Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Shakespeare and the King James Bible

Over the last three mornings the BBC have been broadcasting a series of programmes commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible. We are no longer supposed to refer to it as the Authorised Version as apparently officially it never was, authorised that is.

The story of how the King James Version came about is fascinating in itself but far to long and complex for a single post. However, listening to the discussions over the last few days I've been reminded of a lecture we had last term from a scholar who has been working on the text in preparation for this year's celebrations. He came to speak to us on the subject Did Shakespeare Have a Hand in the King James Bible.

Of course, there has always been speculation. When you look at the published works of the people who were responsible for the translation it is hard to understand how the beautiful language which is the hallmark of the text ever came about. Indeed, it is all the more remarkable when you remember that the work was given over to a committee. This group gets to work on these books, that group on those! When I think of some of the committees on which I've served the wonder is that they ever came up with a text at all, let alone one that has inspired artists, composers and writers ever since. And, let us not forget that Shakespeare was King James own personal playwright. He was the company writer for the King's Men and while James didn't exactly pay his wages pleasing the monarch was definitely the way to go.

But, speculation is not evidence and much as it would make a wonderful story to be able to say that the bard was involved the general thought is that it would be just that, a wonderful story. However, our speaker did say that he had got a little excited, enough to wonder perhaps if one of the translators wasn't an ardent playgoer paying tribute to his hero, when he discovered that the forty-sixth word from the beginning of Psalm 46 was shake and the forty-sixth word from the end was spear. Shakespeare, of course, was himself forty-six when the King James Bible was published.

Alas, even that much of a link was denied him when he went back to earlier translations and discovered that the words shake and spear have always been rattling around somewhere near the beginning and the end of that particular psalm. And we all know what would happen if we were to leave a monkey alone with a typewriter for long enough, don't we?

Nevertheless, the mystery of the magnificent language contained in the 1611 Bible remains and it would be nice to think that all the scholarly attention that is bound to be given to the text over the course of the year might come some way towards explaining it.



  1. I read a book on the writing of the King James Bible a while ago, God's Secretaries, by Adam Nicolson. It IS a fascinating story!

  2. I had to do some research on it this time last year for a paper concerned with the early months of James' reign. He wanted the Bishops sorted asap, having had a lot of problems when he was in Scotland. This lot were going to know from day one that he was King and things would be done his way. He called them to account even before he called Parliament!

  3. I never realized the connection between King James and Shakespeare. This was a really interesting post -- thank you for sharing!

  4. And thank you for coming over, Erin. As I've just said in response to your other comment, one of the great pleasures in life is meeting and talking with other readers and the blogging world is a wonderful way of doing that.