The other day I received an intriguing email from Dr. Will Tosh at Shakespeare’s Globe. He had been contacted by someone who wanted him to confirm or deny the story that Shakespeare wrote – or was somehow connected with – the 46th Psalm in the King James Bible. Since this was not a story Will had heard before, his scholarly instincts made him pause before immediately pouring scorn on the idea (though he definitely thought it was untrue), so he asked me if I knew anything about the rumour.
The Psalm 46 legend, as I call it, seems to have been around for slightly over a hundred years. I’ve heard it in various versions, once from an editor I was writing for, once as an improbable story remarked on by a friend (though which friend I can’t remember) and several times online. Like Will, I don’t believe it’s true, or even within the realms of reasonable possibility. “Did Shakespeare write Psalm 46 in the King James Bible?” is a Question To Which The Answer Is No, in internet slang.
In fact, what interests me about the legend in why anyone believes it – or perhaps, why they want to believe it. The story seems to serve different purposes at different stages of its life, and to mean different things to different people. In this piece I’ll explain the legend, and the problems with believing it: I’ll take it seriously as a historical and literary theory. In a later piece I’ll tackle how the story arose, how it circulates and why it has such longevity.
The “Psalm 46 legend” is the idea that Shakespeare can be “found” in the 46th Psalm in the King James Version of the Bible by counting forty-six words from the beginning and forty-six words from the end. It states that in doing so, the reader will find the word “shake” and the word “spear”. Depending on which version you hear, this may be connected to the idea that Shakespeare was 46 years old when the KJV was published.
What this means also differs depending on the version of the legend. One variation says that the translators of the KJV hid Shakespeare’s name in this way to show their enjoyment of his works. Another version claims that Shakespeare actually wrote the version of Psalm 46 which appears in the KJV, and “signed” his work in this way. Either way, it assumes a connection between Shakespeare and Psalm 46, in a quite direct and personal way.
Addressing this as a historical theory presents some problems. Though the Collected Works of Shakespeare and the King James Version are great cultural artefacts for us, and represent for many people the pinnacles of Early Modern British culture, to people at the time they were not so obviously the two “great books”. Shakespeare’s works were not collected into a single book until the First Folio of 1623, and though his name as a writer was valuable by the turn of the century (as evidenced by printers putting it on new editions of individual plays), that name sold plays. It was part of the grubby and frivolous entertainment industry of Early Modern London, of which the religious and civic authorities disapproved.
Shakespeare was not “high culture” as he became later, and the natural parallel for modern readers between the imposing and spiritually improving literatures of both Shakespeare and the KJV did not yet exist. There’s a radical improbability that the translators of the KJV would either know Shakespeare (in order to commission him to write the Psalm translation) or would think it appropriate to hide the name of a playwright in the Bible.
There are more improbabilities when we come to the specifics of the question. The KJV was translated by groups, or “companies” of scholars and churchmen, who took responsibility for particular chunks of the collection. The section of the Old Testament which the Psalms appear in was dealt with by the so-called First Cambridge Company. As Gordon Campbell relates in Bible: The Story of the King James Version, its intended leader, Richard Lively, died before the group could meet for the first time, and it is unclear who led the group.
However, its membership did include Laurence Chaderton and Thomas Harrison, both of whom were involved with the Puritan strain within English Christianity. It seems even more unlikely that they would have either known a London playwright, part of an industry which Puritans tended to see as an abomination and an affront to God, or have wanted to hide his name in the Scriptures. Indeed one of the major forces behind the project of the KJV was the Puritan John Rainolds, who wrote a work entitled The Overthrow of Stage-Plays and declared ‘The vanity and unlawfulness of plays and interludes hath often been spoken against by the holy men of God.”
The joint enterprise of translation poses another problem: since the Psalms, like the other books of the KJV, were the result of collaborative work and redrafting, no single member of the company could have hidden these words. At least, they could not have done so expecting them to stay in precisely the forty-sixth position in the text. The revision and rewriting process would mean that either everyone was in on it (whatever “it” was), or the words could not have been reliably “hidden” in the text.
The historical problems above obviously don’t make it absolutely impossible that the Psalm 46 legend is true. They cast serious doubt on the logic of anyone hiding the words, the possibility of the people who had the opportunity wanting to do it, and the odds that they could have been sure that they could do it. But in historical study – unlike conspiracy theories – we have to work on the balance of probabilities and the evidence available. Turning to the text of the Psalm itself, there are other serious problems with the theory.
The most obvious is that “spear” is not the forty-sixth word from the end of the psalm. It is the forty-seventh, and “in” is the forty-sixth. The only way that “spear” can be the forty-sixth is if the reader ignores the last word of the psalm, which is “Selah”. It’s obviously not an English word, and there is some debate as to the precise meaning of “Selah”, though scholars agree it is connected with the liturgical setting of the psalms. It may be a sign for a musical accompaniment, or a verbal instruction to the audience to think about the meaning of the passage they have heard, but it is certainly part of the text as we have it in the KJV.
As you can see, the translators appear to have regarded it as part of the psalm, and it appears in the same type as the other words of the psalm in the KJV, not separated, or italicised, marked out in any other way.
Even if you ignore the inconvenient “selah”, there are textual problems with the Psalm 46 legend. For example, it is true that “shake” is the forty-sixth word of the psalm as it appears in the KJV. Unfortunately for the theory, it is also the forty-sixth word of the version which appears in the Geneva Bible of 1599, a version produced on the Continent by Protestant exiles, who were also unlikely to be fans of the theatre. It is not necessarily the only way to translate that word into English, as the Wycliffe Bible has “troubled” for the word rendered in the KJV as “shake” and “arms” for “spears”. But “shake” and “spear” are not specific to the King James Version: they appear as “shoke” and “speare” in the Coverdale Bible of 1535.
So “shake” and “spear” appear in other English Bibles before the KJV, and in versions which could not have been remotely connected with Shakespeare, either because of geography and religious attitudes (Geneva), because they preceded Shakespeare’s birth, let alone his fame, by thirty years (Coverdale). These words appear to be a reasonable, if not a universal, rendering of the text, and the only thing specific about the KJV rendering is their position as forty-sixth from the beginning and end. (Assuming you ignore the actual forty-sixth word from the end.)
This casts enough doubt on the theory to rule it out, as far as I am concerned. It does not make historical sense, and it does not stand up to an examination of the text. It might be just possible to argue that (selah notwithstanding) Shakespeare or the translators hid these words in the specific position in order to spell out Shakespeare’s name. But given the problems outlined above, what were they trying to signal? If the translators were simply mentioning their taste in poetry (however unlikely that might seem), why did they only hide one name? Why haven’t we found Marlowe, or Jonson, or Spenser, or Donne’s name? (The answer, I suspect, is because no-one comes up with conspiracy theories about Donne or Jonson.) If the various theologians and churchmen of the First Cambridge Company had a taste for plays, why did they only mention one amongst the various playwright of the time?
If Shakespeare wrote the version of the psalm which appears in the KJV, then “shake” and “spear” are his signature. To borrow a friend’s term, this is Shakespeare discreetly “tagging” his own poetry. But, as we’ve seen above, these words come from a previous version of the Bible. Indeed, when we put the Coverdale text of Psalm 46 next to the KJV text, the similarities are striking. The KJV reads like this:
- God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
3 Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
4 There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.
6 The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
9 He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
10 Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
11 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
The Coverdale, from eighty years earlier, reads like this:
- In oure troubles and aduersite, we haue founde, that God is oure refuge, oure strength and helpe.
2 Therfore wil we not feare, though the earth fell, and though the hilles were caried in to the myddest of the see.
3 Though the waters of the see raged & were neuer so troublous, & though the mountaynes shoke at the tepest of the same.
4 Sela. For there is a floude, which wt his ryuers reioyseth ye cite of God, the holy dwellynge of the most hyest.
5 God is in ye myddest of her, therfore shall she not be remoued: for God helpeth her, & yt right early.
6 The Heithen are madd, the kyngdomes make moch adoo: but whe he sheweth his voyce, ye earth melteth awaye.
7 The LORDE of hoostes is wt vs, the God of Iacob is oure defence.
8 Sela. O come hither, & beholde ye workes of the LORDE, what destruccios he hath brought vpo ye earth.
9 He hath made warres to ceasse in all the worlde: he hath broken the bowe, he hath knapped the speare in sonder, & bret the charettes in the fyre.
10 Be still the & confesse yt I am God: I wil be exalted amonge the Heithe, & I wil be exalted vpon earth.
11 The LORDE of hoostes is wt vs, the God of Iacob is oure defence. Sela.
These versions don’t print the same text, but it’s similar enough to undermine the idea that Psalm 46 of the KJV is a great piece of original poetry. The changes made by the translators to the Psalms were theologically and linguistically important: they cared very much about the details of the text, and they had incomparably more qualifications in translating poetry from Hebrew than Coverdale. So considered as an English version of the original text, the KJV version differs significantly. Considered as a piece of English poetry, however, it is deeply derivative, and barely does more work than tinkering with a few phrases.
Poets of the time wrote much more obviously creative reworkings of the Psalms. It’s worth looking at Mary Sidney’s version of Psalm 102, to see a consciously creative and poetic translation, which nonetheless stays quite close to the words of the original.
1 Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee.
2 Hide not thy face from me in the day when I am in trouble; incline thine ear unto me: in the day when I call answer me speedily.
3 For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth.
4 My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread.
Sidney renders these lines thus:
O Lord, my praying hear;
Lord, let my cry come to thine ear.
Hide not thy face away,
But haste, and answer me,
In this my most, most miserable day,
Wherein I pray and cry to thee.
My days as smoke are past;
My bones as flaming fuel waste,
Mown down in me, alas.
With scythe of sharpest pain.
My heart is withered like the wounded grass;
My stomach doth all food disdain.
When there were poetic versions of the Psalms like this around in at the turn of the seventeenth century, it is difficult to see why the changes from the Coverdale to the KJV version of Psalm 46 would count as a poetic master-stroke. If Shakespeare is “signing” his work in the 46th Psalm, it’s tempting to ask why he’d bother. Of course, I don’t believe he did, and in a future post, I’ll examine why people might believe this Psalm is by Shakespeare – or might want to – and what the various versions of the story tell us about the people who transmitted the legend.