Ezekiel 16.49 and the State of 21st Century Shakespearean Studies

Posted By on April 22, 2011

Something is rotten in the state


One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.

–A.A. Milne

I began with a desire, common enough in my profession, to speak with the dead. Much to my surprise, and much against my will, they spoke back. To my dismay, I might add, they spoke heresy.

Put yourself in my position.

Who was I to deny their claims on the living? It is said that he who increases knowledge, increases sorrow. Should I chose knowledge, and with it, sorrow? Was it an honest ghost, or a goblin damned?

I was not the first to wonder, and I would not be the last.

Before me on one of the ornate oak research tables in the Shakespeare Folger library Reader’s Room was an old book. Cracked open, both covers nestled gently in the foam book supports used to cushion rare books, protecting the worn maroon velvet binding, adorned with silver medallions – a four-hundred-year-old Bible. It beckoned and signified, inviting me forward.

I leafed through centuries in a few blinks: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Numbers – I knew I was passing by so much,  in search of something.  I didn’t know what, but I would  know it, I told myself, when I saw it. Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel….

“It is the glory of God to hide a thing,” says Nabokov rephrasing Proverbs 25.2, “and the glory of man is to find it.”

I paused. Ezekiel 16.

There it was – just the kind of clue many literary historians would die for. Or, I imagined wryly, they would do anything they could, up to and including symbolic assassination, to prevent its disclosure by anyone other than themselves.

A bell sounded somewhere in the back of my mind. There was no question. An early reader of the volume had noticed the prophet’s apocalyptic warning. With a quill pen he deposited a bold orange stripe, underlining the verse number – 49 – bright as a day-glow thin-wedge orange sharpie, lighting up a 21st century student exam paper (Figure One).

Ezekiel 16.49 from de Vere Geneva Bible (STC 2106). Reproduced with the kind permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Behold, this was the  iniquity of thy sister, Sodom. Pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters

I would soon find many more like it, but this was the first hint. I could not decide whether to break out into song and dance or cower in terror.

I stared. I stalled.  I equivocated in my own mind. I must be imagining this, like Macbeth tormented by his imaginary dagger.

Apparently undeterred by my reticence, Ezekiel thundered back.

Neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy.

It was hard to believe, but I could not deny the evidence of my own senses.

I glanced up from my study to survey the reading room of Washington DC’s Folger Shakespeare Library. Was it safe? A dozen scholars of all ages, earnest and educated men and women, devoted to the study of Shakespeare and his age, unobtrusively pursued their research projects in quiet isolation at nearby study tables, all within earshot of Ezekiel. No one seemed to notice. To my colleagues nothing had happened. To me, it was the day the world changed.

It was January, 1991, and I had been studying the Shakespearean question for little more than two years. A neophyte in every conceivable sense, I was unprepared for the burden of my own discovery. I had indeed been fumbling for a method for more than two days, possessed by an idea but wholly incapable, or so it seemed, of conceiving a strategy to confirm or disprove it.

So it was only natural that my first hint released a shock wave that is still reverberating twenty years later. As I have said, my first impulse – like that of so many others – was disbelief. What I saw was impossible.  My second impulse, therefore, was to run.

Now let me explain why. Beside the Edward de Vere Geneva Bible – for that was the Bible in which had I discovered this marked verse – lay the source of my anxious perplexity. It was a copy of Naseeb Shaheen’s Biblical Allusions in Shakespeare’s Tragedies (1987) that I had just retrieved from the stacks to study, and was starting to understand.

It was this book that would supply the first startling clue on a quest that would lead me on a bewildering paper chase through the annals of English literary history and eventually bring me face to face with a Shakespearean status quo,  divided against itself and even more unwilling to accept the significance of my findings than I would be.

The first of four books that Shaheen, then a University of Tennessee professor, was to eventually write, culminating in his 1999 opus Biblical Allusions in Shakespeare’s Plays,  the book tabulates (more or less comprehensively) approximately 800 Bible allusions in the Shakespearean tragedies, from Hamlet to Othello.

In the process, it also considers a more specialized and ambitious question: Like Richmond Noble (1935) before him, Shaheen seeks to document which translation of the Bible Shakespeare read or heard. We could say much more about the these versions — and especially of the translation of the Geneva — for it is an interesting story in its own right and one that supplies some fascinating context for the main thread of my narrative.

But since this is an abbreviated web publication, let us take only a temporary detour.

Despite certain declarations to the contrary,[1] in those rare cases when a definitive preference can be ascertained, the English Bible to which Shakespeare makes most frequent recourse is the Geneva, a translation prepared during the 1550s in Geneva by William Whittingham and other English Protestant refugees of Mary Tudor’s counter-reformation regime. Indeed, although this pattern is established through relatively few examples – in all, around thirty[2] – and the evidence also proves his knowledge of the Bishop’s and other variant translations, Shakespeare’s preference for the Geneva has since 1905 been sufficiently unambiguous as to be beyond any reasonable dispute.[3]

Both Noble (1935) and Shaheen (1987, 1999) agree in identifying Ezekiel 16.49 as one of several key verses that establishes Shakespeare’s  preference for the Geneva Bible. Although the two passages share only a few words in common, they are so idiosyncratic, and particular to the Geneva translation, as to put the direct influence of this passage on Hamlet beyond doubt. Noble even calls it the “strongest of all proofs” (67) of Shakespeare’s direct knowledge of the Geneva translation.

At the height of his excited frenzy over whether or not to slay Claudius at prayer, Hamlet makes apparently conscious reference to the marked passage from Ezekiel. His dagger is poised for the kill:

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven….
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
‘A took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

As in Ezekiel, the line “full[ness] of bread” signifies the corruption of the unreformed state of the soul with “crimes broad blown.” Hamlet’s father, a sinner of the old faith, has died without last rites of confession.

The connection is available only for the Geneva Bible. As Shaheen describes it, “only the Geneva reads ‘fulness of bread’ in Ezekiel 16.49. All other versions (Coverdale, Matthew, Turner, Great, Bishops’) have ‘fulness of meate” (1999 38).

The reader may now begin to appreciate my predicament. The original owner of this Bible – as, by every conceivable indication, he seemed to be – had a history, and not one likely to inspire courage in the faint hearted.  According to the late great Shakespearean biographer Sir Sidney Lee, the original owner was possessed of a “violent and perverse temperament” and had an “eccentric taste in dress.” [4]

Although guilty of a “reckless waste of substance, he also “evinced a genuine taste in music and wrote verses of much lyric beauty…and a sufficient number of his poems is extant to corroborate Webbe’s comment, that he was the best of the courtier poets of the early days of Queen Elizabeth, and that ‘in the rare devices of poetry he may challenge to himself the title of the most excellent amongst the rest.”  He was moreover, despite being a very bad boy, “reckon[ed] among the best for comedy in his day; but though he was a patron of players, no specimens of his dramatic productions survive” (280).

Indeed the anxiety of influence casts a long shadow; it is safe to say that few men have been hated for such a long time or with such thoroughly irrational passion as the original owner of the Bible that lay before me in the Folger reading room. Not long after my discovery, in fact, Berkeley Professor Alan Nelson would begin work on his biography, Monstrous Adversary – the thesis of which seems to be that de Vere was such a bad man that he couldn’t possibly be the author of Lear or Hamlet.

His comedies? Lost, apparently.

I had many questions, but one thing was clear. According to virtually all the authorities in the field of Renaissance literature, de Vere shouldn’t have marked Ezekiel 16.49 in his Geneva Bible.  It was a scandal that he had done so.

But, he did.

I needed a witness.

I summoned  Dr. Nati Krivatsky, the Folger Library’s Head of Reference – who, up until that point in time had been a bit chary of the heretic in the temple. The two books, side by side on the table, told the story; I had only to point, but I think I added: “I just wanted to show you this.”

Dr. Krivatsky looked. She read.  She pondered. Her eyes grew round with the same surprised disbelief that had ambushed me only moments before, driving me out of the reading room into the cold January air. She saw what I saw. She took a deep breath, of the kind that signifies the thoughtful reception of what Gregory Bateson calls “news of a difference.”

“Maybe,” she started, “maybe you should write a book about this.”


[1] Harvard University’s Stephen Greenblatt in his Will in the World unambiguously declares that the Bishop’s Bible is “the version Shakespeare knew and used most often” (35). It is difficult to understand where Greenblatt could have gotten this impression (and indeed he follows the popular trend in contemporary Shakespearean studies of pronouncing on controversial topics without citing any authority) – since, in this case as in so many others, there is no credible basis for the claim. All authorities since Carter (1905) have argued the opposite, that the Geneva Bible is the version that Shakespeare “knew and used most often.”

[2] Shaheen, 1999, 39-44.

[3] Richmond Noble’s 1935 Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge, while differing in emphasis by documenting Shakespeare’s knowledge of multiple translations, concurs (as did Shaheen after him) with Carter’s 1905 argument for the central salience of the Geneva translation in Shakespeare’s Biblical Imagination.

[4] No doubt Lee refers here to the dubious accounts of Oxford’s actions and attitudes as given by Henry Howard and Charles Arundel (see Ward 206-223; Nelson 249-279).The latter finds it difficult to understand that  as the chief informant for the state, it was only natural that Oxford would become the target of Howard and Arundel’s  defamation, and the validity of their accusations must surely be weighed within the context of their own obvious self-interest to discredit their accuser.  Anderson refers to their testimony as the “Dogberry libels” — which form a clever parody of the real-life efforts of the two conspirators to impugn Oxford’s character.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


7 Responses to “Ezekiel 16.49 and the State of 21st Century Shakespearean Studies”

  1. RicardoMena says:

    Nabokov’s quote is incredible good.

    Your research on this Bible (and their correspondences on Shakespeare’s
    works) are equally revealing.

    Waiting for your book to arrive to my address.

    I am going to send you, right now, the proof I talked you about…

    • Roger Stritmatter says:

      Ricardo, I finally got the word from on high and will make sure your book is in the mail by Saturday if not tomorrow. Thanks for your patience!

  2. kenkap says:

    This is off track although the essay is excellent. Just to show how far the Oxfordian position has come, in last night’s episode of “Friday Night Lights”, the daughter of the main character, the football coach, is in college and attending a party for a professor. As she winds her way through the group, for about 20 seconds, the camera focuses on a group of students sitting at a table in a heated discussion. What are they talking about? Shakespeare authorship. Devere is mentioned by name both as Devere and Oxford.

    Its in passing, but in a show as dense with character as this, the placement of this dialogue on this subject is no accident or frivolous.

  3. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Hi Ken–

    Nice to hear from you! Its not really off topic at all, just another “sign of the times.” Any chance you could write that up with some details for the SF newsletter? Let me know!



  4. Hank says:

    Beautifully done, Roger.

    • Roger Stritmatter says:

      Thanks so much Hank. I feel like I finally may be able to tell this story and do some justice to it, after so many more years of apprenticeship….! This summer will be the big writing time, and I hope to have a solid proposal with a couple of good chapters to market this fall when Anonymous comes out. Wish me luck!

  5. Roger Stritmatter says:

    In the “almost a pingback” category, there’s this fabulous Nov. 3 article by none other than Ms. Huffington herself:



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