The more one delves into the genius of Shakespeare, the greater is the realization that, as veil after veil is lifted, there will remain “veil upon veil behind.” Who was Shakespeare? What manner of man was he? What was the power behind his plays? These are questions more easily asked than answered. The vicissitudes of Shakespeare’s reputation and the vagaries of critical opinion alike substantiate H.P. Blavatsky’s statement that Shakespeare, like Aeschylus, “will ever remain the intellectual ‘Sphinx’ of the ages.”
The scattered hints in Theosophical literature, though few and far between, are sufficiently suggestive to indicate the protean and profound nature of Shakespeare and his message. “My good friend — Shakespeare,” wrote Mahatma K.H., quoting from him in a letter. In her editorial opening the first volume of Lucifer, H.P. Blavatsky declared that
Shakespeare’s deep and accurate science in mental philosophy’ (Coleridge) has proved more beneficent to the true philosopher in the study of the human heart — therefore, in the promotion of truth — than the more accurate but certainly less deep, science of any Fellow of the Royal Institution.
Again, we know from her letter to A.P. Sinnett that she wanted a student to write out “the esoteric meaning of some of Shakespeare’s plays” for inclusion in The Secret Doctrine. Lastly, we have W.Q. Judge’s statement: “The Adepts assert that Shakespeare was, unconsciously to himself, inspired by one of their own number.”
Shakespeare was a magnificent creative genius who, coming under Nirmanakayic influence, became a myriad-minded master of life and language. His amazing and expansive knowledge of the super-physical and the invisible, his penetrating and compassionate insight into human nature, his transcendent and kaleidoscopic imagination, his intuitive perception and his inspired passages — all these are at once the expression and the evidence of the deep inwardness of his plays, and of the luminous influence of Adepts.
What was the nature of Adept influence upon the mind of Shakespeare? It is not to be thought that Shakespeare was, from the first, under the special care and observation of the Great Lodge, but rather that the superior possibilities embedded within himself were what higher inspiration spurred into stronger activity. This was possible because of the largeness of his mind and the receptivity of his soul. The breadth of his Soul-Life could cause the offspring of his Fancy “to share richly in the vital Fire that burns in the higher (Image-making) Power.” Above all, he possessed the power, as John Masefield has written, to touch “energy, the source of all things, the reality behind all appearance,” and to partake of the storehouse of pure thought.
We will not, however, find it an easy task to unravel the mystery locked up in the allegory, symbol and character portrayal of the great plays. For, “the very fact that Shakespeare remained unconscious of the Nirmanakayic influence which his genius attracted shows that we must not expect the unadulterated expression of Divine Wisdom in all he created.”
There are two possible ways of studying any of Shakespeare’s plays in terms of Gupta Vidya. The first is the easier one of extracting hints of esoteric truth out of the significant lines and passages of the play. The second is the more difficult one of interpreting the entire tale and theme of the play according to one or more of the seven keys of symbolism suggested in The Secret Doctrine. We will use both methods, but concentrate on the second, which, if less easy, will be found more fascinating.
The group of plays to which The Tempest belongs and of which it is presumably the last, was written in the final period of Shakespeare’s life. All these plays are romances, neither tragic nor comic but both, full of unexacting and exquisite dreams, woven within a world of mystery and marvel, of shifting visions and confusing complications, “a world in which anything may happen next.” Strangely remote from ‘real’ life is this preternatural world of Shakespeare’s final period, and the universe of his invention is peopled with many creatures more or less human, beings belonging to different orders of life. The romantic character of these plays is reflected in the richness of their style. Here we have the primary facts of poetry, suggestion, colour, imagery, together with complicated and incoherent periods, softened and accentuated rhythms, tender and evanescent beauties. These plays reach the very apex of poetic art, revealing a matured magnificence of diction and the haunting magic of the purest lyricism, altogether appealing more to the imagination than the intellect.
The fundamental feature, however, of these plays of the final period is the archetypal pattern of prosperity, destruction and re-creation which their plots follow. Virtue is not only virtuous, but also victorious, triumphant, and villainy is not only frustrated, but also forgiven. These are dramas of reconciliation between estranged kinsmen, of wrongs righted through repentance, not revenge, of pardon and of peace. Tragedy is fully merged into mysticism, and the theme is rendered in terms of myth and music, reflecting the grandeur of true immortality and spiritual conquest within apparent death and seeming defeat.
Upon the firm foundation of the accepted conclusions regarding the chronological order of the plays of Shakespeare, and of the peculiar features of the final period, modern critics have been only too eager to build their plausible and picturesque interpretations.
We have, first, the Dowden doctrine, supported in different degrees by other critics, likening Shakespeare to a ship, beaten and storm-tossed, yet entering harbour with sails full-set to anchor in Stratford-on-Avon in a state of calm content and serene self-possession. This view gives the final period of the playwright the attractive appellation of “On the Heights”, and perceives in these last plays the charm of meditative romance and the peace of the highest vision. The Tempest is reverentially regarded as the supreme essence of Shakespeare’s final benignity.
Lytton Strachey’s contrary thesis, echoed partially by Granville-Barker, is that these faulty and fantastic last plays show that Shakespeare ended his days in boredom, cynicism and disillusionment. Dr. E.M.W. Tillyard and John Middleton Murry not only see no lack of vitality, no boredom with things, no poverty of versification in these later plays, but, in fact, evidences of the work of one whose poetical faculty was at its height.
The best interpretation is that of Wilson Knight in The Crown of Life. He regards Shakespeare as equivalent to the dynamic spiritual power manifest in his plays, and finds in the Shakespearean sequence the ring of reason, order and necessity. His plays spell the universal rhythm of the motion of the spirit of man, progressing from spiritual pain and despair through stoic acceptance and endurance to a serene and mystic joy. Whereas in the tragedies is expressed the anguish of the aspiring human soul, crying out from within its frail sepulchre of flesh against the unworthiness of the world, these last plays portray the joyous conquest of life’s pain.
It is, however, important to point out the danger of stereotyping the divisions of Shakespeare’s life, and the need to be wary how we apply our labels and demarcations to “so mobile a thing as the life and work of man.” In the last analysis, Shakespeare was all of one piece; he developed, but in his development cast nothing away; his attitude towards life deepened, but his essential outlook always remained the same.
We could attribute the surpassing majesty of the plays of the final period to the great expansion of the creative power and dramatic skill which had first begun to show themselves in their grandeur in the tragic productions of ‘the middle period.’ This expansion was the product, as it is the proof, of the Adept Inspiration from which Shakespeare progressively benefited and on which he increasingly drew. Thus, we are fully prepared to regard the final period as the culmination of a spiritual odyssey which found its consummation in The Tempest, his last and greatest of plays. In this view, then, The Tempest is a broader, deeper “embodiment of the qualities drawn from the higher planes of man’s being in which Imagination rules,” a perfect pattern of myth and magic as of music and marvel.
The Gupta Vidya II