How many biblical references did Shakespeare make in his works?

Expert Answers
linda-allen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I'm sure some scholar somewhere has made an exhaustive study and perhaps printed an unabridged concordance of all the scriptural references and biblical allusions in Shakespeare. One such scholar is Steven Marx, whose book Shakespeare and the Bible is described as "the first book to explore the pattern and significance of hundreds of biblical allusions in Shakespeare in relation to a selection of his greatest plays."

All I can tell you is that he used a lot!!! Some scholars believe that Shakespeare was one of the translators for the King James Version of the Bible, especially the psalms.

Here are just a few examples of biblical references in Shakespeare's works:

  • The title of the play "Measure for Measure" comes from the Gospel of Matthew: "For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." (Matt 7:2)
  • Hamlet is full of biblical allusions. The web site has a lengthy discussion of them; see the link in the Sources section below.
  • In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Bottom's speech in Act IV, scene 1 alludes to Paul's letter to the Corinthian church: "The eye hath not seen, and the ear hath not heard, nether have entered the heart of man." (1 Cor 2:9)

 Visit the links below for more information.

rmrose | Student

Shakespeare's great trait was his ability to retell and rework a story, or quote, and make it infinitely better than the original.

For instance, Hamlet was a story that was very familiar to Elizabethans. Why choose a story, that they knew so well? He knew his retelling would be so unique, so inventive, that he wanted his audience to know the story, allowing them to focus instead on Hamlet's mental journey. His ultimate goal, was to sell tickets. Because he was writing something that would profoundly effect his audience, he chose a familiar story as his vehicle.

The rest is history. Hamlet was the first piece of literature, written up until that time, to so perfectly explore the inner workings of the human psyche! No one had ever done that before. 

Hamlet is only one example. Shakespeare did this over, and over, and over.

And, contrary to the romantic vision of perfectly formed words flowing from his pen, evidence demonstrates that he worked and reworked his own writings. He was constantly editing and refining his words. It is fascinating to read some of the ever-so-slight edits he made, and how dramatically different the slight edits can be.

Shakespeare borrowed heavily, and quoted from, many different sources in his writings. This was his style, and he was a master at it. Referencing the Bible was no more, nor less significant to him, than quoting Plautus, or lifting whole scenes from Holinshed's Chronicles. They were all food for his fertile imagination.

frizzyperm | Student

One thing is clear... Shakespeare loved writing gripping plots about controversial political issues, but he avoided the most controversial subject of his day in his plots and characters. He never wrote about religion.

The emergence of protests (Protestants) againts Catholisicm and the subesquent 200 years of war, violence and persecution made the subject clearly too hot for WS. He sprinkled his work with quotes from the bible, but the subject of religion and God are notably absent from his work.

I have often pondered on how good a play WS could have written about the 16th century cath/prot schism. Maybe a play about a priest who believes in Roman Catholisicm but is unable to freely practice. Or a play about a Protestant's view of the corruptions of Rome and the church. Or both combined? It would have been a grand play. But he would have ended up in very real and very serious danger very quickly. You could be tortured and burned for heresy very easily in his day. So he stuck to Kings and Lovers and left the Priests alone. 

rmrose | Student

While Shakespeare made many references to the Bible -- he also borrowed heavily from the Anglican Church's Book of Common Prayer, and made numerous Roman Catholic references as well.

It is interesting to note that in Elizabethan England, church attendance was mandatory, by civil law. These laws were known as Recusancy Laws. Since it was a sin for Roman Catholics to attend a Protestant church, this was a way for Anglicans to root out and punish recusants. These laws were in effect until the late 1700's.

Very detailed and precise records were maintained rather "religiously." (Sorry, I could not resist). Fascinatingly, there is no record of William Shakespeare having ever attended, or registered with, any church, at any time, while he was in London.

However, the debate as to whether Shakespeare was a papist (Roman Catholic sympathizer), or a Protestant is impossible to ascertain.

This is further evidence of the amazing capability of Shakespeare to never fully reveal his own moral position in his writings. For every Catholic reference he makes, there is a pagan reference, or an Anglican reference. This has perplexed readers of Shakespeare for centuries, and will continue to do so! Trying to determine whether or not Shakespeare was a papist is futile. Strong arguments can be made, but, those who believe the evidence is conclusive either way, usually have an agenda to prove.