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has heard sermons more precious probably than any homilies of the pulpit, lessons I venture to think, as sweet, or sweeter than any that have fallen on the world since the days of the Apostles. For think of it for a moment
in this way.
We are all familiar with the thought that it is Christ's life which gives to the Master's words their force, and we confess that love of Jesus Himself is the only motive strong enough to make men keep His Commandments. St. John sums up the significance of all that in the phrase
“The word was made flesh.”
It is not irreverence, I think, to point out that Shakespeare's teaching has the same advantage over that of the ordinary preacher that the teaching of the Evangelists has over the teaching of Solomon. He gives us a man to know instead of a proverb. It is through words made flesh that he teaches us.
The time at our disposal is all too short, alas! to make this special interpretation of Shakespeare's method as a teacher, as a national prophet, plain to you. But let me take two concrete examples of his method, which will, at any rate furnish I think each one of us with two practical lessons for our own every-day working lives. And the first lesson is an appropriate one for St. George's Day. For it is a lesson of chivalry.
I am sure that many of you must be familiar with that noble passage in Mr. Ruskin's “Sesame and Lilies” in which that great writer calls attention to the fact that, in the strict sense of the word, Shakespeare has no heroesonly heroines. “There is not one entirely heroic figure, Mr. Ruskin says, “ in all his plays, except the slight sketch of Henry V.
Whereas there is hardly a play that has not a perfect woman in it, steadfast in grave hope, and errorless purpose; Cordelia, Desdemona, Isabella, Hermione, Imogen, Queen Catherine, Perdita, Sylvia, Viola, Rosalind, Helena, and last, and perhaps loveliest, Virgilia, are all faultless; conceived in the highest heroic type of humanity.
Now the lesson of this fact is not, I think, what Mr. Ruskin apparently conceives it to be. It is not, that is to say, that women are perfect in character—"infallibly faithful and wise counsellors—incorruptibly just and pure ex
amples--strong always to sanctify, even when they cannot save”-in a way which is not possible to men. But the lesson is surely this: That Shakespeare evidently thought them so. That is the point to be grasped. Shakespeare kept true through his whole life to the youthful, the chivalric. ideal of a good woman, expressed in words which, in " Measure for Measure," he puts into the mouth of the jesting Lucio, describing Isabella---in her virginal strength and self-possessed dignity, perhaps the noblest of all the heroines of the plays:
“I hold you as a thing enskyed and sainted;
By your renouncement, an immortal spirit;
And, my friends, what is worth remembering about this reverence of Shakespeare for women, which surrounds them for him to the end of his days—it is in "Winter's Tale," one of his latest plays, that he draws for us the gracious simplicity, the wifely perfection, of Hermione, and in “The Tempest,” the latest of his plays, the peerless purity, the maiden sweetness, of the most admired Miranda-with an almost divine light and glamour, is that it is just what the ordinary man of the world too often despises as the mistake of his inexperienced youth. And yet who was more “the man of the world ” than Shakespeare? His knowledge of human nature was immense and infallible, and in no sense did he avoid the world and its temptations. He lived, too, in the midst of London town life, of theatrical life, such as we know it to have been in Elizabeth's day, coarse, corrupt, feculent, and yet he preserved in his heart the feeling, natural, I venture to assert, to uncorrupted youth, of the divinity and sacredness of womanhood, so that in his latest as in his earliest plays his strong spirit, so keen to detect human weakness and sin, pays woman the involuntary homage of laying aside, in face of her excellence, its weapon of criticism. It is Iago, who is nothing if not critical, who dares to doubt of Desdemona's truth. He, it is true, as Mrs. Jameson says in her “Characteristics of Women,” would have "bedeviled an angel.” But alas! there are men in
our own day, who, with none of Iago's wickedness, in either intention or act, are still tainted by the evil spirit of the world, and in their inmost thought dare to judge as he did of the virtue of woman. But such a man was not Shakespeare. He, at fifty years of age, still feels, in presence of his heroines, like a lover before his first love.
Seriously, then, do I beg you to ponder this fact, that the reverence for woman, which too many men affect to lose in their teens, was retained by the myriad-minded Shakespeare, to the end of his days.
One further word and lesson. You remember the character of Prospero in “The Tempest.” Did it ever strike you to identify that great enchanter with Shakespeare himself in the closing years of life? The thought is surely a fruitful one. For “The Tempest," the latest of all his plays, is an ideal allegory of human life, with undermeanings everywhere, in every line of it, for those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear; but with all its lessons unforced, unsophisticated, illusive, unperceived indeed by those whose eyes are closed, whose ears are dull of hearing: the scene of it nowhere, anywhere, for it is in the Fortunate Island of the soul of man, that vexed land of Imagination hung between the upper and the nether world; the characters of it, types, abstractions—Womanhood, Youth, the People,-all of them, more or less, victims of illusion, all of them losing their way in this enchanted Realm of Life, except only Prospero, the great mage, absolute lord of the Island, who could summon to his service, at a moment's notice, every shape of merriment or of passion, every figure in the great tragi-comedy of life, and who, being none other surely than Shakespeare himself, “not one, but all mankind's epitome," could run easily through the whole scale of human passion and thought, from Nature's woodnotes wild,” or the homely commonplaces of existence, the chimneycorner wisdom of “Master Goodman Dull,” to the transcendental subtilties of
“No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change,
Thy pyramids built up with newer light
It is not only because Prospero was a great enchanter, about to break his magic staff, to "drown his book deeper than ever plummet sounded,” to dismiss his “airy spirits,” and to return to the practical service of the State, that we identify the Philosopher Duke with Shakespeare the Poet Prophet. It is rather because the temper of Prospero is the temper of Shakespeare in those last days, when he came back to the dear old English home here in Stratford, to its sweetest, simplest, homeliest things, finding the daily life of this little place, the men and women here, the Nature all around, the green fields, the sweet hedgerow flowers, the quiet woods, the softly flowing Avon, good enough for him; despising nothing as common or unclean; curious of all things and of all men, but never scornful; humorous, sympathetic, tolerant; his wide-viewing mind at last looking back from the altitudes of thought to which he had attained, on all the pageantry of the lower world which he had abandoned, through a strange, pathetic, ideal light.
“Our revels now are ended: these our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
you be pleased, retire into my cell,
And so he ends-Prospero or Shakespeare. In the epilogue to the play you have the keynote of this selfmastered character, this self-possessed grandeur of a completely disciplined will which is common to both,—to Shakespeare as to Prospero—Forgiveness and Freedom.
“And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer;
And so, too, I will end—how better?—with those lessons of Freedom and Forgiveness: the true Freedom which only comes from service, the true Pardon which only comes to those who forgive, because they have been forgiven.
Have you learnt those lessons? The root of all true religion, believe me, lies there. What do you know of the true “service which is perfect freedom"? What is your definition of life? How do you conceive of it to yourself? Is it, do you think, as Shakespeare has elsewhere said, "a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing”? or is it a mission of service to your fellows for Christ's sake? God grant you may answer-Life is service! Life is duty! Life is a mission! All for Love and the world well lost. For Jesus said—“Whosoever would save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for My sake shall save it.”
And the lesson of Pardon-have you made that, too, yours? "The tongues of dying men”-our poet says
enforce attention like deep harmony." And from the Cross of Jesus and His last dying prayer—“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”—we have all learnt—God grant it to recognize the ethical beauty of the spirit of forgiveness; but do we equally acknowledge its moral power? its redeeming power? “Father!
forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive theni that trespass against us.” So daily we pray. Brothers! Sisters! do we truly realize this power of forgiveness, this social power of remitting or retaining sins, this priestly power of humanity? Ah! believe me, just so far as we exercise it lovingly and wisely in our lives and with our lips we help men away from sin: just so far as we do not exercise it, or exercise it wrongly, we drive men into sin. And, my friends, from which of your Christian teachers will you learn of that unstrained “ quality of mercy"-of that earthly power of free forgiveness" which then shows likest God's when mercy seasons justice”—more un