"A rarer spirit never did steer humanity."
In this age of spiritual upheaval and mental revolution many books which contained the truths that are, at this time, slowly dawning upon the minds of the people, but which hitherto were sealed books to the majority,—blinded as they were by dogma and doctrine and the theologies of the religious schools,—will now shine with Truth upon every page. Truth, known through all time to the seers and sages of the race, but which had, nevertheless, to be wrapt in symbol and parable because of the inability of the people, unevolved as they were, to understand or in any way comprehend that world of light and beauty in which the illuminated lived and moved. In "Gentle Shakespeare" we have one of the most powerful teachers of those very truths that are being revealed today to the consciousness of the race throughout christendom; truths that are revolutionizing former religious conceptions, and completely upsetting all the preconceived theories and theologies that have fettered the human intellect through many a dark century.
Thousands have been content to regard Shakespeare simply as a writer of Plays, a Dramatist of the first order, and the King of poets. They have been satisfied just to see, now and then, his immortal creations interpreted for them by Henry Irving, Herbert Tree, Forbes Robertson, Martin Harvey and a few other great actors of our time; leaving their Shakespeare all the time forgotten and unheeded among a lot of other old books on a high shelf in their studies or libraries, well out of reach!
That Shakespeare had realized the Divine in a measure past ordinary comprehension is beyond all doubt. Dr. Bucke in his masterly work on the Cosmic Consciousness places Shakespeare among the undoubted number who had attained the Cosmic Consciousness. Incidentally, it is to be regretted that such a scholar, and such a wonderful intellect as Dr. Bucke’s, should have fallen into that very "fashionable" error which seized upon the minds of so many really intelligent people some years ago,—that Francis Bacon wrote the Shakespeare Plays, and Sonnets. But that does not alter the fact that Shakespeare, the writer of those immortal works, was one of those especially illumined souls who are commissioned by the Masters to lift the race out of its ignorance and darkness into a knowledge of Divine Truth, and into the Light of Eternal Verities.
Dr. Bucke says that "Shakespeare entered into Cosmic Consciousness about the age of thirty, or perhaps a year earlier, as his intellect and moral development were very precocious." That he began writing the Sonnets immediately after his illumination. He (Dr. Bucke) considered that the first one hundred and twenty-six distinctly constitute a poem by themselves and that they deal with the subject of the Cosmic Sense. That Shakespeare "spake in parables" is certainly true as it is also true that his meaning is for the most part veiled in words and expressions which convey very little of his real thought to the unthinking multitude. It would appear that the Sonnets are addressed to some friend, but many of Shakespeare’s greatest students deny that this is so, (and among them I may mention James Allen), or at least they believe that while the Sonnets may have been written for, and sent to his friend and patron, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, to the writer they served a double purpose, for he made them, with strong intention, a casket that contained, for those who could open it through all time, the gems of Divine Truth, of Spiritual Enlightenment, and the Cosmic Consciousness. One writer goes so far as to say that it would be absolutely unworthy of the name of Shakespeare to think any other than this of the Sonnets.
Those who knew the Poet most intimately thought the most highly of him. Listen to Ben Johnson, his nearest and dearest friend, and who called him "My beloved Master."
"May Shakespeare rise! I will not lodge by thee
Chaucer or Spencer or bid Beaumont lie
A little further off, to make thee room:
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still, while thy book doth live,
And we have wits to read and praise to give.
Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe,
He was not of an Age, but for all time!"
"My gentle Shakespeare"
Wordsworth, the poet of Nature, certainly saw more in the Sonnets than most readers of his time, for he says,—
"Scorn not the sonnet...with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart."
Hallam declared that "the name of Shakespeare is the greatest in our literature," and Henry Irving said,—
"The finest and yet most prolific writer—the greatest student of man and the greatest master of man’s highest gift—of language—surely it is treason to humanity to speak of such an one as in any sense a common-place being. Imagine him rather as he must have been, the most notable courtier of the court, the most perfect gentlemen who stood in the Elizabethan throng. The man in whose presence divines would falter and hesitate, lest their knowledge of 'THE BOOK' should seem poor by the side of his, and at whom even queenly royalty would look askance with an oppressive sense that there was one to whose true imagination the hearts of kings and queens and peoples had always been an open page!
The thought of such a man is an incomparable inheritance to any nation, and such a man was Shakespeare"
James Walter, I believe it was, who wrote of him,—
"His genius was colossal, raising him far above all other men that ever lived, yet he is nearer to us than any other. Truly he was called ‘the gentle' for while he instructs, he does not lecture; though he reproves, he never jibes."
That Shakespeare read the Bible so frequently that it’s teaching permeated not only all his life, but all he wrote, is, I take it, absolutely undeniable. One can imagine the little boy learning to read from the sacred Scriptures at his mother’s knee, for we read that "in 1571 the question of his school naturally turned up, he then being seven, because boys could not be admitted to the free Stratford Grammar School unless they were seven years old, able to read, and lived in the town." James Walter in his Shakespeare's True Life (Longmans, 1890) says,—
"We believe that the home education of Shakespeare was grounded upon the Bible, and that if this book had been sealed to his childhood he might have been the Poet of Nature—of passion—his humor might have been as rich as we find it, and his wit as pointed, but that he would not have been the Poet of the most profound as well as the most tolerant philosophy; his insight into the nature of man (his meanness and his grandeur, his weakness and his strength) would not have been what it is."
What a student of the inner man he was; how his penetrating eye probed to the very depths of the human soul. Hannah More said of him,—
"Shakespeare has sensed every turn and flexure of the ever-varying mind of man in all its fluctuating forms, touched it in all its changeful shades, and marked it in all its inner graduations as well as its most abrupt varieties. He exhibits the whole internal structure of man uniting the correctness of anatomy with the exactness of delineation, the graces and proportion, and often the highest beauty of coloring."
Who, in any literature of any time can approach Shakespeare in his analysis of character; in his power to show us the evil and the good? Where among the poets and philosophers of any age can we read with such assurance of the Law that (as Emerson puts it) works over our heads and under our feet, rendering ever to all men the exact harvest of their own deeds. He makes us hate vice and abhor hypocrisy, while virtue is held up to us in all its abounding beauty, making us honor all that is good and true and pure, and calling us to aspire to all that is noble and great in life and conduct.
Mr. Selkirk says,—
"We can scarcely open Shakespeare anywhere, as if by accident, without encountering one or other of the great truths of the Bible which his genius has assimilated and reproduced in words that seem to renew its authority and strengthen its claim upon men’s attention."
No wonder john Milton wrote of him,—
"His verse shall live;
And more than nature takes our hand shall give
In a less volume, but more strongly bound
Shakespeare shall breathe and speak with laurel crowned
Which never fades."
"As to his life, what a beautiful life was that, amid trials enough to break the heart of any other man. Poverty, and a mean poor destiny which, if he were an ambitious man, would have driven him mad, but he would not suffer himself to be subdued by it. And it was fortunate for us. If he had been suffered to live quietly in Warwickshire, his mind was so rich in itself, he would have found such 'sermons in stones and good in everything’ that he would probably not have troubled the world at all with his productions."
Perhaps of no other poet has so much been written in prose and verse, and the reason is not far to seek, for men of every age since his own have recognized in Shakespeare not only the Poet, but also the Teacher, Philosopher, Mystic, and Guide. They have found, and ever will find in him, one who knew the heart of man better than any other, save One, and whose keen sympathies and deep understanding of the needs of the human heart made, and must ever make him, the friend of man.
But to know all this we must read Shakespeare for ourselves. It is not sufficient to know what others said of him. When we are thirsty and hungry we are not satisfied because others drink and eat, we must drink and eat or remain in our suffering. So if we would drink of those life-giving waters of Truth that are to be found by all thirsty souls in the Sonnets and Plays of Shakespeare—if we would satisfy the hunger of our hearts for knowledge, information, spiritual light and guidance, and are willing to seek for that satisfaction wherever it may be found, then let us for ourselves study the writings of this Master of all that was great and good, high and noble, pure and beautiful both in language, and soul. Said Emerson,—
"Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare; and even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakespeare in us; that is, to our most apprehensive and sympathetic hour."
"We have his recorded convictions on those questions which knock for answer at every heart,—on life and death, on love, on wealth and poverty, on the prizes of life, and the ways whereby we come at them; on the character of men, and the influences, occult and open, which affect their fortunes; and on those mysterious and demoniacal powers which defy our science, and which yet interweave their malice and their gift in our brightest hours. Who ever read the Sonnets without finding that the Poet had there revealed, under masks that are no masks to the intelligent, the lore of friendship and of love, &c., &c."
The Rev. Dr. Trench, Archbishop of Dublin, preaching at Stratford on Avon in 1864 said,—
"As we read the words of Shakespeare we feel that justice walks the world, delayed, it may be, but not forgotten; as is ever the manner of the Divine Avenger."
The brightest crowns are doomed to wither; there is but one amaranthine crown—even that which Christ gives to men, be they high or low, wise or simple, emperor or clown, who have loved and served and obeyed Him. And I am strong in my convictions that from one so gentle, so tender, so just, so true as Shakespeare the grace to make this highest consecration was not withholden. His profound acquaintance with the Scriptures no one can doubt."
Perhaps I have written enough and quoted enough to rouse a new interest in Shakespeare among my readers, and to compel many who have hitherto failed to discover his greatness, to take their Shakespeare down from the forgotten shelf and to begin at once to study his words of life, and truth, and beauty. If by this article, so unworthy of such a high theme, —if by it I may revive an old love and kindle again to life, a dying interest, then it will not have been written in vain. For myself, I feel I have not given a thousandth part of the time to my Shakespeare that I ought to have given. When James Allen walked by my side I was content to see Shakespeare through his eyes, and to hear him through his low musical voice, which never seemed so full of music and beauty as when he gave us long recitations from his favorite; pointing out the beauty of each phrase, the meaning that was wrapt up in every sentence for that one who had the eye to discern it, the heart to feel it. I imagine I can hear again his voice thrill with emotion as he quoted such beautiful lines as the following, or anything that praised his beloved Shakespeare.
"When Learning’s triumph o’er her barbarous foes
First reared the stage, immortal Shakespeare rose:
Each change of many—colored life he drew,
Exhausted worlds, and then imagined new:
Existence saw him spurn her boundless reign,
And panting Time toiled after him in vain:
His powerful strokes presiding truth impressed
And unresisted passion stormed the breast."
The student of Shakespeare, if he be a student of the Truth, will scarcely need any other book (save one) to aid him, for in these immortal Sonnets and Plays he will find the highest ideals, the loftiest aspirations and the greatest incentive to purity, nobility and honor. Let the reader aim at the best in Shakespeare, and if he attain, blessed will he be among men. Browning says as much in Bishop Blougram’s Apology,
"The aim, if reached not, makes great the life;
Try to be Shakespeare, leave the rest to fate."
And surely it would not be well to without quoting Wordsworth’s inspiring finish this article, at this time especially, words,—
"We must be free or die, who speak the tongue
That Shakespeare spake."