A New Biblical Source For Shakespeares’ Concept Of
“All Seeing Heaven”
By Roger Stritmatter
Reprinted from the June 1999 issue of Notes and Queries
Although a pervasive religious leitmotif in Shakespeare, the proximate or local source of the concept of “all seeing heaven” (Richard III II.i.82) or “heaven’s eye”(Titus II.i.130) remains a matter for speculation. Carter (1) nominated Psalm 33:12 – “The Lorde from heaven cast his syght” – as a likely source for the former phrase; however, close study of the field of possible sources reveals further passages which contributed a formative influence on Shakespeare’s conception of this existentially potent idea.
One prominent parallel source is 2 Chronicles 16:9, cited by Carter (3) as a possible influence in Macbeth:
Did heaven look on
And would not take their part?
Job 24:13-17 speaks of murderers, adulterers and others who hope to escape divine observation by perpetrating their evil deeds under cover of the night:
13 These are thei, that abhorre the light, thei know not the waies therof, nor continue in the paths thereof.
14 The murtherer riseth early & killeth the poore and the nedie: and in yet night he is as a thefe.
15 The eye also of the adulterer waiteth for the twylight, and saith, None eye shal se me, and disguiseth his face.
16 Thei digge through houses in ye darke, which they marked for them selves in the day: they knowe not the light.
17 But the morning is even to them as ye shadow of death: if one knowe them, they are in the terrours of the shadowe of death.
The formative influence of these verses in Richard II as Carter (1905) (4), Noble (1935) (5), and Shaheen (1989) (6), have each recognized, is unmistakable:
Discomfortable cousin, knowest thou not
That when the searching Eye of Heaven is hid
Behind the globe that lights the lower world
Then theeves and robbers raunge abroad unseene
In murthers and in Outrage bloody here;
But when from under his terrestrial ball
He fires the prowd tops of the Easterne pines
And darts his lightening through every guiltie hole,
Their murthers, treasons and detested sinnes,
The cloake of night being pluckt from off their backs,
Stand bare and naked, trembling at themselves
The detested sinnes’ of line 44 are Shakespeare’s metonymy for the adulterer in Job, who like the murderer slinks about in the dark of night and rationalizes that “none eye shal see me.” Hankins (1953) identifies a number of definite imagistic and thematic links between Shakespeare’s Joban antecedent, and several passages from Rape of Lucrece, in which physical darkness symbolizes the moral obscurity which accompanies the commission of a crime (7).
Hankins speculates that the phrase from Job 24, “No eye shall see me,” may have inspired the Lucrece stanza:
Now stole upon the time the dead of night,
When heavy sleep had clos’d up mortal eyes.
No comfortable star did lend him light,
No noise but owls’ and wolves’ death-boding cries;
Now serves the season that they may surprise the silly lambs.
Pure thoughts are dead and still,
While lust and murder wakes to stain and kill.
The line,”no comfortable star did lend him light,” is echoed prominently in Macbeth, where we read again that total darkness – symbolizing moral error or confusion – is the precondition for crime, when Banquo observes: “There’s husbandry in heaven; their candles all are out” (11.1.4).
Notes Hankins : “The heavenly lights are put out before the commission of a black crime. The extinction of the heavenly candles may prefigure the suppression of the light in Macbeth’s soul. He had used the same image earlier, when the thought of murder first occurred to him”(8):
Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
Students of Shakespeare’s bible reference have, however, overlooked a salient passage from the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus which seems to have left a distinct impression on the concept of all-seeing divinity in Rape of Lucrece:
18 A man that breaketh wedlocke, & thinketh thus in his heart, who seeth me? I am compased about with darkness: the walles cover me: nobodie seeth me: whom need I feare? The most High wil not remember my sinnes.
19 Such a man feareth the eyes of men, & knoweth not that the eyes of the Lord are ten thousand times brighter then the sunne, beholding all the waies of men [and the ground of the deep, and considereth the moste secrete parts].
(Ecclesiasticus 23:18-19, Genevan 1570)
Although these verses form a strong parallel to the acknowledged Shakespeare source, Job 24:13-17, they place special emphasis on the power of the divine eye to apprehend transgressions of a sexual nature. The frequent assoclation in Shakespeare of ‘all-seeing heaven’ with sexual crimes – rape and adultery – accordingly suggests the formative influence of these verses in Shakespeare’s imagination.
This association is apparent in several plays, but figures particularly in Titus Andronicus and Rape of Lucrece. For example, Aaron urges Demetrius and Charon to resort to the woods instead of the palace ‘full of tongues, eyes and ears’, to rape Lavinia:
And take your turns, There serve your lust,
shadowed from heaven’s eye, And revel in Lavinia’s treasury.
(II.i. 129-31: emphasis added)
In this passage, Aaron reveals his immoral condition as one, like the adulterer in Ecclesiasticus, who “feareth [only] the eyes of the men” and fails to apprehend that “heaven’s eye” can “pierce all the waies of men and even considereth the most secret parts.” Not heeding the moral of Ecclesiasticus, he trusts in an illusion: the dark woods will shield his crimes even from “heaven’s eye.”
Although many further instances of the possible or definite influence of Ecclesiasticus 23:16-18 in Shakespeare might be cited, by far the most significant group is found in Rape of Lucrece, where they participate in a symbolic design, both aesthetic and moral, imposed by Shakespeare on his received sources.
In Lucrece, light and darkness are the two moral poles between which the poem’s dramatic action oscillates. The visible is equated with the signifying power of human language and gesture – contrasted to the languageless, dark world of violence, rape, and untold secrets. However, except for Hankins’ linkage of such passages to Job 24, their Biblical origins have entirely escaped notice by prior students.
Two possible reasons may account for this situation of neglect. One is the poor state of modern knowledge of Ecclesiasticus; although the book is generally acknowledged (9) as a primary biblical source for Shakespeare, modem critics rarely possess the intimate familiarity with this apocryphal book necessary to trace its subtle yet myriad influences in the Shakespeare canon.
A second reason is that Rape of Lucrece, the text in which this influence is most evident, has received slight attention from students of Shakespeare’s biblical sources. A consideration of the relevant passages, however, reveals their close thematic and linguistic affinity with Ecclesiasticus 23:18-19:
The blackest sin is cleared with absolution;
Against love’s fire fear’s frost hath dissolution.
The eye of heaven is out, and misty night
Covers the shame that follows sweet delight.
(354-7: emphasis added)
While the idea of the eye of heaven being put out could be derived from Job 23:13-17, Tarquin’s moral of “misty night, covering the shame that follows sweet delight,” clearly echoes the ratiocination of the man who “breaketh wedlock” in Ecclesiasticus 23:18-19 and “feareth only the eyes of men”.
An even more obvious allusion to this verse, moreover, follows in Lucrece’s soliloquy:
And my true eyes have never practic’d how
To cloak offenses with a cunning brow.
They think not but that every eye can see
The same disgrace which they themselves behold;
And therefore would they still in darkness be,
To have their unseen sin remain untold.
A few verses later, Lucrece draws forth the moral:
Make me not object to the telltale day.
The light will show, charactered in my brow,
The story of sweet chastity’s decay,
The impious breach of holy wedlock vow.
These passages from Shakespeare’s poem show distinctive evidence “from sign” for the formative influence of Ecclesiasticus 23:18-19. Lucrece’s “true eyes” fear public disclosure from the visible character of the “telltale day”; ironically, however, she avoids the full existential weight of the biblical moral of which her words are a copy. She experiences public shame but not the ultimate, ontological shame of God’s knowing judgment.
1 Shakespeare And Holy Scripture (1905; 1970 AMS Reprint), 133.
2 “For the eies of the Lord beholde all the earth to shewe himselfe strong with them, that are of perfite heart toward him” (Genevan 1969).
3 Carter, op. cit., 428. Carter also cites Proverbs 15:3, Amos 9:8 and Zechariah 4:10 as possible sources.
4 Carter, op. cit., 160.
5 Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge (New York, 1970; 1st pub. 1935).
6 Biblical References inShakespeare’s Histories (Newark, 1989), 105-6.
7 Shakespeare’s Derived Imagery (Lawrence, Kansas, 1953), 54-6.
8 Op cit., 67.
9 Noble, op. cit., 43; Naseeb Shaheen, “Shakespeare’s Knowledge of the Bible – How Acquired,” Shakespeare Survey (1988), 201-14.