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The Bard Often Alluded to the Old and New Testaments
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,In King Lear, Edgar—upon seeing the outcast Lear—alludes to the biblical account of Christ's ordeal on Calvary: “O thou side-piercing sight” (4.6.102). In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock refers to the sixth-century Hebrew prophet Daniel, who received divine guidance in dealing with adversaries: “A Daniel come to judgment! yea, a Daniel! / O wise young judge, how I do honour thee!” (4.1.219-220).
Allusions and direct references helped Shakespeare to crystallize his meaning to Christian audiences well familiar with the Bible. Even the illiterate were versed in Scripture, thanks to church sermons and biblical scenes crafted into stained-glass windows and stone church walls. The allusions and other references also helped Shakespeare to call attention to wickedness, goodness, redemption, and related topics and themes.
It can be argued that sometimes an entire play demonstrated a biblical admonition. For instance, Romeo and Juliet stressed the importance of “loving thy neighbor” by showing the audience the consequences of hatred. And Othello, Moor of Venice demonstrated the truth of Proverbs 6:34: For jealousy is the rage of man. However, it can also be argued that Shakespeare was not alluding to the Bible in either of the plays but instead simply using common sense.
Among the English-language Bible versions available in Europe in Shakespeare's time were the following:
In 1559, Queen Elizabeth I issued a decree proclaiming the Church of England as the official church of England. Thereafter, it was unlikely that recusants—Catholics who refused to join the Church of England—had access to the Douay-Rheims New Testament. (Shakespeare was born into a Catholic family in 1564.) It is possible, however, that he had access to the Vulgate, a Latin Bible which St. Jerome compiled between AD 382 and 405 from Greek and Hebrew texts and from an existing Latin text. It became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. Compilers of some of the later English Bibles, such as the Great Bible, used the Vulgate for at least part of their translations.
Queen Elizabeth's 1559 decree directed English clergymen to have copies of the New Testament in both Latin and English.
Educated Englishmen in Shakespeare's day often read books in Latin, the language of scholars. Shakespeare himself was apparently well versed in Latin, inasmuch as Latin was a major subject in schools in his day. Latin words and dialogue in his plays indicate that he could read and write Latin.
Because Shakespeare generally did not quote a Bible passage directly but instead paraphrased or summarized it, it is difficult or impossible to determine which Bible version he used when alluding to Scripture. It may be that he often did what most of us do from time to time—allude to biblical figures or stories that graft themselves onto the culture handed down to us. Consider that most of us know the story of Samson and sometimes refer to it in a conversation or a document even though we may never have read the Samson story in the Old Testament Book of Judges. In Macbeth, the title character's wife—Lady Macbeth—appears to represent an allusion to Eve in that she urges her husband to commit a forbidden act. She even goes so far as to suggest that he imitate Satan, saying, “Look like the innocent flower / But be the serpent under it” (1.5.63-64). However, whether Shakespeare really intended to compare Lady Macbeth to Eve is debatable. Shakespeare just as easily could have drawn Lady Macbeth from life around him—or from his metaphorical imagination.
To what extent Shakespeare used one Bible in preference to another—or relied on common knowledge of Scripture—is a matter of conjecture. One thing is beyond dispute, however: Shakespeare was steeped in knowledge of both the Old and New Testaments. Following are additional examples of his allusions and direct references to stories and persons in the Bible.
That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once. How theExample 2
Froissart, a countryman of ours, records,Example 3
Consideration, like an angel, cameExample 4
Disorder, horror, fear and mutinyExample 5
The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham's bosom. (Richard III, 4.3.45)Example 6
Erroneous vassal! the great King of kingsExample 7
O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;Example 8
And, that I love the tree from whence thou sprang'st,Example 9
Fie on him, Jezebel. (Twelfth Night, 2.5.24)
Great Buys on the Following Items at Amazon.comExample 10
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ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE: That’s a fault that water will mend.Example 11
When Jacob graz'd his uncle Laban's sheep—Example 12
'Zounds, I bleed still; I am hurt to the death. (Othello, 2.3.122)Example 13
By holy Mary, Butts, there's knavery. (Henry VIII, 5.2.45)Example 14
Satan, avoid! I charge thee, tempt me not. (The Comedy of Errors, 4.3.32)Example 15
You, mistress,Example 16
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,Example 17
A bloody deed, and desperately dispatch'd!Example 18
They will be kin to us, or they will fetch it from Japhet. (Henry IV Part II, 2.2.44)Example 19
I'll go sleep if I can; if I cannot, I'll rail against all the first-born of Egypt. (As You Like It, 2.5.22)