Anachan's Corner

One woman's journey through marriage, motherhood, and the classroom…

Knowing the Bible and Shakespeare

Written By: Anachan - Mar• 24•17

Some time ago, I came across a reference which stated that the American pioneers moving westward generally carried two books with them: the Bible and Shakespeare.

I do not remember where I originally read this, but it is apparently an idea well-accepted enough that it is referred to in many other places on-line. Shakespeare in American Communities, a website funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, quotes the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous work Democracy in America as saying, “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” The same source also makes mention of the home of Abraham Lincoln, ” . . . whose formative reading consisted mainly of the King James Bible, Blackstone’s lectures on English law, and Shakespeare.”

The Guardian, a British newspaper publication with a United States branch, points out that in westward expansion times, Shakespeare was paraphrased and adapted, as well as performed in its original form. There is even a story of Jim Bridger, who originally mapped the Salt Lake Valley, despite being apparently illiterate, hiring a German boy to read to him from the plays.

And Sara E. Quay, in her book Westward Expansion, indirectly proves this point in a quote from a pioneer woman about the excitement surrounding shopping catalogs: “When you live ninety miles from town, a Montgomery Ward or Sears Roebuck catalog gets read more than the Bible or Shakespeare.” It is interesting that the comment seems to assume that these latter two books would be a fixture in most such homes.

At any rate, both the Bible and Shakespeare have become so ingrained in our language and our literature that to be without knowledge of these two works seriously hampers one in understanding passing references or allusions in historical or even modern-day published works. This is something I emphasize to my students, both the freshmen and sophomores, who complain that they must read Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar, and the juniors, who stumble upon such references as they study American literature. (I might add that in order to understand Shakespeare, some knowledge of Greek mythology is also necessary, as the Bard makes many references to these things.)

Luckily for me, the majority of my students are religious Christians of one flavor or another, with at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible, picked up in Sunday School or Confirmation classes. But even with my students’ Christian backgrounds, and despite the hullabaloo surrounding people teaching the Bible in public schools, I find it appropriate to remind students of the stories of the Old Testament or the scriptures in the New Testament in order to help them understand more fully the pieces we are reading. For example, while explaining parts of 19th Century American literature pieces, I can refer to “the man with the talking donkey” and see a couple of faces light up in recognition, but the majority will still stare blankly. (See Numbers 22:28.) Or take an essay by Sandra Day O’Conner and Roy Romer, which we read as an example of the classic rhetorical structure, entitled “Not By Math Alone.” In order that my students more fully understand the significance of the title, I remind them of Matthew 4:4, wherein Christ states, “. . . Man shall not live by bread alone . . .” Without this reference, the students would not understand the unspoken underlying meaning of the title. Patrick Henry or other Founding Fathers of the American Revolution make multiple biblical references in the speeches we study out of our textbook, references which would mean very little to my students if I didn’t then take the time to point out the entire text of the reference included in the footnotes.

Biblical references abound in popular culture, too, such as this Calvin and Hobbes comic.

Reading Shakespeare, however, is not usually something they do outside of school. As such, they miss many Shakespearean references when they do encounter them. Where might they find them? There is no way I could create an exhaustive list; I can only name a few examples.

Movies, such as West Side Story, which I show to my freshmen after we read Romeo and Juliet, are sometimes based on Shakespearean plays. Sometimes, TV episodes are based on Shakespearean plots, such as some episodes of Murder She Wrote, a show I almost feel I know by heart. There is one episode, for instance, in which a wife works to convince her husband that he should kill the head of a company, so her husband can get the promotion he deserves to stand at its head. It’s Macbeth, rewritten for corporate America, the writers so unabashedly using the plot that they name the victim “Duncan,” the name of the king who is murdered in the Shakespearean play.

There are allusions to Shakespeare in the titles of books or poetry or TV episodes . . . How about Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, referring to a quote from Macbeth? Or Agatha Christie, using the line right before Bradbury’s: By the Pricking of My Thumbs? Speaking of Macbeth, from lines 19-28 of Act 5 scene 5, alone, I can find several titles:

Students in my sophomore class are constantly amazed when we reach the line in Julius Caesar wherein Cassius tells Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings,” and they realize that John Green was referring to this line when he titled his famous book The Fault in Our Stars.

From a Levi’s jeans ad quoting Midsummer Night’s Dream to Shakespearean references in modern music, references to the Bard are everywhere. (As Marcus Mumford mentioned in an interview cited in that latter reference, “You can rip off Shakespeare all you like; no lawyer’s going to call you up on that one.”) But nowhere are Shakespeare references more prevalent than simply in the English language. When I introduce this idea to my students, I enjoy showing them this video from the BBC’s Horrible Histories series:

They recognize a few of the references–rather amazingly few–but it is enough to illustrate the point. (For a few more “ordinary” phrases from Shakespeare, see this BBC America article.)

Even a political cartoon may end up with a Shakespearean reference!

Political Cartoons by Chip Bok

While this is a historical event, most people will know it from their study of Shakespeare, including my sophomores after we read “Julius Caesar.”

Honestly, I could go on and on, but I think this will suffice, for now. (Don’t worry; you’ll see more stuff later. I just can’t help myself . . . It’s like hunting Easter eggs . . .)

The point is that references to the Bible and Shakespeare are everywhere, and a student who neglects these in his studies will be severely gimped in his ability to understand underlying meanings or nuances in the works of artists, musicians, or authors.


Works Cited
Bok, Chip. “Political Cartoons by Chip Bok.” Townhall. Townhall Media, 10 Oct. 2015. Web. 28 Aug. 2016.
Calvin and Hobbes Comic. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.
Dickson, Andrew. “West Side Story: How Shakespeare Stormed America’s Frontier.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 15 Apr. 2016. Web. 28 Aug. 2016.
O’Conner, Sandra Day, and Roy Romer. “Not By Math Alone.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 25 Mar. 2006. Web. 28 Aug. 2016.
Quay, Sara E. Westward Expansion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. Google Books. Web. 28 Aug. 2016.
“Shakespeare in America.” Home. National Endowment for the Arts, n.d. Web. 28 Aug. 2016.

Postscript: for more Shakespearean references, see Modern Shakespeare. For Shakespeare quotes in non-Shakespeare movies, see Famous Shakespeare Quotes Caught on Film

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