Enter Shakespeare

We are reading through a little compilation of GK Chesterton’s ruminations on Shakespeare called The Soul of Wit, and this lovely thought was our stopping point:

A Cockney is a man born within the immediate appeal of high civilisation and of eternal religion. Shakespeare, in the heart of his fantastic forest, turns with a splendid suddenness to the Cockney ideal as being the true one after all. For a jest, for a reaction, for an idle summer love or still idler summer hatred, it is well to wander away into the bewildering forest of Arden. It is well that those who are sick with love, or sick with the absence of love, those who weary of the folly of courts or weary yet more of their wisdom, it is natural that these should trail away into the twinkling twilight of the woods. Yet it is here that Shakespeare makes one of his most arresting and startling assertions of the truth. Here is one of those rare and tremendous moments of which one may say that there is a stage direction, “Enter Shakespeare.” He has admitted that for men weary of courts, for men sick of cities, the wood is the wisest place, and he has praised it with his purest lyric ecstasy. But when a man enters suddenly upon that celestial picnic, a man who is not sick of cities, but sick of hunger, a man who is not weary of courts, but weary of walking, then Shakespeare lets through his own voice with a shattering sincerity and cries the praise of practical human civilization:

If ever you have looked on better days,

If ever you have sat at good men’s feasts,

If ever been where bells have knolled to church,

If ever from your eyelids wiped a tear

Or know what ‘t is to pity and pitied.

There is nothing finer even in Shakespeare than that conception of the circle of rich men all pretending to rough it in the country, and the one really hungry man entering sword in hand, and praising the city. “If ever been where bells have knolled to church.”

GK Chesterton, Introduction to A Tale of Two Cities