The Theosophical Forum – January 1944


Professor Spencer's book (1) is an example of the power of constructive literary criticism to present the universal truth concerning the nature of man which supreme literary genius has embodied in a work of art. It is an interpretation of the Shakespearean drama so profound as to serve as a revelation of the recurrent periods of mighty conflict through which human beings must pass, and of the peak of attainment to be reached by human striving. It also clearly indicates that Shakespeare intuited a labor for the human spirit which as yet transcends present human aspiration towards the highest possibilities of mankind. This book has distinct relevance to the present crisis, when man is being catapulted into a kind of physical universality, a global awareness, and is being compelled to undergo reorientation to the forces and relations governing life on this planet. The appeal of this work is great because of the writer's knowledge not only of literary art but of the art of living.

It is now recognized that American scholars, who in many fields of English scholarship are easily first, are pre-eminently first in the field of Elizabethan studies; and Professor Spencer's comprehensive survey of the books available in the sixteenth century enables us to reconstruct the patterns of thought and feeling which prevailed in that century in England, and to trace the striking changes inevitably a result of the startling theories of the universe, the state, and man, which were brought forward between 1543 and 1600.

What had been long accepted was a pattern woven from Platonic, Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, and Christian elements, the idea of an ordered universe, a hierarchical system extending from the throne of God to the dust of the earth, the earth which had been created by God about the time of the autumnal equinox 5000 and some odd years before and which was stated to be the center of the whole celestial system, with man, the microcosm, endowed with understanding that made him the natural ruler of the world, "the perfection and end of all the creatures." All parts of this world-structure, including man, were interdependent; the harmony and safety of all depended upon the performance of the duty assigned to each; any overstepping of this ordered course could wreck the whole. With Adam's fall this calamity had occurred. Evil had entered the world, man had lost his destiny, had lost even the knowledge that he had a destiny. But God had mercy and gave man the hope of salvation through Christ. The Pope of Rome was the vicar of Christ on earth, the priests were the intermediaries between God and man, and the Church of Rome was the stronghold of revealed truth. How all these foundations were rudely shaken, and a state of doubt and confusion of thought brought about that created the very atmosphere of tragedy, is told in this book and is an aid to understanding Shakespearean drama.

While the full significance of the heliocentric theory had not yet been grasped at this time, many learned and popular writings dealing with it were current in England. By the time Shakespeare had reached London in the 1580's, Giordano Bruno, that fiery enthusiast for the theory, had spent two years in England, had lectured at Oxford on the Doctrine of the Spheres, and had held many conversations with Sir Philip Sidney and other thinkers; so that the new ideas were abroad to spread wonder, excitement, and also fear.

At that time, too, the unique role of man in the universe sustained a shock. Daring thinkers claimed that the accepted notion concerning man's place in nature was no more correct than the Ptolemaic cosmology had been found to be. The book which rated man as only another animal "without any real and essential pre-rogative and pre-eminence," was the Essays of Montaigne, published in 1580, widely read, and said to have been diligently read by Shakespeare. Reading again these Essays, especially the Apology, one wonders why in the nineteenth century any one should have been utterly shocked by a theory of man's descent from the apes, when Montaigne 300 years before had so cleverly intimated that in some respects man is inferior to animals. Another book, published in English in 1534, and much read and quoted, was The Prince, by Machiavelli, which proclaimed the view that man is naturally evil, that morals have no connection with affairs of state, that rulers must "Know well how to use both the beast and the man and be ever ready to control the vicious nature of their subjects by force."

So, by the latter end of the sixteenth century, the inherited ideas of the cosmos, the state, and man's place in nature, had all been under attack; and the religious situation was no more stable. By 1543, the date of the death of Copernicus and of the publication of his work, King Henry VIII had severed connection with Rome and proclaimed himself supreme head of the church and the clergy in England; and there was danger and difficulty until Protestantism was firmly established. Where now could the people look for stability, with the authority of Rome defied? Even the political situation was disturbed, for the Queen was old and the succession to the throne seemed uncertain. The optimism and idealism of the 1580's gave way to skepticism, satire, even melancholy, among the writers. Professor Spencer quotes the poet John Donne's lament: " 'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone."

In this atmosphere the great tragedies of Shakespeare were written. He had by this time mastered the drama as a vehicle of expression. His own increasing awareness of the presence and the power of evil in the world and in human nature is shown in Trotlus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, and this may have been further quickened by an intense personal experience. However this may be, Shakespeare's intellectual faculties had been sharpened to the piercing point where he saw that the field of conflict in human life is not between man and the stars in their courses, not between man and circumstances or events, but in man's own nature. He drew from human experience of doubt, defeat, despair and death, his enduring message to mankind. With glowing spiritual insight he reached the certainty of the something beyond that makes man man, which warrants the belief that man is the essential link between the material and the spiritual worlds — the view of man that restores human dignity. Professor Spencer's interpretation of the tragedies inspires readers to turn again to the tragedies themselves and the last plays for the assurance that human beings are disciplined by their failures through self-deception, passion, and despair, and through heart-sorrow pass from purgation to pure insight. Hamlet, Othello, and Lear are shown not to have died in vain.

In his tragedies Shakespeare is concerned with the presence of evil in human nature and the havoc wrought when the evil lurking behind a fair outward is forced upon man's consciousness, and, also the inner havoc which results when the darker and more violent elements of man's nature overwhelm reason and take control. In Hamlet we see the wreck made in an optimistic idealist by the discovery of lust and cruelty in those whom he would naturally love and honor; but the intensity of his suffering brings Hamlet to the realization that this is not only his problem but that of human kind, and he dies with wider sympathies and a vision that the problem will be solved, though not by himself. In the case of Troilus, a less evolved man than Hamlet, the discovery of Cressida's treachery plunges him in misery not deep enough to kill, and he lives on after all he cherished is lost. Othello, a man of noble nature, basely deceived by one given over to the love of evil, accepts the appearance of evil in one pure and innocent, and only when all is ruin and death awakens to what led to his downfall. But he does awaken. Macbeth, trafficking with anything visible or invisible that will further his ends, experiences no transformation: he is an indication of possible growth downwards for man. In King Lear the havoc is tremendous: a mighty king, but not a thinker, by his impetuous unwisdom brings upon himself grievous loss and suffering. But, as is now pointed out by profound students, King Lear was not destroyed by his grief; he dies of joy, realizing that life, not evil, is the reality. He also learns through suffering to think of others.

In thus pressing to the depths and heights of human failure and anguish, with ever an intuition of the something beyond still to be reached in the nature of man, Shakespeare experienced an illumination. Henceforth, though his last dramas show the conflict between man as he is and man as he is destined to be, continued, though jealousy, rage, egotistic blindness, and foul evil are directed against the innocent in Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, though Marina, Imogen, Hermione, and Perdita are subjected to exile, desperate danger, vile suspicion, and persecution, new elements have entered into the picture.

In these last plays by Shakespeare, through the discipline of loss and sorrow the guilty are brought face to face with themselves, and even if after many years — sixteen in the case of Leontes — they accomplish their own redemption and are reborn while yet alive. Innocence, constant love, freedom from resentment of wrongs, spiritual womanliness, the powers of non-violence, are placed before us in characters and poetry of immortal beauty. In the tragedies the appearance may be fair but the reality — the treachery of Cressida, the hypocrisy of Regan and Goneril, the cruel ambition of Macbeth, pride, jealousy, lust, misanthropy, in others — are all evil. In the last plays, the appearance may be dark, but the reality is fair. Marina is not dead, Imogen is faithful, Hermione and Perdita are restored, and Miranda's view of mankind is the very opposite of a misanthropist's. Shakespeare's later vision is glorified by supreme insight into human possibilities. Hermione and Gonzalo, in wonder and reverence beholding the transformation, invoke the gods to add their blessing upon the triumph thus revealed in the individual life by the conquest of evil.

In Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest, he presents a conception of the nature of man that as far transcends the one commonly held in our time as in Shakespeare's own day. H. P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine states that "Aeschylus, like Shakespeare, was and ever will remain the intellectual "Sphinx" of the ages." William Q. Judge told us that Shakespeare was under the guidance of one of the Hierarchy of Compassion, those Sages and Seers who have knowledge of the complete cycle of human destiny. Giordano Bruno, an exponent of the Ancient Wisdom, while in England, wrote a book which he dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney and in which he demonstrated that through discipline the affections become purified, the will strengthened, and man overcomes the conflicting powers and fatal impulses in his nature. Shakespeare himself in A Midsummer Night's Dream long before this had written

. . . . As imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes.

 There was vibrating in the thought of the time this message for the intuitive poet to pass on to future ages — that the man who is lord of himself is lord of all the kingdoms, visible and invisible, which are less evolved than himself, and he can wield even the elements for purposes which are beneficent. This was a foregleam of the far future, but a future in accord with the teachings of the Ancient Wisdom concerning the destiny of man while yet living upon Earth.

Prospero, plotted against by his brother, cast off in a boat with his baby daughter and his books, creates his own little kingdom on an isle, where Caliban, a brute, and Ariel, purified and disciplined, are his servants. Here is no Puck to play tricks and exclaim "What fools these mortals be!", no Nick Bottom translated into an ass, no witches to abet man's evil desire. Here all is under control by a White Magician. Prospero's enemies are put under a spell, their "brains boiled in their skulls" for an interval, and when they are restored they see themselves — the less evolved outwitted, the more evolved regenerated. Thunder and wind and rain thus used would be more merciful and less costly than the means used in warfare today in the conflict with evil. Prospero, having restored harmonious and just relations, and discovering that he can participate with wisdom and power and insight in the work of the program for life on this globe, returns to Milan, to manifest, as its ruler, the beneficence of fully evolved humanity in a normal life among his fellows.

In this way Shakespeare, as so nobly interpreted by Professor Spencer, restores the lost dignity of man; and, be it noted, without benefit of creed or clergy or Church. Any human being can appreciate this wisdom. While Aeschylus two thousand years before brought the Gods down to Earth to transform the Furies, Shakespeare brings forth from within man the godlike power required to establish the dominion of his spiritual nature.

The poet Keats, as Professor Spencer notes, said, "Shakespeare led a life of allegory; his works are the comment on it." The high merit of Professor Spencer's book lies in the masterly way in which he has enlarged upon this statement and shown that Shakespeare, "in his own work more richly than any other writer" has "illustrated that rhythm, that sequence, that vision, which all human beings must recognise and accept as fundamental to the nature of man."


1. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man by Theodore Spencer. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1943. $2.75. (return to text)

The Theosophical Forum