Shakespeare and the Bible
Publication
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 21 Dec 1950, p. 144-152
Description
Speaker
Mackay, The Hon. J. Keiller, Speaker
Media Type
Text
Item Type
Speeches
Description
Some remarks on words, the history of language, and Shakespeare's words. Shakespeare's many references to Holy Writ. Three ways by which one may estimate the scope and extent of Shakespeare's knowledge and use of Holy Scripture. The speaker's belief that Shakespeare has not been given the credit he deserves as one deeply conversant with Bible truths. An examination of a few of Shakespeare's references to the historical facts and characters of the Bible. The true test of genius as the impression made on the thinking mind by the lines when they are heard. Shakespeare's place as the intellectual monarch of the world commanding and secure. Some concluding quotations.
Date of Original
21 Dec 1950
Subject(s)
Language of Item
English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
"SHAKESPEARE AND THE BIBLE"
An Address By THE HON. J. KEILLER MACKAY, D.S.O. A Justice of Appeal for Ontario
Thursday, December 21, 1950
CHAIRMAN: The President, Mr. Sydney Hermant.

MR. HERMANT: We, are to have a special treat today--an Address by the Hon. Mr. Justice J. Keiller Mackay, D.S.O. His Lordship was born at Plainfield, Pictou County, Nova Scotia. He attended Pictou Academy and later received his Bachelor of Arts Degree from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. He then studied law at the famous Dalhousie University being called to the Bar of Nova Scotia in 1922. In 1923 he was called to the Bar of Ontario, and in 1933 was created a King's Counsel. In 1935 he was appointed Justice of the Supreme Court of Ontario. His Lordship became Justice of the Court of Appeal of Ontario in 1949. His Lordship had a brilliant record of military service in the First World War. He was promoted to the rank of Lieut.-Col. in the Field. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and mentioned in Despatches three times. His Lordship is well-known as one of our most gallant, charming, and learned citizens. Perhaps he will forgive me if I recall to those who attend the great St. Andrew's Ball each year the dashing kilted figure of His Lordship, and his charming lady, leading the reels. The Hon. Mr. Justice Keiller Mackay is a leading Member of the Shakespeare Society of Toronto, and will now speak to us on "Shakespeare and the Bible".

MR. JUSTICE MACKAY: Once--and only once--in the history of a people there comes a divine moment when its speech seems to those who write it a new-found wonder. A time in its development before it has become rigid, precise and inelastic. History records that it is then that one supreme genius appears--Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare. And, extraordinary as it may be, no form of language seems rich enough to provide material for more than a single poet of such exalted rank. Shakespeare found English, according to the reply of Sebastian in The Tempest, "a sleepy language", and left it probably the most expressive, the most convenient, and exact means of transmitting thoughts known to mankind. To bring about this transformation he collected words from everywhere. There were the rich vocabularies of the law and theology which he freely pillaged. And from Chaucer, from translators of the classics, from old books, and from innkeepers and tradesmen, he found material which he constructed into chaste and dignified language. In addition to these native sources, new words were reaching England--such as alligator, cannibal and hurricane from the West Indies; and such words as paragon, artist, sonnet, stanza, conversation, cavalier, courtezan, from Italy. Into this wild ocean of words Shakespeare plunged with dolphin joy. And by the magic splendour of his creative power developed a wealth and mastery of expression at once the richest, most subtle, most flexible, most rhetorical, poetic and imaginative ever to fall on the ears of mortal men. The ordinary man or woman has collected as a means of transmitting thoughts, a vocabulary of about 2,500 words. John Milton, whom history records as its most completely educated man, wrote over 8,000. Shakespeare used 21,000.

May I hasten to say that I am not a Shakespearean scholar,--a student perhaps. Would that I could say, with some of my friends, that no day has passed without reading from one or other of his works. I have given what little time I could spare to this glorious pre-occupation, and I have found not illusion but on the other hand a richer and more profound appreciation of life.

Youth is the time for adventure of the body but more mature age for the triumphs of the mind, and no triumph of the mind can be greater than that of reaching in thought a peak of speculation and grasping something so vast, so complex and so profound as that which the phenomenon we call Shakespeare presents.

It is true Shakespeare's meaning here and there may be involved in seemingly impenetrable haze. One must read, re-read and reflect, enriching one's impressions from all available sources, thereby observing much fascinating detail which had hitherto entirely escaped one's notice. How many vistas of incomparable gradeur remain unseen by the unguided traveller. How many beauties we fail to uncover if we refuse to read books written about them. How far the commendation of someone we admire has opened the gate into a new world of beauty.

It is then and only then that one is conscious of and impressed by Shakespeare's many references to Holy Writ. Is it too much to say that substantially he drew his unparalleled inspiration from that source of bounteous, overflowing, limitless grace, recorded in God's unspeakable gift to those He created in His own image and into whose nostrils He breathed the breath of eternal life?

There are three ways by which one may estimate the scope and extent of Shakespeare's knowledge and use of Holy Scripture.

First, the frequent references which he made in his plays to the facts and characters recorded in the Holy Bible.

Secondly, the quality and colouring which pervade his moral and religious principles and expressions.

And thirdly, the poetical thought and imagery taken directly from Holy Writ and used to guide and assist him in his immortal productions.

I should be far from saying that Shakespeare's intimate acquaintance with Scripture has escaped the notice of his many commentators--such is not the case--but I say that he has not been given the credit he deserves as one deeply conversant with Bible truths: a diligent and devout reader of its unsearchable riches, which germinating in his own soul brought forth fruit--immortal fruit to the glory of God and for the healing of the nations. Whatever shortcomings and defects that may be attributed to the first Scottish sovereign to sit on the throne of the United Countries, it is only fair to say that we owe to him the completed translation of the Bible. James I gave special command for the publication of the Scriptures in revised form, which Shakespeare and his contemporaries were the first to read.

Here we may pause to examine a few of our poet's references to the historical facts and characters of the Bible.

In Genesis II, 15, we read our first parents had been "put into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it." In Richard II, the Queen overheard the King's deposition being discussed by the gardener: she thus addresses him:Thou, old Adam's likeness, set to dress this garden,
How dares thy harsh-rude tongue sound this unpleasing news?
What Eve, what serpent, hath suggested thee To make a second fall of cursed man?
Why dost thou say King Richard is depos'd?

King Richard II, Act III, Se. 4.

Claudius, recalling history's first recorded murder--that of Abel by Cain--and goaded likewise by a conscience, traced in fratricidal blood, he is driven to prayer,

O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon 't,
A brother's murder!

Hamlet, Act III, Sc. 3.

Prince Henry, who before his father's death was a wild and wayward youth, caused his father much concern. On assuming the crown as Henry V he became at once a model of kingly courage, and dignity. Note the words Shakespeare puts into the mouth of the Archbishop of Canterbury referable to Henry's transformation:

The breath no sooner left his father's body,
But that his wildness, mortified in him,
Seemed to die too: yea, at that very moment,
Consideration like an angel came
And whipp'd the offending Adam out of him;
Leaving his body as a paradise,
To envelop and contain celestial spirits.

King Henry V, Act I, Sc. I.

Doubtless you will recall the story of Jacob and Laban who had an altercation over the division of their flocks. Jacob proposed that he should take all the spotted cattle, sheep and goats as his hire, and leave those that were of one colour to Laban. To this Laban agreed; whereupon the ingenious and resourceful Jacob peeled certain wands and put them in the watering troughs, which caused spots to appear in the drinking troughs of the flocks, with the result that the picture thus made transmitted itself to the unborn young of the flocks, and in a short time Jacob had all.

Genesis XXX.

In the Merchant of Venice, Act I, Sc. 3, Shylock, justifying his thrift, says to Antonio:

Shylock: When Jacob grazed his uncle Laban's Sheep, This Jacob from our holy Abraham was
(As his wise mother wrought in his behalf) The third possessor--aye, he was the third. Antonio: And what of him? Dide he take interest? Shylock: No, not take interest; not, as you would say Directly, interest; mark what Jacob did. When Laban and himself were compromised. That all the eanlings which were streak'd and pied,
Should fall as Jacob's share, . . . .
The skilful shepherd peeled me certain wands, And stuck them up before the fulsome ewes, Who, then conceiving, did in eaning time
Fall party-coloured lambs, and those were Jacob's.
This was a way to thrive, and he was blest; And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not. Antonio: This was a venture, Sir, that Jacob served for; A thing not in his power to bring to pass,
But sway'd and fashion'd by the hand of Heaven.

Was this inserted to make interest good? Or is your gold and silver, ewes and rams? And in Act I, Sc. 3 of the same play referable to hypocrisy:

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness,

Is like a villain with a smiling cheek; A goodly apple rotten to the heart;

O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath! Act I, Sc. 3. In the line

'The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.' there is evidently an allusion to the history of our Lord's temptation, as recorded in Matthew IV and Luke IV. And again capitalizing Hypocracy the tribute which vice pays to virtue, the villian Gloster, later Richard III, says: But then I sigh, and with a piece of Scripture, Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:

And then I clothe my naked villainy

With old odd ends stolen forth of Holy Writ, And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.. Act I, Sc. 3.

Later, In Henry VI, (Part II), Shakespeare uses the touching language of Jacob when he refused to allow Benjamin to be carried into Egypt:

"If mischief befall him by the way in which ye go, then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave."

Genesis XLII, 38.

Let us see how this pathetic passage has been turned to account where Humphrey, Duke of Gloster, after the condemnation of his Duchess Eleanor for treason, thus speaks:

Mine eyes are full of tears, my heart of grief: Ah! Humphrey, this dishonour in thine age Will bring thy head with sorrow to the ground.

An interesting reference to an incident in the early history of the Israelites is seen in Henry V, where the King asks the Archbishop of Canterbury the question: "May I with right and conscience make this claim?" i.e. the claim to the Kingdom of France, which Henry V was making through Edward III, whose mother was a daughter of King Philip of France. The question was whether Henry V was bound by the operation of the law Salic which forbade the accession of a woman to the crown. To this inquiry of his sovereign, the Archbishop of Canterbury answers:

The sin upon my head, dread sovereign! For in the Book of Numbers it is writ, When the son dies, let the inheritance Descend unto the daughter.

Act I, Sc. 2.

There are many references to Jephthah's slaying of his daughter in fulfilment of a rash vow which he made that he would sacrifice the first person of his own house whom he met on his return. His daughter-his only child-met him with joy and mirth. Jephthah cruelly brought into execution the unnatural and indefensible act.

Judges XI, 30-40.

In Henry VI (Part 111) Shakespeare puts the following words into the mouth of Clarence:

Why, trow'st thou, Warwick,

That Clarence is so harsh, so blunt, unnatural, To bend the fatal instruments of war

Against his brother, and his lawful king? Perhaps, thou wilt object my holy oath: To keep that oath, were more impiety

Than Jephthah's when he sacrificed his daughter. Act V, Sc. 1.

In Henry VI (Part (11), Act V, Sc. 1, Shakespeare justifies the disregard of an unlawful ungodly oath: K. Henry. Hast thou not sworn allegiance unto me? Salisbury. I have.

K. Henry. Canst thou dispense with Heaven for such an oath?

Salisbury. It is great sin, to swear unto a sin; But greater sin to keep a sinful oath. Who can be bound by any solemn vow To do a murderous deed, to rob a man,

To force a spotless virgin's chastity, To reave the orphan of his patrimony, To wring the widow from her custom'd right, And have no other reason for this wrong. But that he was bound by a solemn oath?

In the final scene in Henry VIII our poet's allusion to Queen Elizabeth and King James I shows a remarkable knowledge of Holy Scripture. Note the words he puts into the mouth of Archbishop Cranmer referable to the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon: 1 Kings X. 2 Chronicles IX, and Matthew XII, 42.

This royal infant (heaven still move about her!) Tho' in her cradle, yet now promises

Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings, Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be A pattern to all princes living with her,

And all that shall succeed. Sheba was never More covetous of wisdom, and fair virtue, Than this pure soul shall be ....

She shall be loved and fear'd: her own shall bless her; Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,

And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her. In her days, every man shall eat with safety

Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing

The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours. God shall be truly known.

And of James I, in the same prophetic strain: Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine, His honor and the greatness of this name Shall be, and make new nations: he shall flourish, And, like the mountain cedar, reach his branches To all the plains about him. Our children's children Shall see this, and bless heaven.

Act V, Sc. 4.

The true test of genius is the impression made on the thinking mind by the lines when they are heard. If they transport the soul and exalt the thoughts, if they become more grand and lofty the oftener they are heard, they may well be pronounced noble and sublime. Measured by this standard, Shakespeare's place as the intellectual monarch of the world is, at once and forever, commanding and secure--yes the acknowledged supreme ruler of the Kingdom of the Mind.

And finally, in attempting to measure his unfathomable brain, and trying to express the idea that my intellect conceives, I find my tongue a weak interpreter and I seek and find refuge once again in Shakespeare, in the words of Cleopatra in her portrait of Antony:

For his bounty,

There was no winter in 't; and autumn 'twas That grew the more by reaping:

Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Sc. 2. And in Shakespear's further exquisite delineation in King John:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, To throw a perfume on the violet,

To smooth the ice, or add another hue Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light

Too seek the beauteous eyes of heaven to garnish, Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Act IV, Sc. 2.

My final quotation is from Ben Jonson. It will be remembered that Shakespeare is not buried beside many of the nationals immortals in Westminster Abbey, but under the chancel of the beautiful parish church at Stratford-on-Avon. Here is Ben Jonson's tribute:

"Soul of the age!

The applause! delight! the wonder of our stage! My Shakespeare, rise! I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie

A little further off, to make thee room: Thou art a monument without a tomb. And art alive still, while thy book doth live, And we have wits to read, and praise to give. Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show, To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe. He was not of an age but for all time."

VOTE OF THANKS, moved by Past President Eason Humphries.

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Shakespeare and the Bible


Some remarks on words, the history of language, and Shakespeare's words. Shakespeare's many references to Holy Writ. Three ways by which one may estimate the scope and extent of Shakespeare's knowledge and use of Holy Scripture. The speaker's belief that Shakespeare has not been given the credit he deserves as one deeply conversant with Bible truths. An examination of a few of Shakespeare's references to the historical facts and characters of the Bible. The true test of genius as the impression made on the thinking mind by the lines when they are heard. Shakespeare's place as the intellectual monarch of the world commanding and secure. Some concluding quotations.