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'Shakspeare has been accused of profaneness. I, for my part, have acquired from a perusal of him a habit of looking into my own heart, and am confident that Shakspeare is an author of all others the most calculated to make his readers better as well as wiser.'
Coleridge, Notes on Shakspeare, p. 73.
'From the study of Shakspeare one is led to the conviction that he was deeply religious, and that a religious purpose runs through the whole of his works. . . . All Shakspeare's Plays might be summed up in the three maxims-Love God, love your neighbour, and do your work.' Professor Morley, see Times, October 19th, 1881.
HERE are three ways by which we may
estimate the extent of Shakspeare's know
ledge and use of Holy Scripture. The first is the obvious references to the facts and characters of the Bible which his plays contain; the second, the tone and colouring which pervade his moral and religious principles and sentiments; and the third, the poetical thoughts or imagery which he appears to have borrowed more or less directly from the Scriptures. I shall begin with the first, that is, the historical references, as affording the clearest and most direct proofs of our poet's study of the
Bible, which it is my purpose to establish; because, if we are satisfied that the point in question is demonstrated by these, we shall be more ready to admit the same conclusion when we come to deal with the two other branches of the evidence, which, from their own nature, must necessarily be of a less definite and exact, and consequently less convincing character.
But before proceeding with the task thus prescribed, it is due to the character of our great poet that I should point out how much misconception respecting Shakspeare's treatment of Holy Scripture has prevailed among his critics, even of the highest rank. Let me produce one notable example, derived from the play of Antony and Cleopatra, Act iii. Sc. 11.
After the ignominious flight, in which Antony had followed Cleopatra from the coast of Actium back to Alexandria, Octavius Cæsar, the conqueror, sends a messenger to endeavour to detach the queen from paramour. This This messenger is received favourably by Cleopatra in a private interview, and just as he is kissing her hand, previous to his departure, Antony comes in, and in the highest strain of indignation, embittered by the consciousness of his downfall and disgrace, upbraids her as follows:
Antony. To let a fellow that will take rewards,
The horned herd, for I have savage cause:
A halter'd neck, which does the hangman thank
This passage gives striking evidence of our poet's familiarity with the Old Testament; see Ps. xxii. 12, Ixviii. 15; Ezek. xxxix. 18; Amos iv. 1. But is there anything to give offence even to the most pious mind, in the way in which he has applied his knowledge of these several texts? And yet not only. has Mr. Bowdler omitted the reference to the 'hill of Basan as indecorous, but critics, including Johnson himself, have concurred in condemning it as matter for regret, nay even for 'pity and indignation!'
I confess I am not surprised that the editor of the 'Variorum edition,' Mr. James Boswell, though he professes in general to have scrupulously retained all the critical remarks of his predecessors, yet made an exception, by venturing, as he says, 'in a very few instances,' to expunge a note in which Shakspeare had been, in his opinion, most perversely and injuriously charged with an irreverent allusion to Scripture.' I am sorry he did not carry the process of expunction so far as to delete the note of Johnson just referred to. Nor can I omit to add that, while I desire to express my thankfulness to Mr. Bowdler for
* i.e., adroit.
† Vol. i., Advertisement, p. 8. See above, p. 3, and below, p. 350.
See also another note of Johnson, to the same effect, given in that edition, vol. xi., p. 455. and a note of Steevens, vol. viii., p. 119.