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ARK AND GRAIL IN THE SHAKESPEARE PLAYS

 

 

A new era in Shakespeare criticism began with Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (Faber, 1992). The late Poet Laureate convincingly showed the great tragedies to be allegories of the shattering and, in most cases, repair of a psyche, in which the central tragic event is always the disintegration of a Puritan ego; and, further, that final reference is, remarkably, to a similar death and rebirth in the life of Will Shakspere. In Ugly Dick and the Goddess of Complete Being (2003), I extend Hughes’ approach to every play in the corpus, and show them all without exception to deal as allegory with this theme. Other authors, most notably Peter Dawkins, have of course described in general terms the psycho-allegorical nature of many of the plays; but a clear appreciation of their true nature enables one to drill down to individual lines, words, even single letters, in an unprecedented way, and to observe the mind of the author at its astonishing work: a mind that was richly stocked with the symbols and lore of the esoteric tradition, far beyond what has previously been appreciated, as we shall see.

 

Briefly, I show the historical cycle to be a single, unified allegory of the progress of an inner life, the central event of which was a catastrophic breakdown which befell it in 1897, after some eight years of enthralment by the Puritan world-view, to precipitate the subject’s flight to London in search of healing and a new life. There can be not the slightest doubt that the psyche in question is indeed Will Shakspere’s. I depart however from Hughes’ conclusion that he was the author of his own healing, and find rather that the therapist was Sir Francis Bacon, as minister of the Gnostic tradition, who emerges as the genius behind the works of Shakespeare, their grand strategist, author at least of the renowned high style, and source of their prodigious philosophical and linguistic richness. Ugly Dick shows the First Folio to be a vehement excoriation of the Puritan tyranny: hence the absolute requirement for the encryption of its argument as allegory, if it were to ride out the flood which Bacon and his circle so vividly saw coming. In a new book I will show the great works of Sidney and Jonson, amongst others, also to secrete this same allegory: so that Elizabethan literary culture is to be understood as standing in the front line of the defence of the Gnostic tradition, which had flowered anew in Florence in the 1490’s, against the twin threats of Roman Catholicism and Protestant Puritanism.

 

The axis of the First Folio allegory is the Queen of Hell, or Goddess of the Underworld, whose realm is the world – anathematised by Catholic and Puritan alike – which lies unseen below the surface of things. She is significantly more than that, however: for Portia, Cordelia, Desdemona, Helena, Cleopatra, Ophelia, and all the other Queens of Hell of the plays are explicitly identified also as Grail Queens; and the wisdom they guard is the Holy Grail of the hero’s questing. This is specifically, according to Bacon, the wisdom to be derived from engagement with the unseen world – both the collective unconscious, and the prima materia which flows inexorably beneath the visible landscape of matter – as described in the written word, the reading and writing of which formed the central plank of his approach to the healing of Will Shakspere. This is the significance of the numerous trees, woods, forests, and groves in the plays, which bear always the allegoric value of the written word, the source most plausibly being the Druid grove, on the barks of which were nicked their sacred texts. Thus, the overthrow of Dunsinane castle by the rebels camouflaged as Birnam Wood in the final scenes of Macbeth represents the defeat of the tyranny of the Puritan ego (Macbeth) and its subsequent transformation into Gnostic nobility (Malcolm) through the ministry of the written word. There are literally hundreds of correspondences of this kind throughout the First Folio, to create an allegory of extraordinary richness and precision.

 

The Holy Grail is explicitly represented by the blood-filled bowl carried by Lavinia (another Queen of Hell-Grail Queen) in Act V of Titus Andronicus; and implicitly in the name of Ganymede, cup-bearer to the gods in Greek mythology, as adopted as an alias by Rosalind in As You Like It. A ring features prominently in many of the plays; and Sir Laurence Gardner has shown, in his Realm of the Ring Lords, the Ring and Grail traditions to be essentially the same. All’s Well That Ends Well is a striking illustration of this principle, with its first Act a typical Grail scenario, with its crippled king and wasted kingdom, and remaining Acts an exemplary Ring saga. Bacon’s immediate source was almost certainly the famed Ring of Solomon; and, in support of this, a diamond also features in Henry the Sixth and Cymbeline, most plausibly a reference to the Schamir, his precious jewel. The Ark is represented by the (empty) box held by the Page at Pedringano’s hanging in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which demonstrably secretes the same fundamental allegory as the First Folio plays, and therefore can only have issued from the Bacon atelier. ‘Pedringano’ is formed from the Spanish Pedro, ‘Peter’, and Italian inganno, ‘I betray’. He represents the unseen world which surges to betray into destruction the Roman Catholic world-view which had thought to deny it, rather than engaging it in the Gnostic way. The empty box – the Ark emptied of its tablets – symbolises here the Godlessness of the Catholic (written) word, in its anathematisation of the underworld, the sacred heart of mind and matter.

 

Most striking of all is the identification of Ark and Grail in Timon of Athens. This play describes Timon’s self-exile in bitterness and rage from his native Athens: as allegory, the beginning of Shakspere’s Puritan phase ca. aet.15, as the last of a series of coping mechanisms against the libido, which had emerged at puberty cloaked disturbingly in negative mantle, thanks to a marked Christian puritan element in his upbringing. Athens represents the immediately anterior coping mechanism, which was based on a superficial engagement with the written word, combined with erotic continence, in the way of Alexander as described by Plutarch (this phase is the subject of Henry the Fifth). It was therefore a Gnostic ascetic approach. This was brought to a shattering end by yet another irruption of the will-to-eros (entry of Cupid and the dancers in Timon of Athens I, ii, 120), consequent on his coming across an erotic scene in a book (almost certainly the vividly described seduction of Lucius by Fotis in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass), which drove him as a last resort into the arms of Puritanism, with its total suppression of the imagination and the Goddess.

 

In Timon’s last supper in Athens, the dishes are brought out to the guests. Timon uncovers them to reveal, startlingly, bowls of warm water each holding a stone, which he then proceeds to hurl at his former friends, along with insults and bitter reproaches. This brings most powerfully to mind the statue of Melchizedek in the north porch of Chartres Cathedral, which portrays him holding a cup from which protrudes a rounded stone: the point being to demonstrate the esoteric equivalence of the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, as argued by Graham Hancock in The Sign and the Seal; and the banquet scene in Timon lends powerful support to this theory. The statue of Melchizedek is likely to have been shown to Bacon, and its esoteric meaning explained, during his four year stay in France as a young man. The Ark held the Word of God inscribed on the twin Tablets of Testimony; and the point of this episode is that Timon is abandoning the Word of God – the Gnostic God, Who is intimately involved with the underworld, yet transcendent of it  – to embrace Puritanism. The stone as Tablet of Testimony recurs in the final Act, as Timon’s gravestone, on which there is an inscription: the Word of God

 

Hancock’s compelling thesis is that Wolfram’s Grail saga Parsifal is a Templar text which secretes as allegory the Ethiopian location of the lost Ark. Parsifal is clearly also an allegory of psychic transformation; and the correspondences between its psycho-allegory and that of the First Folio are striking: so much so that there can be not the slightest doubt that Wolfram’s saga was the principle inspiration and model for the allegory of its greater successor. On the principle of Ark-Grail equivalence, the Holy Grail is identified, in Parsifal just as in the plays of Shakespeare, with the written word:

 

But any Lord of the Grail who seeks love other than that allowed him by the Writing will inevitably have to pay for it with pain and suffering fraught with sighs.

Parsifal, trans. A.T. Hatto, Penguin Classics, 1986, p.243.

 

In Parsifal, immediately following the hero’s departure from Munsalvaesche, he comes upon the hermit Trevizent, and joins him in a meal of roots. Similarly, the first scene after Timon’s exile from Athens shows him digging for roots in the woods. There can be not the slightest doubt that Athens represents the Grail castle Munsalvaesche, and Timon-in-exile the as yet untransformed (Puritan) ego, who will be offered the possibility of a glorious resurrection. A striking piece of symbolism in the First Folio is the recurring image of the blood stained – or, even more vividly, strawberry-woven – napkin or handkerchief (Desdemona’s, for example), which bears always the allegorical value of the Goddess, as a reference to menstruation. Just so do we find in Parsifal the blood stained snow which torments the hero as a reminder of his wife Condwiramurs. There are repeated descriptions in the First Folio of the Queen of Hell as ‘black and fair’. Parsifal also has a ‘black and fair’ Goddess, in Belacane: ‘Now many an ignorant fellow would think that it was her black skin I ran away from, but in my eyes she was as bright as the sun!’ (p.56). The source for Belacane can only have been the lover of the Song of Solomon, who says ‘black am I and beautiful’, the significance of which is that the underworld must appear fair to the Gnostic enquirer. And so on: there are many more striking correspondences.

 

The vector for transmission of this esoteric lore into the plays can only have been the traditions of Freemasonry, into which Bacon was formally received by King James in 1603. The source for this information, and much of what follows, is the remarkable The Second Messiah (Arrow, 1998) by Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, who have succeeded in retrieving from oblivion fragments of the original rituals of the authentic thirty-three degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. These millenia-old rituals obtrude unmistakeably at many points in the plays: for example, in Ulysses’ famous speech on degree (which the critics have never convincingly explained) in Troilus and Cressida I.iii:

 

                             Degree being vizarded,

Th’unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre,

Observe degree, priority, and place…

… And therefore is the glorious planet Sol

In noble eminence enthroned and sphered

Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye

Corrects the influence of evil planets…

 

The ‘glorious planet Sol’ is most plausibly a reference to the fourteenth degree, the ‘Scotch Knight of Perfection’. Knight and Lomas tell how their eyes leapt out of their sockets at finding for the first time the details of the lost rituals; and this was also my reaction to these words of theirs:

 

The next degree, ‘Scotch Knight of Perfection’, is set in a room which has at its centre the reassembled fragments of Enoch’s pillar, inscribed with hieroglyphics. It is claimed that King Solomon created a ‘Lodge of Perfection’ to rule over the thirteen lower degrees, and its members held their first meeting in the sacred vault of Enoch beneath the partly constructed Temple of Solomon.

 

This pillar must be the same as that marvelled at by Parsifal in Clinschor’s castle. Fascinatingly, in this ritual a gold ring is placed on a pedestal in the middle of the room. A key theme of the plays is that victory over the raw libido is a necessary prerequisite for the attainment of Gnostic nobility; and this is also emphasised in the ritual of the twenty-eighth degree, which warns: ‘Ye who have not the power to subdue passion, fly from this place of truth’. In this degree, a lecture on truth is given by nine officers, led by Thrice Perfect Father Adam. ‘Thrice Perfect’ or a variant thereof occurs repeatedly as an epithet in the plays (for example, Troilus and Cressida II.iii.188: ‘this thrice-worthy and right valiant lord’). One thinks irresistibly of the legendary Gnostic mage Hermes Trismegistus. There are several Adams in the plays, and all bear precisely this allegoric value of the truth, which resides in the unseen and undeniable dimension of reality. A fine example is the Adam in As You Like It, which portrays, fascinatingly, Will Shakspere as reader (Melancholy Jacques) in the earliest stages of his treatment by Bacon, and as writer (Orlando) in a somewhat later stage. Adam’s gift of gold to Orlando, and the latter’s insistence that Adam must be fed first at Duke Senior’s table in the Forest of Arden, represent the enrichment of the Gnostic writer by engagement with the truth, as resident in the unseen world: the acquisition of gold or money, bearing here, as always in the plays, the allegoric value of the empowerment of a principle.

 

It is clear then that Sir Francis Bacon was both a brilliant innovator, and the inheritor, via the Knights Templar and Freemasonry, of an immensely ancient esoteric tradition, with its roots in Egypt and Sumer and, anteriorly, Atlantis. Parsifal secretes two allegories, on the literal and psychic planes, as we have seen; while the First Folio deals as allegory principally with the theme of the shattering and repair of the psyche of Will Shakspere. Is there a literal allegory also to be found there, in the way of its model? Ignatius Donnelly thought so. I feel sure that he was onto something in his The Great Cryptogram, which attempts to reveal an historical memoir latent in the plays. The prima facie evidence he provides is compelling. The problem would lie in auditing his findings, and extending them to the plays as a whole, which could only be a task for a dedicated research team. Nothing is more certain than that Bacon would have left, somewhere, secreted as allegory to prevent his own persecution and its loss, a brutally honest interpretation of the historical events of his time, over which the gathering Puritan tyranny, despised and feared by all his circle, loomed large. Perhaps the findings of Ugly Dick may give a new impetus to the prosecution of this immensely noble cause.

 

 

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