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’ 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 Adept 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 the 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 what G.S.Gordon calls 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 tale of The Tempest is well-known but we shall briefly recapitulate its salient strands. It is, primarily, the story of Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan, and his charming child, Miranda, both banished by the usurper Antonio, his brother, and living unknown on a lonely island. Here, through a long period of successful study and practice, Prospero has matured into a master-magician, and Miranda has flowered into a marriageable maiden. The play opens with a violent storm and a resulting shipwreck, caused at the bidding of Prospero by the invisible hosts of the elements, of whom Ariel is the chief. The royal party involved in the shipwreck is saved according to Prospero’s plan, and is scattered on the shore, in three different parts of the island. Alonso, the King of Naples; Sebastian, his brother; Antonio, the usurper; Gonzalo, an honest old Councillor; and two Lords, Adrian and Francisco, land on one side of the island and most of them fall into an induced slumber, during which the vigilant and vile Antonio persuades the susceptible Sebastian to join in a plot to kill the King. Thanks to the intervention of the invisible Ariel, the plotters are prevented from fulfilling their purpose, and the entire party is led to look for Ferdinand, the son and successor of Alonso.
Meanwhile, Ferdinand has met Miranda and has been forced into her father’s service, which he patiently undergoes until Prospero is pleased to bestow on him his daughter. At the same time, in a third part of the island, Caliban, the deformed and savage slave of Prospero, has been met first by Trinculo, the King’s jester, and then by Stephano, a drunken butler, both of whom foolishly join the faithless Caliban in an abortive plot against his powerful master. These three groups are all, in the last Act, brought together near his cell by Prospero, after Antonio and Alonso and Sebastian have been made by strange and fearful sights and sounds to repent of their folly; after Ferdinand and Miranda have been treated to a visionary masque, played by spirits; and after Caliban and his companions have been brought to their senses – all of which is accomplished through the agency of Ariel. The play ends with the restoration of disturbed harmony, the recompense of the good and the repentance of the deluded, the release of Ariel from Prospero’s service, and the reconciliation of one and all to the new order ushered in by Prospero, who shows himself to be a man of wisdom and a master of destiny.
Let us first briefly consider different interpretations of the underlying theme of The Tempest. There is, first of all, the excellent but purely artistic interpretation of Dr. Tillyard whose thesis is that the play gives us the fullest sense of the different worlds within worlds which we can inhabit, and that it is also the necessary epilogue to the incomplete theme of the great tragedies.
A more ambitious and comprehensive attempt is that of Wilson Knight, who interprets the theme of the play from various points of view – poetical, philosophical, political and historical. Poetically, he considers the play artistic autobiography, its meanings revealing a wide range of universal values. Philosophically, he maintains that The Tempest portrays a wrestling of flesh and spirit. Politically, he interprets the play as the betrayal of Prospero, Plato’s philosopher-king and a representative of impractical idealism, by Antonio, Machiavelli’s Prince, and a symbol of political villainy. Lastly, the play is regarded historically as a myth of the national soul, Prospero signifying Britain’s severe, yet tolerant, religious and political instincts, Ariel typifying her inventive and poetical genius, and Caliban her colonizing spirit.
Another serious attempt at interpretation is that of Cohn Still, whose study of the ‘timeless theme’ of The Tempest has not attracted the attention it deserves. He regards this ‘Mystery play’ as a deliberate allegorical account of those psychological experiences which constitute Initiation, its main features resembling those of every ceremonial ritual based upon the authentic mystical tradition of all mankind, but especially of the pagan world. Still takes Prospero as the Hierophant, and in one aspect, as God Himself; Ariel as the Angel of the Lord, Caliban as the Tempter or the Devil, and Miranda as the Celestial Bride. The comedians, Stephano and Trinculo, led on by the Devil, constitute a failure to achieve Initiation; the experiences of the Court Party, which is of purgatorial status, constitute the Lesser Initiation, its attainment being self-discovery; while Ferdinand attains to Paradise, to the goal of the Greater Initiation which consists in receiving a ‘second life.’ The wreck is considered symbolic of the imaginary terrors of the candidate for Initiation, and the immersion in the water as symbolic of his preliminary purification. The Masque is regarded as apocalyptic in character, and the cell is taken to represent the Sanctum Sanctorum, only to be entered after full initiation. And so Still goes on giving every detail the status of a semi-esoteric symbol drawn mainly from pagan ritual.
Still’s thesis, though basically sound, is obscured by theological terminology, and its detailed application often leads to a certain forcing of analogy. Prospero, for instance, is a man, not God, and Caliban is too clearly a thing of nature to be called a Devil, or Satan. Still’s centre of reference is altogether less in the poetry or in the philosophy than in a rigid system of pagan symbolism applied to the play.
In Theosophical terms, we can approach The Tempest from at least three angles – the psychological, the cosmic and the occult. Of these, we shall adopt the last for detailed interpretation of the characters in the play. Before that, however, it will be worthwhile to indicate how the psychological and the cosmic keys may be applied.
The psychological key enables us to construe the theme of The Tempest in terms of the principles of the human constitution and the everyday experiences of the majority of mankind. In this line of interpretation, Prospero would represent Atman, the Universal Self, which overbroods the remaining constituents of man, and allows for their rescue from all internal disequilibrium, thus producing that divine and unifying harmony which spells poise and proportion, as well as power and peace. Miranda, the daughter of Prospero, would be that specialization of Atman which we know as Buddhi, the spiritual and at present passive principle in man, the vehicle of Atman, and at once the expression and the essence of pure wisdom and of true compassion. It is in this sense that Miranda represents the fallen and Sleeping Soul of the uninitiated and deluded man. Ferdinand, the Prince who aspires to the companionship of Miranda, could be made to symbolize the Higher Manas, the incarnated ray of the Divine in Man, while Antonio, the usurper who plans to secure personal power at the cost of his weakening conscience, could represent the Kama Manas, or the Desire-Mind. To complete the picture, Caliban could be taken as the Kama-rupa or the passional part of man in material form, and Ariel as the type of the assemblage of presiding deities, Devatas or elementals, in the human personality. This, in silhouette form, would be the system of symbols that could be constructed on the basis of the psychological key – a system which, interesting as it is in its ramifying implications, it would not be difficult to develop.
The second interpretation, which we have called the cosmic, follows from a comprehensive view of the evolutionary stream in nature, of the Great Ladder of Being. This interpretation is implied in H.P.Blavatsky’s oft-quoted statement that
the Ego begins his life-pilgrimage as a sprite, an ‘Ariel,’ or a ‘Puck’; he plays the part of a super, is a soldier, a servant, one of the chorus; rises then to ‘speaking parts,’ plays leading roles, interspersed with insignificant parts, till he finally retires from the stage as ‘Prospero,’ the magician.
In this line of interpretation, the play presents an image of the glorious supremacy of the perfected human soul over all other things and beings. At the peak of the evolutionary ascent stands Prospero, the representative of wise and compassionate god-manhood, in its true relation to the combined elements of existence – the physical powers of the external world – and the varieties of character with which it comes into contact. He is the ruling power to which the whole series is subject, from Caliban the densest to Ariel the most ethereal extreme. In Prospero we have the finest fruition of the co-ordinate development of the spiritual and the material lines of evolution.
Next to Prospero comes that charming couple, Ferdinand and Miranda, exquisite flowers of human existence that blossom forth under the benign care of their patriarch and guru. From these we descend, by a most harmonious moral gradation, through the agency of the skilfully interposed figure of the good Gonzalo, to the representatives of the baser intellectual properties of humanity. We refer to the cunning, cruel, selfish and treacherous worldlings, who vary in their degrees of delusion from the confirmed villainy of Antonio to the folly of Alonso. Next, we have those representatives of the baser sensual attributes of the mass of humanity – the drunken, ribald, foolish retainers of the royal party, Stephano and Trinculo, whose ignorance, knavery and stupidity make them objects more of pity than of hate. Lowest in the scale of humanity comes the gross and uncouth Caliban, who represents the brutal and animal propensities of the nature of man which Prospero, the type of its noblest development, holds in lordly subjection. Lastly, below the human and the animal levels of life, in this wonderful gamut of being, comes the whole class of elementals, the subtler forces and the invisible nerves of nature, the spirits of the elements, who are represented by Arid and the shining figures of the Masque who are alike governed by the sovereign soul of Prospero. Shakespeare obviously knew of these invisible spirits and recognized their place in the panorama of evolution.
The esoteric or occult is the highest approach to any allegorical system. The Tempest can be made, on this approach, to yield a subtle and complete account of the ways and workings of the Great Lodge of Adept-Gurus, and the trials and tests on the path of probationary chelaship, leading, through a series of progressive awakenings, to the attainment of the goal of conscious godhood, even amidst the irksome conditions of earth-life. This esoteric interpretation is really based on two postulates – of the probationary character of all incarnated existence, and of the ceaseless unfolding, from within outwards, of the whole of Life.
To start with, let us understand the character of Prospero. By various critics, Prospero is regarded as a magician, a superman, the spirit of Destiny and the symbol of Shakespeare himself. In our interpretation he is a perfected human soul, a god-man, an Adept, the wise master of nature and the compassionate despot of destiny, the creator of his own circumstances, and the designer of the drama of the Shakespearean world. Above all, he is the accomplished personification of that super-state which the earlier Shakespearean characters aspire to, but never attain.
H.P.Blavatsky defines an Adept as
a man of profound knowledge, exoteric and esoteric, especially of the latter; and one who has brought his carnal nature under subjection of the WILL; who has developed in himself both the power (Siddhi) to control the forces of nature and the capacity to probe her secrets by the help of the formerly latent but now active powers of his being.
More simply, she defines an Adept as “one who has reached the stage of Initiation, and become a Master in the science of Esoteric Philosophy.”
In the light of these criteria, Prospero becomes for us a logical conception. We see him at the beginning of the play standing
like a white pillar to the west, upon whose face the rising Sun of thought eternal poureth forth its first most glorious waves. His mind, like a becalmed and boundless ocean, spreadeth out in shoreless space. He holdeth life and death in his strong hand.
He has attained this state through protracted study and effort which had begun even when he was the reigning Duke of Milan.
The government I cast upon my brother,
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies. . . .
I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind
With that, which but by being so retir’d
O’er-prized all popular rate. . . .
This is considered by many a critic to be his ‘fatal flaw’ whereas actually Prospero was obeying “the inward impulse of his soul, irrespective of the prudential considerations of worldly science or sagacity.” Far from having been a scholar unfitted for direct action, he was a spiritual recluse on the brink of magical power, who has spent his period of retirement on the lonely island in perfecting his adeptship. This retirement is symbolic of the mental renunciation by the chela of the material things of life. When he attains to full adeptship and complete mastery over himself and nature, Prospero, as a member of the Great Lodge, now performs one of its two tasks – to bring, in his turn, prospective members and probationary chelas to the island on which he has attained perfection. It is on this sacred mission that he is engaged throughout the play.
Personification of wisdom and compassion that he now is, he has become one with destiny, one with the purpose of the great law of Karma. His name itself is allegorical of his beneficent character. In this light, we should regard Antonio and Alonso, not as Prospero’s personal enemies, but as types of humanity who, in their ignorance and delusion, disturb the divine harmony that they are then compelled by their destiny to restore, and who, in their folly, curse the aspiring chela who returns amidst them as an Adept, only to bless. Prospero uses his tempest-magic only to draw the deluded to his island, teaching them through disaster to repent of their evil doings, and then raising them through his forgiveness. He is the eternally compassionate one who redeems the society that rejects him by the dynamic spiritual power which he radiates, even in repose. Prospero ‘s consciousness is already set beyond the horizon of ordinary men, in eternity; he is elevated above the petty, personal motives of average humanity, and he feels the profound pain of the Great Instructors at perceiving the unteachability of some of their pupils.
We must also note the true significance of his final speech, the Epilogue. Having consummated his purpose and performed his first task, Prospero, the Adept, renounces the formal robe of the magician and resumes the ceremonial appearance of a duke. He has attained to a higher degree of Adeptship. He will return to earth-life as a Rajarishi, or divine ruler, and now undertake the more difficult task of directing, under royal guise, large masses of men, and re-establishing righteousness on earth. When he does this, Prospero, the Adept, like Padmapani of the Buddhist legend, completely identifies himself with the sufferings of mankind and assumes the burden of helping men to find their salvation.
From Prospero we must turn to Ariel. Critics have considered Ariel as a symbol of the subtle powers of the imagination, the personification of poetry itself. Theosophically, he may be taken as belonging to the highest class of elementals, sufficiently individualized to be marked off from the Nature spirits, ‘the nerves of Nature,’ in the play. Ariel, stamped by his master with a Manasic impress, becomes the agent of his purpose, and his instrument in controlling the congeries of elementals to develop the action of the plot. He helps raise the tempest, being part of it; he puts some of the people to sleep, so tempting the murderers, but wakes the others just in time; he thunderously interrupts the feast, drawing the moral. He plays tricks on the drunkards, overhears their plot, and leads them to disaster. He puts the ship safely to harbour, and later releases and conducts the mariners.
All this shows the intelligence and the reason with which his master has endowed him. He is impressed, however, not merely with reason, but also with emotion. As the opening scene of the closing Act indicates, Ariel, though non-human, aspires to be human and seems to have caught a faint reflection of human feeling through Prospero’s influence. His earlier imprisonment by Sycorax and his release by Prospero are both suggestive of tests undergone by elementals before they are used by the perfected Adept. Further, his instinctive impulse to become free, and the pure joy he shows when finally released by Prospero, are indicative of the higher points of evolutionary progress which he desires and deserves to reach.
All this about Ariel can be clarified by statements in Theosophical philosophy. The Secret Doctrine teaches that while the lowest elementals have no fixed form, the higher possess an intelligence of their own, though not enough to construct a thinking man. W.Q.Judge defines an elemental as
a centre of force, without intelligence, without moral character or tendencies, but capable of being directed in its movements by human thoughts, which may, consciously or not, give it any form, and to a certain extent, intelligence.
Ariel is a highly evolved elemental which progresses towards the human kingdom by its service of Prospero, the Adept.
Caliban has been over-philosophized by critics of the eminence of Browning and Renan. The mass of interpretation which his character has evoked is second only to that on Hamlet. In all literature, it has been contended, there is no being so mysterious as this brute, earth-born, halting on the confines of humanity. His character, according to Hazlitt, grows out of the soil, and he has the dawning of understanding, though without reason or the moral sense. The gulf between him and humanity has been proclaimed to be unbridgeable even by Prospero’s influence and teaching. According to Wilson Knight, Caliban is a combination of man, savage, ape, water-beast, dragon and semi-devil, and symbolizes, among other things, all brainless revolution, the animal aspect of man, the anomalous ascent of evil within the creative order, the external quality of time itself. It has, however, been claimed by some critics that Caliban, though carnal and of the earth, earthy, is neither vulgar nor unlovely. Coleridge, especially, has been very kind to Caliban, and considered him, “in some respects, a noble being.” Towards the end of the last century, Daniel Wilson put forward the proposition that Caliban is the exact missing link, connecting Man and the anthropoids, the highest ape and the lowest savage.
All these interpretations of Caliban’s character, though suggestive and interesting, fall far short of the Theosophical explanation. Even at the hands of Cohn Still, Caliban fares badly. He makes of Caliban the Tempter, the personification of Desire. Actually, however, there is enough textual evidence to indicate that Caliban represents the material line of evolution and the lunar side of nature. He is man in form, but not man in mind. His is the lower intelligence of the Shadow of the Barhishad or Lunar Pitris, closely connected with the earth. They are our material ancestors who give the Chayyas or ‘Shadows’ that must, to become self-conscious men, be lighted up by the Agnishwatta Pitris, the “Sons of the Fire,” as they are called in The Secret Doctrine. Caliban, then, has intelligence, but not enough to make a thinking man. He may be taken to allegorize “the vanity of physical nature’s unaided attempts to construct even a perfect animal – let alone man.” This imperfect physical form cannot be lighted up by the Great Lodge of Adepts until it develops into a proper human shape.
In the first Act, we have Prospero saying to Caliban: –
. . . Abhorred slave
Which any print of goodness wilt not take,
Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not (savage)
Know thine own meaning; but wouldst gabble, like
A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
With words that made them known: but thy vile race,
(Though thou didst learn) had that in’t, which good natures
Could not abide to be with.
Again, he is called
A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick. . . .
Later in the play, he is termed a “misshapen knave,” a bastard “demi-devil,” a “thing of darkness” which is “as disproportion’d in his manner as in his shape.” And yet this same Caliban, when he shows the first signs of repentance and realization at the end of the play, unfolds the possibilities of future progress, saying
. . . I’ll be wise hereafter
And seek for grace. . . .
In the esoteric interpretation Ferdinand is an accepted Chela, who, having successfully passed all the tests and trials set by Prospero, is then united with Miranda, the personification of wisdom, Buddhi, similar to the Egyptian Isis and the Gnostic Sophia. It is significant to note that Ferdinand first falls in love with Miranda, but soon realizes the importance of serving a Master before attaining to wisdom and exclaims, in the last Act, that he has received a “second life” from his gracious Guru. Again, Ferdinand is warned by Prospero in the First Scene of the Fourth Act against the dangers of falling prey to his carnal passions and thus forfeiting his right to enjoy wedded happiness. The same warning against the awful consequences, for one who has pledged himself to Occultism, of the gratification of a terrestrial lust is given by H.P.Blavatsky. Similarly, the indispensable prerequisites for psychic development which she gives – “a pure place, pure diet, pure companionship, and a pure mind” – are fulfilled by Ferdinand before he is initiated into wisdom. He has successfully undergone the discipline of ascetic diet and of arduous labours, and is therefore rewarded with the hand of Miranda.
If I have too austerely punish’d you,
Your compensation makes amends; for I
Have given you here, a third of mine own life,
Or that for which I live: who, once again,
I tender to thy hand: all thy vexations
Were but the trials of thy love, and thou
Hast strangely stood the test; here, afore Heaven
I ratify this my rich gift.
Lastly, it is important to note that Miranda, the symbol of Wisdom, is consciously considered by Ferdinand as vastly superior to a number of sweet-tongued ladies who represent the many pleasures of the senses which hold down in bondage the winged spirit of man.
Indeed the top of admiration, worth
What’s dearest to the world: full many a Lady
I have ey’d with best regard, and many a time
The harmony of their tongues hath into bondage
Brought my too diligent ear:
. . . But you, O you,
So perfect, and so peerless, are created
Of every creature’s best!
In taking Miranda as the symbol of wisdom, we are assigning her the right role in the scale of significance in the play. Had she been more weakly drawn, she would have been too insignificant to be of any interest, and had she been more strongly delineated, she would have been too dominating and individualistic to be sweetly subordinate to Prospero. As it is, however, Ferdinand and Miranda together represent, at the end of the play, a new order of things that has evolved out of destruction; they also vouch for its continuation. Having attained to Divine Wisdom, the initiated Chela can help to carry on the mission of his Master.
Having suggested the esoteric significance of the main characters, it is enough to take note of the remaining persons in the play. Antonio, the deluded and defiant villain; Sebastian, the weak-willed and cynical evil-doer; Alonso, the gullible and guilty ruler, – all these represent the considerable portion of selfish and ambitious humanity which is given ample chances by the compassionate Adepts to repent of its past and to reform in the present. Stephano, the drunken and ambitious butler, and Trinculo, the stupid and cowardly jester, typify the grosser section of sensual humanity which, far from realizing its folly, rebels against the established order of things and is, therefore, for its own sake, made to suffer. Then we have the good Gonzalo, type of the loquacious and large-hearted dreamers who, for all their naivete, are the quickest to come to a discovery of their own inward divinity. It is he who exclaims, at the end, that they have, at last, found themselves, and thus takes the first step on the path of chelaship.
Finally, we may consider the members of the crew who are immersed in a state of stupor as representing the dormant and ignorant mass of common humanity that is unaware of the probationary character of the school of life, in which they, nevertheless, continue to learn. Thus, from the highest to the lowest, everyone in the mighty march of evolution is elevated a stage higher than before, at the end of the play, through the noble efforts of Prospero.
Having considered the characters, let us notice some of the symbols in the play, and their esoteric and psychological significance. Esoterically, the tempest can be taken to stand for the tremendous thrill of Nature at the attainment by a human being of complete perfection, at the birth of a Divine Adept. This is magnificently described in The Voice of the Silence:
Know, Conqueror of Sins, once that a Sowanee hath cross’d the seventh Path, all Nature thrills with joyous awe and feels subdued. The silver star now twinkles out the news to the night-blossoms, the streamlet to the pebbles ripples out the tale; dark ocean waves will roar it to the rocks surf-bound, scent-laden breezes sing it to the vales, and stately pines mysteriously whisper ‘A Master has arisen, a MASTER OF THE DAY.’
The same rare and solemn event is wonderfully delineated in poetic detail by Sir Edwin Arnold towards the close of the Sixth Book of The Light of Asia. The raison d’etre of this disturbance and delight produced in Nature by man’s attainment of perfection is to be found in a statement by Mahatma K.H.:
Nature has linked all parts of her Empire together by subtle threads of magnetic sympathy, and there is a mutual correlation even between a star and a man.
Further, this tempest is no awful cataclysm of nature, but has its benedictory aspect, as is clearly seen in the play. It is a necessary prelude to the peace and calm that spell the hope and joy of the whole of creation, as it is also a blessing and a boon to the striving souls of humanity. Psychologically, the tempest may be regarded as a condition of terrible internal disequilibrium, an intense ferment of the human consciousness which stirs the turbulent soul to its divinest depths and awakens it to the austere reality of the life of the spirit.
If we understand the dual significance of the tempest, it will be easy to explain the meaning of the symbol of the sea. It would stand for the sea of Samsara or the great Ocean of Life with its boisterous waves of Being, and the timeless tide of the Ever-Becoming.
Behold the Hosts of Souls, watch how they hover o’er the stormy sea of human life, and how, exhausted, bleeding, broken-winged, they drop one after other on the swelling waves. Tossed by the fierce winds, chased by the gale, they drift into the eddies and disappear within the first great vortex.
Psychologically, this stormy sea may be taken to signify the emotional nature of man, with its waves of varied passions, and its tide of deathless desire.
The Island is no casual creation of the poet’s fancy, nor does it typify any terrestrial place known to history or guessed by geography. It may be taken to symbolize Shamballa, the Sacred Island referred to in Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. This, once an actual island in the Central Asian Sea, is now fabled to be an oasis in the Gobi Desert. The island of The Tempest stands for the dwelling-place of the Divine Instructors of mankind, those mighty Maha-Yogins of whom Prospero is at once a type and a symbol. Psychologically, this island could be taken as a new dimension of awareness, a magnetic and enclosed environment of the indwelling soul of the Chela, inaccessible to the thoughts and the things of the world.
Esoterically, Prospero’s cell would stand for the Hall of Initiation, the Sanctum Sanctorum, into which Ferdinand is invited to enter only in the Fourth Act, with the close of the Masque; the Court Party is invited only to “look in” at the end of the play, in the last Act. This cell is similar to the Saptaparna cave near Mount Baibhar in Rajagriha, the ancient capital of Magadha, in which a select circle of Arhats received initiation from Gautama the Buddha. The cell is a most solemn symbol, corresponding to the Christian Holy of Holies and to the Adytum “wherein were created immortal Hierophants.” Psychologically, this cell may be taken to stand for the “inmost chamber, the chamber of the Heart,” the Brahma-pura or the secret closet into which Jesus asks us to retire for prayerful meditation.
Prospero’s wand is a protective and creative instrument, the same as Vajra or as Dorje, a weapon that denotes power over invisible evil influences, a talisman that protects its owner by purifying the atmosphere around him. Mystically, Vajra is “the magic sceptre of Priest-Initiates, exorcists and adepts – the symbol of the possession of Siddhis or superhuman powers, wielded during certain ceremonies by the priests and theurgists.” Psychologically, the wand may be taken to stand for the protective purity of the heart of the Chela progressing on the path of Occultism.
What about the visionary Masque, conjured up with the help of nature-spirits by Ariel at the bidding of Prospero, for the benefit of Ferdinand and Miranda? This vision of the gods, raised by magical evocation, is a part of the ceremony of initiation and is partly intended to remind the successful Chela of the existence of higher powers and potencies in the universe. We have Prospero telling Ariel,
. . . go bring the rabble,
(O’er whom I give thee power) here, to this place:
Incite them to quick motion, for I must
Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple
Some vanity of mine Art; it is my promise
And they expect it from me.
The purpose of this masque is, however, more than that; it is also,
A contract of true love to celebrate;
And some donation freely to estate
On the bless’d lovers.
The fertility, purity, chastity and virility invoked and represented by the goddesses and the daring nymphs define a particular relationship, not only between husband and wife, but also between Guru and Chela. Without going into details, it is enough to state that this masque, though mechanically contrived, makes a deep impression upon Ferdinand and is proclaimed by him to be a “most majestic vision,” that “makes this place Paradise.” The spirits acting the parts of gods and goddesses are merely nerves of nature or centres of force having astral forms, partaking to a distinguishing degree of the element to which they belong and also of the ether, and acting collectively as a combination of ‘sublimated matter and rudimental mind.’ Psychologically, the vision of the Masque may be taken as a subjective experience of the ever-varying pageantry of the invisible universe.
Having interpreted the characters and some of the symbols of The Tempest, let us now illustrate the other method of studying the play – to pick out passages and lines that point to the pure essence of Theosophic truth.
The first important passage we shall consider is the famous speech of Gonzalo in the First Scene of the Second Act, which is an excellent parody on the pretty Utopias that men, in their immature but charming idealism, dream about and vision forth. His rejection of all the implements of war and machinery and his reliance on nature’s abundance express an admirable yearning, while his dream of a new golden age is delightful in its universality. Yet, the bounties of nature and freedom are not to be had on terms so easy, certainly not by sinners, nor can they be described in categories so simple. Gonzalo, like all eager and impatient revolutionaries, forgets that a perfect society is inconceivable without perfect men, that Utopias must be peopled with Prosperos, if they are to be realized on earth. The foil to his inadequate vision is to be found in Miranda’s exclamation in the last Act when she sees, for the first time, a substantial slice of humanity in Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, Gonzalo, Adrian and Francisco:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
Yet, when all is said on the side of rationalists, Gonzalo’s dreams, though naive, are both natural and necessary; they are the visions in which thousands of eager youths and high-spirited men have revelled, the visions of Coleridge and Wordsworth, Blake and Shelley, William Morris and Samuel Butler and H.G.Wells, visions which, though illusory and incomplete, have a call for the nobler souls among us. As things exist, however, such visions only invite the cynicism and the scorn of the Antonios and Sebastians of this unimaginative world.
A beautiful exposition of wisdom is in the famous speech of Prospero at the end of the Masque, which portrays the mayavic nature of all manifestation, and the changing character of all conditioned existence.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
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. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
This profoundly philosophical speech is a splendid statement of the idealistic Doctrine of Maya, of Appearance and Reality. Earth-life is proclaimed to be a short sleep, and the material world a delusive dream. This conception is beautifully brought out and elaborated in The Secret Doctrine. Maya or illusion
is an element which enters into all finite things, for everything that exists has only a relative, not an absolute, reality, since the appearance which the hidden noumenon assumes for any observer depends upon his power of cognition. . . . Nothing is permanent except the one hidden absolute existence which contains in itself the noumena of all realities.
The last long passage that we might mention is Prospero’s farewell address to the elementals, in the First Scene of the Fifth Act, and his renunciation of the ritual (but not the knowledge) of Magic, ending with the words: –
. . . But this rough magic
I here abjure; and, when I have requir’d
Some heavenly music (which even now I do)
To work mine end upon their senses, that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
This speech must be taken together with the last, in the Epilogue. These two speeches are, in a sense, self-explanatory, in the light of our interpretation of the characters and symbols of the play. It will be enough to point out that, while the first is addressed to the elementals, and delineates the type and technique of the magic that Prospero has used in the past, the second is addressed by him to humanity in general, as well as to his Chelas in particular, and indicates the new and difficult future that is opening out before his prophetic gaze.
The Tempest gives us a complete view of human existence in the timeless soul of poetry. The central thought of the play is that the whole of existence is probationary and progressive, that true freedom consists in the service of fellow-men, that the way to the attainment of the wisdom of Adepts is untiring and selfless persistence in the effort of self-education. Music and magic meet in The Tempest, so wedded that none can put them asunder. The denouement is full of grace and grandeur. As Hazlitt says,
The preternatural part has the air of reality, and almost haunts the imagination with a sense of truth, while the real characters and events partake of the wildness of a dream.
Creatures of rare loveliness are here created for us by Shakespeare who, through reconciliation, forgiveness and good-will, renews the promise of a better and more beautiful world.
April 26, 1949
Hermes, August 1975