Shakespeare, Douay Rheims, and the de Vere Geneva Bible

Posted By on December 13, 2012

Ecclesiasticus 14.13 from the de Vere Geneva Bible. The annotator has corrected the text to bring it into conformity with the wording of the Vulgate, “da pauperi.” Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

A recent guest post by Knitwitted lucidly lays out the evidence assembled by Naseeb Shaheen in his books on Shakespeare’s Bible references for the priority of the Geneva Bible in Shakespeare’s religious imagination. Quoting Shaheen, she argues that while

The Geneva Bible may have been the version that Shakespeare knew best and which he seems to refer to most often, the influence of other versions is clearly evident, and no one version can be called ‘Shakespeare’s Bible’ (emphasis mine).

In emphasizing Shakespeare’s knowledge of more than one English translation of the Bible Shaheen draws attention to one of the most striking characteristics of Shakespeare’s religious consciousness, as documented not only by Shaheen, but before him by Richmond Noble and others — namely its comprehensive and eclectic character. At a minimum we can say that the bard has impressive knowledge of at least three variant translations — the Catholic Douay Rheims (1582, NT only), the authorized Bishop’s Bible (1568 et seq.), and the Geneva (1560 et seq.) — from which he retained and spontaneously made use of sometimes unique language.

As summarized by Shaheen and Noble, it is clear that Shakespeare knew the Geneva more intimately than the others, but he betrays sufficient influence from others to make his poly-textual awareness itself a topic of some interest. Just like his knowledge of law, languages, Italy,  and literature, Shakespeare’s knowledge of religion was apparently far from superficial.

Where did his religious knowledge come from? The Bishop’s Bible he could either have known through attendance at Church services, through reading, or — most likely — some combination of the two.  The Douay Rheims, however, was a fugitive text in Protestant Elizabethan England, and he could only have known it through reading or attending secret mass.

Recently a great throwing about of the brains has tried to establish that Shakespeare was a Catholic. While the biographical evidence supporting this conclusion has always been of a fairly persuasive nature, the textual evidence supporting it is weak. Indeed, as Peter Dickson has persuasively argued, the discrepancy between biography and literary evidence on the religious question is creating a giant rift among orthodox scholars; the “Young Turks” tend to follow the biographical evidence and side with the “Catholic bard” theory, while the more conservative scholars recognize, correctly, that this premise cannot easily be reconciled to the textual evidence.

Far more plausibly, the bard — whatever biography we attach to him — was, as Daniel Wright among others has suggested, essentially a conforming Anglican of broad religious sympathy.

Yet Shakespeare was also curious and open minded enough to carefully examine alternate translations of the Bible in his search for the Word, and sympathetic to the religious zeitgeist of Catholicism but equally skeptical of the politics of the Catholic faith in 16th century Europe (as were so many in England after the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris).

As Peter Milward, himself a Catholic scholar, suggests, Shakespeare’s religious perspective is not one of adherence to Catholic doctrine, but one involving a “synthesis of tradition and reform” (cited in Battenhouse, 5). Certainly it seems preposterous that a Catholic recusant would know the Geneva Bible — the most Calvinist, and, in places, frankly and bitterly anti-Catholic Bible in the English language — so much better than any other that he spontaneously recalls its idiosyncratic wording as often as he does. And, as Daniel Swift has recently documented, the bard was no slouch when it comes to the Book of Common Prayer either – another reason for viewing him as one well schooled in, and largely adhering to, the Elizabethan compromise in religion.

Shakespeare’s awareness of the 1582 Douay Rheims New Testament, on the other hand, is well established, and has been documented since John Henry De Groot’s 1946 Shakespeare and the “Old Faith,” who first noted the Shakespeare’s use of the words cockle, narrow gate, and not a hair perished were peculiar to the Catholic Bible (Battenhouse 5).

Given this well documented religious eclecticism it is striking to observe evidence in the de Vere Geneva Bible for the annotator’s clear knowledge of the wording of the Vulgate/Douay Rheims at Ecclesiasticus 14.13.

The passage in question is, like some 220 other verses in the de Vere Bible dealing with questions of economics (charity, poverty, economic justice, usury, and Jubilee), underlined in red ink. There seems little ground to doubt the symbolic nature of the association visible in the evidence between the red ink and the idea of “being in the red” — the phrase had the same implication in Elizabethan England as it does today, and Edward de Vere was certainly someone who was “in the red” for most of his life.

In this instance, however, the underlining of the verse number has been supplemented with the correction of the text, confirming the annotator’s consistent emphasis on the value of charity as an act of noblesse oblige. The English Bibles all suggest the morality of giving alms to one’s friends — but the Catholic text says that one should give “da pauperi” – to the poor. It would seem that to all the other reasons for identifying de Vere with Shakespeare, documented in so many fine books from Looney to Ogburn, Anderson, Chiljan, or even the most recent offering from Richard Malim, we may now add a further comparison:

Both de Vere and Shakespeare 1) Had an intimate familiarity with the Geneva Bible — but also 2) Knew the Catholic Vulgate/Douay Rheims as well.  Isn’t that an interesting coincidence?


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.


10 Responses to “Shakespeare, Douay Rheims, and the de Vere Geneva Bible”

  1. knitwitted says:

    Excellent article, Roger! Won’t it be interesting to see the orthodox crew dismiss the authorities on Shakespeare’s usage of the Bible !!

  2. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Thanks, your own posting helped bring this topic into focus for me – I mention it in the diss., but it is really much more important than I realized at that time. Imagine that “no count” “Monstrous adversary” de Vere knowing the Vulgate and/or Douay Rheims so well that he was “correcting” his Geneva from it. Hmmmmm…..

  3. knitwitted says:

    hmm… Something about that outer appearance vs the inner man…

  4. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Yep. As Alexander Grosart said over a hundred years ago “an unlifted shadow lies over his memory.”

  5. Dayraven says:

    Apropos of:

    “The passage in question is, like some 220 other verses in the de Vere Bible dealing with questions of economics (charity, poverty, economic justice, usury, and Jubilee), underlined in red ink. There seems little ground to doubt the symbolic nature of the association visible in the evidence between the red ink and the idea of “being in the red” — the phrase had the same implication in Elizabethan England as it does today, and Edward de Vere was certainly someone who was “in the red” for most of his life.”

    Here here, but what evidence have you found for that sense of “being in the red”? I thought it would be readily forthcoming, but recall that the OED had little or nothing to say about it? In any event, I was going to be returning to this question in the not-too-distant future, so I thought I should chime in.

  6. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Good question, Dayraven. The truth is that I don’t have very good authority for the statement that the phrase meant the same thing in the 16th century as it does today. I appreciate your raising the question since I’ll need a more solid authority than “someone I know (I forget who) said so.” I’m guilty of taking that someone’s word for it — or maybe what the person said was merely that in those days red was already used in account books to indicate a deficit. If that can be pinned down, that is probably sufficient to prove the point, even if the lexicographers haven’t documented it. But the point requires some further research, that’s for sure!


  7. knitwitted says:

    Hi Doc,

    Just found the following re Ecclus 14.13:

    de Vere Geneva Bible: Do good unto thy friend before thou dye, & according to thine habilitie stretch out thine hand, and give him.
    {‘him’ is lined through and ‘unto the poore’ added by annotator}

    1610 Douay-Rheims: Before death do good to thy freind, and according to thine abilitie stretching out thy hand, geve to the poore.

    Latin Vulgate: ante mortem benefac amico tuo et secundum vires tuas exporrigens da pauperi [good to thy friend before thou die, and according to thy hand give to the poor]

    1568 Bishops: Do good unto thy friende before thou dye, and according to thy abilitie reache out thyne hande & geve unto the poore.

    It looks like the annotator copied the Bishops.


  8. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Thank you Knit. Very well done. As a bonus, I notice that the Geneva Bible prints “e” for “i” – something Professor Nelson of Berkeley tried to claim was an “error” when de Vere did it. Sorry I have not followed up yet on our previous conversation. Things in great flux in Baltimore. More anon.

  9. […] years. Raised in the staunchly reformist household of Lord Burghley since he was 12 years old, possessor of a well-studied and frequently marked Geneva bible but by evidence of a few annotations …, he may well have taken to heart precepts and practices from both religions. What we do know is […]

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