The Esoteric Shakespeare, by Michael White

The Plays of William Shakespeare. John Gilbert, oil on canvas, 1849.
Dahesh Museum of Art, New York City

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players….”

When I had reached the end of the first play, I stood like one who, blind from birth,  finds himself suddenly blest with sight…l realized that my existence had been  infinitely expanded.1

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Esoteric knowledge in Shakespeare’s day was in full bloom. This was a result of the Renaissance in Italy, which brought to light a great body of knowledge that had an immediate impact on the literary currents of Europe. Neoplatonic, Rosicrucian, Hermetic, Cabbalistic, and alchemical esotericism had currency in Shakespeare’s time in London. Two great Renaissance thinkers of the day, Giordano Bruno and John Dee, were both living there. Bruno was in exile from Italy, and Dee, who had one of the largest libraries of esoteric works in his day, was an advisor to the queen. Both had immense influence in the London of the 1580s, just when Shakespeare was making his name.  

These ideas came to the city like the rising of a new sun. They represented a completely new spirituality that signaled an alternative to the confines of the Catholic church and the extremes of the Reformation. Renaissance Neoplatonism was infused with ideas from the Jewish mysticism of Cabbala along with Hermetic wisdom from Egypt. These ideas fascinated the intelligentsia. Shakespeare was aware of these esoteric ideas and they appear in his plays. Love’s Labour’s Lost, first performed in 1597, is in part a reaction to some of Giordano Bruno’s ideas. Bruno’s book The Heroic Frenzies, published 1585, portrayed love as a mystical state that was literally the presence of the divine. Love, for Bruno, was the prima materia, the basic energy of the universe that powered the sun and filled the empty space. It was the vital substance, the ground from which all things sprang. Bruno called love the magnetic, innocent, amoral, primordial nature inherent in all things.

The character Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost was modeled on Bruno. Berowne gives a speech about the divinity of love that echoes Bruno’s ideas:

   Love, first learned in a lady’s eyes

Lives not alone immured in the brain;

But, with the motion of all elements,

Courses as swift as thought in every power…

And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods

Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony. 


(4.3. 324-27, 344-45)

In Love’s Labor’s Lost the three principal characters are lords in the court of the king of Navarre. The three lords plan to withdraw from society for three years and dedicate themselves to the pursuit of wisdom. To do so, they must abstain from contact with women and vow to pursue only knowledge. They agree to practice austerities, to be “Remote from all the pleasures of the world:” (5.2.803-804). The only contact they are to have with the outside world is to visit and comfort the sick. Their only ambition is to escape the business of life and cultivate selflessness in solitude. However, this plan denies the feminine that is the very embodiment of love. Shakespeare’s plot echoes Bruno’s ideas that without love, scholarship is a barren wasteland.

  Bruno’s influence is also felt in Troilus and Cressida, when Ulysses gives his speech about the order of the cosmos and how it relates to the social order of society and the psychological make-up of each person. The most basic principle of Egyptian esotericism, taken from the Emerald Tablets of Hermes Trismegistus, states, “As above, so below.” This principle, expounded by Bruno, was the founding tenet of Renaissance astrology, which saw the heavens as a macrocosm that determined the destiny of the nations of earth and of people individually.

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center

Observe degree, priority, and place,

Infixture, course, proportion, season, form,

Office and custom, in all line of order…

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And hark what discord follows.


(1.3.85-88,108-110)
William Shakespeare. William Blake. Painting, c. 1800

Reading Shakespeare is an awakening to a sensibility that sees into an inner self that encompasses the broadest horizon of human experience. Shakespeare did not have the textual source material about Buddhism or Hinduism, but he did have the vision to see into the human psyche. Shakespeare expressed many of the esoteric ideas found in the traditions in his own way. When Gurdjieff came to Paris and started his Institute he inscribed a series of aphorisms on the walls of the study hall. One of these was the phrase, “Remember yourself always and everywhere.” This was formulated in a series of exercises which started with the phrase, “First and last: self-observation and non-identification.” This same idea appears in Love’s Labor Lost when Berowne talks about the “slow arts” of education that “keep the brain.” Berowne then calls for a different form of mentality that

   with the motion of all elements

Courses as swift as thought in every power,

And gives to every power a double power,

Above their functions and their offices

It adds a precious seeing to the eye.


(4.3.305-9)

Here is another level of mentation, a doubling of awareness, a “precious seeing” that opens a heightened realization that he understands but has little language to describe. This is a mental leap into an awareness more sublime than our ordinary ways of thinking.

Another idea that drives much of esoteric thinking is that the ego is an automated, habituated set of behavioral patterns that have been learned unconsciously, first in the culture in which we find ourselves, then in the historical situations surrounding our life, in the language we speak, in our family, our education, etc. This is mirrored in Shakespeare’s idea that we are all actors on the stage, that we have learned our roles and, in each situation, we take our cues and say our lines.  

Shakespeare expressed this in a number of different plays. In The Merchant of Venice he writes,

I hold the world but as the world…

A stage where every man must play a part (1.1.77-79)

In As You Like It he writes,

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players


(2.7.139-40) 

And in a famous passage in Macbeth, he writes,

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. 


(5.5.24-28)

The practice of self-observation and non-identification shifts the focus of awareness from our individual opinions and prejudices to the basic human nature that is inherent in each person. This is an awakening to another level of self-realization, of self-reflection, of self-observation. This heightened self-awareness knows that it knows and does so from a disinterested point of view. The relationship of the individual sense of self to basic human nature is often compared to a single drop of rain falling into the ocean. Shakespeare used this metaphor in The Comedy of Errors where he writes,

   I to the world am like a drop of water

That in the ocean seeks another drip,

Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,

Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself. 


(1. 2. 35-38)

Shifting the focus of attention to the basic human nature inherent in each of us reveals a place in each person where all humans are alike. Those who experience this can accept others without prejudice, non-judgmentally. In this type of self-awareness all that has been hidden, repressed, and concealed in our personal history can be revealed without guilt or shame as something human all too human. It is a function of art to reveal the secrets of the heart with confidence and fidelity, as revelation in which all beings participate. Creativity is not expressing something new but rather an expression of something so common that it touches each person, so universal that it cannot be ignored. 

Shakespeare took the basic building blocks of identity and played with them. He shows the debt we owe to fortune, to occasion, to circumstance. There is a process happening and what we take as identity is but a momentary expression of the self with no inherency outside this process. We cling to our identity and seek to hold it steady against the currents of change, but each of us is caught in a radical immersion in impermanence. This is expressed in The Tempest in some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines,

…the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep. 


(4. 1.148-153)

When the center of gravity of the self moves from the individual to basic human nature, the idea of revenge loses its importance and is replaced with a sense of reconciliation, tolerance, and acceptance. This idea is one of the central tenets of esoterism. It is expressed in the famous maxim of the Buddha, “Hatred is never overcome by hatred, only by love.” 

In The Tempest, the last of all the plays, the idea of revenge is replaced with forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation.  There the main character, Prospero, brings together all the people who plotted against him and, rather than acting out revenge, he forgives and seeks understanding. Prospero says,

   The rarer action is

In virtue than in vengeance:


(5.1.27-28)
Shakespeare performing before Queen Elizabeth and her court. Anonymous
engraving for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, 1839

This is Shakespeare’s highest moral achievement and a display of his self-mastery. This is self-observation and non-identification of the highest order. Shakespeare provides an initiation into the presence of mind, the higher intelligence, that overcomes possessiveness, jealousy, and revenge. 

One purpose of art is to provide a vision that reveals the beauty and harmony of our world. We typically make a distinction between art and reality. We think of art as the shadow of reality but, instead, art is the shadow of beauty, which is experienced as a harmonic resonance with the whole. Art is not just a copy of reality like a still-life painting. The material objects portrayed in a painting, in a sculpture, in a play, in a work of literature, are transient, caught in a wheel of birth, growth, decay, and death, in a constant process of transformation.

It is impossible to view the whole. We are strictly perspectival and can see only from the point of view of our place in the world. Wholeness eludes us. Art creates a sense of the wholeness that we know must exist but which is beyond our powers of perception.  Shakespeare’s art is an intimation of this unity. In his art we

 take upon’s the mystery of things

As if we were God’s spies.


(Lear 5.3.16-17) ♦

1 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Essays on Art and Literature, Goethe’s Collected Works, Volume III, Edited by John Gearey, Translated by Ellen von Nardroff and Ernest H. von Nardroff, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1986.

From Parabola Volume 44, No. 1, “Change & the Changeless,” Spring 2019. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing. Four times a year Parabola has explored the deepest questions of human existence. Without your support, we would cease to exist. Please consider helping us by making a donation