The great books speak to us of honor and love and sacrifice; but they do not always speak in familiar phrases. They do not tell us what we already know. Transcending current opinion and fad, through symbol and metaphor they reveal a clear and uncluttered access to the realities that determine our lives.
Sometime back, when I was a young instructor teaching Hamlet to a freshman class, a few lines from the play struck me with peculiar force: “Not a whit; we defy augury,” Hamlet proclaims in response to his friend Horatio, who has cautioned him to call off a coming duel. Hamlet refuses and proceeds to make a rather strong profession of faith: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” he declares. “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now yet it will come. The readiness is all.”
This mention of providence struck me as being in marked contrast with Hamlet’s earlier anguished irony. It took on the aura of something momentous. What did Shakespeare intend his readers to think of so radical a turnabout? Did it not in fact imply that the author himself saw and understood the change wrought in Hamlet by faith? Yet my graduate professors and other scholarly authorities considered Shakespeare a nonbeliever—almost, it would seem, a freethinker. They agreed that he was a practical man, not in any sense an idealist. Hadn’t his plays been composed for money, not for art? Certainly he could not have intended by them anything profound. Granted, they allowed, he was a genius: his comedies,though light bits of froth, were charming; his tragedies, though nihilistic, were powerful. And as for his own outlook on life, most of them assumed, it was implied most cogently in King Lear, in the bitt er speech of blinded old Gloucester:
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport.
But in Hamlet I saw a new key to Shakespeare’s work. Hamlet’s quest for faith roused in me a kindred feeling. I remember going over the young prince’s soliloquies, tracing the movement from his despairing “Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt” to his meditative “To be or not to be,” and on to his affirmative “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”
At this moment I was standing at a crossroads. The Christian belief in which I had been reared had been seriously damaged during my college years and fi nally demolished—ironically—by a required course in religion that had brought about my complete capitulation. None of the biblical sources could be considered reliable, the experts of the day argued. And for me, once the seeds of doubt had been sown, the entire gospel was called in question. The account was surely a fable, enlarged and considerably embellished by a few followers—for what motive, it was hard to say. But belief in so strange and mysterious a tale asked for more credulousness than I was willing to grant. By the time I entered graduate school I had put aside the entire question of faith. But then, when reading Hamlet to my class, I saw incontestable evidence that Shakespeare—or his chief protagonist, at least—had come to rely on divine power.
I poured over Hamlet several times during the ensuing months, each time finding further evidence of Shakespeare’s spiritual outlook. And gradually it became apparent that his perspective was not simply spiritual, but overtly Christian. Sacrificial love was evident everywhere in his dramas. “Grace” was one of his key words; “evil” was its darker counterpart. His comedies in particular were virtual illustrations of themes and passages from Scripture. By today, of course, several scholars have come to acknowledge and even explore Shakespeare’s Christian faith; but at that time my discovery seemed monumental. It meant recognizing the secularism of our day and discerning the bias of most scholars. And it started me on the process of reading all serious literature more closely.
It was a year later, in teaching Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, that I rediscovered Christ in his fullness—and came to see the urgency of his teachings. The resulting protracted study of Scripture and theology eventually led to my overt profession of faith.
Before literature came to my aid, I had perused theology in vain. Even the Bible was unconvincing. Not until a literary work of art awakened my imaginative faculties could the possibility of a larger context than reason alone engage my mind. I had been expecting logical proof of something one was intended to recognize. What was needed was a way of seeing. I had to be transformed in the way that literature transforms— by story, image, symbol— before I could see the simple truths of the Gospel.
Above all else this seems to me the chief value of what we call the classics: they summon us to belief. They seize our imaginations and make us commit ourselves to the self-evident, which we have forgotten how to recognize. Four centuries of rationalism have led us to expect empirical evidence and logical coherence for any proposition. Even for the things ordinarily considered certain, we moderns require proof. In this state of abstraction, we are cut off from the fullness of reality. Something has to reach into our hearts and impel us toward recognition.
Though there are other media for this impulsion, one of the most effective is what the ancients called poetry, meaning literature in general. Poetry is language used primarily to express universals; as Aristotle wrote, poetry is truer than history. Cut loose from the sagas of personality and the prescriptions of factuality, poetry can witness to the timeless and immortal. It elevates our consciousness so that we learn how to exercise discernment. And, as Hamlet declared, “the readiness is all.” If we are restored to ourselves and made ready, then we can begin to establish the kingdom of Christ in our own lives and in those we touch.