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Discover Richer Subtext: Biblical References

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 :)


Geneva

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 of Proverbs 5:15-18:


“Drinke the water of thy cisterne, and of the rivers out of the midst of thine owne well. Let thy fountaines flowe forthe, and the rivers of waters in the streets. But let them be thine, even thine onely, and not the strangers with thee. Let thy fountaine be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of thy youth.”


Furthermore, a marginal note in the Geneva Bible strengthens the link between it and Shakespeare’s Othello. The note declares that Proverbs 5 centers around “an harlot which giveth herself to another then to her husband.”

 

Book of Common Prayer

1552 Book of Common Prayer


So this one isn’t exactly the Bible, but it’s in the same realm.


Fun Fact: It was recited on a set schedule that ensured the congregation completed the entire book each month.


For our example, we’re going to look at a Psalm. Shakespeare LOVED the psalms. In fact, every play in the First Folio contains some reference to them. And if you want to get real nerdy, the version Shakespeare used most often was the Coverdale Psalter.


Type: Allusion - Words Rearranged

Let’s do another Othello ‘cause why not…


Iago says, “a man’s life / O, a man’s life’s but a span” (2.3.74-75.)


Psalms 39 iconically characterizes human life: “Behold, thou hast made my days as it were a span long, and mine age is even as nothing in respect of thee” (verse 6.)


See the similarity? Excellent! But-- you only find it if you used the Coverdale’s Psalter. That’s right. If we had quoted Psalms 39 from the Geneva or Bishops’ Psalters, a man’s life would have been described as a “hand breadth” - not a “span”. This is why study of several versions is key to unearthing all of the references!

 

Growing Complexity

The Biblical references found in Shakespeare’s earlier plays are much simpler and easily recognizable than those that saturate his later works.


Easier

Take Love’s Labor’s Lost (1597), an early one. In it, Shakespeare continually references Homily 7 “Against Swearing and Perjury” from The First Book of Homilies, as it warns that if a man swears “to doe any thing which is...not in his power to performe: let him take it for an unlawfull and ungodly oath” (“The Homilies” 67). Love’s Labor’s Lost is not afraid to show its opinions of King Ferdinand’s extremely strict vows, which he very well may break.


In the play’s text, it repeats “swear”, “forswear” and “oath” as they occur in the Homily. For instance, the Princess exclaims:

“Peace, peace, forbear! / Your oath once broke, you force not to forswear” (5.2.481.)


Katherine similarly states:

“Yet swear not, lest you be forsworn again”


These references highlight and emphasize the moral implications of oath-breaking, as taught in the homily. Consequently, the ladies’ lines have deeper meaning and power than just a “woman’s suggestion”, as it may have been seen in Elizabethan times.

 

Difficult

Ready for a harder one? Let’s jump to a later play.


In The Tempest, Gonzalo dreams about himself as the island’s king. He decides he would allow “no use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil” (2.1.168).


This reference is taken from John Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne’s “Of the Canniballes,” which contains the phrase “no use of wine, corne, or mettle.” However, don’t be fooled! The tracing doesn’t end there.


Look at those two lines again… Shakespeare’s and Florio’s. What do you notice?


Perhaps… the word order?! Bingo! Shakespeare differs from Florio’s in that he put “corn” first and even tacks on “oil” at the end. This pattern parallels Psalms 4:8. Using the Geneva Psalter, you’ll find “their corne and wine and oyle increased.”


Why did Shakespeare do this? The Psalm uses this description to illustrate God’s blessings to his chosen people. Gonzalo says he does not need these items, suggesting himself to be self-sufficient in his own salvation. How does this affect the way you interpret Gonzalo’s character in general or in this moment alone? Do you feel like you understand this scene in a whole new way… or at least just a tad? Either way, it’s fascinating, no?!


And don’t forget - those Elizabethans were going through the Psalter every month. They certainly would have picked up on it. My oh my how much audiences today are missing out…

 

Discussion

  1. Are there other Biblical references in Shakespeare’s texts that you can name off the top of your head?

  2. When you studied Shakespeare in school (high school, college, etc.), did they often bring up allusions to the Bible or any other source for that matter? With the insight into how these references add depth to the plot and characters, do you think this subject should be discussed more?

  3. Outside of the text itself (quotes and paraphrasing), think about the characters. Do any of them reflect Biblical characters: Christ-like figures, devilish personas, etc.?









Quoted Resources & Pictures

The Bible. The Geneva Version, 1599. The Geneva Bible Online.

Book of Common Prayer. 1552. Sothebys.com. (n.d.). Retrieved November 26, 2021.

Gray, Emily, "The Bard and The Word: the influence of the Bible on the writings of William Shakespeare" (2018). Honors Theses.

“The Homilies.” Certain Sermons or Homilies Appointed to be in Churches in the Time of the Late Queen Elizabeth of Famous Memory. London: The Prayer Book and Homily Society, 1852. Print.

Noble, Richmond. Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge and Use of The Book of Common Prayer as Exemplified in the Plays of the First Folio. New York: Octagon Books, 1970. Print. The Psalter. The Book of Common Prayer, Coverdale Translation.

Shaheen, Naseeb. Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays. Lanham, MD: University of Delaware Press, 1999. Print. Shakespeare, William. Love’s Labor’s Lost. Folger Shakespeare Library Editions Digital Texts. Ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Folger Shakespeare Library Editions Digital Texts. Ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Folger Shakespeare Library Editions Digital Texts. Ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. Folger Shakespeare Library.