Reprinted from the March 2000 (245: 47, 1) issue of Notes and Queries
Miranda. How came we ashore?
Prospero. By Providence divine.
AN impressive scholarly tradition documents the pervasive influence of many Genevan Bible marginal notes in Shakespeare. As early as 1905 Carter1 had directed attention to the formative influence of the striking wording of a note (1) attached to Isaiah 66:24, among others,2 on Shakespeare’s theological sensibility. This note glosses the phrase ‘their worm shall not die’ with the traditional Christian figure, most serviceable to the Protestant cause espoused by the Marian reformers, of the worm as a ‘continual torment of conscience’ (italics added). Shakespeare, as noted by Carter, makes at least two distinctive references3 to this idea. More recently, a series of
short articles by R. A. L. Burnet have documented the unmistakable imprint of such notes from the Psalms, Ezekiel, II Samuel, II Chronicles, Numbers, and Job,4 a dense group from the first seven chapters of Job,5 and from Isaiah 40.6 Finally, the present writer has recently brought forward further evidence attesting to Shakespeare’s close notice of the Genevan note attached to Romans 7:20, the wording of which is reflected, along with that of Romans 7:20 itself, in Sonnet 151.7
Before considering additional evidence of a similar character which underscores this tradition by documenting Shakespeare’s previously undetected awareness of certain specific Genevan notes from / Samuel, it may be relevant to reconsider the epistemological implications of these results. Such references, as Burnet indicates, provide conclusive witness for written -as distinct from oral – transmission of much of Shakespeare’s Biblical knowledge. Declares Burnet: ‘words found in the margin will not have circulated very readily nor become proverbial sayings. Shakespeare could not have heard these words either in Church or conversation; he could only have read them’.8 Evidence for Shakespeare’s awareness of such notes therefore constitutes impressive reinforcement for the conclusions of Noble (1935) and Shaheen (1988), who both regarded Shakespeare’s notorious affinity for Ecclesiasticus, a book with limited influence in Anglican and Catholic liturgical practice, as witness of his devotional reading practices.9
Despite their influence, however, as Burnet notes, ‘the margins have been largely neglected … by earlier students of the Bible and Shakespeare’.10 This brief note seeks to help redress this lacuna by examining three thematically linked Genevan marginal notes, all concerning the existential tension between limited human
will and the unerring aim of providence, from I Samuel. I Samuel’s narrative of the military struggles of the early Hebrew dynasty apparently proved a fertile paradigm of this theme for Renaissance editors such as William Whit-tingham, and Shakespeare appears to have consciously recalled a number of Whittin-gham’s notes when contemplating the premiss that ‘there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will’ (Hamlet, V.ii.10).
Shakespeare’s reference to these notes – in some cases distinct and unambiguous, and in others oblique or thematic in nature – is not mere rhetorical adornment. As many commentators have noted,11 Shakespeare follows the traditional techniques of Renaissance topology by deploying Biblical reference as a conscious method of the elaboration of an argument.12 Shakespearian characters buttress their positions, unintentionally reveal a character defect, or even place an entire episode under the quotation marks of irony, when they cite scripture. In Shakespeare there is a definite functional relation between a play’s themes and the Biblical allusions which provide topo-logical pretexts for dialogue and debate, so that ‘meaning seems … to be drawn out of the often disparate acts [of a play] by what seems… a very conscious uses of places, as a means of discovering all of the topics the fable might possibly contain’.13
An instances of this amplificatio of propositions by putting them through the varying hoops of Renaissance topology is All’s Well That Ends Well, in which conflict between the divine and human will, and its existential relation to questions of fate or fortune invoked in gambling and sortilage, becomes a predominating theme. Helena’s problem is how to attain the ‘bright particular star’ whom fortune has placed above her common reach; she consciously transforms herself into an agent of the divine will, one of those ‘weakest ministers’ whom ‘He that of greatest works is finisher’ (II.i.137) employs to effect his terrestrial plan.
Even in these brief excerpts, one catches a tantalizing glimpse of the author’s adroit variation on the play’s own titled focus on the happy telos: it seems that all ends well for Shakespeare only when human agency functions in syngergistic alliance with the divine will, expressed through a humble but gifted heroine like Helena.
To be sure, Helena is no Puritan; she is a casuist who can seem to argue either side of the question of divine will, depending on prevailing circumstances. Defending the virtues of virginity in debate with Parolles, she confutes predestination and asserts the autonomy of the human will:
Helena. Our remedies oft at ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven.
The fated sky Gives us free scope,
only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
(All’s Well, I.i.216-19: italics added)
Later however, attempting to persuade a reluctant King to accept to trial of her remedies, Helena condemns the ‘presumption’ by which mortals ascribe the effects of divine intervention to their own designs:
It is not so with Him that all things knows,
As ’tis with us that square our guess by shows;
But most it is presumption in us when the help of heaven
We count the act of men.
(II.i.154: italics added);
A biblical origin for both passages has long been suspected; Carter cites Ecclesiasticus 15:16 and Deuteronomy 30:15-1914 as possible sources of the first, Ecclesiasticus 39:19-20, Ezekiel 11:5 and Acts 15:18 for the second.I15 However, the combined influence of the marginal notes (i) and (r) from I Samuel 14 provides a far more persuasive topos of origin for the Shakespearian ideas and idioms in question. Consider these two texts:
i. Suche was his hypocricie & Arrogancie, yt he thoght to attribute To his policie yt which God had given By the hand of Jonathan.
r. Cause yt lot to fall on him yt hath broke the othe: but he doeth not consider his Presumption in commanding The same oath.
(Genevan 1570,16 t recto, t2 verso: emphasis added)
Although the gambling idiom is suppressed in Helena’s speech, reference to those who ‘square’ their guesses ‘by shows’ – that is, who gamble on appearances instead of placing faith in providence – indicates that mathematical probability, and by inference the casting of lots as a means of prophecy, is not far from the heroine’s mind. Indeed, All’s Well is pervaded by portents of cosmic sortilage: the clown LaVache searches for ‘one good woman in ten’ who would ‘mend the lottery’ (I.iii.81, 86), Helena urges the king to make an ‘experiment’ of heaven by trusting her healing powers (II.i.154), and when Lafeu discourses on ‘past miracles’ (Il.iii.l) he has in mind such classic examples of improbable divine interventions recorded in the Old Testament as Moses drawing water from the rock (Numbers 20:7-8) or parting the red sea, to which Helena earlier refers (II.i.139-41).
However, of all the possible sources of the principle that God holds the trump cards in the cosmic deck, only the note (r) at I Samuel 14 designates human wilfulness in attributing success to human rather than divine intervention as a ‘presumption’, just as Helena does in the Shakespearian play.17
Shakespeare also seems to have imbibed the related moral found in an earlier note attached to I Samuel 6:9, which concerns the problem of the moral agency for the destruction of the Ark of the Covenant:
f. The wicked attribute almost all things to fortune and chance, wheras in dede there is nothing done without God’s providence and decree.
(Genevan 1570; s6 verso)
This contribution to the great debate between adherents of the ‘pagan’ Goddess far-tuna and those of the Judeo-Christian principle of divine providence™ by Genevan editor William Whittingham is directly reflected in Macbeth, where the ironic inversion of Whittingham’s moral testifies to the Scottish king’s character as one of the wicked who ‘attribute all things to fortune and chance’:
Macbeth. If chance will crown me, chance will have me king!
Several passages in Hamlet, the most ‘Cal-vinist’ of all the plays, concern the same theological question of whether chance, God, or human intentions directs final ends. Hamlet, caught up in the same problem as Macbeth, reaches the opposite conclusion, when he analyses the secret means by which he outwitted Claudius’s plans to secretly murder him in England:
Hamlet. Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us There’s a divinity who shapes our ends, Rough hew them how we will.” (V.ii.8-11)
Hamlet’s dictum that
There’s providence in the fall of a sparrow
although it draws upon other sources,20 expresses the same faith in the encompassing purposefulness of the divine will marked21 in the I Samuel note. Finally, the player king also foreshadows Hamlet’s own moral, when he declares that
Our thoughts are ours, our ends none of our own
Reference to the power of God to direct human ends, again with the specific wording of casting lots so prominent in I Samuel 14 and its Geneva notes, occurs in Richard II’.
Mowbray. However God or fortune cast my lot
Carter cites Proverbs 16:3322 and the accompanying note:
33. The lot is cast into the lappe, but the whole disposition thereof is of the Lord.23
The marginal notes of I Samuel, which also specify that God – despite moral presumption to the contrary – disposes the casting of lots, provide an equally plausible precedent for Mowbray’s sentiment.
Finally, the conflict between divine providence and limited human intention is also witnessed in Romeo and Juliet, where ignorance of the divine will is seen to be a necessary condition for tragedy, when friar Lawrence declares to Juliet that
A Greater power than we contradict Hath thwarted our intents’, come, come away, . . .
One may reliably conclude that the Geneva notes of I Samuel, particularly note (f) at I Samuel 6:9 and notes (r) and (i) in I Samuel 14, must have been among the pretexts which left an indubitable and lasting imprint on Shakespeare’s casuistical consciousness.
University of Massachusetts
1 Thomas Carter, Shakespeare and Holy Scripture (1905).
2 Carter, 15.
3 Carter, 127, 324: ‘If Don Worm (his conscience) find no impediment to the contrary . . .’ (Much Ado, V.ii.81); ‘the worm of conscience still benaw thy soul!’ (Richard III, I.iii.223). Several other passages, such as Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii.243ff. may ultimately be inspired by the conjunction of Isaiah 66 and the Genevan marginal note.
4 N&Q, ccxxvi (1979), 113-14, and ccxxvii (1980), 179-81.
5 N&Q, ccxxviii (1982), 127-8.
6 N&Q, ccxxviii (1981).
7 N&Q, ccxxxxii (1997).
8 N&Q, ccxxvi (1979), 113.
9 Richmond Noble, Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge (1935; New York: Octagon Books Reprint, 1970), 35, 43; Naseeb Shaheen, ‘Shakespeare’s Knowledge of the Bible -How Acquired’, Shakespeare Survey (1988), 201-14.
10 Burnet, N&Q (1979), 113.
11 See, for example, Mark Cosgrove, ‘Biblical, Liturgical and Classical Allusion in The Merchant of Venice’ (unpublished dissertation, 1970).
12 Marion Trousdale, Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).
13 Trousdale, 71.
14 Carter, 229.
15 Ibid., 232.
16 STC 2106, All references are to the copy owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library, shelf mark 1472, should any reader wish to avoid presumption by consulting the original.
17 Helena also applies the term self-critically to herself when she begs that Bertram’s mother ‘Be not offended, for it hurts him not / that he is loved of me: I follow him not / By any token of presumptuous suit, Nor would I have him till I do deserve him’ (I.iii.182: italics added).
18 For the classic rationalist position, see Cicero, De Divinations, particularly II.6-8, in which it is argued that ‘Nihil enim est tarn contrarium rationi et constantiae quam fortuna, ut mihi ne in deum quidem cadere videatur, ut sciat, quid casu et fortuito futurum sit. Si enim scit, certe ilium eveniet, sin certe, eveniet, nulla fortuna est; est autem fortuna; rerum igitur fortuitarum nulla praesensio est.’ [‘Surely nothing is so at variance with reason and stability as chance. Hence it seems to me that it is not in the power even of God himself to know what event is going to happen accidentally, and by chance. For if he knows, then the event is certain to happen; but if it is certain to happen, chance does not exist. And yet chance does exist, therefore foreknowledge of things that happen by chance is impossible’.] (I.vi.18).
19 Carter (153) cites Proverbs 16:9: ‘The heart of a man purposeth his way, but the Lord doth direct his steppes’; and Proverbs 19:21: ‘Many devises are in a man’s heart, but the counsell of the Lorde shal stand’; II Sam. 15:31: ‘And David sayde, O Lorde, I pray thee, turne the counsell of Ahithophel into foolishness.’
20 Most commentator’s trace Hamlet’s words to Matt. 10:29: ‘Are not two sparowes sold for one farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your father.’ See Carter, 381, Milward, 57, and Shaheen, 111. Calvin developed extensive commentary on this topic in Institutes I, xvi.l; xviii.6. The passage V.ii.231-6 may also be influenced by Cicero’s De Providentia (II.8): ‘Nihil autem est pro certo futurum, quod potest aliqua procuratione accidere ne fiat’ and/or II Corinthians 8:11: ‘Now also performe to do it also, that as there was a readines to wil, even so ye maye performe it of that which ye have.’
21 That is, remarked upon.
22 p. 153.
23 The attached Genevan note, echoing those from I Samuel, declares: ‘So there is nothing that ought to I attributed to fortune: for all things are determined in the counsell of God, which shal come to pass.’
24 Carter (69) cites Proverbs 16:6,16:33, Isaiah 43:13, a Acts 9:2 as possible alternate sources.