The faith setting of Shakespeare’s plays

A shared understanding

Of all Shakespeare’s literary and dramatic sources, the Bible is arguably the most pervasive and Shakespeare alludes to a range of people and events from the Bible, as well as linguistic features and imagery. The Bible provided him with a rich source of shared knowledge with his audience and he was quick to activate this with numerous references to stories or people that would be easily recognised. It is not known whether Shakespeare was a Christian, but he certainly knew a lot about the Bible – even its most obscure stories or sayings – and referred to it consistently throughout his career as poet and playwright.
Shakespeare would have heard the Bishops’ Bible (see Impact of the Bible > English-Bible translations) read aloud every week at church and also heard large sections of it quoted in readings from the Book of Common Prayer. The Bible was readily available in churches and the Geneva Bible (see Impact of the Bible > English-Bible translations) could be bought for personal reading in a relatively cheap quarto edition. These two versions of the Bible were the most influential for Shakespeare and he quotes from both of them in his plays. It is thought that Shakespeare either owned a copy of the Geneva Bible or had access to one for personal reading, since most of his biblical references are from this edition and this edition was not publicly read in churches, as the Bishop’s Bible was. 

Using biblical allusions for humour

Shakespeare’s plays often echo the language of the Bible. For example in The Taming of the Shrew, Grumio alludes to the Bible when he says:
Now, were not I a little pot and soon hot, my very lips might freeze to my teeth, my tongue to the roof of my mouth, my heart in my belly, ere I should come by a fire to thaw me 
(Act 4 Scene 1)     
He is referring to two Psalms which express the deep distress of the writer in the face of extreme suffering (Psalm 22 – which is also thought to foreshadow the suffering of Christ) - and while exiled from his homeland (Psalm 137): 
My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws, and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. Psalms 22:15

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth: yea, if I prefer not Jerusalem to my chief joy. Psalms 137:6     
Grumio’s biblical allusions add humour to this scene because Grumio’s distress hardly matches the intense experiences of the Psalmists, nor is his ‘suffering’ incomparable to theirs or even to Katherina’s when she finally arrives home with Petruchio sometime after Grumio.
Shakespeare would have assumed that his audience all knew, and believed, a variety of Christian teachings and practices. 

The Ten Commandments

Moses with the Ten Commandments by RembrandtThe impact of the Commandments

In chapter 20 of Exodus in the Old Testament, the prophet Moses was given by God Ten Commandments which summed up the laws by which humans should live:
  • These commandments were often written up on the walls of Christian churches, thus would be very familiar to Shakespeare's audience
  • In addition, the Ten Commandments would be recited by the priest and people during the service of Holy Communion held each Sunday 
  • The Commandments formed the basis of English law as well as affecting the day to day inter-relations between people. For example, casually swearing using terms referring to God (the act of blasphemy which was contrary to the third Commandment) was used by dramatists as an indicator of immorality, as was failing to set apart Sunday as a time to focus on God and take physical rest (as stated in the fourth Commandment).

Respecting parents

Commandment five is:
Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.' (KJB)    
It was taken as a 'given' that all children were subject to their parents and should always speak respectfully to them and about them. Not to do so was to upset the Elizabethan perception of order and degree (see Chain of being) by which God maintained both the macrocosm and the microcosm).
It was also expected that children would obey their parents when they were to be married. This was especially true of girls, who would usually marry at a young age (sometimes even before puberty), while boys would often wait until they had reached financial independence from their fathers. Hence many young women were married to older men. In The Taming of the Shrew, Baptista is making marriage arrangements for his younger daughter, Bianca, to marry a wealthy older man, although she is secretly encouraging the advances of a younger lover who is a nobleman in disguise as a servant. 
For further information see Big ideas: Parents and children.

Chastity and double standards

It was extremely hard for men and women to meet and become intimate since women were always chaperoned, in order to preserve their reputation for chastity.
MORE ON the biblical teaching about sexual desire
The seventh Commandment is:
‘Thou shalt not commit adultery' (KJB).
Nowadays adultery is usually held to mean ‘the action of a married person who has sexual relations with someone other than their lawful spouse.' However, Christian theologians extended the meaning of the term since, in the Bible, in Matthew 5:27-28, Christ points out that the desire to commit adultery is as much a sin as the act itself:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery'. But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (AV)     
By this interpretation, a person may commit adultery whether or not they have sexual intercourse.  
There was something of a double standard regarding the biblical injunction that sex was only for marriage in Shakespeare’s day. Young noblemen often indulged in pre-marital sex, partly because they would marry later in life. However, young women would be expected to be chaste before marriage and faithful within it. The possible pregnancy resulting from illicit sex would end any hopes a young woman might have of marrying well, whilst the penalty for committing adultery was usually much more severe for women than for men. (See also John 8:3-8). 

The tenth Commandment 

The tenth Commandment was about not ‘coveting’ (desiring) what belongs to others:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's. Exodus 20:17     
In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio facetiously refers to this when he says of his new wife, Katherina:
She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
 My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing (Act 3 Scene 2)
Petruchio outrageously echoes the list of items that should not be coveted and turns them into his possessions, including his wife. In so doing he fuels the fires of animosity between him and his new bride.
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