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Shakespeare and the Geneva Bible: Hamlet, I.iii.54
Naseeb Shaheen

In his list of biblical references in Shakespeare's plays, Thomas Carter gives three sources or verbal parallels in the Geneva Bible for Polonius' words, "A double blessing is a double grace" (Hamlet, I.iii.54). "The words 'double grace' and 'double blessing' occur in the Geneva Bible in very interesting connections," Carter says, and quotes the Geneva Bible at Ecclesiasticus 26.15, "A shamefast and faithfull woman is a double grace." He then gives two additional examples from the Geneva notes, note "c" on Isaiah 40.2 and note "f" on Isaiah 40.3:

In Isa. xl. 2 a Genevan Note on the verse says—"Sufficient or double grace whereas she deserved double punishment;" and again [at Isa. 40.3]—"This was fully accomplished when John the Baptist brought tidings of Jesus Christe's comming, who was the true deliverer of His Church from sinne and Satan; hence this double blessing of the Forerunner and the Messiah announced the sufficient or double grace of the forgiveness of God."[1] (Italics added.)

Carter's claim is important for at least two reasons. First of all, if he is correct, then in the note on Isaiah 40.3 we have one of Shakespeare's clearest references to a Geneva note or gloss. Shakespeare frequently refers to the text of the Geneva Bible; at times these references plainly indicate that he had only the Geneva Bible in mind and no other version. But to demonstrate that Shakespeare echoes a Geneva note or gloss as clearly as Carter asserts he does in this instance, is quite another matter. Convincing evidence that Shakespeare was influenced by the many notes in the margins of the Geneva Bible is practically nil.

Carter's claim is important for another reason. The average scholar will be unable to find the italicized portion of note "f" on Isa. 40.3 in his Geneva Bible, and will probably conclude that Carter's reading must be taken from a different edition. If it is true that certain editions of the Geneva Bible contain that note as Carter presents it, there would be some basis for arguing that a certain edition of the Geneva Bible, or one of several editions with that textual variant, may have been the edition that Shakespeare possessed and read. To be able to identify an edition of the Geneva Bible that Shakespeare used would be an important milestone in the study of Shakespeare's use of the Bible. Shakespeare's biblical references should then be compared not with any edition of the Geneva Bible, but only with the edition or editions which


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contain this marginal note, and which might contain other textual variants that are reflected in Shakespeare's plays.

The problem with Carter's claim is that the crucial part of the note on Isa. 40.3, the part in italics, does not appear in any edition of the Geneva Bible. The expression "double grace" does appear in the Geneva Bible in the two places that Carter points out, Ecclus. 26.15 and note "c" of Isa. 40.2. But only the first part of note "f" on Isa. 40.3 appears as Carter quotes it. The latter part, which contains both the expressions "double blessing" and "double grace" that are parallel to Polonius' words, is nowhere to be found.

Carter asserts that he used the 1598 edition of the Geneva Bible for the Old Testament, and the 1557 edition of the Geneva for the New (Whittingham's New Testament). Only two editions of the Geneva appeared in 1598 (STC 2171, 2172), and the note as Carter quotes it appears in neither of them.[2] Nor does that note appear in any of the spuriously-dated "1599" editions of the Geneva Bible (STC 2174-2180a). Most of these Geneva Bibles were actually published after 1599 on the Continent, most likely in Amsterdam and Dort, although their title pages declare them to have been published in London in 1599. The only authentic 1599 Geneva is STC 2173, but it, too, lacks that note.

Moreover, in an attempt to find the edition of the Geneva Bible that Shakespeare might have used, I checked every edition of the complete Geneva Bible and every Geneva Old Testament in the library of the British and Foreign Bible Society in London. Its collection includes almost all editions of the Geneva Bible that were ever published from 1560, when the first edition appeared (STC 2093), till 1644, when the last 17th-century edition of the Geneva Bible was printed (Wing B 2206). Not one of them contains the portion of the note at Isaiah 40.3 that Carter claims Shakespeare refers to in Hamlet.[3]

I have also considered the possibility that Carter might have combined or confused two separate glosses in the Geneva Bible in the note in question, and then failed to cite his source for the second part of the gloss. But a search for the italicized portion of the note elsewhere in the Geneva Bible has failed to turn it up. Carter places both portions of that note within the same quotation marks. Related as both halves are in thought and content, and connected by "hence," they were clearly intended to be understood as a single unit.

Thus, we are not dealing with an edition or editions that have an important textual variant. Rather, we are confronted with a situation in which not


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a single edition of the Geneva Bible contains that portion of the note at Isaiah 40.3 on which Polonius' words are supposedly based. It simply does not seem to exist.



Thomas Carter, Shakespeare and Holy Scripture (1905; rpt. 1970), p. 359.


No new editions of the Geneva Bible published in 1598 have turned up since the first edition of the Short-Title Catalogue was published in 1926. The Council of the Bibliographical Society (London) graciously sent me pre-publication proofs of the entire section on Bibles in the forthcoming revised Short-Title Catalogue, and the revised STC likewise lists only two editions of the Geneva Bible published in 1598.


Geneva Bibles published after Hamlet was written were checked to make sure that Carter was not using one of those later editions. (I am indebted to Mr. Alan F. Jesson for permitting me to use the Bible Society's library, and to Miss Kathleen Cann, archivist, who repeatedly helped me in every possible way.)