A paper given at the Tyndale Kirtling Meeting, Suffolk 16 April 2005
Understanding that Shakespeare was a keen and intense reader has taken a long time to come. The 18th century strongly denied him any ‘learning’. He was a sport of nature, totally lacking ‘art’, that is, conscious craft, knowledge of what he was doing as a poet and playwright. The Deity opened a flap in his head and poured it all in. Better grasp followed, though slowly. But until less than fifty years ago, Shakespeare was denied any great reading. The 21st century knows better, and, recognising the unprecedentedly rapid and powerful growth of a new mental world in Britain in the last half of the 16th century, allows Shakespeare, with one great exception, remarkable reading across a very wide spectrum and in several languages.
Before I come to the modern exception to his acknowledged reading skills, I want to spend a little time here in this wonderful place paying tribute to Sir Thomas North and his translation of Plutarch. A word first about Plutarch, the great first century AD Greek historian and moralist. He was a disciple of Plato and a student of Pythagoras, and a prolific writer, most well known for his Bioi paralleloi — Parallel Lives of the Most Noble Greeks and Romans (exact date unknown). Here in Greek are fifty lives, a Greek life matching a Roman life, to make them comment silently on each other. Plutarch is more interested in moral character than in political events, though he is always aware that the course of the world’s history is being shaped, and he can do set pieces where needed, like the murder of Pompey, or huge battle scenes. But his unique appeal is in his skill in the choice of anecdote, sometimes very small, to reveal the nature of the man. As Sir Thomas North translated his words, oftentimes a light occasion, a word, or some sport makes men’s natural dispositions and manners appear more plain, than the famous battles won.
Plutarch’s powers of selection, description and narrative are seen in the big Roman lives, at critical times of Roman history, that Shakespeare used: Caius Martius Coriolanus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Brutus, Antony, Cassius, Octavius Caesar, Cicero and many more, lives which include exotics like Cleopatra.
Now, though Plutarch never ceased to be read from the first century, and the Lives came to most of Renaissance Europe through Latin versions and a fine French translation by Amyot, for Roman history Elizabethan schoolmasters and writers did not dare to move beyond the stock classroom texts of Tacitus and Livy and the ‘Twelve Caesars’ approach to Roman history propounded by the gossipy Suetonius. Then, suddenly and wonderfully in 1579, Sir Thomas North changed all that. Now in English (not Greek, Latin nor French) were the great dramatic events seen with fresh authority through Greek humanist eyes with republican sympathies, and, even more tellingly for a writer like Shakespeare, full of ordinary men and women caught up in the drama. At the dramatic heart of his Julius Caesar, for Caesar’s progress across Rome to his death, Shakespeare uses from Plutarch the bad omen of the sacrifice, Caesar’s wife’s dream, the voices from the crowd, the Soothsayer, and much else. A tiny moment [Act 2. scene 4] is pure Shakespeare dramatising Plutarch, where Brutus’s wife Portia desperately sends, in Plutarch, ‘messenger after messenger [to the Senate House] to know what news’. In Shakespeare, she three times urgently tells her servant Lucius to run to the Senate House, and three times chides him for not running — until he has to ask her to tell him why he is running anyway.
Sir Thomas North translated Plutarch from the French into marvellous English, likened a century ago to the 1611 Authorised Version, KJV. That, and the immensely attractive interlocking of human detail after detail into the white heat of drama, as in the events up to Caesar’s death, have ensured that North still has eager readers. I conclude this all-too-brief section with two points: the first is that our unshakeable 21st century idea of Rome, as it has been since the early 17th century, is Shakespeare’s. That means, essentially, Sir Thomas North’s. That is a fine achievement of cultural valuation. The second is the sheer size of North’s Plutarch. Shakespeare could have used one of several editions after 1579, all in big double-column folio size. A recent scholar noted that ‘we have to read 1,010 pages of North before we get to the death of Cleopatra’. In this size it was parallel to those other volumes found — and much read — in many late-Elizabethan households: Holinshed’s Chronicle of English history, Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’), and, of course, the Bible in English.
Which brings me to the one exception in modern accounts of Shakespeare’s reading — the Bible in English. The omission, which is marked in many recent accounts of Shakespeare, is unaccountable, except for those two giants, Ignorance and Prejudice. I am undecided which is the more powerful. Both giants are fed by large special interests. Prejudice holding hands with Ignorance can be so deep rooted as to produce bafflement, so that modern historians can ask ‘What’s the Bible got to do with anything?
I could spend time exploring these two giants: they are a curious recent cultural phenomenon; but it is not relevant here. What I want to open up, under this title, is the great new richness of 16th-century intellectual and artistic life into which Shakespeare was born, and show that the source of much of it was the most important and central book in British life, the New Testament in English, first translated in 1526 from the original Greek by William Tyndale, and hugely reprinted in all the great popular Bibles of the 16th century — a succession unique to England — Coverdale 1535, Matthew’s Bible 1537, the Great Bible 1539, the Geneva Bible of 1560 (especially that), the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, the Rheims New Testament of 1582, and of course the Authorised Version/King James Bible of 1611, of which the New testament, computer based studies have shown, is 83% pure Tyndale, unchanged. All except the Rheims Version were reprinted continually in great numbers. From the mid-16th century, the English Bible was read and heard quite remarkably. That is, as quite new, the whole Bible entire in English, including the eighteen books we call the Apocrypha, Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 complete, instead of tiny snippets. A young scholar of early modern history, Alec Ryrie in Birmingham, investigating the use of the Bible in everyday documents of the time, found its presence strong, and, importantly, always different: those ordinary writers were not handing on stock verses. My own private definition of the Reformation is ‘people reading Paul’, a real liberation into New Testament theology.
I shall follow two streams: the richness of mental life, using Shakespeare as a symbol of the high art newly being made under Elizabeth and James, triggered by what Tyndale did; and later, Shakespeare’s own particular debt to Tyndale. Shakespeare probably did not directly know Tyndale’s writing: but his own Bible, the Geneva Bible of 1560, with the New Testament revised in 1576 in Oxford, was unchallengeably his Bible, the New Testament being largely Tyndale. Shakespeare using Sir Thomas North’s Plutarch in its widest powers of republican, moral, many-peopled freshness, and, as we saw, making out of a minute detail vivid drama, makes a good way in. Shakespeare, as with North’s Plutarch, responded to the grand sweep of the bible stories, the great number of ordinary people (think of the Gospels and the parables in particular), the new possibilities of the English language pioneered by Tyndale, and the infinite resonances available in the simplest ordinary words at high moments, from Jesus’ ‘Rise, take up thy bed, and walk’ or ‘Let not your hearts be troubled’, to King Lear’s ‘Prithee, undo this button’ or Antony’s ‘I am dying, Egypt, dying’.
I need to fill in some history. The story of the educational revolution in England between the middle of the 16th and the middle of the 17th centuries must be in mind. Shakespeare wrote miraculously rich plays for — let us never forget — an audience whose minds were newly and richly hungry: a playwright, unlike any other artist, writes for the minds of the moment. The minds of Shakespeare’s audience were remarkably — and newly — well stocked. The 16th-century educational revolution stemmed from the greatest scholar in Europe, Desiderius Erasmus. Through a small school book called De Copia written in 1512 for the Dean of St Paul’s, John Colet, Erasmus revolutionised English education to make it devoted to not only the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, but through understanding of Latin rhetoric (the techniques of using words on the page) the analysis of how that literature worked. His methods controlled John Colet’s school, St Paul’s, the prototype of most Elizabethan grammar schools. Emrys Jones of New College Oxford recently wrote: ‘The number of good writers to appear in the second half of Elizabeth’s reign is more than surprising: it astonishes.’ He goes on:
Without the intensive new study of language and literature which the grammar schools provided, the major writers at the turn of the century would not have been equipped to do their work. Without humanism, in short, there could have been no Elizabethan literature: without Erasmus, no Shakespeare.
The Bible in English saturated English life and literature throughout Elizabeth’s reign. That Bible was essentially Tyndale’s. Tyndale’s gift to 16th-century England was a simple, plain accessible English prose and resonant verse which greatly affected the Elizabethan writers, and particularly Shakespeare. I do not want to suggest that Shakespeare was a religious writer. He was not seen as that. To sixteenth-century and classical purists, fictions were lies. Shakespeare wrote entertainments, which people paid to see. In 1600, public readings of the Bible in a building concluded with prayer or Holy Communion or both: public performances of Shakespeare in the theatre ended with a jig, a rude (even obscene) dance.
The Erasmian revolution in education did provide the curriculum which was so fruitful. But that was all in Latin. It was, I claim, Tyndale, through the English Bibles that carried him forward, who made the most universally used model in English.
In the early 1500s, when Tyndale was a schoolboy and Oxford undergraduate, the English language was a poor thing, half Saxon, half Norman French, and half Latin, spoken by under 5 million people in islands off the shelf of Europe, a language unknown in Europe. That is hard for us to grasp. Now that English is the world language of all communication, with 2 billion speakers as first or second language, we have to work hard to realise that, in 1520, English was as irrelevant to life in Europe as Scots Gaelic is to the City of London today. The great Erasmus, who spent three long periods in England, and was Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, neither wrote nor spoke a word of English. He had no need to: at his level Latin was universal. By the 1520s English was becoming used for wills, and for things like churchwardens’ accounts. The Latin of all the professions (and a particularly barbarous Latin it was) — the law, medicine, education, the church — was just beginning to yield a little to English. But English, it was believed, was in no way a suitable vehicle to carry any serious freight at all.
There was no great poetry being written: there had been, of course, 150 years before, by Chaucer, whom the Tudor upper classes and the wealthy could read in splendid printed editions from about 1480 on. Henry VIII’s court poet, John Skelton, roughly contemporary with Tyndale, openly despaired of English.
The highest art form from the dawn of literature was the epic: the idea of an epic in English was laughable in the l520s. By mid-century, classical epics were being translated into English successfully (Virgil, Ovid; later even Homer) and only fifty years after Tyndale the first epic in modern English began to be published, Spenser’s Faerie Queene. In 1520 the idea of the whole of the Word of God printed in English did seem ridiculous, as well as dangerous. Yet again, by Shakespeare’s birth in 1564 the whole Bible in wonderful English was in most households, and read and heard and learned by heart and known in detail even by those who could not read.
That great outflowing of poetry and prose in English from about 1580 on — to change the metaphor a great mountain range overtopped by Shakespeare — came from two generations of grammar school boys, and as we now know, educated women, brought up to follow Erasmus in the technical study of great classical literature and how it worked. Erasmus taught analysis of tropes and figures through showing how the great classical poets — especially Virgil — used them technically. So schoolboys learned and practised the technical devices of how to arrange words for the effect they wanted: I keep saying ‘technical’ because it was a matter as cool, emotionally, as the handbook for using a computer. It is the opposite of those ideas of creativity which came into Europe with the Romantic revolution at the start of the 19th century, art as unleashed imagination and the expression of the artist’s inner self, ideas that still control us today. No. For Erasmus, expression, illustrated by the greatest Roman writers, was the ability to practice getting the right words in the right order. Thus in that little book on rhetoric, De Copia, written specially for the boys of Colet’s new school, St Paul’s, and then an influence on education throughout England for a century, he has an exercise in which he writes ‘Your letter gave me much pleasure’ one hundred and fifty ways, and then ‘I shall always remember you’ two hundred ways — Latin, of course, as everything of Erasmus is.
So Spenser, in 1595, wrote one of the most beautiful love-poems in the English language for his new young wife, all about each hour of the day of their wedding, his Epithalamium. It is a celebration of love and joy and beauty unsurpassed, which is constructed not only of the most elaborate technical system of rhetorical tropes and figures, but also on a base of numbers, the mathematics of the heavens at the moment of their union. Spenser is making the point that only the highest possible verbal art is right for love as gift of God, and that art is found in the heavens and in human skill. For all that, the poem feels sensuous and immediate.
So Shakespeare, wanting to express strong feelings on the very threshold of our understanding, Othello’s suddenly trapped mind makes him say to Iago
By the word, I think my wife be honest, and think she is not; I think that thou art just, and think thou art not; I’ll have some proof. (3/3/388-90)
These four expressive lines are made of the rhetorical figures of anaphora, isocolon, parison and epitrope.
So, eighty years earlier, and extraordinarily in English, Tyndale, fully trained in the art of rhetoric during ten years in Oxford, wanting to make his points strongly, made the fullest use of rhetorical devices. I give in my biography of Tyndale a number of examples of this: briefly here I shall use a sentence from Tyndale’s influential book in 1528, The Obedience of a Christian Man: ‘How wonderfully were the children of Israel locked in Egypt! In what tribulation, cumbrance, and adversity were they in!’ Those sentences, and the two short ones about the power of God that follow, are the rhetorical devices admiratio, deflexio, enallage, hyperbole, tractatio, catachresis, auxesis, and epanalepsis. These technicalities are found throughout Tyndale’s writing. We are blind to them.
I cannot express too strongly the revolutionary effect of this release of rhetoric into English. Yes, Erasmus was terrific in his educational revolution. But Erasmus was all in Latin.
Something happened to switch the power-lines of creativity into English, totally unexpectedly. The only literary work by a Tudor Englishman to win European fame was Thomas More’s Utopia. But that was in Latin, published in Leuven in 1516. It was not translated into English for 35 years, until 1551. Thomas More refused strongly to have it in English on the grounds that it would be mauled by ordinary English readers. No-one, absolutely noone, could have foreseen that before the end of the century there would be Thomas North, Sidney, Spenser, Marlowe, Nashe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, Drayton, and many hundreds of others. Though in Tyndale’s time there was very restricted drama, like Skelton’s own Magnificence, in English, confined to one performance in the two universities or at court, Shakespeare’s plays for a vast and repeated public, thousands upon thousands, afternoon after afternoon in specially-built London public theatres, would simply have been beyond belief. It is always a shock to remember that around the time of Shakespeare there were over three hundred playwrights whose names we know, a figure that does not include the prolific ‘Anon’. Something happened, before Shakespeare, to switch the power into English. What happened, I am sure, was the constant household reading of the Bible in English.
I can be confident about this because I am backed by a powerful research tool. Unique in the world for books printed in England from the beginning — and properly the ninth wonder of the world, after the many-volumed Oxford English Dictionary as the eighth, is the Short Title Catalogue of Printed Books, recently revised. I give full details of this in my The Bible in English. In its three big volumes up to 1640 it is totally comprehensive, and 100 per cent reliable. It gives overwhelming evidence of the colossal scale of the printing, in the 16th century, from 1526, of the New Testament, or whole Bible, in English. Reliable understanding of print runs, always high for Bibles, and kept without exaggeration, shows us a million English Bibles printed between 1526 and 1640, when the first STC volume cuts off, out of a population around six million. Printers are not fools: they are not going to print without assured sales. Other evidence, though not so statistical, shows us English people reading — or hearing — English Bibles. This is surely a big cause of that switching of the power-lines of written thought in the middle of the 16th century from Latin into English, which became so highly expressive, including the most advanced rhetorical skills.
I follow one particular strand of that stylistic influence and growth. Out of several I could have used — a rapidly-expanding English vocabulary, for example, to which I shall briefly return … I have chosen the sudden strengthening and dissemination of English plain style. Tyndale’s keen rhetorical craft in his Bible translations did two things: it established a form of direct English prose for what I can only call un-courtly writers, the mass of ordinary men and women with something important to say, far removed from the Neoplatonic courtly poets and romancers or political and religious polemic of the last years of Elizabeth: and it established a form for addressing the widest public. If something had to be communicated, by even the courtly, then this was now, suddenly, the way to do it. I quote in my biography a popular early history, Lord Berners’ translation of Froissart, to show the long wandering sentences, one sentence often a whole page long, meandering about in a maze of subordinate clauses and lost verbs, showing off in rare Latin abstract nouns — most certainly not meant for the ploughboy. Tyndale wrote at the start of his Bible, ‘Let there be light, and there was light’, and at the end, ‘God shall wipe away all tears’.
Thus great and influential exponents of plain style in the middle of the century learned, I strongly believe, their plain technique for addressing the widest public from Tyndale’s Bible. I take two examples of good, common mid-century plain English style: Thomas Cranmer in one of the Homilies (1547); and Roger Ascham in his handbook on archery, Toxophilus (1545); Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury. Ascham was tutor to the young Princess Elizabeth. Both were learned men who could be expected to have been ultra-courtly and ornate.
Here, first, is Tyndale’s plain style, from Luke 16:
And it fortuned that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died, and was buried. And being in hell in torments, he lift up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom, and he cried and said: Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue: for I am tormented in this flame.
How easy it sounds: until you begin to notice the native Saxon, not Latin, vocabulary, unusual for high language in 1526 (‘beggar’, not mendicant, ‘died’ not deceased, ‘carried’ not transported). You notice the story being developed in Greek-like finite verbs not Latin-like nouns (not ‘After the death of the rich man, and his burial . . .’ but ‘The rich man died and was buried’.) Then you notice other effects. Tyndale’s only predecessor, the manuscript English translations (from the Vulgate Latin, not the original Greek) by Wyclif in the l380s, have, in the first one, Wyclif A, ‘dip the last part of his finger’, and in the later revision, Wyclif B, ‘dip the end of his finger’. Tyndale goes for the three small high ‘i’ sounds, ‘dip.. .tip... finger’: a simple change which helps a good deal with the contrast of scale in the request, leading to the extended ‘tormented’. (Just before, Tyndale had had ‘the dogs came and licked his sores’, where Wyclif had ‘the houndis came and likkiden his bilis’. Tyndale’s darker chime of ‘dogs’ and ‘sores’ is very effective.)
Here is a sentence of Cranmer, from the first of the twenty-one Homilies. These were required by law to be preached in every parish. This is the third sentence of that very first homily:
As drink is pleasant to them that be dry, and meat to them that be hungry: so is the reading, hearing, searching, and studying of holy scripture, to them that be desirous to know God or themselves, and to do his will.
This has a forward drive which gets straight on, using Saxon syntax and vocabulary. Like Tyndale, it is grounded in an everyday world of meat and drink, as Cranmer wanted Scripture to be.
Here is a snatch of Roger Ascham, in his technical handbook about shooting with bow and arrow — in which book, incidentally, he pleads for the use of English and not Latin:
Take heed also when ye shoot near the sea coast although you be two or three miles from the sea; for there diligent marking shall espy in the most clear day wonderful changing.
The same is to be considered likewise by a riverside, especially if it ebb and flow, where he that taketh diligent heed of tide and weather, shall lightly take away all that he shooteth for.
Ascham has something to say in the clearest English: the first twenty words are eighteen Saxon monosyllables.
It is true that there is good plain English to be found in some private medieval, and early Tudor, writing; and a tradition of fine craftsmanship in late medieval short private meditations (such as can be seen being used by Cranmer in the making of those miraculous phrases in the Collects in his successive Books of Common Prayer) — ‘Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, o Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night’. But these medieval writings were for private use, not wide printed circulation: and they do not have the range of effect that is found in Tyndale, even within the plain style. I haven’t time here to comment on Tyndale’s quite remarkable verbal range, not at all what is sentimentally now thought of as ‘biblical’, but true to the Bible — high epic, driving narrative, fine public and private poetry, gossip (the ends of Paul’s letters), intimacy, declaration, waf- fling, cosmic landscapes, proverbs, and so on. Tyndale can do it all with the new register of language that he invented, a little above common speech, and always exact to the Hebrew and Greek and the occasion — qualities frequently lacking in recent bible translations. The English gift is a simple syntax of word-order that is subject-verb-object, generally without dependences — And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre, and went in: but found not the body of the Lord Jesus (Luke 2 not ‘and when they...’ or ‘finding...’)
There is no time to develop here the peculiar modern Englishness of this economical, direct prose, something which feels so easy, but contains great craft. The two most influential 16th-century treatises on rhetoric in English, by Thomas Wilson and Richard Sherry, were written as early as the reign of Edward VI, only a dozen years after Tyndale. Edward’s was a reign when English Bibles were so often reprinted (forty editions printed in that short time, 1547-53). The earliest handbook of rhetoric in English, even before Wilson and Sherry, specifically commends Tyndale as a model.
The powerful rise of modern English (that is, Tyndale’s) in the 16th century, on top of a Germanic base from Anglo-Saxon and Norman French in Middle English, both with a different syntax and vocabulary, alongside Latin, had two effects, grammatically and syntactically: a breakdown into something simpler (English, unlike Latin, French and German, has few inflected endings) and no gender systems (one of the reasons for the triumph of English as a world language).
In a different direction, in vocabulary, the rise of modern English meant that there tended to be three words for the same thing (Saxon holy, Norman French sacred, Latin sanctified) which then drifted off into subtly different shades of meaning. This meant that Shakespeare at the end of the century had a huge vocabulary at his disposal: the play Hamlet alone, for example, written at the great turning-point of his creative life, in 1599/1600, has nearly 5,000 different words. Moreover, the new modern English was always open to new words (as it still, vividly, is). So of those 5,000 different words in Hamlet, 600 had not been used by Shakespeare before, and 144 are Shakespeare’s invention, never having appeared in English before. Tyndale was a great inventor of words — ‘passover’, ‘mercy-seat’ are two — and I am talking about liberation, a liberated understanding of what language can do, with God’s full blessing because language is God’s.
The 16th and 17th century North American settlers wrote naturally about their new Garden of Eden — the old sinful world, given, as it were, a second chance in the new — and at home most aspects of British life by the end of the century were seen automatically in a Biblical frame. We have to make an effort to see that Biblical matters in the second half of the sixteenth century were not just an interesting file to call up, but the very nature of life itself. This would not have happened if the Bible had remained in Latin, or in Latin-based versions. Recent work makes clear that the English revolution of the mid-17th century, the ‘English Civil War’ and the thought and events in the previous sixty years, were not just influenced by but controlled by the Bible. (The pioneer work was by the late Christopher Hill — a good friend of the Tyndale Society, incidentally.)
What went with language was liberation of thought. I spend time in my The Bible in English locating the beginning of true scientific enquiry under Elizabeth and James. After the Reformation, it was suddenly possible to write and think anything (apart from treason), without the terrible fear of a charge of heresy and its appalling consequences.
The English Bible brought a liberation of language itself, the Word of God being always creatively active. My principal illustrations have been about prose and its new Englishness: but a good deal of the explosion of magnificent poetry in the time of Shakespeare can be put down to not so much the latest Italian fashions, as Sir Philip Sidney commended in his seminal Apology for Poetry of the 1580s, but the firm understanding that in spite of Plato, poetry was on God’s side after all, because God himself wrote poetry as the whole Bible shows.
Shakespeare, let us never forget, artistically changed and developed and grew over the twenty years of his writing life, either side of 1600. I shall now jump straight to the middle of his huge flowering, in 1598 and 1599, and three of the greatest prose-speakers in our language, Rosalind in As You Like It, Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, and Falstaff in the two Henry the Fourth plays.
Hear Rosalind in AYLI:
Love is merely [that is, essentially] a madness; and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not so punished and cured is that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too. (3/2/368-40)
Listen to Benedick after the masqued dance in Much Ado:
O! She misused me beyond the endurance of a bloc! An oak with but one green leaf on it would have answered her: my very visor began to assume life and scold with her. She told me, not thinking I had been myself, that I was the Prince’s jester, that I was duller than a great thaw, huddling jest upon jest with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at me. ... I would not marry her, though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed. (2/1/223-36)
(He does, of course, enchantingly.) For a treat, hear too Beatrice, the subject of Benedick’s sentences, responding to a sudden proposal of marriage to her from the visiting grandee Don Pedro, who asks
‘Will you have me, lady?’
‘ No, my lord, unless I might have another for working days: your Grace is too costly to wear every day.’ (2/1/307-9)
Notice the everyday things, ‘one green leaf’, ‘duller than a great thaw’, ‘another for working days’ — just as Hamlet says to his mother, of the usurping Claudius
A cut-purse of the empire and the rule, that from a shelf the precious diadem stole, And put it in his pocket. (Ham 3/4/99-101)
This is the world of the parables in Tyndale: ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.’ (Luke 14C)
And finally Falstaff. As a Latin-educated knight, he is capable of elaborate syntactical structures and Latinist forms, especially when he is trying to slip out of responsibility: but when Shakespeare wants to turn our hearts over, he does not make Falstaff say in the night before the Battle of Shrewsbury, ‘The advent of the imminent hostilities elevates my apprehensions’ but ‘I would ‘twere bed-time, Hal, and all well.’
To illustrate the national steepage in the English Bible properly would take, as Tyndale put it, a lifetime and a day longer. I can only dip a spoon into that vast, rich soup. A strong feature of the 16th century was the arrival in English of the great classical texts. One of the half-dozen most significant of those, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, arrived first complete in English in 1563- 7, translated into rather jogging verse by Arthur Golding, and with a long introductory book by Golding himself showing, to our modern surprise, how biblical Ovid is. Golding also, and more famously at the time, translated Calvin’s sermons, and Ovid’s epic arrives in English as a rather Calvinist work. The first real English epic, Spenser’s unfinished Faerie Queene of the 1580s and 90’s, takes the Protestant Bible as an understood common ground. The increasing crowd of English historians writing in English from Edward Hall in 1548 onwards can easily be shown to be assuming a structure of Old Testament history in their readers’ minds: Hall (who was very widely studied and got almost complete into Holinshed’s later famous Chronicles) like Tyndale’s Old Testament historical books, has monarchs that do good in the sight of the Lord followed by those that do evil in the sight of the Lord, particularly good Edward VI and evil Mary, of course. The decades around Shakespeare show a huge number of popular ballads on biblical subjects — Hamlet refers to one, calling it ‘the pious chanson’. There were even more verse paraphrases of books of the Bible, some by better poets like John Donne, George Wither, Francis Quarles, Michael Drayton and Thomas Middleton.
Shakespeare’s debt to the English Bible can be seen to exist on at least four levels:
straight Biblical reference, as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice tells a story about Laban from Genesis, or Claudio in Measure for Measure refers to the work of Christ in our redemption. Large numbers of such can be found, and have been listed. In this Shakespeare shares a contemporary, and automatic, habit.
Secondly, there are occasions when Shakespeare expects from his audience a knowledge of the Bible because he is playing with it, as when Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream misapplies a crucial moment in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians 2/9, Bottom saying
The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. (4/1/209-12).
It is comic, but it is also profound: Bottom is reaching for some expression of something at the very frontiers of experience, and he turns naturally to the New Testament and Paul — and expects his hearers to share the reference. (Incidentally, learned Shakespearean commentators always give the original from the Bishop’s Bible, whereas it is clearly Tyndale that Bottom is mishandling, though that has never been said until today.)
Thirdly, he found, particularly in the Gospels, a range of people, right across from a king to a suppurating beggar, set out, as he turned the pages, in speech. His Geneva Bible had the verses for the first time numbered and separate, and so many of them are direct speech, and usually conflict, as well as in powerful, sweeping, mounting narrative, just what a playwright needs.
A fourth level of Shakespeare’s use of the English Bible belongs only to him. His seven great tragedies, from Julius Caesar in 1599 to Coriolanus in 1608, are profoundly biblical. True, they come from many sources: Othello mainly from an Italian novel, Macbeth mainly from Holinshed’s Chronicle, the Roman ones from Plutarch and so on. At a deeper level than straight source-hunting, Hamlet is a Calvinist play, Antony and Cleopatra related to the events of the Incarnation as told in the New Testament, and the words of the last book, Revelation, and so on. Deeper still is the full awareness of the integrity of the individual, and how that is intimately set in the close, then larger and then largest communities, particularly the relation of Prince and State. This as it came to Shakespeare was necessarily a pagan view of human tragedy, inherited from the Greeks. Shakespeare knew his Sophocles (incidentally, it is now clear from the work of a post-graduate of mine, in Greek as well as English.) But inside the great tragic work in each play is a sense of scale of human experience in the vastness of God’s work for which the only two words I can find are ‘awesome’ and ‘biblical’ — the range from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. Again, this needs vast development, beyond anything I can do here, except to say that I come away from, for example, a Roman tragedy of Shakespeare aware of a divine cosmic work in a way that I do not find when I come away from a Roman tragedy by Jonson or Massinger, good though those are. I have no doubt that Shakespeare not only knew the Geneva Bible very well, but that he also knew it in its last, 1599 revision, when the notes to the final book, Revelation, were newly incorporated from work by Franciscus Junius. This important new document, the final revision of the Geneva Bible, has been largely neglected, but it visibly affected Shakespeare’s view of divine and human history most profoundly. Hold Shakespeare’s King Lear up to that final 1599 Geneva Bible revision, and the play glows.
My title suggests that Tyndale helped to make Shakespeare what he was. Can I support that? Yes, I can. Without Tyndale we would not have had our Bible in that direct English which speaks at once to the heart —
‘Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do’;
‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God and believe in me’
— or in Shakespeare the extraordinary power of
‘The rest is silence’ or
‘prithee, undo this button’, or
‘I am dying, Egypt, dying.’
Without Tyndale, I believe, the English would not have had a plain prose style of direct address, which was so important in the life of the nation under Elizabeth and after, and which led directly to address of great dramatic power in Shakespeare
Why, there was a crown offer’d him; and being offer’d him he put it by with the back of his hand, thus; and then the people fell a-shouting. (Julius Caesar 1.2.220)
Without Tyndale, I am sure, a range of verbal possibility, so characteristic of Shakespeare, would not have developed in England in that century. We have to keep stressing Tyndale’s unusually great verbal range. Living for a while with other translators makes the comparison clear. Tyndale knows how ordinary — and extraordinary — people talk in English, as do the Greek and Hebrew originals (see the Old Testament historical books, or the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles). He can be trivial or epic, long-winded or cutting, work with a phrase or a paragraph or a chapter, follow clearly a near-impossible sentence from Paul, shift from prose to poetry. In all this you feel the original, not the translator.
Tyndale was killed before he could work on the great Old Testament poetry — Job, the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah: we know enough from embedded passages in what he did do to know he would have been a master. Can I really maintain that the high poetry of Hamlet or King Lear comes straight from Tyndale? Without Tyndale no Shakespeare?
Shakespeare never mentions Tyndale, of course. He refers to Luther — Cardinal Wolsey in Henry the Eighth calls Anne Boleyn ‘a spleeny Lutheran’. That doesn’t matter. Shakespeare never mentions Holinshed or Plutarch — why should he? But, knowing both Tyndale and Shakespeare very well, I find a breadth of human sympathy, and an equal breadth of artistic challenge, in both. Shakespeare, like Tyndale, says what it is like to be human. The appeal of Shakespeare’s highest poetry, which is often his simplest, as Hamlet’s
Had I but time — as this fell sergeant, death, Is strict in his arrest — O I could tell you — But let it be. (5/2/327-30)
is that it expresses what we feel we might say (unlike Ben Jonson, who expresses what we feel Ben Jonson would say). Notice Hamlet’s emotional range, and the range of dying thought, all in simple words. Not only that, it expresses thoughts which act as a sort of vast revelation of what it could be like, beyond what we expect. The extraordinary image there of the fell sergeant strictly arresting brings in a whole set of new possibilities, though said very simply. Guilt is suggested, and martyrdom, and horror, and inevitability, and unbreakable law, and an arresting being who is both outside and inside the dying body, all in the end of someone’s time. It is here, I believe, that Shakespeare is close to Tyndale in that sense of simple words bringing in a new kingdom of possibilities —
‘This thy brother was dead, and is alive again: was lost, and is found’: or
‘Now abideth faith, hope, and love, even these three: but the chief of these is love.’