This highly significant little book, known as the Geneva Bible, is an English translation of the Old and New Testaments printed in Geneva, Switzerland. It was produced by Protestant exiles, including William Whittingham, who fled to the Calvinist city during the Catholic reign of Mary I (1553–1558). It was first printed in 1560, and went through more than 70 editions before 1640.

The main title page of this copy was dated 1570, but was altered by hand to 1569. Other sections of the book have earlier dates: the Calendar (1569), the New Testament (1568) and the Psalms (1569).

Did Shakespeare read the Geneva Bible?

The Geneva Bible was hugely popular throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime, because most editions like this one are small and portable, with many ‘profitable’ features for readers. Verses are separated into quotable sections; there are marginal notes on ‘hard places’ in the text, as well as illustrations and maps, like the one of the ‘holie land’ here.

There are many Biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays – some obvious, some more subtle. Most scholars agree that the Geneva Bible is the one he used most, because his wording is often closest to this text.

Matthew’s gospel and Measure for Measure

The title of Measure for Measure, and the play’s central questions concerning justice and mercy, are inspired by Matthew’s gospel, Verse 7, 1–2:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mette, it shal be measured to you again.

The marginal note explains that Jesus commands us ‘not to be curious … to condemne our neighbours fautes’ because ‘hypocrites hide their owne fautes, and seke not to amende them, but are curious to reprove other mens’.

As Kate Chedgzoy argues, this idea is explored by Shakespeare in two competing ways. When Isabella pleads with Angelo for mercy towards her brother, she seems inspired by St Matthew. She asks Angelo to consider his own faults (2.2.136–38) and put himself in Claudio’s place (2.2.64) before exacting harsh judgment. Of course, ironically, later the deputy proves to be a cruel ‘hypocrite’ (5.1.41).

In Act 5, however, the Duke also alludes to Matthew when insisting on just retribution, not mercy, for Angelo:

‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!’
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure (5.1.409–11).