hamlet and the bible

hello all.

so, seeing as how shakespeare was an inimitable cultural synthesizer, i am sure that he referenced the bible in many of his works. what kind of biblical material did he incorporate into ‘Hamlet’?


They sure give strange homework assignments at your school.

THe whole play is a retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood.

Hamlet’s Mother, Gertrude, has the same name as Noah’s wife. There is also a reference to Jonah, one of Noah’s relatives, you’ve probably heard of Jonah of Ark.

Hamlet stabs Polonius behind the arras, which is a veiled reference to Mount Arrasarat where the Ark came to rest after the Flood.

In Hamlet’s famous soliliquy, “To be or not to be, that is the bare bodkin that doth make fools of us all…” he talks about “a sea of troubles” which is also a flood reference.

Rosenstern and Guilderkrantz are a pair of toadies, refering to the two of each kind of animal taken on the Ark.

Laertes spelled backwards is Setreal, the region in Isreal where Noah lived.

You put all this in your report, you’re sure to get a wonderful comment from your teacher.

To be sure

Guys? jb_f has been around long enough to know that we don’t do homework. He might just be curious.

Off hand, I don’t actually know a lot of biblical references in Hamlet. However, if I was interested in discovering them, I guess I’d start with a trip to the library to check out A.L. Rowse’s The Annotated Shakespeare with its copious line notes. Failing that, I’d get a copy of the play, log on to the Bible Gateway site, select the KJV radio button, then read the play. Any time I came across an obscure reference (or metaphor), I’d plug the key word(s) into the Word Search box and see what came up.

That said, I will counter with the idea that Shakespeare, perhaps, did not fill his plays with allusions to biblical verses. The Authorized Version (KJV) of the bible was not translated until ten years after Hamlet was written. The Wycliffe and other earlier translations were not (to my knowledge) widely distributed. There was a general knowledge of the biblical stories among the populace, but I would suspect that a familiarity with bible verses would have been rare. Allusions to general events (the Fall, the Flood, various victories and defeats of David and the other kings, the Nativity, the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, etc.) would have been available, as would references to the perceived personalities of the patriarchs, the kings of Judah and Israel, the prophets, and others. But references to individual verses would have been lost on the audience. (I have a vague memory of a line mentioning “primordial curse,” for example, that alludes to the curse of Cain for murdering Abel, but I don’t know how many of those sorts of lines appear in the play.)

Of course, by most accounts Shakespeare was, himself, one of the translators of the KJV, so one would expect him to have a rather greater familiarity with the work than the run of the populace.

Well, no, actually. Shakespeare almost certainly had nothing to do with the King James Version of the Bible. See the following URL:

Hmm, I’ll have to look this up, but my recollection is that the Geneva Bible, translated early in Elizabeth’s reign, was quite widely read. I’d be surprised if Shakespeare’s audience wasn’t familiar with it.

A few references for the OP: Claudius does indeed note that his crime “hath the primal eldest curse upon it / A brother’s murder.” Hamlet refers to the story of Jephthah and his daughter, although he seems to be quoting a popular ballad rather than the Bible itself. One of the gravediggers claims to be following Adam’s profession, since the Bible says “Adam digged.” I’m sure there are others.

sweet. yeah guys, i dropped out of school 2 and a half years ago. to paraphrase that window guy, “I don’t do homework.”
and god willing, i never will again.

widely read by the general population, or by the aristocracy and clergy? it wouldn’t have figured too much into ol’ Shaksies plays if the middle-to-lower class audience wasn’t familiar.
so no biblical verses, huh? that’s cool. i was thinking more along the lines of thematic references, not direct biblical quotes or paraphrases. reason is, i’m rereading Infinite Jest, which is a retelling of Hamlet in a roundabout way, and i’m trying to delve deeper into the source material. i’ll check out that Rowse book, Tom.

thanks a lot, all,


p.s.- in all honesty, i do miss homework sometimes

This is somewhat problematic, and I don’t know the exact answer.

On the one hand, literacy was rising in Tudor England (although it was nowhere close to universal, of course). On the other hand, a lot of classical allusions were probably familiar to even the folks in the pit, simply because it was classical stories that were produced and staged (and were incorporated into popular songs and storytelling). Rather than butchering a Jane Austen novel, setting it in modern California, and calling it Clueless, they actually staged Troilus and Cressida, Titus Androinicus, Faust, various tales from the Iliad or Odyssey, and similar works. The romans that preceded our “romantic adventures” were filled with knights and kings doing things in homage of earlier knights and kings.

I do not know how much of this translated into a general familiarity with the classics, but some portion of the general populace would certainly have recognized the names and associated the names with certain deeds, virtues, or vices.

(And, of course, as long as the the story moved along at a good clip, Shakespeare could easily have inserted the allusions to satisfy the upper crust while the allusions went over the heads of the pit. Look how popular Looney Toons and Merry Melodies remain, today, despite the fact that 90% of the audience really does not understand the majority of the contemporary social or entertainment references that the cartoons make.)

As I said, the issue is somewhat problematic.

Well, to address the OP from the standpoint of the Bible-Centric Fundie Universe, I never remember hearing anything along the lines of, “Yeah, Shakespeare’s got Bible stuff in there.”

You’d think that if there was any “Bible stuff” in there, my Fellow Fundies would have glommed onto it long ago and be paradin’ it all over the place.

But no, it’s always been pretty much, “there’s Shakespeare, and then there’s the Bible, and never the twain shall meet.”

I also don’t know the answer to that, but the majority of Londoners in Shakespeare’s time could read; according to the social historian Keith Wrightson, literacy rates were as high as 80% in many urban parishes. And I suspect that if people in those days read anything, they read the Bible.

As Fretful Porpentine points out, the level of literacy of Shakespeare’s audience was probably higher than one might expect. Moreover, even those who could not read would nevertheless have been familiar with some of the language of the various English translations. The illiterate would have regularly heard it read in English in church and they would have heard other people read it elsewhere. One must remember that the Church of England in this period was especially keen to encourage as wide a familiarity with the Bible as possible.

That however is the wrong way to think about this. Shakespeare would not have expected his listeners to get all of his allusions. Allusions (or jokes) sometimes work best when only some people get them. The real question is whether Shakespeare had read the Bible. As we can assume that he was literate, it is not too much of a stretch to assume that he had. Most scholars assume that he was familiar with the Geneva translation.

There is in fact a long tradition of literary scholars seeking to identify Biblical allusions in Shakespeare’s works. Of course, this, in part, simply reflects the fact that over the years scholars have searched in every conceivable place to try to identify Shakespeare’s sources. Pick any book which existed in the late sixteenth century and you’ll probably find someone who has claimed that Shakespeare alluded to it. That said, the Bible as a source is one of the more plausible theories and many of the proposed allusions command wide critical support. Denial that such allusions exist is the eccentric position.

On the general question, this book may be the best place to start.


On Hamlet in particular, any good edition with full scholarly apparatus should identify the more obvious allusions.