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Did Joseph Smith plagiarize from Shakespeare when writing the Book of Mormon?
by Jeff Lindsay
Surprisingly, one of the most common objections to the Book of Mormon is the claim that Joseph Smith plagiarized from Shakespeare when writing (translating) 2 Nephi 1:14, where elderly Lehi poetically pleads with his rebellious children, knowing that he will soon die. In this passage from 550 B.C., Lehi says:
"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."
Critics note that this is similar (they often claim that it is nearly identical) to Hamlet, Act III, Scene I, where Hamlet speaks of
"...the dread of something after death, -
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns...."
Does this really present a compelling case for a fraudulent Book of Mormon? According to the critics, Joseph Smith borrowed from Shakespeare in saying that "no traveler can return" from death (obviously is a poetical way of saying that the dead don't return back to there mortal life, for Lehi clearly understood the Resurrection). Certainly the phrasing is similar in this isolated case, though Lehi does not express fear of death nor does he speak of death as being a country. But the poetical idea of not returning from death has been expressed in similar ways for thousands of years by poets and writers, including many from Lehi's time and before. For example, the ancient book of Job in chapter 10, verse 21 says "...I go whence I shall not return, even to the land of darkness and the shadow of death."
Later Job writes "I shall go the way whence I shall not return" (Job 16:22). If Lehi is borrowing from Job, do we really have a problem? Lehi surely had read and studied Job and other more ancient Old Testament writers. In another Old Testament passage, Bathsheba mourns the loss of her son, saying "he shall not return to me" (2 Sam. 12:23).
Early Jewish and Christian poets spoke of death in such terms, though they did not literally believe that there would be no return (thanks to the resurrection, of course). Robert F. Smith ("Shakespeare and the Book of Mormon," F.A.R.M.S. paper, 1980) notes that all of 2 Nephi 1:13-15 (not just a single phrase) closely follows ancient Near Eastern texts (Jewish, Egyptian, and Sumerian), citing many examples. A few examples follow:
Descent of Inanna
"Why, pray, have you come to the 'Land of no return,' on the road whose traveler returns never?"
"May you go on the roads of the western ones [the dead]; They who go on them [travelers] do not return."
"There is nobody who returns from there."
"Behold there is nobody who has gone, who has returned."
I also found that Hugh Nibley has addressed this common objection. I quote from the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.6, Part.7, Ch.21, p.275 - 277:
"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."
Even if there weren't cases of nearly identical thoughts being expressed in Lehi's day and before, one short phrase in Hamlet hardly creates a prima facie case for plagiarism in the Book of Mormon, in my opinion.
(See The Book of Mormon home page; Response to Criticism home page; Accusatory Questions home page)
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