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Discover Richer Subtext: Biblical References

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

If you skim through the canon, you'll discover well over 1,000 Biblical references! These allusions and quotes enrich the text, strengthening the audience’s emotional reaction, investment, and understanding of the story. Of course, these effects can only be realized if the audience recognizes the presence of such references.

In honor of National Bible Week, let’s discuss the Bible’s recurring appearances in the canon.


Nationwide Biblical Literacy

Before we look at some examples, we should first discuss whether audiences back then would have picked up on these references. Was Shakespeare writing these in for the sake of a select few Bible nerds?

No. While today's American children are becoming less Biblically literate with each generation, the opposite occurred in England during Shakespeare’s time.

Let’s take a peek at some events surrounding his lifetime:

Circa 1440 - Invention of the Gutenberg Press in Germany

1452 - Printing of the Gutenberg Bible (AKA Mazarin Bible) in Latin - earliest full-scale work printed in Europe

Original Gutenberg Bible

1475 or 1476 - William Caxton sets up England’s 1st printing press in Westminster

1525 - William Tyndale’s New Testament becomes the 1st printed Bible in English

1535 - Myles Coverdale's Bible - 1st complete English Bible

1537 - Matthew’s Bible - 2nd complete English Bible

1539 - Great Bible (AKA Cramner's Bible) - 1st English language Bible authorized for public use

1539 Great Bible’s Title Page

1560 - Geneva Bible - 1st English Bible to number verses - MOST POPULAR!!

1564 - Shakespeare is born!!

1568 - Bishops’ Bible (King James Bible would be its later revision)

At the time, just about everyone in England was well-versed in the Bible, as they were forced to attend church: Recusancy Laws required church attendance on Sundays and all major holidays. Therefore, even those who were illiterate and couldn’t take advantage of the new English printed Bibles would’ve gotten Shakespeare’s references.

Interestingly, there was no specific Biblical version that each diocese had to use. The variation of versions in the area plus the regular churchgoing meant Shakespeare’s audiences quickly identified references from multiple popular versions (Geneva Bible, Great Bible, Bishops’ Bible, etc.)... something many Shakespearean scholars and fans may be unable to do today.

To be more specific on that last point, yes, certain wording changes from version to version. But also… there were additional Biblical passages called Apocrypha (from Greek apokryptein, “to hide away”), which were omitted from official scripture in later publications. Thus, even those today who claim they know the Bible inside and out might or might not recognize certain illusions and quotes.


Examples in the Canon

Let’s start with references to the Geneva Bible, as that was the most popular at the time. If you’re ever unsure of which version a specific reference came from, hinge your bets on the Geneva. You’ll probably (but not certainly!) be right :)


1560 Geneva Bible

Type: Direct Allusion

Othello, falsely believing his beloved Desdemona is guilty of adultery, accosts her:

Yet could I bear that too, well, very well.

But there where I have garnered up my heart, Where either I must live or bear no life,

The fountain from the which my current runs Or else dries up—to be discarded thence,

Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads

To knot and gender in (4.2.66-71)

Here, “fountain” and “cistern” serve as metaphors for marriage. They are only found in the Geneva translation o