Ariel’s Doctrine of Mercy



Reprinted from Notes and Queries 56:1 (March 2009), 67-70.

Over the years since Thomas Carter implemented systematic study of Shakespearean Bible references,[i] two conclusions about the shape of Shakespeare’s Biblical imagination have been established beyond reasonable dispute:  1) Although Shakespeare knew several variant translations of the English Bible, his favored translation, the wording of which was retained in his memory and left an imprint in his text most often, was the Genevan (1560, 1670, 1576, etc.), not the Bishop’s (f.p. 1576)  or another variant translation;[ii] 2) The apocryphal texts of Ecclesiasticus and, to a lesser extent, Wisdom, seem to have exercised a particularly intimate influence on the formation of his religious sensibility.  Writing in 1935 Richmond Noble noted that “Job and Ecclesiasticus especially seem to have attracted his attention….it is almost impossible to conclude that Job and Ecclesiasticus were not [his] favorite books.”[iii] Fifty-three years later Naseeb Shaheen confirmed that Shakespeare was “especially fond of the ‘Wisdom Books,’ particularly Job and Ecclesiasticus,” [iv] and more recently the same writer identifies as many as sixty-seven Shakespearean allusions to the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus.[v]

Shakespeare’s evident fascination with the proverbial wisdom of Ecclesiasticus is a definitive mark of the “conservative” nature of his theological imagination.  Although Ecclesiasticus was featured in the Table of Proper Lessons of the 1559 Prayer Book for the month of November, it was also, like the other deuterocanonical books of the  apocrypha, already a subject of profound and deepening controversy during Shakespeare’s lifetime;  at least by 1589 Puritans actively advocated its suppression,[vi] and as early as 1599 it was excised from some English Bibles.[vii] Consistent with this controversial status, Ecclesiasticus is a decidedly marginal text for many Elizabethan literary figures; Spencer in the Fairie Queene makes only a single reference to it; Marlowe makes none in all his plays, and Francis Bacon no more than two in all his collected works.[viii]

One of Shakespeare’s well-documented and iterated references to the apocrypha is to Ecclus. 28.2-5, a pericope which is apparently the antecedent for the more familiar advocacy of reciprocal forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 6.14-15):

2. Forgive thy neighbor the hurt that he hathe done to thee, so shal thy sinnes be forgiven thee also, when thou praiest. 3. Shulde a man beare hatred against man, & desire forgiveness of the Lord? 4. He will shewe no mercie to a man, wc is like him self: and will he ask forgiveness of his own sinnes?  5. If he that is but flesh, nourish hatred, [and ask pardone of God,] who wil intreate for his sinnes?

(Genevan 1570)

Carter detected two citations of these verses:

For, as thou urgest justice, be assured

Thou shalt have justice more than thou desirest

(Merchant 4.1.315-16; italics added) [ix]

Bol.  I pardon him, as God shall pardon me.

Dutch.  O happy vantage of a kneeling knee!

Yet I am sick with fear, speak it again,

Twice saying ‘pardon’ doth not pardon twain

But makes one pardon strong.

(Richard II 5.3.131-134) [x]

Both Noble (1935) and Shaheen (1989, 1993) identify Ecclus. 28.2-5 as a possible source for two further Shakespearean passages:

The mercy that was quick in us but late,

By your own counsel is suppress’d and kill’d.

You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy.

(Henry V 2.2.79-81)

We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.

(Merchant 4.1.200-202)

To these must be added, although previously undetected in the secondary literature, a line from Romeo & Juliet:

3. Shulde a man beare hatred..? 

(Italics added)

I bear no hatred, blessed man. 


(Italics added)

It is only natural, on the other hand, to question whether the four passages listed by Carter, Noble and Shaheen, prove Shakespeare’s recollection of Ecclesiasticus, or are better explained on the basis of his familiarity with the more commonly known parallels from the New Testament.  Indeed, in Shakespeare the ideal of reciprocal forgiveness as a prerequisite to spiritual growth is so ubiquitous that any attempt to identify a single source for the idea is bound to become a reductio ad absurdum unless the search is leavened by an awareness of the wide range of potential pretexts on the topic, and supported by an exacting method for discriminating between various alternative sources. For instance, the well-known Sermon on the Mount develops the ideals of Ecclus. in the language of the New Testament: “For if ye do forgive men their trespaces, your heauenly Father wil also forgiue you. But if ye do not forgive men their trespaces, no more will your Father forgiue your trespaces” (Matt. 6.14-15, Genevan). Several other passages from the New Testament, prominently Luke 6.36[xi] and 11.4,[xii] James 2.13,[xiii] and Ephesians 4.32,[xiv] also echo the logic of Ecclus. 28.1-5.

Thus, in the case of Merchant 4.1.200-202 Shaheen lists Matt. 6.12, 14-15 as the “best known prayer for mercy,” but cites alternative New Testament sources,[xv] as well as Ecclus 28.2 and 28.4, as possible sources for Portia’s doctrine of the mercy. Although singling out Ecclus. 28.4[xvi] as Shakespeare’s most plausible source For Henry V 2.2.79-81, Shaheen also lists James 2.13 as a possible influence. Shaheen, moreover, rejects Carter’s theory of the influence of Ecclus 28.1-5 on the passages from Merchant 4.1.315-316 and Richard II 5.3.131-34, plausibly favoring James 2.13 as the more direct inspiration for Merchant and identifying Matt. 6.14-15 and Eph. 4.32 as closest to Shakespeare’s thought and language in Richard II.

Granting the complexity of disentangling influences that are likely to have been additive and complementary rather than mutually exclusive – reflecting Shakespeare’s versatile and associative memory, which has been demonstrated to frequently recall multiple sources of a single thought[xvii] – it is evident that the formative influence of Ecclus. 28.1-5 on Shakespeare’s ideal of reciprocal mercy has been underestimated, perhaps because of a lingering cultural bias against the apocryphal wisdom books. When Carter, for instance, compares only New Testament sources[xviii] for a line of Lord Say’s, directed against rebellious tyrant Cade in 2 Henry VI, he overlooks a much more fundamental resonance with Ecclus. 28.2-5:

Say. Ah countrymen, if when you make your prayers

God should be so obdurate as yourselves,

How would it fare with your departed souls?…

Cade. Away with him! And do as I command ye.


Ten lines later, Cade’s “obdurate” rebel companions return in triumph, revealing the grisly spectacle of the heads of Say and his aristocratic associates displayed on pitchforks.

Close comparison reveals that Ecclus 28 provides a more secure and relevant pretext for the passage than do Carter’s alternative sources[xix]:

Ecclesiasticus 28.4-5 2 Henry VI, 4.7.114-6
2. Forgive thy neighbor… the hurt that he hathe done to thee, so shal thy sinnes be forgiven thee also, when thou praiest….4. He will shewe no mercie to a man, wc is like him self: and will he ask forgiveness of his own sinnes?  5. If he that is but flesh, nourish hatred, [and ask pardone of God,] who wil intreate for his sinnes? 

(Italics added)

Ah countrymen, if when you make your prayers 

God should be so obdurate as yourselves,

How would it fare with your departed souls?

(Italics added) 

Say’s speech not only imitates the logic, but also copies the interrogative syntax, of Ecclesiasticus.  The man who nourishes “hatred” (28.5), although “himself” merely “flesh” (28.4), cannot expect absolution. When he “prays,” he adopts an “obdurate”— to use Shakespeare’s word — stance of misplaced moral righteousness. He prosecutes the misdemeanors of his “neighbor” (28.2) [xx] while hypocritically expecting himself to be forgiven before God and man. Cade’s revolutionary zeal enacts an unconscious parody of the principle articulated in Ecclus. 28.2-5; even his use of the word “command” ironically reinforces the theological undercurrent, revealing him as a revolutionary unconsciously enacting an tragicomedy, equating himself with the lawgiver Moses while summarily authorizing political murder, without even a pretense of judicial justification.[xxi]

While both Noble and Shaheen acknowledge in theory the wide-ranging influence of Ecclesiasticus on Shakespeare, they too discount the seminal influence of Ecclus. 28.2-5 on Shakespeare’s theology. Henry V 2.2.79-81 is a case in point. One argument in favor of Ecclesiasticus 28.2-5 as the preferred source, which is no doubt why both authors include it as a possible source, is the word “mercy,” which occurs in Ecclesiasticus but not in any of the variant New Testament sources except James 2.13.

More telling by far is the argument from dramatic context, which confirms the impression drawn from lexical evidence. In the cited line Henry rebukes the conspirators Cambridge, Scroop, and Northumberland, whose plotted regicide has been revealed to him. All three are begging for their lives even though, not forty lines earlier, each had each urged harsh punishment against a commoner jailed for slandering the King.  In this context Henry is, quite specifically, condemning the precise hypocrisy identified in Ecclus. 4: “He will shewe no mercie to a man, wc is like him self: and will he ask forgiveness of his own sinnes?”  Read alongside Ecclus. 28.2-5, the entire scene constitutes a dramatic illustration of the principles enunciated in the Biblical pericope; here is nothing in the New Testament, including the Sermon on the mount, that so precisely recalls the language and the circumstances of Henry V 2.2.79-81.

Beyond such instances of misplaced emphasis on New Testament sources, there are at least two further Shakespearean references, undetected by Carter, Noble, or Shaheen, to the Ecclus. 28.1-5. doctrine of mercy. Both occur, interestingly, in the Tempest –in which the theme of mercy of course forms a prominent theme.   Because these allusions supply another example of Shakespeare’s strategy of amplificatio, the schoolboy’s technique for expanding a relatively compact source passage to form the theme of an extended dialogue, the imitation can only be spotted by means of a careful perusal of several lines:

Ariel. …your charm so strongly works them,

That if you now beheld them, your affections

Would become tender.

Prospero. Does thou think so, spirit?

Ariel. Mine would, sir, were I human.

Prosper. And mine shall.

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling

Of their afflictions, and shall not myself

One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,

Passion as they, be kindlier mov’d than thou art?

(5.1.16-23; emphasis mine)

It is clear that Ecclesiasticus 28.2-5, and not any of the alternative Bible sources of the doctrine of mercy, lies behind this passage. Only the passage from the apocrypha admits the distinction on which Ariel bases his tutorial, between the fleshly weakness of humankind (including Prospero), and the supernatural impartiality of spiritual beings like himself. Paradoxically, if Ariel were human, he would “become tender” towards Prospero’s enemies, and have mercy upon them. Prospero gets the point, and – like Lord Say – echoes the interrogative form of Shakespeare’s source:


Ecclus 28.5



“If he that is but flesh, nourish hatred, [and ask pardone of God,] who wil intreate for his sinnes?” Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling 

Of their afflictions, and shall not myself

One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,

Passion as they, be kindlier mov’d than thou art?

Ariel’s enlightenment, having been absorbed by Shakespeare’s frail magus, is echoed in Prospero’s epilogue, when he exhorts the audience to apply the doctrine of Ecclus. 28.2-5, to free him from his own magic circle:

Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,

And my ending is despair

Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardoned be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

(epi. 13-20)

Although it might here be argued that Shakespeare recalls a more generic version of the principle of reciprocal mercy,  the surrounding context, which emphatically exhorts the audience to employ prayer as a weapon “which pierces so that it assaults,” as well as the earlier and more definitive reference to the apocryphal pericope, both suggest the controlling influence of Ecclus. 28.2-5 on Prospero’s epilogue.[xxii]


Coppin State University

Baltimore, MD

[i] Thomas Carter, Shakespeare and Holy Scripture With the Version He Used. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1905.


[ii] Thomas Carter, Ibid.: “the Genevan Bible was the version used by Shakespeare” (4).  Richmond Noble, Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge. New York: Octagon Books Reprint 1970, first published 1935, concurs with qualification, 58-69; R.A.L. Burnet, in a whole series of N&Q articles –ccxxvi (1979) 113-14; ccxxvvii (1980), 179-80; ccxxvii (1981), 129; ccxxviii (1982), 127-8 — discusses the prominent traces of Genevan marginal notes in the plays. Also in agreement are Naseeb Shaheen, “Shakespeare’s Knowledge of the Bible–How Acquired,” Shakespeare Survey 1988, 201-214; Roger Stritmatter, N &Q xxxxiiii:4 (1997), 514-516; Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays. Newark: Associated University Presses, 1999,  39, 44. See also, most recently, Groves, Beatrice,  “Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the Genevan Marginalia,” Essays in Criticism, 57:2 (2007), 114-128. Although Noble and Shaheen agree that Carter’s exclusive emphasis on the Genevan was misplaced, more than a century of scholarship has established as beyond reasonable dispute Shaheen’s conclusion that “Shakespeare’s references are often closer to the Geneva Bible than to any other version” (1999, 39).  It is surprising in view of this overwhelming testimony to still see some Shakespearean scholars (e.g. Greenblatt, Stephen, Will in the World, New York: W.W. Norton, 2004, 35) asserting the contrary as a fact.

[iii] Noble, op. cit.

[iv] Shaheen 1988, op. cit., 212.

[v] Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999, 799-800.

[vi] Apocryphal books such as Esdras provided a Biblical rationale for doctrines of purgatory and prayers for the dead. Since Protestantism rejected these doctrines it was only natural that many Protestants would object to including in the Holy Bible the books that supported them. As early as the Council of Trent in 1546 the Roman Church responded to this Protestant trend by declaring the apocrypha canonical and pronouncing an anathema on anyone who did not accept them.

[vii] A whole series of Jacobean issues of the Authorized King James translation (1616, 1618, 1620, 1622, 1626, 1627, 1629, 1630, and 1633) are also said to lack the apocrypha, although whether the motivation for the removal was pecuniary or theological is open to question. Official Anglican doctrine followed the precedent set at Trent, and supported the inclusion of the books. In 1615 George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury, directed that no Bibles were to be sold without them, on pain of a year’s imprisonment. The removal did not become official Anglican doctrine until 1885.

[viii] Stritmatter, Roger, The Marginalia of Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible:  Providential Discovery, Literary Reasoning, and Historical Consequence, University of Massachusetts PhD dissertation, 2001, 72.

[ix] Op cit, 197. Carter also lists James 2.13 and Prov. 21.12 as possible influences. All Shakespeare line numbers are standardized to the 1974 Riverside edition, G. Blakemore Evans, ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[x] Op cit, 177. Carter also lists Eph. 4.32, Matt. 28.35, and Isa. 55.7 as possible influences.

[xi] Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.

[xii] And forgive us our sinnes: for even as we forgive everie man that is indetted to us: and lead us not into temptation: but deliver us from evil.

[xiii] For there shalbe iudgement merciles to him that sheweth no mercie, & mercie reioyceth against iudgement.

[xiv] Be ye courteous to one another, & tender hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christs sake forgave you.

[xv] Luke 6.36 and Luke 11.4.

[xvi] In this case in the Bishop’s translation, which has “dare” for Geneva’s “will” (28.4), is reflected in Shakespeare’s wording, “you must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy.”

[xvii] See John Erskine Hankins, Shakespeare’s Derived Imagery, Lawrence, Ka, University of Kansas: 1953, 9-11.

[xviii] Carter cites Matt. 5.7: Blessed are the merciful: for thei shal obteine mercie; Luke 11.14 (see fn. xii), and James 2.13 (see fn. xiii).

[xix] The passage is not analyzed either by Noble (1935) or Shaheen (1999).

[xx] C.f., Say’s “countryman.”

[xxi] Notoriously, Cade has already announced that the “first thing” a revolutionary should do is to “kill all the lawyers” (4.2.68).

[xxii] See David R. Clark, “Ecclesiasticus and Prospero’s Epilogue,” Shakespeare Quarterly (1966: 17, 79-81), on the possible, complementary, influence of Ecclus. 35.6-7.

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