Teaching Shakespeare!

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Turns of Phrase: The King James Bible

As we announced this spring, the Folger Shakespeare Library has partnered with Oxford University and the Harry Ransom Center to launch Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible. The project is chockfull of resources that educators may find useful (as well as relatable to studying Shakespeare), including information on the language of the King James Bible and how central word choice became to the King James Bible translation.

Over the weekend, British media announced that Prince Charles contributed two verses (Genesis 1:1-2) to The People’s Bible, a handwritten Bible being produced in the UK in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Although the KJB translators probably had little idea that their text would still be used by members of the royal family centuries later, they did choose their words carefully. In some cases, the translators made adjustments to previous English versions of the Bible. For example, William Tyndale, one of the first people to translate portions of the Bible into modern English, rendered the first verses of Genesis like this:

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water.

In the King James version, the verses appear like this:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

In fact, for many readers, the version of the verse as it appears in the King James Bible has become the standard and other translations sound odd. In the Bishops’ Bible, produced in 1568, Isaiah 60:1 reads: “Get thee up betimes, and be bright, for thy light cometh, and the glory of the Lord is risen up upon thee.”

While it may be a stretch to imagine such language resounding from a pulpit today, the Bishops’ Bible remained a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I and her personal copy is in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection. With the “Compare Translations” feature, it is easy to note differences in the language of the King James Bible and earlier translations and see how much has changed—or not—over the years.

For younger users, the “Hear a Translation” activity offers the chance to both see and hear differences in two versions of well-known Bible verses. This activity can make a great introduction to discussing how word choice can change how a reader (or listener) reacts—something as applicable to Shakespeare as it is to the King James Bible translation.

Amy Arden is a Communications Associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library and developed the content in the “Kids” portion of the Manifold Greatness website.

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