Celebrating the legacy of the King James Bible and Shakespeare

One book and one poet had greater influence on the English language and the elusive nature of Englishness than almost any other.

The English-speaking world is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. Work started on it 1604 and it came out in 1611. During that period Shakespeare wrote All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, Othello, Timon of Athens, Troilus & Cressida, Twelfth Night, Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Winter’s Tale. In 1611 The Tempest was performed for the first time and Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published.

In 1828, Thomas Babington Macaulay, British poet, historian and politician, described the King James Bible as “A book which, if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power.” The text of this famous Bible had a lengthy gestation but it was largely a patchwork of the many versions produced, chiefly outside England, in the preceding century. Neither was it welcomed in the fraught world of 17th century English religious politics: Puritans disliked it, scholars picked holes in it, and the public preferred the familiar Geneva version of 1560.

No authoritative copy of the King James Bible survives. The manuscript, supposedly still in existence in 1655, is said to have perished in the Great Fire of London. The King’s Printer, Robert Barker, produced the first edition. Despite his eminent position he seems to have been a poor workman and was responsible for a large number of typographical errors. The Cambridge edition of 1629 carefully revised the text, but Barker excelled himself in 1631 with the notorious “Wicked Bible” which omitted the word “not” from the Seventh Commandment.

The translation itself was not universally admired. The Puritan scholar Hugh Broughton damned it as soon as it appeared, and a later writer produced an 800-page volume on errors in the Pentateuch alone. Nevertheless, assisted by the monopoly of the King’s Printer, the new translation rapidly supplanted the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 and, more slowly, the Geneva version. Plans for another rendering in the Commonwealth period (1649-60) came to nothing, and the King James Bible was duly dubbed the Authorised Version – although no record survives of it ever having been “authorised”.

The influence of the King James Bible on English literature was profound, although at first its literary effect was less than its social impact. For a long time it comprised virtually the sole book readily accessible to ordinary people, but in the following centuries it provided English literature with style, language, and material. Its effect on Shakespeare is unclear and he may never have read it. But Shakespeare’s influence on the English language is a different matter, as British journalist Bernard Levin memorably pointed out in Enthusiasms (1983):

“If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ‘It’s Greek to me,’ you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a doornail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens! But me no buts – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.”

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