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Shunammite gave to the prophet Elisha, when he asked her,
Is it well with the child? And she answered, it is well-
though the child was dead.
But, in order that it may be really 'well' with us when we come to die, Shakspeare will also tell us no man better-what is the one thing needful. And with what a lightning flash of condensed thought and language does he teach the lesson !
Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
King Lear, Act v. Sc. 2.
'Ripeness,' i.e., to be prepared to die, at the appointed time. As Hamlet expresses the same idea:—
If it (death) be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.
And what minister of the gospel ever discoursed more justly of the value of such preparation* than does, in Shakspeare's words, King Henry V., when, passing through the camp in disguise, before the battle of Agincourt, he holds discourse with Williams, one of the common soldiers of his army?—
Every soldier in the wars should do as every sick man in his bed-wash every mote out of his conscience; and dying so, death
* It will not be out of place to mention here that our poet made his Will only one month before his death, 'in perfect health and memory, God be praised!'-when both his daughters were married and settled in life; the younger only six weeks before the death of her father.
is to him advantage:* or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained. And in him that escapes, it were not sin to think, that making God so free an offer, He let him outlive that day to see His greatness, and to teach others how they should prepare.
Act iv. Sc. I.
The same all-important truth is urged again in King Richard III., Act iii. Sc. 2:—
'Tis a vile thing to die
When men are unprepared and look not for it.
And now-if we wish to see (as far as can be seen in this world) an example of this truth in the end. of one, haughty and ambitious, who was neither ripe nor ready-what sermon is to be compared to the representation which our poet gives of the death of Cardinal Beaufort, in the Second Part of King Henry VI.; its effect being heightened by the charity of the king in declining to judge, and in proposing to turn it to the edification of the survivors! I give the scene entire-for, as with the Scripture itself (if the comparison may be made without irreverence), it would be wrong to take anything from it, or to add anything to it. Johnson has truly observed, 'the beauties of it are such that the superficial reader cannot miss them, and the profound can imagine nothing beyond them.'
SCENE. Cardinal Beaufort's bedchamber.
Enter K. HENRY, SALISBURY, WARWICK, &c. The Cardinal in bed.
*To die is gain.—Phil. i. 21.
K. Hen. How fares my lord? Speak, Beaufort, to thy Sovereign. Car. If thou be'st Death, I'll give thee England's treasure, Enough to purchase such another island,
So thou wilt let me live, and feel no pain.
K. Hen. Ah, what a sign it is of evil life,
I'll give a thousand pound to look upon him.-
K. Hen. O Thou eternal Mover of the heavens
And from his bosom purge this black despair!
War. See, how the pangs of death do make him grin
K. Hen. Peace to his soul, if God's good pleasure be
K. Henry VI., 2nd Part, Act iii. Sc. 3.
* Humphrey, Duke of Gloster, murdered by Beaufort's order.
With this harrowing picture it will be some relief to compare the death-bed of another Cardinal, also the victim of inordinate ambition,* but partly, too, of the fickleness of royal favour-I mean Cardinal Wolsey. It is Queen Katherine who asks:
Kath. Pr'ythee, good Griffith, tell me how he died:
For my example.
Well, the voice goes, Madam :
For after the stout Earl Northumberland
Arrested him at York, and brought him forward
(As a man sorely 'tainted) to his answer,
He fell sick suddenly, and grew so ill
He could not sit his mule.
Grif. At last, with easy † roads, he came to Leicester,
Is come to lay his weary bones among ye;
So went to bed: where eagerly his sickness
About the hour of eight (which he himself
He gave his honours to the world again,
His blessed part to heaven, and slept in peace.
Kath. So may he rest; his faults lie gently on him!
Griffith afterwards adds :
His overthrow heap'd happiness upon him;
The death-bed scene of a sensualist, as exhibited in the case of Falstaff, has been alluded to above. See p. 226.
+ i.e., stages.
For then, and not till then, he felt himself,
King Henry VIII., Act v. Sc. 2.
Our Lord bids us not to be afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do,' Luke xii. 4; comp. Matt. x. 28. In like manner the Lady Anne, with reference to the death of her father-in-law, King Henry VI., reminds the wicked Gloster:
Thou hadst but power over his mortal body;
King Richard III., Act i. Sc. 2.
And whereas the Royal Preacher teaches us in the book of Ecclesiastes that, when we come to die,
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it ;
Shakspeare has made one of our English kings to expire with these words upon his lips :
Mount, mount my soul! thy seat is up on high;
King Richard II., Act v. Sc. 5.
The place to which the spirits of good men are admitted immediately upon their dissolution is twice mentioned by our poet* under the figure by which we find it represented in S. Luke xvi. 23.
There is also a reference to our Lord's promise to the penitent thief, in K. Henry VI., 2nd Part, Act v. Sc. 1. See below, p. 35I.