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fulfilled on sea or land, I say—as once before, when the great New England romancer passed in the stillness of the night:—
What though his work unfinished lies? Half bent
CHARLES WILLIAM STUBBS
SHAKESPEARE AS A PROPHET
[Address by the Very Reverend Charles William Stubbs, D. D., Dean of Ely, since 1894 (born in Liverpool, England, September 3, 1845; ), delivered in New York, in November, 1899, during his American lecture tour through the season of 1899-1900.]
I have to speak to you to-day of Shakespeare as a National Prophet. You will rightly ask me in what sense I use this term. Let me answer you in the words of two modern poets.
In his magnificent prose essay on “The Defence of Poetry,” the poet Shelley thus compares the functions of the poet and the prophet:—
“Poets, according to the circumstance of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators or prophets. A poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and fruit of latest time. Not that I assert poets to be prophets in the gross sense of that word, or that they can foretell the form as surely as they foreknow the spirit of events. Such is the pretence of superstition which would make poetry an attribute of prophecy, rather than prophecy an attribute of poetry.”
And this is how the great American poet, Russell Lowell, has expressed a similar thought in imperishable VerSe:– Iroq
“To know the heart of all things was his duty,
But you will ask me very probably, and some of you perhaps with some surprise–Can you really speak of Shakespeare, even in this sense, as a prophet? Can you speak of him in any sense even as a religious man? My friends, I should not care to speak of him in this place at all if I did not think that he was both.
If the underlying and almighty essence of this world be good, then it is likely—is it not?—that the writer who most deeply approached to that essence will be himself good. There is a religion of week-days as well as of Sundays, a religion of “cakes and ale” as well as of pews and altar-cloths. This England lay before Shakespeare as it lies before us all, with its green fields, and its long hedgerows, and its many trees, and its great towns, and its endless hamlets, and its motley society, and its long history, and its bold exploits and its gathering power; and he saw that they were good. To him, perhaps, more than to any one else, has it been given to see that they were a great unity, a great religious object; that if you could only descend to the inner life, to the deep things, to the secret principles of its noble vigor, to the essence of character, to what we know of Hamlet and seem to fancy of Ophelia, we might, so far as we are capable of so doing, understand the Nature which God has made. Let us, then, think of Shakespeare, not as a teacher of dry dogmas, or a sayer of hard sayings, but as
“A priest to us all
a teacher of the hearts of men and women; one from whom may be learnt something of that inmost principle that ever modulates
“With murmurs of the air,
Shakespeare was not a prophet or preacher, of course, in the same sense as Mrs. Barbauld, or Dr. Doddridge, or Dr. Watts, or even John Keble. But perhaps he was something better and higher. He rises above mere morals, and preaches to us, prophesies to us of life.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, remember, is not morality only, not a book of morals, but the story of a life; a life in which all men can see the perfection of human character, the divinity of forgiveness, of perpetual mercy, of constant patience, of endless peace, of everlasting gentleness; and is there any prophet of our modern dispensation who knew these things better, or could prophesy of them more vividly through life, than did Shakespeare?
In an evil day too, remember, Shakespeare prophesied; he taught the most gracious and gentle precepts—too good I fancy almost to have been listened to, if men had quite known what they were receiving. There are some things in Shakespeare I almost fancy he might have been burnt for had he been a theologian—just as, certainly, there are things about politics, about civil liberty, which, had he been a politician or a statesman, would have brought him to the block.
It is argued by some critics from certain indications in the plays (the Jack Cade scenes, for example, in 2, “Henry VI") that Shakespeare had no sympathy with political freedom, or with democratic ideas; had indeed, a very wholesome feudal disdain of the manyheaded monster. And it is true, no doubt, that Shakespeare was not a modern democrat. But it is equally true, that there was not a modern democracy in “the spacious days of great Elizabeth.” In the Tudor period the People had not emerged. Representative democracy is, in fact, an entirely modern institution, which throws out of court therefore all interested appeals to the sad fate of democratic (so-called) institutions in old days. And there are certainly those among Shakespeare students (Werner, for example, in his “Jahr
buch") who discover in the author of “Hamlet” and “Lear” a
thinker in the foremost ranks of modern and patriotic spirits; a forerunner of the struggle for freedom in which England was to engage first among the nations of Europe. But Shakespeare was too human, and too permanent—shall we say too “eternal”?—to be a party politician. “A plague on both your houses!” is his nearest to a political cry. A poet of the Nineteenth century, of course, who had no care for political theories and philosophies of history, would show himself to be lacking in that very sympathy with humanity which made Shakespeare what he was. But Shakespeare himself dealt with men, and not with ideas. He has no abstract political principles to apply, even in his story of the contest of Lancaster and York. And the nearest to a political principle you can get anywhere in Shakespeare is the consciousness of his faith in the divine right of the kingliest nature to be king. Indeed, in this respect, I think we may guess that Shakespeare in the Nineteenth century would echo the noble words of Keats:—
“Where is the poet? show him, show him,
But God made him a player and neither of these other things. And so he could teach a message to his age which it much needed, lessons of peace, gentleness, mercy, patience, long-suffering.
He was no priest, it is true, he waved no censer, yet who can tell, when we consider the thousands of souls who have learnt the lessons of Shakespeare, how much he has done to humanize, nay, to Christianize mankind. His doctrine may not be preached to me in set dogma and maxim. It may rather perhaps distil as dew. Yet many a man who has read “The Merchant of Venice,” or pondered over that sad drama of a sinful soul in “Macbeth,” or watched that terrible attempt of the wicked King to pray, in “Hamlet,” or in “Measure for Measure” has grasped the key to that marvelously sad but most moral story in the lines—
“He who the sword of Heaven would bear