Complementary Truth

SIDNEY LEE’S recent Life of Shakespeare is one of the books from whose perusal the reader arises in a respectful but chastened frame of mind. All the authentic information we have, or probably ever shall have, about the most interesting of human beings is there sifted, collated, clinched, by apt quotation and careful reference, and arranged in the clearest and most methodical manner. If any frivolous and romantically inclined person had, up to this time, dallied with the fancy that discoveries might yet be made which would throw a stronger light on the development of England’s greatest intellect, he must now dismiss his dream, and accept the inevitable. The evidence is all in, and any person of average intelligence can sum it up for himself. The bones of Delia Bacon and Nathaniel Holmes and the very late Ignatius Donnelly lie bleaching on either side of the straight and admirably made road by which we have been led. “ They perished in their daring deeds.” We know as well as we can ever hope to know that Shakespeare was not born in any extant room or under any subsisting roof ; though he may have been, and probably was, born at a point of space now inclosed by the walls and covered by the roof of the tidy shrine to which our own fellow citizens do perpetually resort. We know that the boyish poet was in some sort the victim of a comparatively elderly Anne Hathaway, whom he neglected a good deal, perforce, during the period of his London engagements, but to whom he was not seriously and systematically unfaithful. We know that the soul-shaking language and imagery of the sonnets were largely conventional, and employed with only a little less of fire and pathos by some thousands of contemporary sonneteers, in all the European tongues. We know that the “ dark lady ” was not Queen Elizabeth’s maid of honor, Mary Fitton, who had the typical English complexion ; and that nobody in his senses, or out, would have dreamed of describing the third Earl of Pembroke, at any period of his career, as “ Mr. W. H.” We know, furthermore, that Shakespeare can never have studied either law or medicine or science then so called, and with almost equal certainty that he never saw the continent of Europe. We know, finally, beyond a peradventure, that when he had, at a comparatively early age, realized his own modest personal ambition, and settled himself in the unassailable position of richest man in a small country town, his absorbing preoccupations appear to have been two,— the eccentric design of making his poor relations comfortable, and the yet more bourgeois though perfectly legitimate effort to obtain a coat of arms from the Herald’s Office. We feel positively grateful to him for having selected a good, haughty motto, “Non sans Droict.”

It all sounds very dry and tame, — hopelessly and conclusively tame. And yet a most unexpected effect is produced upon the mind by this process of ruthless rationalization. It throws one back, somehow, upon sheer mysticism. All that can be explained upon obvious, human grounds bears so minute a proportion to the radiant and imperishable whole, the veiled majesty, the sacrosanct and inviolable personality of the Emperor of our English tongue, that it reacts in the form of an overpowering persuasion, of supernatural agency, and the essential insignificance and evanescence of all seen and temporal things. If this which his latest and most conscientious biographer has given us be the whole ascertainable truth about William Shakespeare, then he remains to be accounted for as the shepherds of Admetus accounted for Apollo; as the Romans accounted for the youthful pair who watered their white steeds, after the battle, at Juturna’s well; as the Aztecs accounted for the fair-haired man who came to them from afar, and taught them to raise the fruits of the earth and of the spirit; nay, — in all reverence be it said, — as the worshipers in the catacombs and the victims in the arena accounted, and their modern representatives, if any, still account, for the brief life that began in Bethlehem and ended on the Mount of Olives. We are driven along converging ways toward one central point, and left no choice but to accept, not the theory of inspiration, merely, but the more stupendous possibility of incarnation.

It is indeed remarkable, when one comes to think of it, how small, comparatively speaking, is the amount of positive knowledge which can be obtained, even by the most disinterested devotion and untiring industry, concerning any subject that involves — as what subject does not?—a spiritual coefficient. The complement of what can be definitively ascertained and stated is always so vast that one is continually meeting instances, especially in a materializing epoch, of the thinker who surrenders, in a breath, before he leaves the scene of his visible warfare and accredited victories, the very position which he has spent his best years and powers in laboriously fortifying. St. George Mivart dies unshriven, and the prelate who dismissed him to his supposed doom virtually admits, within two years, the main point of his contention. Julian never said, “ Galilean, thou hast conquered ! ” but it was doubtless a sincere convert to complementary truth who first said that he said so. And the young Browning was under a deep conviction of complementary truth in human character when he wrote that striking page in Paracelsus which begins, “ Naught blinds you less than admiration,” and ends with the indelible passage : —

“ Trust me,
If there be fiends who seek to work our hurt,
To ruin and drag down earth’s mightiest spirits
Even at God’s foot, ’t will be from such as love,
Their zeal will gather most to serve their cause ;
And least from those who hate, who most essay
By contumely and scorn to blot the light
Which forces entrance even to their hearts :
For thence will our defender tear the veil
And show within each heart, as in a shrine,
The giant image of perfection, grown
In hate’s despite, whose calumnies were spawned
In the untroubled presence of its eyes.”