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9. Of Charity and Mercifulness . . . - - . 2 o'S
|UCH has been said and written on the learning of Shakspeare. How far the
* - greatest genius of modern times was indebted to the storehouse of antiquity; whether or no he was altogether
Untutored in the lore of Greece or Rome,
is a question which a hundred years ago was agitated among men of letters with intense interest. But neither in the course of that controversy, nor at any other time, has the enquiry, I believe, been raised to which I purpose in these pages to offer a reply; viz., how far Shakspeare was conversant with Holy Scripture, and whether or no he made use of his knowledge of the Bible to guide and assist him in the production of his immortal works. When I b
say that this enquiry is a new one, I do not mean that our poet's acquaintance with Scripture has altogether escaped the notice of every one of his numerous commentators; for such is not the case:* and had it been so, my undertaking might well be suspected of too great and too presumptuous a singularity to warrant an expectation of its usefulness and sobriety. All I would imply is that Shakspeare has not yet received the credit, which I think I shall be able to prove that he deserves, of having been, in a more than ordinary degree, a diligent and a devout reader of the Word of God; and that he has turned this reading to far more and far better account than any of his critics would seem to have suspected, or at all events has yet attempted to point out. His marvellous knowledge of the Book of Nature is admitted on all hands: his knowledge of the Book of Grace, though far less noticed, will be found, I believe, to have been scarcely less remarkable. His works have been called ‘a secular Bible:’ my object is to show that while they are this, they are also something more, being saturated with Divine Wisdom, such as could have been derived only from the very Bible itself.
* For instance, I observe in Mr. Singer's edition of 1826 the following note –“ It has been remarked that Shakspeare was habitually conversant with his Bible.”—Vol. v. p. 464. The allusion is, perhaps, to the following remark of Mr. Capel Lloft, in his Aphorisms from Shakspeare, published in 1812 —“He (Shakspeare) had deeply imbibed the Scriptures.’ Introd. p. xii.
And I enter upon my task with keener interest and heartier zeal upon two accounts; first, because I trust I shall be paying a duteous service to the memory of this great man, whom every Briton should delight to honour, by removing an imputation which has been (I am persuaded) hastily and inconsiderately cast upon him, as though he had, in some instances, designed to treat the Inspired Word with profaneness;” and secondly, because, if it shall appear (as I doubt not it will) that a genius so incomparable was content to study, and not unfrequently to draw his inspiration from the pages of Holy Scripture, submitting his reason to the mysterious doctrines which it reveals, and his conscience to the moral lessons which it prescribes; it may be hoped that no one of my readers will consider it beneath him to follow an example, set by an authority so highly, so justly, and so universally esteemed.
‘He was indeed homest,’ says his friend Ben Jonson, “and of an open and free nature.”f Upon such unquestionable testimony, it is pleasant to be permitted to think of our greatest poet, as one “who in an honest and good heart, having heard the Word, kept it, and brought forth fruit with patience.” That he brought forth fruit—immortal fruit—to the glory of God and the benefit of mankind, no one can deny. That he had occasion for much patience in surmounting, as he did surmount, the difficulties of the earlier part of his career, both as an actor and a writer for the stage, is equally certain. Nor is there any conflicting record to prevent us from believing that the tenor of his life, especially in his later years, was in conformity with the confession of his death as exhibited in his will;” unless indeed we are to admit certain passages in his sonnets as evidence against himself, which if they prove him at one time to have yielded to the temptations with which he was beset, prove him also to have possessed afterwards the spirit of a true penitent. Of his personal history, all that is now known may be soon told. He was born in April,f 1564, at Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, the eldest sont of eight children, his father, John Shakspeare, being a glover of that town; and he died at his native place (whither he had retired in comfortable circumstances some years before) on the 23rd of April, 1616, when he was only in his fifty-third year. He married very young, before
* See Mr. Boswell's Advertisement to the Variorum edition of Shakspeare, 1821, p. 8; and compare below p. 51. t Ibid. vol. i. p. 449. b
* On the contrary, see two other contemporaneous testimonies to his ‘honest character in Malone's Life, p. 280, sq., and p. 284. He was also known among his contemporaries as ‘the gentle Shakspeare.’ See the Author's Sermon preached at Stratford, p. 26.
f The precise day of his birth is uncertain, see Mr. Dyce's Life, p. 24, sq. He was baptized at Stratford, on April 26. His mother's name was Mary, of the family of Arden.
1 Two daughters had been born before him.