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Shakespeare Quarterly 52.1 (2001) 148-151

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Book Review

Biblical References in Shakespeare's Plays

Biblical References in Shakespeare's Plays. By Naseeb Shaheen. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1999. Pp. 880. $49.50 cloth.

After classical mythology, the Bible constitutes the second most important body of material that Shakespeare drew on in constructing his plays, narrative poems, and sonnets. This is not surprising since the world in which the playwright lived was a culture immersed in the Scriptures. As Naseeb Shaheen cogently demonstrates in his meticulous and extensive study of biblical and liturgical allusions in Shakespeare's plays, the dramatist's knowledge of the Scriptures was vast, his memory amazingly retentive, and his imagination richly associative. Shaheen's focus, excepting some random observations on the influence of the medieval drama and pictorial representations, is on Shakespeare's exposure to the Books of the Bible as the playwright would have heard and read them.

The present volume combines the author's three previously published works on biblical references in the tragedies (1987), histories (1989), and comedies (1993) and includes an entirely new section on the romances (including The Two Noble Kinsmen and Sir Thomas More), thus making the coverage of the dramatic canon complete. The earlier studies, it should be noted, are not simply reprinted. The author has corrected errors, discovered new references, and often added further commentary. The [End Page 148] comprehensive cross-referencing allows the reader to engage a biblical reference canonically not only to determine its contextual variety but also to see where it first enters the dramatic corpus, clusters, and disappears. The extended commentary for "What a Herod of Jewry is this!" (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2.1.20), for example, to which the entries for Antony and Cleopatra, 1.2.28-29 and 3.3.2-5, are linked, usefully distinguishes between Herod the Great, who ruled when Christ was born, and his son, Herod the Tetrarch, who was responsible for the beheading of John the Baptist--a distinction commonly blurred by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Shaheen's millennial-end contribution is without question the most detailed and substantial study of the topic to date and promises to remain so for years to come.1

While its scope is staggering, the book's organization makes it extremely user-friendly. The introductory matter includes an informative historical survey of English Bibles of Shakespeare's day, an account of Shakespeare and the Anglican Liturgy, and a discussion of the author's criteria for establishing valid biblical references. Shaheen concludes that Shakespeare appears to have referred to the Geneva Bible frequently but not exclusively, thus making it impossible to designate any one text as Shakespeare's Bible. For the Psalms (which, followed by the Gospel of Matthew, show the highest frequency in the plays), he was probably more indebted to the Psalter than to the Geneva Bible. Shaheen's classification of references to the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Book of Homilies consists of four categories: certain, probable, less probable, and doubtful. The body of the study, arranged chronologically by genre, offers chapters on each play, with a commentary on sources, dates, and early texts preceding the annotated listing of references. A triple appendix that keys all of the Shakespeare lines previously catalogued to specific books of the Bible as well as to parts of the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Homilies permits one to see at a glance whether Shakespeare ever referred to a particular passage in those sources.

Shaheen has approached his subject with great care, tenacity, and detective-like acumen. He is able to distinguish biblical allusions that Shakespeare introduced from those that appeared in his secular source material, an intertextual effort that alone makes this study invaluable. Compare, for instance, the entries for Julius Caesar, 2.2.18 ("Graves have yawn'd and yielded up their dead") and The Tempest, 5.1.48-49 ("Graves at my command / Have wak'd their sleepers, op'd, and let 'em forth"). In the first instance, Shaheen...


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