September 24, 2005
I recently discussed The Hermetic Shakespeare on a Shakespeare forum. Careful readers of Phlit will find that this discussion overlaps previous Phlit essays, so they may want to skip it.1 If, however, you have a special interest in the Hermetic/occult, or if you have a special interest in Shakespeare, you may enjoy this discussion.
If someone were to write a book about The Hermetic Shakespeare, what might he use for chapter titles? How can the subject be broken-down, sub-divided?
Can anyone expand this list, or give an example (from Shakespeare’s works) of one of these 5 topics?
The word “Hermetic” isn’t in common use today, and it probably was never in common use — in English or in any other language. So the Hermetic worldview is apt to be seen as rare, strange, peripheral, and if one argues that Shakespeare had a Hermetic worldview, it may appear to be a strange view of Shakespeare. In fact, the Hermetic worldview is an ancient and widespread worldview, popular in Shakespeare’s day and in our own day.
“How can you say that the Hermetic worldview is popular in our day when the word ‘Hermetic’ is rarely heard?” We shouldn’t confuse the rareness of the word with the rareness of the thing itself. The Hermetic worldview has been called by various names, and many who adhered to it probably didn’t name it at all. The Hermetic worldview was popular in China — more so than in the West — but it certainly wasn’t called “Hermetic” in China.
As I’ve defined “Hermetic,” it’s synonymous with “Jungian,” and Jung is one of the most prominent thinkers of our time. So the Hermetic worldview isn’t rare today, and its popularity is on the rise.
“Okay, let’s assume you’re right, let’s assume that the Hermetic worldview is widespread today. What evidence is there that it was widespread in Shakespeare’s day?” Neoplatonism is the cousin of Hermetism (or perhaps I should say, “the younger sibling of Hermetism”), and it’s well known that Neoplatonism was one of the most widespread philosophies of Renaissance times. Castiglione’s Courtier is Neoplatonism popularized, and we know that Castiglione struck a responsive chord with Spenser and Shakespeare.
“But what’s the connection between Neoplatonism and Hermetism?” A leading Neoplatonist, Marsilio Ficino, translated the books attributed to Hermes Trismegistos (dropping his translation of Plato to do so). Hermes was regarded as an earlier, more original, more important thinker than Plato.
Another leading Neoplatonist, Pico della Mirandola, opened his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man with a passage from Hermes: “What a great miracle is Man... a being worthy of reverence and honor. For he passes into the nature of a god as though he were himself a god.” One suspects that these words of Pico’s influenced Hamlet’s speech,
A study of the Hermetic Shakespeare should address questions like, “did Shakespeare read Ficino and Pico? What were Shakespeare’s connections to Neoplatonism?”
Since the Hermetic worldview had considerable influence on Neoplatonism, and Neoplatonism was widespread in Renaissance times, it can be argued that the Hermetic worldview was central, not peripheral, in Shakespeare’s day. It isn’t surprising that Shakespeare had a Hermetic worldview (indeed, it would be surprising if Shakespeare didn’t have a Hermetic worldview).
A book on The Hermetic Shakespeare should perhaps have an introduction on Hermetism (its history, nature, etc.). It should also incorporate material from the life of Edward de Vere (What was his connection to John Dee, the astrologer and Hermetist? What Hermetic books did he own, or have access to? Were any of his teachers or friends interested in Hermetism? What were his thoughts about the great Hermetic philosopher Giordano Bruno, who not only was a contemporary of his, but was also in England when he was? Did he drink from any Hermetic or Neoplatonic sources while he was in Italy?)
The first “chapter title” is widespread in Shakespeare, but difficult to pin down. A writer on Zen says that Shakespeare’s songs celebrate the everyday, and make poetry out of “the apparently trivial or disgusting.”2 As an example, he quotes this song:
When icicles hang by the wall,
As with haiku, this sort of poetry should not be read as a symbol of something else, it should be “taken as is”; it’s a celebration of everyday reality.
Shakespeare often says that his verses are immortal, but this isn’t Hermetic immortality. Immortality through art is only for immortal artists; it’s a personal immortality, like military glory. Mysticism does away with death altogether — for everyone, for everything in the universe. It says omnia mutantur, nihil interit, everything changes, nothing perishes. (This is a well-known phrase, but I haven’t been able to trace it. Is it from Vergil? Or Ovid?) Whitman catches the spirit of mysticism when he says,
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
And Shakespeare catches the spirit of mysticism when he says,
Full fathom five thy father lies;
It’s not only famous writers and generals who are immortal (according to mysticism), we’re all immortal. We don’t perish, we undergo ‘a sea-change into something rich and strange’; perhaps we become grass, perhaps coral, perhaps something else.
I admit, though, that Shakespeare is concerned with personal immortality through literature, as well as cosmic immortality. But we shouldn’t let his frequent talk of personal immortality blind us to his mysticism, just as we shouldn’t let his pessimistic view of the world blind us to his positive view of the world. He was both/and. He was a fusion of the classical tradition and the Hermetic Tradition, a fusion of the ethics of glory and the mysticism that transcends the personal.
But there’s also another kind of immortality that can be described as Hermetic immortality: life after death. The most obvious example of life after death in Shakespeare’s works is the ghost in Hamlet.
This raises an important question: does Shakespeare use occult/Hermetic incidents just to add spice to his plays, or does he add these incidents because they accurately reflect reality, because this is how the world really is? G. Wilson Knight argues that Shakespeare had a Hermetic worldview, he wasn’t just creating spicy plays to maximize ticket sales. Shakespeare is a great dramatist because his work is true-to-life, and he uses occult/Hermetic incidents because they reveal truth, they reflect reality. I admit, however, that Shakespeare may have stretched the truth slightly for dramatic effect. I think the ghost in Hamlet is one of these stretches, but I also think that a communication from the dead (such as we have in Hamlet) is possible, and that Shakespeare regarded it as possible. Therefore, I would describe the ghost as a “slight stretch” of the truth, not something completely untrue.
Skeptics will say that ghosts and soothsayers are just dramatic devices that tell us nothing about Shakespeare’s philosophy. They will say that Shakespeare is part of a dramatic tradition that uses such devices. I disagree, and so does Knight. I would like to ask the skeptics, “where do these devices come from? They’re part of a dramatic tradition, but where does this tradition come from?” This tradition reflects the age-old wisdom of mankind, it reflects the way people viewed the world for thousands of years. I have no reason to believe that Shakespeare rejected this age-old wisdom. This age-old wisdom was rejected when Western civilization — influenced by Newton, Descartes, etc. — adopted a rational-scientific worldview. Skeptics who have a rational-scientific worldview are apt to think that all intelligent people have this worldview — including Shakespeare. The truth is otherwise. In my view, Shakespeare’s worldview wasn’t rational-scientific, but rather Hermetic-occult.
Here’s a Hamlet-like incident from the history of Rhode Island:
This story bears a striking resemblance to Hamlet. A skeptic might say that it was modeled after Hamlet, but those of us who are receptive to psychic phenomena will be inclined to think that it’s a true story, that Hamlet is also based on a true story, and that many crimes, in all times and places, have been solved by ghosts, visions, dreams, etc.
After I posted the above remarks on the Shakespeare Forum, someone responded with a message about the popular novel, The Perfect Storm, which describes a shipwreck:
The person who posted the message about the “perfect storm” later posted a personal experience:
Frances Yates tells us that Bruno regarded Hermetism as “the only true religion, which both Judaism and Christianity had obscured and corrupted.”4 Did Shakespeare feel the same way about Hermetism? Was Hermetism Shakespeare’s religion, and Shakespeare’s philosophy? Bruno was certainly one of the leading thinkers of Shakespeare’s time, and I suspect that Shakespeare’s religion was close to Bruno’s.
One of the interesting things about Hermetism is that it’s very much alive today; I think it can be called the religion of Jung and many of our contemporaries. If Shakespeare is a Hermetic thinker, and if Hermetism is alive-and-well today, then Shakespeare isn’t old, Shakespeare is cutting-edge, Shakespeare’s worldview can be our worldview — indeed, we can scarcely comprehend Shakespeare’s worldview, much less go beyond it, or look down on it.
I heard a lecture recently by Harvard professor and noted Stratfordian Marjorie Garber. She said that the ‘wisdom speeches’ in Shakespeare don’t represent Shakespeare’s wisdom; rather, this wisdom is proverbial — old even in Shakespeare’s time — and Shakespeare is undercutting it, questioning it. If, for example, Jacques lectures on the Seven Ages of Man, or Polonius says “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” or Iago says “who steals my purse steals trash,” that shouldn’t be regarded as Shakespeare’s own wisdom. Iago (Garber argues) earlier said, “put but money in thy purse,” making it clear that he cares about purses and money. So when Iago says, “who steals my purse steals trash,” what appears to be wisdom is actually undercut by the fact that Iago says it. The famous wisdom speeches (according to Garber) are undercut by the character to whom they’re assigned, or by later speeches. (Those who want to learn more about Garber’s views should consult her book, Shakespeare After All.)
Garber’s argument is the old “Shakespeare has no philosophy” with a modern twist. Garber’s reasoning seems to be common among modern literary critics. Modern critics, influenced by Deconstruction, PostModernism, etc., seem to think that there is no truth, only different perspectives. When our book group discussed E. M. Forster, it was clear to me that Forster was expressing a Zen-like philosophy in Howards End, but the critic who joined our discussion argued that Forster wasn’t expressing any philosophy, he was being ironic, he was undercutting beliefs. This critic believed that Forster is hiding behind the narrator, playing games with the reader, and being ironic, not striving to discover truth, and communicate truth as clearly as he can.
I don’t deny that some of Shakespeare’s ‘wisdom speeches’ contradict others. In an earlier issue, I quoted Miranda’s optimism, noting that it contradicted Macbeth’s pessimism, and I said that Shakespeare was both/and. Yes, truth is contradictory, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up on truth altogether. It seems to me that Miranda and Macbeth are both wisdom, and both represent Shakespeare’s wisdom. Today’s intellectuals eagerly embrace skepticism, they turn to what Nietzsche called “the mild, pleasing, lulling poppy of skepticism.”5
Another contemporary scholar, Peter Ackroyd, views Shakespeare’s philosophy much as Garber does — that is, he views it as a non-philosophy.
I’d like to discuss the third item on my list of “chapter titles”: Wholeness (an inner state of wholeness, harmony). This is an important element in Jung, and probably in all mystical worldviews. Are there passages in Shakespeare’s plays that indicate a concern with wholeness?
Consider what Antony says about Brutus:
His life was gentle, and the elements
Notice that phrase, “the elements so mixed.” This phrase suggests that the ideal man is a mixture of elements, a mixture of traits, a collection of disparate tendencies that form a balanced whole.
Consider this passage from All’s Well That Ends Well:
Be thou blest, Bertram, and succeed thy father
“Contend” is in the imperative case (equivalent to “may your blood and virtue contend for empire in thee”). Shakespeare seems to have felt that “blood and virtue” can’t coexist harmoniously, they can only coexist contentiously. The highest degree of harmony that we can achieve is a stand-off between “blood” and “virtue.”
A similar blend of traits is praised in Hamlet:
...blessed are those
The phrase “blood and judgment” reminds one of “blood and virtue.” To combine “blood” and “judgment” is to achieve wholeness. As Knight put it, “Horatio [is] defined as a man well on the way to integration.... Horatio does not control his passions: rather his ‘blood’ (i.e. virility, passion) and ‘judgment’ are (as in the art of acting) ‘commingled’.”7
It can be argued that wholeness/harmony is the highest ideal, an ideal for every individual, and for people in all times and places. When Shakespeare speaks of ‘blood and virtue contending for empire,’ it suggests that he realized, from his own experience, that wholeness/harmony was by no means easy to achieve. That Shakespeare discusses this ideal repeatedly — from various angles and in various works — suggests that he wasn’t just a ‘pessimist and railer’ (as Shaw said).8 Shakespeare had philosophical ideas and positive ideals. Knight is the deepest Shakespeare critic, and has the deepest understanding of Shakespeare’s philosophy. Garber and others don’t understand Shakespeare’s philosophy, and don’t even realize that Shakespeare had a philosophy.
I’d like to discuss the fourth item in my list of “chapter titles”: the occult (premonition of future, astrology, telepathy, etc.). First, though, I’d like to answer an objection that’s likely to be made: “Shakespeare wasn’t a philosopher. Shakespeare was funny, entertaining. If he were a philosophical writer, his work would be dry, stiff, wooden, serious — but it isn’t.”
This is the objection I heard when I discussed the philosophical ideas of E. M. Forster. This objection fails to realize that a writer can be both philosophical and humorous; if Shakespeare is philosophical, if he has a Hermetic worldview, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t also humorous, entertaining, etc.
Just as an imaginative writer like Shakespeare or Forster can be philosophical, so too a “serious” philosopher can be humorous. When Thoreau lectured in Concord, the audience “laughed until they cried.” Kierkegaard has a keen sense of humor, but he’s also capable of the deepest seriousness.
Shakespeare’s work is full of life not because it lacks philosophy, but because the author’s philosophy had taken deep root in him, and become second nature. His philosophy is close to the age-old wisdom of mankind, and close to the worldview of his contemporaries; Shakespeare’s philosophy isn’t bookish.
Now let’s discuss the fourth “chapter title,” the occult. Let’s divide our topic into three sub-topics: premonition of the future (precognition), astrology, and telepathy.
The most famous examples of precognition in Shakespeare’s works are the soothsayer in Julius Caesar, and the witches in Macbeth. The soothsayer and the witches both know the future in detail, not just in a general way. A less detailed kind of precognition can be found in Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo says,
my mind misgives
Romeo has a hunch, an intuition, but he doesn’t know the future as clearly as the soothsayer and the witches. An even less detailed kind of precognition can be found in Sonnet 107, which speaks of “the prophetic soul of the wide world dreaming on things to come.”
How is precognition possible? One might argue that precognition requires a knowledge of all the causes that lead up to an event — for example, a knowledge of all the causes that contributed to Caesar’s assassination. Or one could argue that precognition shows that causality is an illusion; one could argue that we have a habit of rational thinking, of linear thinking, of cause-and-effect thinking, but our thinking style doesn’t correspond to reality. One could argue that not only causality, but also space and time are just illusions, just habits of thinking that don’t correspond to reality.
Kant argued that space, time, and causality are just “categories” of the mind, they don’t exist in the thing-in-itself. Perhaps this is the best way to view occult phenomena: occult phenomena upset rational thinking, they upset linear thinking, they manifest the illusory nature of space, time, and causality. Perhaps the soothsayer and the witches can foresee the future because time is illusory, because past, present, and future are one. Shakespeare speaks of a “prophetic soul” just as modern psychology says that time doesn’t exist in the unconscious. Shakespeare bends time just as modern science (Einstein) bends time. There is an agreement between philosophy (Kant), psychology (Freud and Jung), modern science (Einstein), and Shakespeare; all agree that, contrary to our habitual way of viewing the world, space, time, and causality don’t really exist. And because they don’t really exist, occult phenomena are possible, and precognition is possible.
Did Shakespeare believe in astrology? Did he believe that a person’s character and destiny could be revealed by his horoscope? Did he believe that large historical events could be foretold by an astrologer? There seems to be little evidence in Shakespeare’s plays that he believed in astrology. On the contrary, there’s evidence that he didn’t believe in astrology. Cassius says,
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
But despite this passage, I can’t believe that Shakespeare entirely rejected astrology; if he was receptive to occult phenomena in general (as I believe he was) then he was probably somewhat receptive, somewhat open-minded, toward astrology.
Telepathy is all around us, it’s the most common form of the occult — in literature as well as in life. But it seems to be only in modern literature; I’m not aware of examples before 1750, and I’m not aware of examples in Shakespeare’s works.
Here’s an example of telepathy in modern literature: In A Portrait of the Artist, Stephen Dedalus is lying in bed, thinking of his girlfriend, and he wonders what his girlfriend is doing: “Might it be, in the mysterious ways of spiritual life, that her soul at those same moments had been conscious of his homage? ....Conscious of his desire she was waking from odorous sleep.”
Here’s another example of telepathy in modern literature: one of Dostoyevsky’s characters says, “I did not speak of it directly.... I spoke almost without words. And I am an old hand at speaking without words. I have spent all my life speaking without words. I have lived through whole tragedies without uttering a word.”
Here’s an example of telepathy from a private letter written by a modern writer (Strindberg): To his third wife, from whom he was separated, and who lived in the same city as he did, he wrote, “I think I seem disturbing to you here, and from this apartment invisible wires stretch like inaudible sound waves which yet reach their destination.”
Am I missing something? Are there examples of telepathy in Shakespeare that I’m not aware of? Are there examples in pre-1750 literature that I’m not aware of? Why is telepathy so common in modern literature, so uncommon in pre-modern? One might say that Shakespeare ignores telepathy because it isn’t dramatic, because “invisible wires” don’t make good drama. But Shakespeare’s plays include many reflective passages, and then there are the sonnets, the letters, etc. Surely Shakespeare had abundant opportunity to mention telepathy in his writings, and the same is true of other pre-modern writers. But there’s no mention, the silence is deafening. Why? Was telepathy so much a part of their world that they took it for granted? Or was telepathy absent from their world because they were psychologically different from us moderns?
Now we’ve come to the last “chapter title”: Synchronicity (the simultaneous occurrence of events that have a similar meaning, but no causal connection).
The Chinese have long believed in a connection between events that occur at the same time, but are seemingly unrelated — for example, an earthquake and the death of an emperor. (Doubtless many Chinese noted that in the year of Mao’s death, 1976, a major earthquake occurred in China, in which over 240,000 people died.) This ancient Chinese belief is what Jung called synchronicity, “an acausal connecting principle.” Synchronicity and astrology are related since they both deal with connections between distant things, things that appear to have no direct, physical connection. Ancient societies observed omens because they believed that “unrelated” things might have an occult connection, a synchronistic connection.
Synchronicity is rife in Shakespeare’s plays. Here’s an example from Hamlet:
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
In Shakespeare, tragedy is often accompanied by storm; a disturbance in the human sphere is often accompanied by a disturbance in nature. Nature and man are “in sync.” Not only is the weather strange, animals also behave strangely. A character in Macbeth says,
The night has been unruly: where we lay,
G. Wilson Knight is perhaps the only critic who understood the role of synchronicity in Shakespeare, who understood how Shakespeare bends time and upsets causality:
Here’s an example of synchronicity from pagan mythology:
|1.|| This discussion overlaps 2003-04 and 2005-09 and 2003-07. back|
|2.|| R. H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature, ch. 3, p. 52 back|
|3.|| Love’s Labour’s Lost, V, ii back|
|4.|| Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, ch. 1, p. 11 back|
|5.|| Beyond Good and Evil, §208 back|
|6.|| The Sunday Times - Books, September 18, 2005, Shakespeare: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd, reviewed by John Carey back|
|7.|| The Wheel of Fire, ch. 15, p. 308 back|
|8.|| Back To Methuselah, Preface back|
|9.||Knight, The Wheel of Fire, ch. 6, p. 138 back|