William Shakespeare died 400 years ago today, on St George’s Day, at the age of 52, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. His was the greatest English mind ever to have existed. Sir Henry Irving observed: “The thought of such a man is an incomparable inheritance for any nation.” And truly, it is impossible to calculate the depth and breadth of influence his writings have exercised upon the nations and peoples of the whole world. “He was,” as Ben Johnson wrote, “not of an Age, but for all time!”
To ascribe to his mind any single political philosophy is to bind infinite space in a nutshell. He is conservative and liberal, Protestant and Roman Catholic, black and white, male and female, gay and straight… He is the reflection of the whole of humanity, because every human passion, thought and feeling courses through his words. And those words of plays, sonnets and poems are steeped in the Word of God: the mind of Shakespeare was permeated with divine truth. He knew the deep corruption of our fallen nature, and the desperate wickedness of the heart of man. His confession comes from the lips of Hamlet:
I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.
He sets forth the scheme of our redemption: he was wise unto salvation; garlanded with liturgies, framed with rites, inspired by the solemn ceremonials of his day.
The name of Shakespeare is the greatest in our literature. He was the glory of his Age, and is the glory of the present Age. “The greatest student of man, and the greatest master of man’s highest gift – of language,” wrote Irving. “Surely it is treason to humanity to speak of such a one as in any sense a common place being.” His genius was colossal, raising him indeed above the commonality; and yet he is nearer to all of us, seeking the light of life and the way of truth, just like any other. If Milton sings of him: “With laurel crown’d, which never fades”; and Wordsworth: “Scorn not the sonnet… with this key / Shakespeare unlock’d his heart”; and if King David could witness that the love of Jonathan for him was “wonderful, passing the love of women”, surely our National Poet might confess that ‘the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge‘ claimed all of him in return.
‘Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak‘ (Mt 26:41). The depths of carnality are explored in Measure For Measure:
Duke: ..for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ’twere all alike
As if we had them not. Spirits are not finely touch’d
But to fine issues..
Angelo: ‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
Another thing to fall…
Escalus: Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall…
Isabella: ..but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep
There is more, much more, of course. The sublimity, pathos, imagination, wit and humour are incomparable. The theology of the intellect is set forth in dramatic psalms. The clay into which God breathed the life of man becomes the paste and cover of deposed kings. The dust which smeared Job infuses our vanity and conceit. ‘But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven‘ (Mt 19:14). And in the contemplation of King Richard II:
King Richard: ..The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermix’d
With scruples and do set the word itself
Against the word:
As thus, ‘Come, little ones,’ and then again,
‘It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle’s eye.’
Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders; how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls,
And, for they cannot, die in their own pride.
‘Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus… And he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre‘ (Mk 15:43-7). We find the reverberations in King Henry IV Pt.I:
King Henry IV: ..Therefore, friends,
As far as to the sepulchre of Christ,
Whose soldier now, under whose blessed cross
We are impressed and engaged to fight,
Forthwith a power of English shall we levy;
Whose arms were moulded in their mothers’ womb
To chase these pagans in those holy fields
Over whose acres walk’d those blessed feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nail’d
For our advantage on the bitter cross.
Through every exploration of political freedom is woven the liberty of the soul. The concessions and compromises of Shakespeare’s court are illuminated and exposed by the moral feelings and spiritual reformation of his church. Shakespeare is imbued with Christ because his drama is an ecclesiastical movement of human character in its living play. “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.” It works efficiently, but secretly. It may be disorganised, but it is never denaturalised. The power and virtue which can achieve wonders is simply the beautiful soul of man. From the raptures of joy to the racks of pain, there is no smile or anguish he has not felt or imagined. If we recognise in a moral order of the world a divine presence, then divine presence is never absent from Shakespeare’s world. He is a glorious resurrection and a noble life.
He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.