In her book “The Occult Philosophy of the Elizabethan Age” (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) the occultist and author, Frances Yates suggests that the works of Shakespeare are derived from the prevailing ideas and concepts of Christian Caballists seeking an evolved and deeper meaning to Biblical teaching. This evolved philosophy was intended to convert Muslims and Jews to Christianity and to prove the teachings of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Although her arguments are little more than a “bare bones” theory with little meat on the occult and alchemical systems of Ramon Lull and Francisco Giorgio, they have been criticised and enlarged upon by other serious and more credible occult scholars eg: Ted Hughes (“Shakespeare & The Goddess of Complete Being”, Faber & Faber, 1988). However, Yates mentions the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, how aspects of Judaic Cabala were absorbed into Arabic or Muslim teachings, and further into a so-called “Christian Qaballah”, which emerged out of the Italian Renaissance where firstly Jews were tolerated and where arcane texts were translated from the Greek, Latin, and Aramaic into several European languages. A small number of Jews lived a double life as merchants in England as so-called “marranos”, presumed to have converted to Christianity, but secretly still held to their Judaic doctrine. As evidenced by Christopher Marlowe’s extremely controversial but popular anti-Semitic play “The Jew of Malta”, although Jews had been previously expelled from England as early as 1290 during the reign of Edward Ist. By 1492 the Jews were forced to leave Spain and migrated into Portugal, N. Africa, Turkey and Italy. Yates also highlights the important influence of Plato, Pythagoras and Aristotle and later that of Cornelius Agrippa, Giordano Bruno and Pico della Mirandola, all of whom were recognised by their contemporaries as the Renaissance Magi of Europe. Yates also mentions the existence of the atheist, “School of Night”, the Neo-Christian movement known as the “Sacred Order of the Rosy Cross” and the superimposition of Hermetic Tradition on Elizabethan Protestant Christianity. Shakespeare actually makes reference to George Chapman’s melancholy poem “Shadow of Night” in “Love’s Labours Lost”:
What zeal, what fury hath inspired thee now?
My love, her mistress, is a gracious moon;
She an attending star, scarce seen a light.
My eyes are then no eyes, nor I Biron:
O, but for my love, day would turn to night!
Of all complexions the cull’d sovereignty
Do meet, as at a fair, in her fair cheek,
Where several worthies make one dignity,
Where nothing wants that want itself doth seek.
Lend me the flourish of all gentle tongues,–
Fie, painted rhetoric! O, she needs it not:
To things of sale a seller’s praise belongs,
She passes praise; then praise too short doth blot.
A wither’d hermit, five-score winters worn,
Might shake off fifty, looking in her eye:
Beauty doth varnish age, as if new-born,
And gives the crutch the cradle’s infancy:
O, ’tis the sun that maketh all things shine.
By heaven, thy love is black as ebony.
Is ebony like her? O wood divine!
A wife of such wood were felicity.
O, who can give an oath? where is a book?
That I may swear beauty doth beauty lack,
If that she learn not of her eye to look:
No face is fair that is not full so black.
O paradox! Black is the badge of hell,
The hue of dungeons and the suit of night;
And beauty’s crest becomes the heavens well.
Besides misreading “suit” for “school”, Frances Yates also mentions the opposing views in science and cosmology held by Catholic Rome (as well as in some Puritan circles), how they violently clashed in theatrical and artistic arenas where they led to increased fears of magic and witchcraft as well as robust inquisitions and trials intended to eradicate those threats. Unfortunately, Frances Yates also explores how one hypothesis can be repeatedly expressed throughout the majority of her text which is more akin to irritating tautology, so that you would need to read all her other books on the subject (which she repeatedly references) to fully appreciate and understand the one you are currently reading. In other words, the occult detail and corroborating connections to the occult are not all there in that particular book. In several previous posts on the subject of “An Occult Shakespeare” I have enlarged upon Frances Yates paltry offering of “bare bones” and rendered it with a great deal more flesh. You will find all the additional detail in for example:
And the activities and influence of Dr. John Dee are also discussed in the post entitled “The Queen’s Sorcerer”. While “Shakespeare’s Apothecary” is also relevant to the occult debate in Shakespeare’s text.
In a previous post, namely “Shakespeare’s Nemesis” I illustrated and enlarged upon how the traditional and draconic opposition to this “Neo-Platonic Movement” in religion led to violent street riots and inevitably the temporary closure of the theatres in London presumably because of the plague. The onset of the plague might not have been the real reason why the theatres were forced to close in London. Furthermore, who would have guessed or predicted that the pseudonymous author, William Shakspere would have coincidentally died on the same day that he was born, namely, St. George’s Day the 23rd April, 1616 and how for 200-300 years the real author of the Shakespeare Canon would remain an elusive mystery? In fact it resurfaced in the 1920’s when the literary academic Thomas J. Looney announced to the world that he had identified who Shakespeare really was (“Shakespeare Identified”).
When I first began to write my book “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” some twenty years ago I was convinced that there was a remarkable mystery or secret contained within Shakespeare’s canon of plays and poetry first published in 1623. I already knew there was something magical in the way that Elizabethan theatre worked both practically and philosophically. I knew for example that Dr. John Dee infused the British Monarchy with his own version of Ceremonial Magic, Magical Symbolism, Heraldic Badges and Emblems because he knew the power they possessed and how they ultimately influenced the human psyche on both a conscious and unconscious level. Through my various interests in the occult, alchemy and astrology I had already recognised mnemonic structures in other literary works and thought the same principles and ideas could be employed in the study and classification of Shakespeare’s own plays and poetry. However, I was not prepared for the final outcome of these in-depth and erudite researches. Like many other people I too was under the widespread impression that a relatively ordinary man from Stratford-upon-Avon, named William Shakespeare, being naturally endowed with enormous literary talent and creative inspiration, had created these literary marvels. Yet I knew virtually nothing of his personal history or for that matter his cultural background, nor his early education, and neither what elements of his present influence or those of the past that had inspired him and in what manner they had been devised.
I began to examine afresh various published volumes of the Shakespearean canon when I noticed a specific content and categorisation within the traditional folio of 36 plays, (10 of which are historical) and the seven poetical works attributed to him. While variations in text and often omissions were found in numerous editions of Shakespeare volumes, within the 1623 Folio these numbers had a significant resonance in the practice and theory of Renaissance Magic and Freemasonry. The number 360 (10×36) is of course the number of traditional degrees of the circle-the geometric symbol of the perfected being and seven being the number of the 7 traditional planets listed in the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems of astrology, linked to the 7 Virtues and the 7 Ages of Man. As anyone who is familiar with arcane occult systems knows the number seven also had great significance to the cosmological system devised by the Elizabethan Magus, Dr. John Dee and referenced in literature as the “Seven Noble Virtues & Follies of Man”. Dr. Dee was patronised and consulted by Mary Sidney, a member of the Pembroke circle who helped to publish the 1623 Folio and instituted the elite literary circle known as Areopagus. Mary Sidney, whose brother Phillip Sidney was an established poet and author, was a great adherent of Christian mysticism, magic and astrology. She was also a close friend and admirer of Dr. John Dee. Many medieval and 16th century treatises on the subject of astrology from the time provided a schema divisible by seven based on the average human life span with a series of corresponding life stages or Seven Ages of Man attributed to planetary influences (7 x 9 year periods = 63 years which was an average life-span in those days);
1) Infant (Moon)
2) Child (Mercury)
3) Youth (Venus)
4) Adult (Mars)
5) Maturity (Jupiter)
6) Old Age (Saturn)
7) Decrepitude (Fixed Stars)
Clearly, when one reads through the poetry and plays one cannot ignore between the superlative lines that Shakespeare was greatly influenced by Renaissance Neo-Platonic symbolism, that he had an interest in astrology, numerological ciphers, tarot and other humanist ideas circulating during the Reformation in Europe. In my apparent eureka moment it seems I was not alone. In these unorthodox schools, as Ted Hughes quite correctly states, “everything was ordered to numerical and alphabetical ciphers, secret keys, symbols and sigils that constitute a mnemonic or psychic map of consciousness” – sometimes referred to as the Heavenly Ladder of Ascent or conversely the Hellish Fall from Grace. (ie: In the prevailing Christian Qaballah of the time The Tree of Life constituted Three Pillars, 10 Sephirotic Spheres, & the 22 Paths of Wisdom). These ideas can also be found in the study and use of Tarot cards which evolved into the practice of divination during the early part of the Italian and French Renaissance. All of which, depending on the initiates faith in themselves or some invoked or imagined higher power, will eventually lead to the transitional paths of Holy Purgatory or Holy Redemption (ascent to the Father or liberation of the soul).
We know that similar literary and scientific works written and published by Edmund Spenser, Dante Alighieri, Giordano Bruno, Francis Bacon, Robert Fludd and the Elizabethan Magus, Dr. John Dee all of whom were greatly inspired by these Cabalistic initiations and experiments into the workings of Occult Freemasonry, that were available at the time. In his book “Shakespeare & Platonic Beauty” (Chatto & Windus 1961) John Vyvyan suggests that a literary and dramatic working model was actually borrowed from Castiglione and Marsilio Ficino who in turn had studied and translated the works of Plato and Plotinus.
In these works the Neo-Platonic Quarternity is composed of:
The One GOD (ie: Godhead)
The Universal Mind
The World Soul
The Material World
However, this order and definition was altered to accommodate The Angelic Mind (Archetypal Beauty) being next to GOD:
The Angelic Mind
The World Soul
The Body of the World
“And so it is that the same divine countenance shines, as it were, from three mirrors-The Angelic Mind, The Soul of the World, and the Body of the World. The first being nearest to God, it is brilliant; in the second it is not so clear; and in the third, which is far removed, it is obscure.”
This constitutes the basic Quarternity of Neo-Platonic maps of consciousness that was also imitated in the elemental cosmo-grams of Renaissance Alchemy. Therefore, in the 4th sphere of material existence the seven planetary rays emanate or reflect in an imperfect or distorted manner the ultimate Will of God. For example the Goddess Aphrodite (the planet Venus to astrologers of the time) would have a heavenly, hellish as well as earthly manifestation. It seems the abandonment of pure reason thereby subordinate to Universal Love was a Neo-Platonic hypothesis despite the fact that Judaic tradition placed Justice above Love as can be seen by the attitude of Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. From his deductions and readings of Greek and Roman philosophers the poet Edmund Spenser, a contemporary of Shakespeare, formulated the Renaissance belief in the creative power and absolute supremacy of Love in the following 7-line verse.
Love lift me up upon thy golden wings
From this base world unto thy heaven’s height
When I may see those admirable things
Which there thou worked with thy sovereign might
Far above the feeble reach of earthly sight
That I thereof a heavenly hymn may sing
Unto the God of Love, high heaven’s King.
Human existence was composed of 3 fundamental qualities:
• Spirit (Universal Mind) Divine Intelligence (Mercury)
• Soul (Universal Love) Creativity-Love (Venus)
• Matter (Universal Body) natural Intelligence (Earth)
In Neo-Platonic symbolism albeit with topical interpretations and variations there were numerous sub-divisions best compared to a series of “Russian Dolls” so that for example the material realm also reflected aspects of the four elements thus:
- Human realm (Fire-spirituality)
- Mammalian realm (Air-mentality)
- Plant realm (Water-feeling)
- Mineral realm (Earth-materiality)
Essentially, the further the human soul, while still being clothed in its celestial garments (“corpus aethereum”-ie: subtle body), descended towards the material realm it became less conscious of its divine origins and became contaminated and attached to earthly desires or material things. Indeed as it progressed further from the celestial light it might even become possessed or oppressed by demons and spirits of which it was unaware, thereby being recognised as being “Holy or Unholy Insane”; as is the case in Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, “Hamlet& Ophelia” and “Timon of Athens”.
I have tried to summarise what can be deduced from a scholarly study of the “Symposium” and the “Phaedrus” in a manner that clearly indicates to the reader the importance and utilisation of those strict categories, orders and dimensions within the Neo-Platonic philosophical schools. It may be that the philosophy of the time was not scientifically accurate or even existentially correct, but it did provide artists as well as dramatists with a working model through which they could express their creative ideas albeit in a secular sense. I accept that Shakespeare’s plays were intricately devised and modelled on these Neo-Platonic principles. Although irrelevant for the time each play was later subdivided into 5 acts and defined as follows:
• 1st Act defines or introduces a circumstance or condition.
• 2nd Act defines an obstacle or problem to be overcome.
• 3rd Act defines the dark or tragic forces that could lead to chaos or conflict.
• 4th Act defines a stable reintegration of events by some revelation.
• 5th Act defines a resolution of those polarised or insoluble conditions.
Finally, in the Book of the Courtier and Song of Celestial & Divine Love (Castiglione) the ascent of the soul is perceived as seven stages and later borrowed or appropriated by Edmund Spenser in his “Hymn in Honour of Beautie” thus:
- The first stage is the sight of Physical Beauty and the recognition and acceptance that it is a “divine reflection” or emanation from above. However, this first and subsequent stage may be easily contaminated by excessive passion and could just as easily lead to a fatal fall.
- The second stage characterises a gradual release from excessive passion by visualising or meditating on the “love object” as a sublime gift of meditation from Heaven. Thereby natural beauty is integrated as a whole within the human self.
- The third stage indicates that the love object is not the only one existing in the world and therefore it requires further definition. The courtier is advised to imagine a happiness existing within himself and make a “universal conceit” or should we say “altar to universal beauty” in his heart. He formulates the idea that love and beauty are merely a partial element of the Ideal Man (Adam-Divine Image).
- In the fourth stage the courtier learns not to covet the physical beauty he has formulated but to recognise an archetypal pattern or independent creation emanating from the Angelic Mind itself. The courtier is advised to imagine that beauty emanating from a “Star” or some other celestial body such as The Milky Way.
- In the fifth stage his passion and desire for physical or moral beauty alone is transposed to a love and desire for union with its genius and creator God. To this end he is instructed and inspired by sublime or ethereal agencies.
- In the sixth stage realising that infinite beauty cannot be circumscribed completely by a finite mind he dies as an entity seeking Beauty or God in the material or angelic world. His deep, inner realisation is further inspiration to create or express his love to God.
- Finally the seventh stage is the poet’s or artist’s personal release from desire or “natural bliss” beyond description or for that matter personal expression.
These Platonic and Qaballistic ideas were first taken up by Spenser in England and soon after fell into the literary dominion of Shakespeare and several others in his intimate circle. Ted Hughes also identifies what may have been conceived as the polarities on the Tree of Life – albeit in another context eg: Catholic & Protestant or romantic-pragmatic which are often reconciled in a Pythagorean context with a third principle ie: Renaissance Humanism. Essentially, they form a Holy Trinity, or triad of forces, (Three Fates) which colours or affects the other keys in a set sequence not unlike the double helix of the DNA code. On a purely mythic level these 3 elements signify the triple aspects of the Great Goddess (Chaste Maiden, Mother, & Whore). These then mutate into the Nine Muses (3×3) which constitute the nine basic human archetypes perceived as symbolic numbers that are equivalent to planetary forces or energies.
We are informed that when the theatres were inconvenienced by the plague, William Shakespeare wrote two important poetic works, Venus & Adonis and the Rape Lucrece. Seen purely in a social context, during the Elizabethan era the planets Mars and Venus represent a fundamental physical polarisation of sexual energies which manifest as complementary or antagonistic polarities. However, in the Orphic doctrine they were identified more correctly as Eros (Desire) and Themis (Justice) indirectly linked to Kasma (Separation -lit: Splitting in Two of the Cosmic Egg) and in this sense are more akin to the Chinese concept of Yin (Earth) & Yang (Heaven). The inherent dichotomy of Eros and Kasma is reconciled by Themis (Divine Justice) known to Buddhists as the principle of individual Karma (Fate) working through Darma (Duty).
The Sidney-Herbert circle influenced by Neo-Platonic, Hermetic and Rosicrucian ideas was not the only one operating in Elizabethan England therefore some additional reference needs inserting to complete the picture of socio-political life in Elizabeth’s long reign. Although the name of this apparently “atheist cabal” was coined sometime after its actual existence, there is good reason to presume that it was really a loose affiliation of “Free Thinkers” that were in contradistinction to the Sidney-Herbert circle with its emphasis on promoting elements of Reformation faith. At its core was a firm belief in the New Enlightenment in Europe posed by the pursuit of scientific enquiry. The name of the group is presumed to echo sentiments expressed in Thomas Wyatt’s poem “The Shadow of Night”, a theme also taken up by the poet George Chapman who joined this esoteric school. A similar reference is made in “Love’s Labours Lost” to a “School of Night” in contradistinction to the romantic path of the feminine advocated by the members of the Herbert/Sidney/Essex Circle.
Frances Yates suggests that they were inspired by the theme of the creative potential of the melancholic type, attributed to the planet Saturn which rules night and winter. This idea was being promoted by Albrecht Durer in his engraving Melancholia I (1514) which depicts a female muse with a black face, derived from Agrippa’s seminal work “De Occulta Philosophia”. Incidentally, Dan Brown’s book “The Lost Symbol” also makes some unenlightened reference to Albrecht Durer’s engraving perhaps not realising that there were two originals, one presumed lost engraving of Durer’s in the Melancholia series. The play “As You Like It” is laced with references to the spell of an inspired melancholy:
They say you are a melancholy fellow.
I am so; I do love it better than laughing.
Those that are in extremity of either are abominable
fellows and betray themselves to every modern
censure worse than drunkards.
Why, ’tis good to be sad and say nothing.
With the discovery or advent of Rosicrucianism, a form of esoteric Christianity, inclusive of Hermeticism, secretly infused with Egyptian and Judaic magic, gradually emerged in Europe. Its socio-political culmination, the institution and practice of Freemasonry also took hold in certain aristocratic circles, and interest as well as experimental research into the art of Alchemy began in Europe. The playwright Ben Jonson satirised and lampooned these adherents and practitioners in his own play “The Alchemist”. This was often coupled with the abstract ideas of Giordano Bruno as well as the application of the deductive scientific process, through which came a strong presumption of doubt if not an epistemological crisis within orthodox faiths.
The “Illuminati”, who are quoted by Dan Brown’s fictional presentation of so-called “secret societies” in two books/films “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons”, emerged in Bavaria much later but they may have been influenced by the success or otherwise of these earlier occult groups. Generally speaking there were secret groups and societies of all kinds during the Renaissance period all across Europe, each with their own specific agenda, political, cultural and religious. As a result a large number of esoteric schools attracted people like the dramatist and poet Sir Christopher Marlowe, Gabriel Harvey, John Florio, the poets Matthew Roydon, Walter Warner, Thomas Hughes and its figurehead, Sir Walter Raleigh. The group’s constitution was secretly supported and patronised by the Earls of Derby, Baron Hunsdon, and the Wizard Earl, Henry Percy and the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux. A year before Marlowe’s brutal assassination in 1592 “Sir Walter Rauley’s School of Atheism” was investigated for alleged heresies by a special commission appointed by the Privy Council. With the influence of Giordano Bruno a new era of metaphysical philosophy was beginning to replace the chivalric ideal of Arthurian Romance and Neo-Platonic dependence on romantic idealism and this also began to influence the nature of Shakespeare’s later dramatic and poetic works (eg: The Tempest). Edmund Spenser’s propagandist poem, “The Fairie Queen” also promoted Elizabeth Ist as “The Virgin Queen” and as “Gloriana” in this rather romantic and idealised era. The lines of John Donne’s poem seem to sum up the thoughts of the time “He who has consumed the nut can happily cast the shell aside”. The “Shakespeare phenomenon” of philosophical idealism with French and Italianate romantic influences and epic storylines represents the end of an era in Elizabethan drama-it was obliged to make way for a new epoch of social realism and scepticism about the status quo.
Where monarchs and statesmen were concerned, Neo-Platonism and magic were being discredited or viewed with greater suspicion and fear. However, and somewhat paradoxically, the overriding metaphor of the School of Night was concerned with its deeper reflection and Saturnine properties-the day was a period of folly, restlessness, and mercantile activity more often tinged with false optimism. On the other hand the property of night was Hermetic, a time of seclusion and withdrawal from the world of the physical senses (eg: Albrecht Durer’s “Melancholia I”).I have seen speculations that the Dark Lady mentioned in the second section of the Sonnets was a woman of colour, and it may indeed be true, although it may refer in an abstract sense to the mythological Black Annis – The pagan British equivalent of the Phoenician Queen of Heaven (Astarte). Indeed, perhaps even to the Black Madonna of Catholic Spain. I have already discussed the relevance of “The Dark Lady & The Rival Poet” as well as “The Fair Youth of Shakespeare’s Sonnets”. However, Shakespeare frequently uses the colours Black, White and Red symbolically and metaphorically in both his poetry and plays, these are a few from a large number of examples:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
And further on:
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stol’n of both,
And to his robbery had annex’d thy breath;
And from the poem Venus & Adonis:
Stain to all nymphs, more lovely than a man,
More white and red than doves or roses are;
‘And yet not cloy thy lips with loath’d satiety,
But rather famish them amid their plenty,
Making them red and pale with fresh variety;
Who blush’d and pouted in a dull disdain,
With leaden appetite, unapt to toy;
She red and hot as coals of glowing fire,
He red for shame, but frosty in desire.
Still is he sullen, still he lowers and frets,
‘Twixt crimson shame and anger ashy-pale;
Being red, she loves him best; and being white,
Her best is better’d with a more delight.
Red cheeks and fiery eyes blaze forth her wrong;
Being judge in love, she cannot right her cause:
How white and red each other did destroy;
But now her cheek was pale, and by and by
It flash’d forth fire, as lightning from the sky.
Whose frothy mouth be painted all with red,
Like milk and blood being mingled both together,
We can in actual fact identify three phases of “William Shakespeare’s” career as a poet, lyricist and playwright, the early period greatly influenced by romanticism, chivalry and the like, the second phase by the critical philosophic and political demands of the European Reformation and the third that took place in a period of intellectual, scientific and cultural transition. Like a modern-day group of fanatical insurgents with often differing ideologies and intentions, the Catholic ring of home-grown treachery and subversion threatened to strangle the Protestant Tudor autonomy and to implode from within Elizabeth’s own kingdom. It may be that some members of this cabal were actually agnostics but orthodox authorities perceived them as an anarchic confederation of intellectuals to be feared if not directly opposed. However, during Elizabeth’s delicate but firm reign one’s personal fortunes depended on who had the “ear of court”, not who had the most convincing and persuasive arguments and this is clear when we examine the fortunes of Sir Walter Raleigh. Along with Dr. John Dee Raleigh proposed the institution of a “British Empire” in the Americas, partly because he hated the Spanish who seemed to have profited greatly from their colonising expeditions in the Americas and because as a well-travelled man and a patriot he could see how it might profit the commercial fortunes of England (as well as himself) to establish profitable colonies and navigable ports in the New World.
|The links to my current publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and an anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:|