My book, The Bard and the Bible: A Shakespeare Devotional (What? You don’t own a copy? Get thee to a bookery!) explores in daily readings the many correspondences between Shakespeare’s works and the King James Version of the Bible, which were created in the same period, nation, and city. But though Shakespeare quoted the Bible more than any of his contemporaries, he may never have read the King James Version of the Bible. So what Bible did he use?
Shakespeare was born in 1564 and raised (and educated) in Stratford-Upon-Avon, a town in Warwickshire. Though he may have heard the Great Bible (1539) being read in the Anglican church of his youth, he was probably more familiar in his formative years with the Bishops’ Bible, which was authorized by the Church of England in 1568 and revised in 1572.
By the time Shakespeare began writing his plays and poetry, there were primarily two Bibles in general use in Elizabethan England: the Geneva Bible (pictured above, first published in 1560) and the Bishop’s Bible (1568).
His writings seem to support this view, as his biblical references until 1598 seem to be drawn from the Bishops’ Bible. After that date, however (and at the height of his career, a period that produced his greatest works), Shakespeare’s biblical references draw primarily from the Geneva Bible (also known as the Puritan Bible), the most widely published and read Bible of the day.
When King James ascended the throne of England in 1603 and called the Hampton Court Conference that resulted in the Authorized Version of 1611, the translators were instructed to use the Bishops’ Bible as their guide. When difficulties arose, however, they were allowed to consult the Tyndale Bible (1530), the Coverdale Bible (1535), Matthew’s Bible (1537), the Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible. Thus, the phrasing and cadences of Shakespeare’s Bibles echoed through the “new and improved” version of 1611.
Given Shakespeare’s extensive knowledge and use of the Bible in his plays, there can be no doubt that he heard it often, knew it well, and probably even owned and read his own copy–especially after the late 1590s.