In Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Walter “Monk” McGinn (played by Brendan Gleason, here to the right of Liam Neeson) says, “Do you know who Bill Shakespeare was, sonny? He’s the fella that wrote the King James Bible.”
The occasion of Shakespeare’s birthday—traditionally celebrated April 23, though no one knows the precise date—is a good time to offer some reflections about a persistent myth. Since the late nineteenth century, some people have suggested that Shakespeare was involved in the translation of the King James Bible. Just to be clear,
NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. THIS IS NOT TRUE!!!
The reasons this legend developed are complex, and not entirely known, but the idea is preposterous in itself. We know the names and identities of the roughly four dozen King James Bible translators (the number is rough because over time some died or dropped out and had to be replaced). All but one of them were clergymen. The exception, Henry Savile, was included because of his prodigious learning and particularly his exceptional knowledge of Patristic Greek. Indeed, save a few political appointments, all the translators were eminent linguists, the very best scholars of ancient languages—Hebrew and Greek, but also Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic—in England. Some, like Lancelot Andrewes and, judging from the Translators’ Epistle to the Reader, Miles Smith, were also fine writers. But this was not why they were chosen. The translators were not especially interested in what we think of as literary style, and they certainly were not aiming to produce a masterpiece of English prose. Their overwhelming concern was to produce to the most accurate English translation possible of the Bible. The many years of work involved hours and hours of discussions of the most minute details of language: points of grammar, syntax, vocabulary; careful comparison of verses, clauses, and individual words in all the ancient languages, including Latin, as well as contemporary translations in European languages, and all previous English Bible (Tyndale, Coverdale’s Great Bible, Geneva, Bishops’, Rheims); also discussion of theology, ancient history, archaeology. Not very sexy, but that’s what made the KJV!
Literal accuracy was the goal, which is why the English of the KJV sometimes sounds foreign, as in using the word “to know” for having sex (Gen. 4), or Hebrew idioms like “the skin of my teeth” (Job 19) or “the apple of my eye” (Deut. 32), which make little sense in English. Shakespeare, according to Ben Jonson, had “small Latin and less Greek.” This was a little unfair. By our standards, Shakespeare’s Latin was excellent, he just wasn’t as remarkable a scholar as Jonson. There’s no evidence, though, that Shakespeare had more than a little grammar school Greek, and he likely had no Hebrew at all. He lacked the basic skills necessary for Bible translation. He was also not a clergyman; since many clergymen considered players as next-door to brothel-keepers, it’s inconceivable anyone would have considered him as a candidate for the translation team. Finally, although Shakespeare and the King James Bible have been lauded as the twin pillars of English literature since at least the Victorians, they aren’t really much alike. Shakespeare can write fine prose, but he more often writes in verse, and what sets his style apart from other playwrights is the metaphorical density of his language and his invention of words and idioms. The King James Bible is entirely in prose and generally eschews complex metaphor. The vocabulary is also extremely limited. The language of Shakespeare and the language of the KJV aren’t the same.
The one piece of evidence often hauled out in support of the “Shakespeare wrote the Bible” argument is a bit of “code” from Psalm 46. All sorts of people mention this, from Bishops to conspiracy theorists. It goes like this. In the KJV, count 46 words from the beginning of Psalm 46: “shake.” Count 46 words from the end: “spear.” Shakespeare turned 46 in 1610. Thus, so it goes, Shakespeare has encoded his signature in the psalm to mark his secret involvement in the translation. (The more committed cryptographers delve into Kabbala and further supposed number patterns, but I’ll leave this wackier stuff aside.) So many problems with this! First the second 46 count has to leave out the word “selah.” It’s not a word from the actual Psalm but an indicator of performance (no one knows quite what it means), yet it is there on the page, and if you include it “spear” is 47 words from the end, not 46. Furthermore, “shake” and “spear” are in many earlier English Bibles as well, in roughly the same places (45-47 words from beginning and end). Spears are plentiful in the Bible, because they were in ancient Palestine, and people with spears tend to shake them. No great mystery. What’s really in evidence here is an amusing coincidence, discovered by someone with codes on the brain, probably in the 1890s. No one seems to have noticed it before then, which makes it seem rather ineffective as a signature. It’s absurd that Shakespeare would have been involved in translating a Bible, but it’s even more absurd that if he had been involved he would have left his mark in so obscure and meaningless a fashion. Some compare this to medieval stonemasons who inscribed their names on stones in place no one could ever see, presumably as a declaration to God. Shakespeare was not an anonymous craftsman, however, but a popular and successful playwright, whose name appeared prominently on his published work. The more you know about Shakespeare, and the more you know about the King James Bible, the sillier this idea becomes. Imaginative writers like Rudyard Kipling and Anthony Burgess have played around with the myth in their fiction, but that’s where it belongs. In fiction, not in reality.
Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
April 22, 2011 | Categories: From the Curators, In the News, Influences, The KJB in History | Tags: Anthony Burgess, Authorized King James Version, Ben Johnson, Bishops' Bible, Brendan Gleason, Coverdale Bible, Gangs of New York, Great Bible, King James Bible, KJB, KJV, Liam Neeson, Manifold Greatness, Martin Scorsese, Psalm 46, Rheims New Testament, Rudyard Kipling, Tyndale Bible, William Shakespeare | 7 Comments