Shakespeare’s Psalm 46
William Shakespeare is still suspect. A rough overview of the debates surrounding the author, or partial author, or non-author, reveals that: (a) Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays, (b) Ben Jonson did, (c) the Earl of Oxford penned some of them and died shortly thereafter, and then the bard (or non-bard) stole the batch, (d) nobody knows for sure, and (e) it doesn’t matter. Shakespeare’s corporeal existence is not in debate. More interestingly, the possibility that he, or the person or persons posing as him, might have had a hand in polishing the King James version of the Bible is also not hotly debated — that possibility stands as the core of this essay.
Shakespeare and the King James version share a curious synchronicity, which the authors of The Story of English, point to: the bard started wrote his last play at the same time the King James Bible was released. Also important is Shakespeare’s success and favor with the court in the first decade of the 17th century: “The young actor-playwright quickly caused a sensation with his plays,” the authors say — something of an understatement. A few odd facts need to be thrown in: the Authorized Version was published in 1611 and was heavily revised for nine months before publication, so that “it would not only read better but sound better.” The revision took place mostly in 1610. The committee in charge of revising the initial translation was headed by John Bois and Dr. Anthony Downes, who had also coordinated the initial team of 47 translators, give or take a few. Shakespeare was not among the chosen 47, and he is not credited as one of the revisers. Nothing other than time and place links him to the Authorized Version revision — nothing readily apparent to the eye.
Shakespeare was recognized as a gifted artist in his own time. He was favored by the same court that commissioned the Authorized Version. And the peculiar power of this Bible’s prosody certainly lends itself to speculation. And then there is Psalm 46.
I first stumbled upon the strange nature of Psalm 46 in Anthony Burgess’s autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time. The argument that Burgess makes, as an aside on composing a musical on the life of Shakespeare, is not meant to be conclusive but is offered as a curio. My attitude to it is the same.
Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564. It is widely assumed that he was born that year. The Authorized Version was being revised in 1610, by which time Shakespeare would have been 46. In the King James version of Psalm 46 (see below), counting 46 words down from the top, we find “shake”, and counting 46 words up from the bottom, we find “spear”. “Selah” doesn’t count — it is sprinkled throughout the Bible as a sort of punctuation mark.
This kind of word-game is not out of character with someone who delighted in puns and puzzles, and it is also a plausible personal signature, a discrete Easter Egg, possible in a project that was, with good purpose, intended to be as anonymous as possible — the members of the commission weren’t interested in tooting their own horn; they simply wanted to make the Bible accessible.
The King James Bible still stands. Revisions and alternate translations and gross simplifications have flooded the market, but the Authorized Version packs a stranger, more powerful lyrical punch. Shakespeare’s hand would not alone account for its durability, but the possibility adds an odd, attractive piece to that particular puzzle: Why is it that this version of the Bible rings deeper and more true than subsequent adaptations? There is no real answer, and the question itself is dubious: Is the King James version really better than the rest?
I think so, and so do William Faulkner, George Orwell, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, and a host of other writers — Anthony Burgess among them. That said, the bard would have been pleased by the speculation and by the discovery of his signature (deliberate or not) in a psalm, all the more so now that people aren’t sure that he existed at all.
Bevington, David. “Stratfordian Argument: An Update.” Frontline: The Shakespeare Mystery. URL: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shakespeare/
Burgess, Anthony. You’ve Had Your Time. New York: Grove Press, 1991.
McCrum, Robert, William Cran, and Robert McNeil. The Story of English. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
Spradley, Dana. “Today in Shakespeare History.” The Shakespeare Web. URL: http://www.shakespeare.com/
Vance, Larry. A Brief History of the King James Bible. URL: http://www.av1611.org/kjv/kjvhist.html
Shakespeare’s Psalm 46