Thursday, March 24, 2016

Shakespeare and the Parables (part 3)

NOT William Shakespeare

The number and types of Shakespeare’s references to the Bible are subject to vigorous debate, but it is clear that Shakespeare refers to the Bible more than any other source. A recent volume cataloguing such allusions consists of 879 pages (Shaheen 1999; cf. Wordsworth 1892 with 420 pages). Every single play and many of his sonnets contain significant allusions to the Bible, and some plays are “not fully comprehensible without some biblical knowledge, such as The Comedy of Errors, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet” (Hamlin 2009: 225).

The first English translation of the entire Bible only became available between 1380 and 1400. It was translated from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his followers. This Wycliffe Bible was banned in 1408 (it still spread but wasn't printed until 1731), but by Shakespeare’s time, other English translations were available to him, but his biblical references usually seem closest to the Geneva Bible (e.g., the reference to the Prodigal Son parable about eating “husks” with pigs in As You Like It 1.1.37-38 comes from that translation). The Bishop’s Bible was also important to Shakespeare, since, starting in 1559, every church in England was supposed to own at least one copy of it (e.g., Shakespeare specifically uses it in Richard II 1.3.201-2; see Shaheen 1999: 17-50). The fact that Shakespeare utilizes the Bible so often in his plays does not mean that he was particularly religious himself. Among other things, the Bible is a rich storehouse of stories of drama, intrigue, and pathos. In addition, it provides a rich variety of words and themes that would be easily recognizable to his audiences, since the Bible was so familiar to them (e.g., church attendance was required by law):


. . . allusion was one of Shakespeare’s most common rhetorical, dramatic, and poetic techniques . . . . All of Shakespeare’s plays regularly allude to other works. Yet no book is alluded to more often, more thoroughly, or with more complexity and significance than the Bible. The explanation for this is simple: the Bible was the most important and most widely known book in Shakespeare’s culture. In truth, knowledge of the Bible is necessary fully to understand Shakespeare’s plays; understanding Shakespeare’s use of biblical allusion also reveals a great deal about the nature of early modern English biblical culture (Hamlin 2013: 3).

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