The Theosophical Forum – April 1936



It has been said that when we talk about great men we conjure up their souls, indeed their spirits, and if there is truth in this thought, we are tonight in very good company! For we are speaking tonight about one of the world's greatest dramatists, William Shakespeare, and we are fully justified in calling him one of the world's greatest dramatists, for indeed he belonged, and belongs, to the world.

  Who was this man whom we now know as William Shakespeare, who was born in 1564 and died in 1616? You who have visited Stratford-on-Avon, who have seen the church where he was buried; you who have witnessed some of the master's great plays in the Memorial Theater in Stratford, know a little more than most people about this mysterious personage, about whom so much has been written and whose plays have been read all over the world and translated into many languages. Yet no other artist has been more impersonal. It is as if he said to the world: "Here is my work; take it and do with it whatever you like, but forget myself." And yet we know that William Shakespeare by his works has set the whole world thinking, writing, and philosophizing. It is doubtful if the mystery about his personal life will ever be solved.


In order to study Shakespeare we have to go to his works; and a study of these works means: (a) a study of the evolution of a human being, and (b) of the life of an innocent, bright, and lively youth up to the period in his life when he felt the 'warrior' awakening in him; (c) of the time when the storms come and make him wonder, doubt, seek, search (a tragic period); and (d) a study of his conquests, of his power to see through and behind things, of times when he knew, i. e., had an inner vision, (as in his last plays).

What then are the outstanding traits which we find in all his works, especially in the tragedies? Here are a few:

Trust in the good of life and in a noble destiny for man.
Belief in the law of cause and effect.
The hero as falling at the end through some flaw in his own character, no matter how noble he may be otherwise.
Life as a great 'adventure' and life as worth living.
The immortality of the inner man, the Spiritual Soul.
Love and compassion as liberating key-notes of life.

Rarely do we find Shakespeare using or referring to the word 'God.' We find instead: 'everlasting,' 'providence'; but 'God' in its Christian connotation is scarcely found at all.

What a great painter of character this dramatist was! How well must he have known himself and human nature to be able to paint such marvelous characters and their relations to their surroundings; their adventures and their struggle for light and freedom. It has been said, also, that no one has ever surpassed him in his description of women. We find in his works the sweet and lovely woman, but also the terrible and cruel type — though always great as characters. A study of Shakespeare's woman-characters alone would reveal more than the reading of hundreds of modern novels.

We find in Shakespeare too, as in all profound thinkers, a deep and noble sense of humor employed in creating wonderful contrasts. Therefore has it been called 'dramatic humor.' And at the end of his great tragedies we always find that beautiful promise of hope: in spite of the fall of the hero, in spite of deep tragedy, indeed often a holocaust, we feel a purification, a katharsis, revealing to us the fact that from suffering and sorrow and tragedy, if we are noble-hearted and noble-minded, great light may come. (For a more comprehensive study of Shakespeare's plays it is recommended that something more be known about the great writers on Shakespeare's works: Moulton, Bradley, and Dowden.)

Let us not tonight, however, speak too much of that which others have said concerning Shakespeare. Let us make Shakespeare speak for himself; but then you cannot blame me either for giving my own version of the great dramatist's works. And yet we can understand only that which can be evoked in us, that which we have in ourselves. If I pronounce the word 'house,' some of us may see only their own house, some may see a miserable hovel, others may see a beautiful palace: it is our imagination and our power of vision that make us see. Nevertheless I shall substantiate everything that I am going to say by referring to the poet's own words, and simply request you to bear in mind, as said before, that it is our own power of vision that will make us understand the deeper side of the master's adventures and descriptions of life, when hearing his words and seeing his plays.


Hamlet has probably interested people as much as Goethe's Faust. Indeed, I have often wondered if a parallel could not be drawn between Parts I and II of Faust and Shakespeare's Hamlet and The Tempest. At all times and in all periods Hamlet has had a hold upon the people. Bradley has called Hamlet the tragedy of 'moral idealism,' and for the following reasons, as Shakespeare gives them:

a. "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so."
Do you see the deep philosophy in this? You are what you think, said the Sages.

b. "There's a Divinity that shapes our ends." Evidently the great master wants to make us see that our end — that is, our destiny — is sublime, and if so we must be part of that Divinity.

c. "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!"

Here we see how, in the words of Hamlet, Shakespeare gives us a conception of man reflecting his own philosophy in the middle-period of his life, in what we may call the 'tragic period.'

I suppose you all know the story of Hamlet, but let us very quickly allow the events to pass before our mind's eye. Hamlet the philosopher has come back to Denmark because his noble father has died. King Claudius, his uncle, whom his mother has married, is on the throne. In nobility of character he is the opposite of the late king, Hamlet's father. The ghost appears (did Shakespeare use the supernatural only to interest his audience?) and he informs the prince that his father was murdered. We then learn Hamlet's mission: "Taint not thy mind" — and yet he must avenge his father's death. He may not wrong his mother, and yet he must kill her husband! Now, if Shakespeare meant us to take things literally, could this be possible? Can we kill a man and not "taint our minds"? We see at once that the play must be taken symbolically, and then indeed we shall view Hamlet from quite a different aspect. We remember what Hamlet's philosophy brought to him; how he worked out his great mission; how he killed Polonius; how he was sent to England, and returns, finding Ophelia dead; how at last he fulfils the task that is set him; and we hear the words: "the rest is silence," when Hamlet falls. Yet we feel that, in reality, he has conquered. The coming of Fortinbras brings the promise that the "rotten state" of Denmark will soon belong to the past.

Is this play only a melodrama and a holocaust? Was Shakespeare a fool? Are all the readers and students and critics fools by being so interested in and paying so much attention to this story of Hamlet? Indeed, it might have been an impossible story if Shakespeare had not continually drawn our attention to the symbolic meaning. Probably he himself was going through what we might call the 'Hamlet state' — the state when with great intensity we ask ourselves the meaning of life and of its struggles, the why and the how, and crave the truth about our destiny. In scene ii Hamlet says:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't' 0 fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this! — I, ii.

Are we not led to see in the old Hamlet our own Higher Self, who should be on the throne as our Lord and Master, but whom we have suffered to be put in the background, while an ignoble character, King Claudius (our lower self), is temporarily occupying the throne? When we read Hamlet's words about the Ghost, we can see in his words the urge to listen to the voice of this Higher Self:

Why, what should be the fear?
I do not set my life at a pin's fee;
And for my soul, what can it do to that,
Being a thing immortal as itself? — I, iv

Another strong plea for the symbolic meaning of the play is that Hamlet is not allowed to 'taint' his mind. Yet how can one commit a murder and not taint one's mind? In Act i, scene v, the Ghost says:

But, howsoever thou pursu'st this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven. — I, v

A most remarkable thing also is Hamlet's pledge to his Higher Self:

O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O fie! Hold, hold my heart;
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up! — Remember thee?
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven! — I, v

It seems as if the wavering, hesitating personal self makes a promise to obey the Inner Self. On the one hand we find Hamlet's admiration for a human being: "What a piece of work is man!"; on the other hand, his doubt as to the emotions and the illusions of the personal self, by which he proves that he is learning to discriminate between the mortal and the immortal part of himself:

In apprehension how like a god! . . .
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? — II, ii

His pondering on the mysteries of life and death we find in the well-known monologue "To be or not to be" in Act III, and also later on in the words:

Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. — III, ii

How well do we learn Shakespeare's idea about the mind:

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, He that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused. — IV, iv

In conclusion, like a motif in a symphony we continually hear:

a. "There's a Divinity that shapes our ends" (Act v, sc. ii); that is, Life may be a mysterious adventure, but our destiny is divine. As the old philosophers said: "Man is a god in his innermost being," and Hamlet is striving to gain this great knowledge about Self.

b. "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." That is, "We are what we think." We make or mar ourselves by our thinking, our aspirations, and our ideals.

c. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (Act I, sc. v). Indeed, we all agree with these words, when, like Hamlet, we have been struggling to liberate ourselves from this material and limited life to find the greater, the infinite Life. Hamlet feels himself to be the great actor on the stage of life, but has found out as yet only some of the things in "heaven and earth," which are more than human beings dream of.


And these greater things the seeking human soul has learned in The Tempest. How sweet is the passing from the turmoil and struggle in Hamlet to the enchantment and fairylike atmosphere in that lonely island to which the great dramatist leads us in The Tempest! This play has been considered Shakespeare's last, because the hero, Prospero, breaks his magic wand at the end, and it has been suggested that Shakespeare intended this to be understood as a symbolic indication that he would write no more after this play. Had the author, who must have identified himself with Hamlet during certain phases of his life, now found the greater truth of life, indeed, had he conquered life? Side by side with the tranquility and the enchantment we still have in The Tempest struggles and evil characters; but Prospero, the hero, is no longer affected. He has power over Nature; he is a Master of Life and Death, whose commands the monster Caliban has to obey. When we read this play, or see it, we come to the conclusion that it is no less real or symbolic than Hamlet, but that now everything is controlled by Prospero's mighty power. The key-notes are:

a. Love conquers; compassion is the liberating power in the world.

b. The Law of cause and effect must be fully worked out before real peace, rest, and forward evolution can come.

c. The lower life and its forces must be controlled before the divine influence can make itself felt in life and in our hearts.

I presume that you all know this story, and have felt the beauty of the lonely island and Nature, the sweetness of Miranda's character, Ferdinand's nobility, and Prospero's wonderful insight, foresight, and power. And you have marveled at the sprightliness and loveliness of that incomparable creation, Ariel, and by reading or from seeing the performance of the play, have experienced a beautiful dream which was 'real' enough.


As we have said, some of the key-notes of The Tempest are: Love and forgive! Do we not see that there has been a great evolution from the 'Hamlet-stage' to the 'Prospero-stage'? By self-directed evolution the hero, from being more or less a slave to himself, has become the master of himself. The poet had discovered something — something far greater than when at an earlier stage he identified himself with Hamlet. Listen to his words:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. — IV, i

That is, there is a law of coming and going, a law of cycles, the great mystery of the withdrawal from the visible worlds into the invisible spheres. Had Shakespeare studied the old philosophies, or did his own inner self, his intuition, tell him something about the great illusion of life? For does not Prospero in Act IV say:

. . . We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. — IV, i

Here we have a clear indication that Shakespeare discriminated between that which is lasting, the immortal side of life, and the transient or mortal side; but a man who could evolve from the Hamlet- stage to that of a Prospero in The Tempest, even if it be but in the imagination, must have found something sublime in life — and we shall find it too when we study him properly.

In conclusion, it may be useful and interesting to draw some parallels:

  "Hamlet" "The Tempest"
Love: Love is personal (scheming is the result). Love is here chiefly impersonal, as love of Nature) Prospero's love. Sacrifice, in Ferdinand and Miranda.
Rogues: Here they have partial success. In this they have no success.
The King: The King on the throne is a bad influence. He is an instrument to bring about good.
The Plot: Struggling, scheming; conquest is but partial. A complete conquest of the good over the bad.
The Women: They are personal, limited; hardly real womanhood. Real womanhood.
The Supernatural: It is mysterious, sinister, looming in the background. It is controlled by Prospero; it is a helpful force, thereby liberating the 'supernatural' beings also.
The Hero: He is struggling, falling and rising, and only in the end gains the victory; he is still under the influence of 'circumstances' (Karman) He is the master of life and death: a helper of his fellow-men, and never thinking of himself.

The destiny of man's life, Shakespeare seems to say to us, is sublime. Through struggle and failure we rise higher, reach higher heights, greater perfection, become masters of Life, and of Death.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition