Shakespeare and the King James Bible: Ships Passing in the Night
Since at least the great Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769, Shakespeare and the King James Bible have been yoked together as the twin pillars of English culture. Dozens of books in the nineteenth century printed extracts from Shakespeare and the KJV, often on facing pages, showing that they were morally and spiritually equivalent on matters such as the Sabbath, the World’s Dissolution, Fears, Adultery, and Wisdom.
The association of these two works (and neither of them really is “a work”—they’re both anthologies) encouraged the idea that there must be a stronger link between them. I’ve written before about the nutty notion that Shakespeare was a KJV translator. But even the idea that Shakespeare read and was influenced by the KJV is mistaken.
Shakespeare did read the Bible, and he heard it in church. We can tell this because of the hundreds of biblical allusions and references in his plays and poems. In fact, there is no work that Shakespeare alludes to more often than the Bible. Bottom garbles Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen…”); Richard II compares his tormentors to Judas and the Pharisees; Shylock cites the story of Jacob and Laban from Genesis; King Lear alludes (unconsciously) to the Book of Job. Shakespeare makes these allusions, counting on his audience to recognize and interpret them, and so add deeper meaning to the play.
The KJV was published only in 1611 (possibly even in early 1612, since England was still on the old calendar with New Year’s in March), and while parishes in London and some other dioceses did acquire copies of the new Bible fairly quickly, it was not immediate. Up until this time, Shakespeare, like everyone else, had known other English Bible translations. The Bishops’ Bible (first published in 1568) was the official translation read in most English churches. The Geneva Bible (1560) was by far the most popular, though, and Shakespeare obviously had a copy that he read from, since most of the biblical allusions in his works that are identifiable with a specific translation are to the Geneva.
The KJV simply arrived too late for Shakespeare to know it. Even if he did see a copy or hear it in church, it didn’t supplant the Geneva from his ear and memory. Moreover, by this time Shakespeare had only a few more plays to write before he died: perhaps only the Fletcher collaborations, Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost Cardenio. It’s probably unreasonable to put too much emphasis on one Bible translation or another, however, since most of the translators (KJV companies included) saw themselves as revisers, and the succession of translations from Tyndale and Coverdale on as just stages in the development of the English Bible. Shakespeare knew the English Bible intimately—just not in the revision known as the KJV.
Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.