Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the Great Globe, and The Ageless Wisdom
Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the Great Globe, and The Ageless Wisdom
“Eventually such a traveller becomes awakened to the illusion; the re-awakening from a sleep one chose to submerge oneself in”Serge Benhayon Time, Space and all of us, Book 2 – Space, p33
Shakespeare was writing at a time when the light of the European Renaissance, which initiated the breaking of the oppressive consciousness of the Dark Ages, was flourishing upon English shores.
John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer, and teacher of mathematics and navigation, was a leader of the philosophical and artistic Renaissance in England. His home was a meeting place for many noted writers, statesmen and explorers who participated in discussion and exchange about the tradition of neo-platonic, alchemical and Hermetic philosophy, and the establishment of a universal religion.
This philosophy presented the fact that man could choose to directly reclaim his divinity – his true brotherhood and his innate universality – and put aside the degraded and corrupt individualistic behaviours that had been adopted by the mass of humanity.
Leonardo da Vinci, whose life and work in the latter half of the 15th century initiated the Renaissance by reigniting the eternal fire of true wisdom, spoke of the ‘universal man’ – meaning one who is aware of their true purpose on earth, one who takes loving responsibility for the way they live and relate to all life. This is a way of living that is all-encompassing and knows that the quality of every thought, word and act has an effect not only on oneself but on everyone and everything.
William Shakespeare played a lively role in the flourishing English Renaissance.
The universality, insight and depth of understanding that he accessed was available to all through his plays, which were enacted before thousands. On the stage of his ‘theatre of the world’, the ‘great Globe itself’, Shakespeare revealed to his audiences exactly the way that they were living their lives – the destructive, abusive and degrading choices being made, and the consequences that followed . . . and through the alchemy of the plays he presented the possibility that there was another way of living. Above all, his plays called for a new awareness for people to reclaim their universality once more.
Shakespeare did not entertain the audience for distraction, he entertained with a purpose to reveal and educate.
Prospero, the central figure of The Tempest (1610), is an archetypal Renaissance magus, and it is thought that this character was based on Elizabethan England’s great magus John Dee, described by John Aubrey as ‘one of the ornaments of his Age’. John Dee would have been a living presence and memory in the imagination of Shakespeare’s audience. Dee had been consulted by theatre builder James Burbage on the design of The Globe, the symbolically circular public Elizabethan playhouse in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed, and of which he was a part owner.
During Elizabeth’s reign, under her protection, Dee enjoyed widespread esteem and played a vital role in the evolution of English Renaissance thought. Yet only two years before the writing of The Tempest Dee had died a broken man, not only as the result of the lack of support from the incoming monarch King James, but also from a concerted campaign of slander which falsely branded him a conjuror and a danger to the population. Dee and his Hermetic work had also been ridiculed by Ben Jonson in his comedy The Alchemist (1610) which was first staged by The Kings Men, the acting company to which Shakespeare belonged. This was a year before the first recorded performance of The Tempest (1611). Shakespeare’s play could well be seen ‘as restoring the figure of the Renaissance magus in the popular imagination’ and it is interesting that Shakespeare presents his magus not on a pedestal, but as a man like any other, who has to rectify his waywardness and learn how to acknowledge and put aside the fury he has directed towards his adversaries and choose to be fuelled rather by the true fire of ‘his nobler reason’ and ‘rarer action’.
The play opens with raging lightning, thunder, and tempest conjured up by the powerful magus Prospero to revengefully shipwreck King Alonso of Naples’ vessel as it sails back to Italy from a royal wedding in Tunisia. The King and Royal party are old enemies of Prospero, having 12 years ago plotted his and his young daughter Miranda’s exile to this desolate rocky isle after wrongfully ousting Prospero from his position as the rightful Duke of Milan – one of the most powerful positions and states in Renaissance Italy.
Those familiar with Shakespeare’s earlier plays will instantly recognise that the catastrophe of shipwreck will lead to the world of the characters being turned upside-down. They will be stripped of their usual identifiable roles and context, brought to a standstill, and offered not only an opportunity to re-assess and review the reduced way in which they have been living, but also to find new strengths and a grander, more harmonious way of living in the world. Everything has a chance to recalibrate. Already, with the onset of the tempest at the opening of the play, the usual societal hierarchy and order of civilisation has been inverted with the Boatswain of the sinking ship giving authoritative orders to his ‘superior’ the King and his men to get below, ‘out of our way’ [1.1.26] – the royal party are now ‘below’ while their ‘inferiors’, the mariners, are ‘above’.
Everything that happens to the Royal Party from hereon is a set-up engineered by Prospero’s manipulative ‘art’ (his ‘magic'): the isle is the stage for the drama masterminded by Prospero who writes the script and directs the play-out of events. In Prospero’s play-within-the play, his controlling magic engenders a rich and strange interplay of illusion and reality which will delight and confuse, inveigle and torture the disoriented King and retinue and amuse the audience. Over the course of events Prospero keeps the already traumatised survivors in thrall – deciding when they sleep and when they wake, producing a splendid banquet for the hungry men and immediately dissolving it before their tantalised eyes, then imprisoning them and subjecting them to swamp-dunkings, thorn bushes, tortures, convulsions, cramps and madness.
What is real? What is not real? Neither players nor audience yet know. The forces unleashed upon the shipwrecked party represent not only the forces that play havoc with our lives when we have forsaken the ‘true north’ of our inner truth, but additionally, in terms of the tumultuous weather, the much needed corrections that humanity’s wayward behaviour has necessitated.
The ‘play’ provides not only abundant entertainment for the audience but offers real insight for today’s audience into the chaotic and ridiculous nature of the life on Earth that we create when we source the fuel of revenge, desire and self-interest for our actions instead of the fire of Soul-full divinity – that which we truly are. At this point in the play the great magus Prospero has allowed the tricky conjuring spirit to utterly rule his realm.
During the duration of this set-up, what beautifully comes to light is that, even in the face of Prospero’s manipulation, it is revealed that each character actually has free-will as to whether they will respond or react to the apparently disastrous turn of events, and no one, not even Prospero and his powerful controlling magic, can ultimately take this free will choice away from any of them – he can bring King Alonso’s son Ferdinand and Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, together but he cannot make them love, or he can keep them apart but not stop them loving. And as future father-in-law, he can force Ferdinand into the test of labour and imprison him but he cannot usurp Ferdinand’s life-changing awakening to the awareness of the expansive nature of ‘space’ and true freedom that is not subject to the outer bars of an imposed prison, but is felt in the love that resides within the inner-heart: Ferdinand tells us that all his losses and burdens, ‘are but light to me,/ Might I but through my prison once a day /Behold this maid [Miranda]. All corners else o’th’earth/ Let liberty make use of; space enough/ Have I in such a prison’ [1.2.490-4].
Ferdinand’s revelation holds a kernel of true wisdom, which is the key to the play’s overarching theme of slavery, abuse, and the true use of power – a kernel that if understood would arrest humanity’s trajectory towards destruction, and make possible a way initiated by true evolutionary impulse.
Captured under Prospero’s magic rule, the island has a fluid, chameleon-like quality as it is variously experienced according to each character’s individualised perspective: for Caliban, the original natural creature of the island, it has become a place of torment under Prospero’s abusive reign, and yet it has also been, and still is for him, a place of rich beauty replete with nature’s precious hidden treasures described so lyrically and tenderly by him. He knows all the ‘qualities of the isle’ – it is a place of sweet springs, juicy berries, nuts, shellfish, delicate bird’s eggs, which only he knows how to find and gather.
And now as the ‘civilised’ intruders from the shipwreck trample in, like every exploitative new-world coloniser, they immediately discover something that they can take for themselves. Hearing from Caliban of the isle’s enchanting ‘sounds and sweet airs’, the ‘thousand twangling instruments’ (conjured by the spirit Ariel, who does the bidding of Prospero), the first thought of Stephano, the King’s drunken butler, is that the sweet music is something he can grab for himself for ‘nothing’ [3.2.145]. He also plans to profit from taking Caliban back to Naples as a ‘tame’ exhibit, a ‘present for any emperor’ [2.2.70]. Trinculo the jester likewise comments, ‘Were I in England now . . . and had but this fish (Caliban) painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver’ [2.2.27-29].
This grasping, reductive way of approaching life in relating to people and the world as a commodity does not shift or change during the outplay of the drama, remaining resolutely un-renounced by Stephano and Trinculo and others in the royal party – notably Antonio (Prospero’s brother and the usurping Duke of Milan) and Sebastian (brother of Alonso, King of Naples).
This loveless consciousness, which could have been cracked by all the trials that the island offers, sadly remains the safety-raft that this shipwrecked twosome cling onto until the bitter end. Offered an opportunity to align to a truer way they instead re-choose their old treachery with their plan to kill Alonso and usurp leadership of Naples . . . at a time when Alonso is at his most vulnerable and full of grief for his son, Ferdinand, whom he believes to be drowned in the tempest. There is no transformation, no ‘sea-change’ here, just an obdurate choice to enact the same ill drama of replacing one deluded leadership with another – over and over again in plotted repetition – while never re-connecting to the ultimate purpose of life on Earth and understanding what true leadership is.
In the final act Antonio is still insisting on this exploitative way of relating, calling Caliban ‘a plain fish and no doubt marketable’ [5.1.268]. No wonder the island reflects itself back to them, not as the beautiful isle with its sweet hidden springs, but as an uninhabitable, barren land, full of tortures and ‘perfumed by a fen’ [2.1.50].
Interestingly, this ‘marketable’ thing, this stinking rotten fish, this ‘abhorred slave’ Caliban, not only wonderfully has some of the most beautiful lines in the play, but, unlike Stephano and Antonio, he has actually become more aware of the snares of the reduced life, through his experiences. He realises that the colonising agent who has brought him language has also taught him how to curse [1.2.365]. He also realises that he has been fooled by yet another ‘gift’ of the ‘civilised’ world – alcohol – given him by Trinculo and Stephano. He ultimately sees through their ‘royal’ charade and the reverse alchemy of the ‘grand liquor that hath gilded ‘em’ [5.1.280]. He says: ‘I’ll be wise hereafter/ And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass/was I to take this drunkard for a god’ [5.1.296]
The illusion of Paradise on Earth
How does the magical, shape-shifting isle appear to the noble Gonzalo, washed up on this new shore? He does not proceed to plunder it like the others, but instead speculates upon the prospect of a new way of living. He has been given a tabula rasa upon which to project an ideal world of ‘innocent people’, a commonwealth that would ‘excel the Golden Age’, a world in which the horrors of the old world order – treason, felony, the sword, engines, traffic, magistrates, riches and poverty, sweat and endeavour – would no longer exist. Gonzalo’s is a utopian vision that, at one level, correctly calls into question the validity of what we call ‘civilisation’.
Gonzalo is a kind and goodly man who cares about others, a man without malice, who genuinely seeks a world without cruelty and corruption. And yet he is also a foolish and garrulous man who is run by the ideal of wanting paradise on Earth – an insidious, anti-evolutionary ideal that can never work, yet plagues the minds of men: his projected commonwealth would have nature bringing its delicious bounty to fall into the laps of its inhabitants who lie around all day, freed from the constraints of work: ‘No occupation, all men idle, all/ . . . nature should bring forth/ Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,/ To feed my innocent people’ [2.1.154-164]. It is just a picture, just a dream. Even Prospero’s illusory masque later conjured for Miranda’s and Ferdinand’s wedding entertainment, includes the necessary fact of work and workers in its fanciful world – the ‘sunburnt sicklemen’ [4.1.134].
Shakespeare is not only signalling that dreaming of ‘paradise on earth’ is a cul-de-sac for humanity’s evolution and holds no true way forward, but he is also using Gonzalo and his utopian vision as a foil to the sneering scorn and self-serving sophistication represented by other members of the royal party, Antonio and Sebastian.
Gonzalo is the ‘good’ man fooled by the ‘good ideal’ while the nobles are just downright ‘bad’ and despicable in their momentum of grabbing power – of conspiring, usurping and attempting to murder. Is the audience going to be caught, suspended in the tantalising web of illusion, between the good and the bad, tempted to back one over the other, little realising that they are cut from one and the same fabric, with only the appearance of seeming different?
Or will they recognise one of the prime revelations of the play – that the ‘choice’ between the ‘good and the bad’ is but an illusion. They are one and the same – all part of the entrapment of the baseless fabric and the insubstantial pageant that is our world. Man could powerfully choose something grander . . . the true, the ‘nobler reason’, and ‘virtue’ as a living way, which is what the play presents.
Like Gonzalo, young Ferdinand too is seduced by the idea of paradise. To celebrate the contract of true love between Ferdinand and Miranda, Prospero conjures up a masque of spirits playing glittering goddesses who appear and speak to their audience of an ever-bounteous and always-celebrating world. Ferdinand describes this illusion, whipped up out of thin air, as a ‘paradise’ that he longs to stay in forever. But Prospero teaches him a profound truth in one of the most renowned of speeches in all literature – that this creation and the spirits that inhabit it are all illusions:
"Be cheerful sir[4.1.148-158]
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."
Through Prospero, Shakespeare offers Ferdinand and the audience, if they will but choose to hear, the truth that not only the wedding masque but the theatre (the ‘great globe’) and most significantly the world we inhabit (‘the great globe itself’), are but an insubstantial creation, an illusion peopled by spirits. We get a glimpse that there is a far greater reality which we have forgotten about, and that the vision of the world as a paradise is a baseless conjury, our ‘little life’ of earth no more than an illusory construct. The ‘pictures’ presented by ‘the gorgeous palaces’, ‘the solemn temples’, lure us away from realising and returning to our true and far grander origin in the greater universe.
Most strikingly, the island is Prospero’s crucible for transformation.
Out of the chaos caused by his own creation on the island, Prospero most potently re-discovers his lost dukedom and the true value of committed leadership. Abandoned 12 years previously to the seas with his tiny daughter Miranda in a flimsy ‘bark’ by his treacherous brother Antonio, Prospero has washed up on the island – a symbol that reflects his prior error of isolation – his withdrawal from the responsibility of public life into the study of knowledge and ’magic’. In exile on the island Prospero now has plenty of time to ponder! He has discovered, yes, that politics is a treacherous business, and that he was foolish to trust his brother Antonio, and yet the deepest awareness that he has come to is that he himself has played a crucial role in his own downfall.
We hear, through a monologue delivered to Miranda, that while in Milan Prospero has neglected his temporal duties to his people and has become caught up in the world of his ‘liberal arts’ in his library, so that ‘to my state grew stranger, being transported/And rapt in secret studies’ [1.2.76-7]. In his arrogance Prospero has withdrawn from life into the perilous realm of the mind bereft of responsibility, and has neglected the physical practicalities, necessities, and responsibilities of his public role and job. This irresponsibility has awakened the evil scheming nature of his brother who, in a coup, becomes the Duke of Milan – ‘Absolute Milan’.
Prospero now realises that to live truly he must not withdraw but commit himself fully to life in service to humanity, to balance the inner world with the outer, to participate with every fibre of his being. Thus, the play informs its audience, true purpose is the antidote to the evil of political machination.
Further, the nature and quality of Prospero’s powers of leadership are fully exposed:
Much of Prospero’s spectacularly abusive behaviour has provided great amusement and comedy for the audience, but it is nevertheless clear that he has acted as a violator of power: enslaving and torturing the Royal party, posing as slave-master of the ‘airy spirit’ Ariel and savage Caliban, and moreover has usurped Caliban’s island – an usurpation not instigated by intrigue or political coup, but by magic. His rulership over this craggy piece of rock and the ‘prisoners’ stumbling through its ‘maze’, no matter how spectacular or powerful it may appear, is in reality callous individuality, and is as insubstantial and baseless as the cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces he has unveiled to Ferdinand as being nothingness. His subjects, the Royal party, blindly falling into swamps and fens, thorny briars and banquets that are mirages, are shown to be a bunch of puppets who have sold out to a world of forces where they apparently have no say over their minds and actions – as Gonzalo tells the company, it has been shown to be a situation ‘when no man was his own' [5.1.213]. As our world is, so Prospero’s creation is a farce.
We are being shown, in no uncertain terms, our Creation on earth, magnified on stage.
And yet ironically, not really magnified at all: the island of illusion, the light-show of images shimmering before the eyes of the audience, is a telling trope for the world, then as now, with all its hooks and its snares.
Prospero significantly realises that while his magic has enabled him to set up the shipwreck scenario to call Antonio, Alonso and Sebastian to account for their treachery, he has employed a magic that has sprung, not from love, observation, understanding and mercy, but from the pernicious ideal of justice and the volcano of fury and revenge that are born of the false light. Prospero must renounce this dark magic, a destructive magic that he, like us, has fallen into using and become a master of, almost unknown to himself.
Things must revert to truth or massively deteriorate.
At this point the light of awareness dawns for Prospero and he re-aligns with his ‘nobler reason’. He says to Ariel of his enemies:
"Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’quick[5.1.25-31]
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance . . .
My charms I’ll break; their senses I’ll restore;
And they shall be themselves."
Now, in this evolutionary moment, Prospero traces a circle on the ground, symbolically surrendering the paltry illusion of time-spawned ‘justice’ and revenge to instead honour the deeper divine wisdom of the ‘cycles’, impulsed by unfathomable love.
In a rich and powerful renunciation speech, Prospero relinquishes his dominion and command ‘by my so potent art’ over the elves, spirits and demi-puppets who inhabit the island’s ‘hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves’ – spirits with whose aid he has conjured up thunder, uprooted the great cedar and pine, split Jove’s mighty oak, opened graves, shaken promontories, ‘bedimmed/ The noontide sun’, and ‘called forth the mutinous winds,/And twixt the green sea and azured vault/ Set roaring war’. [5.1.34-50]
Aligned to his ‘nobler reason’ Prospero proclaims across the echoing valleys: ‘this rough magic/ I here abjure’. He renounces the seduction of the illusory life. Prospero breaks and buries his staff, drowns his book, and in a symbolic act dons his Milanese robes, preparing for the exit out of his island ‘Cave’ – a Platonic allusion to the world of illusion and back into the world of men.
Prospero is now ready for his ‘return’. Let all men note Prospero’s mistake and beware of life in the man ‘cave’.
Interestingly it is through the airy spirit Ariel’s petition to his master urging him to become ‘tender’ and forgiving towards his ‘victim’s’ afflictions, that Prospero arrests and turns around his trajectory of destruction, making the life-changing choice of renouncing his controlling magic and releasing his prisoners: he addresses his brother Antonio:
"For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother[5.1.130-4]
Would even infect my mouth. I do forgive
Thy rankest fault – all of them; and require
My dukedom of thee, which perforce I know
Thou must restore "
It is by virtue of the act of making a true alignment from revenge to ‘nobler reason’ that he initiates his evolution and return.
The moment the rough magic is abjured all are released from the spell including Prospero himself. The everyday world can reconstitute itself, and regather: the tempest-shattered ship is now intact again, the nobles are not mad and have come back to themselves, nobody is drowned, including Ferdinand who is revealed to his father King Alonso as alive and well, playfully engaging in a game of chess with Miranda behind a curtain in Prospero’s cell. As Gonzalo significantly exclaims:
"in one voyage[5.1. 208-13]
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis;
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost; Prospero his dukedom
In a poor isle; and all of us ourselves,
When no man was his own."
This decisive act of renunciation reveals to Prospero the nature of true power.
He will use his ‘power’ over the elements one last time to ensure that the royal party arrives home to Naples safely through ’calm seas, auspicious gales’, calling on his spirit Ariel one last time: ‘My Ariel chick,/That is thy charge. Then to the elements/Be free and fare thou well’. [5.1.317] A poignant farewell to one he will ‘miss’ – Prospero momentarily feeling the tug of the old days, the old ways . . . of the spirit. [5.1.95]
Then the famous Epilogue, resonant with meaning, as Prospero, sans the powers of his enchantments and ‘rough magic’, addresses the audience directly. Like the ‘cloud-capp’d towers’, the shimmer and dazzle of the illusory light-show that is Prospero’s creation/theatre has dissolved. . . and the audience is left with the sobering simplicity of the humbled man before them.
This speech has a strong sense that Prospero is re-gathering, readjusting himself to his next step, not just back to Milan, but even more significantly – now having renounced his ‘spirit’ (Ariel) – to his path of return back to Soul:
"Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. Now ‘tis true
I must be here confined by you
Or sent to Naples. Let me not
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free."
He stands naked, an unarmed and honest reflection before his audience – no magic staff, no book – a man like any other, a man like them. We are the same.
He must surrender to their goodwill choice to set him free – their hands to applaud, their pardon for his faults, their prayers to lend their breath to fill the sails of his return. Without the audience with him, without them actively joining in his return – the return – his ‘project fails’.
With the parting lines, ‘As you from crimes would pardoned be/Let your indulgence set me free’, Prospero delivers the powerful message of Brotherhood from the Master of the Piscean Age – a way of relationship that his audience and contemporary audiences 400 years later, having entered the new era, have not yet fully mastered.
As the audience leave the theatre and step out into the streets they are free to re-align.
Will they indulge in withdrawal from life, not bringing their all to life? Will they carry on reacting and taking revenge, manipulating and abusing power?
Or will they begin to renounce the fiction of the ‘little life . . . rounded in a sleep’, and re-awaken?
Will they join Prospero, and become aware of the consequences of the indulgence in ‘rough magic’ and instead choose a power that is truly humble, harmonious, glorious, one which benefits all – the beginning of a grander, more universal magic and majesty?
Words from Serge Benhayon:
"There are many moments in one’s life where our moves give way, that is, our moves stop playing the ‘game of creation’. These moments produce instant awareness and vast insight and realisations occur in an instant, often resulting in one recoiling from such vast perceptiveness, for there is too much awareness to contend with. Yes the reality of how our fellow citizens choose to live can be quite shocking at first true glance.Serge Benhayon Time, Space and all of us, Book 2 – Space, ed 1, p 280
But there comes a time when one no longer shudders from such vast insight, an interval when one ceases to reject the fact that they know and have always known far more than they chose to give focus to.
Accordingly, and successively after a small period of re-adjustment,
the Path of Return begins, a path that at first will seem totally new but,
as it is walked (lived), seemingly as a novice, one realises that each step is a footprint revisited.
Yes, when the true steps are walked, you will soon realise that, you are retracing your steps back to where you once came from."
Inspired by and based on the Ageless Wisdom as presented by Serge Benhayon.