King's College London
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'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

The Geneva Bible

The predominant political issue of Shakespeare’s time remained, as it had been for many years previously, that of sovereignty and succession. While Elizabeth was widely admired, the Tudor claim on royal legitimacy was historically questionable and several competing factions could still make their claims heard. When it became clear that the Queen would produce no heirs, the matter of succession became paramount in English political life. The eventual establishment of the Stuart dynasty in 1603 with James I of England and VI of Scotland, although based on a slightly less tenuous royal lineage, did not easily resolve the question.

Inextricably linked with this dominant political theme was religion. Henry VIII’s break from Rome brought institutional mayhem to state religion in England, the reverberations of which were to be felt throughout the following century – the faith of a prospective monarch was now arguably the most important consideration of his or her claim. On a social and cultural level, too, the Reformation divided the country between the reforming Protestants who, Mary I’s reign excepted, enjoyed the benefit of state sanction, and the adherents of the ‘old religion’ who were subject to persecution, imprisonment and even execution under Elizabeth and James.

Questions of religion were also prime drivers of foreign policy; the papal excommunication of the Tudors gave license to domestic factions and foreign powers alike to view the reigning monarch as a usurper, and their realm a legitimate target for rebellion or invasion. The growing imperial and commercial rivalry with Spain, for example, was thus bolstered by religious differences; the Spanish claimed a divine dispensation for invasion, while the English had an increasing fear of continental Catholic machinations. Shakespeare, a historically conversant writer with connections to court who was quite possibly the son of a Catholic, was well placed to reflect the turmoil of the times in his work, albeit with an obliquity necessary to avoid both censure and censorship.

Opening showing chapters from the Book of RevelationOpening showing chapters from the Book of RevelationShakespeare lived through the aftermath of the Reformation, with all its attendant religious upheaval, prejudice and persecution. The Geneva Bible was the earliest of the new Bible translations of the Elizabethan era, precursors to and influences upon the King James Bible of 1611. English Protestant scholars, fleeing from persecution during the return of state Catholicism in Mary’s reign (1553-8), congregated in Calvinist Geneva and produced a new translation in 1560, dedicating it to the recently crowned Elizabeth I.

The Geneva Bible draws heavily on William Tyndale’s version of 1526 and, in its turn, greatly influenced the translators of the King James Bible, with many passages and phrases left virtually unchanged.

Deemed by church authorities too Calvinist for official use, the Geneva Bible nevertheless proved extremely popular with congregations. It was printed in affordable editions and was generally the version of choice for use outside the Church – at home and in schools – among Protestants in the last quarter of the 16th century. Critical analysis of Shakespeare’s texts suggests that until around 1598 he was most familiar with the Church of England-sanctioned Bishop’s Bible but thereafter, in the mature period of his great tragedies, with the Geneva version.

The opening reproduced here shows chapters from the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, from which echoes of several striking descriptions of the Apocalypse can be traced throughout Antony and Cleopatra. For example, Caesar’s comment on Antony, 

He hath given his empire
Up to a whore, who are now levying
The kings o’ th’ earth for war 

strongly suggests Revelation 17.1-2: 

Come: I will shewe thee the damnation of the great whore that sitteth vpon manye waters, with whome haue committed fornication the Kings of the earth.

In this exhibition


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