Skip to content

Blog / Shakespeare and the Word

Shakespeare and the Word

The Bard himself.

Today is William Shakespeare’s birthday (or at least as near to it as anyone is able to guess). Did you know that Shakespeare’s plays are chock full of Bible references? Some are obvious, but many require very careful reading—and a thorough familiarity with the Bible—to catch.

Leland Ryken has written a thorough overview of the relationship between Shakespeare’s work and the Geneva Bible, with many examples of the types of Biblical allusions and references to watch for in Shakespeare’s work. And indeed there are a lot to keep track of:

The most frequently repeated figure on the books of the Bible to which Shakespeare refers is 42 books—eighteen from each of the Testaments and the remaining from the Apocrypha. Shakespeare’s writing contains more references to the Bible than the plays of any other Elizabethan playwright. A conservative tally of the total number of biblical references is 1200, a figure that I think could be doubled.

Numerically the book with the most references is the book of Psalms, and usually Shakespeare refers to this book as it appears in the Anglican Prayer Book. Other biblical books that are high in the number of references are Genesis, Matthew, and Job. The Bible story that appears most often—more than 25 times—is the story of Cain and Abel. There are so many references to the opening chapters of Genesis in Shakespeare’s plays that scholars make comments to the effect that Shakespeare must have had these chapters nearly memorized. Shakespeare’s allusions are sometimes generalized, as for example to characters in the Bible, but often the parallels are linguistic and specific, requiring a specialist’s knowledge.

Here’s an example of an allusion in Hamlet to the Gospels—a reference to Judas that is very appropriate given the context:

Macbeth: If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly… (Hamlet, Scene VII)

John 13:27 (Geneva Bible): Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly.

(See many more Bible references in Hamlet here.)

One of the specific Bibles to which Shakespeare pointed with all these references is the Geneva Bible, which you can read on Bible Gateway. (See this earlier blog post for more about the Geneva Bible and the extensive collection of study notes accompanying it.)

Both Shakespeare’s work and the Geneva Bible were born of the truly remarkable literary and publishing environment of the 16th century, and their similar linguistic roots become very evident when you read them alongside each other. If you love Shakespeare’s plays, you may find that the Geneva Bible has a similarly appealing cadence and use of language. And if you love the Geneva Bible, it’s worth your time to take a second look at your favorite Shakespeare play with an eye for subtle references to people, places, and events in Scripture.

Filed under History