Internet Shakespeare Editions


Shakespeare and the Bible

(Shakespeare and the Bible in a single page? Well, here goes.)

The language*, symbolism*, and content of the Bible infuse all writing in the period, Shakespeare's no less. There is a whole school of criticism* that tries to show that the plays are deeply, even primarily, structured by theological concepts.

In this context, Hamlet is shown to be divided not only between thought and action, but between Old and New Testament teachings on justice and revenge: the Ghost expects life for life, eye for eye (Exodus 21:23), whereas Christian teaching starts with Saint Luke, "But I say unto you which hear, love your enemies, do good to them which hate you . . . and unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek, offer also the other" (Luke 6: 27), and Saint Paul, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord" (Romans 12: 19). Humans* were to be patient; it was for God to exact vengeance.

Justice and mercy

These same passages urge that humans exercise mercy when judging one another. That Shakespeare was acutely aware of them is shown by the fact that the title of the one play that is taken from the Bible, Measure for Measure, is taken from the same chapter of Luke that is quoted above:

Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive and ye shall be forgiven . . . for with the same measure that ye mete withal, it shall be measured to you again. (Luke 6: 36-38)

The Old Testament has a passage on mercy that is echoed by Portia. Her famous speech on the quality of mercy that "droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven" (4.1.182-200) closely follows Ecclesiasticus 25:19 ("O how faire a thyng is mercy in the tyme of anguish and trouble: it is like a cloud of rayne that commeth in the tyme of drought").


  1. Biblical language

    Look, Th'unfolding star calls up the shepherd. Put not yourself into amazement how these things should be; all difficulties are but easy when they are known.

    (Measure for Measure, 4.2.207-10)

  2. Theological Shakespeare

    A notable example of this approach is Roy W. Battenhouse's Shakespearian Tragedy: Its Art and Christian Premises (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969).

  3. Supernatural confusion

    Even the Ghost is confused. He enjoins Hamlet to "Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder," but for Gertrude, he says "Leave her to Heaven" (1.5.25, 86). No wonder Hamlet leaves Claudius alone when he has the chance to kill him--as he is praying.