13th April


Professor Graham Holderness explores why the King James Bible and Shakespeare are continually, though not always rationally, interconnected in the popular imagination.

In the popular imagination, Shakespeare and the King James Bible are inextricably linked. In a recent TV programme with the self-explanatory title The King James Bible: the Book that Changed the World, Melvyn Bragg illustrates his view that no other book has had so much influence on the English language partly by reference to the works of Shakespeare. We see Bragg walking round Stratford, sitting in Holy Trinity Church, hearing in voice-over a series of biblically influenced Shakespeare quotations. But there is some embarrassment about this claim, since virtually all of Shakespeare’s plays had been written, performed and even published before the 1611 translation appeared. In order to connect the two, Melvyn Bragg talks about Shakespeare’s works being saturated with ‘the Bible that for the most part became the King James Bible’. In which case the King James Bible must have been doing its work of influencing the language long before it was actually produced. This thought might have comforted William Tyndale, when he was being garrotted and burned for creating that translation that became the King James Bible, crying out ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes’.

Shakespeare’s ‘Complete Works’, originating with the First Folio of 1623, and the King James Bible of 1611, are commonly thought of as twin master-documents of Western civilization. The two books are clearly contiguous in history, and enjoy a comparable classic status. Both were published under the aegis of royal patronage: both carry dedications to royal or aristocratic patrons; both represent canonical compilations of works initially written and published as individual texts that bore quite different relations to one another. Both books were produced in the same publishing format, a bound folio text, printed in double columns. Both volumes collected and circulated writings already accessible to lettered and unlettered alike, through the ear, from every church pulpit and from the stages of the metropolitan theatre. Both embodied the intention of fixing a text so that no further corruption or mistranslation could be visited upon it. And both failed in that enterprise.

But these are parallels and similarities, not intertextual connections. The Bible is certainly inside Shakespeare, but not in the King James Version, since that new translation post-dated virtually all his plays. His bible of choice seems to have been the Calvinist Geneva Bible, published in 1560, the translation King James himself most disliked for its subversive political opinions on kingship and authority. When Shakespeare echoed St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians in The Merchant of Venice, it was the Geneva translation he had in his memory:

That light we see is burning in my hall.
How far that little candle throws his beams!

Do all things without murmuring … That ye may be blameless, and pure, and the sonnes of God without rebuke in the middes of a naughtie and crooked nation, among whom yee shine as lights in the world.

It has been suggested that conversely Shakespeare’s language is echoed in the King James Bible, though this seems unlikely, given the contemporary antagonism of theatre and Reformed church. Stage-plays were vigorously denounced from pulpit and pamphlet, and the theatres were eventually closed during the Commonwealth. The ecclesiastical translators were not playgoers. The Puritans who initiated the new translation were certainly hostile to the theatre: Dr John Rainolds, President of Corpus Christi College Oxford, who put the proposal for the new translation to the King, had earlier published a particularly aggressive denunciation of the theatre (together with other sports and leisure pursuits), Th’overthrow of Stage-Playes.

But even as Shakespeare and the King James Bible are pulled inevitably apart by the currents of historical evidence, some inscrutable instinct of design pulls them back together again. Surely there must be some surer connection between the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare? If the KJB is not inside Shakespeare, perhaps Shakespeare himself might have had a role in the KJB? Between 1604 and 1611, while the translation was being prepared, Shakespeare was a servant in the king’s household, and at the peak of his career. The black revolutionary leader Malcolm X asked the question ‘if Shakespeare existed’ and was ‘the top poet around’, why was he not involved in the translation of the Bible? A glance at Internet chatter on this subject will show you people convinced that Shakespeare must have had a hand in it. Novelists have written stories depicting Shakespeare as a contributor to the translation of the King James Bible. Thus Shakespeare and the King James Bible continue to be linked, as they are in this enterprise of Shakespeare’s Globe. But we are still some way off reaching any explanation of quite why that should be so.

Professor Holderness will also be giving the Sam Wanamaker Fellowship Lecture on June 14th.