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

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Question: Did Joseph Smith plagiarize Shakespeare's Hamlet?

The claim of plagiarism is implausible, especially when ancient poetry and parallels are stronger than the claimed "borrowing" from Shakespeare

Some claim that Joseph Smith plagiarized Shakespeare's Hamlet. [1]

The claim of plagiarism is implausible, especially when ancient poetry and parallels are stronger than the claimed "borrowing" from Shakespeare.

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).

Critics do not agree

At least one critic complains about this phrase, but attributes it to someone other than Shakespeare:

“The cold and silent grave from which no traveller can return,” p, 61. Every school-boy knows that the above is a paltry imitation of a sentence in Young’s Night Thoughts, and yet the writer of the book of Mormon, would have us believe, that it was within some hundreds of years before Christ![2]

It would seem, then, that this concept or phrase is not so novel or original that two writers have not both used it.

B.H. Roberts

B.H. Roberts notes that the critic "fairly revels in the thought that he has Lehi quoting Shakespeare many generations before our great English poet was born; and indulges in the sarcasms which Campbell and more than a score of anti-Mormon writers have indulged in who have mimicked his phraseology." Roberts notes that the Book of Job, contained in the Jewish scriptures that Lehi certainly would have been familiar with, contains two passages "which could easily have supplied both Shakespeare and Lehi with the idea of that country 'from whose bourn no traveler returns.'" In other words, Lehi could have obtained his idea from the same source from which Shakespeare obtained the inspiration for his phrase. Roberts concludes:

It will be observed that the passage from the Book of Mormon follows Job more closely than it does Shakespeare both in thought and diction; and this for the reason, doubtless, that Lehi had been impressed with Job's idea of going to the land whence he would not return, and Joseph Smith, being familiar with Job, and very likely not familiar with Shakespeare, when he came to Lehi's thought, expressed it nearly in Job's phraseology...Lehi lived in Judea in the seventh and sixth century, B.C. He was acquainted with the Hebrew scriptures, including the book of Job, and when he departed from Jerusalem for the western world his colony took with them those same scriptures. Through them he became familiar in the Hebrew with Job's--"Let me alone, that I may take comfort a little before I go whence I shall not return." Also Job's--"When a few years are come, then I shall go the way whence I shall not return." When Lehi's own hour of departure hence had come, impressed with this solemn thought of Job's, he gave expression to it in Hebrew. The saying was recorded by his son Nephi in the Egyptian characters employed by him in making his record. Observe that we have traced these ideas of the "land whence I shall not return" into the Nephite records without the aid of the English Bible or Shakespeare.[3]

Hugh Nibley

Wrote Hugh Nibley:

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]


Notes

  1. “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-site
    Complains that the phrase "The cold and silent grave from which no traveller can return" is "is a paltry imitation of a sentence in Young’s Night Thoughts."; S. 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
  2. La Roy Sunderland, “Mormonism,” Zion’s Watchman (New York) 3, no. 5 (3 February 1838). off-site
  3. 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.


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims