Folger Focus: Why are Shakespeare, Elvis and the King James Bible together here?

A 400th anniversary brings together a riveting assortment of artifacts

Photo: Folger Shakespeare Library

WASHINGTON, October 12, 2011 – Why would a Bible that commands adultery, a copy of the Good Book that belonged to the most exalted pop singer in history, and Shakespeare’s creative genius be together at DC’s Folger Shakespeare Library?

For answers, there’s the current exhibit “Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible” which highlights the translation’s creation and formidable contributions to the English-speaking world in particular. It’s in DC until January 15 when it begins traveling to multiple cities around the U.S.

The King James Bible was released to the world in 1611 when William Shakespeare was at his creative zenith. So it’s only fitting that the Folger would join the world in celebrating this 400th anniversary year by mounting the exhibition that’s a collaboration with the University of Oxford’s famed Bodleian Library.

Did Shakespeare write or translate at least some of the Bible? Though myths about his connections have persisted through the centuries, nobody really knows for certain. The exhibit’s curator Hannibal Hamlin says emphatically “no, no, no!

Hamlin added the KJB influenced English-speaking writers, not just in Britain and America, but all over the world from John Milton in Paradise Lost to Charles Schultz in A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

And Hamlin’s fellow curator Steven Galbraith offers more: “The legacy of the King James Bible is actually too huge to articulate in a brief sentence or two, because its influence is sort of astronomical.”

The Folger exhibit begins with 10th-century Anglo-Saxon biblical poems, and moves to the dramatic story of early English Bibles, whose translators sometimes risked and even lost their lives to give the English-speaking world early translations.

Rare books, manuscripts, and portraits relate the process that led James I to agree to a new Bible, and how four dozen or so English scholars in London, Oxford and Cambridge began the tedious work in 1604 to create a translation from original Hebrew and Greek texts, as well as earlier English translations. Included in the Folger exhibit are three surviving manuscripts that record the translating process.

The “afterlife” portion of the exhibit explores contributions the KJB made to public life, literature, entertainment and the arts. Included are 17th century family Bibles, Handel’s Messiah (based largely on the KJB) and lavishly bound editions, and KJB owned by Elvis Presley and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Other exhibition highlights include:

  • A rare Wycliffe Bible from the 1380s – among the first full English Bibles linked to reformer John Wycliffe, who is often called the “Morningstar” or the first light of the Protestant Reformation.
  • Two leaves from William Tyndale’s contraband early 16th century translation. Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536 for his attempts at translating the Bible into English.
  • The Folger’s first edition of the King James Bible

Annd what about that Bible that commands readers to commit adultery? The “Wicked” Bible (1631) is missing the key word “not” from the Seventh Commandment on adultery. The printers who created it were deprived of their licenses and fined for their mistake. Most copies of the offending KJB were destroyed, but a few survive, including one in this exhibit.

On Friday, December 16 at 7 p. m., the library will present a free session by poet Jacqueline Osherow and scholar Michele Osherow about what makes the KJB “one of the best poetic translations.

Austin: When it leaves the Folger in January, and will locate at several other U.S. cities through the summer of 2013. See the library website for locations and dates.

Read more of Ruth Hill’s columns at Contemporary Christian Travel in the Washington Times Communities and follow her on twitter christiantrav.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Ruth Hill

Ruth Hill writes for magazines and newspapers about the business and pleasures of travel. Read more about her views and news of Christian heritage travel around the world at

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