Could this be Shakespeare’s Bible?

INTERVIEW  |  John Harris 

Saturday 23 April 2016

Bible Society Australia holds in its historical collection a Geneva Bible which has credible claims to have belonged to William Shakespeare. Its provenance is unique and compelling. Here, Bible Society’s Dr John Harris, the curator of Bible Society’s historic Bible collections, and an author and historian, sets out the evidence for why this could be a Bible that belonged to Shakespeare.

How did the Shakespeare Bible come to be in the possession of Bible Society Australia?

In January 1960, Canon Bert Arrowsmith, head of the Bible Society in Australia, was in England publicising the new Bible House in Canberra and seeking financial support. He was also seeking donations of historic Bibles for the Bible House library, particularly “copies of major editions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”. In response, he received four Geneva Bibles and a 1611 Authorised version. The Geneva Bible was widely used before the Authorised Version. It was the main Bible of 16th Century Protestantism and the first mass-produced Bible made directly available to the public.

One of the Geneva Bibles, a 1607 edition, was donated by Mr William Lea, who said the Bible had belonged to William Shakespeare and that it had been passed down through the family of Shakespeare’s sister, Joan Hart. He said it had been given to one of his ancestors in the 1870s by a woman named Tabitha Griffith, herself a descendent of Joan Hart.

Is it plausible that Joan Hart inherited the Shakespeare Bible?

Joan Hart could easily have inherited the Bible on Shakespeare’s death. She was named in the will. It is not strange that the Bible was not mentioned in the will. Bibles rarely were. Joan could have formally inherited it among the items which she received in the distribution of Shakespeare’s ‘goods’ or, as his sister, she could simply have kept it after his death as a keepsake.

Shakespeare may have had more than one Bible (a Bishop’s Bible for example) and his wife Anne Hathaway may have kept one and Joan the other. It could have remained in Anne’s possession and been inherited by their daughter Susannah. However, when Susannah’s daughter, Shakespeare’s only grandchild Elizabeth, died in 1670, Shakespeare’s direct line ended. All Elizabeth’s possessions went to her cousin George Hart. Thus by one route or another, any remaining possessions of Shakespeare eventually came to the Hart family.

Do we have any evidence that Shakespeare’s Bible remained in the Hart family?

A number of relics of Shakespeare were passed down through the descendants of his sister Joan Hart, including a Bible which they understood to have belonged to her brother William Shakespeare. A written reference to this Bible indicates that Thomas Hart (6th generation) passed on “our great Poet’s Bible” to his son John Hart (7th generation) before his death in 1793. 

How did the Shakespeare Bible cease to be possessed by the Hart family?

It is believed that Shakespeare’s Bible was passed through ten generations of the Hart family, finally ending up with Tabitha Ashley (born 1848). Tabitha married John Griffith, and emigrated to New Zealand in 1874. The donor, William Lea, said that Tabitha had given the Bible to one of his ancestors in the 1870s.

Lorraine Horton, the great granddaughter of Tabitha Ashley, understands that with an extremely limited luggage allowance on the emigrant ship Asia, Tabitha chose to take with her the Bible of her beloved mother, and upon departure in 1874, reluctantly passed Shakespeare’s Bible on to a friend.

Does this Bible support the claim that the Bible had a profound influence on Shakespeare’s writing?

The publication of this 1607 Geneva Bible falls in the middle of Shakespeare’s years of playwriting. Scholars agree that Shakespeare must have owned his own Bible or Bibles. In particular, it is recognised that Shakespeare had a distinct preference for the Geneva Bible when using exact biblical phrases.

There are over 30 underlined verses in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Almost all of these verses are used in plays dated later than 1607, that is, plays written after the publication date of the Bible. In the very few cases where an underlined verse has been used in a play prior to 1607, it was used in a play after 1607 as well. There are no underlined verses used only in plays earlier than 1607.

There are a number of annotations and other marks in the Bible. Of course, the identity of the person or persons who made these annotations cannot be proven, but given what we believe about the origin of the Bible, they are significant and interesting.

Do you believe that this is Shakespeare’s Bible?

The above lines of evidence, taken together, make a convincing case for this having been William Shakespeare’s Bible. There is nothing I have found which contradicts any of the above. To doubt its provenance requires the claim that some people were either lying or very mistaken. I do not believe this. I believe that William Lea gave Shakespeare’s Bible to the Bible Society in good faith and was telling the truth when he said it had come to his family from the Hart family.

“How dost thou understand the scripture?” Read more about Shakespeare’s love of the Bible and how he used it in his works.

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