As many of my literary friends may know, today marks the day that Shakespeare died and, likely, was born. Shakespeare was a great man; Shakespeare was a writer. He was a man who took old stories, history, and lessons and crafted them into plays and poems that have stood the test of time. Little more can be said about this giant of English and world literature than what has already been said. But there is one point, one source about Shakespeare’s works that should be emphasized, and that is the Bible.
There is much truth in the remark that “without Tyndale, no Shakespeare.” It is also true that “without Tyndale, no King James Bible.” “Without the king James Bible,” Alister McGrath observed, “there would have been no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim’s Progress, no Handel’s Messiah, no Negro spirituals, no Gettysburg Address. … Without this Bible, the culture of the English-speaking world would have been immeasurably impoverished.” The literary debt Anglo-America letters owe to this translation is incalculable.
The English Bible’s influence on great works of literature accounts for only a fraction of its overall influence on the English Language.
Daniel Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, 31.
Like most literature in the Western world, Shakespeare was heavily influenced by, or at least heavily filled with, 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.
Leland Ryken, “Shakespeare and the Geneva Bible”.
One can hardly ignore God in the sonnets between Romeo and Juliet, in the reference on Protestantism in Hamlet, or in any number of references to God within the historical Henry plays. So in remembering one of the greatest writers of all time, we remember that one of his influences comes from the greatest Book of all time: the Bible.
Blessings to you and yours,
Dreisbach, Daniel L. Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2017. p. 31. Accessed 23 Apr 2018.
Mabillard, Amanda. Biblical Imagery in Macbeth. Shakespeare Online. 20 Nov. 2001. Accessed 23 Apr 2018.
Ryken, Leland. “Shakespeare and the Geneva Bible“. Jul 2009. Accessed 23 Apr 2018.
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