Shakespeare was writing his plays in, roughly, the twenty years covered by the last decade of the sixteenth century and the first of the seventeenth. These were the years during which, in Europe, Renaissance Neoplatonism and its associated occultisms were being heavily attacked by the forces of reaction. At the turn of the century, in 1600, occurred the symbolic burning of the Hermetic philosopher, Giordano Bruno.
In England these stresses and strains were strongly present. On the one hand a late and particularly powerful form of Renaissance Neoplatonism was developed in the Dee movement, was reflected in the late Renaissance magical poem The Faerie Queene, and was used in the propaganda for Elizabeth I. On the other hand, the reaction was also present. The Jesuit missions had spread the Counter-Reformation attitudes. Though England was spared the worst of the continental witch-hunts, the atmosphere of the reaction is felt in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.
These problems had come sharply to the fore in Elizabethan England on the return of Dee from his continental mission in 1589. Dee is discouraged; Raleigh falls from favour in
1592. The thought-movements characteristic of earlier years suffer a rebuff.
Plaintive protests were made by poets at the failure to continue the movements of former times, when Leicester and Sidney were the leaders of the Elizabethan Renaissance. That remarkable collection of poetry The Phoenix Nest,1 published in
1593, begins with a lament for Leicester, continues with elegies on Sidney, and includes poems by Dyer, Raleigh, and other members of their circle, poems infused with melancholy and with allusions to Cynthia, to chastity, and to the Spenserian Elizabeth-cult. These poems seem to plead for something, perhaps for return to the Spenserian—Elizabethan outlook and philosophy and politico-religious traditions.
To this period belongs Chapman's secret rehabilitation of those traditions, studied in the last chapter. And Spenser himself, disregarding the court discouragement of Raleigh and Dee, continued in 1596 with the publication of The Faerie Queene, and reaffirmed, with the publication in the same year of his Foure Hymnes, his 'Elizabethan Neoplatonism'.2
If it can be accepted as a fact, as I believe that it can, that the thought of The Merchant of Venice is influenced by the Christian Cabala of Francesco Giorgi, then it would follow that Shakespeare would be sympathetic to the Spenserian outlook. Can one interpret other Shakespearean plays, themes, or images as related to this outlook?
This book is not about Shakespeare, any more than it is about Spenser, Marlowe, or Chapman. Like the mentions of those poets, it is only an attempt to situate Shakespeare within the general themes described in this book. The present chapter selects a few plays and themes for discussion, and that in a most summary manner. It is in no sense a final solution or presentation but only a first attempt to look at some familiar Shakespearean phenomena from the point of view of traditions and attitudes which this book has tried to investigate.
Shakespearean fairies are related to the Fairy Queen through their loyalty and through their fervent defence of chastity. The curious fairy scenes in The Merry Wives of Windsor refer to the queen, to the Order of the Garter, and to the Garter Chapel at Windsor. This play was first printed in 1602; the date of composition is unknown; there is a reference in it to the visit of the Duke of Württemberg in 1592. The fairies are employed to point a moral of chastity. They punish Falstaff for his lust; they write the motto of the Order of the Garter in flowers and decorate the Garter Chapel. They are defenders of chastity, of a chaste queen and her pure knighthood. They are enjoined to perform a white magic to safeguard her and her order of knighthood from evil influences.
These Elizabethan fairies are not, I believe, manifestations of folk or popular tradition. Their origins are literary and religious, in Arthurian legend and in the white magic of Christian Cabala. The use of fairy imagery in the queen cult was begun in the Accession Day Tilts, and relates to the chivalric imagery of the Tilts.3 As taken up by Spenser in The Faerie Queene, the fairy imagery was Arthurian and chivalric, and also an expression of pure white magic, a Christian Cabalist magic.
The Shakespearean fairies emanate from a similar atmosphere; they glorify a pure knighthood serving the queen and her imperial reform. To read Shakespeare's fairy scenes without reference to the contemporary build-up of the Virgin Queen as the representative of pure religion is to miss their purpose as an affirmation of adherence to the Spenserian point of view, a very serious purpose disguised in fantasy.
The supreme expression of the Shakespearean fairyland is A Midsummer Night's Dream. This play was first printed in 1600; it was probably written for a private performance at a wedding, perhaps in 1595 or thereabouts.
This magical play about enchanted lovers is set in a world of night and moonlight, where fairies serve a fairy king and queen. Into the magic texture is woven a significant portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Oberon, the fairy king, describes how he once saw Cupid, all armed, flying between the cold moon and the earth:
A certain aim he took At a fair vestal, throned by the West And loos'd his love shaft smartly from his bow, As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts. But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft Quench'd in the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon, And the imperial votaress passed on, In maiden meditation, fancy free.4
Shakespeare's picture of Elizabeth as a Vestal Virgin, a chaste Moon who defeats the assaults of Cupid, an 'imperial votaress', is a brilliant summing up of the cult of Elizabeth as the representative of imperial reform.5 A well-known portrait of Elizabeth presents the imagery in visual form. Elizabeth holds a sieve, emblem of the chastity of a Vestal Virgin; behind her rises the column of empire; the globe beside her shows the British Isles surrounded by shipping, alluding to her enthronement 'in the West'. It is a portrait of the Virgin of imperial reform, of which Shakespeare gives a verbal picture in the lines just quoted, using the same imagery.
As I have pointed out in Astraea,6 both the 'Sieve' portrait and Shakespeare's word-picture in the Dream are Triumphs of Chastity on the model of Petrarch's Trionfi, and the triumph refers both to purity in public life and in private life, to Elizabeth both in her public role as the representative of pure imperial reform, and in her private role as a chaste lady. It is exactly in such a role that Spenser presents Elizabeth, so he tells Raleigh in the letter to him published with The Faerie Queene. As Gloriana she is a most royal queen or empress, as Belphoebe she is a most chaste and beautiful lady. Shakespeare's word-picture presents Gloriana— Belphoebe, the Virgin of pure Empire, enthroned by the West, the chaste lady who triumphs over Cupid.
The appearance in the sky of the Dream of this Spenserian vision strikes the key-note of the magical-musical moonlight of the play. The moon is Cynthia, the Virgin Queen, and the words 'the chaste beams of the watery moon' might also allude to Walter Raleigh's cult of her as Cynthia. Puns on 'Walter', pronounced 'Water', were usual in referring to Raleigh. Spenser was following Raleigh, so he says, in the 'Luna' book of The Faerie Queene. Hence the allusions of the Shakespearean lines would be both to Elizabeth as Spenser's Gloriana—Belphoebe, and also to Raleigh's cult of her as Cynthia, adopted by Spenser.
Thus the complex phenomenon which floats in the night sky of the Dream relates the play to the Spenserian dream-world, the Spenserian magical cult of the Imperial Virgin, with its undercurrent of Christian Cabala.
What of Shakespeare and the other poet whom we have studied in this series, George Chapman? There has been much speculation concerning possible echoes of Chapman and his poem about night in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. This play was first printed in 1598. The date of its composition is uncertain, perhaps about 1594—5.
The play is a complex tissue of topical allusions. The phrase 'the school of night' has attracted attention as possibly containing some hidden meaning. One of the lovers loves a dark woman, with a black complexion, which he extravagantly praises. This evokes the criticism
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