The greatest gifts of man to the human race are the few books that stand, generation after generation, as ever-fixed marks above the tempest and are never shaken. When people talk of “the new morality,” when loyalties to governments, to parents, to stern duty, to law, to principle are being questioned or denied, these books reaffirm the meanness of selfishness and evil, and the admirableness of decency and right.
The truly great novels or plays are like a little Judgment Day in whose pitiless light we see our motives and actions as they are. We are anatomized to see what breeds about our hearts. “This,” they say, “is your disease, and this is how it ends.”
As the holder of the mirror up to our nature, Shakespeare, after the Bible, stands first.
The age that produced the 1611 translation of the Bible also produced the supremely great writer, the quadricentennial of whose birth in the spring of 1564 is being celebrated this year. For nearly four centuries the plays of Shakespeare have steadily affirmed that there are eternal standards, and that disregard of them means death. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.”
Although Shakespeare can never bring us to a knowledge of God, he does show us our fallen natures. The first step toward redemption is to see ourselves and our standards as small and despicable. The second is to realize the soul-shriveling result.
Those who never attend a church and never allow themselves to be confronted by the eternal Word, whose standards are those of the loose world, may suddenly see themselves through Shakespeare’s eyes and be as convicted as Iago under the scornful eyes of his wife. Here your sins are played out before you. Are you, like Macbeth, willing to rise by the fall of others? Or, like Lady Macbeth, do you urge a soul on to evil? Are you a Gloucester unrepentant of youthful lechery? Do you abdicate your appointed task, like Lear? Are you an undaughterly Goneril? Are you an Antony betraying all for your “right to happiness”? Or, like Hamlet, are you caught in the ambiguities of your doubt?
Only some half-dozen of Shakespeare’s mature tragedies may “cleanse our emotions through pity and terror.” But we would also be poorer without that lyric of teen-age love, Romeo and Juliet; without The Merchant of Venice, in which Shakespeare transcends the prejudice of his time to let Shylock speak for his race; without that towering realist Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV. And how much poorer not to know the delightful heroines of his comedies who saved the day.
And last, we should be poor indeed without the incomparable verbal music and pictured wonders of lines that sing themselves in our memory, such as:
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great earth itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
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