Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Many people will agree that there is something powerfully transcendent, beyond this world, about Shakespeare’s treatment of romantic love in Romeo and Juliet. I shall use some texts from ancient Gnosticism, a variant of early Christianity, supplemented by Jungian psychology and the religious and mythological themes that were part of the Elizabethan consciousness, to bring out some of the manifold nuances of the sacred in this play.

In the Introduction I will try to explain my general point of view, and what the intersection of Gnosticism and Jungian psychology looks like in relation to Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet. I will also say a little about the Gnostic texts that I am using, most of which have only come to light since the Second World War.

At the beginning of Part I, I will take us back to a way of looking at erotic language that was second nature in Shakespeare’s day, but seems strange to us now. It is a kind of triple vision, looking beyond the overt meaning of the words to both sacred and sexual implications. My exemplar will be the Hebrew Bible’s Song of Songs, as the Elizabethans, inheriting a tradition from the Middle Ages, would have seen it. From this background I will start looking at Romeo and Juliet, unpacking hidden religious references, both pagan and Judeo-Christian. We will start with temporal markers in the story. Shakespeare set the play at a time of great importance in the old Celtic religion of Britain; correspondingly, the Italian story that was the basis of his play has temporal correspondences to the Christian liturgical year.

Then we shall see how the play reflects the motif of the "bridal chamber" as developed in the Gospel of Philip and other writings in the Nag Hammadi Library (Robinson, 1988), a group of 4th century Gnostic texts discovered in 1945. The bridal chamber is a Gnostic variant of the Sacred Marriage, a theme that occurs in paganism, Judaism, and Christianity. The idea, in all traditions, is roughly this: Human beings are incomplete, missing half their nature. The other half is not simply another being, but an entry into a higher realm of being. The bridal chamber rectifies a prior separation and so raises both of the participants to divine status, experienced as a fullness replacing a lack.

The second theme of this work, undertaken in Part Two, is specifically Gnostic, that of the jealous demiurge, or creator god, personified in the play by Juliet's father. The demiurge claims the soul as its own, saying there are no other gods, and thereby unwittingly keeping the soul from knowing its true home, the Gnostic pleroma or fullness. If the soul, through the sacred marriage, should make contact with the pleroma, such a union is treated by the demiurge as illegitimate and to be thwarted at all costs. Thus we have what I would call the theme of the illicit sacred marriage, of which Romeo and Juliet is the most famous expression.

In Part Two I will develop this theme and relate it to a genre of medieval poetry known as the alba, from the Provencale word for dawn. The alba was perfected by the troubadours in what is now southern France. I will look at some songs that easily fit this concept of the illicit sacred marriage; they also share some of the imagery of Romeo and Juliet. The play in fact can be seen as an extended alba in the classic 12th century troubadour sense. In turn the alba can be interpreted in terms of the medieval bearers of Gnosticism, the Cathars. Then an unsuspected layer of meaning appears if we imagine the play in the context of religious strife in 13th century Verona, where Cathar supporters fought against the Roman Catholic hierarchy and lost. A similar surprise comes if we take this approach to the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible, which now appears as an expression of defiance against orthodoxy.


When I read a book, or go to a film or a play, I ask myself how the work helps sensitize me to aspects of human existence that I wasn’t so aware of before, and how it affects me emotionally. Does it help me to feel more strongly an aspect of life I may have felt only vaguely before? I come to Shakespeare with such considerations in mind. What I wanted to know, is he saying and feeling about life?

I could appreciate Shakespeare to some extent simply watching the plays, without further study. But when I started reading the plays in books that discussed the historical background, what the various words and phrases meant in Elizabethan English, and various Biblical and mythological references, my appreciation increased. When I read what different critics said about the characters and their motivations, I could enjoy the plays even more.

I felt a big jump in my understanding when I started reading psychological analyses of the plays. I studied Freud, Jung, and their followers, and I read analyses of the plays which saw the characters as people whose words and actions could be understood by reference to Freudian or Jungian theory. I started to see the plays in terms of life’s universal problems, and to see the plays’ images in terms of the symbol interpretation schemes of these theorists.

Pursuing my study of Jung further, I looked at Gnosticism, where Jung (1963) said he found many of his own views anticipated. The term “gnostic” means “knower” in Greek, in particular someone who knows by direct experience (Layton 1987). The term "Gnosticism" in Jung is an invention of 19th and 20th century scholarship, describing a variety of religious groups during the 2nd through 4th centuries that called themselves Christian but were labeled heretical by Christian orthodoxy (King 2003). Irenaeus, for many centuries our earliest reference for Gnosticism, spoke of “the gnosis falsely so-called,” as distinguished from the “true gnosis” experienced by the Christian saints.. In around 180 c.e., Irenaeus wrote a lengthy attack on these “false gnostics,” some of whom apparently did call themselves Gnostics (Layton 1987). His polemic, together with lengthy paraphrases of the works he was attacking, was preserved by the Church in Latin along with shorter pieces in both Latin and Greek in the works of Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Epiphanius. Another lengthy polemic, by Hippolytus of  Rome, was lost to the West until the mid-19th century, when one copy was found in the Greek Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos.

So I read these paraphrases, translations of which appear in various anthologies. I also read translations from new finds, books called codices made of papyrus and hidden under the sands of Egypt since the 4th century. A few of these codices were found in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the major discovery was in 1945 when a farmer digging near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, found a large jar containing 13 undisturbed codices, many of which corresponded in conception to the writings the polemicists had written about. These codices suffered various forms of neglect until the early 1950's when Jung himself exerted his prestige to make them accessible. The language was Coptic, Egyptian using Greek characters, translations from Greek originals. The Nag Hammadi Library, as it was called, finally appeared in English in 1977. Jung got to sample only a little of it, but that was enough for him to say, “I have worked all my life to know the psyche--and these people knew it already” (Churton 1987).

The Gnostic texts--by which I mean the paraphrases grouped together by modern scholars plus the original works that roughly correspond to them--often consisted of complex mythologies that performed subversive twists on basic Biblical narratives. The Greeks had done similar things with their tradition. For example, Euripides wrote a play about Helen of Troy in which she never goes to Troy. For the Gnostics a common theme was that the god of the Garden of Eden was only a lower-level deity in a hierarchy of gods. As Gnostics told the story, they lived in a world shaped by that lower-level god, while their spiritual home was in the realm of the highest god. To return, they sought gnosis, Greek for knowledge or insight, attained by reaching that same level within themselves.

Jung, in his interpretation of Gnosticism, identified the hierarchy of gods as layers in the human unconscious The ego, or center of consciousness, is unconsciously in the thrall of complexes, each in its own personal way. Complexes in turn reflect more universal patterns, across individuals and even cultures, what Jung called the archetypal. Beyond this is the inaccessible source of the various aspects, called the Self, which can be approached through a dialectical process of affirming and combining the opposite tendencies in the archetypal patterns. This process of discovery, in both its Gnostic and Jungian variants, owes much to Platonism, which saw "knowing oneself" as the main goal in philosophy. This philosophy was much in vogue in Shakespeare's England.

Soon I started seeing parallels between Gnostic myths and Shakespeare plays. I read a few books that made general statements relating Shakespeare to Gnosticism, but they were short on specifics. For example, Harold Bloom (1969) listed several of Shakespeare's plays which he considered "gnostic," but without elaboration. Later I read Bloom's book Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human (2000). There he gives the example of the character Marina in Pericles, whom he compared to the Gnostic demigoddess Sophia. Still later I discovered the English poet Ted Hughes' book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992), which developed the point further, but again only in relation to that one play.

So I started developing the parallels for myself. Writing about different plays in this light became a kind of spiritual practice for me. The Gnostics had given a new spiritual context for tales of the Biblical and Greek gods and heroes. It seemed to me that Shakespeare had reworked to similar effect legends from the European classical and folk traditions. In this way both the Gnostics and Shakespeare became part of my own spiritual quest. Seeing the plays in Gnostic/Jungian terms, I wondered whether perhaps they could serve as concrete models for approaching gnosis in our own lives, taking them as a kind of ritual activity from which we could learn how to achieve greater self-awareness and a sense of the transcendent.

One parallel that struck me between Gnosticism and Shakespeare is their common focus on the type of dynamic personality represented by the “Lord God” of Genesis, Yahweh or Jehovah, whom the Gnostics called the demiurge. This term is Greek for fashioner or artisan, used by Plato in the Timaeus for his creator god, who although wise and good was inferior to a higher god in knowledge and goodness. The Gnostics viewed the demiurge in Genesis as arrogant, ignorant, foolish, blind, and jealous (Robinson 1988). The parallel I saw was that Shakespeare's major characters often act in a similar way. Juliet’s father and King Lear come to mind; I think the ghost of Hamlet’s father also fits this pattern.

Other Shakespeare characters, usually the heroes’ persecutors, seemed to me to personify various Gnostic “archons,” or authorities--the demiurge’s helpers, corresponding in Jung (1964) to archetypal complexes that possess the ego, or center of consciousness . The archons, in Gnostic myths help the demiurge make the first humans by putting into them their own harmful characteristics. In Shakespeare, Romeo has the animosity of Juliet’s cousin Tybalt to contend with; but without noticing it, he becomes like Tybalt himself. The persecutor’s desire for battle becomes the hero’s own desire. Similarly, in a castle filled with intrigue, Hamlet suspects his father’s death was murder; and he responds with intrigue and murder himself.

The Gnostics implied that our propensity to act in such ways is not our fault; we were built that way, as part of our creation as a species. Genesis, read in the conventional Judeo-Christian way, says that God made humans in his own godly image, and that the first humans brought evil on themselves in choosing to follow the serpent. In the Gnostic variant, however, a group of lesser gods or angels, headed by the demiurge, fashion the first humans and put in them their own harmful characteristics (Robinson 1988). People then act in various evil ways, often covering over the evil with words like “love,” “honor,” and “justice,” unless they acquire insight.

But how to get such insight or knowledge? In the Bible, God sends his Law to oppose the corrupting serpent. Gnostic myth changes this story in a characteristic subversion of Judaic tradition. One text (The Hypostasis of the Archons, in Robinson 1988) calls the serpent “the instructor,” because in urging Eve to defy the god’s prohibition to eat of the tree of knowledge, it is encouraging the attainment of liberating knowledge, which passes to Eve as she eats. In this version of the story, the serpent embodies feminine Wisdom and the higher realm rather than the devil. Then when Adam and Eve are thrown out of the Garden into a world of suffering, that is the chief archon’s fit of temper, not humanity’s just punishment for wrongdoing. There is no original sin.

In Shakespeare as in Gnosticism, there is often little sense of the protagonists’ bringing suffering on themselves by their own misdeeds. Friar Lawrence does not lecture Romeo on how awful it was that he killed Tybalt, but on the inappropriateness of despair and the necessity of acting from reflection rather than impulse. The awfulness is in the situation, one of undeclared war between his family and Juliet’s, and his own youthful nature. Likewise Hamlet’s friend Horatio gives Hamlet no lectures about the people he has killed, but merely cautions him to take care.

Yet sometimes a Shakespeare play does seem to be showing the hero’s own responsibility for his situation--e.g. Lear’s responsibility for losing his temper at his youngest daughter. Here the character is more in the position of the god-figure in the Garden than that of Adam or Eve, the one setting up the situation rather than its victim. Even for Lear, the outcome is far out of proportion to the crime, due to other factors. And while more powerful than Lear, the Gnostic demiurge, too, is both blameworthy and only one character in a drama not entirely of his making.

In Gnostic myth the feminine figure Wisdom, Sophia in Greek, appears again and again in as an aid to suffering humanity in rising above the demiurge’s realm. Jung (1964) attributed this function to the anima, the feminine presence in men’s unconscious, at its highest level. Similarly in Shakespeare, psychic healing often comes by way of a gentle but powerful feminine presence, who seems as though from heaven and who has suffered herself. Both Juliet and Lear’s daughter Cordelia have some of this aura.

Besides the helpful feminine figure, something else serves to move the Shakespearean hero toward gnosis. Characters such as Romeo, Hamlet, and Lear all feel their powerlessness against forces within and without. “O, I am Fortune’s fool!” Romeo exclaims (III.i.138). “Give me that man/ That is not passion’s slave” (III.ii.71-72) cries Hamlet in despair. And Lear: “We cry that we are born to this great stage of fools” (Iv.vi.176-177). This condition, in Jungian terms, is that of the ego’s recognition of its own captivation by complexes. That is what Shakespeare also explored, the realm of the ego’s awareness that its effort is continually in the way of itself, that is, its goal of acting freely and in accord with its highest aspirations. Gnostic myth has the demiurge, or its son, or the soul, becoming aware of its ignorance and foolishness. The way forward is by a deactivation of the ego, that small center of consciousness and will, and a seeing of what lies beyond.

Shakespeare shows us ways this can happen. Dreams, mystical visions, and madness appear. Coincidences, happy and unhappy, also serve to defuse the ego. Death cancels the ego, at least as we know it; hence the will to suicide or to put oneself in harm’s way. In the plays there are apparent deaths and dramatic rebirths. Rebirth is the reconstituted ego, now with a conscious tie to a mysterious other within and without. Coming out of madness is a kind of rebirth. Even dropping the appearance of madness signifies rebirth, because it means a shift in identification, away from ego-suspension. Similarly, when the hero dies and the play ends, the spectators, who have been identifying with the hero, die imaginally yet continue to assimilate the hero’s experience, their egos perhaps made a little freer and wiser by what they have seen.

Shakespeare’s heroes suffer mightily, but at the end seem to have achieved a kind of transcendence of this life and its attachments. Yet none turns to a faith in God as represented by any church or priesthood; it is rather a state of inner knowing and feeling. First comes a stark portrayal of humanity’s passionate fallibility, then a period of suffering , then ego-suspension (in madness, etc.) and insight (gnosis). Finally a kind of peacefulness reigns. Romeo feels a sudden “lightening” (V.iii.19) or calmness as he is about to swallow his poison. When Hamlet’s friend Horatio fears Hamlet is putting himself in mortal danger, Hamlet only says; “The readiness is all...Let be” (V.ii.218-220). He means the readiness to die. Similarly warned of danger by his daughter Cordelia, Lear seeks to reassure her as they are taken to prison, saying, “We'll...take upon's the mystery of things/As if we were God's spies”(V.iii.14-17). Such calm comes from within, through self-knowledge, especially of one’s moral failings, leading to a blissful sense of being in the loving hands of a power greater in wisdom than the ego.

That sense is what Gnostic myths help us to see as well. Such a process is described repeatedly in Gnostic myths. In general, I want to show, a character in a play resonates, as it were, one or more figures in Gnostic myth. The character, we might say, embodies a Gnostic myth. Both Romeo and Juliet, we shall see, are the soul experiencing the Gnostic bridal chamber with their angelic counterparts. In this experience of transcending the demiurge's world, Juliet is the Gnostic Eve gradually embodying the Gnostic Sophia, and Romeo the Gnostic Adam becoming, to a lesser extent, the Gnostic Christ. Gnostic myth illuminates other plays as well, most memorably Hamlet and King Lear, where the Gnostic aspect is even more pronounced.

Someone might ask: How can it possibly be that Shakespeare wrote his plays in accordance with Gnostic narratives, when those narratives were all hidden away--either in buried jars or in the almost as inaccessible Latin and Greek polemical works of the early Church fathers?

But what has been done once can be done again. Shakespeare, in the Renaissance, had very much the same traditions to draw on as the Gnostics: first, the Judeo-Christian religion; second, Graeco-Roman mythology and literature; and third, the methods of interpretation provided by Greek philosophy. All that was necessary, in the 16th as in the 2nd century, was to take these traditions in the Gnostic direction.

Shakespeare's audience, too, had these traditions in hand. Some might have known only the basic Graeco-Roman myths, but known the folk traditions of their native Britain. Shakespeare has more than enough references to the sacred to go around. All would have known something of the method of interpretation, too, from the way they were taught to understand the Bible. The Old Testament was understood as prophesying the New. In this way they knew how to see one text in terms of another. Moreover, they were taught to see sensuous language, as in the Song of Songs, not simply for what it was but as having a sacred meaning as well; they knew how to see a text on different levels of meaning.

The more intellectual of Shakespeare's contemporaries would have understood other modes of interpretation as well. An eclectic Platonism had been the interpretative method of choice for the classical writers of the Roman world (Cicero, Plutarch, Apuleius, Macrobius, etc.--all much more known in Renaissance England than they are today) and was the basis for Judeo-Christian interpretation as well. The Renaissance philosopher Ficino had given new impetus to the Neoplatonic version of this method, and it was a fertile source of inspiration to such artists as Botticelli and Michelangelo. Less well known but as highly valued by some in England were the Renaissance alchemists, who used a similar eclectic mix of symbols and traditions in a Gnostic-like way--not so much, as I will be using them, to turn lead into gold but to turn a leaden consciousness into a golden one.

Here it is important not to assume that Shakespeare, as a Stratford provincial with only a grammar school education, could not have been aware of such methods of interpretation. In the first place, we do not really know who wrote the plays, so little is known about their author. Numerous highly educated candidates have been forward, each with some plausibility and a reason for anonymity. Members of the nobility, for example, were not supposed to write plays because it was beneath their dignity--and also, I think, because people might gossip that the characters in the plays were based on certain members of that nobility! Shakespeare himself could simply have been a producer and actor who, for a fee, agreed to pose as the playwright. Thus when rival playwright Robert Greene famously accused the early Shakespeare of  "crowing with our feathers," he might have meant not just borrowing lines and plots from other writers (as Wood, 2003, theorizes) but actually taking credit for another's work. And when he delivered his manuscripts without a "blot" on them, as Ben Jonson had observed (Wood 2003), perhaps that is because he or someone else copied another's drafts.

Even if Shakespeare did write Shakespeare, he likely had help. I am not talking about collaborations with others, which certainly happened with Pericles and a few other plays. I am referring to a highly educated circle in London sponsored by nobles (Leicester, Southampton, Oxford, Pembroke, etc.) and including such figures as the alchemist John Dee, translator John Florio (whose version of Montaigne turns up often in the plays), poet Edmund Spenser, playwright Ben Jonson, etc. Nobles back from their travels could have fed him details about other countries, and scholars could have brought to his attention writings not widely known by the general population.

In this connection the writings of the early16th century independent Catholic scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam offer a tantalizing connection to Gnosticism. He was widely admired in England, by Catholics and Protestants alike. His paraphrases of the gospels had been required reading in all English parishes under Henry VIII; Henry's Catholic daughter Mary, who succeeded him, even helped translate them from Latin. Erasmus's edition of the Greek New Testament was the one used by all Protestant translations into English. His comic work In Praise of Folly went through many English editions.

The connection to Gnosticism is this. Erasmus edited and published Irenaeus's polemic against Gnosticism, in its Latin version. In the 16th century it went through numerous editions. A 1576 edition even includes the Latin word "Gnosticorum" in the title--an innovation not present in Irenaeus's own title. It is just possible, but by no means necessary, that the playwright at some point read Erasmus's edition of Irenaeus. .Let me explain why.

First, there is much in common between the plays and Erasmus's works. Writers today (e.g. Wood 2003) comment on the similarity of In Praise of Folly’s tone and language to King Lear; but the same could be said of other of Erasmus’s works in relation to other plays, including Romeo and Juliet. Some writers have noticed what seem to be borrowings in Hamlet from Erasmus's early work Adagia ("Sayings"). Shakespeare may also have drawn on Erasmus’s Latin translations of Euripides. Erasmus translated two of Euripides plays, Iphegenia in Aulis and Hecuba. Scholars have noticed what seem to be borrowings from Euripides' Iphegenia in Aulis in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (Wood 2003). More broadly, Euripides' self-sacrificing dutiful daughter resembles various Shakespearean heroines, such as Desdemona, Ophelia, and Cordelia. (Juliet, we shall see, is an example of one who rejects that role even as it is forced upon her.) Moreover, it has been shown that the references to the Trojan Queen Hecuba in Hamlet could have come only from Euripides' play Hecuba.

Second, there is the religious predicament of 16th century England and Shakespeare's place in it. Shakespeare himself is likely to have been secretly raised Catholic (Wood 2003); some of his patrons, such as the Earl of Southampton, also had Catholic backgrounds and probably still practiced the faith in their private chapels. Erasmus, too, considered himself Catholic, even attacked the Church mercilessly and had every one of his works on the Catholic Index of forbidden books. Given Shakespeare's commonality with Erasmus, it would not be surprising if he read his predecessor's work widely.

Third, there is the Gnostics’ reputation: They had been the first Christian heretics. In a country where being called a heretic by the Catholic Church was not necessarily a hindrance, Gnostics would have had a new respectability. At the same time the Protestants condemned them as much as the Catholics had. Individual Gnostics were mentioned by name and caricatured in the popular mythology handbooks of the day (e.g. Lynche), as well as in satirical adenture stories (Joseph Hall)  To be on the safe side, it was good to know them simply to be sure not to sound like them. But one could still secretly mine them for ideas. It remains a rather large leap from the bizarre-sounding doctrines presented by Irenaeus to anything in Shakespeare, but the same may be said for the relationship between Irenaeus and the genuine articles found at Nag Hammadi.

This approach to Shakespeare flies in the face of most scholarship over the last half century, which was reacting against a previous trend that had seen the plays in Christian terms. To be sure, the later scholars said (e.g. R. Frye 1961, 1963), Shakespeare put Biblical allusions in the plays. But such allusions gave the point of the view of the characters, not the dramatist: religious ideas help to shape the characters for us and build dramatic tension and irony.

My point of view does not deny what such scholars are saying. The characters say things that make sense in the context of orthodox Christianity, and in that way shape our sense of them. Where I differ is in this: The characters’ Biblical allusions retain their sacred meaning in the context of the play as a whole, but in a less literal-minded framework than orthodox Christianity, one closer to ancient Gnosticism, and in some ways closer to pagan religion as well. Such meaning lies beneath the surface of the characters’ consciousness and that of the audience.

I also am not talking about all the plays. I have in mind most of all Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and King Lear. What I have to say would also generalize in part to other plays, and most fully to Pericles, about which Hughes (1992) and Bloom (2000) have already written. I hope to elaborate the perspective in detail for all four of these plays; in fact, it takes all four to present it, because each play shows a different aspect of the worldview. 

In this process I want us to get more than an intellectual understanding of what Shakespeare did with the traditions he inherited. I want us to appreciate it on a sensory and feeling level as well. Toward this end art is particularly helpful. The classical and folk traditions Shakespeare inherited had visual as well as verbal expression. Renaissance alchemy also had a rich collection of pictures that apply to Shakespeare, as Nicholl has already demonstrated in relation to King Lear and Haley to All’s Well That Ends Well. So I scoured numerous sources to find suitable visual expressions. This endeavor expanded my appreciation of Shakespeare in ways I did not anticipate.

Finally, I want our appreciation of Shakespeare to be of use in our own lives. To this end, the concepts of Carl Jung and other psychological descendents of Freud continue be useful. To be sure, there are other valid interpretations of the images and situations in Shakespeare: but it is the Jungian-Gnostic undercurrent which in my view makes Shakespeare most relevant to our lives today.

Images of the sacred marriage


A. The sacred marriage in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

On the Elizabethan stage it was forbidden to present any Christian doctrine explicitly (Dawkins 2000), presumably so as to avoid the sectarian controversies that had wreaked havoc in English politics. An arena that in living memory had been dominated by Catholic “mystery plays” was suddenly secularized by royal decree. English drama rose to the occasion with great success. Yet the transition may not have been as sharp as it seems. In the language of love, dramatists had a well-known predecessor, namely the Song of Songs, which also did not use the word “God” or speak in religious terms. Yet as the Elizabethans saw it, it was all about the relation of God to humanity, a “sacred marriage” between the two.

The term "sacred marriage," hieros gamos in Greek, originally applied to a fertility ritual, to honor the gods of the crops. A god and a goddess were imagined to celebrate their nuptials: Hera and in Greece, Isis and Osiris in Egypt, Inanna and Dumuzi in Sumer, etc. In its oldest form, men and women impersonating the gods might have had ritual sexual intercourse, or one man and one woman would perform this act; perhaps one or both would be ritually sacrificed (Frazier 1958). Songs and stories were composed to express in myth what was the ritual was about.

With the advent of priests and poets in the great civilizations of antiquity, there came imaginative literary variations on the myths, yet with an echo of the old rites. The marriage of two gods, or of god and humanity, continued to have its appeal, although neither partner might be claimed divine or even married. Thus we have the Hebrew Song of Songs, which from affinities to Egyptian and Mesopotamian love poetry scholars hypothesize may have been adapted from these cultures without any indigenous Hebrew fertility rite (Murphy 1990). Without any reference to the sacred specifically, it appears in a Bible replete, as we shall see, with apocalyptic utterances about the Lord God and his Bride Israel. The Song is then interpreted in terms of this divine marriage, by Christian and Jew alike. .

Let me give examples that will be of use later. The Hebrew Bible’s sense of the hieros gamos, which the rabbis applied to the Song of Songs, occurs in Hosea and Isaiah. Hosea speaks of a new covenant between the Lord and his people: “I will betroth thee unto me in faithfulness, and thou shalt know the Lord,” says God through Hosea (2:20). “Know” refers to the consummation of a marriage, as in “Adam knew Eve”; but it has a more spiritual sense as well, of communion. Isaiah, similarly, speaks of a time when Israel shall:
forget the shame of thy youth, and shall not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more. For thy Maker is thine husband: the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel: The God of the whole earth shall he be called. (Isaiah 54:4-5)
Besides these specific mentions of marriage, other Hebrew Bible passages speak reproachfully of Israel “whoring” with other gods (Ex. 34:15, Ps. 73:27). This image treats her as a woman whose sole partner should be the Lord.

The Song itself does not speak of Israel and the Lord at all, or even of a marriage. It poetically describes the love of a young woman and a young or at least very athletic man. In the view of the rabbis, the man was the Lord God of Israel and the woman his chosen people, the Israelites. The Song expressed their devotion to each other, the need for the people of Israel to have faith in their God, and the eventual fruitfulness of their spiritual union (Murphy 1990).

Then Christianity came along, whose basic texts, in the dominant tradition, are those that became the New Testament. These texts interpreted the marriage as between the Lord and the people of all nations. Indeed, Isaiah had paved the way in speaking of the husband as “God of the whole earth” (54:5).

Orthodox Christianity, of course, did something that Isaiah did not do: it concretized the Bridegroom in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus at Mark 2:19, Jesus speaks of the disciples as “children of the bridechamber”; he himself, the text implies, is the bridegroom. (I shall discuss the actual text in a later section.) Paul, more explicitly, says to his converts, “I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). In the same vein, when discussing marriage, he compares Christ to the husband and the Church to the wife (Eph. 5:23-25). The Book of Revelation speaks in similar terms (19:7-9, 21:2, 22:17); this time the marriage is of the New Jerusalem and the Lamb. All of this redefines the rabbinic tradition expressed in Isaiah and Hosea..

In the New Testament itself, I have found only one reference to Bride and Bridegroom that reflects the wording of the Song specifically (cited in Lavin and Lavin 2000). In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist refers to Christ as the “bridegroom” in the famous text in which the Baptist is asked if he is the savior. He answers:
Ye yourselves bear witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice; this my joy therefore is fulfilled. (John 3:28-29, King James Version)
The latter part, about the friend who hears the bridegroom, seems a reference to Song of Songs 8:13: “Thou that dwellest in the gardens, the companions hearken to thy voice.” (I will discuss the significance of this reference in understanding the Song towards the end of thisessay.)

In the 2nd century, Origin, basing himself on these references to “Bridegroom” and “Bride” and others in the established canon, wrote a long commentary on the Song, comparing the Woman to both the soul and the Church, and the man to Christ and the Word. Only about a third of this commentary survived, but it had immense influence despite the condemnation of his later works as heretical. 

In the 4th century, Augustine referred to the sacred marriage between Christ and the Church in his analysis of Christ's crucifixion. In the background is the story of Adam and Eve, who originally lived in a garden similar to that in the Song of Songs, but were expelled into a land of suffering and death. Now God himself has come down to earth, to enter into a new marriage. God's marriage bed is the cross, where as Christ he takes on himself the suffering of the people--in Augustine's words, "He lovingly gave himself up to the torment in place of his bride" (quoted in Jung 1967, 269). God's bride, the Church, is a community of souls defined by its faith in Jesus as opposed to its identification with Judaism or any pagan faith. Augustine adds, "..and he joined himself to the woman forever." As in the traditional Jewish understanding, this is a union of the divine with the human, of the male as god with the female as human, rather than the union of god and goddess. And the new life being promoted is of a purely spiritual nature, the fruit of a spiritual marriage between God on the cross and humanity. This marriage is for God an act of extreme suffering, but the result, Augustine says, is joy for those who choose to become the bride of Christ.

All of this language was applied in Shakespeare’s day not only to the Song of Songs, but to the ordinary marriages of men and woman. Erasmus, an Augustinian by training and a devotee of Origen by later study, used the same language as Augustine and Origin to explain the sacred significance of marriage, as a surrendering of each of the pair to the other in a secular prefiguring of the soul’s surrender to Christ

In the Middle Ages, the Song was the easily the most quoted book in the entire Bible (Kendrick). Commentators followed Origin in seeing the woman of the Song as the soul, and the man as Christ, the Word of God. To illustrate, let us take the first lines of the Song:
    The Song of Songs which is Solomon’s:       
    Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. (1:1-2, King James Version)
For the interpretation, first let us hear St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th century:
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” Who says this? The bride. Who is she? The soul thirsting for God...The passion of love excels among the gifts of nature, especially when it returns to its origin which is God. And there are no names as sweet to express the affections of Word and soul as those of bridegroom and bride, seeing as these have all things in common, have nothing which either claims, nothing in which the other has no share. (Harper 1907, xliv)
The Church, in Bernard’s view, is simply “the unity-or rather unanimity-of many souls” (Bernard 1952, 16). “Church” is a shorthand for the combined souls of the believers.  Illuminated manuscripts of the time showed the sponsa (wife) and sponsus (husband), as Christ and his bride the Church, as in Fig.  1 (Camille 1998, 23), a 12th century illustration to Bede’s commentary on the Song.

In the 16th century St. Bernard’s tradition, in both interpretation and austerity, was renewed by reformers in the Roman Catholic Church such as Teresa of Avila and her friend John of the Cross. Teresa writes:
My Lord, I ask nothing else in this life but "to kiss me with the kiss of Your Mouth," and to do this in such a manner that I should not be able to withdraw from this union, even if I wished it. (Bloom 1988, 7)
John of the Cross, in a poem introducing The Dark Night of the Soul, says similarly:
O night that guided me, 
O night more lovely than the dawn,
O night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved! 

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks; 
With his gentle hand
He wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion,
 My face I reclined on the Beloved. 

All ceased and I abandoned myself, 
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies. 
(Bloom 1988, 7) 
These writers describe the relation of human individual to God as a surrendering of the will to the higher power, a loss of one's separate identity, even including assent to divine use of force. Since the Song itself nowhere speaks of the relationship of the two lovers in such terms, I wonder if perhaps the atmosphere of the times, in which the Spanish Inquisition was burning people with a vengeance, has found its way into their visions.

Before Protestantism, the general public was not able to read the Song for itself, because it remained in Latin. To translate it into the languages that people actually spoke was considered heresy. William Tynsdale, the first translator of the Bible into English, in fact fled England when a Catholic monarch, so-called “Bloody” Mary, ascended the throne. The Catholic Church eventually caught up with him and burned him at the stake for his pains (Geneva Bible 1969, editor’s introduction).

Under Elizabeth, however, the Bible was not only allowed but required of any household above a certain economic level. The most popular translation-and the one quoted by Shakespeare--was the Geneva Bible, put together by English Calvinists in the safe haven of Geneva, Switzerland. Now the laity could read the Song, although the approved Calvinist interpretation appeared in the margins. King James I took offense to some of these notes; the marginal comments stopped in the version he sponsored, leaving only brief comments at the top of the page.

When lay readers of the Geneva Bible turned to the Song, they found erotic imagery carefully interpreted in the traditional way. Consider the following, spoken by the woman (I quote from the King James Version, which in these lines is virtually identical to the Geneva Bible, with the advantage that its current edition modernizes the spelling):

Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south;
Blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out
Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.

I sleep, but my heart waketh; it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh,
Saying, "Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled;
for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night."
I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dripped with myrrh,
and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.
I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself and was gone..
(Song of Songs 4:16, 5:2, 5:5-6.)
According to the Geneva Bible the “north wind” and “south wind” are the Holy Spirit, which the faithful soul wishes to descend upon her (1969, 282). Then when the beloved complains that “my head is filled with dew,” apparently meaning he is wet, that expresses Christ’s patience with sinners. When the lover responds by putting myrrh on her fingers, she is attempting to “anoint” Christ with her “good works”; but what is required is her whole heart and devotion before he can accept her as his bride. Later in the Song the beloved speaks, describing the parts of his lover’s body in sensuous terms, starting with the feet, moving up to the navel and the breasts, and ending with the hair (7:1-3). Our commentator says that this expresses “the beauty of the Church in all her members. She is assured of Christ’s love toward her” (282). My point is not to ridicule such interpretations. It is take them seriously, in as much as they show a major way erotic imagery was taken at the time. Shakespeare’s audience was accustomed to seeing sacred interpretations of very sensuous language.

Modern commentator looking at the Song see other things: “Open to me” suggests a sexual invitation; in fact the word in Hebrew translated as “open to” is the same as the word translated as “knew” in the sentence “Adam knew Eve” (Bloch and Bloch 1995). Handles and locks also have sexual connotations, as does the act of “withdrawing.” These connotations were not lost on Elizabethans, as we know from the jokes in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare himself had used the language of the Song of Songs in a purely sexual way in his poem Venus and Adonis, when he has Venus say to the reluctant Adonis, who just wants to go boar-hunting (ll. 231-4):
I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer:
Feed where thou wilt, on mouutain or in dale;
   Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,
    Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
Shakespeare no doubt offended many with this appropriation. In fact it is a little beneath him, as a poet who revels in ambiguity. Elizabethans were quite capable of listening on three levels at once: the literal meaning of the words--which I would call the ego-level--the spiritual, and the intimately sensual. 

A problem with applying the Geneva Bible’s or any standard Christian interpretation of the Song to Romeo and Juliet is that the relationship is not even metaphorically between a female mortal and a male god. To be sure, Juliet calls Romeo “the god of my idolatry” (II.ii.113), but he speaks in terms almost as exalted: she is a “bright angel” (II.ii.26). They each speak of the other in sacred terms.

Medieval commentators seemed to realize this problem, and some advanced a solution. Not only was the Bride the soul, it is symbolically the Virgin Mary, who at death is bodily lifted up to heaven and put at the right hand of Christ his as Bride. A visual example is a mosaic done at the direction of Pope Innocent II, who was a friend of Bernard of Clairvaux, in about 1140-1142 (Fig.  1a, below; Lavin & Lavin 2001, 29).

The writing held by Mary says “His left hand is under my head and his right hand doth embrace me,” a quote from Song of Songs 2.6, repeated at 8.3. The writing that Christ holds says, “Come, my chosen one, I will put my throne in you” (in Latin: Veni electa mea et ponam in te thronum meum) (Lavin & Lavin 2001, 27-28). This latter sentence “has no other source than the Divine Office,” the Lavins say; perhaps it is a litany by Innocent II himself. The sentence means that Christ is empowering Mary to rule with him in heaven. But as the Lavins notice, the wording also suggests “their adult connubial union.” The sexual imagery of the Song is carried over into words accompanying the image of Christ, as spoken to his mother Mary.

The Lavins show another way that illustrators implied a sexual relationship between Christ and Mary. They put Christ’s right leg between her legs (Fig. 1b, left below: Lavin & Lavin 39), a pose associated with secular marriage (Fig. 1c, right below; Lavin & Lavin 25).
 Judaism had another way of interpreting the Song, that of the tradition later known as Kabbalah (Bloom 1988, 7). On this view, the Song metaphorically describes the androgynous body of God, seen by Moses on Mount Sinai. In this tradition, set down in the Middle Ages, the body of God had different aspects, called the Zeferot, and the poem was at least in part a dialogue among two or more of these aspects, metaphorically male and female. The metaphor of a young woman and a young man is one way of giving sensuous expression to the beauty of God. This interpretation makes the Song much closer to the traditional god/goddess marriage.

Along these lines, a Hebrew text from the 1st century describes some of the aspects of God as the sun, moon, and planets. This fits what the woman says of herself and her companion: "I am black.. because the sun hath looked upon me" (1:6); and also "My beloved is white and ruddy...His head is as the most fine gold" (5:10-11). These images suggest night and day, and their chief lights, the moon and the sun. Then the marriage is a hieros gamos between sun and moon, which esoteric Judaism preserves within a monotheistic framework.

From this perspective, human love at its most sensuously beautiful is a metaphorical approximation to divine love between God's own complementary aspects or emanations. Those who appreciated the Song from an esoteric perspective seemed to have this idea in mind: A 13th century Jewish text from Spain quotes a saying of the sages: "When a man unites with his wife in holiness, the divine presence is between them." (Matt 1997, 155).

With the invention of the printing press, Kabbalistic interpretations of the Song were given limited publication, and these were followed by more widely read commentaries by such esoteric Christian thinkers as Pico, Bruno, and Agrippa. Before them, the Catholic Church had itself made a few attempts to see God bisexually. For example, the standard Latin translation of the Bible used in the Middle Ages, the Vulgate, gave the male figure breasts.
Osculetur me osculo oris sui             Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth
quia meliora sunt ubera tua vino.      for your breasts are better than wine.

 (Matter 1990, xvi-xvii)
.The Greek translation used by the Vulgate identified the Hebrew word dodeyka, literally meaning “your love-making,” as meaning breasts, a word which in Hebrew has the same root (Murphy 1990). The King James Version, which went to the Hebrew, translates the word as “your love,” so that the line reads “for your love is better than wine.” This translation goes the other way and desexualizes the Hebrew.

The 12th century Bernard, using a variant of the Vulgate, dutifully analyzes the line in terms of breasts. He says that while it is unclear whose breasts these are, the bride’s or the bridegroom’s, one valid interpretation is that they are “the breasts of the Bridegroom-that is, of Christ” (1950, 32). What they offer is “the milk of Thy loving-kindness” (33). In a similar vein, illuminated manuscripts sometimes give Christ sexually ambiguous features. I have not found any with breasts, but the Rothchild Canticle of 1320 has an illustration of  the wound in Christ’s side that suggests the female, while the woman on the opposite page carries a very masculine spear (Fig. 1d; Camille 1998, 38).

Liturgies and other sacred poetry probably also used feminine imagery occasionally to refer to Christ or God. In these various ways, seeing God in both feminine and masculine imagery would have worked its way into public consciousness. The soul could yearn for God using the words and images of longing for both sexes--and also imagine its own sexual longings in sacred terms.

Temporal markers of the sacred

B. Temporal markers of the sacred in Romeo and Juliet and previous versions of the tale

In applying the concept of the sacred marriage to our play, I want to look first at the temporal markers in the story, both as Shakespeare presents it and in earlier versions: At what time of year does the action of the play take place? People today often miss the reference, for they attach no significance to it. It occurs fairly early, in the play’s third scene, when Lady Capulet is talking to the nurse about marrying Juliet off. It is “a fortnight and odd days” before Lammas, Lady Capulet says (I.iii.15). Juliet herself will be fourteen “on Lammas Eve at night”(I.iii.18). .

i.  The reference to Lammas: Christian and Celtic symbolism.

What is the symbolic importance of Lammas? Gibbons’ notes to the Arden edition of the play tell us that Lammas, August 1, is the time in the English church when the first harvest was celebrated. Loaves of bread were made and consecrated from that harvest. Gibbons calls attention to the association between Juliet and “early-ripening.” Juliet herself is ready for harvesting, so to speak. For the nurse, there may also be an association between Lammas and “lamb,” her pet name for Juliet. Gibbons tells us that there was a false belief that “Lammas” meant “Lamb-mass,” when in fact it meant “loaf-mass.” The association is meaningful even if false. Lambs in Britain were traditionally weaned on August 1-and so was Juliet, by the Nurse’s recollection, at the age of three (I.iii.24-26). Juliet now is about to be weaned in another sense. At the same time Juliet’s fate will be that of a sacrificial lamb. Gibbons points to one other association to Lammas: a commentator noticed the association between July, the month of Juliet’s birth, and her name. Since Shakespeare was given the name from earlier versions of the story, it is logical for her to have been born in July.

However I think Lammas has much additional significance, if we consider it from the perspective of Celtic myth. We know that Shakespeare frequently drew on the Celtic tradition. For example, later in the play Mercutio has a long speech about Queen Mab and her fairy doings (I.iv.33-94). And only two years before our play, he put on Midsummer Night’s Dream; the title refers to another special time for Celts, when fairies were said to appear to mortals. Apart from Shakespeare, Elizabethans had Ireland and its ways very much on their mind, if only because England was then actively subjugating that land.

Before the Roman conquest of western Europe, a holiday corresponding to Lammas was celebrated all over the Celtic world.. It is no coincidence that Emperor Augustus took August 1 as his cult-day, and that he initiated his cult in the Celtic city of Lugdunum, modern Lyon, named for Lugh, Celtic god of light (Curran 2000). The Romans called him “the Gaulish Mercury,” in keeping with their practice of identifying foreign deities with their own.

In Ireland, Lammas was the central day of Lunghnasadh, Lugh’s festival, which extended 15 days on both sides of August 1. It was said to have been started by Lugh in honor of the death of Tailtu, his foster-mother (Curran 2000). She was an earth goddess forced to clear her land by the conquering gods of civilization, an effort that killed her. People would go on hillsides and pick wild berries in honor of her, taking “flatcakes of oatmeal and milk” to eat, as an 85 year old woman in Donegal told an interviewer in 1942. The custom did not die out in her town until World War I (Smyth 1996, 105).

Lughnasadh was a time when people might begin “year and a day” marriages, a kind of trial marriage that might or might not be made permanent later. These were known as “Teltown marriages,” from the Anglicized name for the town which tradition held was the burial place of Tailtu (Crowley 1998), and where Lughhnasadh was celebrated grandly even in the 18th century. In pre-Christian times these marriages would have had Druidic blessing.

The time also honored one of Lugh’s marriages, to the goddess Naas. There is little information on her. The festivities suggest a goddess of the bountiful harvest. If we turn to images of Mercury in Roman Gaul and Britain, we find just such a consort, the goddess Rosmerta, meaning “the great provider,” often shown with a cornucopia or a purse (Green 1992, 180). A stone plaque found in Gloucester (Fig.  2; Green 1992, 181) shows her next to “Gaulish Mercury” (the cock is an animal sacred to Mercury) with a ladle in her hand above a big pot.
 This pose suggests a feast (Green), perhaps including a ritual by which the goddess of the land, impersonated by a priestess or the Lady of the house, dishes out a ceremonial drink by which those present reaffirm their loyalty to their Lord (Enright 1996, 251-252). Scholars are confident that the image in the plaque is Celtic, despite the Roman setting, because of other unmistakably Celtic images next to similar scenes found in Bath, Trier, and Mannheim (Green).

Occurring at the time the grain was cut and the fields burned, the holiday was also associated with ritual sacrifice by cutting and burning. It is unclear how often human sacrifice was performed by the ancient Celts; Roman writers implied that it was frequent event. Lucan, Julius Caesar, and Strabo wrote about a giant “wicker man” that was burned at harvest-time with victims locked inside. In or around Shakespeare’s day, illustrated books popularized the wicker-man; e.g. the Britannia Antiqua of 1676 (Fig.  2a; Curran 2000, 237), and farmers still burned small straw figures at harvest. ).

In the Roman accounts, the human sacrifices and the wicker-men were not made to satisfy Lugh, but rather other sky gods, Taranis or Essa (Green 1992). Apparently more than one harvest god was honored on August 1. Scholars today do not mention any Roman accounts of myths connecting these gods to the day or to Lugh. However I think we can make some educated guesses, at least for Britain and Ireland.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, folklorists wrote down pagan folk-tales remembered by Irish villagers; MacNeill (1962) has assembled many of them. A god or lord of the harvest, honored around August 1, was recalled by many, associated with the ritual sacrifice and burning of cattle. His name was Crom Dubh, the stooped black one, stooped from bringing the first sheaves of wheat to Ireland. Bad as he was, he was still the one who gave the people “the light of day, darkness of night, and the change of the seasons” (MacNeill 1962, 597). Moreover, “It was he who taught them to sow and reap, and when the weather would be good or bad” (595).

MacNeill (1962, 409ff) thinks that this god was not Lugh, but an older god who had to be appeased to prevent ruined crops and diseased animals, perhaps corresponding to Balor, Lugh’s grandfather, in the written legends. These devout Catholic informants recalled stories that anyone who saw the hilltop bonfires still lit by “witches” would be struck dead. This sounds like the “evil eye” that was Balor’s chief weapon. Likewise, any children wandering about at night were likely fall into the earth. Various sink-holes were said to be the lair of the god, now in the form of a giant snake, driven there by St. Patrick, whom MacNeill thinks in these stories is the Christian monks’ popular substitute for Lugh.

In the official legends, written down in Latin by medieval Christian for their own use, Lugh is portrayed as belonging on his father’s side to a race of warrior-gods more civilized than the harsh and unpredictable native ones. His mother was the daughter of the native chief god Balor, but the gods, like their Celtic worshipers, identified themselves with their father’s tribe. Lugh eventually killed Balor with a sling-shot aimed at his dreaded eye. (In the stories collected by MacNeill, he is sometimes not killed but either driven underground or converted to the new religion (Christianity, in the substitution of St. Patrick for Lugh).0

The English had an example in their not too distant past that suggested a re-enactment of the slaying of Balor. The second Norman king of England, William, the Red, was supposedly an inept king with many enemies. History said that he died on August 2, 1100, a day conspicuous by its ritual significance. It would have been especially significant to kill a a king with red hair, corresponding to blood and to color the grain started to take when it was ready to harvest. Moreover, the death was said to have been the same way as Lugh’s grandfather’s, through the eye; William died by an arrow through the eye (Brittania 2000).

Although I have not found scholars making the comparison,  Lugh and Balor are reminiscent David and Goliath, here become warrior-champions of the enlightened and more primitive indigenous tribes of deities. These Celtic gods, however, were not simply immortal, as were the Greek and Roman Olympian gods, or the Judeo-Christian father-god Jehovah. The Celtic harvest-gods die and are reborn each year, according to the rhythm of the farming year. Balor must be honored to protect the crops and the health of the crops; and although he is defeated at the harvest, when Lugh kills Balor and marries the land, Balor still operates in the sky and in the Land of the Dead, and he must be appeased to protect the grain and the animals from disease. Moreover, Lugh in turn is killed on November 1, not to be reborn until the light begins to grow longer again.

To me the cycle is reminiscent of the tale of Persephone, daughter of the Graeco/Roman grain-goddess Demeter or Ceres. The grain-maiden is taken underground by the Lord of the Underworld and made his wife at the time of the fall planting, mid-September when the Eleusinian Mysteries are conducted. She is not rescued and returned to her mother for a third of a year, 4 months, when the crops start appearing above ground. The rescuer is Hermes, the Roman Mercury, with whom the Romans identified Lugh. She returns underground again in September and the cycle repeats Lugh’s killing of Balor on August 1 becomes in the Mediterranean world the rescue of Persephone from Pluto in January. Or so it seems to me.

In any case-although I have yet to find a single work on Shakespeare to point this out--the mention of Lammas would have evoked for Shakespeare’s audience a time of both non-traditional, even sacred marriage and sacred death, and a day sacred to goddess as well as god. More specifically, Lord Capulet, if fused with his nephew Tybalt, is reminiscent of Pluto and Balor. Juliet, born at night on Lammas-eve, a day sacred to two Celtic goddesses of wealth and plenty, merges with these goddesses, one the wife of the god of light, the other dead as a result of being forced to do something against her heart. Romeo’s killing Tybalt and marrying Juliet is reminiscent of Lugh’s killing Balor and marrying the grain maiden, or Mercury rescuing Persephone. Later Lugh dies and the grain-maiden goes underground; so also Romeo and Juliet die in the crypt. But Romeo will meet and rescue Juliet in the next performance, and so will the gods repeat themselves in the next year.

We cannot expect that Shakespeare’s audience would have appreciated all these parallels. But they would have known enough for the story to resonate with their cultural unconscious. More importantly, the parallels suggest that a story is being told that reflects broader human experience and the human situation generally. Gnostics, too, went beyond the myths of particular places and times to describe the archetypal unconscious level.

ii. References to the Christian calendar in Brooke and Bandello.

Earlier versions of the Romeo and Juliet story also contain references to sacred marriage and death, but in terms of orthodox Christianity rather than Celtic belief. Shakespeare’s immediate source, a narrative poem by Brooke, starts the action at Christmas time (Brooke 1957, l. 155) Then the action drags out. Romeo spends months looking up at Juliet’s window before he risks talking to her. He kills Tybalt on the day after Easter (l.960); so the marriage must have been a short time before. Then toward the end, Juliet’s marriage with Paris is set by her father for September 10 (l. 2072). The symbolic significance of these times will be clearest if we go back two more versions of the tale.

Brooke’s source was a story in French, which was a translation, with moralizing comments added, of one in Italian, by Bandello. There were two other versions before that, but Bandello’s is the one that puts in the references to the Christian calendar. For Bandello, Romeo first sees Juliet "soon after Christmas" (Bandello 1992, 55). In other words, the love between Romeo and Juliet is born at the time of year of Christ's birth. Then they agree to marry during "the time of Lent" (63), which is traditionally the time for the lover of God to focus on Jesus. Our lovers, correspondingly, focus on each other. We are not told exactly when the marriage is, although we know it is on a Friday (63), and that it is before Romeo's killing of Juliet's cousin, which occurs "at Easter time" (65). The marriage-date, Friday during Lent, brings to mind, of course, Good Friday. The marriage is consummated in "a certain garden" (64), suggesting the Garden of Eden, the garden of the Song of Songs, and Gesthemene. Tybalt’s death at Romeo’s hand, followed by Romeo’s flight to Mantua, suggests Christ's conquest over Hell after the crucifixion, followed by the renunciation of the body implied by the Ascension. Finally, Juliet's arranged wedding with Paris is set by her father for mid-September (71). She visits the friar and gets the sleeping potion on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption (71). The association between Juliet and Mary as Queen of Heaven could hardly be clearer. When Romeo hears of Juliet’s apparent death and returns secretly to Verona, he arrives at the hour when “Ave Maria” is sung (83), another association to Mary.

This time scheme is not only significant from a Christian perspective, but also from Jewish and pagan ones. Easter in northern Europe was the time of spring fertility rites, a survival of which is our “Easter bunny,” the reproductively vigorous rabbit that lays eggs. The very word “Easter” is cognate with “Estrous,” the time of fertility. It was harvest time in the eastern Mediterranean, when the first grain was made into sacred bread and the lambs were sacrificed in Jerusalem (Leviticus 23:9-14). Mid-September, the time set for the marriage with Paris, is the start of the planting season in the eastern Mediterranean, also the time, as I have mentioned, of the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries, which commemorated the abduction of the grain-goddess’s daughter to the underworld and her subsequent marriage to its god.  Similarly Romeo and Juliet reunite in the underworld of the Capulet vault..

Sacred images of the partner in Romeo & Juliet: luminosity in darkness

Shakespeare does not have the earlier versions’ extensive temporal correspondences between human and divine passions, there is only the reference to Lammas, a symbol which neatly combines both sacred death and sacred marriage. What he has in abundance is metaphorical imagery putting the couple’s relationship in sacred terms. Consider Romeo's speech when he first sees Juliet at the Capulets’ ball:
Rom. Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows...
Did my heart love til now? Forswear it sight,
For I ne'er saw true beauty til this night
. (I.v.43-55)
Romeo does not even know who Juliet is, but already he sees her in a special way, as a spark of light on a field of darkness. In the Song of Songs there is a comparable image: the man calls the woman a “lily among thorns” (2:2). But the issue here is light more than beauty. "Light" in all Indo-European symbol systems means spirit; darkness means lack of spirit; or even stronger, it is the color of evil. The Book of John, for example, says, "The light has come into the world, yet men have loved the darkness rather than the light, for their works were evil" (John 3:19).

In the play, Montague has already indicated these conventional opposites in the course of worrying about his son’s habit of wandering at night and sleeping during the day. Romeo’s avoidance of the “all-cheering sun” (I.i.132) and “fair daylight” (I.1.137) in favor of an artificial night”(I.i.138) portends a “humor” that is “black” (I.i.139)-i.e. melancholia. At the Capulets’ night-time ball, the enmity between the two rival families is a similar metaphorical darkness, and Juliet is the light in that darkness. This imagery makes her an object of veneration, like Christ a divinity come into the world of sinners at the darkest time of year.

Despite the Montagues’ positive evaluation, however, light in Christianity does not always mean good.: Lucifer, the light bearer, is in traditional Christianity another name for the devil. And lights in the dark are most likely, in folk tales, evil spirits, not good ones, especially if they are female. Good spirits, it is said, do not need the cloak of darkness to hide them. From this perspective, Romeo's perception of Juliet should be of that which he had a foreboding before he went to the Capulets, something that would be his doom.

Yet it might be that the day-world, with its rivalries and ambitions, is evil, and what he finds at night is of the highest good, so fine that it approaches the sacred, as Romeo soon expresses in wanting to "make blessed" his hand by touching Juliet’s. What Romeo intuits corresponds to the Gnostic and Neoplatonic myth of the spark of the highest divinity that lies trapped in dark matter, the human spirit. Yet such a view, that the human spirit has a spark of the divine, would be heretical to orthodox Christianity, for whom the only divine human is Jesus himself.

Romeo now approaches Juliet and compares her first to a shrine and then to a saint, with himself a pilgrim. In respect to the imagery of light, a conventional Christian basis for the comparison might be that saints are metaphorically surrounded by light, depicted in paintings with halos. At the same time he sees her in romantic terms, using the imagery of the sacred to advance a romantic interest:
Rom. If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Jul. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Rom. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?...
And so on. A kiss from a young man is likely to be with lustful intent, Shakespeare’s audience knows (from Castiliogne’s Courtier, translated 1561, if nowhere else). Romeo’s imagery is designed to suggest a nobler impulse. Here Juliet first responds to his metaphor as though to parry his advances; Romeo finds another advance, and so on, still within the metaphor, until he finally gets his kiss. A religious setting is turned to serve relations between the sexes, thus elevating the sexual to a higher realm.

There is a conventional sequence here. A pictorial example is Fig. 2b, love as a tree to be climbed by means of the senses: first sight, then sound, then touch, and so on.
 The ascent suggested spiritual as much as sexual love. Honorius of Autun described the Song of Songs as such, with five stages of sexual love paralleling five stages in the history of salvation. .A modern scholar has summarized Honorius’s list, with the stages of salvation in parenthesis after each stage of sexual love:
1) Seeing the Beloved (God’s covenant with Abraham), 2) Speaking with her (God’s conversation with his people through Moses and the Prophets), 3) Touching her (Christ’s incarnation and historical life), 4) Kissing her (the gift of Peace given the disciples by the Risen Christ, and 5) having intercourse with her (perfect union enjoyed in heaven). (Ansel 1990, 31-33)
Romeo’s quest for Juliet thus becomes elevated to a quest for union with the divine. Even Romeo’s name lends itself to the double entendre: “Romeo” is “pilgrim” in Italian. When our couple kiss, it is  not mere lust, but a mingling of souls, as Castiliogne described the non-lustful but still passionate kiss of two lovers (1901, 356).

Later, as Romeo nears Juliet’s window, the metaphor returns to that of light in the darkness, but in a different image. Romeo says:
Rom. But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun....(II.ii.1-2)
The audience would recall that in early Christian hymns the rising sun is the second coming, Paradise, where the soul joins God. Juliet to him seems just such a paradise. Then he sees her looking up at the sky, and his fantasy leads him to contrast the brightness of her eyes with that of the stars. Supposing two of the "fairest"--i.e. brightest-- stars were put in place of Juliet's eyes, then:
    Rom. The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
    As daylight doth a lamp;..
Similarly, supposing her eyes took the place of  those stars in the sky, then:
Rom.            ...her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
 Imagine stars so bright birds would think it day: so bright are Juliet's eyes, shining from within.

This particular image, of a woman glowing with an intense inner light, occurs in traditional Christianity in the representation of angels and of saintly women, such as the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. It occurs also in alchemy, as a representation of the spirit that is hidden in matter (Fig.  3 below, Jung 1968, 189, labeled the “soul of Mercury”).

Yet the image of the woman of light expressed by Romeo corresponds most closely to one encountered in Gnostic texts describing Adam's experience of Eve at the beginning of humankind. (Romeo similarly is at a beginning). The Apocryphon of John describes this experience in a retelling of Genesis. Adam, in the moment of Eve's separation from his body, sees her as illuminated from within by light.
And he [Adam] saw the woman by him. And in that moment the luminous Epinoia appeared and she lifted the veil which lay over his mind. And he became sober from the drunkenness of darkness...And he recognized his counter-image, and he said, "This is indeed bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh."  (Robinson 1988, 118. Comments in brackets added by MH)
Epinoia, literally "after-thought" in Greek, is the feminine spiritual principle in the world, whose spirit the divine father/mother had  breathed into Adam to help him escape the prison of matter into which the powers of evil, the archons or authorities, had thrown him. The luminosity is a spark of the divine mother/father. Originally a being above matter, Adam had his own luminosity, but it lost its shine. As the text relates:
And when they [the archons, rulers] recognized that he [Adam] was luminous, and that he could think better than they, and that he was free from wickedness, they took him and threw him into the lowest region of all matter...And he [the blessed One, the Mother-Father] sent, through his beneficent Spirit and his great mercy, a helper to Adam, luminous Epinoia which comes out of him, who is called Life. And she assists the whole creature, by toiling with him and by restoring him to his fullness and by teaching him about the descent of his soul (and) by teaching him about the way of ascent, which is the way he came down. And the luminous Epinoia was hidden in Adam, in order that the archons might not know her. (Robinson 1988, 116.)
But the archons saw the spirit inside Adam and wanted it; they took Eve, as they called her (Hebrew for Life), out of Adam's body for the express purpose of possessing that spiritual power through rape. To escape them, Epinoia left the body of Eve. Yet for a brief time Adam was united with this feminine figure of light. 

In Romeo's eyes, Juliet is as Eve first appeared to Adam, without the "veil" of "drunkenness," i.e. his ignorance of the divine; she is a divine light. which yet is of the same being as himself, flesh of his flesh. The Capulets' orchard is from this perspective a version of the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the Adam and Eve story is no longer something from long ago; seen from this new perspective, we are each of us Adam when we suddenly see another person as though lit from within like a torch and "flesh from my flesh." Romeo evokes one further image looking at Juliet on her balcony:
 Rom.                 ...She speaks!
O speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o'er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-upturned wond'ring eyes
Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds
And sails upon the bosom of the air. (II.ii.25-32)
Shakespeare is putting the image in a familiar context: From orthodox Christianity we identify an angel as a being of light, and also as a "winged messenger of heaven." Just as the winged Hermes in Greek mythology communicates between Olympus or Hades and our world, so do angels in Christianity communicate from heaven to earth. In the Neoplatonic ladder of being described by the Renaissance philosopher Ficino, an image well known in Shakespeare's time, angels are on the second level from the top; between spirit, i.e. God, at the top and the human soul on the third level. Angels are filled with the light of God and can transmit that light to humanity. Clearly, there is much more light here than an evil spirit would want to muster up; moreover, it is a light permeated throughout with love, love from an infinite source as Juliet articulates later in the scene:
    Jul.  My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
    My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
    The more I have, for both are infinite. (II.ii.116-118)
An infinity of love and bounty, however, is more appropriately attributed to God; she, then, is a conduit of love from God to man-if not like Christ, then at least like the Virgin Mary.

Romeo's image of Juliet as a luminous angel corresponds also to descriptions of Adam and Eve In the Apocalypse of Adam, another text found at Nag Hammadi. Adam is with his son Seth, imparting secret knowledge to him about the way Eve was when he first experienced her:
When God had created me out of the earth along with Eve your mother, I went about with her in a glory which she had seen in the aeon from which we had come forth...And we resembled the great eternal angels. For we were higher than the god who had created us and the powers with him, whom we did not know. (Robinson 1988, 279)
The "God who had created us" in Gnosticism is Yahweh, the god of the Old Testament, the dictatorial lord of a garden who plants a tree expecting his creation toobey his order not to taste it. I will say more about this god, the Gnostic demiurge, in Part II. The "glory" is another reference to the light around them, which comes from a higher source than their creator.

Later on in the play, after Friar Lawrence has secretly married the pair, Juliet also speaks in images of light shining in darkness. Anticipating the wedding night, she says:
Jul.  Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
...Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties...(III.ii.5,8-9)
This is the same image of the spirit shining from within, but it is one that she specifically associates with "amorous rites," i.e. sexual activities. Then she has Romeo flying to her on a great black bird:
Jul. Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night.
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night,
whiter than new snow on a raven's back.
Come gentle night, come loving black-browed night,
Give me my Romeo… (III.ii.17-21)
First Romeo is called "day," similar to Romeo's calling Juliet the sun. But he is "day in night," imaged as new snow on a raven's back-- rather like the jewel on a black African's ear, as Romeo had spoke of her on first sight. This image of Romeo on a raven's back also complements Romeo's earlier image of Juliet as an angel riding a cloud.

For Juliet, Romeo is the snow lying on the back of night, and the bird is the raven on whose back Romeo flies. The raven had sacred significance in the Celtic tradition. Roman writers reported that ravens were considered sacred to “Gaulish Mercury,” and that the word “lougos” in Celtic even meant “raven” (Green 1992, 135).  The text De Fluviis, attributed apocryphally to Plutarch, relates that at the founding of Lugdunum, named for Lugh, ravens with a few white feathers in their plumage flew down from the sky. This was considered a good omen, and a shrine was built on the site (Kondrataev, 1997).

Juliet’s image of  white snow on a black raven is especially appropriate if, as Kondrataev (1997)  has argued Lugh was a god of storms rather than the sun, and his brightness that of lightning against a dark sky. MacNeill (1962) includes in his collection one reminiscence of what old Gaeilic-speakers used to say during a storm: “Lugh Long-arm’s wind is flying in the air tonight!” and “Yes, and the sparks of his father!” This last, the informant explains, referred to sparks made when a smith shoved a hot iron bar into Balor’s eye before he had a chance to kill anyone with it (598). If the “smith” is really Lugh throwing a thunder-bolt, the story fits Kondrataev’s hypothesis. The symbolic significance, Lugh as a bringer of enlightenment to a world in dark ignorance, is as related to the Gnostic vision as the concrete image is to our play.

Juliet's lines here have some of the characteristic sounds and rhythms of Christian litanies, which often had series of invocations beginning with the word “come.” An example is the Roman Catholic “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” or “Come Holy Spirit”:
Veni Sancte Spiritus            Come Holy Spirit
Et emitete caelitus.              And from thy celestial home
Luces tuae radium.              Shine your radiance.
Veni pater pauperum          Come father of the poor,
Veni dator munerum           Come mother of our souls,
Veni lumen cordium…        Come light of our hearts…
(I thank Ed Smith and Steven Marshall for this reference and translation).
 There is also a famous Roman Catholic prayer that begins
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful and enkindle in them the fire of Thy love.
I do not know how this prayer was adapted to the Anglican rite, but in 1707, a century later, I find the hymn (http://cyberhymnal.org/htm/c/o/comehshd.htm):
Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove,
With all Thy quick’ning powers;
Kindle a flame of sacred love
In these cold hearts of ours.
So clearly the prayer had not simply died.
 Imaginally, these Catholic hymns contrast the white warmth of the divine with the impoverished coldness of humanity.  But Juliet' evocation of “snow on a raven’s back” is of a divine spark of human love that shines in the darkness of the world--a typical Gnostic, world-negating image. That such a presence should be located in the person of her lover, and be brought only in the dark of night, would for the orthodox Christian, if he thought about it, be the height of Luciferian heresy.

Juliet’s next image is even more extravagant:
Jul.         …and, when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun... (III.ii.21-25)
Juliet is not saying that Romeo should be chopped into bits when she is dead. The Elizabethans used "die" as a euphemism for sexual climax; so she is imagining Romeo turning into little stars at the height of her love, like a kind of fireworks display. An additional meaning is that it will be like the second coming, the state of timeless bliss that both sex and life after death were imagined as having. The literal meaning is only a distant third, an ironic foreboding.

Perhaps to forestall the audience from supposing that Juliet actually wishes Night to kill Romeo if she dies, the Folio edition of Shakespeare changed "I" to "he" in the first line above: from “…and when I shall die” to “…and when he shall die.” In that case, people unfamiliar with the euphemism would simply think, how nice, when he dies she wants him up in the sky like a constellation, immortalized. Other people would appreciate the sexual message: In this Folio version, she is asking Night to really light Romeo's fire, metaphorically speaking, when she gives him bliss. Perhaps to emphasize Juliet's own budding sexual feelings, the Arden edition adopts the "I" of the earlier Quarto edition of the play.

The sun, which here Juliet repudiates, is in Christianity an image of the second coming, and darkness is the reign of evil. So her wish that "all the world will be in love with night" could be seen as a call to love evil. Gnostic imagery was given a similar treatment by its enemies. But such an interpretation takes the imagery out of context. The sun here is that which shines on the world that keeps Romeo away from her, the world of Romeo's and her fathers. In the Gnostic perspective, this day world is seen from a higher perspective as an evil darkness filled with bits of divine light trapped in the dark matter of circumstances not of their own making.

Sacred images of separation and union

Juliet's vision of bliss is interrupted by her nurse, from whom she learns that Romeo has killed Tybalt and has been banished from Verona. (Tybalt had insulted Romeo, to provoke a fight. Romeo declined, but Mercutio jumped in to defend Romeo's honor; Romeo’s restraint of Mercutio only served to make him defenseless against Tybalt's sword. With Tybalt dead, Romeo killed Tybalt..) Juliet is plunged into anguish. At first she thought it was because of the death of her cousin Tybalt. But she recognizes her primary emotional bond is to her husband, and that if Tybalt died, it was in order that Romeo might live. "Wherefore grieve I then?" she asks. Then she remembers what the nurse had said: Romeo is banished. Looking at the ropes she was about to hide so that Romeo could sneak up to her room that night, she says:
 Jul.           ...Poor ropes, you are beguil'd,
Both you and I, for Romeo is exil'd.
He made you for a highway to my bed,
But I a maid, die maiden-widowed.
Come, cords, come, nurse; I'll to my wedding-bed;
And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!
If Romeo leaves, she might as well be dead, because all that means anything to her will be gone.

Romeo expresses the same feeling when Friar Lawrence tells him of his banishment:
Rom. There is no world without Verona's walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
                                     ... Heaven is here,
Where Juliet lives; and every cat and dog
And little mouse, every unworthy thing,
Live here in heaven and may look on her;
But Romeo may not.
(III.iii.17-18, 29-33)
And when the Friar objects and says Romeo is overreacting, Romeo tells him he has no right to talk. If he were in Romeo's situation, he too would have the right to feel as he does:
Friar L. Then mightst thou speak, then mightst thou tear thy hair,
And fall upon the ground, as I do now,
Taking the measure of an unmade grave... (III.iii.68-70)
After his experience of the pleroma-fullness--of light with Juliet, a world without her, which he used to take for granted, becomes a hell to escape from. To explicate the difference between these two states of heaven and hell, let us turn to another Gnostic text from Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Philip. This text says of the separation between Eve and Adam:
When Eve was still in Adam, death did not exist. When she was separated from him death came into being. If he enters again and attains his former self, death will be no more. (Robinson 1988, 150)
Here death "came into being" when Adam and Eve were separated, i.e. when Eve was taken out of Adam's body. Orthodox Christianity, in contrast, says that death became a reality when they disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Romeo and Juliet's experience is the Gnostic one. To be sure, Romeo has disobeyed the Prince's edict against fighting and is banished as a result. But banishment is death only because it means separation from Juliet. To reunite with her-and thus regain his Eden-- Friar Lawrence explains, he has to wait until the Friar can safely reveal the marriage and get the banishment lifted.

Our Gnostic text takes a similar position to that of Friar Lawrence. How is it that Adam, or any of us, can regain his former completeness? The Gospel of Philip answers:
..the woman is united to her husband in the bridal chamber. Indeed those who have united in the bridal chamber will no longer be separated. Thus Eve separated from Adam because it was not in the bridal chamber that she united with him. (Robinson 1988, 151-152)
What is the bridal chamber? As we have seen, the canonical Bible makes a  few obscure mentions of it, just enough to make it respectable. It is that which Paul, Augustine, Bernard and others said was the marriage of Christ with his Church, or of the Word with the soul. But the Gospel of Philip speaks of it in other terms: it is the place where "the image and the angel are united with one another" (Robinson 1988, 149). Here "the image" simply means any ordinary human being, typified by Adam, who was made in God's image; the "image" then is to receive the "angel," described as "a male power or a female power." And where is one to receive these angels or powers? The text continues: "One receives them from the mirrored bridal chamber." Here the bridal chamber is described as "mirrored" so as to indicate that the event in this world is one that mirrors another event in the upper world.  This mirrored bridal chamber is then that which unites the two, the image and the angel, as "the bridegroom and the bride" (all quotations from Robinson 1988, 149).

I think we can now see more clearly the sacred aspect of the imagery in the play. When Romeo sees Juliet as an angel, he sees in her the being of light with whom, if he unites with her, he will be complete. It is not just completeness, but transcendence and hence being beyond the world and its demands, and moreover beyond death as well, in a timeless bliss. This is what both want, a kind of indestructible union. For that, apparently, they need the bridal chamber. Juliet understands this point in a this-worldly way when she asks that Romeo arrange the wedding and then impatiently awaits its consummation. That image of the wedding, and then the night together afterward, is the image of the two becoming one.

This image of the angel as expressing the transcendence of marriage is one that D. H. Lawrence uses in his novel The Rainbow, when at the heroine's wedding he has her father Tom Brangwen exclaim, in a kind of momentary piercing of the veil that shrouds our world, that "it seems to me as a married couple makes one Angel" (1943, 130). Such angels are also the primal beings that Plato in his Symposium had Aristophanes imagine as the original humans, before Zeus, feeling threatened by their power, split them in two, creating the sexes. A similar image appears in Jewish Kabbalistic writings, which were extant in Shakespeare's time. The Zohar, from 13th century Spain, describes how the female and male aspects of the godhead relate to each other:
The Female spread out from her place and adhered to the Male side, until he moved away from his side, and she came to unite with him face to face. And when they united, they appeared as veritably one body. From this we learn that the male alone appears as half a body...and the female likewise, but when they join in union they seem as veritably one. (Zohar iii 296a; quoted in Pope 1977, 164)
The first two sentences describe God, as a unity with male and female aspects. The last sentence is about humans, when they imitate the Godhead in marriage; in sexuality, they elevate their own status and even contribute to the power of the Godhead itself.

Shakespeare would very likely have known Plato's much-cited text. Knowledge of the Zohar passage was more difficult, but it could have come by way of Englishmen visiting Italy, where it had been published in Hebrew (Edel 1988), Spanish Jews in exile in London or the Netherlands, or scholars anywhere. Kabbalah was in vogue, beginning with Pico della Mirandola in Italy, followed by such figures as Giordano Bruno, who visited England in the 1580's, and John Dee, Elizabeth's court astrologer.

Of course Romeo and Juliet will not, after the wedding night, literally be one. Yet they seem to themselves as one, and the union is more than physical. What is it about being with another person, an ordinary human being, that suggests completeness? After all, in this world they are two separate beings. And why is it that separation seems like death? It is all a matter of what we are in the presence of, of what we see and know through here and now experience. The Gospel of Philip has an explanation, one that is rather mysterious unless we see it in the context of either Gnosticism or our play:
It is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them. This is not the way with man in the world: he sees the sun without being a sun; and he sees the heaven and the earth and all other things, but he is not these things. This is quite in keeping with the truth. But you saw something of that place and you become those things. You saw the Spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw [the father, you] shall become Father. So [in this place] you see everything and [do] not [see] yourself, but [in that place] you do see yourself--and what you see you shall [become]. (Robinson 1988, 146-147; bracketed words in published translation.)
So when Romeo sees Juliet as an angel, he becomes an angel himself--he is in the angelic place; and when Juliet sees Romeo as a white being on a raven, the same is true. You enter the other world briefly when you see something from it.

 The text I just quoted makes another point. When you see something of the other world, what you are seeing is an aspect of yourself. This is the point that Jung (1969) made when he spoke of the animus, an unconscious male image in women, and the anima, the unconscious feminine in men. Each is an aspect of our unconscious selves that we project onto others; and when we get to know these aspects and recognize them as of ourselves, we are both making ourselves whole and becoming truly ourselves, instead of the part-selves ignorant of  their other parts.

Unfortunately, in this world we are not always in the presence of the one on whom we have projected the angel; we need continual renewal. It is similar to the worshiper's need for the repetition of the mass or other holy service to help him or her be in a sacred space at other times. Thus separation of the lovers, even after the marriage, feels like death to them.

The Gospel of Philip, we have seen, speaks of men uniting with female powers and women uniting with male powers. But for Gnostics the physical sex of the angel was not that important. In the Hymn of the Pearl, for example, the angelic being is portrayed as brother to the male human being in this world. In the Pistis Sophia, similarly, Jesus's counterpart is at first identified as his brother. These texts, we must remember, were written after Plato, who in his Symposium had Aristophanes imagine three kinds of original human pairs, male and male, male and female, and female and female. Everything said applied to all three. For Gnosticism, in relation to the bridal chamber, the human being is actually in the position of the female, whatever his or her physical sex. It is the same as in the orthodox Christian interpretation of the Song of Songs, in which the woman is held to stand for the human soul. The Gnostic bridal chamber is that place where the soul receives its light-power from above, which is then embodied in us. The Gospel of Philip puts it this way:

Indeed, one must utter a mystery. The Father of everything united with the virgin who came down, and a fire shone for him on that day. He appeared in the great bridal chamber. Therefore, his body came into being on that very day...(Robinson 1988, 152)
When that light hits us, we are all Marys giving birth to the Christ within. To the extent that the light from above for us, in the days after Christ, is imaged as coming by way of Christ, rather than from the Father directly, we could also say that the soul receiving this light is the bride of Christ. In that sense the Gnostic agrees with Augustine in saying that the sacred marriage is that of Christ with his church.

Shakespeare could not, of course, have read the Gospel of Philip. Nor is it likely that Augustine did. But both Augustine and the Gospel of Philip were influenced by a common source, Platonism as interpreted in the Roman Empire. Such Platonism also shaped the perspective of the Renaissance, including the myths and allegories the Platonists had adapted to their purposes.

One myth that was especially popular in the Renaissance was that of Cupid and Psyche, as related by the Middle Platonist Apuleius at around the same time as the Gnostics. In this story Cupid is not the little boy we typically think of, but rather a young man. This Cupid, with his romance with  the young woman Psyche, was the subject of numerous Renaissance paintings, fresco cycles, and wedding chests (Cavicchioli 2002). Engravings or at least descriptions would have reached England-the frescoes decorated buildings designed  and used for occasions of state in Rome and Mantua. In addition, Apuleius’s text was available in both Latin and English. His philosophical works were included in the Latin edition, and members of Shakespeare’s circle would have appreciated the allegorical significance of the tale.

There are numerous allusions to Cupid in the play, sometimes by name and sometimes as “love,” the translation of his other name Amor; such references are often followed by a reference using the pronoun “he.” They mostly are of a generic nature and need not refer to Apuleius’s tale. Yet the scene their first night at Juliet’s window is more specific, as Shakespeare scholar Mark Skavig (2000) has pointed out. I want to put that observation into a broader Renaissance context.

Juliet asks how Romeo managed to get to her window. Romeo replies: “With love’s light wings did I o’erperch these walls” (II.ii.66). Renaissance representations have Cupid falling in love with  Psyche at first sight, just as Romeo does. An example is a Florentine wedding chest  from the 1470’s, which shows Psyche being adored by young men, while Cupid does the same from above (Fig.  4 below; Cavviocholi 2002, 74). The winged Cupid, dispatched by his mother Venus to get rid of Psyche, has been wounded by his own arrow. Romeo similarly speaks of his “wound” caused by love (II.ii.1). The word “psyche” is Greek for “soul,” and indeed that is just what Romeo calls Juliet, saying “It is my soul that calls my name”(II.ii.162).

Like Juliet, Psyche at first does not know her beloved’s identity, as he comes and makes her his wife under cover of night. In Psyche’s case, Cupid has forbidden her to know his identity, and when she finds out anyway, he flees. In Juliet’s case, her lover flees when he acts like a Montague and kills his enemy-that is, when he momentarily assumes the identity he had hidden from her. Like Juliet, Psyche undergoes several trials before being reunited with her beloved, in her case including a journey to the underworld which results in her death by poisoning. As for Juliet, death, or its appearance, is what brings Psyche’s lover back. Cupid flies from his sick bed at his mother’s house to Psyche’s side  An illustration is Fig.  4a (Cavviocholi 2002, 131), from a fresco cycle in Mantua, in a room of the Palacio Te, a palace known also as the “Sacrarium of Venus.” If Venus’s house is in Mantua, Cupid and Romeo race in from the same place!

In Psyche’s case, the story has a happy ending. Cupid asks Jupiter to bring her to Olympus so they can be officially husband and wife. She duly ascends to heaven, and the fruit of their union is a daughter named Voluptas, Latin for Joy--the Joy of unity with the divine, in Platonic allegory.

Apuleius’s essay De Deo Socrates, which was published in the same volume as the Latin text of the tale, gives the philosophical meaning, which Cavviocholi has summarized:
The search for a mediation between men and the perfection of a sublime and distant divinity as one of the leitmotivs of his [Apuleius’s] time, the goal toward which the new religious and contemporary schools of thought were striving. Apuleius’s answer to the problem is that of a Platonist, heir to the long tradition of interpretation of Plato’s Symposium, in which Eros is presented as a daemon, a being whose nature falls halfway between men and gods and makes a relationship between them possible. Consistent with this vision, Cupid, besides being an Olympian, is presented as the means by which Psyche will rise to heaven. (2002, 43. Word in brackets added by MH)
The affinity with the Gnostics’ conception of the “bridal chamber” is evident. In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, writers such as Boccaccio and Ficino synthesized  Apuleius with Christianity. Love is ignited by the apprehension of the divine within another individual, the sight of which which transports the lover to divine heights. This doctrine was given a popular presentation in Castiliogne’s The Courtier, a book which enjoyed great popularity among Elizabethans. Such an appreciation applied to Romeo and Juliet would not have been lost on the educated members of Shakespeare’s audience.

Romeo and Juliet certainly feel joy from their union, although Juliet's does not last long, thanks to her father’s plan to marry her to Paris. Romeo's lasts a little longer. Waking up in Mantua, he feels a "joy" occasioned by a dream he had during the night, which he thinks is prophetic of "some joyful news at hand."  He reflects that:
Rom. .. All this day an unaccustomed spirit
Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts.
I dreamt my lady came and found me dead--
Strange dream that gives a man leave to think!--
And breathed such life with kisses in my lips
That I revived and was an emperor.
Ah me, how sweet is love itself possessed
When but love's shadows are so rich in joy! (V.i.4-11)
The dream reminds us of what she said earlier about the fireworks at Romeo's death (on the Quarto's reading, where it is he who dies, not she). After Romeo's reflection on his dream, his servant enters and tells him of seeing Juliet's funeral. Immediately Romeo knows what he is to do--he says, "I defy you, stars!" meaning he knows how to escape the fate that governs men's lives in this world, and which means to doom Juliet and him to separation. A person's fate, even in Shakespeare’s day, was thought to be determined or at least influenced by the positions of the planets and the zodiac at birth and throughout the person's life. In Gnosticism the planets are the particular archons that possess one. It was only by an ascent beyond the stars that one could transcend one's fate, in Gnosticism as well as in pagan cults such as Mithraism. In the context of ancient and Renaissance Neoplatonism, even orthodox Christianity presupposed the rule of fate, unless one was saved by Christ. In Romeo's case, I think we must suppose that he sees himself dead in Juliet's tomb, and Juliet's spirit, which is still nearby, transforming him in a triumph over fate. Juliet for him takes the role of Christ as the liberating power from above. In Gnostic terms, he will be united with his angel by transforming to spirit, his majestic form, upon which the stars have no power, by a suicide which complements what he imagines has been her choice of suicide over separation.

This philosophical context gives an extra meaning to Romeo’s phrase "love's shadows" in his reflection on his dream. In the context of the dream, the phrase refers to the image of union that was contained in the dream: An image is the shadow of the thing it is an image of, a thing without substance but suggesting a reality of which it is the shadow. If this thing without substance is sweet, he is saying, how much sweeter is the real thing.

In the context of Juliet's death, and Romeo's impending suicide, the phrase takes on another meaning; it becomes a reference to Plato's allegory of the cave in The Republic. Plato speaks of things in the material world as shadowy copies of a higher reality in the perfect world of Forms, like images projected onto a cave wall of wooden cutouts moving at the front of the cave, which themselves are copies of a Reality outside the cave. Juliet's and his earthly love is a shadowy image of their true love in the eternal realm. The language of the Gospel of Philip is similar. The “image” of the bridal chamber is a shadow and harbinger of divine union in the world beyond the archons. In this Platonic framework, shared equally by Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, Romeo's earthly love for Juliet is the love of his divine spark on earth for its counterpart in the heavenly realm, which will become complete only with his earthly death. (This Platonic play with "shadow" happens again in Shakespeare, to make different points, when Hamlet speaks with his school friends and the Fool with Lear.)

Given the dream, Romeo--like Juliet before the wedding night--is eager with expectation; he is already imaginatively in the world beyond the stars, in union with his angel. He refers to this cheerfulness again in the crypt as he looks at the lifeless Juliet:
Rom....How oft when men are at the point of death
Have they been merry! which their keepers call
A lightening before death. O, how may I
Call this a lightening? O my love! my wife! (V.iii.88-91)
The "lightening" that Romeo experiences (spelled with and without an "e," depending on the edition) suggests both brilliant light and lightness, lack of weight. In his enlightened state, he has detached from the world, in anticipation of his reuniting in death with Juliet, in a bridal chamber after death, of which the earthly bridal chamber was an anticipation. Compare the feeling here with the end of the Gospel of Philip:
Every one who will enter the bridal chamber will kindle the light, just as in the marriages which are [.....] happen  at night. That fire [....] (burns?--MH) only at night and is put out. But the mysteries of that marriage are perfected rather in the day and the light. Neither that day nor its light ever sets. If anyone becomes a son of the bridal chamber, he will receive the light....And none shall be able to torment a person like this even while he dwells in the world...The world has become the eternal realm (aeon), for the eternal realm is fullness for him. This is the way it is; it is revealed to him alone, not hidden in the darkness and the night, but hidden in a perfect day and a holy light. (Robinson 1988, 160)
This, it seems to me is what Romeo experiences coming into the crypt, the "lightening."  This text also suggests that the spiritual bridal chamber has something in common with the ordinary marriages, the ones that "happen at night." The latter are images of the former, which are in turn images of that perfect marriage "of the day and the light."  Thus ordinary marriage, even though as fleeting as an individual life, still has something sacred about it, as a tertiary image of the divine--just as in the Allegory of the Cave.

"Great is the mystery of marriage!" exclaims the Gospel of Philip; later it offers an analysis of that mystery, as pertaining to the couple's desire to hide their concourse from the world:
No [one can] know when [the husband] and the wife have intercourse with one another except the two of them. Indeed marriage in the world is a mystery for those who have taken a wife. If there is a hidden quality to the marriage of defilement, how much more is the undefiled marriage a true mystery! It is not fleshly but pure. It belongs not to desire but to the will. It belongs not to the darkness or the night but to the day and the light. (Robinson 1988, 158; interpolations by translator)
Romeo in the crypt is approaching this light, the "lightening" in both senses, an easing of the mind and a flash of light from beyond this world, as though thrown by some sky-god.. His new marriage, very much like that of Christ on the cross, is not of desire, that is, physical pleasure, but rather the very opposite, something which must be conceived by the mind and willed in accordance with that conception. As Romeo sees such a union, it is by a conscious decision to die, which he does by swallowing poison. In this same vein is Juliet's will-power later, withstanding pain and the resistance of her bone as she plunges Romeo's dagger (a phallic symbol on a higher level than sex) into her heart! The pain is that of Christ's marriage bed of the cross, in Augustine's analysis of the sacred marriage, in which Christ's place is now taken by Juliet's angelic counterpart, Romeo.

Let us go back to Romeo in the crypt. Once he is actually there, looking at Juliet's body, he begins to have doubts about whether he is having a lightening or not. The problem is that Juliet looks so lifelike: "Why art thou yet so fair?" he asks himself. Then it occurs to him: Death has claimed her as his own and so keeps her beautiful for his own pleasure:
 Rom.                             ...Shall I believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour? (V.iii.102-105)
It is the "death and the maiden" theme, death getting the maiden as his bride. Or in Gnostic terms, it is the separation, which gives Juliet and hence both of them to death. As Romeo says, in answer to his previous question:
Rom.  For fear of that, I still will stay with thee,
And never from this place of dim night
Depart again. (V.iii.106-108)
To save her from the unwanted groom, he must be with her; he must die himself to give her life.

Despite the Christ-like gesture, this commitment to some bridal chamber after death seems an unchristian idea--it is not the marriage with Christ that is to save her from death, it is the marriage with Romeo. But on the spiritual level, perhaps it is the Christ in Romeo that has married her. It is the one who has pledged himself totally to the other, with not even a "til death do us part":  The death of a spouse does not cancel the contract. And when Juliet dies to be with Romeo, we see that it does not cancel the contract for her, either. "He who gives his life, so shall he save it; but he who preserves his life shall lose it," says the Gospel of John. That much Gnostic and exoteric Christianity agree on. It is in anticipation of that sacrifice that Romeo feels the "lightening" that I spoke of earlier.

With his commitment to the final sacrifice, I submit, Romeo, and later Juliet as well, are also feeling that holy bridal chamber of which the Gnostics spoke. They each die for the sake of the other. And notice that Romeo is not saying that in this way they will be in heaven. It is so unselfish, he is fully prepared to be excluded from heaven, in fact he even expects it:
 Rom.                  O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh. (V.iii.109-112)
Suicide, after all, is a forbidden act in the Judeo-Christian tradition; this was true in Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity alike. Yet it is the fantasy of a unity which makes immortal that still governs this scene. The myth of Psyche’s ascension to heaven to be Cupid’s lawful bride is there, enhancing the tragedy of its non-fulfillment. And the fruit of this union is not joy but grief. Yet the myth of the Sacred Marriage, in which the sacrifice of the couple brings fruitfulness to the land, still governs the play, as the families in Verona finally end their feud and put the wasteland of death behind them.