Like all citizens of Tudor England, Shakespeare would have had an intimate knowledge of every story in the Bible. There are scores of biblical references in Shakespeare’s works, but the story of Cain and Abel seems to have been one of his favorites, as we see in the following quotations.
This be Damascus, be thou cursed Cain,
To slay thy brother Abel, if thou wilt.
“1 Henry VI” (1.3.40)
Further I say and further will maintain
Upon his bad life to make all this good,
That he did plot the Duke of Gloucester’s death,
Suggest his soon-believing adversaries,
And consequently, like a traitor coward,
Sluiced out his innocent soul through streams of blood:
Which blood, like sacrificing Abel’s, cries,
Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth,
To me for justice and rough chastisement;
And, by the glorious worth of my descent,
This arm shall do it, or this life be spent.
“Richard II” (2.1.99)
They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee: though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.
The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labour,
But neither my good word nor princely favour:
With Cain go wander through shades of night
And never show thy head by day nor light.
Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe,
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.
“Richard II” (5.6.39)
Let heaven kiss earth! now let not Nature’s hand
Keep the wild flood confined! let order die!
And let this world no longer be a stage
To feed contention in a lingering act;
But let one spirit of the first-born Cain
Reign in all bosoms, that, each heart being set
On bloody courses, the rude scene may end,
And darkness be the burier of the dead!
“2 Henry IV” (1.1.207)
O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder.
That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once:
how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were
Cain’s jaw-bone, that did the first murder! It
might be the pate of a politician, which this ass
now o’er-reaches; one that would circumvent God,
might it not?
I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven:
If that be true, I shall see my boy again;
For since the birth of Cain, the first male child,
To him that did but yesterday suspire,
There was not such a gracious creature born.
But now will canker-sorrow eat my bud
And chase the native beauty from his cheek
And he will look as hollow as a ghost,
As dim and meagre as an ague’s fit,
And so he’ll die; and, rising so again,
When I shall meet him in the court of heaven
I shall not know him: therefore never, never
Must I behold my pretty Arthur more.
“King John” (3.4.80)
You two are book-men: can you tell me by your wit
What was a month old at Cain’s birth, that’s not five
weeks old as yet?
“Love’s Labor’s Lost” (4.2.40)