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How the Bible Influenced William Shakespeare

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

“To be, or not to be: that is the question." – Hamlet

"O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?" – Romeo and Juliet

"But, for my own part, it was Greek to me." – Julius Caesar

Based on the few quotes listed above it is quite obvious that the works of William Shakespeare has yielded some of the most profound statements in literary history, many of which are still used in today’s common vernacular. 

While these sentiments are profound and deeply rooted in popular culture, scholars often wonder if there might be parallels between the world’s favorite playwright and something a bit more divine.

Author Bob Hostetler strongly believes there are great similarities between the poetry of the Bard of Stratford on Avon and the power of God’s Word.  So much so that he has crafted a devotional book called The Bard and the Bible.  Consisting of a year’s worth of daily readings from Shakespeare’s greatest works and the King James Version, the new release hopes to provide an inspirational crossroads for intellectual stimulation and spiritual inspiration. 

I recently sat down with Hostetler to discuss whether Shakespeare was a religious man, how his writing may have influenced the King James Bible translators, and the striking influence the Bible likely had on his work.

What does the Bible and the works of Shakespeare have in common? Are there similarities?

Oh yes, huge similarities. The surface similarity is when I first fell in love with Shakespeare I think I was a freshman in college, and I sat in this classroom, astounded, because it seemed like I was the only guy getting it as we read Romeo and Juliet. Everybody else was struggling, and then it dawned on me. I was kind of raised on the King James Version of the Bible.   It was like a light came on. They resemble each other in language. They use the same beauty, the loftiness of the text. But far more than that, people don’t realize that Shakespeare, though he was a man of his age and a man of the theatre—he was an entertainer first and foremost—he had a deep knowledge of the Bible, and far more than probably almost any pastor today, and also wrote his works from a Christian world view.

To that point, what do we know about William Shakespeare, other than he was perhaps one of the greatest writers in history? Was he a religious man?

It’s sketchy knowledge, impersonal, but enough that every year half a dozen scholarly biographies come out about him. But we certainly know a lot about the age. We know that he went to church, because it was illegal not to, and we know from his writings that he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible. The Geneva Bible was his accepted text, because the King James was still coming out. Was he a Christian man, as we would define it today? It’s up for debate, but I would say probably not. But he lived his life from a Christian worldview, no doubt about it.

In your opinion, do you believe Shakespeare was highly influenced by the King James Bible in his writing?

Not by the King James Bible, because it wasn’t released until 1611, which was right at the edge—he only wrote a few plays after that. But the King James translators and Shakespeare both relied on the Geneva Bible for the way these things ought to sound and the way they were phrased. There is a little bit of a debate or controversy. Some people see there’s a little tiny anomaly in Psalm 46, which in the 46th year of Shakespeare’s life, Psalm 46 was being translated. I think it would have been 1610 when he turned 46.  But the 46th word from the beginning of that Psalm is “shake.” The 46th word from the end of it is “spear.” And so some people look at that and say, “Oh, see? That proves that he was in on the translation.”

Do you think that there is any chance that Shakespeare and the King James translators may have collaborated together? Some people think so.

Maybe. If they did it would have been a small scandal had it been known in that day. This is because Shakespeare was kind of a Taylor Swift of his day. Such a popular entertainer but not somebody you’d put in charge of translating the Bible. But I have little doubt that he knew many of the translators, and of course in King James’s court, Shakespeare was a favored—King James was a patron of the arts as well as the man who sponsored that translation. Shakespeare certainly rubbed shoulders with those people and may have had some influence, because he was recognized as one of the foremost poets of his day.

Random question … did Shakespeare have a favorite Scripture verse?

His favorite verse was I Corinthians 2:9, because it’s mentioned four times in three plays. It says, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor entered into the heart of man what God has in store for those who love Him.” One time he has one of his characters, a fool, misquote it. He says, “Ear hath not seen nor eye heard.” But he used it four times throughout his plays. I think that’s interesting. So I think that was at least one of his favorite verses.

As an avid student of both Shakespeare and the Bible, can you say that reading one has taught you something more about the other?

Absolutley. For one thing, the familiarity with the King James Bible opened Shakespeare to me. But I think Shakespeare opens the Bible to me in ways that floor me sometimes, that surprise me, because there’s a reason why even today we’ve had one modern translation of the Bible after another putting things in the vernacular that we ought to get it by now. Still, Sunday after Sunday preachers stand up in the pulpit to explain, right? For me, Shakespeare is one of the preachers who does the most for me. Time after time he explains and turns the text in a new way to me so that I get new insight. Just for example, when I hear Hamlet say, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, how like an angel!” I can’t help but compare that and hear echoes of David in Psalm 8 saying, “What is man that Thou art mindful of him, or the son of man that Thou visiteth him? Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor.” Or Portia, in one of Shakespeare’s plays, that says, “How far that little candle throws it’s beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” Well, it’s an obvious reference to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount when he says, “Let your light shine.” Right? Shakespeare shines new light on old verses and brings them to life.

As an author, after people have read The Bard and the Bible, what do you want your readers to get out of that experience? What’s the big takeaway?

It’s a day-by-day devotional, so that I hope day by day, their lives will be changed. I hope that they will come to a new experience of faith in Jesus, and for those who begin there, I hope that their faith will be deepened and broadened by both the text of God’s inspired Word, and the inspired, though in a different way, words of the greatest writer in English who ever lived. I think it will deepen some people intellectually, but my biggest hope is that it will deepen and broaden people spiritually.

Purchase a copy of Bob Hostetler's The Bard and the Bible.

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