William Shakespeare and the Bible

This article throws some light on William Shakespeare and the Bible. The Oxfordians, the Grevilles and other doubters of Shakespeare's authorship might bear it in mind when questioning his lack of experience and knowledge :

(Primary sources: Thomas Carter’s  Shakespeare and Holy Scripture and Peter Milward’s Shakespeare's Religious Background)


Short history of the English Bible


1537  Coverdale Bible (earliest complete English Bible).  Matthew's Bible


1539  The Great Bible. Cranmer publisher; 11,000 published in seven editions over two year period


1560  Geneva Bible.  Informed by the scholarship of the Reformation.  The first version divided into chapter and verses; contained copious notes, a commentary, a concordance, and tables of Scriptural names; in 1579 the Calvinistic catechism, the Church Service, and a Psalter were added.  Because of its relative low cost, it was an extremely popular version.  Between 1560-1630 went through 160 editions; became the household Bible of the people; far over-shadowed the Great Bible.


1568  The Bishop's Bible. Commissioned by Archbishop Parker; had a life of 40 yrs., went through 19 editions, was large, and very expensive.


1609  Douai Bible. The Roman Catholic version.


1611  The Authorized or King James Bible. Work began in 1604 by a committee of scholars headed by the noted classic scholar from Cambridge, John Bois, born in 1560, four years before Shakespeare.  Guided by his father, by the time Bois was six, he had read the entire Bible in Hebrew.  The committee was split into six groups of translators: two in Westminster, two in Oxford, and two in Cambridge.  Each of these committees had at least eight scholars.  After six years of meticulous work, the six groups sent their work to London for a final review.  Bois was on the final six member review committee.  From extensive notes he took during this process we can see how tirelessly the final committee worked to hone the translation to “perfection.”  Indeed, the final review committee’s last benchmark was to insure they produced a translation that not only read better than other versions but also sounded better.  


Uses a scant 8,000 different words.  Shakespeare, by contrast, uses approximately 30,000 different words in his corpus.  The average educated person today has a vocabulary of perhaps 15,000 words.


The significance of Shakespeare's use of the Bible

Shakespeare, born in 1564, probably was exposed to the Great Bible, the Bishop's Bible, and the Geneva Bible.  A close study of his use of Scripture in his work confirms that he probably learned the Bible through the Geneva version.  Thomas Carter in Shakespeare and Holy Scripture argues that "no writer has assimilated the thoughts and reproduced the words of Holy Scripture more copiously than Shakespeare."  According to another critic, Shakespeare "is saturated with the Bible story".

Carter further argues that Shakespeare's plays demonstrate a mind "richly stored with the thoughts and words of the English Bible".  He then infers that Shakespeare probably gained this knowledge in childhood as that is the time we most easily become grounded in memorizing Scripture.  Yet his familiarity with the Bible  neither means he always uses it in a religious sense nor that he was a Christian--it is never good literary criticism to take the words of an author's characters and ascribe them to the author.

According to Peter Milward (Shakespeare's Religious Background), Shakespeare's familiarity with the Bible is extensive.  There is hardly a book in the OT or NT which is not represented in his plays; this argues for his close knowledge of Scripture.  The books he seems to have known most thoroughly, even in places by heart, are Genesis, Job, the Psalms, Ecclesiasticus, Matthew, Luke, and Romans.  In his use of them he does not merely borrow an occasional phrase or allusion for enrichment of the dramatic language, but he derives the central ideas and images that run through all his plays.  It might be possible to characterize each stage of his dramatic development in terms of some major Biblical influence.

The comedies, Milward says, turn on the great texts on marriage from Genesis, Matthew, and Ephesians; the history plays on the treatment of kingship as a sacred institution in the books of Samuel; the problem plays, on the Pauline theology of sin and redemption; the great tragedies on the accounts of Adam's sin and the passion of Christ; the romances on Christ's teaching of forgiveness and Paul's proclamation of new life in Jesus Christ.  Each play, of course, treats a secular subject in a secular way, but its thought is invariably charged with religious overtones, largely in virtue of the frequent though subtle Biblical allusions.  In brief, it may be said that Shakespeare's view of human life in neither more nor less than the Biblical view with the imperfections of the OT supplemented by the teaching and life of Christ in the NT.

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Another article offers further information about William Shakespeare and the Bible.

By some accounts, William Shakespeare’s tragedy, “King Lear,” is the Bible in miniature and features biblical components including wisdom and divine justice, parables and miracles.

A scene in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” seems to mimic Judas’ kiss of betrayal before Jesus is crucified.

If Coon Rapids resident Jim Bofenkamp has anything to say about it, those who read Shakespeare’s plays will recognize and appreciate how much the playwright borrowed from the Bible as he created plots and scenes, dialogue and characters.

For the last two years, Bofenkamp has taught a “Shakespeare and the Bible” class, meeting at Faith Lutheran and Epiphany Catholic churches in Coon Rapids and exploring and uncovering the connection between the bard and the Bible.


According to some Shakespearean experts, there is hardly a book in the Old or New Testament which is not represented in Shakespeare’s plays.

And Bofenkamp is of the same mind on the matter.

“I started writing a paper on ‘Coriolanus’ and came up with tons of similarities (between the play and the Bible),” Bofenkamp said.

“I thought if there is this much biblical material in one play, what is there in the other ones,” he said, describing his entry into the treasure hunt of uncovering the connections between Shakespeare and the Bible.

Bofenkamp’s original attraction to all things Shakespearean began more than four decades ago, when as a sixth-grader, he read “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

His recent investigations into Shakespeare’s works have only deepened that fascination, Bofenkamp said.

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The First Shakespeare Theatre Uncovered >   The Plot >

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