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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: May ::
Shakespeare and the King James Bible
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0233  Friday, 15 May 2009

From:       Hannibal Hamlin <
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Date:       Thursday, 14 May 2009 15:21:18 -0400
Subject: 20.0224 Shakespeare and the King James Bible
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0224 Shakespeare and the King James Bible

 >I have read SHAKSPER with great interest for many
 >years. I am a working playwright and shy to make
 >any comment to the work of academics. However, I
 >have a question, which I have waited anxiously to
 >see some comment on and don't remember seeing.
 >Perhaps I missed it.
 >
 >It is this: is there any evidence that Shakespeare
 >had any involvement, no matter how tangential, in
 >the editing or otherwise, of the King James Bible?
 >I've read the rumors and suggestions, but I thought
 >you might know if there is any evidence. Can you
 >point to any detailed discussion of this issue?
 >
 >Jay Alan Quantrill
 >Los Angeles
 >
 >[Editor's Note: There have been many long discussion
 >on this topic that you can find in the archives. Go to
 >http://www.shaksper.net/search.html and enter KJV to
 >locate many of them. As for the facts, the chances that
 >Shakespeare had anything in any way to do with the KJV
 >are nill. (I don't know, however, about the man from
 >Essex.) There are many fine academic studies. I enjoyed
 >Adam Nicolson's _God's Secretaries: The Making of the
 >King James Bible_ (HarperCollins, 2003), which includes
 >an appendix listing the 50 or so known members of the
 >six teams ("companies") responsible for the
 >"translation." Much of the final version is, of course,
 >indebted to the work of Tindall, but the Archbishop of
 >Canterbury instructed the teams to consult Tindall,
 >Matthews, Coverdale, Whitchurch, and the Geneva versions
 >as the bases for their revisions. -HMC]

Since I've been rooting around in the history of the idea of 
Shakespeare's involvement in the KJV, and since I'm talking about it at 
the Folger in a couple of weeks, I thought I might summarize what is 
probably (mostly) mentioned in previous posts.

The short answer: NO, there is no evidence Shakespeare had anything to 
do with the KJV project, nor would it have been likely that he would 
have. He was a playwright with famously "small Latin and less Greek," 
whereas the 50-odd KJV translators were churchmen and scholars, many of 
them the experts in their day in ancient languages far stranger than 
Latin and Greek.

Nevertheless, the idea that Shakespeare did contribute to the Bible 
translation has persisted. One source of this is fiction. Kipling's last 
story, "Proofs of Holy Writ," has Shakespeare and Jonson discussing 
this. Fun, but fiction. Anthony Burgess also seemed fascinated by this 
fiction, since it crops up in _Enderby's Dark Lady_, _Earthly Powers_, 
and elsewhere.

Fiction aside, the impulse to include S. among the KJV translators 
connects to 19th century bardolatry and what David Norton has called 
AVolatry. Since the great Shakespeare Jubilee, Shakespeare's Works was 
ranked alongside the KJV as the twin pillars of English Language, 
Literature, and Culture (also part of British Imperialism, as Indian and 
other scholars have shown). A very large number of nineteenth-century 
books, serious and silly, attempted to explore not only the parallels 
between S. and the KJV, their common morality and wisdom, but also to 
make stronger connections between them. The more sensible of such 
studies explore Shakespeare's biblical references or allusions (such 
studies culminate in the extremely useful studies of Richmond Noble and 
Naseeb Shaheen). The odder studies head off in their own directions, 
including _The Messiahship of Shakespeare_ by "Clelia" (Charles Downing) 
and the many notings of the curious "cipher" in Psalm 46.

Re. Psalm 46 (KJV), it is true that if you count 46 words from the 
beginning you find "shake," and 46 from the end, "spear." Some 
particularly keen bean counters have noted that Shakespeare was 46 years 
old in at least part of 1611, and that if you spell it "Shakespear," his 
name has 10 letters, 4 vowels plus 6 consonants. (One Baconian also 
argues that the number 46 was the cabala of "S. Alban.") All of this has 
been debunked long since, by William and Elizabeth Friedman among others 
(see also David Norton's _History of the Bible as Literature_). 
Shakespeare famously spelled his name many ways, for one thing, and the 
occurrence of "shake" and "spear" is just a coincidence, since (a) both 
words occur in approximately the same places in earlier English Bibles, 
(b) the shift in location for the KJV is due to the omission of two 
words ("then" and "the") which is justifiable in terms of greater 
accuracy, and (c) the count depends upon omitting the mysterious but 
still textually present Hebrew word "selah."

It's also hard to imagine what such a cipher would mean. Some have 
argued that it is Shakespeare's own signature, marking his covert 
involvement in the translation. (Baconians modified this, obviously.) 
Others argued that it was not a signature but a special tribute to 
Shakespeare from the translators, in honor of his literary greatness, 
his moral stature, or both. None of these seem plausible, of course.

Still, the idea has legs. I haven't been able to trace it back beyond 
the early 20th century (1902?), though who knows? Many of the published 
descriptions of the cipher attribute to oral transmission, which is 
notoriously hard to track. It's cropped up in the Times, on SHAKSPER, 
and in a remarkably diverse range of books: studies of Shakespeare, the 
Bible, books on science and numbers, works on mysticism, intuition, and 
psychoanalysis, and collections of literary curiosities.

The persistence of this notion has at least a couple of explanations, I 
think. First, the words "shake" and "spear" are demonstrably there in 
Psalm 46, and we all enjoy such numerical oddities (think of the 
Lincoln-Kennedy coincidence and such). Second, we inherit the 
Romantic-Victorian reverence for both Shakespeare and the KJV, and, like 
the Victorians, we find it hard to believe they are not somehow 
connected. Surely the Bible translators would have called on England's 
greatest writer to contribute to the literary greatness of the KJV? But 
a little knowledge sets this right. Shakespeare had a reputation as a 
playwright in his own lifetime, but the idea that this suited him for 
Bible translation would have seemed absurd, to him as well as the 
translators. As Norton has demonstrated, the KJV translators were not in 
fact aiming at "literary" excellence, nor was the KJV deemed excellent 
in this way when it first was published. And if one actually examines 
the styles of the two works -- Shakespeare and KJV -- they are really at 
opposite stylistic poles. The Bible is famous for the spareness of its 
style and its restricted vocabulary; Shakespeare loves inventing new 
words, and is richly and complexly metaphorical beyond any of his 
dramatist contemporaries.

Returning to more substantive scholarly matters, there has also been 
debate about which English Bibles Shakespeare used. Not the KJV, which 
appeared only in 1611 and didn't displace the more popular Geneva Bible 
for another 40-50 years. Most often, when it can be determined which 
translation he used (they are very similar in many instances, and some 
of Shakespeare's allusions are not specific), he used the Geneva. Second 
in frequency is the Bishops'. The Bishops' was what was read in churches 
from about 1568. The Geneva Bible remained more popular, however, and 
was more often (and cheaply) printed. Shaheen makes the reasonable 
suggestion that it was Bishops' that Shakespeare most often heard, and 
Geneva that he read. (Arguments have been made for the Catholic Rheims 
New Testament, but not convincingly, whatever Shakespeare's personal faith.)

Hannibal

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