In Catholic England it was illegal to publish the Bible in any language besides Latin, but Protestants believed the Bible should be available in the languages common people actually understood. The first English-language Bible was translated by William Tyndale and printed in 1526. But since Tyndale’s translation wasn’t officially sanctioned, the authorities destroyed most copies upon its publication. The first authorized translation appeared in 1539. This edition, known as “the Great Bible,” became a cherished possession for those who could afford it. But it was not until the Geneva Bible of 1560 that a mass-produced vernacular translation would be made directly available to the general public. In addition to being more readily available, the Geneva Bible also featured more vigorous language than the previous authorized translation, which had a more popular appeal. However, the vigorous language offended the bishops of the Anglican Church, who felt that the Geneva Bible reflected too much influence from the extreme Protestant sects like Puritanism and Calvinism. As such, the bishops made their own translation, and the new translation—known as the Bishops’ Bible—began circulating in 1568. The next major English translation of the Bible would not appear until 1609, under the reign of King James I.
As a boy, Shakespeare would have heard the Bible read in English every Sunday at Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. If Shakespeare attended the King’s New School in Stratford, as most scholars believe he did, then he would have studied the Bible there as well. In Elizabethan grammar schools, pupils had to translate biblical passages back and forth between English and Latin. In addition to these formal exercises, grammar school students also started and ended their days by singing psalms, providing yet more opportunities to absorb biblical lessons. Since Shakespeare was born just four years before the appearance of the Bishops’ Bible, he likely heard sermons that quoted from the earlier Geneva Bible as well as from the more recent translation. However, even though the Bishops’ Bible became standard in Protestant churches after 1568, many schoolteachers continued to teach from the more popular Geneva Bible. This tendency helps explain why Shakespeare references the Preface to the Geneva Bible, in which the editors note that they “have in the margent noted” passages that support Protestant beliefs. Likewise, 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” (V.ii).
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). Similarly, when Iago says “I am not what I am” (I.i), Shakespeare’s audience would have understood that Othello’s villain is inverting what God tells Moses: “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). To take a comedic example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Bottom declares, “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen” (IV.i). These words humorously garble another famous biblical passage: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man” (1 Corinthians 2:9).