Hannibal Hamlin, Ohio State University

The Geneva Bible as Bible for Dummies

This paper begins with the book of books, the Bible and asks how it was read. Let’s assume a reader in England, say around the year 1605, living in London, and spending his working days writing plays and running a theater. Let’s also assume his name is William Shakespeare, and that he is spending much of his time writing a new play on the ancient English story of King Lear and his daughters. Will’s Bible reading, a regular part of his life for years, is focused these days on the Book of Job, an intriguing parallel to his Lear play. (He’s been thinking of these parallels for a decade now, ever since he got the idea from a couple of plays staged by the Queen’s Men.) What can we say about Will’s reading practice, how it was shaped, for instance, by the edition of the Bible he owned? Job is one of the weirdest stories in the Bible, full of narrative contradictions and challenges to the familiar teachings of the Protestant Church, so how did Will go about trying to figure it out? His copy of the Geneva Bible was a huge help. (This is partly why he bought this version, but the other one in circulation, the Bishops’ Bible that was read in church, was also just too expensive.) In addition to providing a helpful introduction to Job, Will’s Bible had margins that were full of notes that explained difficult passages, provided some sense of the original languages, and pointed to other places in the Bible that might shed further light on particularly obscure verses. One of the most interesting of these cross-references pointed to the New Testament Epistle of James, where the apostle stressed the proverbial “patience of Job” (remarkably, a proverb current in Stratford and London too). Will’s Geneva Bible also came with a handy reader’s guide by T. Grashop, as well as maps, illustrations, and indexes, turning the Geneva Bible into a kind of early modern information reference system. Grashop recommended just the sort of cross-referenced reading that the Geneva notes encouraged, but he also recommended that especially keen readers consult the best authorities on difficult books or passages. This suggestion took Will Shakespeare to John Calvin’s Sermons on Job, translated by Arthur Golding, as well as the Book of Christian Exercise by Robert Parsons, edited and adapted by Edmund Bunny. The latter included a section on rejecting worldly vanity that was full of citations from Job and James, and that proved useful to Will in writing his Lear play. The other major commentary on Job available at the time, by Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore de Bèze, was interesting, but didn’t prove as useful as Calvin’s own writings.

This hypothetical individual reading practice can be documented by tracking allusions to Job, James, Calvin, and Parsons in Shakespeare’s King Lear. But Shakespeare was clearly following precisely the method of reading and interpretation recommended by Grashop and built into the Geneva Bible itself. As such, the Geneva Bible proves itself a uniquely self-interpreting artifact, a Bible for Dummies.