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PHILOSOPHY OF SHAKESPEARE: RELIGION-FATE
Though Shakespeare be a philosophical poet, it is difficult to bring together such of his ideas and opinions as belong to philosophy, or indeed to ascertain what his philosophy is. One thing is clear enough-namely, that it is unsystematic—which is not so much owing to any obstacles presented by the nature of dramatic composition as to the character of his mind, impatient of all shackles, but, above all perhaps, of the shackles of system. That there exists a deep basis of thought extending beneath the vast and varied surface of his writings, invisible generally, but in some parts rising, as it were, and exposing itself to view, is what no one will probably doubt; but I by no means entertain the belief that I have discovered all the elements of which that basis consists, or even that they are discoverable by any amount of investigation. Strictly speaking, there exists and can exist but one science—the science of nature—though for convenience we apply the term to many distinct and often very small sections of this all-grasping science, which must still in Shakespeare be regarded as one, for poetry, like the sun's light, considers itself privileged to flash at will round the whole of this pendent globe, to illuminate and reveal by its brilliancy everything it contains-good or beautiful.
Lucretius undertakes to write of all nature, both material and intellectual, and throws his glance with equal fearlessness over gods and men. Shakespeare, without professing to do so, yet does the same, though in a different way and perhaps in a different spirit, for so far as I can discern he is never impious nor presumptuous enough to judge dogmatically of what lies beyond the reach of his understanding. He has indeed been accused of atheism by a writer who derives his arguments rather from what he does not find in the plays than from what he does. Had Shakespeare put forward any theory on this subject, it would probably have been that there is and can be no science of the unknown or theology, since all who have a due sense of our ignorance reverently abstain from professing any farther knowledge of God than that He exists. We may and do say 'God is Love,' but make by this no advance towards comprehending the divine nature, since we know as little what love thus contemplated is as what God is. Yet it is by its participation in this unsearchable principle that Shakespeare's intellect is chiefly distinguished; he loves everything, from the inconceivable Author of his own being to the wild flower on the waste, the pebbly beds of streams, nay the very bog-fires that sport with the traveller by night. For the individuals of his own species, he has an inextinguishable tenderness, which, gushing forth everywhere in his works, constitutes their resistless charm. One of the Hebrew writers, attributing his own kindly nature to the Deity, says Whom he loveth, them he chasteneth '; and all pre-eminently great minds are often betrayed into the expression of anger against their species, by the weakness and ignorance through which it brings so much misery on itself. Yet our ignorance of many things is no reproach to us, our minds being by their nature incapable of comprehending what existence, for example, is, what substance, what intellect, or how two beings can exist at the same time in one place, which is yet an indisputable truth, since wherever matter is, God is. The highest conception of the human mind appears to be, that God is a universal conscious intelligence, consequently that He is more profoundly conscious of our thoughts than we are ourselves. They spring indeed, so to speak, through His being into ours, and, though eternal in their essence, become phenomenal and fleeting in their forms by passing through our intellects. Shakespeare's mind was thickly peopled with these and such-like ideas; sometimes circumfused with doubt, sometimes flashing forth with innate splendour, as if fresh from the fountain of truth. He had imbibed, no one knows how or where, strange opinions respecting the visible universe, which had been put forward long before his time by some Eastern philosophers, and which, travelling with the sun, had taken up their residence in the mind of Paul of Tarsus; namely, that matter itself, together with everything finite, possesses but a show of being, and will ultimately be absorbed and lost in the Divine Nature, that God may be all in all :
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
| This line occurs before the beginning of the passage, but for the sake of completeness I have introduced it here, instead of another, which every reader of Shakespeare will remember.
As concerns the inheritors of this globe, Shakespeare's Protean philosophy presents itself under so many varying forms that we know not to which we ought to attribute stability, or if to any. Now, the soul is immortal :
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
and now it springs to light out of sleep, glitters on the vast plain of existence for a while, and then is lost again in the sleep out of which it emerged :
We are such stuff
No mind is, perhaps, unvisited by such misgivings, which in some are only so many April clouds that melt and dissolve into brightness as the intellect pours its warmth and light upon them, while in others they seem to thicken as time moves on:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Our conceptions of life depend necessarily on the amount of our intellect; the small-minded and superficial content themselves with those common notions which, with the stamp of orthodoxy upon them, pass current in the everyday world, while they who own depths of thought which plummet never sounded form for themselves theories approximating perhaps to the truth. Whence we obtain our idiosyncrasies, our souls' features, our characters, is as little known as whence we derive our colour, symmetry, and stature. Principles appear to run down, like lines of light, from generation to generation in certain families and tribes, perhaps more or less in all, and these constituting an influence favourable to the reception of certain opinions and beliefs, have often been confounded with ideas supposed therefore to be innate. Philosophy is no stranger to the opinion that human souls are eternal a parte ante, as well as a parte post, and bear therefore along with them, from generation to generation, traces of the experience they have accumulated during their previous stages of being. The more boldly we penetrate into the recesses of our own minds, the more indications we appear to discover that we are intimately connected with a past consciousness, which, however, becomes indistinct or vanishes as the clear light of the understanding is brought to bear upon it. If consciousness be inherent in our material nature, we might impart to the above theory some show of probability by maintaining that, the vehicle of consciousness being made up of a certain number of particles, some portion of the thing conveyed must belong to each, and therefore, come whence they may, they must carry along with them for ever traces of all the modifications of consciousness with which they are successively brought into contact. In this fanciful way, some philosophers have endeavoured to account for various phenomena observable among mankind: thus some races are incurably superstitious, others are prolific in ideas of beauty, others are distinguished for their powers of dry reasoning, others for courage