Shakespeare and the Psalms
Usually this time of the summer, I’m busy ushering at the productions put on by the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. Unfortunately, once again this year, the company has remained dark due to the difficulty of successfully offering a season amid a pandemic. And so, I’ve decided to offer you some of my thoughts on Shakespeare and the Psalms.
Shakespeare and the Psalms
I’ve long wondered about the influence of the Bible, in particular the poetry in the Bible, on Shakespeare’s poetry. In my mind there was such a commonality, that when I first searched for the quote, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it falleth like the gentle rain on those below,” I hunted through Scripture, thinking I would find it there. Where else would you find a passage about mercy, a biblical concept, and rain, a nature image often found in the Bible, but in the Bible? To my surprise, I found it in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
So what is the connection between Shakespeare and the Psalms?
Research on Shakespeare and the Psalms
When I first researched the influence of religion on Shakespeare years ago, it was sorely lacking. Most recently though, I found an abundance of resources on the internet. In particular I was surprised to find articles on the internet about Shakespeare and Psalm 46, claiming that Shakespeare may have in fact wrote this psalm, or at least interjected a verse or two. The premise is that the word Shakespeare is found encoded in Psalm 46. The word shake is 46 words from the beginning of the poem, and spear is 46 words from the end. (For more see article in Apologetics Press.)
Serious students of Shakespeare and scripture dispute these crazy theories, but the myth has a staying power along with other conspiracy theories. Why?
Maybe because there is a connection between Shakespeare and the Psalms.
Shakespeare’s writing is full of metaphors. If you are looking for metaphors, you need look no further than biblical poetry, particularly the Psalms. The Psalms are rich in metaphor, lyricism, personification, and other poetic devices.
As Dr. Leland Ryken, Wheaton College, states in his article, Metaphors in the Psalms. “It has been said that Shakespeare’s language is so consistently and thoroughly metaphoric that he seems to have done his very thinking in metaphor. A similar claim can be made for the poets who wrote the Old Testament Psalms.” Could it be that Shakespeare gained his familiarity with metaphor through knowledge of the Psalms?
Growing up in the 1500s, certainly Shakespeare was exposed to the Bible and familiar with its poetry. Religion was important in Shakespearean England. Shakespeare, like most writers, borrowed from different aspects of life and society of his time. Religious themes exist alongside mention of ghosts, witches, sprites. He used everything he could to entertain those who came to his production.
Shakespearean scholar, Amanda Mabillard, writes on the biblical imagery in ‘Macbeth’, “Shakespeare’s debt to scripture is profound; biblical imagery is woven into every play. No writer integrated the expression and themes found in the Bible into his own work more magnificently than Shakespeare“. (Religion & Renaissance Influences On Shakespeare (nosweatshakespeare.com)
What is the Difference between Shakespeare and the Writers of the Psalms?
And so it is logical to believe the poetry of the Psalms influenced Shakespeare.
But where Shakespeare, like most writers, used everything he knew to support his artistic muse, the writers of the Psalms wrote from their hearts, words of prayer and praise. And therein lies the difference.
This post is part of a series of blog posts on the Psalms. Sign up to follow this blog and and receive a free copy of Still Dancing, the second book in my Dancing through Life Series. click here to sign up
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