Oxford's Bible

Part 5 of "Critically Examining Oxfordian Claims"

[Note: This essay is much more heavily revised than the others in this section. Parts of it have been adapted from my newsgroup posts, but most of it is new, written after I had a chance to examine the Bible in detail, both in person and on microfilm. Much more needs to be said on this topic, but this essay is intended as an introduction for curious bystanders who would like some information from a non-Oxfordian source. This is only a preliminary report, to be fleshed out as time allows.]

Now, a few words about the so-called "Oxford Bible." This is a Geneva Bible belonging to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. which apparently belonged to Edward de Vere at one point. It contains handwritten annotations which, according to Oxfordians, correspond closely to Biblical allusions in Shakespeare's works, and which they take as evidence for Oxford's authorship of Shakespeare. Having examined this particular Bible at the Folger, and having prepared a complete list of the annotations, I can report that Oxfordian propaganda has wildly exaggerated its value for their cause. There is no correlation between the annotations and the pattern of Biblical use in Shakespeare's work, and any overlap between the marked verses and those used by Shakespeare appears to be random. Calling this "Shakespeare's Bible," as some Oxfordians have done, is nothing more than wishful thinking; I seriously doubt that anyone examining this Bible without knowing its provenance would ever think to associate it with Shakespeare.

First, a brief description. The Bible is bound in well-worn red velvet, with a metal clasp and decorative metal plates attached to the binding. An oval plate in the middle of the front cover depicts a boar with a crown floating above, and an oval plate on the back cover depicts an armorial shield divided into quarters, with a shaded star in the upper left quadrant and a crown above the shield. Since these are all prominent elements of Edward de Vere's coat of arms, we can reasonably conclude that this Bible was bound for him. Inside, the book is a Geneva Bible (STC 2106) consisting of three main parts, each with a different title page: the Old Testament is dated 1570, the New Testament is dated 1568, and the Psalter and Prayer Book is dated 1569. The much-vaunted annotations are of several types. (For convenience, I will refer to a single "annotator," even though the annotations may well be by more than one person.) In some thirty places, the annotator has written something in the margin in a neat italic hand, though in many cases the writing has been partially cut away, probably when the book was cropped upon being rebacked at some point. Most of these are single words, such as "sinne," "poore," "usurie," or "mercy," though there are a few longer phrases, such as "giue vnto the poore" at Proverbs 3:10. The bulk of the annotations, however, consist of markings on specific verses or marginal notes; the great majority of these marked verses have to do with usury, the poor, or sins of the flesh. In many places, the annotator has underlined the verse number, in either black or red ink; in other places, the annotator has underlined part of the verse itself (often just the first line), again in either black or red ink. In about fifteen places, the annotator has drawn a flower in the margin; in a similar number of places, the annotator has drawn a pointing hand. All but two of these pointing hands are in the Psalter at the end of the volume, pointing at the beginnings of various metrical psalms. Somebody has written a cross in pencil at the beginning of various chapters in Job, Isaiah, John, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Hebrews, and Revelation (sixteen chapters overall); it is unclear when these crosses were made. There are a few other miscellaneous markings, some of which may not be intentional.

One could argue about whether the handwriting of the written annotations is Oxford's, but this is largely a moot point, because the pattern of marked verses in this Bible shows very little similarity to Shakespeare's pattern of Bible use. The annotator was very busy from 1 Samuel to 1 Kings, marking 135 verses in 1 Samuel (far more than any other book), 71 in 2 Samuel, and 61 in 1 Kings, plus many marginal notes in all three books. Over a quarter of the total marked verses in the entire Bible, by my rough count, are in these three consecutive books. Yet according to Naseeb Shaheen's work, Shakespeare didn't make particularly much use of those books; he made much heavier use of Genesis, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, all four Gospels, and Revelation, among others. The annotator was for some reason drawn to the Apocrypha, marking 96 verses in Ecclesiasticus (used only moderately by Shakespeare), 64 verses in 2 Maccabees, 60 in 2 Esdras, 35 in Wisdom, 20 in Tobit, and 11 in Baruch (all virtually ignored by Shakespeare). Several of the annotator's other favorite books were also seldom used by Shakespeare, such as 2 Corinthians (37 verses marked), Hosea (26 verses), and Jeremiah (13 verses). On the other hand, most of the books Shakespeare drew on most heavily for his Biblical references were hardly touched at all by the annotator. Shakespeare drew very heavily on all four Gospels, especially Matthew (arguably his most-used book), but the annotator has left the Gospels almost alone: 23 verses marked in Matthew, 2 in Luke, 1 in Mark, and none in John (unless one counts the pencil crosses at the beginning of John 5, 6, and 17). Shakespeare also drew very heavily on Genesis, Proverbs, and Acts, in each of which the annotator has marked only one verse. To be fair, there are a few books --- notably Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Revelation --- which both the annotator and Shakespeare seem to have been fond of, but these are very much the exception rather than the rule. In general, the annotator(s) of this Bible and Shakespeare appear to have had very different interests.

Oxfordians have made much of the fact that some of the verses marked in this Bible are alluded to by Shakespeare, but this looks like nothing more than a random overlap of two fairly large sets. There are roughly 1000 verses marked in the de Vere Bible, and based on my estimates from the lists in Naseeb Shaheen's books, Shakespeare alluded to at least 2000 Bible verses in his works. Roughly 80 of the marked verses have parallels to Shakespeare which are noted by the leading Bible-Shakespeare scholars, Shaheen and Richmond Noble. There are another 120-plus which Roger Stritmatter claims are parallels which previous commentators have overlooked; I have only seen a few of these and find them unimpressive, but for the sake of argument let's accept them. This means that even giving Stritmatter the benefit of the doubt, only about 10 percent of Shakespeare's Biblical allusions are marked in the Bible, and only about 20 percent of the verses marked in the Bible are alluded to in Shakespeare. That doesn't seem like anything more than a random overlap to me, and this impression is confirmed by the fact that you can find a similar overlap with other contemporary authors. I went through Naseeb Shaheen's book on Biblical references in The Faerie Queene and found 35 verses marked in the de Vere Bible which Spenser alludes to; I'm sure that I could add considerably to that number by loosening the standards for what counts as an allusion, as Stritmatter has. So we have 35 marked verses in The Faerie Queene vs. 80 in Shakespeare, using Shaheen's standards; that's not bad, considering that The Faerie Queene is about one third the length of Shakespeare's complete works. It's harder to do comparisons for other authors whose Biblical allusions have not been catalogued as thoroughly as Shakespeare's have, but a quick look through R. M. Cornelius' book Christopher Marlowe's Use of the Bible suggest a comparable rate of overlap with the marked verses.

The stir over this Bible reminds me of the brouhaha over 100 years ago over Francis Bacon's Promus of Formulas and Elegancies, which was seized upon by Baconians at the time as the crowning "proof" that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. The Promus consists of a manuscript of about 50 pages in Bacon's handwriting, which from dates on some of the pages can be dated 1594-95. It was apparently used by Bacon as a commonplace book; it contains a wide variety of jottings in English, Latin, and French, including miscellaneous phrases, proverbs, and classical quotations. A Baconian named Constance Pott (the Roger Stritmatter of her day), published the Promus for the first time in 1883, with copious annotations showing Shakespearean parallels for almost everything in the manuscript; altogether Pott listed over 4400 parallels between the Promus and Shakespeare. Furthermore, Pott went through an astonishing number of works in English, from Chaucer to the nineteenth century, looking for parallels to the Promus, and claimed to have found very few. It's really a remarkable piece of work. One of the sheets of the Promus contains so many parallels to Romeo and Juliet, including a single speech of Friar Laurence's, that even the Shakespearean scholar Edwin Abbott (in his preface to Pott's edition) was hard put to call it a coincidence. On the face of it, I find the Promus better evidence for Bacon's authorship of Shakespeare than the Folger Bible is for Oxford. On the one hand you have a private notebook indisputably in Bacon's handwriting and containing many parallels to Shakespeare; on the other hand you have a Bible (the text of which was available to and known to everyone) with markings probably by Oxford (but possibly not), a relatively small percentage of which correspond to passages in Shakespeare.

In sum, the value of this Bible as "evidence" for Oxford's authorship of Shakespeare's works is very slight. While it almost certainly belonged to Oxford and at least some of the markings are very likely his, the pattern of marked verses is very different from Shakespeare's pattern of Biblical use, and the overlap between the marked verses and those used by Shakespeare is not significantly more than we would expect by chance.

To the complete list of annotations in de Vere's Bible.
To other essays in "Critically Examining Oxfordian Claims":
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