The Influence of Romans Genevan Note on Sonnet 151



By Roger Stritmatter

Reprinted from Notes and Queries, December 1997

SHAKESPEARE’S special familiarity with the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible has been known at least since 1905 when Carter docu­mented the influence of such Genevan notes as those at I Thessalonians 5:19, I Corinthians 6:9, II Corinthians 12:4, and Isaiah 66:24[1] in several Shakespeare plays. In a series of recent Notes and Queries contributions supplying fresh evidence for Shakespeare’s familiarity with marginal notes in the Geneva Bible,[2] R. A. L. Burnet speculates on the significant implications for students of Shakespeare sources:

words found in the margin will not have circulated very readily nor become prover­bial sayings. Shakespeare cannot have heard these words either in church or in conversation; he could only have read them.[3]

(emphasis added)

With this dictum in mind, I propose to con­sider the dual influence of the text of Romans 7:18-20 and the Genevan note (n) glossing Romans 7:19, not found in the Bishop’s or other sixteenth-century translations of Romans 7, on Shakespeare Sonnet 151. First let us review some of the abundant evidence for Shakespeare’s intimate familiarity with the text per se of Romans 7:18-20:

For I knowe, that in me, that it, in my
flesh, dwelleth no good thing: for to wil is
present with me: but I finds no meanes to
perforate that which is good.

For I do not the good thing, which I
wolde, (n) but the evil, which I wolde not,
that do I. Now if I do that I wolde not, it is no more
I that do it, but the sinne yt dwelleth in me.

In his famous meditation on the ontology of sin (hamartia), Paul lays out the paradoxical doctrine of the dual character of sin – an agency which is both somehow a part of the person and also an independent agent, which wills actions which the ego or the will renounces. Carter[4] discovered a reference to these verses in As You Like It:

Celia. Was’t you that did so oft contrive to kill him?

Oliver. ‘Twas I, but ‘tis not I. I do not shame
To tell you what I was, since my conversion
So sweetly tastes, being the thing I am.

(IV.ii.136-9: emphasis added)

Carter[5] finds one, Noble[6] and Shaheen[7] two, in Measure for Measure:

Isabella. There is a vice .. .
For which I would not plead, but that I may;
For which I may not plead, but that I am
At war ‘twixt will and not will.
(II.ii.29-93: emphasis added)[8]

Angelo. When once our grace we have forgot. Nothing goes right – we would, and we would not.


And, finally, Carter[10] and Milward[11] both cite the prominent influence of these verses in Hamlet’s apologia to Laertes – in which St Paul is cited nominally against an Aristotelian theory of tragedy caused by the hero’s hamar­tia[12] rather than the machinations of Claudius and Polonius:

Hamlet. Give me your pardon, sir.
I have done you wrong.. ..
Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes?
Never Hamlet! I! Hamlet from himself be t’aen away.
And when he’s not himself deos wrong Laertes, Then Hamlet does it not.
Hamlet denies it. Who does it then? His madness.[13]
If it be so, Hamlet is of the faction which is wronged.
His madness it poor Hamlet’s enemy.

Such examples illustrate the powerful form­ative influence of Romans 7:15-20 on Shake­speare’s theology of sin and even his conceptualization of tragic action in at least one of the great tragedies.[14] In Sonnet 151, Shakespeare’s exploration of the same problem picks up the clue in Romans 7:18 embodied in the word ‘flesh’. The poet personifies sin as the male penis which ‘stays no farther reason’ than its own gratification.

Love is too young to know what conscience is.
Yet who knowes not conscience is borne of love,
Then gentle cheater urge not my amisse
Least guilty of my fault thy sweet selfe prove.
For thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my grose bodies treason,
My soule doth tell my body that he may,
Triumph in love, flesh staies no farther reason
But rysing at thy name doth point out thee,
As his triumphant prize, proud of his pride,
He is contented thy poore drudge to be
To stand in thy affaires, fall by thy side.
No want of conscience hold it that I call,
Her love, for whose deare love I rise and fall.

The complex linguistic mediation between the carnal and epistemological significations of words and phrases such as ‘knows’, ‘con­science’, ‘nobler part’, ‘rise at they name’, ‘stand in thy affaires’, or ‘for whose dear love I rise and fall’ is explored in detail by Booth,[15] who relates the entire poem to the proverbial Penis erectus non habet conscientiam.

So far as I am aware, however, Sonnet 151 has never been linked with Romans 7:18-20, of which it is an elaborate paraphrase. But the Sonnet also contains language which links it indubitably to the Genevan marginal note (n) which accompanies Romans 7:19:

n The flesh stayeth even y moste perfect to ru­ne forwarde as y spirit wisheth.

(italics added)

Shakespeare echoes the Geneva note phrase, flesh stayeth, in the concluding lines of the second quatrain of Sonnet 151:

My soule doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love, flesh states no farther reason.[16]

This unusual conjunctive influence of marginal note – subject to Burnet’s stricture above – and Biblical verse (in theory derivative from any of several possible other sixteenth-century trans­lations of the New Testament or even from homiletic sources or sermons) supplies an additional proof confirming Shakespeare’s fre­quent and direct consultation of the Geneva Bible and the ‘bitter notis’ which, by so dis­turbing Archbishop Parker,[17] helped to inspire he preparation and publication of the official Anglican (f.p. 1568) Bishop’s Bible.

Roger Stritmatter, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

[1] Thomas Carter, Shakespeare and Holy Scripture (1905), 15.


[2] N&Q, ccxxvi (1979), 113-14; ccxxvii (1980), 179-80; ccxxvii (1981), 129, ccxxviii (1982), 127-8.

[3] N&Q, ccxxvi (1979), 113.

[4] Carter, op. cit., 333.

[5] Carter, op. cit., 404.

[6] Richmond Noble, Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge (1935). 222, 228.

[7] Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Comedies (1993), 191,200.

[8] Noble, op. at. (1935). cites Romans 7:15 and 23;  Shaheen, op. cit. (1993), Romans 7:15, 19. and 23.

[9] Noble, op. cit. (1935), cites Romans 7:15-16;  Shaheen, op. cit. (1993), Romans 7:15-16 and see also  Romans 7:19-20.

[10] Carter, op. cit. (1905), 381-2.

[11] Peter Milward, Biblical Influences in Shakespeare’s Great Tragedies (1987), 57-8.

[12] Poetics XIII.8-10, 15-17.

[13] Shakespeare substitutes the secular psychological notion of “madness” for the hamartia of Aristotle and Paul.

[14] Of these, the only two which seem to confirm to the Aristotelian definition of ends brought about by the hamartia of the heroic agent are Lear (hubris) and Othello (jea­lousy).

[15] Stephen Booth, Shake-speare’s Sonnets: Edited with Analytic Commentary (1977), 524-9.

[16] What is more, the action posited in the note of flesh ‘running forward as y spirit wisheth’ seems carried on in the Sonnet’s corporeal pun of the unstayed flesh ‘rysing at thy name.’

[17] On the theological controversy elicited by the Genevan notes, see Maurice S. Bettcridge, “The Bitter Notes: The The Geneva Bible and Its Annotations’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, xvi, 1 (1983), 41-62.

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