Shakespeare's Mystery Drama

By Michael Cosser
There is one epic theme which is immemorial, changeless, and universal -- namely, the story of the upward struggle of the human spirit, individual or collective, out of the darkness of sin and error, into the light of wisdom and truth. -- Colin Still

Ancestor of our modern theater was the temple where myths were dramatically enacted with audience participation, for all who attended lived the roles unfolding before their eyes. This interplay between the individual and the life-giving mythos had a purifying effect on the nature and outlook of the people present, often leading them to renewed dedication to high ideals. Among the Greeks, for example, we may discern, through the scant surviving scenes of Aeschylus' dramas, distant glimmers of a primeval wisdom-teaching concerning man and the universe. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who was once a slave, asks us to "remember that you are an actor in a play, which the manager directs." Who is this manager? Is he outside ourselves, or is he our inherent enduring essence? But how easily we confuse the parts we play and our actor's robes with the real Self experiencing life through our various personality masks.

Volumes have been written about what is believed to be Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest, treating its theme and the significance of its characters all the way from politics through allegories to fantasy. There is a generally accepted view that a famous shipwreck off the Bermudas in 1609 from which those aboard were "miraculously saved" served as Shakespeare's inspiration. But a deeper meaning in the play is worth considering. It is surely more than a fairy tale about a duke called Prospero, who had been dispossessed by his ambitious younger brother and exiled to a secluded island where he wields magic powers over the elements. Nor is it merely a dramatic narrative of a strange shipwreck which immerses its passengers in the sea yet somehow deposits them dry upon the island; recounts their adventures, amusing and otherwise, and follows the trials of one of them in particular, Ferdinand, who eventually meets Prospero's daughter Miranda, their ultimate betrothal sealing the reconciliation of the brothers. No, it is none of these alone, nor even the dissipation of the island's peculiarities by Prospero's extraordinary power of will, when at length he decides to leave for his original home and duties.

The Tempest continues to fascinate, even in this prosaic age of advanced technology. What gives it this strong and perennial hold over us? Do we perhaps recognize aspects of ourselves in the actors portrayed? Many years ago a copy of an unusual book came my way: Shakespeare's Mystery Play, A Study of "The Tempest" by Colin Still (1921). The recent study by Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, recalled it to mind as a counterbalance for Bloom's mundane psychological interpretation and relentless dismissal of any spiritual dimension to Shakespeare's plays, The Tempest in particular. Still's thesis associates The Tempest with "pagan initiation ritual," the "Gospel Myth" and the "Eleusinian Lesser Initiation," all of these being variations of the one theme. Certainly it is not stretching credulity to see a close parallel between the play and what can be pieced together from classical sources as to the training received in the Mystery-centers of old.

Shakespeare's The Tempest, produced by Katherine Tingley, Greek Theater, Point Loma, California, 1926.

Briefly, the Lesser Mysteries consisted of purification rites and the representation in dramatic symbol of what the candidate would later, if he proved worthy, undergo in the Greater Mysteries. And whereas Still links The Tempest with man's "ascent, fall and redemption," he uses these terms in a much broader sense than that entombed in the dogmas of European theology. For the Mystery tradition regarded man as enshrining a god, drawn into material life in order to bring out of their potential state the various powers and faculties locked up within the core of his being. This process was regarded as a kind of refinement of quality, a chipping off of selfish encrustments, leading to the gradual exposure of spirituality, man thus becoming, in time, a conscious expression of his divine state.

Is there anything in The Tempest to support this interpretation? Still breaks down the characters involved with the shipwreck into three main groups: Stephano and Trinculo, the Court Party, and Ferdinand. He suggests that the experiences of Stephano and Trinculo "represent failure to achieve initiation"; those of the Court Party stand for "the Lesser Initiation"; while the adventures and trials of Ferdinand "constitute the Greater Initiation." He brings forth some interesting points in support of this. In Act 1, scene 2, Gonzalo, one of the Court Party, comments no less than four times that his clothes are dry, although he and the others had been in the water for some time after the shipwreck. It is indeed remarkable that the garments, as the spirit Ariel tells her master Prospero, had "not a blemish" on them, but were actually "fresher than before." We should note that Ariel's song to Ferdinand, describing the supposed drowning of his father, likewise hints at the peculiar quality of the "sea-change" which has made him "into something rich and strange."

Then there is Sebastian of the Court Party speaking of a noise like "a hollow burst of bellowing bulls," putting Still and other scholars in mind of the whirring sound of the bull-roarer -- the rhombos or konos used at the Eleusinia and other ancient Greek Mystery-centers -- and not unsimilar to the bull-roarers whirled by the Australian aborigines at their own sacred corroborees associated with their initiations. And later on in the play when Stephano and Trinculo are chased away from Prospero's cell by the barking of dogs, a sound actually counterfeited by Ariel, Colin Still reads a further allusion to Mystery ritual. He draws our attention to a statement by Pletho, a 15th century Byzantine philosopher, in his study of the Magic Oracles of Zoroaster:

It is the custom in initiations to present before the initiates spirits in the shape of dogs.

These words are practically identical with the directions given in Act 4 before Stephano and Trinculo are driven off:

Enter divers Spirits in the shape of hounds, and hunt them about.

Is it too farfetched to equate Shakespeare's writing with Pletho's -- at least in this respect? Gemistus Pletho's name had become well known by the time of Shakespeare, for he was a pioneer, like Ficino, in the new interest in the Classics, one of the architects of the revival of learning in western Europe. During his lifetime in the late fourteenth to the first half of the fifteenth century, his system of Neoplatonism flourished, Cardinal Bessarion becoming a disciple and Cosimo de' Medici also strongly influenced. It was Pletho who broke the dominion of Aristotle over European thought. His treatises stressing the differences between the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle were widely read, as were his volumes of excerpts from Greek and Roman authors and his work on the Zoroastrian religion.

Another illustration of Still's contention that The Tempest has links to writings with an undercurrent of the Mysteries comes from Act 2, scene 1, when Gonzalo, apparently apropos of nothing, introduces the names of Dido (Queen of Carthage) and Aeneas. These obviously pointed references, which nevertheless seem so irrelevant, have baffled many commentators. In Virgil's Aeneid Dido tries to detain Aeneas by her throne, but he flees from Carthage to Cumae. Book VI with its famous passage of the "Descent to Avernus" is generally recognized as a thinly veiled description of the soul's "Descent into Hell" of the initiatory trial. It would appear that Shakespeare in choosing for the locale of his characters both Tunis and Naples -- the modern names for Carthage and Cumae -- as well as a tempest and shipwreck also found in the Aeneid, underscores thereby his hidden intent, a still clearer indication of this being his "dragging in" the Widow Dido and Aeneas.

Colin Still makes abundant use of Thomas Taylor, that intuitive translator of Plato and the Neoplatonists, as well as of other classicists, in support of his thesis that Shakespeare's dialogue and stage directions have parallels with the ancient rites. Many other quotations could be offered, but such a piling on of evidence would serve no purpose. Instead, let us turn to the broad principles that provide the foundation for the author's central theme: the nature and aim of the Mystery-schools. Before doing so, the term initiation meaning "beginning" should be understood to mean just that: the beginning of a "new" life, the ceremony itself serving only to mark the "new" stage in training and knowledge that had already been reached by the aspirant. This was its original usage, for no ritual of itself has power to effect a lasting transformation in the character of an individual.

The Mysteries, as stated, were divided into two branches: the Lesser and the Greater. The former offered a course of preliminary psychological purification and technical instruction regarding life and man's role in it. Surviving accounts seem to imply that these led naturally to dramatic portrayals in which the candidate acted out the processes of enlightenment that, one day, might take place within himself. The Greater Mysteries are still densely veiled from our eyes, so strictly were the injunctions to secrecy carried out. Yet it is evident that they were a culmination of the sacred experiences of the Lesser Mysteries, and those who passed through them later testified that there had been a radical transmutation in their nature, a benediction felt throughout their being which not only affected their lives but also became a stimulus for the ideal kind of human relations and good will that ought to prevail. The last stage of the training was called the epopteia -- the "revelation" when the initiant had a "vision" of his inner god.

Proclus, the Neoplatonist, describes it in this way:

As the Mystae . . . when entered into the sanctuary and surrounded by holy ceremonies, receive at once divine illumination in their bosom, and like lightly-armed warriors take quick possession of the Divine, . . . And if it reaches into its inmost recess, as it were into the Adyton of the soul, it can see the race of gods and the unities of all things even with closed eyes.

But let us return to our play for a final illustration of our author's theme: Ferdinand was "lost," and this searching for something lost and its finding was a common symbol in various myths. For instance, it was represented at Eleusis in the story of Persephone: her sinking into a deep sleep through the "earth" or into Hades, tells of the soul's involvement in material spheres while her mother searches in vain, until at the end there was the reawakening and reunion in the light of day. Then we have the legend of Psyche, the human soul, spouse of the celestial Eros, who earns her immortality only after hard labors. And so we might ask, who is Miranda, Prospero's daughter?

Dante in his Divine Comedy idealized Beatrice as wisdom; Goethe's "Eternal-Womanly" leading us on through the experiences of the daily round was another name for the element of wisdom we bear within us. The Zohar, too, masked wisdom in the form of woman, while the Chinese Kwan-Yin resides in us all as the essence of mercy, counterpart of Kwan-Shai-Yin, the inner warrior. Miranda is as intangible as any of these, and Ferdinand, like his prototypes in the ancient training centers, must accomplish in full the labors set him before winning his paradisal bride. At the end, he says of Prospero:

This famous Duke of Milan,
Of whom so often I have heard renown,
But never saw before; of whom I have
Received a second life.

"Received a second life" -- these words are very strange; the purely literal treatment usually given fails to explain them. Colin Still sees here a clear connection with the "second birth," that is, the consummation of renewal after the "death" undergone in the last phase of the initiatory cycle.

Then Shakespeare's mysterious Epilogue --

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,

would seem to have no real objective unless it be to invoke our intuitive understanding of his high purpose. It does not matter whether the bard of Avon was aware of all the overtones of his theme, or whether the latter flowed forth from his own inner resources, harmonized by a wisdom greater than his brain may have known. We can but agree with Still that the play is an allegory, a poetic "version of the universal epic," and that it deals in values that are "enshrined in all that is best and most enduring in ancient myth and ritual, in religious concepts and ceremonies, in art and literature, and in popular tradition."

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1999/January 2000; copyright © 1999 Theosophical University Press)

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