Great English playwright influenced popular Bible translation
Four hundred years ago, the most influential English writer in history died on April 23, 1616. William Shakespeare changed our language and shaped our scriptures.
Messengers scurried around Europe in 1487, ducking into pungent-smelling shops where stained men and boys toiled away at strange-looking wooden contraptions. From now on, the courier announced at each stop, the shop’s products required the approval of Pope Innocent VIII before being sold. Or else …
Shop men inevitably exchanged glances at the news. All were familiar with increasingly common bonfires of vanities. Some winced from memories of the torching of their own works. A few, witnesses of human sacrifice, recalled the smell of burning flesh. But for most, the horrific memories merely steeled their determination.
Traffickers in and entrepreneurs of words, these printers lived on the edge. For centuries books had been banned by the Catholic Church.
Few Europeans could read, not that it mattered: only some 30,000 books existed as late at the mid-15th century, most in Latin. Among the dozens of heavy wooden, movable-type Gutenberg printing presses now scattered across Europe, few produced English works. And printers often did not bother to ask if authors had obtained the approval of the Church.
Eleven years after the pope’s warning to printers, Oxford University professor John Colet translated the Bible into English, an offense long punishable by death. Publishing his work was far too dangerous.
But in the confines of his classroom he began reading the Bible to his students. Some had likely viewed one or more of the few public Bibles in Europe, large Latin tomes chained to a church altar. All marveled at hearing, for the first time, the scripture read in their native tongue. And they immediately spread the good news.
From near and far, thousands soon streamed to Oxford. Crowds gathered around Colet. Spellbound, they stood shoulder to shoulder for hours on end and strained to hear the words of God spoken in English.
Depending upon one’s point of view, Colet represented the desecration or the liberation of the Holy Book.
Pope and crown seethed, but the wily professor had friends in high places. And so day after day and week after week he read, unleashing holy words from bondage. And the crowds kept coming.
Thirty years later when William Tyndale printed the first English New Testament, hundreds of print shops existed and books numbered in the tens of millions, making papal censorship difficult.
The printing of English Bibles, however, remained punishable by death. For 10 years Tyndale skirted the wrath of the Church, even as his Bibles routinely fueled bonfires. The outlaw’s odyssey ended in 1536 with his burning at the stake.
Tyndale’s martyrdom aside, having traveled from word of mouth to printing house, English scriptures were a fixture. As the Protestant Reformation weakened the power of the Roman Catholic Church, bonfires of vanities became less and less frequent.
Under Henry VIII England broke from Rome, after which the king in 1539 commissioned the authorized English Great Bible for use in the Church of England. A second authorized tome, the Bishop’s Bible, appeared in 1568.
Meanwhile in Scotland, the independent Geneva Bible rolled off the presses in 1560. There was something subversive about unauthorized scriptures. Innovative verse and chapter divisions made for easier reading. Marginal notes cleverly skewed the king’s authority. The literate masses loved it.
At the heart of the evolution of English biblical translations pulsed a new age of scholarship. A rapid maturing of Modern English characterized the English Renaissance and birthed professional theater.
Into this dynamic time was born one William Shakespeare to a glover in 1564 in the village of Stratford-upon-Avon. Baptized as an infant into the Church of England, he received a basic education in grammar, read the Geneva Bible, at the age of 18 married Anne Hathaway, soon started a family, and along the way became a writer.
By 1592 he surfaced as an up-and-coming actor and playwright in London. Two years later he appeared in two comedies watched by Queen Elizabeth, a lover of plays.
More royal performances followed, the mark of success. By the end of the decade Shakespeare’s theatre company emerged as the most popular in London, leading to the actor’s purchase in 1597 of the second-largest house in Stratford.
Two years later his company opened the impressive London Globe theatre on the banks of the Thames River. Following the reign of Elizabeth, a newly-anointed King James I, also an enthusiastic patron of the arts, in 1603 awarded Shakespeare’s company a royal patent, upon which the company became known as the King’s Men.
Collectively, the popularity of English scripture, vitality and dynamism of the Modern English language, and emergence of professional theatre enabled Shakespeare’s seemingly meteoric rise.
He was a man of his times and a man of the people, liberally incorporating into each of his plays biblical stories and allusions familiar to the masses. In comedies and tragedies and histories, Shakespeare’s canon included homage to most of the biblical books in some thousand or more instances, with Psalms and Genesis leading the way, and the Geneva Bible his preferred translation.
Royalty, too, took center stage in Shakes-pearean plays, in no small part to pay homage and ensure continued favor. The playwright’s relationship with James I, however, included periods of tension following a failed attempt to assassinate the king in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.
Uncomfortably for Shakespeare, authorities traced the perpetrators back to his home village of Stratford-upon-Avon and to friends of his father. Executions took place near Shakespeare’s Stratford estate, with him likely home at the time. Innocent and never implicated, Shakespeare penned MacBeth in response to the plot and to clear his own name from possible unspoken suspicions.
One year prior to the plot, James, critical of the popular but independently-crafted and subversive Geneva Bible, commissioned a new authorized translation for the purpose of quelling public dissent and enforcing religious conformity. Some 47 scholars from the Church of England labored for seven years to produce a manuscript that hewed to Church of England ecclesiology, hierarchical structure and beliefs about ordained clergy.
Published in 1611, the King James Bible, as it came to be known, included in the original title the words, “by his Majesties special Commandment.”
Shakespeare remained active during this time, introducing on the stage 10 new plays, including MacBeth, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest. As both playwright and actor, these latter years of Shakespeare reflected his great popularity.
His full renown and genius, however, did not emerge until after his death. Looking back, all manner of acclaim, much but not all true, shaped the public’s memory of the Bard.
Centuries after his death in 1616 arose theories that Shakespeare helped translate King James’ Bible, cryptically hiding his name in Psalm 46. However, although the KJV chapter does include the words “shake” and “spear,” the same is true of some prior English translations.
Nonetheless, William Shakespeare influenced the wording of the King James Bible through his unique and substantial contributions to the English language.
Characterized by the addition of many new words (often Latin and Greek), evolving Modern English during Shakespeare’s life allowed the playwright space to craft new and creative words that spoke to audiences with great emotion, depth and subtlety.
All told, Shakespeare coined an estimated 1,700 or more new English words, a remarkable 10 percent of the totality of the words he employed in his writings. Testifying to the playwright’s far-ranging influence upon the English language, translators of the King James Bible often turned to Shakespearean words as they toiled over their work.
A few Shakespearean words used in the KJV are “lower” (19 times), “dawn” (2), “bloody” (16) and “road” (1). The words are now so ubiquitous that we can hardly imagine life without them. Yet literary babes these words of Shakespeare were when penned into the King James Bible, a translation that quickly surpassed in popularity the Geneva Bible due to the beautiful, poetic language fostered by Shakespearian-infused Modern English.
More than any other single person, Shakespeare rebirthed the English language, his literary contributions arising from the embers of bonfires of vanities, building upon the first popular English Bible (Geneva), and enabling and shaping the most popular Bible in world history. NFJ
Story and Photo by Bruce Gourley