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 spark of true wisdom, spoke of the ‘universal man’ – meaning 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 themselves but on everyone and everything. The coming together of like-minded men in England was to help set the foundation for such future luminary texts as Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (on the subject of brotherhood and true relationship) to be published in 1627.
William Shakespeare played a lively role in the flourishing English Renaissance.
His universality, insight and depth of understanding 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 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 relaxation, he entertained with a purpose.
Prospero, the central figure of The Tempest (1610), is an archetypal Renaissance magus, and it goes without saying that Elizabethan England’s great magus John Dee, described by John Aubrey as ‘one of the ornaments of his Age’, 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 play house 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 at his adversaries and choose to be fuelled by the true fire of ‘his nobler reason’ and ‘rarer action’.
In the opening scene with its raging storm conjured up by the magus Prospero, the King of Naples and his royal party – enemies who have earlier ousted Prospero from his position as the rightful Duke of Milan – are dramatically shipwrecked on the rocks of the island that has become Prospero’s ‘home’. Those familiar with Shakespeare’s earlier plays will instantly recognise that the catastrophe of shipwreck will lead to the characters’ lives being turned upside-down, stripped of their usual roles and context, offering an opportunity for them to make discoveries about themselves, and about what is truly valuable in life. Already, with the onset of the tempest, the usual societal hierarchy and order has been inverted with the Boatswain of the sinking ship giving strong and authoritative orders to his ‘superior’ the King and his men to get below, ‘out of our way’ (1.1.26).
Through tempest and shipwreck, the momentums of the characters’ former lives are cut, often quite drastically, and brought to a standstill, offering an opportunity to re-assess and review the reduced way in which they have been living, and find new strengths and a grander, more harmonious way of living in society. After such a ‘shipwreck’ the one who is jolted into re-awakening wonders ‘Who am I? Who am I without my familiar context?’
The destruction of this old life is symbolized by Shakespeare in The Tempest with the image of the nutshell – Gonzalo, an honest old councillor in the royal party, reports that their leaky vessel has been smashed, and is ‘no stronger than a nutshell’ (1.1.45). Indeed, the nut has to be cracked to discover the sweet kernel inside: the hardened shell of the self-serving King, his courtiers, and servants will be cracked through catastrophe, potentially revealing their true connectedness and innate essence which has lain dormant, lost beneath the callousness of civilization.
The island on which they find themselves washed up acts as a host to this constellation of people – this is a world turned-upside-down where, through Prospero’s magic, the audience sees kings and usurpers stripped of everything, servants imagining that they can usurp the role of king, with the ‘victim’ of the earlier coup in Milan (Prospero), himself having become a usurper of the island which has originally ‘belonged’ to Caliban. The exploration of the way in which humanity habitually uses power for exploitation is signalled early on in the play.
This isle is the stage for the drama and comedy masterminded by Prospero’s ‘art’ (his magic) with him ‘writing the script’, directing the play-out of events. It is Prospero’s play-within-the play, where his controlling magic engenders a rich and strange interplay of illusion and reality which will delight and confuse, inveigle and torture, the disoriented shipwrecked party. What is real? What is not real? Neither players or audience yet know. The forces unleashed upon the shipwrecked party represent the forces that play havoc with our lives when we have forsaken the ‘true north’ of our inner truth. 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 our created, conjured life on earth.
What is beautifully revealed and discovered is that, even in the face of Prospero’s manipulation, it is revealed that each character has free-will as to how they will respond to the apparently disastrous turn of events, and no one, not even Prospero and his powerful controlling magic, can ultimately take this freewill choice away from any of them – he can bring Ferdinand and Miranda 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 but he cannot usurp Ferdinand’s life-changing awakening to the awareness of the expansive ‘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 (1.2.493). Ferdinand’s revelation holds a kernel of true wisdom, which is the key to the play’s overarching theme of slavery, free will, love, 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 rule of magic, the island has a fluid, chameleon-like quality as it is variously experienced, according to each character’s perspective: for Caliban, the original natural creature of the island, it has become a place of torment under the coloniser’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, shell fish, delicate bird’s eggs, which only he knows how to find and gather.
The ‘civilised’ intruders have trampled in with the exploitative perspective of a new world coloniser, as they discover something that they can take for themselves. Hearing from Caliban of the isle’s enchanting ‘sounds and sweet airs’ and ‘thousand twangling instruments’, the immediate thought of Stephano, the King’s butler, is that the sweet music is something he can grab for himself for ‘nothing’ (3.2.145). This grasping, reductive way of approaching life and relating to the world as a commodity, also remains resolutely un-renounced by 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 broken through all the trials that the island offers, remains the safety-raft that this shipwrecked twosome cling onto until the bitter end. Offered an opportunity to align to a truer way they re-choose their old treachery in their plan to kill Alonso and usurp leadership of Naples . . . when Alonso is at his most vulnerable and full of grief for his son whom he believes to be drowned in the shipwreck. 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 – while never re-connecting to the ultimate purpose of life on earth.
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). Such an attitude in turn recalls Stephano’s earlier desire to take Caliban back to Naples as a ‘tame’ exhibit, a ‘present for any emperor’ (2.2.70). No wonder the island reflects itself back to them as uninhabitable, barren, full of tortures and ‘perfumed by a fen’ (2.1.50)
And yet 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 in their futile attempt to escape and redefine reality. He ultimately sees through their ‘royal’ charade and the reverse alchemy of the ‘grand liquor that hath gilded ‘em’ (5.1.280), and 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) One giant step forward for instead humanity.
The illusion of Paradise on earth
The noble Gonzalo, washed up on this new shore, does not proceed to plunder it, but 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. This 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 creating paradise on earth, an insidious ideal that plagues the minds of men and can never work and is of no actual use in the evolution of humanity: his commonwealth would have ‘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 conjured for Miranda’s and Ferdinand’s wedding, includes the necessary fact of work and workers in its 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. 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 from one and the same band of force, with the appearance of seeming different?
Or will they recognise one of the prime revelations of the play – that the ‘good and the bad’ is all part of the entrapment of the baseless fabric and the insubstantial pageant that is our world, and that what man could powerfully choose is neither the ‘good or the bad’ but something grander . . . the true, the ‘nobler reason’, and ‘virtue’ as a living way.
Like Gonzalo, Ferdinand too is seduced by the idea of an ideal paradisal world – the world that is conjured in the masque by Prospero to celebrate Ferdinand’s marriage to Miranda. 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:
"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 the wedding masque, the theatre (the ‘great globe itself’) and most significantly the world (the globe) we inhabit, are but an insubstantial creation, an illusion. There is the implication that there is a far greater reality that we have forgotten about, and that the ideals and visions of the world as a paradise are baseless conjuries which lure us away from returning to our true grand origins in the universe . . . and from realising that our ‘little life’ is no more than an illusory construct.
Most strikingly, the island is Prospero’s crucible of transformation.
Out of the chaos caused by his own creation Prospero most potently re-discovers his dukedom and the true value of committed leadership. Abandoned 12 years previously to the seas in a flimsy ‘bark’ by his treacherous brother Antonio, Prospero, with his tiny daughter Miranda, has washed up on the island – a symbol that mirrors the error of isolation and withdrawal that he had chosen to live in while Duke of Milan. He 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 by abnegating responsibility and withdrawing into the ‘dukedom’ of his library to ‘better’ his mind, thus providing the gap that allows his brother to usurp the societal role of dukedom. The law of cause and effect is clear to see.
While in Milan he has neglected his temporal duties to his people and has become caught up in the world of his ‘liberal arts’ so that ‘to my state grew stranger, being transported/And rapt in secret studies’ (1.2.76). Prospero has withdrawn from life into the perilous realm of the mind bereft of responsibility, and neglected the physical practicalities, necessities, and responsibilities of life. This irresponsibility has awakened the evil scheming nature of his brother who, in a coup, becomes ‘Absolute Milan’. Prospero now realises that to live truly he must not withdraw but commit himself fully to life, to balance the inner world with the outer, to participate with every fibre of his being.
He also realises that while his magic has enabled him to set up the scenario to call Antonio and Alonso to account, it is a magic that has sprung, not from love, observation, and mercy, but from fury and revenge – which he must now abjure. Over the course of events he has controlled and manipulated the lives of the shipwrecked party keeping them in thrall – deciding when they sleep and when they wake, producing a splendid banquet for the hungry men and then dissolving it before their eyes, imprisoning them and subjecting them to swamp-dunkings, tortures, convulsions, cramps and madness. Much of this provides great amusement and comedy for the audience, but it is nevertheless clear that he has acted as an abuser of power, the slave-master of Ariel and Caliban, and is the usurper of Caliban’s island – a usurpation not instigated by intrigue or political coup, but by magic.
What kind of magic is this then? Is this how the power of knowledge and science should be rightfully used?
And further, what kind of rulership is this? Prospero’s rulership over this craggy piece of rock and the characters stumbling through its ‘maze’, no matter how spectacular or powerful it may appear, is as insubstantial and baseless as the cloud capped towers and gorgeous palaces he has unveiled to Ferdinand as being nothing.
How have the royal party ended up inhabiting a world of forces where they apparently have no say over their minds and actions – or as Gonzalo describes, ‘when no man was his own’? (5.1.213)
What have we come to in selling out our truth and freedom for an illusion? This is a question the audience can equally apply to themselves and their lives. The island of illusion and reality, shimmering before their eyes on stage, is a telling trope for the world, then as now, with all its hooks and snares.
Certainly there can be no true alchemy if Prospero continues to choose to play with these controlling forces for his revenge and the playing out of his misguided ideal of personal justice.
Through Ariel’s petition to his master to become ‘tender’ and forgiving towards his victim’s afflictions, Prospero arrests and turns around this trajectory of destruction, by making a life-changing choice to embrace the way of his ‘nobler reason’ and ‘virtue’, releasing his prisoners, and, crucially, renouncing his controlling magic. It is by virtue of the act of making a true choice that he will evolve.
In this evolutionary moment, delivered to the audience through the rich power of Shakespeare’s language, Prospero renounces his dominion over the beauty of the standing lakes and grove, of the elves and spirits which inhabit this place, proclaiming, ‘this rough magic/ I here abjure’. He 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. He is ready for his ‘return’.
The moment the rough magic is abjured, the everyday world can reconstitute itself, and regather: the ship is now intact again, Ferdinand is not drowned, the nobles are not mad, and those who have surrendered to truly transform can bring a greater depth of wisdom to civilisation and the world of men. This is an extraordinary act of self-discovery concerning the nature of true power.
Prospero 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 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. (5.1.95)
Then the famous Epilogue, resonant with meaning, as Prospero, sans the powers of his ‘rough magic’, addresses the audience directly. The shimmer and dazzle of the magical and illusory light-show that is Prospero’s creation 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, 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 staff, no book – a man like them. A man like any other. 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, ‘Do unto others as you would have done unto you’ – 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 left free by the playwright to choose. Will they indulge in the abuse of power? Will they choose corruption, manipulation, resentment, revenge, suffering, and the wielding of a temporal power without love?
Or will they 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 such indulgence and contraction, and instead choose a power that is truly humble, harmonious, one which benefits all – the beginning of a grander, more universal magic and majesty.
"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. 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.Serge Benhayon Time, Space and all of us, Book 2 – Space, p33
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.