« PreviousContinue »
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 modcrn 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 "2—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
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 heroes— only 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 examples—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;
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,