The Bard and the Prayer Book

by Gerry Lynch last modified 22 Apr, 2016 12:12 PM

On the 400th anniversary of his death, we explore the Book of Common Prayer's influence on Shakespeare

After William Shakespeare died – 400 years ago on, St George’s Day, April 23 – the words of his burial service in Stratford upon Avon’s Holy Trinity Church would have been taken from The Book of Common Prayer still being used today in churches across the country.

Young Will would have been familiar with it from childhood and there is good reason to believe that The Book of Common Prayer at the heart of the Church of England’s worship was a formative influence on his own use of language.

The Church of England’s Prayer Book was created in 1549 by Thomas Cranmer (1489 – 1556), a leader of the Reformation and Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. He compiled it by drawing extensively on his personal library of 600 printed books and more than 60 manuscripts and, although revisions were made in four subsequent editions, the latest published in 1662 and in use today remains significantly as Cranmer wrote it.

In turn, Shakespeare drew on Cranmer’s work when writing his plays. The evidence for this is considerable, reports Prudence Dailey, chairman of the trustees of The Prayer Book Society which encourages rediscovery and use of the majesty and spiritual depth of the Book of Common Prayer.

‘Numerous lines in many of Shakespeare’s plays will resonate with those who know their Book of Common Prayer and, in particular, the psalms in the Prayer Book Psalter,’ says Prudence.

‘It is possible that Shakespeare sang the psalms as a choirboy and, like today’s choristers, many of their words became familiar and embedded in his memory.’

The Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer actually predates even Cranmer by some years. The text of the psalms was taken from the translation of the Old Testament completed by Myles Coverdale in the mid-1530s.

Research by the late Margot Thompson – a freelance journalist better known by her maiden-name by-line Margot Lawrence and a former secretary of the Prayer Book Society – suggests that Shakespeare understood his audiences well. She wrote: ‘He knew they would grasp and respond to his use of The Book of Common Prayer and references to it would not be lost on them. He was a master of the embedded quotation where words or sentences from the Prayer Book are skilfully woven into his original material – a technique used more recently by Kipling and P.G. Woodhouse.’

An example of this appears in Shakespeare’s first play – The Comedy of Errors – in which he borrows words from the marriage service. In the play’s last act Adriana says: ‘I will attend my husband, be his nurse/ Diet his sickness, for it is my office’ –  an allusion to the vow ‘in sickness and in health.’

Henry VI, Part 1, written around the same time, has an allusion to the Litany. In Act 1 Salisbury says: ‘O Lord have mercy on us wretched sinners’ and Gargrave responds: ‘O Lord have mercy on me, woeful man.’ Shakespeare changed the wording slightly, possibly to improve the rhythm.

Another Prayer Book reference in the same play – ‘the dreadful judgement day’ – echoes the line in the Marriage Service: ‘as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgement.’

Among more than a dozen other examples of Prayer Book-inspired lines in Shakespeare’s plays are:

  • King John: an allusion to the Catechism or, perhaps, the commandments as read in the Holy Communion service, occurs when Constance says: ‘Thy sins are visited on this poor child;/ The canon of the law is laid on him/ Being but the second generation/ Removed from thy sin-covering womb.’
  • King Henry VI Part 2: an allusion to the offertory in the Communion service in Henry’s words: ‘Tell us here the circumstance, That we may glorify the Lord.’
  • Richard II: a reference to the Communion  service appears again with the Queen’s ‘Uncle, for God’s sake speak comfortable words.’
  • Merchant of Venice: another Communion service allusion in Portia’s line: ‘So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ In the Casket scene of the same play, the silver casket has a scroll with the words ‘The fire seven times tried this’ are a reminder of Psalm 12, verse 7: ‘even as the silver which from the earth is tried and purified seven times in the fire.’
  • Macbeth: a line saying that life is ‘a tale told by an idiot’ is paralleled by another in King John that ‘life is as tedious as a twice-told tale.’ The source for these is Psalm 90, verse 9: ‘we bring our years to an end as it were a tale that is told.’
  • Othello, As You Like It and Henry VIII all contain lines describing a lifetime as ‘a span,’ as in Psalm 39, verses 6 and 7: ‘Behold thou hast made my days as it were a span long.’
  • As You Like It also has a reference to the Catechism’s ‘My duty towards my neighbour is to love him as myself’ when Phoebe says in Act III: ‘Thou hast my love; is that not neighbourly?’
  • Winter’s Tale: Psalm 28, verse 8 – ‘therefore my heart danceth for joy’ – may have prompted Leontes’ line: ‘my heart dances,/ But not for joy, not joy.’
  • Hamlet: in an allusion the Creeds in the Prayer Book, Hamlet  speaks in Act V the words: ‘’tis for the dead, not for the quick.’
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor: a reference to the Psalms occurs when  Pistol jokes: ‘He hears with ears,’ as in Psalm 44, verse 1: ‘O God we have heard with our ears,’ a phrase which also occurs in the Litany.

‘We, too, can hear countless reminders of The Book of Common Prayer when we watch performances of Shakespeare’s plays,’ says Prudence. ‘Listen closely and you will discover many more.’

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