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Shakespeare's Sonnets and the Bible

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2012 26 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Religion in Shakespeare's Time
2.1 Historic background
2.2 Shakespeare-A Catholic or a Protestant?

3. Religion and Shakespeare's writings
3.1 Shakespeare'splays
3.2 Shakespeare's poetry

4. Religion in the Sonnets-A critical analysis
4.1 Sonnet 146
4.2 Sonnet 116
4.3 Sonnet 55

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The topic of Shakespeare and Religion is not a new one, but it has “come to the foreground” due to the “recent “turn to religion” in historical and literary scholarship” (Jackson/Marotti 1). Thus, it is has been tried “to make sense of the dramatist’s awareness of, relation to, and use of religious beliefs, religious culture” (Jackson/Marotti 1).

In this term paper, I want to focus on biblical references and allusions in the Sonnets. In order to do that, I will at first take a look into the matter of religion in Shakespeare's time. I will also examine his personal religious beliefs. After that, will look into religious allusion in Shakespeare's writing, i.e. firstly his plays and secondly his poetry. As I want to focus on the Sonnets, a closer look will be provided on three selected ones. These analyses will focus on the biblical references and allusions they contain. Therefor, a detailed analysis in terms of literary devices will not be given. Moreover, I will not describe the characteristics of the Sonnet from.

My starting point for this term paper and the analysis later on is Ira B. Zinman's work Shakespeare's Sonnets and the Bible. A Spiritual Interpretation with Christian Sources. It is an attempt to interpret all 154 Sonnets with regard to biblical references and allusions. The passages from the Bible are quoted from the King James version and are taken from Although it was only published five years before Shakespeare's death, it “was generally accepted as the standard English Bible from the mid-17th to the early 20th century”[1]. Also Zinman uses a King James Version for his biblical references. The quotations from the Sonnets are taken from Katherine Duncan-Jones' edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets.

2. Religion in Shakespeare's Time

2.1 Historic background

The 16th century must have been a turbulent time in England as far as religious matters are concerned. While the country was still a Catholic one under the reign of Henry VIII, “his Protestant son Edward VI authorized” (Olsen 574) the Reformation. However, under Mary I, Catholicism was restored and this was accompanied by “a widespread (...) enthusiasm for the return of the old faith” (Olsen 574). Protestantism was rejected and many Protestants were executed during Mary's reign (cf. Olsen 574). When Elizabeth I succeeded her, she restored a “compromising Protestantism to the nation” (Olsen 574). Under her reign there were no prosecutions because of certain beliefs (cf. Olsen 574). She wanted “an outward show of obedience” and people going to church on Sundays (Olsen 574). These developments led to two extremes, namely the Catholics on the one side and the Puritans on the other (cf. Olsen 574). This brief description serves only as a basic overview of the historic events. Since this is a paper in Literary Studies the focus will not be on the history of the English Reformation.

Despite the split of Christianity in the course of the Reformation (cf. Hopkins/Steggle 13), the people were “frevently religious” as Lisa Hopkins and Matthew Steggle put it (12). That means “everyone was Christian” (Hopkins/Steggle 12) and there were no atheists. However, Olsen says that “Christianity was not (...) the only religion practised in England” but it was “the only one that mattered” (573). And this religion determined “almost every aspect of daily life” (Olsen 573). In this context, it has to be mentioned that also religion and politics were inseparable (cf. Hopkins/Steggle 3).

2.2 Shakespeare - A Catholic ora Protestant?

If everybody was a Christian somehow in these days, William Shakespeare must have been one, too. A number of scholars, like Andrew Hadfield, Brian Vickers and David Daniell agree that he “must have had some form of religious upbringing” (Hadfield 161) and that he knew the Bible quite well because he “quotes from unfamiliar places” (Daniell 1999, 158). Although it can be assumed that his parents, John Shakespeare and Mary Arden were Catholic (Thurston[2] ), the question if William Shakespeare was a Catholic or Protestant remains unanswered. Daniell states that his “poems or plays provide no evidence about whether he was Protestant or Catholic” (2001, 2). Also Ken Jackson and Arthur F. Marotti underline that it is uncertain “whether he remained committed to a familial Catholicism, (...), was a Protestant, or became a skeptic or agnostic about things religious” (4).

However, Hadfield points to a “growing conviction among many scholars that Shakespeare was actually either a Catholic by choice, or one by birth” (171). He says that is also possible that Shakespeare “spent his 'lost years' in Lancashire as tutor to a Catholic family” (171). Moreover, there are connections between him “and Catholic members of his family, including those who took part in the Gunpowder Plot” (171). At the same time, Hadfield admits that “these connections are (...) possible but highly disputable as there is “no real evidence in the plays and poems” (171), like Daniell points out as well. On the other hand, Thurston argues against the assumption that Shakespeare was a Catholic. His arguments are that his daughters “were undoubtedly brought up as Protestants”, that “he was very familiar with the Bible in a Protestant version” and that “various legatees and executors of his will cannot in any way be identified as Catholics” (Thurston[3] ). Also Daniell states that the biblical references made by Shakespeare indicate “that he was a good Protestant” (2001, 7). On the contrary, Daniell says that he must have been “a good pagan”, too, because he did not only know the Bible but “he knew his Ovid and his Plutarch very well” (2001, 7). Jackson and Marotti even portray Shakespeare “as a religious skeptic who was critical of his own religiously conflicted society" in their collection of essays (5). Although there are plausible arguments for both sides, it remains highly controversial if Shakespeare was a Catholic or Protestant and to what extend he expressed his beliefs.

3. Religion and Shakespeare's writings

The question if Shakespeare was an “active Christian”, as one might say today, or not, remains unclear. However, it is quite obvious that he lived in “a nation officially, aggressively, massively Protestant” (Daniell 2001, 2) which means Christianity affected his life in one way or another. Moreover, as mentioned above, he knew the Bible very well and also “expected his audiences and readers to take them [Bible references] on the spot” (Daniell 2001, 7). This implies that most people had some knowledge of the Bible. In fact, the Bible was “the one book that everyone read, or heard read” (Daniell, 1999, 168). It is remarkable that after an English translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale was smuggled into England in 1526 (cf. Daniell, 2001, 6), there were 211 “Bibles or New Testaments, in English, freshly edited and produced while Shakespeare was alive” (Daniell 2001, 6). Furthermore, Daniell states that Shakespeare “inherited a vast, vigorous and open Protestant English literature” (2001, 8).

If this circumstances did not influence him in his writing, he must have been very isolated. Yet, the opposite is true. Of course, Shakespeare “did not write (...) in a vacuum, but conceived his work in relation to other writers” (Hadfield 172). However, the question remains if Shakespeare was influenced in such a way by the Christian society and his knowledge of the Bible that he weaved some of it into his works on purpose. This question is very much disputed by scholars. Harold Bloom, for instance, says that “what the Bible and Shakespeare have in common actually is rather less than most people suppose” (Daniell 2001, 11). On the contrary, Daniell finds thatwhat they have in common “is that language (...), of elemental simplicity, from the Gospels” (2001, 12). Indeed, the four gospels have been identified by Naseeb Shaheen as “Shakespeare's most-referred-to biblical books” (Daniell 2001, 10).

Having said this, the question arises if Shakespeare's works can be interpreted in an allegorical way at all. Vickers, therefor, asks if “allegorical interpretations of secular texts were common in the Renaissance” (375) and gets the answer from R.M. Fyre who denies it (cf. Vickers 375). What is more, “even professional theologians (...) did not try to find theological meanings” in secular literature according to Fyre (Vickers 175). Vickers also agrees with Fyre that there is also “no evidence (...) that Elizabethan audiences customarily allegorized” what they read or saw (376). Thus, Vickers criticizes those “critics who wish to draw large and precise parallels between Shakespeare and Christian story” (376). He also accuses them of picking “out one detail that makes a parallel” while they “ignore the rest” (376) and agrees therefor with Richard Levin, who emphasizes that a critic like this “out of all facts (...) selects only those suiting his purpose (...) and ignores the rest” (Vickers 376). Furthermore, Daniell refers also to Fyre by pointing to the fact that “an interesting 1632 Folio” was censored “between 1641 and 1651 (,..)by an English Jesuit” (2001,2). Strikingly, a lot of things were taken out completely which brings Fyre to the conclusion that “these expurgations 'should put us on guard ... against the overly eager identification of Shakespeare's plays with Christian teachings” (Daniell 2001,2).

3.1 Shakespeare's plays

Despite these rather critical opinions, a lot of parallels between Shakespeare and biblical themes have been identified. The most important research in this field was done by Naseeb Shaheen (1931-2009), who was a professor of English literature at the University of Memphis[4]. His research is combined in his work Biblical References in Shakespeare's Plays. In her review of Shaheen's work, Deborah T. Curren-Aquino points out that “the Bible constitutes the second most important body of material that Shakespeare drew on in constructing his plays”[5]. Also Jackson and Marotti come to the conclusion that “there are serious religious stakes for Shakespeare in his plays” (20). However, it has to be noted that, according to Leland Ryken[6], Shakespeare “did not take material from the Bible” but that “the Bible influenced Shakespeare in his handling of his chosen subject matter”[7].

The focus of this term paper is, of course, on the Sonnets. Yet, as research has shown many parallels between the plays and the Bible, I want to include three examples here without going into detail.

a) Macbeth: Act I, Scene 6

Amanda Mabillard sees a parallel between Banquo's reference to the temple-haunting martlet and Psalms 84:2-3[8].

b) Hamlet'. Act VI, Scene 2[9]

Ryken points out an allegory between “Hamlet's statement about trusting divine providence” and “Jesus' famous statement about the sparrow”[10] in Matthew 10:29-31 and Luke 12:6.

c) King Lear

Paul N. Siegel sees a “deeper meaning” in the death of Lear. To him it is “a redemption analogous to the redemption of mankind, for which the Son of God has come down to earth” (Vickers, 375). He also sees an “analogy between Cordelia and Christ” because she “redeems nature from the general curse” (Vickers 375).

Regardless of their reliability, these examples show that various parallels between Shakespeare and the Bible have been identified by scholars.

3.2 Shakespeare's poetry

It is striking that, so far, only Shakespeare's plays have been examined in terms of biblical references. Little has been done concerning Shakespeare's poetry, especially the Sonnets. With his work Shakespeare's Sonnets and the Bible. A Spiritual Interpretation with Christian Sources Zinman focuses on the connection between the Bible and the Sonnets. His analysis will be looked into later on. Firstly, I want to refer to some general remarks made by Hadfield in his essay on “Poetry, politics and religion”, especially under the headline of “Religion and the Sonnets” in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's Poetry.

In his opinion, “very little poetry (...) can be described as 'religious'” (Hadfield 170).


[1] Encyclopedia Britannica: http://www.britannica.eom/EBchecked/t.opic/318454/King-Tames-Version-KB/. 03.10.2012

[2] ht.t.p:// 20.09.2012

[3] Ibid.


[5] quarterlv/v052/52.1curren- aquino.pdf. 24.09.2012

[6] Ryken is a Professor of English at Wheaton College and has done quite some research on the Bible.

[7] 24.09.2012

[8] cf. 24.09.2012

[9] "Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow." ( 24.09.2012)

[10] 24.09.2012


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Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Universität Greifswald – Anglistik
shakespeare sonnets bible



Titel: Shakespeare's Sonnets and the Bible