Saturday, 29 April 2017

LECTURES ON SHAKESPEARE

BY REV. R. EYTON, M.A.

Rev. R. Eyton, M.A., commenced a series of lectures on Shakespeare...

Mr Eyton said: "Shakespeare was not of an age, but for all time," said Ben Johnson, his friend, and it did credit to his perception that he grasped this fact about him. About much writing and literary effort which attracts and often too, arrests the men of any age, the crucial question remains to be answered " Will it live," and only men of real insight are able to give the answer. That Shakespeare's plays have lived was sufficiently evidenced by the fact that more quotations from his works have entered into common speech than from any other source except the Bible. One of those half educated women often found in London society was taken to see one of his plays and her only remark was that it was "full of quotations." There could not be a more convincing proof of the way in which his phrases have become the property of all because they were recognised as the truest expression of the facts of common life. In the wonderful grasp that he had of human nature in all its phases, grave and gay. " Shakespeare was not of an age but for all time." But he was also a man of his own age as his great rival called him in the same poem "The Soul of the Age." Every man who moves the world powerfully must be. He must be the child of the previous ages — their outgrowth — receiving from them a vast inheritance. Shakespeare showed that he was this in his historical plays especially. But he must be also the man of his own time, colored and influenced by its tendencies and aims, ethical, religious, political, social— and the Elizabethean age was pre-eminently a strong one in its temperament, in its facts, in its activities — it was an age of awakening and an age of growth, it was an age of great men with great minds, strong in literary power, for it was the age of Spenser, Raleigh, Shakespeare, Bacon, strong in its statesmen, such as Burleigh, strong in its theologians such as Hooker. It was an age in which a great man was sure of understanding, and of that audience which elicits his greatness ; a protestant age, a monarchical age, an age eminently practical, it knew what it wanted and how to get it, an age that was alive, very much alive indeed, full of vitality.
  It would be worth our while to go a little more into particulars in order to understand the nature of the forces which culminated in the appearance of Shakespeare. (1) We must take into account the two great preceding movements, the Renaissance and the Reformation. Through them the world had again arrived at the curiousness of being alive in every sense of the word. The Renaissance had flooded Europe with a great literature which had been long since dead and buried and with countless forms of art it had come like the spring after the long wintry frost of the middle ages. We make a mistake, however, when we suppose that there was no interest in the classics in the middle ages. Let us be just in acknowledging our debts. It was to the monks that we largely owe their preservation and the scholars of the 13th century probably knew the great latin authors. Horace and Virgil as well as the scholars of our day. Dante, in the 14th century, Petrarch a little later, had done much to make the best Latin poets familiar, while Boccacio about the same time (1313 — 1375) did some thing to create an interest in the Greek poets. The awakening made some great progress even before the invention of printing (1440) came like a new gift of tongues upon the earth and lent wings to knowledge. But though the monks preserved the classics to a large extent it must also be said that they kept a knowledge of them to themselves. It was not till the fall of Constantinople (1453) that Europe (Italy above all else) was covered with the fugitives of that mighty ruin. It was these who escaped with apparently little more than their lives who yet saved out of the general wreck treasures of unspeakable value and not only a living familiarity with Greek but Greek authors almost unknown in the West. The more distinguished refugees were received gladly, often with extravagant honor by the Princes of Italy, by Lorenzo the Magnificent at Florence, and at Rome by Popes such as Nicolas V, founder of the great Vatican Library, by Pius II (1456— 1464) and by Leo X.  Professorships, canonries were found for them; almost every little place had its academia centre of classical studies and of a stirring intellectual life, and if Italy was the cradle for this new enthusiasm it went forth throughout Europe. In Italy new learning became almost a new religion, so we read of Licinius burning a lamp before the bust of Plato as, though be were a saint, a most significant fact was the expression of such a homage but the movement did not remain Italian. The youth of Europe was attracted to Italy, Colet and Linacre, for example from England, and carried back to their own land the learning which they had acquired. And in other lands the revived interest in classical antiquity assumed a much more healthy diversion than it did in Italy. The foremost of our English humanists were Sir Thomas More and Colet, Melanchthon in Germany, Erasmus in Holland were the best representatives in their own lands, they put the new learning into its right place us the handmaid of theology they threw their knowledge of Greek into elucidating the true meaning of the Scriptures which had been darkened and overlaid in the middle ages. "The best grammarian," said Luther, "is the best theologian." It was an exaggeration, but one not without meaning and underlying truth.
 Out of the Renaissance grew the Reformation, though the Renaissance would never have produced the Reformation. It was to Pagan in its spirit ; it is faith that overcomes the world, and the forms of the medieval Papacy would have been too strong for a spirit like that of the Renaissance nourished merely by acquaintance with the beauties of classical literature. In the reformation we believe that the world was born again into religious freedom, not into Paganism or unbelief. The history of Erasmus, the chief of the humanists, is the most instructive as showing how it was possible to combine ceaseless activity in editing and elucidating heathen authors with producing the first edition of the New Testament in the original Greek that had ever appeared, an edition whose publication (1516) gave a great impulse to the Reformation though he himself never took any real share in the progress of that movement. Yet he remains the real father of the Reformation ; "The bird that laid the egg that Luther hatched," and it is impossible to over estimate his services to the cause of religious truth as we conceive it. These two great movements the Renaissance and the Reformation which we have barely glanced at made Shakespeare possible. He would not have been possible before that time. His view of life was too broad ; he had not the contempt for all the vanities of the world which characterised the best medieval thought to contrast his attitude towards life with that of Dante who finds his highest imagination centred, not in Florence and Pisa and Venice, but in Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. The kingdoms of the world were by the medieval writers given over to Satan, and all who did not abandon the world and become monks were more or less Satan's servants. In such a world Shakespeare would have been impossible, inconceivable, a fish out of water, for there was in him a present sense of truth, an overshadowing divine order, which makes men see the importance of a realisation of facts as they are, and especially of the greatest of all, the moral law of the universe. The sense that he spoke of—

 The divinity that doth shape our ends,
 Rough hew them as we will.

This sense of an overruling God manifested in a present moral order would put him for ever at issue with, at the best, as well as the worst side of the middle ages, the mystic grief that sighed for Urbs Beata Jerusalem, or lamented over the vanity of human life and human grief. But under the influence of the Renaissance and the Reformation man recurred to hard facts, the earth was good ; it was not damned or damnable. The earth was meant to be explored. Instead of bringing back from his voyages stones of demon haunted valleys, Raleigh brought back the potato plant and tobacco. The great moral discovery of the time lay in the dawning conscience of the immanence of God, both in nature and in man. In the middle ages God had been conceived of as afar off, as only touching earth through rare points of contact, and these beyond the sphere of nature. It began to be realised that he was not far from every one of us, that human life was sacred and time was in eternity. The modern Elizabethean spirit then would interrogate nature and investigate human life. It wanted no miracles nor interferences of ecclesiastical Magii. It found that the more truthfully it looked at things the more full of light things as they were in themselves appeared. Conscience and actual sense of sin, and an actual need of rightuousness were things which would not be dealt with by ecclesiastical mechanism. Woman was neither a Satanic bait to trap the soul of man nor was she the ideal of the chivalric devotion of the Middle Ages ; she was just woman, the complement, the helpmate of man, often tiresome, always interesting. The blessings and curses of human life were substantial and indubitable facts and must be dealt with as such. Such was the atmosphere of the period that produced Shakespeare. As Bunyan's Pilgrim Progress makes the essential problem of Puritanism how a man may escape from earth to heaven, so his contemporary Spenser's "Fairy Queen" endeavors to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline. It was an age when man wanted to be great and do great things, an age conscious of the greatness of human power, and Spenser wrote his illustration of its tendencies in his fashion. Then again is the scientific movement represented by Bacon. Bacon's one link with Shakespeare was in his desire for facts and for inference from facts and observation and experience. In some sense he was the pioneer of the scientific movement. His aim was to extend man's dominion over nature, and to enrich man's life. Science was to be the minister to human welfare, which was conceived by Bacon no doubt in a materialistic fashion. Devotion to the fact, a return from supernatural to material and human, this is the characteristic attitude.
 Besides the ethical and scientific influence of the age there was the religious influence. The English Reformation only came to its final form in Elizabeth's reign by combined firmness and easiness of temper, by concessions, by compromises, by good sense. A Reformed church emerged in which a man could find a refined type of pity free from ceremonial or emotional extravagance, offending neither by excessive rigidity or exaggerated fervor. Anglicanism grew up as a system after the Mariau persecution chiefly taking the note of the majestic commonsense of Hooker. The renaissance philosopher had appealed to human reason alone. Hooker would assign a judicial place to reason but he appealed also both to scripture, church, and tradition. His aim was to root feeling in concrete fact. His work which always lay close to reality was always practical in its tendency, always moderate, always sensible. But its innermost idea is a thorough realization of facts as they are. He is the embodiment of the ecclesiastical wisdom of England. Anglicanism as a system owes at once its obvious defects and its chief characteristic excellencies to the spirit that animated Hooker.
 I may not pursue a tempting subject. I only alluded to it to illustrate the trend of spirit that permeated at once every species of thought and influence that was alive in Shakespeare's day. Shakespeare's genius grew in the age of Bacon, Spenser, and Hooker, and the great thing common to all is the characteristic of the age, the strong feeling of the positive concrete fact ; only Shakespeare's work was to be true to facts, not in scientific research like Bacon, not in realisation of facts in reference to religion like Hooker, but to facts received dramatically, that is to human character in living play. And even the moat casual reader of his plays must be struck by the absolute truth of the picture that he presents. It is the stuff of life itself, the coarse and the fine, the mean and the heroic, the humorous and the tragic, the grotesque and the terrible. There is the mixture everywhere in the characters themselves. Life itself is put before us with a truth, a reality, a perfection, the highest ever attained by man. Life in its strength and life in its weakness, life in its possibilities, and life with its terrible burden of a self caused necessity. Everyone is in his eyes going through a kind of perpetual trial, though the fact of the trial is never obtruded ; yet it is always there. Has the man strength and honesty to break through the meshes of pretence and plausibility, or will he let himself be fascinated, spell-bound, blinded by evil. It is that sense of truth to life which makes the intense interest of his dramas. The agony of temptation is there vividly before us and the man's freedom is there too — if he chooses he need not do the thing — there is no false or irrational necessitarianism or any false excursive attitude for once allowed. It is in his absolute truth to human nature, to its possibilities and to its dark damning failures, to its splendid achievements and its piteous insincerities, it is the picture drawn with such vivid colors of the trial of the human soul ; that affects us so powerfully, whether it be the picture of the captive king musing over the vanity of a world which he has misused or the frenzy of a revenged father driven to madness by children's ingratitude and his own folly, or in that piteous debate in which the alternative is a brother's death or a sister's shame, or in the jealousy of the husband who yields against his better self to the fiendish treason of the slanderer, or in the terrible struggles of the sinner who would repent and cannot, who only binds the web of self deceit faster round him, "O timid soul that struggling to be free, art more engaged." It is his wise and accurate presentation of the facts of our experience and observation that make his works as powerful a moral factor in our own age as in his. We are like, then, in our temptations and trials and weaknesses, is our verdict on his characters. Again it is the strength of Shakespeare, that is a perpetual attraction. Strength of life is always perceptive of the reality of the darker and the lighter side of tragedy and comedy. Love and hatred, life and death, become very real to a rigorous nature.
 Languid existence knows of neither passion nor resurrection. Strength of life—a vigorous vitality alone, can conceive extremes of rapture and woe. A languid emotionalism may try to paint them, but the coloring is blurred and sickly in hue. Shakespeare's charactors live in their joy and sorrow. The unutterable woe of Lear, the spasm of anguish which makes Othello writhe in body as in mind, are one side of real life, and the trembling expectation of Troilus before the entrance of Cressida,the rapture of Pericles on the recovery of Marina are as real at the other end. (Troilus and Cressida, Act 3, Scene, II, " I am giddy, etc.,"). And this same strength helps him to understand the deep contrasts which make the comedy of life. The earnest man who is conscious of his own earnestness is not afraid to laugh. He knows that he may have his laugh out and that the reality of things will not be disturbed. The weak and languid life never understands this, it regards all laughter as mockery. The laughter that is not afraid to laugh at things, because they are too real, and the laughter that giggles at everything because it holds nothing close. These people who are only half in earnest, who cherish their seriousness for the sake of their dignity never laugh properly. So, it comes to pass that an age of reality when great tragedies can be written, great comedies can be written also. But when it grows trivial as in the Restoration, in the reign of Charles II, great tragedy ceases, false heroics and mere sentimentalisms takes the place of tragic passion. The laughter of men becomes brutal and joyless, the crackling of thorns under the pot.
 There is no mere preaching in Shakespeare, no mere efforts to improve the occasion. But the moral tendency, and even the religious, is immensely powerful. All the more powerful through being indirect, through the fact that it recognises the action of the Divine on human affairs without vulgarising it or reducing it to bald commonplace. But the need evidently felt most of all was to bring back sanity into the estimate of human things, to have the things as they are, the good things of the world as they are, the good things of the world that are common, the good things of the world that are rare, to show that life is not a little common dust. He was practical and this appears in all his view of things and he does not think it necessary to answer every question. He knows that there are mysteries, he feels the supreme problems. If he does not furnish us with ready made answers, he tries to give us that feeling of solemn awe which alone can appreciate the answers when they have come, and to bow the head in reverent silence until they came.
 The question is still discussed as to whether Shakespeare was a Protestant or a Catholic. A celebrated German holds that the question is settled by the remark in Romeo and Juliet (Act 4, Scene I) " Or shall I come to you at evening mass." No Catholic would have spoken of evening mass. But it is a question hardly worth discussing, because whatever the form of his religion, the influence of its working is easy to read. That influence is the fostering and sustenance of a certain type of human character which, at any rate, has its greatest historical representatives in Protestantism. The character that is shaped by energy, by devotion to fact, by self control, by tolerance, by disbelief in the minutiae, by indifference to externals, these are the habits of thought and feeling which belong to the Protestant ideal of manhood. This much, at any rate, is evident and indeed, unless he were in antagonism to his old age it would not be otherwise, for with all its defects and faults the characteristic of every thing that was great and strong in the Elizabethan age, not merely in its negative aspects, but in its positive tendencies in the formation of its characters it was essentially Protestant. Farther than this one cannot go. It seems rather true his was one of those gifted minds, who see that there is a great unity underlying all religions, that if you descend to the inner life and all deep things and essence of character, to the internal and imperishable, then delimitations necessary enough to our ordinary thought become blurred and pass away. The great gift, which his genius was meant to convey, and did convey, his great and lasting legacy to his country and to the world was a resolute call to strength and to courage and to pursue the path of rectitude, honesty, and virtue, with clinging resolution through pain or through joy, and weal or woe.

National Advocate (Bathurst, NSW : 1889 - 1954), Saturday 13 August 1904, page 2

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