Shakespeare’s Usage of the Bible and Its Themes

Posted By on March 26, 2014

By Knitwitted

I. Scholarly Facts

According to Naseeb Shaheen, Shakespeare, in writing his plays, “seldom borrows biblical references from his sources, even when those sources contain many references.”(fn. 1)

R. A. L. Burnet states: “[A]s Professor E. P. Dickie has pointed out to me, words found in the margin [of the Geneva Bible] will not have circulated very readily nor become proverbial sayings. Shakespeare would not have heard these words either in church or in conversation; he could only have read them.”(fn. 2)

Steven Marx suggests “a thorough familiarity with the Scriptures” is a prerequisite to understanding the Biblical references in the plays, and that the plays’ references to the Bible “illuminate fresh and surprising meanings in the biblical text.”(fn. 3)

II. Specific Examples

In 2 Henry VI, Shakespeare suggests his own biblical verses. Per Shaheen:(fn. 4)

“The many biblical references that occur throughout the play are Shakespeare’s own. Shakespeare’s use of Scripture in the play can be seen in the way he drew the character of the king. [Edward] Hall depicts Henry as “a man of a meke spirite, and of a simple witte, preferryng peace before warre, reste before businesse, honestie before profite, and quietnesse before laboure…. There could be none, more chaste, more meke, more holy, nor a better creature…. He gaped not for honor, nor thirsted for riches, but studied onely for the health of his soule: the savyng wherof, he estemed to bee the greatest wisedome” [Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke, first published in 1548] (3.105). But Hall makes no biblical references when depicting Henry as a meek, pious ruler, void of ambibition. Shakespeare, however, gives the entire play a religious cast, and puts many biblical references and religious expressions in the mouths of his characters.”

“Some of these religious utterances strongly suggest Scripture, but do not seem to be biblical references.” Shaheen notes for example the lines “O Lord, that lends me life, Lend me a heart replete with thankfulness!” (1.1.19-20) and “God’s goodness hath been great to thee. Let never day nor night unhallowed pass, But still remember what the Lord hath done.” (2.1.82-84) contain “strong overtones of Scripture, but no actual references seem to be involved. The play contains many similar passages that are difficult to deal with, passages that are best classified as religious sentiments rather than actual biblical references.”

In 3 Henry VI, Shakespeare took a biblical theme from a prior source and expanded its usage of biblical references. Per Shaheen:(fn. 5)

“[Edward] Hall’s theme [per his Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke, first published in 1548] was moral. He sought to demonstrate God’s providence towards England, and repeatedly points out that those who commit evil will sooner or later be punished. Yet his account contains very few biblical references. Inspired by Hall’s theme of divine retribution, Shakespeare adds biblical references that reflect that theme (1.4.168 “My blood upon your heads!”; 2.2.129 “Their blood upon thy head.”; 2.6.55 “Measure for measure must be answered.”).”

“An example of how Shakespeare added biblical references to what he found in his sources can be seen in the passage in Hall relating the death of Warwick’s brother. Hall simply says: “He [Lord Fitzwater] was slayne, and with hym the Bastard of Salisbury, brother to the erle of Warwycke, a valeaunt yong gentelman.” (3.181). In 2.3.14-23 Shakespeare expands that statement into a passage that contains at least three biblical references.”

2.3.15: Thy brother’s blood the thirsty earth hath drunk. (Gen. 4.10-11)
2.3.17: And in the very pangs of death he cried. (Compare 2 Sam. 22.5)
2.3.22: [Possible biblical reference] “gave up the ghost” (Gen. 49.33; Compare also Gen. 35.18; Matt. 27.50; Acts 5.10)
2.3.23: Then let the earth be drunken with our blood! (Per Shaheen, “A common biblical expression.” Compare Judith 6.4; Isa. 49.26; Rev. 17.6. Compare also Deut. 32.42; Jer. 46.10; Ezek. 39.19)

In Henry V, Shakespeare adds biblical themes to his prior sources. Per Shaheen: “[T]here is nothing in any of Shakespeare’s sources that is parallel to Henry’s discussion on the responsibilty for war and the fate of the soldiers who die therein (4.1.124-91), or to Henry’s musings on kingship (4.1.230-84), which contain a large number of biblical and liturgical references. These passages with their references are original with Shakespeare.”(fn. 6)

Per Shaheen, “Shakespeare’s use of the book of Revelation in Antony and Cleopatra is outstanding…. Since only three chapters of Revelation were read during Morning and Evening Prayer in the Church of England (…[reference to chapters and church days]…), Shakespeare must have privately read much of Revelation shortly before of during the composition of the play.” He further states, “The references to Exodus in act 3 scene 13 are also noteworthy.”(fn. 7)

Per Shaheen, Timon of Athens “provides rare insights into his manner of composition and has several biblical references that are of considerable interest.” He further states, “As is Shakespeare’s custom throughout his plays, his use of Scripture in Timon is primarily intended to serve dramatic ends rather than to have theological significance.”(fn. 8 )

All of the foregoing examples as provided by Shaheen suggest that Shakespeare was well-acquainted with the Bible and its various themes via individual verses spread throughout its various chapters enough so that he could easily expand upon any said theme with his own continuation of such verses.

III. The Evidence

Where is the evidence that William of Stratford was “a magnificent and a very learned and religious man” as Sir George Buc had characterized Oxford? I suggest only one who is intimate with the Bible could assimilate verses throughout the Bible into their respective thematic store.

An interesting sidelight should be noted per J. B. Selkirk: “Amongst those zealous biographers of Shakspeare who have laboured to shew what employment or profession he was educated for, and what office in life he was originally intended to fill (…), I have often wondered that no ingenious critic should ever have attempted to shew that he must have been intended for the church.”(fn. 9)

Roger Stritmatter has already ascertained that the annotator of the de Vere Geneva Bible “seemed clearly preoccupied with certain definite themes, among them:”

1. The responsibilities of the rich and powerful.
2. The virtue of charity.
3. The evils of usury.
4. The nature of sin.
5. Prophecy.
6. The value of secret works.
7. The nature of providence in eschatological end times.
8. The nature of proper speech.

Further, per Stritmatter: “Such details are inconsistent with any theory of a casual or one-time annotator of the de Vere Bible. Instead, they suggest an annotator who was in possession of the Bible over an extended period of time, who returned on may successive close readings, who underlined and annotated the Bible over a period of years, and who, apparently towards the end of his life, carefully repaired letters damaged through heavy use in the concluding chapter of the Book of Revelations.”(fn. 10)

IV. Request for Further Analysis

How well do these themes in the de Vere Bible overlap themes in the Shakespeare canon? And further, how well do they overlap the writings of others? Stritmatter has already assessed individual Bible verses in the writings of Bacon, Spenser, Marlowe, as well as Montaigne and Rabelais, versus the de Vere Bible. On a thematic level, how well do these writers fit the de Vere Bible?

And most importantly, do the themes in the Shakespeare canon commonly appear in the writings of others?

Per my recent essay on de Vere’s Bible(fn. 11), there is no expectation of a one-to-one correspondence between its individually marked verses and the verses represented in the Shakespeare canon. As I argued, the de Vere Bible was not used as a workbook per the Genevan parallels as supplied by Shaheen. Therefore, the crux of the de Vere Bible lies with its thematic interpretations and the resulting overlap with the themes of the Shakespeare canon.


(1) Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays, 1999, 2011, p. 90

(2) R. A. L. Burnet, “Shakespeare and the Marginalia of the Geneva Bible,” Notes and Queries 26(2), April 1979, p. 113

(3) Steven Marx, Shakespeare and the Bible, 2000, p. 13

(4) Shaheen p. 301

(5) Shaheen p. 324, 328-9

(6) Shaheen p. 449

(7) Shaheen p. 644

(8) Shaheen p. 670, 671

(9) J.B. Brown (Selkirk), Bible Truths with Shakspearean Parallels, 1862, p. 136

(10) Roger A. Stritmatter, The Marginalia of Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible: Providential Discovery, Literary Reasoning, and Historical Consequence, February 2001, pp. 433-4

(11) “Assessment of Edward de Vere’s Genevan Bible,” December 7, 2012

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One Response to “Shakespeare’s Usage of the Bible and Its Themes”

  1. […] According to Naseeb Shaheen, Shakespeare, in writing his plays, “seldom borrows biblical references from his sources, even when those sources contain many references.”(fn. 1) […]

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