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The Bible was a source of inspiration for many great writers, most notably William Shakespeare (1564-1616). He used over 1,300 documented biblical references in his plays written from 1589-1613. Studies on the biblical references of Shakespearean plays began as early as 1794.

Views are diverging regarding Shakespeare’s personal faith and theological viewpoints. Some tend to “theologize” Shakespearean plays, hence restricting his plays to a narrow Christian dimension, there are others scholars who treated his plays as mostly secular, and the biblical references merely reflect the discourse at the time.

There is no proof as to Shakespeare’s religious orientation. All that we know is that he was baptized and a conforming member of Church of England. He drew inspiration from Geneva Bible. As Geneva Bible was not read in church, his biblical knowledge was assumed to have come from private reading.

Despite the divergent views on his faith, one thing is indisputable – the knowledge of the Bible can help us understand Shakespeare better.

Roland M. Frye, trained in theology and literature and having graduated from Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, admitted in his book Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (1963) that “a familiar understanding of Christian doctrine in historical perspective thus contributes to a fuller appreciation of Shakespeare’s art, but Shakespeare’s art is not devoted to theologizing the theatre.”

Christian elements are richly embedded in certain Shakespearean works, including Hamlet, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, Merchant of Venice, among others. An understanding of the Bible will help you appreciate the underlying meanings in Shakespearean plays better.
(The following needs not to be translated)

Let’s take a look at some biblical references in Shakespearean plays:

On Creation
…and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (Hamlet 2.2)
For dust you are and to dust you will return. (Genesis 3:19)

On Abel and Cain
Which blood, like sacrificing Abel’s cries,
Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth,
To me for justice and rough chastisement. (Hamlet 3.3)
And the Lord said, “What have you done?
Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10 NRSV)

On Job
Forgive and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37)
I as free forgive as I would be forgiven (Henry VII, 2:1)

In the New Testament
I am as poor as Job, my lord; but not so patient. (Henry IV, Part 2 (1.2))
Ye have heard of the patience of Job. (James 5:11 KJV)

Do good to them that hate you. (Matthew 5:44)
Cherish those hearts that hate thee. (Henry VII, 3:2)

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. (Matthew 19:24)
It is as hard to come as for a camel to thread through the postern of a needle’s eye. (Richard II, 5:5)

Some verses in Shakespeare are directly taken from the Bible. Let’s look at these parallels:

Blessed are the peacemakers on earth.
Henry VI, Part 2(2.1) and Matthew 5:9 (KJV)
My name be blotted from the book of life.
Richard II (1.3) and Psalm 69:28 (KJV)
What his heart thinks his tongue speaks.
Much Ado about Nothing (3.2) and Matthew 12:34 (KJV)

Some verses in Shakespeare are directly taken from the Bible. Let’s look at these parallels:

Frye, Roland Mushat. Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine. Princeton,
New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963.
Marx, Steven. Shakespeare and the Bible. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2000.
Zhang Kuiwu 張奎武. “The artistic effects of biblical allusions in Shakespearean plays 聖經典故在莎劇中的藝術效果”,
Foreign Literature Criticisms 外國文學評論 (1 1994): 111-116


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