The Bible Within
(This is the 13th chapter of the English e-book of 2013)
About the fact that Shakespearian theater and the Bible have much of their DNA in common there cannot be any doubt. Four scholars—Thomas Carter in 1905, Richmond Noble in 1935, Naseeb Shaheen in 1987 and 1999, and Steven Marx in 2004—have looked at the question, and apart from differences of method and purpose, divergent interpretations of this or that passage in Scripture, they all converge on the amply demonstrated conclusion that Shakespeare’s dramatic writing is imbued with the vocabulary and spirit of the Bible. Carter, a professor of theology, reviewed the Bard’s works, established that verbal echoes of Scripture are frequent, and stated summarily that “no writer has assimilated the thoughts and reproduced the words of Holy Scripture more copiously than Shakespeare”.
Shakespeare uses the Bible as a resource for vocabulary because, as Carter puts it, “the artist in words must first find his vocabulary.” Michel Angelo and John Florio could lay claim to the familiarity, this spontaneity with the word of God, which scholars recognize in the author of the works of Shakespeare:
The spontaneous flow of Scriptural ideas and phrases which are to be found everywhere in the plays reveals the fact most clearly that the mind of Shakespeare must indeed have been “saturated” with the Word of God.
Sefer Rabbot (Midrash Rabbah). Marsh’s Library Exhibits
Thirty years later Noble basically arrives at the same conclusions as Carter, though his book is regarded by Shakespeare specialists as more rigorous and scholarly. Half a century later Naseeb Shaheen, reviewing the entire theatrical corpus, comes to an even more explicit conclusion: Holy Scripture is pervasive in Shakespeare, as the appendices to his three volumes, and his index of biblical references, demonstrate. Not long after, Steven Marx undertook to interpret critically a phenomenon that until then had simply been registered, and only by a tiny minority of academics at that. It is fascinating and frightening at the same time to contemplate the spectacle of so many intelligent and well-trained persons continuing imperturbably for decades to believe in the Stratfordian identity of Shakespeare, and so erecting their learned edifices on sand. For it defies explanation how the boy from Stratford, with seven (putative) years of elementary catechistic schooling, who then leaves school at age thirteen to work with his father, marries at eighteen and disappears from view until around age twenty-five, should then suddenly reappear and produce a sophisticated pair of poems like Venus and Adonis and Lucrece; and follow that with a career as an actor and full-time author, composing one play after another and 154 sonnets—the whole corpus revealing a profound substratum of biblical culture, mythology, musical knowledge, and Greco-Latin and Italian literature. There is only one explanation to fall back on: he was a pure genius. Orthodox criticism as a whole has boxed itself into this corner, although one sometimes catches a hint of doubt, a shadow of incredulity, while others display astounding levels of ludicrous ingenuity. Pure genius: but Shakespeare does not display the precocious musical genius of Mozart, the mathematical prowess of Gauss, or the poetic inventivity of Rimbaud. We have before us a supremely literary talent, with a fund of knowledge that can only be grounded on information, books, and lived experience. A cultural level of that kind is not attained by intuition, imagination, or improvisation—no matter how much of a genius he was. It is obvious to anyone who compares the two “scriptures” that Shakespeare has an extraordinary familiarity with the Bible. It is even more obvious that the Bible is the most influential book in western civilization, from the origins to the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance; in the world of anglophone Protestantism it is simply called “the Book.” Still, the command of the Bible shown by Shakespeare goes far beyond the religious zeal native to a culture like that of Elizabethan England. If we also take into account the fact, which Noble points out, that when Shakespeare was writing, the English Bible had only been in existence for two generations and had not yet penetrated deeply into the social fabric, had not yet become ingrained in the collective mentality of the English, then Shakespeare’s command of it is absolutely stupefying, and demands a more adequate explanation than hours of catechistical instruction as a child, whatever he picked up as a young man, and his spells of reading as an adult in the intervals between one play and the next. Orthodox criticism, incapable of explaining the range and profundity of Shakespeare’s general knowledge, has no alternative but to play it down. Some have attempted this in the case of his biblical culture, asserting that Shakespeare’s writing has a fundamentally secular character: according to them the biblical culture he possessed was rather commonplace. Readers of even one of the scholarly works mentioned above will rightly regard such an affirmation as utterly baseless. Peter Milward and Steven Marx, in contrast, are full of good sense in their view that, at every level, Shakespeare took from Scripture ideas and images central to his drama. It is evident to them that Scripture is present in Shakespeare’s works not just as quotations, as pure erudition, or even just as an expression of faith. It is much more, it is a source of inspiration, testimony to a dominant biblical culture whose pregnancy is conveyed by the suggestive metaphor of “global allusion.” Steven Marx, citing Robert Alter, writes:
The allusion is the sign at which two meanings intersect, a point of reference where, in Robert Alter’s words, an author activat[es] an earlier text as part of the new system of meaning and aesthetic value of his own text.
This rewriting, this paraphrase, this skilled use of the biblical material is not laic, but worldly and theatrical; it is present in Shakespeare in a manner that I would call subliminal. Steven Marx writes, from the orthodox perspective: “To a theatre professional the Bible’s two-tiered reality of God and human provides a practical framework for telling stories”.
Marx is looking through the wrong end of the telescope: the man behind the pen was not the country lad/theatrical genius from Stratford, but an incurable teacher-preacher. Shakespeare manipulates the theater itself, the actors and the public, as an exalted way of carrying out a didactic intervention on the world. Florio’s epoch is the epoch of Caravaggio, the beginning of the end of the sacred. Or perhaps that goes too far: perhaps Shakespeare’s oeuvre is the demonstration, in the wake of Dante, of the irremediably sacred character of all lofty poetic speech. In a recent publication which studies the solemnity of Judaism, the author writes:
One can detect a resemblance between the “Midrash Ecclesiastes” and an oeuvre, among the most celebrated of world literature, that appeared more than two thousand years later, written in English but translated into all the languages of the world . . . If there is no doubt that the writer and great poet who was William Shakespeare knew the Bible, it is just as certain that he did not know the Midrash on the Bible.
Hence the rabbinical exegete is compelled to explain the amazing Shakespeare/Bible overlap with the claim that “psychological thought does not in the least depend on the cultural area of from which one comes.” The comparison ends by pinpointing an example of just such overlap:
William Shakespeare in As You Like It puts a monologue in the mouth of one of the characters that evokes the seven ages of mankind; and he too, with the words of the Midrash, begins with the newborn infant and ends with the old man who ends in idleness.
The Schechter Institutes The Midrash Project
But this protestation of faith in the universality of the psyche is superfluous, because, certain as it is that the man from Stratford did not know the midrash (a Hebrew term signifying a collection of rabbinical glosses), it is equally certain that John Florio did know them, for he had studied theology at Tübingen, and lived with his father in an atmosphere saturated with the Bible.
Steven Marx defines the midrash as “global allusion” or “creative exegesis,” and maintains that it has the capacity to adequately describe Shakespearian re-writing. Robert Alter for his part puts the matter well:
The most effective uses of global allusion…occur when the introduction of evoked text is dictated not by arbitrary choice but by a sense on the part of the writer that there is something in the nature of things that requires the allusion…Milton recreates classical epic in Paradise Lost in part because he is persuaded of a typological relation of the classical and the biblical… Thus behind many global allusions is a perceived structure of history, an assumed grammar of the imagination that underwrite or even necessitate the wedding of the two texts.
Readers who wish to explore the topic in detail are referred to the works I have mentioned; let us now review a few examples of the striking biblical correspondences in Shakespeare, of which there are thousands, but which most editions do not even signal in the notes. We may begin with some data, in no particular order. According to Shaheen the biblical or liturgical references are approximately: 63 in Othello; 25 in Romeo and Juliet; 31 in Troilus and Cressida; 71 in Hamlet; and 33 in King Lear. Those are the figures for just five tragedies out of the 37 or 38 dramatic works, without even taking into consideration the sonnets. Shaheen’s work has particular value for me because this scholar has made “every effort to discover which biblical references in his literary sources he accepted, which he rejected, and how he adapted the ones that he did borrow”. 
Unlike his predecessors, Shaheen also takes into consideration the passages that bear a resemblance to ones in Scripture, even if they do not actually contain certifiable echoes. When the other sources used by Shakespeare do not contain the particular character, or “vaguely” biblical motif, that informs the passage, then Shaheen proceeds to identify it as a case of scriptural influence. After demonstrating three examples of this method from Julius Caesar, Othello, and Timon of Athens, Shaheen concludes:
Finally, checking Shakespeare’s references against his sources makes it apparent that some passages in Shakespeare’s plays that appear to be clear references to Scripture are not biblical references at all. . . .
Faced with such rigor, and with the impressive results of a century of research, one asks oneself why the notes in the editions of Shakespeare for the general public so often fail to point out the numerous, indisputable biblical references such as the ones highlighted by the scholars cited here. Why, to widen the question, has scholarship been so sparing with interpretive studies on the presence of the Bible? Steven Marx advances two hypotheses to explain this “conspicuous absence”: the fact that Romantic criticism preferred to see Shakespeare as fundamentally a laic poet; and the fact that academics are averse to all religious approaches, which are felt as sectarian. But there is a third and in my view fundamental reason: so “consubstantial” are the thought and language of Shakespeare with Scripture that if criticism in the twentieth century had rigorously applied itself to investigating the meaning of the biblical knowledge of Shakespeare and revealing its implications, such studies, diffused and discussed in schools and among readers everywhere, would necessarily have forced the Stratfordian identity into crisis. For it is self-evident that the Bible classes attended by the young Shakespeare, and whatever Bible reading he did himself as an adult, are strikingly insufficient to account for the biblical presence in Shakespearian writing, especially in light of the fact that, as Shaheen reveals, “most of the passages cited in the plays were not to those biblical books that were used in the liturgy or to the translation recited in church, but rather to the widely distributed Geneva Bible first published in 1560.” This leads him to deduce that “Shakespeare spent a good deal of time reading the Bible in private”.
The deduction is paradoxical; Shaheen comes to it after eliminating the other possible modes of acquisition: family, school, church. Little Shakspere could not have been exposed to Bible readings in his parental home at Stratford for the simple reason that nobody in the house knew how to read or write. As for the local school, I have already pointed out that there is no correspondence between the scriptural texts that loom largest in Shakespeare’s works and the ones read in class at Stratford-Upon-Avon. As for the local church, even if we assume, as Shaheen suggests, that the dramatist attended two religious services per day, morning and evening, for years, that is still not probative, since the liturgical material in use in the time of Shakespeare did not include many of the texts that are cited in his works, or which clearly inspired him. So the only thing left is to maintain that he acquired all of Scripture principally as an autodidact; but this is far from convincing. If a scholar does resign himself or herself to doing so, it can only mean, I think, a refusal to open the “Shakespeare case” and call into open question the Stratfordian identity—the logical and inevitable outcome to which biblical analysis must necessarily lead. The solution to which all are driven who have sought to explain how and when Shakespeare learned Scripture becomes risible the moment one attempts to visualize the man from Stratford the way the hagiography portrays him: intent on studying the Bible while taking a break between shows, or between one business deal and the next, or between a trip up to Stratford and the return trip to London. For Shaheen, Noble, and Carter, as for Marx, the author of the works of Shakespeare possesses an unusually highly developed Bible culture (in the sense of familiarity with the Bible) that pervades all his theatrical writing. This is a culture that goes beyond religiosity to become a forma mentis, a binding spell of sorts, of the kind that can only befall a “professional” of Scripture, someone who has studied it for years, used it daily as part of his métier, and still does so in order to demonstrate, convince, educate. The preacher Michel Angelo Florio was certainly steeped in the Bible: he was in Switzerland, not far from Geneva, during the exact period when Protestant academics and literati in exile from Mary Stuart’s England were at work there on the most popular and successful translation of the Bible into English, “the most interesting of all versions”, the one that Shakespearian criticism regards as the Bible of the Bard. The “chief scholars” may have been Coverdale, Whittingham, Gilby, and others, but one wonders whether Michel Angelo Florio, who had held a place of some prominence at the court of London a few years earlier, may not also have had some contact with that circle of Protestant translators. The hypothesis is not exorbitant, and will represent a choice research project for students of Florio in the twenty-first century. Michel Angelo, as we have seen, spent much of his life as a passionate evangelizer throughout Europe, first as a Catholic priest and then as a Protestant pastor. His son was his pupil, he lived at Soglio as a child, was later steered towards the pastoral profession, and was likewise “saturated with the Bible story.” A systematic comparison, computer assisted perhaps, between the works of Michel Angelo and John Florio and the oeuvre of Shakespeare has still to be carried out, and will certainly confirm that it was the Florios who were drawing upon the Bible in this way.
King James Bible
Even a quick review of two works of Michel Angelo, the Historia de la vita e de la morte de l’Illustriss. Signora Giovanna Graia (1561) and the Apologia (1556), is enough to give us the measure of his command of the scriptural sources.
The former, dedicated by Michel Angelo to the unhappy queen of nine days’ reign, is densely interwoven with biblical references both in the text, and, as was customary, in marginal glosses. There is no need even to reproduce a few pages from this work, it will be enough to signal, by way of example, that in the chapter entitled “Signs to know the Elect from the Reprobate,” at page 24, there are fully eight Scriptural references: Iob. 15 – Gen.4 – Matt. 26 – Sap.5 – Fatt. 5- Rom. 5 – Iob. 3 – Ier. 20. As well as the frequency of biblical references, another Shakespearian trait crops up in these pages: the way Michel Angelo refers to Jane Gray, who bears a surprising resemblance to the many noble heroines in Shakespeare who are able to learn at superhuman speed with the help of divine grace:
si diede à lo studio de la lingua Latina, Greca, et Hebrea […] et in si poco tempo, e cosi bene imparolle, che piu tosto Divino, c’humano mostrava aver l’ingegno.
she began the study of the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages . . . and learned them so well, and in such a short time, that she showed a spirit more divine than human
It is no less certain that John Florio, by reason of his life and formal education, possessed great competence in Scripture. The Italian translation of James I’s Basilikon Doron, interlaced with biblical citations and notions, would alone testify to this familiarity. It is not, however, possible to verify this knowledge of, and recourse to, the Bible in the works that bear his name, for they are translations, the works of others, no matter how free and “unfaithful” to the original. I have not even tried to ascertain whether, in the translations of Montaigne and Boccaccio for example, Florio has inserted scriptural quotations or references not found in the originals. The same holds good for the introductory texts to his works. My impression is that the Bible does resound in these compositions, but I have not dared to venture further onto unfamiliar terrain. Nonetheless, everything we have seen of the lives and works of the Florios proves past doubt, in my view, that in their workshop there prevailed an acquaintance with the Bible and liturgy that few other Elizabethan writers could match.
To sum up, then, Shakespeare refers to at least 42 books of the Bible (tallying both identifiable quotations and allusions), 18 in the Old Testament and 18 in the New, plus 6 from the Apocrypha. Moreover—and this is a notable fact that confirms a deep personal familiarity with Scripture—Shakespeare does not just copy his biblical references from the sources he is using, but makes a new, more wide-ranging selection for himself . Let us take Hamlet, the most widely known and often staged of Shakespeare’s plays, also one of those most densely interwoven with biblical references, and with guidance from Naseeb Shaheen let us try to mentally add notes to all the biblical references in the margins, like the ones described above in Michel Angelo’s Apologia.
As the cannon to his blank,
Transports his pois’ned shot, may miss our name,
And hit the woundless air.
Or as when an arrow is shot at a marke, it parteth the ayre, which immediately commeth together againe.
Here are a few more passages from Hamlet, with brief indications of the parallel passages in the Bible:
A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye (1.1. 112)/ Luke 6.42
Though hell itself should gape (1.2. 244) /Isa. 5.14
And on it goes, another 67 passages making a total of 71. That is the number of biblical references in Hamlet adduced in Shaheen’s great book, with which every reader of Shakespeare ought to be acquainted.
To sum up, then: the Bible should be seen not only and not just as a religious text, but as a mother lode of words, images, ideas; of humanity: the Bible as an immense literary resource.
In 2017 I was asked by The Shakespearean Authorship Trust to contribute a short text on John Florio in the occasion of their Conference titled “What’s the New newes at the new Court? Developments in the Authorship Question”. The following is an excerpt concerning Florio’s Jewishness:
How could Shakespeare be so essentially English and, at the same time, so deeply Jewish? This question troubled the sleep of S. Lee (1896), H. Gollancz (1916) and today James Shapiro’s. Mainstream and anti-Stratfordian critics, elude the question. Shapiro was the only one to address it in 1996 with Shakespeare and the Jews but he failed to discuss Shakespeare’s relationship to the Jewish culture. No other scholar followed his naive, isolated gesture. Shakespeare is clearly marked off from other dramatists by his sensitive treatment of Italy and his specific use of Italian sources. But Italy was fashionable so, they say, he followed the trend! His relationship to the Jews and Jewish culture is otherwise. The way Shakespeare looks at the Jew is atypical. He also shows objective elements of the Jewish culture and doctrine. Three scholarly formations exist which, symptomatically, ignore each other:
- The orthodox scholars – Carter, Nobel, Shaheen, Marx – who studied Shakespeare biblical references without addressing the “Jewish question”.
- The Anglo-neurotic trend – Lee, Gollancz, Shapiro but also Hirschson, Basch – fascinated or convinced by Shakespeare’s Jewishness.
- The French Jewish students of biblical studies for whom the Stratford man was necessarily Jewish: Dureau, Perenchio, Huber, Goldschmit and Muller.
The only candidate with Jewish forebears is Florio.
Confronting the three formations will lead to the affirmation of Shakespeare’s Jewishness and to the end of the authorship question.
 Thomas Carter, Shakespeare and Holy Scripture, with the version he used, 1905, p.3.
 Carter, ibid.
 Carter, p. 4.
 Marx, p. 13.
 Marx, p. 12.
 Yeshayahou Leibowitz, Les fêtes juives. Réflexions sur les solennités du judaïsme, 2008, p. 56. This reference was given to me by a librarian friend, Yves Chevrefils- Desbiolles.
 Leibowitz, ibid.
 Leibowitz, p.57.
 Robert Alter, The Pleasures of Reading in Ideological Age, 1989, pp.134-35.
 Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays, 1999, p. 7.
 Shaheen, Biblical, p. 9.
 Shaheen, Knowledge, p. 211.
 Shaheen, Knowledge, 201-202.
 Carter, p.1.
 Michel Angelo Florio, Historia, p. 27.
 Shaheen, Biblical, p. 188.