Where darkness holds sway there often appears a counter effort in the form of a dazzling ray of light — or perhaps the appearance of light inspires a resurgence of darkness. In any case, some ages are characterized by high contrast. One such time was the late Renaissance, whose inquisitory repression raging in many forms through many lands contrasted sharply with the coming of great luminaries, among them Bruno, Newton, Galileo, and Shakespeare. It was a difficult time for thinkers, yet there were many who, in turn, made it a difficult time for orthodoxy.
During the early Christian period many conflicting beliefs were held about reincarnation, nemesis, mystical experience, and transcendence of the human state. Unfortunately, the effect of the organized Christian Church was to eliminate those aspects of teaching that were not compatible with a rigid theological monopoly. Church dogma contended that we are all brought into being from nothingness, are guilty from conception with original sin, have only this one life, and will face eternal hellfire unless saved through the Church, views that brought upon Europe a dark period which limited creative thought and divine inspiration, and whose legacy continues to the present day. Any thought that we might somehow be able to fashion our own salvation, hearken to our own music, achieve our own enlightenments, was and is violently repressed by institutions seeking to dispense and regulate salvation.
Let’s examine a simple chronology: Shakespeare was born in 1564, the same year as Galileo, who was imprisond for heresy. Giordano Bruno, who traveled and lectured in England, was burnt at the stake as a heretic in 1600, when Shakespeare was in his prime. Bruno taught that the cosmos was part of one great living organism, that everything reoccurred in cycles, that the stars in the heavens were all suns with their own planetary systems — insights that led directly to his death. Shakespeare died in 1616, the same year as Cervantes, also imprisoned by the Church. In 1642 all theaters in England were closed by Oliver Cromwell and his Protestant movement — the same year that Galileo died. In his lifetime Shakespeare was suspected of being a papist by the Church of England and of being infected with atheism by the Catholics — capital offenses during his lifetime. And yet we have his legacy, a vision and art that transcend all labels.
It is, in a sense, to be expected that one who grasps so well and expresses so brilliantly the experiences, travails, and ecstasies of human existence should also find and present insights into the purpose of our mortal passage. Shakespeare saw himself as playing a role in life, both on the stage and as a crafter of words, that he expresses slyly through a character’s criticism of poets:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
— A Midsummer Night’s Dream V, i
And in this role, through his characters, he shares the music he perceives, reclad in golden words that served both to convey his vision and to change the English language itself. We can see in the works of writers and other artists the earmarks of divine inspiration and, from time to time and to some degree, we have certainly all felt it ourselves. Whether from a muse, an angel, or a ray from our own spark of divine fire, there exists in every sentient being the ability to hear the universe speak. Shakespeare used the metaphor of music in words that still ring today:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
— The Merchant of Venice V, i
How well he grasped the relationship of the sublime and the corporeal, the majesty of the divine and the transience and illusory nature of manifestation! Perhaps as important as anything is the conscious connection to that divine music that Shakespeare felt himself, sought in others, and valued so highly:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
— The Merchant of Venice V, i
Some of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters are rich with celestial music and a sublime nobility of spirit. One such is the banished Duke Senior from As You Like It, who, bereft of title, lands, home, and comfort, nonetheless delights in music, both earthly and transcendent:
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it. — II, i
How better to describe that divine music than as tongues in trees, books in brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. Shakespeare expresses the idea that man is clearly bound for greater things as he hearkens ever more to the strains of inner nobility: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god!” (Hamlet II, ii). Perhaps Ceremon, the healer and mystic in Pericles, says it best:
I hold it ever,
Virtue and cunning were endowments greater
Than nobleness and riches: careless heirs
May the two latter darken and expend;
But immortality attends the former.
Making a man a god. — III, ii
We are divine beings, noble souls, striving to attain enlightenment and immortality, and Shakespeare depicts in many forms and guises how we make choices and suffer the results. As human beings we listen to that inner music, and one can feel in his words how clearly Shakespeare heard it. As Prospero said: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep . . .” (The Tempest IV, i).
It is hard for us to see ourselves mounting the steps in our long journey to enlightenment while confining our view of life to a single birth and death. Never a safe philosophy to espouse, Shakespeare nonetheless toys with the heretical concept of reincarnation in Sonnet LIX:
If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which labouring for invention bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child.
Oh that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done,
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whether better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
Oh sure I am the wits of former days,
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.
One cannot help but wonder why the great concepts of man’s divinity, preexistence, and sublime path were not more dominant themes of Shakespeare’s work. But perhaps we should be content with what is there, for were there more, we might have been left with nothing.
Many atrocities have been inspired by fear: fear of threats to orthodoxy, particularly from popular sources, as well as fear of differing doctrines within and outside Christianity. Perhaps, though, the greatest fear was that of the music itself. Indeed, the Church strove many times to regulate music, within the church as well as that practiced by peoples under its dominion. Yet this outer music is but a pale reflection of that which sounds within all of us. The thought that a source of divine music may be available to each entity from within has always been the ultimate fear of those who would regulate truth.
(From Sunrise magazine, Spring 2007; copyright © 2007 Theosophical University Press)