A Quote from Shakespeare?

A Quote from Shakespeare?

Lehi spoke of himself as “a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return” (2 Nephi 1:14). This seems to be borrowed from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, lines 78-80: “But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveller returns.” If Joseph Smith did not quote directly from Shakespeare, he may have borrowed from Josiah Priest’s 1825 book The Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed,¬†page 469, which paraphrases Shakespeare in a form nearly identical to the version found in the Book of Mormon: “from whence no traveler returns.”

Joseph Smith MormonIt is more likely that both Shakespeare and Lehi borrowed from a more ancient text. For example, the Old Testament prophet Job declared, “Are not my days few? cease then, and 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).

In a 1980 FARMS paper, “Shakespeare and the Book of Mormon,” Robert F. Smith noted even more ancient texts that use the same idea found in these scriptural passages:

The Sumerian poem entitled Descent of Inanna is known from a set of 13 clay tablets and fragments inscribed in the first half of the second millennium BC, though the actual composition of the text clearly predates this time period. The goddess Inanna descends into the underworld to rescue her dead husband Dumuzi. At the gate to the netherworld, she is challenged by the chief gatekeeper, who ass her, “Why pray hast thou come to the land of no return? On the road whose traveler returns not, how hath thy heart led thee?”[1]

The Egyptian Pyramid Texts were spells written inside the pyramids of Egyptian kings of the 25th and 24th centuries BC. One of these texts reads, “May you go on the roads of the western ones [i.e., the dead]; They who go on them [travelers] do not return.”[2]

Harris Papyrus I (BM 9999) was found at Medinet Habu, Egypt, during the 19th century and was acquired by the British Museum in 1872. Dating to the 12th century BC, it speaks of the realm of the dead, saying “There is nobody who returns from there,” and “Behold there is nobody who has gone, who has returned.”

Some scholars believe that Shakespeare borrowed the idea not from these ancient sources (of which only Job was available in Joseph Smith’s day), but from the poem The Elegy on Lesbia’s Sparrow, written in the first century BC by the Roman poet Catullus, which speaks of “that dreary bourn whence none can ever return.”

For another alleged borrowing from Shakespeare, see 1 Nephi 8:4 and Alma 36:22 Methought.


[1] James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (3rd ed. with Supplement, Princeton University Press, 1969), 54. Hugh Nibley brought attention to the Sumerian and Egyptian materials in his book An Approach to the Book of Mormon, of which the third edition was published in 1988 by Deseret and FARMS, where see pages 275-7.

[2] Because the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the dead were thought to travel to the west; hence Egyptian tombs were constructed on the west side of the Nile River.