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PAGE 3

St. George’s Day, 1564
by [?]

But there is one singular correspondence in another almost literal quotation from the Gospel, which is to us wonderfully interesting. We are told that the words “eye of a needle,” in the passage about a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven, mean the small side entrance in a city gate. Now, in “Richard II,” act v. scene 5, Richard quotes the passage thus:–

“It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a needle’s eye;”

showing that either the imagination of Shakspere suggested the real explanation, or he had taken pains to acquaint himself with the significance of the simile. We can hardly say that the correspondence might be merely fortuitous; because, at the least, Shakspere looked for and found a suitable figure to associate with the words eye of a needle, and so fell upon the real explanation; except, indeed, he had no particular significance in using the word that meant a little gate, instead of a word meaning any kind of entrance, which, with him, seems unlikely.

We have not by any means proven that Shakspere’s acquaintance with the Scriptures had an early date in his history; but certainly the Bible must have had a great influence upon him who was the highest representative mind of the time, its influence on the general development of the nation being unquestionable. This, therefore, seeing the Bible itself was just dawning full upon the country while Shakspere was becoming capable of understanding it, seems the suitable sequence in which to take notice of that influence, and of some of those passages in his works which testify to it.

But, besides the Bible, every nation has a Bible, or at least an Old Testament, in its own history; and that Shakspere paid especial attention to this, is no matter of conjecture. We suspect his mode of writing historical plays is more after the fashion of the Bible histories than that of most writers of history. Indeed, the development and consequences of character and conduct are clear to those that read his histories with open eyes. Now, in his childhood Shakspere may have had some special incentive to the study of history springing out of the fact that his mother’s grandfather had been “groom of the chamber to Henry VII.,” while there is sufficient testimony that a further removed ancestor of his father, as well, had stood high in the favour of the same monarch. Therefore the history of the troublous times of the preceding century, which were brought to a close by the usurpation of Henry VII., would naturally be a subject of talk in the quiet household, where books and amusements such as now occupy our boys, were scarce or wanting altogether. The proximity of such a past of strife and commotion, crowded with eventful change, must have formed a background full of the material of excitement to an age which lived in the midst of a peculiarly exciting history of its own.

Perhaps the chief intellectual characteristic of the age of Elizabeth was activity; this activity accounting even for much that is objectionable in its literature. Now this activity must have been growing in the people throughout the fifteenth century; the wars of the Roses, although they stifled literature, so that it had, as it were, to be born again in the beginning of the following century, being, after all, but as the “eager strife” of the shadow-leaves above the “genuine life” of the grass,–

“And the mute repose
Of sweetly breathing flowers.”

But when peace had fallen on the land, it would seem as if the impulse to action springing from strife still operated, as the waves will go on raving upon the shore after the wind has ceased, and found one outlet, amongst others, in literature, and peculiarly in dramatic literature. Peace, rendered yet more intense by the cessation of the cries of the tormentors, and the groans of the noble army of suffering martyrs, made, as it were, a kind of vacuum; and into that vacuum burst up the torrent-springs of a thousand souls–the thoughts that were no longer repressed–in the history of the past and the Utopian speculation on the future; in noble theology, capable statesmanship, and science at once brilliant and profound; in the voyage of discovery, and the change of the swan-like merchantman into a very fire-drake of war for the defence of the threatened shores; in the first brave speech of the Puritan in Elizabeth’s Parliament, the first murmurs of the voice of liberty, soon to thunder throughout the land; in the naturalizing of foreign genius by translation, and the invention, or at least adoption, of a new and transcendent rhythm; in the song, in the epic, in the drama.