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life, and who, being none other than Shakespeare himself, "not one but all mankind's epitome,” could run easily through the whole scale of human passion and thought from “Nature's woodnotes wild,” or the homely commonplaces of existence, the chimney - corner wisdom of Master Goodman Dull, to the transcendental subtleties of
“No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change ;
The Pyramids built up with newer light
They are but dressings of a former sight.” It is not only because Prospero was a great enchanter, about to break his magic staff, “to drown his book deeper than ever plummet sounded,” to dismiss his "airy spirits,” and to return to the practical service of the State that we identify the Philosopher Duke with the Poet Prophet.
It is rather because the temper of Prospero is the temper of Shakespeare in those last days, when he came back to the dear old home at Stratford, to its sweetest, simplest, homeliest things, finding the daily life of that little place, the men and women there, the Nature all around, the green fields, the sweet hedgerow flowers, the quiet woods, the softly flowing Avon, good enough for him ; despising nothing as common or unclean ; curious of all things and of all men, but never scornful, never contemptuous; humorous, sympathetic, tolerant; his wide-viewing mind at last looking back from the altitudes of thought to which he had attained, on all the pageantry of the lower world which he had abandoned through a strange, pathetic, ideal light.
“Our revels now are ended : these our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
To still my beating mind.” And so he ends-Prospero or Shakespeare. In the epilogue to the play you have the keynote given of this self-mastered character, this self-possessed grandeur of a completely disciplined will, which is common to both, to Shakespeare as to Prospero—forgiveness and freedom.
“ And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.” And so, too, I will end-how better?—with those lessons of freedom and forgiveness: the true freedom which only comes from service, the true pardon which only comes to those who forgive, because they have been forgiven.
Have we learnt those lessons ? The root of all true religion, believe me, lies there. What do we know of the true “service which is perfect freedom" ? What is
our definition of life? How do we conceive of it to ourselves? Is it—do we think—as Shakespeare has elsewhere said, “a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing"? or is it a mission of service to our fellows for Christ's sake? God grant that we can answer, “Life means service--life means mission."
“O gentlemen, the time of life is short,
To spend that shortness basely were too long
And the lesson of pardon, have we made that, too, ours? “The tongues of dying men,” our poet says, “enforce attention like deep harmony.
From the cross of Jesus comes His dying words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” We have all learnt -God grant it—to recognise the ethical beauty of the spirit of forgiveness. Do we equally acknowledge its moral power, its redeeming power? “Father, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” So daily we pray. But my brothers, my sisters, do we truly realise this power of forgiveness, this social power of remitting or retaining sins, this priestly power of humanity ? May we not learn something of it from Shakespeare? Who will teach us more unerringly than he of that unstrained quality of mercy, that earthly and yet spiritual power of free forgiveness “ which then shows likest God's when mercy seasons justice”?
Ah, believe me, just so far as we exercise that absolving power lovingly and wisely in our lives, and with our lips we help men away from sin : just so far as we
do not exercise it, or exercise it wrongly, we drive men into sin. “The Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sin.” So He spake who first consciously used this neglected law of free forgiveness as a new, vivifying, contagious, redemptive power over the souls of men and exalted it as the very key to that temple which is built up no otherwise than out of the souls of men, which we call His Church. But He also, the great Master of all spiritual secrets, bequeathed, we must never forget it, that new power to His Church, yea, to all the members of His royal priesthood who, consciously or unconsciously, were imbued with His spirit. The “angels and ministers of His grace" are many and varied. Can we then deny some portion at least of that mystical faculty to him who saw deeper down than other sons of men to the ultimate springs of human conduct, laying them bare in unexpected ways, who was quick and powerful as any two-edged sword to pierce the very heart and marrow of the human conscience and will, and thus finally out of spiritual discord brought harmony, and out of tragic issues reconciliation, that “word over all beautiful as the
Shakespeare was no priest, it is true, in the ecclesiastical sense.
He claimed no absolving power as a technical or professional gift. But just
But just as in regard to that other lesson of freedom, Shakespeare does seem to give to each one of us“
and strength to dedicate ourselves and our work to that service, to that mission--whatever it may be—which life has revealed to us as best and highest and most real:" so also, with regard to this other lesson of the redemptive power
of a priestly humanity, this social force of true forgiveness, I do not hesitate to say that Shakespeare is a noble witness to the redeeming Christ, because in his censer there burns truly and fragrantly and steadily
“Such incense as of right belongs
To the true shrine
In light divine."