Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Shakespeare and Hebrew

There is a long running BBC radio programme called “Desert Island Discs”.  The interviewer asks a celebrity which "ten discs" they would take to a desert island to comfort them while enduring as a castaway hermit, for twenty or so years. Then their discs are each played one by one. 

At the end of the programme, they are asked which book they would want to sustain them. Since everyone says “The Bible” or “Shakespeare”, the programme gives them, automatically, the “Complete Works of Shakespeare” and the Bible. But they ask for another title.  

Thus, I sometimes think of myself as a “castaway” since I read the Bible and Shakespeare side by side.

This week, I read the speeches of Macbeth, following his murder of righteous King Duncan. In this mature play of William Shakespeare who was a believer, in my view, the playwright sets out the devastating cost of sin for our "eternal jewel", our soul. He shows in the story of Macbeth and his wife that a mortal sin, like murder, produces such a deep sense of inner unease that it leads to the bane of sleeplessness, which in turn leads to hallucinations and mental instability and to feelings of constant hypervigilance. Macbeth soon feels he is waist deep, in a river of blood. Lady Macbeth unable to wash clean her bloodied hands, goes mad with guilt.

Shakespeare also focuses on the dramatic draining away of any enjoyment in life as a result of sin. All sense of achievement is forfeit. Any pleasure in the “feast of life” drains away, as life becomes instead, a “fitful fever”. The dramatic analysis culminates in the final speeches of Macbeth, which many postmoderns wrongly claim to show that Shakespeare was an atheist notably

Life is “but a walking shadow....signifying nothing”.  

In fact, this final and absolute “nothing” of the Macbeth is foreshadowed in many previous speeches which are consciously building up to final spiritual bankruptcy.  Again and again, Macbeth and his wife talk about the surprising "nothing” that they are feeling in place of the expected "everything" or “possession”.  This is because God always denies full possession to the unrepentant offender and He fights against them.

"All is but toys” says Macbeth “renown and grace is dead....”
Macbeth Act 2 iii

“Toys” means "nonsense", “trivia” or “nothing”. 

I then started wondering what Shakespeare meant by “grace” here. That same evening, I was reading Psalm 84 v 11

“The Lord bestows glory and grace”

We looked up these words, in the original Hebrew. "Glory and grace" can mean “renown and grace”. The word for "glory" in Hebrew is “worldly glory” meaning reputation, honour before the eyes of men.  

“Grace" in Hebrew does not mean “saving grace” but “human attractiveness”. For example, this "grace" may appear as gracious speech in men and as grace, beauty and fine moral qualities, in women. Shakespeare was deeply steeped in the Bible and in the Psalms, in particular, and he clearly had checked the meaning of these words in Hebrew.  

For "human attractiveness" and "worldly fame" have clearly departed from Macbeth and his wife. Their name is soon infamous and they are repulsive to many nobles who flee from their presence. These "treasures" have been lost through the damnable betrayal of family bonds through cold blooded murder. Psalm 84 clarifies that God can give, or withhold, or withdraw, these precious gifts, if someone does not walk uprightly i.e. they depart from obedience to the law of God.

Shakespeare used the reformed Geneva Bible which reads,
For the Lord is the sun and shield unto us. The Lord will give grace and glory and no good thing will he withhold from them the walk uprightly"
Psalm 84.11

I presume that Shakespeare could not read Hebrew, so I wondered where he found such theological insights into the true meaning of "grace" and "glory". He could have had access to reformed theologians who could read Hebrew and then asked them pertinent questions. Or more likely he could have owned a commentary on the Psalms by someone like Calvin as set out below. Did he read or speak to poetess Mary Sidney, who could read Hebrew and who translated the Psalms into English poetry.  Mary translated Psalm 84.11 as

"Glory and grace Jehovah s hand assigneth."

This line was certainly circulating in manuscript before Shakespeare wrote Macbeth. One notes that she reverses the order of the nouns "grace and glory" which appear in the Geneva Bible as, indeed, Shakespeare himself does. For me, this subtle reversal persuades me that Shakespeare had read Sidneian Psalm 84. 

I suspect that literary listeners who belonged to the Sidney/Pembroke inner circle, such as Ben Jonson and William Herbert, would have recognised the phrase, in MacBeth, as a reference to both Psalm 84 and as an allusion to the reformed Psalms of the still influential dowager Countess of Pembroke.


  1. To answer my own question set in this article, I realise Shakespeare must have owned a copy of a reformed commentary, such as Theodore Beza, on the Psalms, which set out the meaning of the relevant Hebrew words. I can check this.

  2. Calvin specifically points out in his commentary that "glory" in this verse essentially means "renown" not saving glory. I guess that Shakespeare owned or had read this commentary.

    "The sentence immediately succeeding, he will give grace and glory, might be viewed as meaning, that those whom God has distinguished by his grace in this world, will at length be crowned with everlasting glory in his heavenly kingdom. But this distinction between grace and glory being, I am afraid, too refined, it will be preferable to explain the sentence as implying, that after God has once taken the faithful into his favor, he will advance them to high honor, and never cease to enrich them with his blessings.