Early Printed Bibles on View during Shakespeare Symposium
March 7, 2023
Bibles from the Shaheen collection
A selection of Bibles from the Shaheen Antiquarian Bible Collection

The Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, UT’s internationally acclaimed center for the study of the history and culture of the premodern world, will hold its annual symposium on the UT campus March 24–25. The 19th Annual Marco Symposium, titled “The Canon of Shakespeare at 400,” will explore 400 years of Shakespeare since the publication of the First Folio. The symposium is free and open to the public.

Symposium activities will include a visit to the Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives to view examples of early printed Bibles from the collection of the late Naseeb Shaheen, an internationally known authority on Shakespeare’s use of the Bible and a professor of English at the University of Memphis for forty years. Shaheen’s collection of pre-King James Bibles was one of the largest in the world. The collection includes more than 60 examples of the Geneva Bible, the Scripture most often referenced in Shakespeare, as well as early printings of the so-called Great Bible, Bishops’ Bible, Matthew’s Bible, the Douay-Rheims Version, and the King James Bible. We are pleased to welcome symposium participants — and members of the public — to the Special Collections reading room to view some of these rare editions. The Bibles will be on display throughout the spring semester.

“The Shaheen Bible collection is a unique and treasured resource, and the Marco Institute is one of the things that makes humanities at UT special,” said Dean of Libraries Steve Smith. “We are delighted that the Marco conference will feature this wonderful collection, and delighted to be a part of what will be a wonderfully entertaining and intellectually stimulating conference commemorating 400 years of Shakespeare studies.” 

Professor Shaheen’s definitive series on biblical allusions in Shakespeare’s plays, collected in his almost 900-page Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays, compares apparent biblical references against all literary sources and versions of Scripture that would have been known to the Bard.

Shakespeare’s texts have been the subject of intense study since publication of the First Folio in 1623, about seven years after Shakespeare’s death. That First Folio contained the text of 36 plays — the majority of the works we now attribute to the playwright.

After four centuries, one would imagine there is nothing left for Shakespeare scholars to discover. However, simply identifying the authoritative text for one of Shakespeare’s plays is no simple matter. Shakespeare left no copies written in his own hand. Most likely, plays were transcribed by members of his acting troupe, and Shakespeare himself would have made continual revisions to his dramatic works. Furthermore, it was the practice of 17th-century printers to make typesetting corrections even as the presses rolled; thus, in the case of some early versions, we can’t even point to a definitive text for a particular printed edition — much less a single authoritative text for the play itself.

Within the past half century, Shakespearian scholarship has taken many twists and turns. There have been attempts to restore the playwright’s earliest texts, to discern his intended meaning, or to use his words to reconstruct an Elizabethan worldview — as well as critiques from Marxist, feminist, critical race theory, gender studies, and post-colonial perspectives. In fact, Shakespeare’s canon continues to be fertile ground for each new intellectual movement.