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.

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