William Shakespeare

The English Bible

In Catholic England, it had been illegal to publish the Bible in any language besides Latin, but Protestants believed the Bible should be available in the languages everyone understood. From early childhood, Shakespeare would have heard the Bible read in English every Sunday. As a schoolboy he probably translated biblical passages from Latin to English and back again. He studied the Bible as an adult, too. His plays and poems make hundreds of references to several different translations of the Bible, including the official Bishops’ Bible and the more popular Geneva Bible. Shakespeare even makes a reference to the editors’ Preface to the Geneva Bible. The Preface explains that for its readers’ “edification,” the editors “have in the margent noted” places where they think the scriptures support their Protestant beliefs. In Hamlet , Horatio makes fun of Osric for using terms so obscure that they need explanation: “I knew you must be edified by the margent ere you had done.”

The influence of the Bible on Shakespeare’s writing runs so deep that it’s sometimes hard to say where the Bible’s language ends and Shakespeare’s begins. Shakespeare sometimes quotes the text of the Bible directly, but more often he includes a partial quote, an allusion, or a parody. A typical example of the way Shakespeare draws on the Bible is the title of the play Measure For Measure . This title isn’t a direct quote from the Bible, but it is based on a biblical passage: “with the same measure that ye mete withal, it shall be measured to you again” (Luke 6.38). When Iago says “I am not what I am,” Shakespeare’s audience would have understood that Othello ’s villain is turning inside-out what God tells Moses: “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream , Bottom comically garbles a passage from Corinthians when he says “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen.”

Shakespeare most likely would have expected his audience to be able to recall whole stories and episodes from the Bible. In As You Like It , Orlando feels his brother Oliver has treated him unfairly. He asks Oliver, “What prodigal portion have I spent that I should come to such penury?” This is an allusion to Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, about the younger son of a rich man who spends all his inheritance and ends up homeless. In Jesus’ parable, the younger son returns home to his father, who is overjoyed to see him, and the father’s joy makes his older son jealous. By referring to this story, Orlando suggests something about his relationship with Oliver that neither brother can say outright. An audience familiar with the story would understand that in Orlando’s opinion, Oliver is behaving badly because he is jealous of the relationship his younger brother had with their father.