo.  If we pick up on the reference, the detail in Shakespeare suddenly takes on depth of field.  When Portia praises the quality of mercy in her famous encomium, she declares that mercy "droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath" (The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.183-184).  The statement makes sense on a purely natural level, but it packs a much bigger punch if we relate it to Jesus' statement that God "sendeth raine on the juste, & unjuste" (Matt. 5:45).
The Bible also sometimes served as a model for the literary forms that we find in Shakespeare's plays.  In the middle of King Lear we witness a world of cosmic and moral collapse.  Evil characters prey like animals upon the weak.  Images of bodily torture are a dominant image pattern.  Physical elements like rain, hail, and lightning afflict suffering humanity (preeminently Lear on the heath).  These image patterns and motifs are cut from the same imaginative cloth as the apocalyptic visions of the book of Revelation (someone has even written a whole book on the subject).  In such instances we can speak of the Bible as a subtext for Shakespeare's play, showing Shakespeare how to achieve the dramatic effects that he wanted.
Linking fictional characters to characters in the Bible has universally appealed to writers in the Christian tradition as a way of supplying associations for literary characters.  Once the link is established by way of allusion or parallel, what we know about the biblical character is immediately transferred to the fictional character.  When Lady Macbeth attempts to pass off the murder of King Duncan with the nonchalant comment that "a little waters clears us of this deed. / How easy is it then!" (2.2.71), and even more when she washes her hands in the sleepwalking scene, she becomes another Pilate, futilely washing her hands in a false innocence.  Late in the play Macbeth becomes a latter-day King Saul, a doomed king on the verge of death consulting a witch.


While mainstream Shakespeare scholarship has marginalized the biblical presence in Shakespeare, scholars who pay attention to the data know better.  One scholar speaks of biblical phrases and images as "an echo-chamber of the imagination" for Shakespeare. [8]  Another speaks of how a lifetime of acquaintance with the Bible provided rhythms and phrases for Shakespeare "in accordance with laws of association too subtle for description;" this same scholar adds, "Of course, the Bible was the . . . most discussed book of the day:  it was of all books the best seller, especially the Genevan Bible," forming the "most constant and continuing influence and inspiration" for Shakespeare the playwright. [9]
Secondly, I believe that the pervasive presence of the Bible in Shakespeare's plays refutes two common fashions on the scholarly scene today.  One is the myth that Shakespeare is a secular author.  On the contrary, the biblical presence sends a signal about the intellectual allegiance of Shakespeare's plays.  Secondly, it is not simply the English Bible but the Geneva Bible, specifically, that primarily appears in Shakespeare's plays. The claim that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic has recently received a prominence that is without warrant, and Shakespeare's use of what was for the Catholics a forbidden book is one evidence among many that Shakespeare was Protestant in his religious orientation.
[1] Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare's Plays (Newark: University of Delaware, 1999).
[2] John Strype, Memorials of the Most Reverend Father in God Thomas Cranmer (1694; rpt. Oxford: T. Combe, 1848), I: 141-142.
[3] Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), 91.
[4] I should note that I have made the study of Shakespeare and the Bible subject of a thorough scholarly inquiry, and the results will appear in an essay in a forthcoming volume of what formerly went by the quaint name, "essays at various hands".
[5] John W. Velz, "Shakespeare and the Geneva Bible: The Circumstances" in Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson: New Directions in Biography, ed. Takashi Kozuka and J.R. Mulryne (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006), 113-118.
[6] "Shakespeare's Knowledge of the Bible-How Acquired," Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 201-214.
[7] C.S. Lewis, "The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version," in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969), 133.
[8] Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2005, 54-55).
[9] William Rowse, William Shakespeare: A Biography (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 46-47.

Leland Ryken (Ph.D., University of Oregon) is Professor of English at Wheaton College. He has authored or edited several books, including The Word of God in English, The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, and The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society and served as literary stylist for The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

Leland Ryken, "Shakespeare and the Geneva Bible", Reformation 21 (July 2009)

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at

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