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PROTEUS

A footnote to UDGCB

 

 

 

The character of Protheus appears in the Baconian The Two Gentlemen of Verona. He is clearly derived from the Proteus of Greek myth, whose name means “First man”, the insertion by Bacon of the “h” – a characteristic touch – serving to emphasise his divinity, as suggesting the Greek theos, “god”. He is to be identified, in terms of the allegory, with the numerous Adams of the plays (e.g. in As You Like It), as well as the unnamed “old men” (e.g. in King Lear), as representative of primal Man, homo libidensis, Man-as-sublimated-animal: that constitutive part of Man that is denied by the Puritan. He was most plausibly suggested to Bacon by the ritual of the “Knight of the Sun” degree of the thirty-three degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish of Rite of Freemasonry, as so brilliantly recovered from oblivion by Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas in their The Second Messiah (Arrow, 1998), - which features “Thrice Perfect Father Adam”, and whose purpose was the indoctrination of truth. Bacon was formally received into Freemasonry by King James in 1603 (Knight and Lomas, The Hiram Key, 1997); and the shaping influence on the First Folio of the rituals of the thirty-three degrees is apparent, even at this very early stage of Knight and Lomas’ work. I await further developments with keen interest. Further, they have shown (The Second Messiah) the Tarot deck to have been a Templar innovation, for the education into Gnostic nobility of their members. Freemasonry was born from the Templars’ ashes in 1307 or shortly after; and I show in UDGCB that the Tower in 1-3HVI and RIII, the Emperor in TGV, the Wheel of Fortune in Hamlet, and arguably the Fool in so many of the plays, are all, on the plane of allegory, references to the corresponding cards of the Tarot Major Arcana.

 

Since writing UDGCB I have begun to delve more deeply into Bacon’s philosophy, with Stephen Gaukroger’s Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy (Cambridge, 2001) as a useful guide. Bacon found the myth of Proteus instructive, as described in his De sapientia veterum (“Wisdom of the Ancients”). Here is how he tells it:

 

Proteus, the poet tells us, was herdsman to Neptune. He was an old man and a prophet; a prophet moreover of the very first order, and indeed thrice excellent; for he knew all three, - not the future only, but likewise the past and the present; insomuch that besides his power of divination, he was the messenger and interpreter of all antiquity and all secrets. His dwelling was under an immense cave. There it was his custom every day at noon to count his flock of seals and then got to sleep. And if any one wanted his help in any matter, the only way was first to secure his hands with handcuffs, and then to bind him chains. Whereupon he on his part, in order to get free, would turn himself into all manner of strange shapes – fire, water, wild beasts, etc., till at last he returned again to his original shape.

 

‘Thrice excellent’ is remarkable here, in the context of the ritual of the twenty-eighth degree (cf. ‘this thrice-worthy and right valiant lord’: Troilus and Cressida II, iii, 188; and other instances of this epithet in FF); while his bedtime recalls the Fool’s ‘and I’ll go to bed at noon’ in King Lear. Bacon was primarily interested, as a scientific philosopher, in matter theory, in an attempt to understand and manipulate the primal components – what we know now as atoms and molecules, originally a primal soup of mesons – that go to make up the visible world. He identified Proteus as this primal matter, which behaves as a fluid principle: hence the sea as Proteus’ home. His flocks are the visible forms of Nature that we encounter every day; while noon represents, of course, the acme of the visible world, when the variety and differentiation of forms is at its maximum. Proteus’ transformations represent the variety of forms that the primal matter can take. This is, of course, the most banal of lessons of modern chemistry, which describes the innumerable structures of Nature as based on the same periodic table of elements, every atom of which is based in turn on a handful of distinct subatomic particles in different states and combinations. It is testament to Bacon’s genius that he divined this to be the case, albeit in a very general way.

 

Thus, the bedtime of Fool in KL signifies that his job has been done, in rebuilding the shattered tower of Lear Inc.. The Fool is being characterised here as the fluid principle on which the enduring structure may be raised. This is the point of the Fool card in the Tarot, as well asthe ass- (fool-) phase journey of Lucius in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, a massive influence on FF. The Fool, with his wit, is not yet become, but in a state of becoming, to attain at last the state of Gnostic nobility. The blind Gloucester in KL is a Teiresias figure, master of the inward vision (visual imagination); while the old man who initially guides him (IV, i) is cognate with Lear’s Fool. The Puritan ego has, on the other, never engaged the unseen world, and his tower is therefore doomed: the reference being finally to the coup that befell Shakespeare aet.23. 

 

This, then, is the point of Protheus, as well as the various Adams and old men of the plays: that they represent the primal matter of which the shatterproof ego may be built. 

 

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