What is this website about?
Thomas Thorpe published a collection of Sonnets in 1609 attributed to William Shakespeare. They stand out as one of the greatest collections of English poetry ever written, and they have been read and discussed for hundreds of years. I had been reading them for a number of years before I came across the official scholarly interpretation of their meanings; and I was horrified. The beauty of good artistic work is that it is open to interpretation, but the academic scholars of the English language were telling me that the underlying object of the sonnets were Shakespeare’s love for a young boy, and his sexual lust for a dark-skinned harlot from whom he was worried about contracting venereal disease. What I was understanding from reading the Sonnets was completely different. Not being a professor of the English language, had I got it all wrong? Was I reading too deep and creating my own meanings that were never intended? I’ll leave it to you to arrive at your own conclusion, and if my interpretation is due to my fervent imagination I am very happy with what I have gleaned from these excellent lines of poetry.
What do we know about William Shakespeare?
Despite it being only 400 years ago in an English-speaking western country, surprisingly little is known about William Shakespeare’s personal life. He has been widely researched by people with many more resources than myself, but much controversy remains.
William Shakespeare (perhaps Will Shakspere) was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1564, the son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. At age 18 he married the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway on 28 November 1582 and they had three children born between 1583 and 1585. Mystery surrounds a period of his life in the late 1580’s and little is known until his appearance in the early 1590’s in the theatrical scene in London. It is believed most of his plays were written between about 1590 and 1612. He died in Stratford in 1616.
In 1599 William Jaggard published a collection of 20 poems attributed to William Shakespeare, entitled The Passionate Pilgrim. However, only five of the poems were written by William Shakespeare, the rest being the work contemporary poets Christopher Marlowe, Richard Barnfield, Bartholomew Griffin, and other unknown persons.
Then in 1609 Thomas Thorpe published a collection of 154 sonnets, again attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford.
What is a Sonnet?
Sonnets originated from Italy. They are a fourteen-line poem comprising three quatrains (a quatrain being a four line stanza) and a concluding couplet, with the rhyming pattern abab cdcd efef gg. Each line is written in iambic pentameter, which means that each line contains five iambs. An iamb is a short unstressed syllable followed by a long stressed syllable – da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.
Sonnets were popular in England and Europe in the late 16th century and it was common for poets to copy the subject matter of their contemporaries and attempt to improve upon them through their own compositions.
Did Shakespeare write the Sonnets?
This is a great question. Many people have spent a lot of time and resources researching this with no firm consensus. Given the amount of time and resource spent researching this so far, it is unlikely that conclusive evidence will ever be found. If Shakespeare did write the plays and sonnets he was a man of great intelligence, worldly experience, and wide vocabulary. He used over 17,000 words (3,000 of which he added to the English language), which is about four times the vocabulary of the average person. Some of the people proposed to be the “real” author include:
- Christopher Marlowe (or Morley)
- William Pierce – some people have claimed that William Pierce was not only Shakespeare but also Spenser, Marlowe, Milton and a number of other notably writers of the era.
- Sir Phillip Sidney
- Sir Walter Raleigh (see notes below on Raleigh’s links to the School of Night)
- Edward de Vere (the 17th Earl of Oxford)
- William Stanley (the 6th Earl of Derby)
- Roger Manners (the 5th Earl of Rutland)
- Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon was said to use the nom-de-plume Shake-spear as a tribute to the Greek goddess of wisdom Pallas Athene. As the Goddess of Knowledge, Athene “shakes her spear and causes the darkness of ignorance to retreat” – hence Shake-speare. Proponents of this theory say that during his time in the theatre trouble arose with the royal family for the controversial play Richard II. To avoid losing his reputation (and perhaps his life) Bacon attributed the authorship of the plays to the lesser-known Will Shakspere. Shakspere was paid to retire to Stratford and keep a low profile. That is just one of many theories, none of which are ever likely to be conclusively proved correct. Francis Bacon was a very intelligent and influential man, who briefly held the rank of Lord Chancellor later in his life. He was a practising alchemist and frequented secret societies of the time such as the Rosicrucian’s, Freemasons and School of Night (along with Sir Walter Raleigh). He was pretty influential, for the founders of the prestigious Royal Society adopted Bacon’s proposed method of scientific enquiry, which is still used today. If William Shakespeare and Francis Bacon were two separate individuals it is still quite plausible that they knew each other and mixed in the same social circles in London and were both exposed to the new free-thinking ideas of the time.
I’m not too concerned with who wrote the sonnets; whether it was Shakespeare or another person or indeed whether the sonnets were a collection of poems from multiple people working together as a group or rivals. The “who” isn’t important to me. It is the “what“, being their subject matter, which important to me.
Traditional Interpretation of the Sonnets
The accepted scholarly interpretation of the sonnets goes something like this:
- Sonnets 1 – 126 are addressed to a young man, the “youth”
- Sonnets 127 – 154 involve a sexual relationship with his mistress, the Dark Lady
Sonnets 1 through 17 attempt to convince the youth to marry. The poet then begins praising the youth’s beauty, and endeavours to preserve his friend’s memory forever using poetry. Shakespeare then starts to feel rejected by the youth, and the youth also has an affair with the poet’s mistress (40 – 42) and a rival poet (79 –80). The relationship then declines with the poet feeling dejected and despondent. Whilst these sonnets seem to follow a progression telling a story, they are interspersed with some anomalies like sonnets 53 and 146, which are clearly of a philosophical or religious nature. They do not seem to fit in with the others, and their presence is quietly ignored in the academic analysis.
As previously stated, Shakespeare didn’t compile and publish the sonnets. Thomas Thorpe did so, and thus there may be no particular meaning to the order in which the sonnets appear. More discussion on this later as there is some evidence to suggest otherwise.
Who is the Youth?
As you read the sonnets you will see that Shakespeare is referring to “youth”, as in the state of being young or youthful; not “a youth” as in a young person. In the context of being young, youth is the period between childhood and adulthood and the term is applicable to both men and women. “A youth” implies a young man or a lad.
The word “youth” is mentioned in 15 Sonnets – 2 , 7, 11, 15, 22, 37, 41, 54, 60, 63, 73, 96, 98, 110, 138. Let’s briefly review each reference in turn:
“Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now” (Sonnet 2).
“Resembling strong youth in his middle age” (Sonnet 7)
“Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.” (Sonnet 11)
“To change your day of youth to sullied night” (Sonnet 15)
“So long as youth and thou are of one date” (Sonnet 22)
“To see his active child do deeds of youth“ (Sonnet 37)
“And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth“ (Sonnet 41)
“And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth
When that shall vade, my verse distills your truth.” (Sonnet 54)
“Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth“ (Sonnet 60)
“With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful morn” (Sonnet 63)
“That on the ashes of his youth doth lie” (Sonnet 73)
“Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness
Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport.” (Sonnet 96)
“Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing” (Sonnet 98)
Only in Sonnet 54 could one possibly interpret the intent to be about a person rather than the quality of youthfulness. In all the other cases it is clear that Shakespeare is referring to the state of being young. Check out Sonnet 73 – “That on the ashes of his youth doth lie“. He is clearly referring to growing old, not lying on the remains of a cremated person.
The common view is that Shakespeare had a platonic or homosexual relationship with a young male friend. He encouraged this youth to take a wife and have children. The youth also apparently had a relationship with his mistress, the Dark Lady. The dedication at the start of the sonnets to Mr W.H. is probably William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke (1580 – 1630) and some have therefore concluded that the young William Herbert was the “youth” in the sonnets. How did this view arise? In my reading of the sonnets it is completely erroneous. Shakespeare is referring to the quality of youth – vigour and freshness. Eternal youth is also used to describe the eternal life-force pervading all creation, also known as prana or chi (more on this later).
Who is the mistress?
In Shakespeare’s time, “mistress” was a term used for a man’s girlfriend or lover or sweetheart. Sweetheart sounds a much nicer term today. The meaning of the word has changed over time, so that now it refers to a woman who is not the man’s wife and who is having a sexual relationship with the man. So when Shakespeare is referring to his mistress he is using a term of affection for the true love of his life, not an illegitimate relationship with another woman.
This misunderstanding has lead to many strange theories about Shakespeare having affairs and frequenting brothels and being worried about contracting an STD. It has been suggested that the mistress was:
- Mary Fitton, lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I (William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, was imprisoned briefly in 1601 for making Mary Fitton pregnant, then refusing to marry her)
- Lucy Morgan or Lucy Negro, a brothel owner and former maid of Queen Elizabeth I
- Emilia Lanier, mistress of Lord Hunsdon (patron of the arts)
- Marguerite de Valois
- The Mother of William Devenant (William Devenant claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son)
There is only one Sonnet, #130 (which we will cover below) which specifically refers to Shakespeare’s mistress. When you read the term “mistress” please translate this to “sweetheart” as your read.
Who is the Dark Lady?
To add to the confusion, the sonnets are said to have references to a dark lady, and hence some have drawn the conclusion that Shakespeare’s mistress was an African or otherwise dark-skinned prostitute. References to a dark lady can be interpreted differently as I’ll discuss below, but first let us quickly check out the sonnets with references to a dark lady and his mistress.
The word “mistress” appears in sonnets 20, 126, 127, 130, 153 and 154, but only sonnets 127 and 130 specifically address his mistress and provide any sort of description of what she may look like and what colour she could be.
“Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion” (Sonnet 20)
“If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack” (Sonnet 126)
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress‘ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
“But at my mistress‘ eye Love’s brand new-fired …
… Where Cupid got new fire; my mistress‘ eyes.” (Sonnet 153)
“For men diseased; but I, my mistress‘ thrall” (Sonnet 154)
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.
Sonnet 130 is specifically about his mistress (sweetheart), and he states that his mistress’ breasts are dun when compared to white, and that she has black wires on her head (probably a reference to a hair net, which was fashionable with women at the time). Dun is a light grey-brown colour, not dark brown or black. It probably indicates that she has enjoyed an outdoor life and gained a suntan, or or perhaps he means that she has lost the purity of youth (her breasts having felt the touch of a man). This sonnet does not say that her skin or hair are black.
Sonnet 127 is the introductory “Dark Lady” sonnet, and supposedly states up-front that she is black. It doesn’t! It states that in the old age black was not considered fair. It goes on to state that his mistress’ eyes are black. People may have brown eyes, but not black eyes. The reference here is allegorical – dark eyes are a metaphor for sorrow, and it specifically mentions mourning in the next line. There is nothing in this sonnet that suggest that his mistress is of Negroid origin.
“… A thousand groans, but thinking on thy face,
One on another’s neck, do witness bear
Thy black is fairest in my judgment’s place.
In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds.”
Sonnet 131 could be interpreted as saying that her face is black. But then the Sonnet goes on to say “In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds”. Black is being used as a metaphor for her actions or emotional state. It doesn’t say that she is a Nego and it doesn’t necessarily mean that her evil deeds are prostitution.
In Sonnet 132 he says “Then will I swear beauty herself is black.” This is again metaphoric and not saying that his mistress is black-skinned.
In Sonnet 147 Shakespeare says:
“For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.”
It does not state whom he is addressing – be it the youth, the rival poet, his mistress, or something or somebody else? At the start of the sonnet he simply says “My love” in the context of his passion or emotional state rather than an external object. He is saying that it is the thoughts or actions that are black and evil, not the colour of someone’s skin.
In summary, there is no way for me reading the sonnets to interpret that Shakespeare is having in illegitimate love affair with a black lady. The notion that she was a prostitute comes from incorrectly understanding the meaning of the word mistress. References to her being black are in the context of her emotional state (sorrow) or actions (evil deeds), not her skin colour. The lack of evidence is in plain view – please read the sonnets yourself! We will discuss possible deeper mystical meanings of the references to black in the page on the sonnets, but for now I hope that you understand that there is no evidence for Shakespeare lusting for a dark-skinned harlot.
Who is the rival poet?
Scholars believe that Shakespeare was concerned that the works of a rival poet would rob him of his income if Shakespeare’s patron preferred the poetry of the rival. This may have been a genuine concern for poets of the era. There are suggestions that one rival may have been George Chapman who also wrote poetry for Shakespeare’s patron the Earl of Southampton.
Sonnets 21, 78, 79, 82, 83, 84 and 86 are supposed to contain inferences to a rival. In fact these sonnets refer to Shakespeare’s relationship with his Muse. Muse is another name for a poet, but it is also a term used by poets for an ethereal spirit providing them with inspiration. Once again the academic view is taking the most literal view that the muse is a rival poet. There were certainly other poets around and playwrights like Shakespeare depended upon a patron for funding – it was their livelihood.
The Muse is the source of inspiration for the poet or artist. In Greek and Roman mythology (and there are many Greek and Roman influences mentioned in Shakespeare’s works including the sonnets) the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne were responsible for inspiring the poet or artist or musician, and many offered compositions in tribute back to the Muse. Erato was the Muse for lyric poetry. Shakespeare references his Muse a number of times (sonnets 21, 32, 38, 78, 79, 82, 85, 100, 101, 103). In sonnet 38 he mentions a tenth Muse:
“Be thou the tenth muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;”
It is clear from this reference that he is referring the ethereal inspirational goddesses, not a rival poet.
Researchers believe that Shakespeare’s family were practising Catholics, which was difficult in the Protestant reformation in England at the time of Queen Elizabeth I. There were good reasons for not openly disclosing one’s non-Protestant religious views. It wasn’t illegal to be a Catholic at that time, but you could be fined for not attending Protestant services! Atheists could be charged with treason, and executed. Anyone dabbling with science, mathematics, astronomy or non-Christian teachings were liable to be charged with atheism or satanic practices; and subsequently tortured and executed. This was only a few hundred years ago, and demonstrates that western society has evolved in at least some respects.
Some people suggest that the pain Shakespeare expresses in some of the sonnets were due to the oppression of his Catholic upbringing – for example in sonnet 29 he references his “outcast state”. Shakespeare was careful not make any explicit references to the Catholic faith in any of the sonnets, but some of the ideas expressed through the lines of the sonnets are suggestive of Catholicism of that period.
The Dark Night of the Soul
One of the recurring themes I will refer to in my interpretations of the sonnets is to Shakespeare’s spiritual quest. Shakespeare was a Passionate Pilgrim. The 16th century work written by Saint John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul is a masterpiece of Christian mysticism. St John of the Cross (1542 – 1591) and Saint Theresa of Avila (1515 – 1582) were responsible for setting up the Carmelite Order in Spain (Carmelites are of Roman Catholic origin), and the poetry of St John of the Cross is considered some of the best poetry ever written in the Spanish language. It is highly likely that Shakespeare was familiar with the other great literary works of the time. Even without email and the internet or television, there was frequent travel between the European countries and news spread.
The Dark Night of the Soul describes first-hand the phases in the spiritual journey of a Christian disciple. To quote from Wikipedia, the dark night of the soul is a spiritual crisis in a journey towards union with God. This is the journey of a “Passionate Pilgrim“. Could this be what Shakespeare’s dark references are based upon? More on this in the page on sonnet interpretation.
The Trinity and God
When we talk about “God” it is important to have a concept of what “God” is. It means very different things to different people. God as unity or everything seems very impersonal. Another model is that God has two aspects – omnipresent intelligence (the male aspect or purusha) and the creation or nature (the female aspect, or prakriti). In the Tarot (discussed below), the number 0 is assigned to creation and number 1 to the omnipresent intelligence – 10 therefore being everything in creation.
Another common depiction of God is as the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva being the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe. Mary Mother of God is another image used by some people to pray to God. Icons such as Mary Mother of Jesus or Mary Magdalene are sometimes easier to relate to than an impersonal concept, and as noted elsewhere, the Black Madonna was common in the middle ages in Europe.
Tarot cards emerged in Europe in the mid 15th century and were popular in occult societies during Shakespeare’s time. The Major Arcana consists of 22 cards with symbols that have deep esoteric meanings, derived from the Kabbalah (ancient Judaism), Sufis (the mystical side of Islam) and probably with roots back to ancient Egypt and Hermes Trismegistus. To quote from Wikipedia, “In the hands of Freemasons, Protestant clerics, and the nobility of the day the Tarot became nothing less than “bible of bibles”, an esoteric repository of all the significant truths of creation“. The views on mysticism and the quest for enlightenment would certainly have been topic topics in the mystery schools of Shakespeare’s era that Francis Bacon and the other “free-thinkers” attended. If we can see past the rubbish about the youth and the Dark Lady, many of the ideas and spiritual teachings from the Tarot are evident in the sonnets.
Interpretations of the Tarot cards vary as widely as interpretation on Shakespeare’s sonnet, but a brief summary of the Major Arcana is provided below. There is a vast amount of spiritual information conveyed in the symbolism of these cards which I can’t go in to here, so if you want to read further get a reputable source such as the Builders of the Adytum (Paul Foster Case).
- The Fool – far from being an idiot or a joker, the care-free youth represents the life-power (prana, chi) that pervades the universe. This card IS “eternal youth“, the eternal life-force within all of us that inspires us to do anything. It is the highest and most important card of the pack.
- The Magician – the means by which the creative power (card 0) is expressed. Also represented by Hermes or Mercury, the messenger of the Gods, it is the way wisdom and power are transmitted.
- The High Priestess – the sub-consciousness.
- The Empress – multiplication and creative imagination. Seeds planted in the sub-conscious (card 2) enjoy growth through the third card.
- The Emperor – order, management and supervision; reason.
- The Heirophant – inner guidance and intuition; wisdom or Buddhi (power of discrimination).
- The Lovers – harmony and balance (in relationships, body, mind, everything).
- The Chariot – will power; the power to direct the will for creating and manifesting our desires.
- Strength – serpent-power or Kundalini.
- The Hermit – is a symbol of adeptship, attainment. Attainment of ones goals and objectives.
- Wheel of Fortune – law of cycles, rotation.
- Justice – the law of equilibrium.
- The Hanged Man – represents a person in the state of Samadhi, or union with the creation. Personal consciousness is temporarily suspended. The upside-down symbolism is that of reversal, with consciousness directed inward instead of their normal outward flow.
- Death – far from being a bad card, this one represents growth and transformation.
- Temperance – acting with assurance and obtaining verification of the spiritual teachings in ones life.
- The Devil – Maya and bondage to illusion, ignorance.
- The Tower – the destruction of the tower represents awakening (from the ignorance of the previous card).
- The Star – revelation through meditation.
- The Moon – organisation within oneself, particularly the subconsciousness and the path of return.
- The Sun – rebirth and regeneration.
- Judgement – realization, personal consciousness is about to blend with the universal consciousness.
- The World – cosmic consciousness or Nirvana.
One way of laying out the Tarot cards is with 0 at the top, and then three rows of 7 cards (1-7, 8-14, 15-21). The lower row from 15 to 21 represents 7 steps of spiritual unfoldment, from ignorance (card 15, The Devil), through an awaking, peaceful mediation, re-organisation, rebirth, self-realization, and Nirvana. The notion of a path of spiritual transformation was undoubtedly one of the discussion topics in the Secret Societies that the free-thinking gentlemen of the time attended.
Some authors have debated whether Shakespeare was a Freemason (eg Alfred Dodd, Shakespeare: The Creator of Freemasonry, published by Rider & Co in 1933). Francis Bacon may have written or co-authored or otherwise been influential in the some of the plays and sonnets, and he was certainly involved in Freemason and Rosicrucian societies of the time. Shakespeare may well have been exposed to some of these ideas in addition to his Catholic heritage.
What is documented is that a number of Shakespeare’s contemporaries including Christopher Marlow were involved in free-thinking study groups. The School of Night was a discussion group founded by Sir Walter Raleigh and others including:
- Thomas Hariot (mathematical and astronomer, heavily influenced by Kepler)
- Richard Baines (a somewhat disreputable individual who laid accusations of atheism against Christopher Marlowe)
- George Chapman (poet and dramatist – some believe that he may have been the “rival poet”)
- Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 1593) – dramatist and poet, probably the greatest poet before Shakespeare
- Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford, 1550 – 1604) – also a poet and dramatist
- Francis Bacon – writer, thinker and alchemist, who briefly held office of Lord Chancellor
- Edmund Spenser (1552 – 1599) – poet whose works included the famous Faerie Queen
- Edward Kelly (1557 – 1597) – lawyer and alchemist
- John Dee (1527 – 1608) – mathematician, astronomer and alchemist
- Ingram Frizer who would later assassinate Christopher Marlowe (who was facing charges of atheism at the time).
Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost is a play about the School of Night. Other authors have endeavoured to show that Shakespeare’s links to the occult were very deep, but I don’t want to speculate too much. Sufficient to say that these ideas were around at the time and that Shakespeare was exposed to them along with his other peers. Some of these ideas would inevitably manifest in his plays and sonnets, as will be evident in the next page on the sonnets.
It wasn’t until 1660 that the respectable Royal Society was established. Until then anyone working with science, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy did so in fear of the church establishment leading to a charge of heresy which was punishable by torture and usually a painful execution.
As well as foundations being laid for the Royal Society, the “free-thinking” environment (perhaps a reactive response to the repressive church establishment) lead to significant discoveries. Some examples include:
- John Napier (1550 – 1617) discovered logarithms (see more discussion on this below).
- Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630, building on the work of Copernicus and Galileo) announced that the world was round and revolved around the sun.
- Australia was discovered in 1606.
- The authoritative King James Version (KJV) of the bible used by Christians worldwide was finished in 1611. Francis Bacon is known to have contributed to its publication. The religious views of Francis Bacon are revealed through one of his quotes: “There is no other true religion than to meditate on the Universe and give thanks to the Creator.”
- In 1660, 12 men founded The Royal Society at Gresham College in London. Francis Bacon’s method of scientific enquiry was established.
- Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) is one of greatest scientific minds of all time. He made great contributions to physics and science, including the theory of gravity and work with light.
- Sir Christopher Wren (1632 – 1723), architect, notable as the designer of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
- Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703) is remembered for Hooke’s law of elasticity, but also the inventor of items such as the iris in a camera, the balance wheel in a watch and the word “cell” in biology.
- Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691) is remembered for his discoveries relating pressure and volume of gas.
What a great time to be alive! So much discovery. An awakening of new ideas. Boyle, Hooke, Wren, Newton and Bacon are all known to have had Masonic connections, and it was into these same circles of intellectuals and thinkers that Shakespeare was mixing.
John Napier and Logarithms
It is also appropriate to say a little more about John Napier and his work with logarithms, because of its significance in understanding one of the most beautiful sonnets, Sonnet 136. Many of the arithmetic concepts that we take for granted today have not always been accepted fact. It was not until the 1600’s that the concept of zero and negative numbers were accepted and used by mathematicians in the west. Whilst there is evidence that Indian mathematicians had been using zero for several hundred years before Fibonacci brought it to Europe around 1200, it took a while to catch on. It wasn’t until the 18th century that negative numbers (-1, -2, -3 ….) enjoyed widespread use, and this permitted technological and engineering advancement.
After about 20 years work, in 1614 John Napier published his work on logarithms as a means to simplify the multiplication and division of large numbers. It seems likely that Francis Bacon and other members of the School of Night saw and discussed Napier’s manuscripts some years before publication.
Numerology was also very important to students of the occult (such as through the Tarot cards). In particular:
one = unity, God, the Primal Will.
zero = the undifferentiated power preceding all manifestation in the Universe; the cosmic egg (hence the elliptical zero).
10 = one and zero together represent the eternal creativeness of the life-power. Everything in the Universe; God.
On another esoteric note, one divided by two equals zero plus one remainder (simple long division – try it on a piece of paper). The division (or sacrifice) of God (1) results in the manifest universe (zero), from which the original God (the remainder of this division) remains unchanged, untainted and unspoilt. Reflect on this when you read through sonnets 135 and 136 where these concepts will be explored further.
The important point that students of the occult picked up from the work on logarithms is that of transformation. The common logarithm of zero is one. The logarithmic act of transforming numbers when applied to zero (the entire manifest universe) resulted in one (God). Similarly, anti-logarithms transformed 1 in to 0. Mathematics finally had an equation that paralleled the spiritual quest (of the Passionate Pilgrim) for union with God. No longer was it a hopeless quest as the church establishment at the time taught people (ie that we are all sinners, born from sin, and our only salvation is to believe in God and give lots of money to the establishment). There was now mathematical proof that we are all a little divine spark and through personal effort we can transform our individual souls back into the divine.
Many scholars are puzzled by the fact that after Fathering three children and living by all accounts a happy (and reasonably wealthy) family life, Shakespeare disappeared for about 8 years between 1586 and 1592. His whereabouts during this time has been vigorously debated but remains unknown. The most common theories include:
- Fleeing to escape a charge of poaching
- Working as a law clerk in London
- Working as a schoolmaster in Lancashire
- Joining a band of travelling actors (probably the most likely of these theories).
It seems strange that a happily married man in the prime of life would abruptly abandon his family for such a long period. If he was indeed attracted to the theatrical scene in London, this was only 2 – 4 days travel from Stratford, and he would surely have visited his family during this time. Another theory is that he travelled abroad to Italy. Perhaps his inquiring mind had attracted him to occult mystery schools in Italy (eg the Hermetic school of Marsilio Ficino, who was also a Catholic priest) where he embarked on a spiritual quest. There is no documented evidence for this, but it must be remembered that if the authorities knew of such involvement he would have been accused of atheism with the inevitable consequences of criminal charges, torture, and death. Hence any such voyage would have been a closely guarded secret and we are unlikely to uncover any evidence for it today.
The hard line taken by the church authorities was responsible for the suppression of the beliefs of many minor cults and religions. In order to survive these orders had to go into hiding, and to veil their beliefs in symbolism and imagery that would be unrecognisable to anyone outside their institution. The special handshakes of the Freemason’s are a well-known example. Sufi mysticism was translated into Tarot cards and suitably veiled so that they could be used openly along with playing cards (the 52-cards of the Minor Arcana) in full view of the church authorities. The deeper occult meanings with their ancient spiritual teachings would only be known to suitably trusted students.
Many people now believe that some of the great artistic works produced by people such as Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci contained hidden messages. For example, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks are may be depicting Mary Magdalene in her role as consort of Jesus. This idea was abhorrent to the church establishment who were attempting to portray Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. To other Gnostic and occult groups she was a High Priestess; the foremost disciple and possibly the wife of Jesus.
There has been much controversy over Leonardo’s Last Supper, as to whether the person to the right of Jesus (to the left when we view the picture) is in fact Mary Magdalene. The official version is that this is an effeminate looking John the Baptist, but I have seen other variations of this painting in other European churches and some do indeed have a female person amongst the 12 disciples at the last supper.
There are still many shrines in Europe to the Black Madonna or Black Virgin (there are 150 in France alone, mainly in Catholic or Orthodox areas) that depict Mary Mother of Jesus or Mary Magdalene with black skin. This image is thought to originate from Saint Sarah (the black Egyptian servant of Mary Salome or Mary Magdalene), who is also known as Sarah-la-Kali (Black Sarah). The Black Virgin or Black Madonna represents the ancient goddess energy, which has been worshipped for thousands of years. During Shakespeare’s time it was modernised (it was like the New Age Catholicism for the period!) by using the image of either Mary Mother of Jesus, or Mary Magdalene, as a more familiar face to Western Europeans than the Hindu goddess Kali or Greek Hecate.
This is another possible explanation for Shakespeare’s Dark Lady – an image of deep religious reverence, not a local prostitute.
I had the good fortune to read the sonnets many years before I learnt that scholars had determined that the main subject matter was the love for a young man, and sexual lust for a dark-skinned harlot. This surprised me greatly. In this introduction I have provided some background which I hope will help in dispelling these rumours.
The scholarly misinterpretation has come about through misunderstanding the word mistress (means sweetheart, not a harlot), youth (means the state of youthfulness, not a young man), and references to black are metaphors for an emotional state of sadness or evil deeds (depending on the context). The passion of Shakespeare is in the context of strong emotion and usually carries a religious context – it is not sexual passion.
I hope you are able to re-read the Sonnets and my interpretations on the next page freshly and see what the lines of poetry reveal.