(Primary sources: Thomas Carter’s Shakespeare and Holy Scripture and Peter Milward’s Shakespeare's Religious Background)
Short history of the English Bible
1537 Coverdale Bible (earliest complete English Bible). Matthew's Bible
1539 The Great Bible. Cranmer publisher; 11,000 published in seven editions over two year period
1560 Geneva Bible. Informed by the scholarship of the Reformation. The first version divided into chapter and verses; contained copious notes, a commentary, a concordance, and tables of Scriptural names; in 1579 the Calvinistic catechism, the Church Service, and a Psalter were added. Because of its relative low cost, it was an extremely popular version. Between 1560-1630 went through 160 editions; became the household Bible of the people; far over-shadowed the Great Bible.
1568 The Bishop's Bible. Commissioned by Archbishop Parker; had a life of 40 yrs., went through 19 editions, was large, and very expensive.
1609 Douai Bible. The Roman Catholic version.
1611 The Authorized or King James Bible. Work began in 1604 by a committee of scholars headed by the noted classic scholar from Cambridge, John Bois, born in 1560, four years before Shakespeare. Guided by his father, by the time Bois was six, he had read the entire Bible in Hebrew. The committee was split into six groups of translators: two in Westminster, two in Oxford, and two in Cambridge. Each of these committees had at least eight scholars. After six years of meticulous work, the six groups sent their work to London for a final review. Bois was on the final six member review committee. From extensive notes he took during this process we can see how tirelessly the final committee worked to hone the translation to “perfection.” Indeed, the final review committee’s last benchmark was to insure they produced a translation that not only read better than other versions but also sounded better.
Uses a scant 8,000 different words. Shakespeare, by contrast, uses approximately 30,000 different words in his corpus. The average educated person today has a vocabulary of perhaps 15,000 words.
The significance of Shakespeare's use of the Bible
Shakespeare, born in 1564, probably was exposed to the Great Bible, the Bishop's Bible, and the Geneva Bible. A close study of his use of Scripture in his work confirms that he probably learned the Bible through the Geneva version. Thomas Carter in Shakespeare and Holy Scripture argues that "no writer has assimilated the thoughts and reproduced the words of Holy Scripture more copiously than Shakespeare." According to another critic, Shakespeare "is saturated with the Bible story" (3).
Carter further argues that Shakespeare's plays demonstrate a mind "richly stored with the thoughts and words of the English Bible" (3). He then infers that Shakespeare probably gained this knowledge in childhood as that is the time we most easily become grounded in memorizing Scripture. Yet his familiarity with the Bible neither means he always uses it in a religious sense nor that he was a Christian--it is never good literary criticism to take the words of an author's characters and ascribe them to the author.
According to Peter Milward (Shakespeare's Religious Background), Shakespeare's familiarity with the Bible is extensive. There is hardly a book in the OT or NT which is not represented in his plays; this argues for his close knowledge of Scripture. The books he seems to have known most thoroughly, even in places by heart, are Genesis, Job, the Psalms, Ecclesiasticus, Matthew, Luke, and Romans. In his use of them he does not merely borrow an occasional phrase or allusion for enrichment of the dramatic language, but he derives the central ideas and images that run through all his plays. It might be possible to characterize each stage of his dramatic development in terms of some major Biblical influence.
The comedies, Milward says, turn on the great texts on marriage from Genesis, Matthew, and Ephesians; the history plays on the treatment of kingship as a sacred institution in the books of Samuel; the problem plays, on the Pauline theology of sin and redemption; the great tragedies on the accounts of Adam's sin and the passion of Christ; the romances on Christ's teaching of forgiveness and Paul's proclamation of new life in Jesus Christ. Each play, of course, treats a secular subject in a secular way, but its thought is invariably charged with religious overtones, largely in virtue of the frequent though subtle Biblical allusions. In brief, it may be said that Shakespeare's view of human life in neither more nor less than the Biblical view with the imperfections of the OT supplemented by the teaching and life of Christ in the NT.
If Shakespeare had a close knowledge of the English Bible and if his plays clearly reflect such, of what significance are these matters to our study of Shakespeare this semester? I suggest four distinct areas for exploration in regard to Shakespeare's Biblical knowledge:
1. What does his use of Scripture say about the nature of man/woman? Is he only another animal or is he "created a little lower than the angels"? Is he a creature with an eternal destiny or simply one bound to an earthly existence? Can he find meaning in life? Where? What is his essentially character? Is he basically selfish or selfish?
2. What does his use of Scripture say about the human potential for love? What are the roles of agape, eros, phileo, and storge? Is love a redemptive or destructive force? Is love the ultimate goal towards which man should strive? Is Shakespeare's concern with romantic love primarily pre- or post-nuptial? That is, is "courting" or "romancing" more focused upon than what happens after marriage? What is the role of sex?
3. What does his use of Scripture say about moral responsibility/personal ethics? That is, does he suggest what is good and evil? Are humans ultimately responsible for their actions or are they simply pre-destined to do what they do? What is the source of morality? Are values based on personal, social, or absolute principles? What are the consequences of human behavior?
4. What does his use of Scripture say about God? Is He knowable? Is He trustworthy? Is He involved in human lives? Does He care about human behavior? Can we come to know Him better through reading Shakespeare's plays? Does Shakespeare's Biblical knowledge and use qualify him as a Christian artist?