Monday, September 5, 2011

Which Psalm in the King James Version of the Bible did Shakespeare Translate?

Franson, J. Karl. "Shakespeare in the King James Bible." Notes and Queries 16 (1977): 21.
Note: An update to this post may be found here. The conclusions are the same, but the updated post covers additional information about the evidence.
I'm sorry if the question above is a bit misleading. The correct answer is "None of them," but the story frequently makes the rounds that he contributed to the aruguably-most-influential translation of the Bible into English and that he left a clue about his work for future generations to discover. Since this year marks the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the King James Version and since a great deal of attention is being paid to that translation this year, I've heard the argument several times.

The facts are clear enough. The forty-sixth word of the forty-sixth Psalm is "shake." And the forty-seventh (or the forty-sixth, if you leave out the closing "Selah," which seems like cheating) word from the end of the Psalm is "spear." Below, you'll find a convenient chart that shows this to be true (click on the image to enlarge it):

The problem is not the fact. The problem is its interpretation. Did Shakespeare, near the end of his dramatic career, turn his hand to translation? Did a Shakespeare fan cleverly work in this reference to a favorite dramatist?

And that is why the world rests in the debt of J. Karl Franson of the University of Maine at Farmington. He helps us to see that it was neither Shakespeare nor an admirer of Shakespeare who arranged these words in these locations. After pointing out that Shakespeare was both forty-six and forty-seven years old in 1611 (the year of the King James Version's publication and part of the set of "clues" that the Psalm has something to do with Shakespeare), he takes us back to 1539 to show us another set of facts. In the Tavener's Bible of 1539, the two words occupy exactly the same positions
[Note: They actually occupy similar but not identical positions—see the update] in Psalm 46. He points out that the Bishop's Bible of 1568 and the Great Bible of 1539 have similar—but not identical—positions.

My own research shows that the words are placed at 47 from the beginning and 45 from the end in the 1560 Geneva Bible—one of the translations with which Shakespeare was most familiar. That's very close; indeed, the average works out to 46 in that instance! Additionally, the 1549 Matthew's Bible has "shoke" at word 55 and "speare" at line 48 from the end (47, if you leave out the closing "Selah"—which, again, seems like cheating).

In the end, what seems like an amazing and conspiratorial coincidence turns out to be merely an intriguing correspondence of two relatively-common words.

The moral is that we should remember to check or some other reputable source before claiming for the Bard things he didn't write.
Links: Psalm 46 in the King James Version at Bible Gateway.


John D. Chitty said...

Very helpful information indeed. Thanks for sharing the link to your post.

Facsao said...

I don't think Franson is to be trusted here. The edition of Taverner's Bible from 1539 found at EEBO shows that psalm 46 has "shooke" as word number 55, and "spere" as word number 47 (48 including "Selah"). (This is found on image number 215).

kj said...

Fascinating! I don't have access to EEBO at present, and I couldn't find any facsimiles of the Taverner's Bible that I could get my hands on. I will look into this. Could Franson have started counting from verse one rather than from some sort of title or ascription?

More later, but thanks, Facsao, for calling my attention to this point!


Facsao said...

Here is an image of the psalm from Taverner's Bible:

I can't see what kind of counting could give 46 both from above and below. In the King James Bible the counting from the top is done from the start of verse 1, excluding the superscription. See here:

So what did Franson count? I don't know.

Facsao said...

Sorry. That was the same address twice. Here is a link to the King James version:

kj said...

Thanks so much, Facsao, for the links to the images. I'll work on a longer post when I have some time, but, in the meantime, the only thing I can imagine is that Franson started at "God is our refuge"—the numbers seem to work out if you do that.

Of course, leaving out the opening phrase ("In our troubles & adversite, we have founde that . . .") seems even more like cheating than not counting the closing "Selah."

Longer post to follow . . . eventually.


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