Episode 30: Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare, 1564-1616

William Shakespeare, 1564-1616

I must admit I write this episode with some trepidation, since the connections to the Ideal in Shakespeare are not as clear as they are among other writers.  At times they seem to be self-evident; at others, you wonder what he could possibly be thinking.  To me it gives some credence to the idea that there were several Shakespeares, one with a clear view of  “Beauty Absolute,” and any number of hacks who are content to construct the artful little pieces of fluff that he seems to despise.  But face it: all of Shakespearean scholarship is wild speculation, and this speculation is no wilder than most.¹

I previously (Episode 15) alluded to the presence of “Ideal” themes in Shakespeare, both in the plays and the sonnets.  In many of the “king” plays especially, we see the theme of the rightful ruler (Lear, King Hamlet, Duncan, everybody in Richard III) who is overthrown, often murdered, and whose kingship is usurped by a pretender.  The result of course is always disastrous, not only for the pretenders but everyone else as well until a new legitimate ruler reappears.   Read in a psychological light (and with the original meaning of “psyche” as “soul”), we can see that these are allegories of the soul in the way Plato’s Republic is: the state is the soul writ large.  When we permit our true identity as The Good to be usurped by the ego, we invite disaster.  It’s fine for the ego, but we pay the price in a feeling of mortality and meaninglessness:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act V, sc. 5)

As pure an expression of the ego’s creed as has ever been put to paper.   But in other plays Shekespeare can give expression to the Ideal itself, here through the person of Juliet Capulet, in the famous balcony scene:

 And yet I wish but for the thing I have:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.                                                             (Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, sc. 2)


"Shake-Speares Sonnets," 1609 edition

“Shake-Speares Sonnets,” 1609 edition

But here I’d like to concentrate on the sonnets as more manageable in scope. Traditional scholarship has seen them as addressed to the “fair youth” or the “dark lady,” and there are many of them that do seem addressed to a certain person on a certain theme.  The first dozen or so, the “procreation” sonnets in particular, go on to the point of tediousness trying to encourage the young man to father a child.²  But interspersed there are some that speak to something much larger and more enduring than an individual, to a vision of love and beauty that is not just poetic hyperbole.

I see it first in Sonnet 29, which I read previously (Episode 15), and its companion piece Sonnet 30.  In both we hear the voice of a man who is being tortured by ego, in the form of thoughts of dissatisfaction and envy, or in the case of #30, of memory and regret.  But in both cases, when “I think on thee,” he is returned to the present and to happiness.  Here is # 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Now of course a thought of the fair youth could bring about this change, but there is the sense of something beyond the personal, certainly not romantic, about the “dear friend” that can bring about so complete a change of heart.

The key question becomes: Who is “thee?”  Or “you,” as in Sonnet 76 where he says,

O! know sweet love I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;

While some of the sonnets have the lover’s fickleness as their theme, often it is the reverse–its constancy and endurance as the source of all in the visible realm, as the sun is the Child of the Good.  It evokes an unchangeableness that transcends the comparative metaphoric structure of tenor and vehicle.  These are different levels of reality, as in the segments of the Divided Line.   In Sonnet 53, Shakespeare invokes Plato’s imagery of shadows, and the physical world as the “counterfeit” of the Ideal.

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring, and foison of the year,
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessèd shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

I think it is quite evident that we are not talking about a person here.

And although the “you” is constant, our experience of it is not.  In the sequence from 97 through 99, Shakespeare speaks of the experience of beautiful things seen without the Beauty Absolute.  Here is # 98:

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April dress’d in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing
That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor and in hue
Could make me any summer’s story tell.
Or from their proud lap pluck them while they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
These were but sweet, but figures of delight;
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

But when the shadows are seen as such, and the light itself returns, the poet shares in its constancy and the experience of beauty, love and truth coming together in Unity.³  Sonnet 105:

Let not my love be called idolatry,
Nor my beloved as an idol show,
Since all alike my songs and praises be
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;
Therefore my verse to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
Fair, kind, and true, is all my argument,
Fair, kind, and true, varying to other words;
And in this change is my invention spent,
Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.
Fair, kind, and true, have often lived alone,
Which three till now, never kept seat in one.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹For some quite wild speculation, there is John Kerrigan’s introduction to The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint (Penguin Classics).  On p. 52 he claims, “Shakespeare, of course, was not a neoplatonist.  He was painfully aware of way the ideals like Ficino’s are corrupted in practice, and of how imponderable true beauty is in the soul.”  I would suggest that for the first, one can be aware of the corruption (as was Ficino) and still be a neoplatonist, and for the second, that in most of the sonnets he is in fact precisely pondering the beauty of the soul.

²Although even here, Shakespeare is showing a Platonist strain, as evidenced by the following from Diotima’s speech in The Symposium: “There is a certain age at which human nature is desirous of procreation — procreation which must be in beauty and not in deformity; and this procreation is the union of man and woman, and is a divine thing; for conception and generation are an immortal principle in the mortal creature, and in the inharmonious they can never be. ”

³I’ve quote from Diotima’s speech in The Symposium a number of times before, but I think this one section bears repeating, as another example of the Unity of Beauty, Love and Truth.

‘He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty (and this, Socrates, is the final cause of all our former toils)— a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place fair, at another time or in another relation or at another place foul, as if fair to some and foul to others, or in the likeness of a face or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven, or in earth, or in any other place; but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things. He who from these ascending under the influence of true love, begins to perceive that beauty, is not far from the end. And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is. This, my dear Socrates,’ said the stranger of Mantineia, ‘is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute; a beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you; and you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them without meat or drink, if that were possible — you only want to look at them and to be with them. But what if man had eyes to see the true beauty — the divine beauty, I mean, pure and clear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life — thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine? Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may. Would that be an ignoble life?’