Question: Did Joseph Smith plagiarize Shakespeare's ''Hamlet''?

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Question: Did Joseph Smith plagiarize Shakespeare's "Hamlet"?

Figure 1. Famous English poet and playwright William Shakespeare. Critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints allege that Joseph Smith plagiarized from his famous play Hamlet.

Introduction to Criticism

The prophet Lehi in the Book of Mormon told his sons to "[a]wake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return; a few more days and I go the way of all the earth."[1]

In Act 3, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet contemplates death and states "[t]hat patient merit of th' unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?"

Many critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claim that Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church and the believed translator of the Book of Mormon, stole this phrase from Shakespeare's work in his alleged creation of the text and story of the Book of Mormon.[2]

This article seeks to refute this very common argument from critics.

Response to Criticism

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #26: Did Lehi quote Shakespeare? (Video)

Commonality of the Phrase

The phrase is contained within other works contemporary with Joseph Smith. The Book of Job in the Holy Bible contains similar ideas being expressed by the prophet Job. Lehi could have gotten his ideas from Job instead of Joseph Smith from Shakespeare. The argument then rests on an appeal to circular reasoning--believing that because a similar phrase exists between two works, the latter work must be dependent on the former for it's use. If a Latter-day Saint apologist can demonstrate that the existence of similar phraseology works within his/her own worldview, then the criticism's validity vanishes. Table 1 demonstrates the commonality of the phrase.

Hamlet Book of Mormon Other similar phrases
  • "That undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns." (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)
"Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return; a few more days and I go the way of all the earth. " (2 Nephi 1:14)
  • He is gone to that bourne from whence no traveller returns. (Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, (1838-1839)
  • Let me alone that I may take comfort a little, before I go whence I shall not return, even to the land of darkness and the shadow of death" (Job 10:20-21).
  • When a few years are come, then I shall go the way whence I shall not return (Job 16:22).

Table 1.

Thus if we have sources that pre-date Lehi's departure from Jerusalem such as Job from which he could have plausibly drawn from for his homily to his sons, how can one validly claim that the only potential source for the similar verbiage would be Joseph Smith plagiarizing Shakespeare?[3]

Other Ancient Literature That Has Conceptual Resemblance with Lehi

Figure 2. The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi holds the Liahona.

The claim becomes especially unworkable when many ancient sources evince conceptual resemblance to Lehi's words.

For example, Hugh Nibley wrote:

No passage in the Book of Mormon has been more often singled out for attack than Lehi's description of himself as one "whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return" (2 Nephi 1:14). This passage has inspired scathing descriptions of the Book of Mormon as a mass of stolen quotations "from Shakespeare and other English poets." Lehi does not quote Hamlet directly, to be sure, for he does not talk of "that undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveler returns," but simply speaks of "the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return." In mentioning the grave, the eloquent old man cannot resist the inevitable "cold and silent" nor the equally inevitable tag about the traveler—a device that, with all respect to Shakespeare, Lehi's own contemporaries made constant use of. Long ago Friedrich Delitzsch wrote a classic work on ancient Oriental ideas about death and afterlife, and a fitting title of his book was Das Land ohne Heimkehr—"The Land of No Return." In the story of Ishtar's descent to the underworld, the lady goes to the irsit la tari, "the land of no return." She visits "the dark house from which no one ever comes out again" and travels along "the road on which there is no turning back." A recent study of Sumerian and Akkadian names for the world of the dead lists prominently "the hole, the earth, the land of no return, the path of no turning back, the road whose course never turns back, the distant land, etc." A recently discovered fragment speaks of the grave as "the house of Irkallu, where those who have come to it are without return. . . . A place whose dead are cast in the dust, in the direction of darkness . . . [going] to the place where they who came to it are without return."

This is a good deal closer to Lehi's language than Shakespeare is. The same sentiments are found in Egyptian literature, as in a popular song which tells how "the gods that were aforetime rest in their pyramids. . . . None cometh again from thence that he may tell of their state. . . . Lo, none may take his goods with him, and none that hath gone may come again." A literary text reports: "The mockers say, 'The house of the inhabitants of the Land of the West is deep and dark; it has no door and no window. . . . There the sun never rises but they lie forever in the dark.' "

Shakespeare should sue; but Lehi, a lover of poetic imagery and high-flown speech, can hardly be denied the luxury of speaking as he was supposed to speak. The ideas to which he here gives such familiar and conventional expression are actually not his own ideas about life after death—nor Nephi's nor Joseph Smith's, for that matter, but they are the ideas which any eloquent man of Lehi's day, with a sound literary education such as Lehi had, would be expected and required to use. And so the most popular and obvious charge of fraud against the Book of Mormon has backfired.[4]

Latter-day Saint scholar and apologist Robert F. Smith has written that "the constellation of ideas and expressions found there (and in parallel texts) were available throughout the ancient Near East in Lehi's own time.” For example, Smith cites the Sumerian account of the Descent of Inanna (written ca. 1900 BC - 1600 BC) in which it is written “[w]hy, pray, have you come to the ‘Land of No Return,’ / On the road whose traveler returns never, / How has your heart led you?” Smith draws on other Israelite, Canaanite, Egyptian, and Babylonian sources to show that both Lehi and Shakespeare are really drawing on ancient thought of the afterlife.[5]

Conclusion

Critics and detractors of the Church, assuming that that the Book of Mormon isn't divine prior to engaging with it, will likely not accept this rebuttal. However it has been clearly demonstrated that the existence of similar phraseology between the Book of Mormon and Shakespeare's Hamlet proves nothing threatening to a believing Latter-day Saint's worldview that includes belief in the Book of Mormon's historical authenticity and the integrity of its supposed translator.

Notes

  1. 2 Nephi 1:14
  2. Polemical works that make this argument include: “Mormonism,” New York Weekly Messenger and Young Men’s Advocate (29 April 1835). Reprinted from The Pioneer (Rock Springs, Illinois), March 1835. off-site; Origen Bachelor, Mormonism Exposed Internally and Externally (New York: Privately Published, 1838), 11–12, 14–16. off-site; Alexander Campbell, Delusions (Boston: Benjamin H. Greene, 1832), 13, original on p. 93; originally published in Millennial Harbinger 2 (7 February 1831): 85–96. off-site O. Cowdery reply #1 #2 Full title; A Disciple, "[Reply to John E. Page,]" Morning Chronicle (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) (29 June 1842). off-site; La Roy Sunderland, “Mormonism,” Zion’s Watchman (New York) 3, no. 7 (17 February 1838). off-siteS. Williams, Mormonism Exposed (1838), 6. off-site; Z—a, “Mormonism: Scene in a Stage Coach,” Christian Watchman (Boston) 18, no. 18 (5 May 1837): 1. Reprinted from Buffalo Spectator, circa April 1837. off-site; Daniel H. Bartlett, The Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, Whence Came They? (London: Nisbet, 1911); Ernest Sutherland Bates, American Faith (New York: Norton, 1940), 341-58; James Black, New Forms of the Old Faith (London: Nelson, 1948). William Bond, The Early History of Mormonism, and the True Source Where the Aborigines of the Continent Came From (Portland: Schwab Brothers, 1890); Horton Davies, Christian Deviations: Essays in Defense of the Christian Faith (London: SCM Press, 1954); Edgar E. Folk, The Mormon Monster or the Story of Mormonism (Chicago: Revell, 1900); Joseph Johnson, The Great Mormon Fraud: or The Church of Latter-Day Saints (Manchester: Butterworth & Nodal Printers, 1885); William Alexander Linn, The Story of the Mormons: From the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901 (New York: Macmillan, 1902); J. Roy H. Paterson, Meeting the Mormons: A Study of the Mormon Church in Scotland and Elsewhere (Edinburgh, Scotland: Constable, 1965); Leslie Rumble, The Mormons or Latter-day Saints (St. Paul, Minn: Radio Replies Press, 1950); James K. Swinburne, Beneath The Cloak of England’s Respectability (London: Skef�ington and Son, 1912); Alva A. Tanner, A Key to the Book of Mormon (Oakley, ID: self-published, 1916); Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? 4th ed. (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987). One early critic of the Book of Mormon thought that the phrase came from Edward Young, Night Thoughts (London: T. Heptinstall, No. 304 Holborn, 1798). See La Roy Sunderland, “Mormonism,” Zion’s Watchman (New York) 3, no. 5 (3 February 1838). off-site
  3. This approach follows that made in Brigham H. Roberts, "A Brief Debate on the Book of Mormon," in Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 2 vols. (1907), 1:333. Vol 1 GL direct link Vol 2 GL direct link
  4. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 276–277.
  5. Robert F. Smith, “Evaluating the Sources of 2 Nephi 1:13–15: Shakespeare and the Book of Mormon,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 101–102.