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Shakespeare and the Bible
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The Bard Often Alluded to the Old and New Testaments

Shakespeare's characters sometimes alludeor directly referto persons, places, things, or teachings in the Bible. In Richard II, for example, John of Gaunt compares England to the abode of Adam and Eve:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,          
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,          

This other Eden, demi-paradise. (2.1.42-44)

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:

Year of Publication Translator
The Tyndale Bible (New Testament, Part of Old)
1525 William Tyndale
The Coverdale Bible 1535
Myles Coverdale
The Matthew Bible (New Testament, Part of Old)
1537 John Rogers
The Great Bible 1539 Myles Coverdale
The Geneva Bible 1557, New Testament; 1560, Complete Bible
William Whittingham, Others
The Bishops' Bible 1568, First Edition; 1572, Revised Edition
Matthew Parker, Others
The Douay-Rheims Bible (Catholic)
1582, New Testament; 1609-1610, Old Testament
Gregory Martin, Others
The King James Bible 1611 Team of Anglican Scholars

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.

Example 1
That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once. How the
knave jowls it to the ground,as if 'twere Cain's jawbone, that

did the first murder! (Hamlet, 5.1.34)

Allusion to Cain's murder of Abel, his brother (Genesis)

Example 2
Froissart, a countryman of ours, records,
England all Olivers and Rowlands bred,

During the time Edward the Third did reign.

More truly now may this be verified;

For none but Samsons and Goliases

It sendeth forth to skirmish. (Henry VI Part I, 1.2.32-37)

Reference to Samson in the Book of Judges and Goliath in the Book of Samuel

  Example 3
Consideration, like an angel, came
And whipp'd the offending Adam out of him,

Leaving his body as a paradise,

To envelop and contain celestial spirits. (Henry V, 1.1.31-34)

Reference to Adam (Genesis)

Example 4
Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call'd

The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls. (Richard II, 4.1.147-149)

Allusion to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These gospels refer to Golgotha
(Hebrew  for “the place of the skull”) as the site where Christ suffered crucifixion.
Example 5
The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham's bosom. (Richard III, 4.3.45)
Allusion to the Jewish patriarch Abraham and to the gospel of Luke, which refers to
"Abraham's bosom" as the resting place of the righteous after death.
Example 6
Erroneous vassal! the great King of kings
Hath in the tables of his law commanded

That thou shalt do no murder: and wilt thou, then,

Spurn at his edict and fulfill a man's?

Take heed; for he holds vengeance in his hands,

To hurl upon their heads that break his law. (Richard II, 1.4.165-170)

Allusion to the Ten Commandments (tables of law), the story of which is told in the Book of Exodus

Example 7
O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,

A brother's murder. (Hamlet, 3.3.42-44)

Allusion to Cain's slaying of Abel, his brother, as recounted in Genesis

Example 8
And, that I love the tree from whence thou sprang'st,
Witness the loving kiss I give the fruit.

[Aside] To say the truth, so Judas kiss'd his master,

And cried 'all hail!' when as he meant all harm. (Henry VI Part 3, 5.7.35-36)

Reference to Judas's betrayal of Jesus with a kiss, as recounted in the gospels of Matthew and Mark

Example 9
Fie on him, Jezebel. (Twelfth Night, 2.5.24)
Reference to the wife of Ahab, the Phoenician Jezebel, in the Hebrew Book of Kings. She turned
her husband from worship of the Hebrew god to worship of the pagan god Baal.
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Example 10
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE: That’s a fault that water will mend.           
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE: No, sir, . . .Noah’s flood could not do it. (The Comedy of Errors, 3.2.91-92)

Reference to the story of Noah and his ark (Genesis)    

Example 11
When Jacob graz'd his uncle Laban's sheep—
This Jacob from our holy Abram was,

As his wise mother wrought in his behalf,

The third possessor; ay, he was the third—(The Merchant of Venice, 1.3.52-55)

Reference to the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, who worked for Laban, his uncle

Example 12
'Zounds, I bleed still; I am hurt to the death. (Othello, 2.3.122)
'Zounds is a corruption of by His wounds, referring to the wounds of Christ.

Example 13
By holy Mary, Butts, there's knavery. (Henry VIII, 5.2.45)
Allusion to the mother of Christ

Example 14
Satan, avoid! I charge thee, tempt me not. (The Comedy of Errors, 4.3.32)
Allusion to Christ's rebuke of Satan in the gospel of Mark

Example 15
                       You, mistress,
That have the office opposite to Saint Peter,

And keep the gate of hell! (Othello, 4.2.107-109)

Reference to Peter, one of Christ's apostles (New Testament gospels)

Example 16
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused

Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry

At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen. (Henry V, 3.3.40-43)

Reference to Herod's slaughter of innocent babies, as recorded in the gospel of Matthew
Example 17
A bloody deed, and desperately dispatch'd!
How fain, like Pilate, would I wash my hands

Of this most grievous guilty murder done! (Richard III, 1.4.245)

Reference to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea who presided at the trial of Christ, as recounted in the New Testament gospels.

Example 18
They will be kin to us, or they will fetch it from Japhet. (Henry IV Part II, 2.2.44)
If they cannot establish kinship, they will trace their lineage back to Noah's son, Japhet, who was the progenitor of the white race (Genesis 6-9).
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)
Allusion to one of the ten plagues that God sent upon Egypt to force the pharaoh to free the Israelites (Exodus 11:5). In this plague—the last—all the firstborn of the Egyptians (humans and animals alike) died. Shortly thereafter, the pharaoh released the Israelites.