William Shakespeare, playwright, author, poet and wordsmith extraordinaire, imparted to the world exquisite exposition and powerful (though at times bawdy) prose. The year 2016 marks the 400th anniversary since Shakespeare's death. Celebratory events are scheduled throughout England in honour of this national icon for his inestimable contributions to English culture, arts and language.
Generations have admired Shakespeare's nimble ability to wield English word and phrase. He marshalled what is sometimes considered the largest vocabulary of any writer—some 24,000 words! His prowess with a pen was only further enhanced as he uniquely invented or repurposed hundreds of English words—many of which are still in use today.
What can we learn from Shakespeare's life and work? What connection, if any, exists between Shakespeare and English-language translations of the Holy Bible? Language was the playground for William Shakespeare, but what does Bible prophecy reveal regarding a future restoration and purification of language?
William Shakespeare, born in the rural township of Stratford-upon-Avon in late April 1564, spent his formative school years being introduced to the mechanisms of "persuasive, elegant and powerful" expressions of thought, focusing heavily on the ancient Latin language, which was then the lingua franca of the most educated Europeans.
In his book, Shakespeare, director and author Jeremy Lemmon describes how young Shakespeare would have been taught "50 ways of saying 'I think it's going to rain'" from Erasmus's De copia verborum (p. 10). Young Shakespeare grew "aware of the resources and possibilities of language" (ibid., p. 12). Such intense concentration on verbal and written expression laid the foundation for Shakespeare's enormous edifice of literary effort.
In the summer of 1582, just four years after leaving school, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. Together they would have three children—two girls and a boy. Sadly, the boy would die at age eleven. Around 1587, Shakespeare left Stratford, his family remaining in his hometown as the gifted writer ventured forth to explore the opportunities and face the challenges awaiting him in London.
London was Shakespeare's home when he wrote all of his great plays. Under the employ of the Chamberlain's Men, also known as "the King's Men," the talented Shakespeare—along with his lively troop of actors—enjoyed such success as to be able to build the Globe Theatre. Tourists today can visit a modern reconstruction, Shakespeare's Globe, in Bankside on the River Thames.
Over the span of 23 years, from 1590 to 1613, Shakespeare wrote five poems, 154 sonnets and some 38 plays—an astounding 884,647 words in all! The cause of his death on April 23, 1616 is unknown, yet in his 52 years he compiled a legacy of plays such as Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth and The Tempest, to name just a few, that have survived him and etched their significant mark on four centuries of human thought—a remarkable achievement by anyone's standards.
It is commonly said that echoes of the Holy Bible sound throughout Shakespeare's work. However, it would be hyperbole to credit Shakespeare with significant influence on English-language translations of the Bible. Rather, it was the work of William Tyndale in the 16th century, and before him John Wycliffe in the 14th century, that brought the Bible into the language of the same Englishmen who would attend Shakespeare's plays and notice the biblical cadence of his most affecting works.
All told, Shakespeare's writings played a vital part in the growth of the English language from the parochial tongue of one European island into a worldwide medium of communication that would displace Latin and become truly the common second language of most of the world. One other major factor in the spread of English was the printing and widespread distribution of the King James Bible, translated between 1604 and 1611. As the British Empire expanded, its colonies received not just the legacy of Shakespeare, but also of the King James Bible—especially after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 saw the English language hurled ever more prominently to the far corners of the earth.
Shakespeare may not have been an overtly religious man, but his writings did show an appreciation for many of the vibrant and memorable expressions found throughout Scripture. Nevertheless, his plays were written for a common and often coarse audience, and as such were at times littered with what some considered vulgarities and prurient ideas and situations. Because of these perceived "blemishes" on Shakespeare's legacy, English philanthropist and physician Dr. Thomas Bowdler sought to paraphrase and expurgate what he considered inappropriate while retaining all the "beauties" of Shakespeare's writings. His "bowdlerized" volume titled The Family Shakespeare, first published in 1807, no doubt brought Shakespeare to an even wider audience. Yet it is the original words of the "Bawdy Bard" that have endured, while Bowdler's efforts are now for the most part scorned.
But what about the idea of purity in language? In a prophecy concerning the coming earthly reign of Jesus Christ, Zephaniah writes, "For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, that they all may call on the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one accord" (Zephaniah 3:9). The Hebrew word used here for "language" is elsewhere translated as "lip" in scores of other scripture passages. It implies that in the Kingdom of God, what comes out of the lips will be pure (cf. Zephaniah 3:13). God desires external pureness of language, but also—and more importantly—purity of heart from whence one's words arise (Matthew 12:34).
Bowdler's cleansing of Shakespeare's work was ridiculed as tampering and censorship; however, the time is coming when God will seek to clean and purify all language, and therefore thought, enabling humanity better to praise Him apart from the "blemishes" of perverted words and concepts, double meanings, and pagan references so common to all languages today.
The Bible describes a time, yet future, when knowledge of God's way of life will fill the earth (Isaiah 11:9). Christ will ensure peace and justice (Isaiah 9:6–7). The cleansing of language will be just one aspect of the greater restoration to come (Acts 3:20–21). To learn more about this wonderful future, read our inspiring booklet, The World Ahead: What Will It Be Like?
As celebrations continue throughout the "Year of Shakespeare," lauding his influence upon the English language, let us pause to appreciate the soon-coming reality of Jesus Christ's restoration and purification of language worldwide upon His triumphant return.