The Bard and the Book

I concluded the first essay on this topic by saying that I would introduce three books about Shakespeare and the Bible, but I decided to introduce four instead. The three books become four are: Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays (London: Associated University Presses, 1999); Hannibal Hamlin, The Bible in Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Steven Marx, Shakespeare and the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), and Peter Leithart, Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1996).

They fall roughly into three categories. First, Shaheen’s book catalogues the Biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays. Second, Hamlin’s work introduces the Reformed and Biblical culture of Shakespeare’s day, showing the significance of the many allusions to the Bible in the plays — though half of the book slides into the next category. Third, Marx and Leithart offer interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays and his use of the Bible. Marx is more specifically focused on Biblical allusion and its hermeneutical importance, but theological deficiencies make his work a less reliable guide than Leithart, though Leithart’s work is not specifically aimed at Biblical references and allusions. The four books provide 1) a list of references, 2) a cultural introduction to Elizabethan literary and religious sense, and 3) examples of interpreting plays in the light of Biblical allusions.

Naseeb Shaheen has provided an over-700-page list of Biblical references for Shakespeare’s 37 plays, together with appendixes, bibliography, and an index that make the whole book almost 900 pages. Three introductory chapters discuss the English Bible in Shakespeare’s day, the Anglican liturgy, and criteria for judging a valid reference. Shaheen not only combs through each play to find every reference, when possible he also indicates which English Bible Shakespeare was referring to.

The book devotes a single chapter to each play, and each chapter begins with Shaheen’s introduction to the play, including a discussion of possible sources. It is an amazing work of scholarship and will not be superseded anytime soon, though it has been pointed out by more than one reviewer that Shaheen is so conservative in applying his criteria for a Biblical reference that he seems to leave out quite a few. His list comes to about 1300 references. I would estimate no fewer than 2000, but either number reveals clearly enough that Shakespeare alluded to the Bible more than to any other single work.

The significance of his allusions, however, is not entirely evident from a list — even a long one. Hannibal Hamlin offers an immensely scholarly introduction to Shakespeare’s use of the Bible (over 800 footnotes in 336 pages) that enables us to see what allusion meant for Shakespeare and his audience, and how literary allusions functioned in the plays. Such an explanation is necessary for us because of the vast gap between our culture and Shakespeare’s:  “Shakespeare’s culture as a whole was profoundly and thoroughly biblical, a culture in which one could assume a degree of biblical knowledge that is difficult to imagine in today’s mass-media global culture” (1).

What does this mean for Shakespeare’s plays? It means that the allusions to the Bible’s teaching or stories are profoundly significant and at the same time easily done, even, for example, by the use of a single word like “serpent” in a dramatic context in which recalling the story of Adam and Eve would be natural. However, Shakespeare’s allusions are often much more subtle.

The first chapter of Hamlin’s book introduces “Reformation Biblical Culture.” The detailed discussions of the English Bible, the Book of Prayer, church life for an Englishman, Elizabethan art, and Elizabethan education give the reader a tangible sense of the intellectual and spiritual atmosphere of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Chapter 3 is particularly important, discussing allusion as a literary art and its prominence in Elizabethan culture as well as in Shakespeare’s plays. In the last 5 chapters of the book, Hamlin shows how allusion works in various plays, so that over half of his book actually belongs to my third category, though his approach is rather different from Marx and Leithart.

Marx’s first chapter includes a helpful introduction to the cultural background in Shakespeare’s day which does not entirely overlap with Hamlin. The rest of the book is devoted to the discussion of how Biblical allusion works in five plays: The Tempest (2 chapters, one on allusions to Genesis and one on Revelation), Henry V (Moses and David as types), King Lear (the suffering of Job as background), Measure for Measure (a “Gospel” comedy), and The Merchant of Venice (the argument of Paul’s epistle to the Romans transformed into a story). Though I disagree with some of his Biblical and Shakespearean interpretations, his book does show clearly how important the Biblical allusions are for interpreting the plays.

Leithart’s guide to six plays begins with an introduction to “A Christian Approach to Literary Study” that should be part of any Christian high school curriculum. Though Liethart’s approach is more thematic than lexical, relying on the Bible as his “master story” enables him to see parallels that others miss. The way he actually applies his approach to  the interpretation of Henry V, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, and Much Ado About Nothing trains the reader in how to study Shakespeare as a Christian. Each chapter ends with questions to make the book a valuable study tool.

Of the four books, only Leithart’s is avowedly Christian. The other three works are scholarly studies of Shakespeare that are not directly concerned with Shakespeare’s religion or the religion of the readers. Together the books demonstrate clearly that Shakespeare referred to the Bible frequently and intelligently to an audience that was attuned to subtle Biblical allusions in various forms. Were it not for the fact that prominent Shakespearean scholars like Harold Bloom assert that Shakespeare’s worldview was not Christian, no one who confronts the sheer mass of Biblical data in the plays would imagine that Shakespeare’s “master story” was anything other than the Bible. Given the England in which Shakespeare grew up — though there may be debate about whether or not he was a secret Catholic — it would haven been almost a miracle if Shakespeare’s basic worldview were anything other than Christian.

If Shakespeare’s plays presuppose the basic elements of the Christian worldview and follow the “master story” of the Bible, then we might ask whether they were also Christian in the sense of being written and performed in order to edify, as well as entertain. I will argue that intention is evident in what Bloom and others regard as a “dark” play. In the next articles in this series, I will show how Shakespeare uses the Bible to structure the story of Macbeth, presenting an historical drama that would edify the viewers — a drama that is not “accidentally” Christian simply because of the culture, but one that is consciously designed to mirror Biblical stories to provoke the audience to contemplate sin and its consequences.

Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church in Tokyo.

Share Button

  • In Medias Res Newsletter Signup

  • Categories