All England knows that this year (1864) is the three hundredth since Shakspere was born. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. [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.] 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. There are passages in his writings which we could not have understood but for some acquaintance with the New Testament. We will produce a few specimens of the kind we mean, confining ourselves to one play, “Macbeth.”