Friday, December 11, 2015

Shakespeare and the Bible by William Burgess 1903

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It is not here intended to claim Shakspeare as a theological student, or that he ever set himself the task of propagating any set of religious doctrines. It is acknowledged that "he is the poet of secular humanity."

Yet he did not treat sacred themes as distinct from the secular; but he saw the divine in the human, the spiritual in the secular and he made them manifest in his own great way, sometimes in glimpses, at others, in flames of light.

It is claimed, however, that he drew largely from the Bible for his loftiest thoughts and noblest inspirations; that he employed Scripture teachings, facts, poetry, philosophy and language in his writings; that he was a sincere believer in the teachings of Scripture and that he accepted the orthodox views, current in his day, of the main doctrines of the Christian religion.

These claims are established by a large number of affinities, allusions, references, paraphrases and quotations to Scripture text and teaching, which are taken from almost every part of Shakspeare's works. That these are not accidental, but bear the marks of design or purposed reference, is beyond all doubt when their number, frequence and circumstances are considered. These quotations are so accurate in spirit and application, the allusions so numerous and apposite, the historic references so varied and correct, that only one acquainted with the Scriptures could have so employed them.

The question naturally arises;—by what means did Shakspeare become so well versed in the Scriptures?

In Shakspeare's time the Bible was the standard literature of his country. The time had passed away when "the translation and reading of the Bible in the common tongue" was treated as "heresy and a crime punishable by fire." It was no longer a forbidden book, but was the one book, almost the only book, within the reach of the common people. If Shakspeare had the advantage of any book in his early home that book was probably the Bible. Indeed it is probable that no other books were available to him, during his early days, except perhaps Plutarch and such glimpses of history and the classics, as he could obtain in his lessons at school.

Erasmus had said, only a few years before, "I long for the day when the husbandman shall sing portions of the Scriptures to himself as he follows the plough, when the weaver shall hum them to the tune of his shuttle, when the traveler shall while away, with their stories, the weariness of his journey."

That time had come. The days of the Reformation were at hand. The poetry and the songs of the people were of the psalms and prophecies. The whole atmosphere of social, and even political life, was charged with the inbreathing of old testament law and of new testament gospel.

The picture which Green has given us in his "History of the English People" graphically sets forth the marvelous relation which the Bible at that time sustained to the country: — "No greater moral change ever passed over a nation. England became the people of a book and that book was the Bible. It was as yet, the one English book that was familiar to every Englishman; it was read at churches and read at home, and everywhere its words, as they fell on ears which custom had not deadened to their force or beauty, kindled a startling enthusiasm. . . . No history, no romance, no poetry, save the little-known verses of Chaucer, existed for any practical purpose in the English tongue when the Bible was ordered to be set up in churches. Sunday after Sunday, day after day, the crowds that gathered round Bonner's Bibles in the nave of St. Paul's, or the family group that hung on the words of the Geneva Bible in the devotional exercises at home, were leavened with a new literature. Legends and annals, war song and psalm, State-rolls and biographies, the mighty voices of prophets, the parables of the Evangelists, stories of mission journeys, of perils by the sea and among the heathen philosophic arguments, apocalyptic visions, all were flung broadcast over minds unoccupied for the most part by any rival learning. . . . But far greater than its effects upon literature or social phase was the effect of the Bible on the character of the people at large. . . . The whole moral effect which is produced nowadays by the religious newspaper, the tract, the essay, the lecture, the missionary report, the sermon, was then produced by the Bible alone. And its effect in this way, however dispassionately we examine it, was simply amazing. The whole temper of the nation was changed. A new conception of life and of man superseded the old. A new moral and religious impulse spread through every class. . . . The whole nation became, in fact, a church."

Now, when it is recalled that this great moral wave, under the influence of the Bible, swept over the country during the period of Shakspeare's life and work, it will be easy to perceive that a wondrous daily flood of light and inspiration must have come to his mind from this source.

But even this does not tell all the story. This period was the immediate forerunner of that splendid age of the Puritans which gave us Milton, Bunyan, Hooker and others, and which created an irresistible demand for an authorized version of the English Bible such as could be available and acceptable to the common people.

The reign of Elizabeth was followed by James I and he was wise enough to appreciate the spirit of the times. He appointed a Counsel of the most learned scholars of the day, selecting them from the various schools of learning, and of the church, of whom the names of forty-seven are preserved to us.

The work of translating the Bible was undertaken by this learned body in 1604 and concluded in 1611. These, with the five years that followed, were the greatest of Shakspeare's life, during which he wrote his greatest dramas. He died in 1616.

Thus, during all the period of his life, the Bible was the most popular theme of conversation and discussion, growing more and more, into general use and public esteem, until it became the most absorbing topic of political and general interest, culminating in the greatest and most abiding work of literary translation and study that has ever been given to the world.

A Shakspeare who was not saturated with Bible idiom, language and thought, in such an age would be inconceivable.

A perusal of the parallel passages in which, in this volume, Bible quotations are placed side by side with those from Shakspeare will show that, while very few texts are quoted verbatim, yet the use of biblical characters, facts, figures, doctrines and laws, in the author's own language, is so common as to constitute one of the most remarkable of the many marvels of Shakspeare.

An English author of half a century ago writes as follows: — "In storing his mind, Shakspeare went first to the word and then to the works of God. In shaping the truths derived from these sources he obeyed the instinct implanted by him who had formed him,— Shakspeare. Hence his power of inspiring us with sublime affection for that which is properly good and of chilling us with horror by his fearful delineations of evil. Shakspeare perpetually reminds us of the Bible. ... A passage, for instance, rises in our thoughts unaccompanied by a clear recollection of its origin. Our first impression is that it must belong either to the Bible or Shakspeare. No other author excites the same feeling in equal degree. In Shakspeare's plays religion is a vital and active principle sustaining the good, tormenting the wicked, influencing the heart and lives of all."

A more recently published work gives this: —"We believe that the home education of William Shakspeare was grounded on 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."

Dr. A. H. Strong, Pres. Rochester Theological Seminary, says: — "I challenge any man to find unbelief in the dramatis personae of Shakspeare's plays, except in cases where it is the manifest effect or excuse of sin, reproved by the context, or changed to fearful acknowledgment of the truth by the results of transgression. In his ethical judgments he never makes a slip; he is as sure-footed as a Swiss mountaineer; he depicts vice, but he does not make it alluring or successful."

And as to the personal faith of the Poet the same writer remarks: — "There is no trace of Mariolatry, nor of dependence for salvation upon ritual and ceremony. ... In an age of much clerical corruption he never rails at the clergy. While he has some most ungodly prelates his priests are all a credit to their calling. None of his characters are disseminators of scepticism. I cannot explain this except by supposing that Shakspeare was himself a believer. Though he was not a theological dogmatist, nor an ecclesiastical partisan, he was unwaveringly assured of the fundamental verities of the Christian scheme. Shakspeare had dug down through superficial formulas to the bed-rock of Christian doctrine. He held the truths which belong in common to all ages of the church. If any deny the personality of God or the deity of Christ, they have a controversy with Shakspeare. If any think it irrational to believe in man's depravity, guilt, and need of supernatural redemption, they must also be prepared to say that Shakspeare did not understand human nature."

The manuscript of the present volume was nearly completed when the author received the compliment of a presentation copy of a new book from London bearing the title of "The Christ in Shakspeare." The writer is a profound believer in the religious element in Shakspeare and especially in his Sonnets. He claims fifty of them as decidedly Christian in spirit and teaching. He says:— "Some true poets have written a few good hymns, yet amongst these none have succeeded in expressing their thoughts with the felicity and strength of these glorious sonnets, which harmoniously glow in perfect accord with the highest aspirations, to the honor and praise of him who is above all. It is no fancy but an admitted truth, that the spiritual mind of our author is brought to light by the light of the Bible and his deep musings therein found their delightful embodiment in a more poetic correspondence with one or more earthly friends. . . . Although the Poet's primary aim was not to display his spirituality to a general reader, if he ever pondered such a thing, he had never the wish to hide from his friend, or from anyone, the exalted views which he had derived from the study of the Scriptures."

About the same time came another indication of the growing disposition to interpret Shakspeare in the light of the Scriptures. The author of a pamphlet entitled "The Shakspearean Reconciliation" claims, in his thoughtful little treatise, that:— "Shakspeare's standpoint was a thorough understanding of the Bible as it is beginning to be understood in our days. The world in general, not being literary, has had to be taught by a laborious criticism that the Bible is literature and not science. Shakspeare recognized the poetry of the Biblical moralists with the same sure-glance with which he recognized his own poetry. In particular, in certain sayings of Christ, whence others drew dogma, he could perceive at once poetical synthesis; his own highest poetical quality."

The ordinary and natural reading of the Poet suffices to find religion in some way or other, breaking in at the most trivial incident and circumstance, as well as in the more striking events and distinguished characters. The pious phrases of the times are constantly in evidence. Indeed, the frequent use of Scripture language and pious exclamations by the grossest and vilest of persons is somewhat shocking to our sense of reverence. And yet this is one of the surest marks of the Poet's familiarity with the Bible, as well as a true index to his apprehension of every variety of human society.

That Shakspeare was a sincere believer in the Bible from which he drew so copiously, and in the doctrines taught therein, is a fact established beyond doubt. Pagan philosophy is, of course, fitly associated in his dramas with the gods of its own creation. The Poet's works are a mirror of humanity and his pictures of heathenism are true to the subject.

But God was in his thoughts. He reverently acknowledges the God of the Bible in all His various attributes. He holds up to view the divine side. of man. All his best men and women do homage to the Divine and his worst characters are shown to be in dread of the law of God and the ends of justice.

God, as distinct from pagan gods, is mentioned in at least thirty of his thirty-seven plays and nearly seven hundred times. As many as forty different terms or exclamations are employed in his references to the Divine Being, most of which are taken from the Bible.

Frequent references are made to Jesus Christ as "Saviour," "Redeemer." That these were in harmony with his own faith and not merely expressions accommodated to his characters is a necessary conclusion on reading the following paragraph taken from the opening paragraph of the "last will and testament of William Shakspeare":—

"I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping, and assuredly believing through the merits of Jesus Christ, my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting."

To this may be added the following from the Life of Shakspeare published in Knight's edition of his works:— "Whatever was the immediate cause of his last illness we may believe that the closing scene was full of tranquillity and hope; and that he who had sought, perhaps more than any man, to look beyond the material and finite things of the world, should rest in the 'peace which passeth all understanding' in that assured belief which the opening of his will has expressed with far more than formal solemnity."

In face of such testimony, he must be wilfully blind who will deny that this man spoke the language of his own heart and soul, when he, at various times and through various characters exclaims:—

"The precious image of our dear Redeemer."

"The world's ransom, blessed Mary's son."

"By the death of him who died for all."

"I charge you as you hope to have redemption."

"By Christ's dear blood shed for our grievous sins."

"In those holy fields,
Over whose acres walked those blessed feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago, were nail'd
For our advantage on the bitter cross."

Thus it is seen that Shakspeare drank so deeply from the wells of Scripture that one may say, without any straining of the evidence, without the Bible Shakspeare could not be. And if it were possible to suppress every copy of the sacred volume and obliterate its very existence as a book, the Bible in its essence and spirit, its great doctrines of infinite justice, mercy, love and redemption, as well as a vast store of its most precious sayings, would yet live in Shakspeare.

"Whoever looks intelligently at this Shakspeare may recognize that he was a prophet in his own way, of an insight analogous to the prophetic, though he took up another strain. Nature seemed to this man also divine; unspeakable, deep as Tophet, high as Heaven. 'We are such stuff as dreams are made of!' That Scroll in Westminster Abbey, which few read with understanding, is of the depth of the sea.
We may say without offense, that there rises a kind of universal psalm out of this Shakspeare, too; not unfit to make itself heard among the still more sacred Psalms. Not in disharmony with these, if we understood them, but in harmony. I cannot call this Shakspeare a sceptic as some do; his indifference to creeds and theological quarrels of his time misleading them. No; neither unpatriotic, though he says little about his patriotism; nor sceptic, though he says little about his faith." ~"The Hero as a Poet." Thomas Carlyle

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