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, to make thee a 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. —Ben Jonson
William Wordsworth, in his sublimely beautiful sonnet to the Virgin Mary, called the Immaculate Mother of God “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” As an Englishman, contemplating the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, I am tempted to say that the Bard of Avon is my tainted nation’s solitary boast. I realize, of course, that such a claim does violence to the reputation of other great English writers, such as Chaucer, Austen, and Dickens, and fails to pay due deference and reverence to great English saints, such as Edward the Confessor, whom Shakespeare eulogized in Macbeth, or Robert Southwell, whom Shakespeare knew and whom he eulogized subliminally in several of his plays, most notably in King Lear. Nonetheless, there is a real sense in which William Shakespeare stands alone as a colossus of culture who merits Ben Jonson’s acclamation that he was “not of an age, but for all time.” This being so, the claim that he is my tainted nation’s solitary boast might be said to do more violence to Shakespeare than it does to any other writer. The truth is that England is not worthy of him. His colossal genius is too magnificent for any one nation to claim as their own. He is not of a nation, but for all nations, a heaven-sent gift to mankind whose very gifts are heavenly, shining forth the Music of the One who bestowed the gifts in the first place. It is for this reason that none can claim him and all should acclaim him.
The reason that the Bard of Avon is “not of an age, but for all time” is that he writes with unsurpassed beauty about the things that unite humanity across all ages and all cultures. He writes of those things that are essentially human, that are part of our very being, of the timeless virtues and the timeless verities, of the timeless vices and the timeless vanities. More to the point, and crucially, he does so from the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, which encompasses the virtues and the verities (the good and the true) and is at war with the vices and the vanities (the deadly sins and the pride which is the deadliest sin of all).
There is, however, another and deeper meaning behind Ben Jonson’s words. It is not merely that Shakespeare has survived the test of time, it is that his plays, and the truth and morality contained within them, transcend time. They are not merely works that endure in time, they are works that are beyond time. They have their inspiration in eternal verities and they point to those same verities. Such truths do not change with time, nor are they changed by it. They simply are.
Perhaps the best way of illustrating this transcendent dimension to Shakespeare is to compare the Heilige Geist with the zeitgeist, the Holy Spirit with the Spirit of the Age. The Holy Spirit does not change from one generation to the next. He simply is. The Spirit of the Age, on the other hand, is always changing. It is subject to time and is changed by it. The literal meaning of zeitgeist is Time-Spirit. One who serves the Time-Spirit is one who wants to seem relevant to the fads and fashions of his own day. He is primarily concerned with being up-to-date. The problem is that those who are up-to-date are very soon out of date because, as C.S. Lewis quipped, fashions are always coming and going, but mostly going. One who is relevant to the fashions of today will be irrelevant to the fashions of tomorrow.
The reason that Shakespeare is not of an age but for all time is that he serves the Heilige Geist and not the zeitgeist. The truths that inspire his Muse, and the truths that emerge in the fruits of his Muse (his plays and poems), are the truths of the Holy Spirit, the truths of the Trinity, the truths of Christ, and the truths of the Catholic Church, which is Christ’s Mystical Body. Such truths do not merely stand the test of time they are the very truths by which time itself is tested.