George MacDonald, photo taken by William Jeffrey, ca. 1860,
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Original Publication (1864) Unknown. Republished in Orts (1882) and A Dish of Orts (1893). Edited with notes by Joe Ricke.

EDITOR’S INTRODUCTION

George MacDonald, better known for his novels, fairy tales, poetry, adult fantasies, and his influence on C.S. Lewis (who called MacDonald “my master”), was an avid Shakespeare reader, scholar, and performer. He wrote the following essay (of which I have excerpted only a brief selection) on the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. By the 1870s, he was regularly lecturing on Shakespeare in London and elsewhere.[1] In 1873, he was a Vice-President of the New Shakspere Society, an organization devoted especially to editorial and textual scholarship of the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Probably under that impetus (and the influence of his popular lectures), he began work on what eventually became his scholarly edition of The Tragedie of Hamlet, published in 1885. Based on the evidence of other manuscripts, I believe he was working on similar editions of King Lear and Timon of Athens.[2] And almost certainly wanted to do the same with Macbeth, a play he dearly loved and, in fact, performed the title role in with his family company. As it is he published four substantial essays on Shakespeare, the edition of Hamlet, and filled his literary works and sermons with references and allusions to Shakespeare’s work. In a letter to his uncle in May 1866, he claimed that “I have studied him more than any book except the Gospels.”[3]

INTRODUCTION[4]

All England knows that this year (1864) is the three hundredth since Shakspere was born.[5] The strong probability is likewise that this month of April is that in which he first saw the earthly light. On the twenty-sixth of April he was baptized. Whether he was born on the twenty-third, to which effect there may once have been a tradition, we do not know; but though there is nothing to corroborate that statement, there are two facts which would incline us to believe it if we could: the one that he died on the twenty-third of April, thus, as it were, completing a cycle; and the other that the twenty-third of April is St. George’s Day. If there is no harm in indulging in a little fanciful sentiment about such a grand fact, we should say that certainly it was St. George for merry England when Shakspere was born.[6] But had St. George been the best saint in the calendar—which we have little enough ground for supposing he was—it would better suit our subject to say that the Highest was thinking of his England when he sent Shakspere into it, to be a strength, a wonder, and a gladness to the nations of his earth.[7]

But if we write thus about Shakspere, influenced only by the fashion of the day, we shall be much in the condition of those fashionable architects who with their vain praises built the tombs of the prophets, while they had no regard to the lessons they taught.[8] We hope to be able to show that we have good grounds for our rejoicing in the birth of that child whom after-years placed highest on the rocky steep of Art, up which so many of those who combine feeling and thought are always striving.[9]

INFLUENCES

First, however, let us look at some of the more powerful of the influences into the midst of which he was born. For a child is born into the womb of the time, which indeed enclosed and fed him before he was born.[10] Not the least subtle and potent of those influences which tend to the education of the child (in the true sense of the word education) are those which are brought to bear upon him through the mind, heart, judgement of his parents. We mean that those powers which have operated strongly upon them, have a certain concentrated operation, both antenatal and psychological, as well as educational and spiritual, upon the child. Now Shakspere was born in the sixth year of Queen Elizabeth. He was the eldest son, but the third child. His father and mother must have been married not later than the year 1557, two years after Cranmer was burned at the stake, one of the two hundred who thus perished in that time of pain, resulting in the firm establishment of a reformation which, like all other changes for the better, could not be verified and secured without some form or other of the trial by fire.[11] Events such as then took place in every part of the country could not fail to make a strong impression upon all thinking people, especially as it was not those of high position only who were thus called upon to bear witness to their beliefs. John Shakspere and Mary Arden were in all likelihood themselves of the Protestant party; and although, as far as we know, they were never in any especial danger of being denounced, the whole of the circumstances must have tended to produce in them individually, what seems to have been characteristic of the age in which they lived, earnestness. In times such as those, people are compelled to think.

THE BIBLE

And here an interesting question occurs: Was it in part to his mother that Shakspere was indebted for that profound knowledge of the Bible which is so evident in his writings? A good many copies of the Scriptures must have been by this time, in one translation or another, scattered over the country.[12]

No doubt the word was precious in those days, and hard to buy; but there might have been a copy, notwithstanding, in the house of John Shakspere, and it is possible that it was from his mother’s lips that the boy first heard the Scripture tales. We have called his acquaintance with Scripture profound, and one peculiar way in which it manifests itself will bear out the assertion; for frequently it is the very spirit and essential aroma of the passage that he reproduces, without making any use of the words themselves.[13] There are passages in his writings which we could not have understood but for some acquaintance with the New Testament.

We have not by any means proven that Shakspere’s acquaintance with the Scriptures had an early date in his history; but certainly the Bible must have had a great influence upon him who was the highest representative mind of the time, its influence on the general development of the nation being unquestionable. This, therefore, seeing the Bible itself was just dawning full upon the country while Shakspere was becoming capable of understanding it, seems the suitable sequence in which to take notice of that influence, and of some of those passages in his works which testify to it.

SHAKESPEARE’S CHARACTER

But what do we know about the character of Shakspere? How can we tell the inner life of a man who has uttered himself in dramas, in which of course it is impossible that he should ever speak in his own person? No doubt he may speak his own sentiments through the mouths of many of his persons; but how are we to know in what cases he does so?—At least we may assert, as a self-evident negative, that a passage treating of a wide question put into the mouth of a person despised and rebuked by the best characters in the play, is not likely to contain any cautiously formed and cherished opinion of the dramatist. At first sight this may seem almost a truism; but we have only to remind our readers that one of the passages oftenest quoted with admiration, and indeed separately printed and illuminated, is “The Seven Ages of Man,” a passage full of inhuman contempt for humanity and unbelief in its destiny, in which not one of the seven ages is allowed to pass over its poor sad stage without a sneer; and that this passage is given by Shakspere to the blasted sensualist Jaques in “As You Like it,” a man who, the good and wise Duke says, has been as vile as it is possible for man to be, so vile that it would be an additional sin in him to rebuke sin; a man who never was capable of seeing what is good in any man, and hates men’s vices because he hates themselves, seeing in them only the reflex of his own disgust.[14] Shakspere knew better than to say that all the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players. He had been a player himself, but only on the stage: Jaques had been a player where he ought to have been a true man. The whole of his account of human life is contradicted and exposed at once by the entrance, the very moment when he has finished his wicked burlesque, of Orlando, the young master, carrying Adam, the old servant, upon his back. The song that immediately follows, sings true: “Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.” But between the all of Jaques and the most of the song, there is just the difference between earth and hell.—Of course, both from a literary and dramatic point of view, “The Seven Ages” is perfect.[15]

But to return to the main course of our observations. The dramas of Shakspere are so natural, that this, the greatest praise that can be given them, is the ground of one of the difficulties felt by the young student in estimating them. The very simplicity of Shakspere’s art seems to throw him out of any known groove of judgment. When he hears one say, “Look at this, and admire,” he feels inclined to rejoin, “Why, he only says in the simplest way what the thing must have been. It is as plain as daylight.” Yes, to the reader; and because Shakspere wrote it. But there were a thousand wrong ways of doing it: Shakspere took the one right way. It is he who has made it plain in art, whatever it was before in nature; and most likely the very simplicity of it in nature was scarcely observed before he saw it and represented it. And is it not the glory of art to attain this simplicity? for simplicity is the end of all things—all manners, all morals, all religion. To say that the thing could not have been done otherwise, is just to say that you forget the art in beholding its object, that you forget the mirror because you see nature reflected in the mirror. Any one can see the moon in Lord Rosse’s telescope; but who made the reflector?[16] And let the student try to express anything in prose or in verse, in painting or in modelling, just as it is. No man knows till he has made many attempts, how hard to reach is this simplicity of art. And the greater the success, the fewer are the signs of the labour expended. Simplicity is art’s perfection.

Most authors seem anxious to round off and finish everything in full sight. Most of Shakspere’s tragedies compel our thoughts to follow their persons across the bourn.[17] They need, as Jean Paul says, a piece of the next world painted in to complete the picture.[18] And this is surely nature: but it need not therefore be no design. What could be done with Hamlet, but send him into a region where he has some chance of finding his difficulties solved; where he will know that his reverence for God, which was the sole stay left him in the flood of human worthlessness, has not been in vain; that the skies are not “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours;” that there are noble women, though his mother was false and Ophelia weak; and that there are noble men, although his uncle and Laertes were villains and his old companions traitors? If Hamlet is not to die, the whole of the play must perish under the accusation that the hero of it is left at last with only a superadded misery, a fresh demand for action, namely, to rule a worthless people, as they seem to him, when action has for him become impossible; that he has to live on, forsaken even of death, which will not come though the cup of misery is at the brim.

But a high end may be gained in this world, and the vision into the world beyond so justified, as in King Lear. The passionate, impulsive, unreasoning old king certainly must have given his wicked daughters occasion enough of making the charges to which their avarice urged them. He had learned very little by his life of kingship. He was but a boy with grey hair. He had had no inner experiences. And so all the development of manhood and age has to be crowded into the few remaining weeks of his life. His own folly and blindness supply the occasion. And before the few weeks are gone, he has passed through all the stages of a fever of indignation and wrath, ending in a madness from which love redeems him; he has learned that a king is nothing if the man is nothing; that a king ought to care for those who cannot help themselves;  that love has not its origin or grounds in favours flowing from royal resource and munificence, and yet that love is the one thing worth living for, which gained, it is time to die.[19] And now that he has the experience that life can give, has become a child in simplicity of heart and judgment, he cannot lose his daughter again; who, likewise, has learned the one thing she needed, as far as her father was concerned, a little more excusing tenderness. In the same play it cannot be by chance that at its commencement Gloucester speaks with the utmost carelessness and off-hand wit about the parentage of his natural son Edmund, but finds at last that this son is his ruin. Edgar, the true son, says to Edmund, after having righteously dealt him his death-wound:

 

“The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices

Make instruments to scourge us:

The dark and vicious place where thee he got

Cost him his eyes.”

 

To which the dying and convicted villain replies,

 

“Thou hast spoken right; ’tis true:

The wheel is come full circle; I am here.”

 

Could anything be put more plainly than the moral lesson in this?


[1] For an overview of MacDonald’s extensive lecture activities, see Joseph Ricke and others, “George MacDonald: A Timeline of Lectures and Performances, 1855-1891,” North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies 37 (2018): 107-179

[2] See Joseph Ricke and others, “Remembrance and Response: George MacDonald and the Blank Page,” North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies 38 (2019): 105-124.

[3] Letter of May 6, 1866 to Rev. Dr. MacIntosh MacKay, in An Expression of Character: The Letters of George MacDonald, ed. Glenn Sadler (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 156.

[4] Subject headings are supplied by the editor.

[5] MacDonald’s spelling of Shakespeare’s name, a variant found often in Tudor records, was adopted by many Romantic and Victorian writers, and was “fixed” in 1873 as the preferred spelling of the New Shakspere Society and its founder, F. J. Furnivall. MacDonald was a Vice-President (primarily a promotional, ceremonial role) in the Society (as of 1873) along with many other writers and public figures. Although the 1864 version of “St. George’s Day, 1564”, published or in manuscript, is unknown, MacDonald had already used this spelling in “The Art of Shakspere, as Revealed by Himself,” in Victoria Magazine, October 1863, 481-97.

[6] By tradition, Shakespeare was born and died on St. George Day. Although Saint George has ancient origins and was already a popular figure in medieval and early modern England as the patron saint of England, the phrases “Saint George of Merry England” and “Saint George for Merry England” were popularized in the nineteenth century.

[7] This attitude which sees Shakespeare as almost a religious prophet or figure is usually called Bardolatry and is characteristic of late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries responses to Shakespeare. Although MacDonald uses much the same rhetoric, he is by no means an extreme example.

[8] This comment seems to be a dig at “art for art’s sake” which ignores what MacDonald calls “the moral drift of Shakespeare.” In other words, MacDonald believed (and actually preaches in his later “Sermons on Shakespeare”) that the Bard’s works are not only beautiful art but lessons in religion and morality.

[9] MacDonald’s working definition of art or at least Shakespeare’s art in this essay is a rare combination of feeling and thought. He certainly held himself to the same standard in his novels, fairy tales, sermons, and essays. Writing in the later years of the Romantic Movement, he insists that great art combines feeling and thought, rather than elevating feeling over thought (a more stereotypical description of Romanticism).

[10] MacDonald is not entirely alone in the nineteenth century in accounting for Shakespeare’s genius, at least in part, through his cultural context, yet it is a surprisingly modern approach.

[11] Thomas Cranmer was the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury (1533-56) and served under three monarchs — Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I. He was the primary churchman responsible for the composition and editing of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England (1549, 1552). He was burned at the stake in Oxford after recanting an earlier recantation of his Protestant views during the reign of Queen Mary.

[12] [MacDonald’s Footnote] And it seems to us probable that this diffusion of the Bible, did more to rouse the slumbering literary power of England, than any influences of foreign literature whatever.

[13] MacDonald’s specific Shakespeare scholarship, especially as reflected in his lectures and inter-leaved Shakespeare texts, often approaches Shakespeare in this way, assuming a biblical background even without a specific reference.

[14] See Joe Ricke’s sermon in this volume.

[15] This is MacDonald’s Shakespeare criticism at his best. Moralistic, yes, but also dramatic and deeply thoughtful about what actually happens on stage as being the heart and soul of the Shakespearean experience.

[16] William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse built the largest telescope in the world, the Leviathan of Parsons Town, on his Birr Castle (Ireland) estate, in 1845. With it, he and others were able to identify spiral nebulae for the first time. The analogy is brilliant.

[17] Probably meaning here across the boundary into the other world. The “bourn” or “bourne” usually signifies something like the boundary (stone) or limit, although a similar word of different origin means a stream. Either or both may be relevant here, as MacDonald is certainly thinking of Hamlet’s following lines from the “to be or not to be” soliloquy: “The dread of something after death, The undiscouered Countrey; from whose borne no traveller returnes. [Hamlet III.i.79].

[18] Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (1763-1825), a prolific German writer on numerous topics in a variety of genres, who published under the name of Jean Paul. MacDonald’s fascination with and influence by Richter is traced by William Webb, “George MacDonald and Jean Paul: An Introduction,” North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies 14 (1995): 65-71

[19] See Gary Tandy’s essay in this volume.

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