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Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Spring 1991—Volume 4:1


Grace in the Arts:

Shakespeare, the Bible,
and Grace

Arthur L. Farstad*

I. Introduction

In college I had a dear, elderly literature teacher who tried to "save" as many of her favorite writers of English and American literature as she could. Since they had nearly all "gone on before," it was only a salvation in her own mind (and in as many students' minds as she convinced).

Since the British authors were generally at least nominal members of the Church of England or the Kirk of Scotland, both establishments having orthodox creeds, she did fairly well there. Of course some great writers truly were believers (e.g., Bunyan, Donne, Milton, Herbert, Cowper, Elizabeth Barrett Browning).

In America she did well with Hawthorne, Whittier, Bryant, and some others, but gave up on Twain and Hemingway (in spite of their conservative Protestant roots).

But what did she do with the greatest writer in the English language, the one who wrote partly at the same time that the Authorized King James Version was a-preparing (1604-1611)? This writer sounds so much like the King James Bible that there used to be a game based on trying to correctly label quotations as either from the Bible or from—you guessed it—William Shakespeare.1

One can only hope that the Bard was a believer; this article makes no final assessments one way or the other on that question.

What I wish to show is the great influence of the Bible on England's greatest dramatist, and also the amount of biblically gracious lines and attitudes that show up in his work.2 To do this I have divided the subject into the three subdivisions suggested by our title.

II. Shakespeare

In a recent New York Times article, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," Gary Taylor decries the fact that "Shakespeare's own good words are planted in fewer memories than they once were: he has become, like caviar, familiar to the general but arcane in the ranks."3

There was a time when our Anglo-American forebears knew their Shakespeare and were better speakers and writers of our mother tongue for it. Taylor reminds us:

In 1752 William Dodd published the first of many anthologies of "The Beauties of Shakespeare"; for the next century and a half the quoting of Shakespeare was pandemic. The great Romantic essayist William Hazlitt quoted Shakespeare more than 2,400 times in his published prose; William Blake could label an image "Jocund Day" or "Fiery Pegasus" and expect the two words to recall their Shakespearean context. In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting America, reported that "there is hardly a pioneer's hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare," and those volumes were obviously read, not just displayed on log coffee tables.4

To do our part to bring some of the "caviar"5 from the general to the ranks of JOTGES readers, in the last section of this article I have chosen quite a few Shakespearean quotations that touch on topics close to most of our readers' hearts. These I have arranged topically.

But before we read those very varied selections, a discussion of the Bard's relationship to the Book that inspired them is in order.

III. The Bible

Books have been written showing that Shakespeare was influenced by several versions of the Bible. As Will was growing up, the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the Bishops' Bible, would all have been available.

Some of Shakespeare's Bible knowledge no doubt came from The Book of Common Prayer, which includes the complete Coverdale Psalter and daily lessons from the Epistles and Gospels.

Since all of these scriptural sources were freely available in Shakespeare's England, to which version or versions did he turn?

There is a tradition that John Shakespeare, Will's father, was a "recusant," that is, one who refused to go along with the Established (Anglican) Church.

Some say he was a Puritan,6 and in support of this is the fact that Puritan influences prevailed later in the Shakespeare family. If this is true it would explain Shakespeare's background. Above all else, the Puritans taught their children to read and love God's Word.

Another tradition was that John was "a Roman recusant."7 Support for this is the fact that the Arden family was Roman Catholic (Mary, Will's mother, was an Arden). If, however, the poet's family had been Roman Catholic it is most unlikely that Will would have had much Bible background. In those days the Bible in the language of the people was viewed by Rome with great suspicion as the chief cause of the Reformation, which, quite frankly, it was.

Against the theory that Will was raised a Roman Catholic is his ignorance of the Latin Vulgate, the official version of Rome:

Unlike Bacon, who quoted the Vulgate frequently, sometimes inaccurately, Shakespeare did not use the Vulgate and in King Henry V. he showed that he was ignorant of one of its most elementary features.8

The official Catholic version in English,9 prepared in France by exiled Jesuit scholars, does not seem to have been used by Will either:

There is nothing in his words to show that he had any acquaintance with the authorized Roman Catholic versions, viz. the Rheims New Testament of 1582, and the Douay of 1609-10.10

Concerning Shakespeare's knowledge of the Authorized Version, this version appeared very late in his life. He was already forty-six years old when the Authorized, or King James Version of the Bible was first published (February of 1611).11 Since he only lived five years after 1611 it cannot be that he consciously imbibed the style of the Authorized Version.

Interestingly enough, it now appears that some of Shakespeare's style may have influenced at least the King James translation of the Psalms. Shakespeare was recognized as an outstanding poet and dramatist in his own lifetime, and rightly so.

A few years ago the British Broadcasting Corporation aired a fascinating story that may confirm a Shakespearean contribution. To show their appreciation for the Bard's alleged contribution to the English style of the AV, some of the translators (and/or editors) built in a little linguistic honorarium for England's greatest poet.

If you turn to Psalm 46 in the King James Version12 and count down forty-six words, you will find that the forty-sixth word is shake:

      GOD is our refuge and strength,
      A very present help in trouble.
2    Therefore will not we fear,
      Though the earth be removed,
      And though the mountains be carried into
      the midst of the sea;
3    Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled,
      Though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.

Now, count up from the end of the psalm and you will see that the forty-sixth word is spear. Doubtless the word that could be so rendered had to be roughly in that general vicinity to make it work out. The Hebrew word for shake (rāʻash) could have been rendered variously.13

Consider: This is the forty-sixth psalm, Shakespeare was forty-six years old when the AV was first published, shake is forty-six words down from the start of the psalm, and spear is forty-six words up from the bottom—four forty-sixes. The probability of that happening by chance is extremely slight.14

All of the translators of the Authorized Version were members of the Established Church. If Shakespeare was asked to do some "English styling" on this masterpiece, that would clinch it that he was not a Roman Catholic. Ronald Bayne, himself an English clergyman, in his chapter on "Religion" in Shakespeare's England, maintains that Shakespeare was not really a "party man" at all, but viewed religion independently.15

He does note, however, that much Christian thinking permeated his writings:

But while the bulk of his work is pervaded by an atmosphere of natural religion which cuts him off from the orthodoxies of his day, yet in several places he quite naturally employs the language of orthodox Christian piety. It is likely that he employed heartily and sincerely such language as King Henry's, when he speaks of

                                                       those holy fields
Over whose acres walk'd those blessed feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nail'd
For our advantage on the bitter cross;

(I Hen. IV, I. i. 24-7)

or Edward's, when he refers to a murderer as one who has

                                              defaced
The precious image of our dear Redeemer;

(Rich. III, II. i. 123-4)

or Clarence's, when he charges his murderers,

                        as you hope to have redemption
By Christ's dear blood shed for our grievous sins.

(Rich. III, I. iv. 198-9)16

Interestingly, even in works that take place in non-Christian times or places, Shakespeare bewrays his Christian roots:

And in plays of which the tone and setting are either worldly or definitely pagan we find the poet's anima naturaliter Christiana[17] strangely and obviously present. Polixenes forgets that he is a Pagan as he denies the accusation brought against him; if it be so, 'O then,' he says, may

                                          My name
Be yok'd with his that did betray the Best.

(Wint. Tale, I. ii. 418-19)18

All in all, Shakespeare's knowledge of the Bible was very good. He did not merely quote, but made allusions that showed a deeper knowledge and understanding of the scriptural passages to which he alluded.

He did make mistakes, however (what preacher or even seminary professor can escape the same charge?).19

IV. Grace

While we would like to believe that Shakespeare was a real believer, the evidence for this is not forthcoming. How much of all the above quotations and those to follow the Bard himself actually believed and how much he merely put in his characters' mouths, who can say? Let the reader judge, but by all means—enjoy. At any rate, biblical grace and graciousness have nicely colored many of the Bard's beautiful lines. We present some of these here,20 classifying them under various categories of Christian doctrine.

Man

What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!
In form and moving, how express and admirable!
In action, how like an angel!
In apprehension, how like a god!
The beauty of the world!
The paragon of animals!

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2.

Good Angels

The air of Paradise did fan the house,
And angels officed all.

All's Well that Ends Well, Act III, Scene 2.

Sleep in peace and wake in joy;
Good angels guard thee.

Richard III, Act V, Scene 3.

Her that loves him with that excellence
That angels love good men with.

Henry VIII, Act II, Scene 2.

Satan and Fallen Angels

Angels are bright still,
Though the brightest fell.

Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 3.

By that sin fell the angels;
How can man, then, the image of his Maker,
Hope to win by it?

Henry VIII, Act III, Scene 2.

Sin and Judgment

Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.

Second Part of Henry IV, Act III, Scene 3.

But we all are men, in our own natures frail,
And capable of our flesh; few are angels.

Henry VIII, Act V, Scene 3.

Then God forgive the sin of all those souls
That to their everlasting residence,
Before the dew of evening fall, shall fleet.

King John, Act II, Scene 1.

Salvation

Alas, alas! Why, all the souls
That were were forfeit once;
And He that might the vantage best
Have took found out the remedy.

Measure for Measure, Act II, Scene 2.

Repentance

God amend us, God amend!
We are much out o' the way.

Love's Labour's Lost, Act IV, Scene 3.

I never did repent for doing good.
Nor shall not now.

Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 4.

And oft 'tis seen, the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. but 'tis not so above:
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell'd,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? what rests?
Try what repentance can.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene 3.

Divine Providence

And He that doth the ravens feed,
Yea, providently caters for the sparrow,
Be comfort to my age!

As You Like It, Act II, Scene 3.

Divine Guidance

But He, that hath the steerage of my course, direct my sail!

Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene 4.

I commit you to the tuition of God.

Tempest, Act I, Scene 2.

                     God shall be my hope,
My stay, my guide and lantern to my feet.

Second Part of Henry VI, Act I,. Scene 3.

Divine Protection

In the great hand of God I stand.

Macbeth, Act II, Scene 3.

Remember this,
God and our good cause fight upon our side.

Richard III, Act V, Scene 3.

Take my blessing: God protect thee!
Into whose hand I give thy life.

Henry VIII, Act V, Scene 5.

The Will of God

The means that Heaven yields
Must be embraced, and not neglected;
Else, if Heaven would and we will not,
Heaven's offer we refuse,
The proffered means of succour and redress.

Richard II, Act III, Scene 2.

But Heaven hath a hand in these events,
To whose high will we bound our calm contents.

Richard II, Act V, Scene 2.

The will of Heaven be done in this and all things!

Henry VIII, Act I, Scene 1.

But this lies within the will of God,
To whom I do appeal.

Henry V, Act I, Scene 2.

We are in God's hand, brother.

Henry V, Act III, Scene 6.

Christian Virtues

Love

He hath a tear for pity, and a hand
Open as day for melting charity.

Second Part of Henry IV, Act IV, Scene 4.

'Tis death to me to be at enmity;
I hate it, and desire all good men's love.

Richard III, Act II, Scene 1.

Gentleness

Let gentleness my strong enforcement be.

As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7.

He hath a stern look, but a gentle heart.

King John, Act IV, Scene 1.

Kindness

He is as full of valour as of kindness.

Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3.

Obedience

It is religion that doth make vows kept.

King John, Act III, Scene 1.

I hourly learn a doctrine of obedience.

Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene 2.

What's brave, what's noble, let's do it.

Antony and Cleopatra, Act IV, Scene 15.

Truth

For truth is truth, to the end of the reckoning.

Measure for Measure, Act V, Scene 1.

O, while you live, tell truth and shame the devil.

First Part of Henry IV, Act III, Scene 1.

Honesty

No legacy is so rich as honesty.

All's Well that Ends Well, Act III, Scene 5.

Control of Tongue

Men of few words are the best men.

Henry V, Act III, Scene 2.

For I know thou'rt full of love and honesty,
And weigh'st thy words before thou givest them breath.

Othello, Act III, Scene 3.

Purity

What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted?

Second Part of Henry VI, Act III, Scene 2.

A heart unspotted is not easily daunted.

Second Part of Henry VI, Act III, Scene 1.

Holiness

What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily;
Wouldst not play false.

Macbeth, Act I, Scene 5.

Sincerity

I think there's never a man in Christendom
That can less hide his love or hate than he;
For by his face straight shall you know his heart.

Richard III, Act III, Scene 4.

Men should be what they seem.

Othello, Act III, Scene 3.

Grace and Mercy

So grace and mercy at your most need help you.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5.

We do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1.

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.

The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1.

A double blessing is a double grace.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3.

Peace

If we do now make our atonement well our peace will,
Like a broken limb united, grow stronger for the breaking.

Second Part of Henry IV, Act IV, Scene I.

Forgiveness

Do as the heavens have done, forget your evil;
With them forgive yourself.

Winter's Tale, Act V, Scene 1.

Meekness

God bless thee; and put meekness in thy mind,
Love, charity, obedience, and true duty!

Richard III, Act II, Scene 2.

Highmindedness

Let all the ends thou aim'st at be thy country's,
Thy God's, and truth's: then if thou fall'st.
Thou fall'st a blessed martyr!

Henry VIII, Act III, Scene 2.

Integrity

His words are bonds, his oaths are oracles,
His love sincere, his thoughts immaculate,
His tears pure messengers sent from his heart,
His heart as far from fraud as heaven from earth.

Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act II, Scene 7.

I'll take thy word for faith, not ask thine oath:
Who shuns not to break one will sure crack both.

Pericles, Act I, Scene 2.

Righteousness

However God or fortune cast my lot,
There lives or dies a loyal, just, and upright gentleman.

Richard II, Act I, Scene 3.

Prayer

Chiefly that I might set it in my prayers
—What is your name?

Tempest, Act III, Scene 1.

He has my heart yet, and shall have my prayers
While I shall have my life.

Henry VIII, Act III, Scene 1.

Down on your knees, and thank Heaven,
Fasting, for a good man's love.

As You Like It, Act III, Scene 5.

He is no hypocrite, but prays from his heart.

Much Ado about Nothing, Act I, Scene 1.

But my prayers forever and forever shall be yours.

Henry VIII, Act III, Scene 2.

A virtuous and a Christian-like conclusion,
To pray for them that have done scathe to us.

Richard III, Acts I, Scene 3.

My ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.

Tempest, Epilogue.

Ah, countrymen! if when you make your prayers
God should be so obdurate as yourselves,
How would it fare with your departed souls?

Second Part of Henry VI, Act IV, Scene 7.

To Thee I do commend my watchful soul,
Ere I let fall the windows of mine eyes:
Sleeping and waking, O defend me still!

Richard III, Act V, Scene 3.

Praise

God be praised, that to believing souls
Gives light in darkness, comfort in despair!

Second Part of Henry VI, Act II, Scene 1.

To see what this child does, and praise my Maker.

Henry VIII, Act V, Scene 5.

Sir, I praise the Lord for you
And so may my parishioners.

Love's Labour's Lost, Act IV, Scene 2.

Thankfulness

Then, Heaven, set ope thy everlasting gates,
To entertain my vows of thanks and praise!

Second Part of Henry VI, Acts IV, Scene 9.

God's goodness hath been great to thee;
Let never day nor night unhallow'd pass,
But still remember what the Lord hath done.

Second Part of Henry VI, Act II, Scene I.

The help of Heaven.

All's Well that Ends Well, Act II, Scene 1.

It is not so with Him that all things knows,
As 'tis with us that square our guess by shows;
But most it is presumption in us when
The help of Heaven we count the act of men.

All's Well that Ends Well, Act II, Scene I.

O Lord, that lends me life,
Lend me a heart replete with thankfulness!

Second Part of Henry VI, Act I, Scene 1.

Suffering Hardship

He's truly valiant that can wisely suffer.

Timon of Athens, Act III, Scene 5.

Graciousness to Others

God prosper your affairs! God send us peace!

Second Part of Henry VI, Act III, Scene 2.

The God of heaven both now and ever bless her!

Henry VIII, Act V, Scene 1.

God's benison go with you:
And with those that would make good of bad,
And friends of foes!

Macbeth, Act II, Scene 4.

God in heaven bless thee!

Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 4.

God give you quiet rest to-night!

Richard III, Act V, Scene 3.

The Lord in heaven bless thee!

Henry V, Act IV, Scene 1.

God bless thee!

Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene 5.

God send every one their heart's desire.

Much Ado about Nothing, Act III, Scene 4.

Heaven give your spirits comfort.

Measure for Measure, Act IV, Scene 2.

The dews of heaven
Fall thick in blessings on her!

Henry VIII, Act IV, Scene 2.

God comfort him in this necessity!

First Part of Henry VI, Act IV, Scene 3.

God in thy good cause make thee prosperous!

Richard II, Act I, Scene 3.

God be with you all!

Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3.

Outreach to Others

Win straying souls….
Cast none away.

Henry VIII, Act V, Scene 3.

Service for Christ

And there at Venice gave his body
To that pleasant country's earth,
And his pure soul unto his Captain Christ,
Under whose colours he had fought so long.

Richard II, Act IV, Scene 1.

A Good Name

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

Othello, Act III, Scene 3.

God hath blessed you with a good name.

Much Ado about Nothing, Act III, Scene 3.

Holy Matrimony

God, the best maker of all marriages,
Combine your hearts in one.

Henry V, Act V, Scene 2.

Miracles

They say miracles are past;
And we have our philosophical persons,
To make modern and familiar things
Supernatural and causeless.

All's Well that Ends Well, Act II, Scene 3.

The Nativity of Our Lord

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes,
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long,
And then they say no spirit stirs abroad.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene I

Heaven

Hereafter in a better world than this,
I shall desire more love
And knowledge of you.

As You Like It, Act I, Scene 2.

He gave his honours to the world again,
His blessed part to Heaven,
And slept in peace.

Henry VIII, Act IV, Scene 2.

V. Conclusion

It has not been the purpose of this article to prove that William Shakespeare, had he been living today, would have subscribed to the credo of the Grace Evangelical Society.

In fact, it is difficult to make out a case for his being a Christian in the biblical sense of that term. For those who believe in Lordship Salvation or who believe that only those who persevere in a clear-cut testimony and lifestyle to the very end of life will make it, it is truly a lost cause. For those of us who believe that once drinking from the water of life (John 4:14) a soul is permanently safe, there is hope for Shakespeare. The Bard's Bible background is apparent in the many quotations we have selected. (Some may have been mediated through the Book of Common Prayer, as we noted, since that famous Anglican work is replete with long Bible selections.)

We can at least hope that sometime before shuffling off his mortal coil Shakespeare accepted Christ as his Savior.

We close with a salutation, rather reminiscent of Paul, that should please most of our gracious readers:

Grace and Remembrance be to you....

Winter's Tale, Act IV, Scene 1.

 


*Editor Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society Dallas, TX

1I do not remember how she handled Shakespeare's spiritual credentials.

2Having read some of the fascinating theories of those who feel "Shakespeare," the glover's son from Stratford-on-Avon, couldn't have written such masterpieces, I must confess that I am just simple enough to believe that he did so.

3Gary Taylor, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," The New York Times Book Review (July 22, 1990): 28. The author is the general editor of the Oxford University Press edition of Shakespeare's complete works and the author of "Reinventing Shakespeare."

4lbid.

5I would prefer Yorkshire pudding, thank you very much.

6Maintained by Dr. Carter (Shakespeare: Puritan and Recusant).

7Maintained by Dr. Smart (Shakespeare: Truth and Tradition). Noble says that "neither Dr. Smart nor Dr. Carter can be said to have established his case with any degree of conclusiveness" (Richard Noble, Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge [Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1970], 49).

8Noble, Biblical Knowledge, 87.

9The Roman Catholic hierarchy commissioned an English Catholic Bible to counteract the popularity of the Geneva Bible (with its very Protestant footnotes) even among Catholics. The NT came out in 1582, fifty-seven years after the first printed Protestant NT (Tyndale, 1525/26). It is a very latinized version, made from the Vulgate, and generally not very acceptable in style. For example, the literal rendering "The Lord is my shepherd" comes out "The Lord rules me" (cf. Lat. Dominus regit me). Later editions of the Douay-Rheims were highly edited toward the Authorized Version.

10Ronald Bayne, Religion," in Shakespeare's England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926), 1:74, n. 1.

11Shakespeare turned forty-seven in April of 1611.

12The NKJV kept the same structure in updating the text, although the earliest printings ruined it by one word.

13Eg., NASB and NIV, "quake"; Living Bible, "tremble"; Jerusalem Bible, "tottering."

14Noble, however, presents these same facts as one of the "coincidences in Elizabethan writings" that "may amuse a number of people." Gerald Balfour, later Lord Balfour, once "mentioned that some industrious student" had made this "extraordinary discovery" (Biblical Knowledge, 56-57).

15Bayne felt that Shakespeare's "attitude to the Bible was in no sense professional or theological. We cannot prove from his vocabulary that he shared the passion for Bible-reading which was so important a result of the Reformation movement. His religion was the religion of a man who stood outside all parties of the day without despising any of them. His religion, in short, is an aspect or part of his general attitude to life and humanity" (Bayne, "Religion," 1:76).

16Ibid., 1:76-77.

17I.e., his naturally Christian soul. Ed.

18Bayne, "Religion," 1:77.

19See the short chapter entitled "Defects in Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge" in Noble (Chap. VI). For a 300-page analysis of the complete subject of the Bible and Shakespeare that is scholarly, detailed, and interesting, see Noble's 1935 book, reprinted in 1970 by Octagon Books of New York (cf. fn. 7).

20Most of these selections were carefully culled from over five hundred quotations in an antique book called Through the Year with Shakespeare (no city, no date) that I was fortunate enough to pick up in a Dallas yard sale.


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