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Leicester Special Collections

The Bible

The Christian Bible

Front page of a much perused copy of the Geneva Bible. 1606.

Although it is not necessary to know the Bible to understand and appreciate Shakespeare's plays, knowledge of biblical references allows readers and audiences to expand their understanding of plot and characters. Max (2000, p. 9) argues that ‘Shakespeare recognized the range of literary genres by which biblical books could be classified’ and draws parallels between them and the Shakespearean dramatic genres. For instance, the Exodus and the three succeeding books of the Pentateuch (Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) can be seen as a cycle of national histories that find their dramatic match in the English history tetralogies; Job is a tragedy that can be paired to Lear; and the Revelation is a mask that has its counterpart in The Tempest.

The version of the Bible Christians of Anglican denomination use nowadays is the Authorized Version, commonly known as the King James’s Bible, which was first published in 1611. The version scholars believe Shakespeare would have read, consulted, and be thoroughly familiar with was the so-called Geneva Bible. Any Tudor home that could afford a copy would have one, and in fact many of them still survive due to its availability in numbers. This was the Bible read individually and to other members of the household. Copies passed from one generation to another, margins were annotated and blank pages often used for domestic notes and to register the births and deaths in the family. These notes attest to the centrality of ‘The Book’ in the lives of individuals and communities in Renaissance England.

Such an omnipresent and influential book would certainly leave its mark on the writings of any Renaissance poet and playwright and Shakespeare was not an exception. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is not only the Bible’s author, but also arguably its main character. After the Reformation and the eradication of the medieval mystery and miracle plays, bringing God on stage became impossible. Yet a number of Shakespeare’s characters behave like deities. This is true for those who are malevolent liars and manipulators, such as Iago in Othello and Angelo in Measure for Measure; and those who are diabolical despots, such as Richard III and Macbeth. It is also true for those characters who are God-like figures, such as Lear and Prospero, in The Tempest.