Did Shakespeare watch a Passion Play?
Shakespeare may not have watched a Passion Play (as we know them now) but he would have been familiar with their forebears, the Mystery Plays. It is these, including parts of the Bible which he referenced in his work.
At one point in Julius Caesar, we find Mark Antony alone with the dead body of Caesar. The speech he gives is full of imagery which derives from similar memorialisation of the passion and death of Christ in medieval iconography, drama and liturgy. He says:
O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever livèd in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy—
Which, like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue—
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men. (Act 3 Scene 1)
In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth reflects Pontius Pilate washing his hands when she tries to wash the blood off her hands after killing King Duncan. Shakespeare adds a theological dimension to her horror and despair after killing the king. This is exemplified in Macbeth’s realisation that his bloody hands would never be clean again:
What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red. (Act 2 Scene 2)
Similarly, in Hamlet, Claudius obsesses about his guilt, but where he wades further into evil and damnation, Claudius tries to convince himself to sue for peace with heaven:
What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? (Act 3 Scene 3)
In Richard II, the king mistakenly assumes the treachery and betrayal of three of his loyal followers by describing them as three times worse than Judas: ‘Three Judases, each one thrice worse than Judas!’ (Act 3 Scene2). In the same play, Henry Bolingbroke refers to Pilate as he publicly relinquishes responsibility for the executions of his prisoners:
Yet, to wash your blood
From off my hands, here in the view of men
I will unfold some causes of your deaths. (Act 3 Scene 1)
Later in the same play, Pilate’s hand-washing is combined with the imagery of blood-stained hands. This is a pervasive image of guilt and damnation in Shakespeare’s plays. Henry realises that true guilt cannot be washed away so easily, ‘Though some of you, with Pilate, wash your hands… And water cannot wash away your sin’ (Act 4 Scene 1) and vows to ‘make a voyage to the Holy Land/To wash this blood off from my guilty hand’ (Act 5 Scene 6).
- Naseeb Azeez Shaheen, “Shakespeare and the Geneva Bible: “Hamlet”, I.iii.54″ Studies in Bibliography Vol. 38, (1985), pp. 201–203.
- Naseeb Azeez Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Tragedies, Newark: University of Delaware Press, (1987) ISBN 978-0-87413-293-9.
- Naseeb Azeez Shaheen,” Shakespeare’s Knowledge of the Bible – How Acquired” Shakespeare Studies Vol. 20, (1988), p. 201.
- Naseeb Azeez Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays, Newark: University of Delaware Press, (1999), ISBN 978-0-87413-677-7.