Shakespeare - A Renaissance Perennial

An excerpt from; Shakespeare - A Renaissance Perennial

By Jeremy Nieboer

The full article can be enjoyed here 


This article consists of a consideration of the treatise by Martin Lings entitled ‘The Secret of Shakespeare’ first published in part in 1965 in ‘Tomorrow’ and then in its full version as an essay in[1] 2005.

Ling's Thesis

Lings contends that the Renaissance rejected the medieval notion of the universal shining through man and other forms.  He argues that the Renaissance regarded man and other earthly objects “entirely for their own sakes as if nothing lay behind them”.  He projects this thesis on to the works of Shakespeare which he argues demonstrate a “universality that is a prolongation of the universality of the Middle Ages”.

Lings advances the case, in particular, that architecture of the Middle Ages attains a superiority[2] over that of the Renaissance.  He argues also that in painting the medieval period reveals the eternal shining through the temporal.  However he contends that Renaissance painting is imprisoned in its own epoch.  It does not show us a glimpse of the universal behind the veil of the temporal.

In his article Lings acknowledges that Shakespeare was greatly influenced by what is often referred to as the Perennial Philosophy.  The term Perennial in this article refers to this.  

Lings declares that it is in the religio perennis that Shakespeare’s sacred art is rooted.  He describes it as an ‘all-underlying religion and not in any particular religious form - a deep-seated heredity … like the remembrance of the lost Paradise that can erupt in the soul by a kind of providential atavism‘.  Although he gives few illustrations of from Shakespeare’s texts he concludes that ‘Shakespeare was an outstanding example of this possibility’.

However he goes further.  He sees Shakespeare as evoking the spirit of the Middle Ages observing that “providentially he was born just in time to be able to endow his plays with the mediaeval grandeur”. For Lings Shakespeare is essentially an extension of the universality of the Middle Ages and his works show him to be “the last outpost of a quickly vanishing age”. 

I seek to explain in this article that it was the glory of the Renaissance to revive and open for the modern world the discovery, translation and dissemination of the Greek, Roman, Hebrew and Egyptian texts, art and philosophic precepts. 

In so doing it embraced the fundamental tenets of the Perennial of the transcendent and immanent and that Man though temporal in form, like all creatures, was informed by the Being of the universe expressing itself through humankind and its works and which can be realised in man in selflessness and inner stillness.

So far from being creations of the Middle Ages Shakespeare’s plays I contend that they are informed by the Perennial that the Renaissance reformulated for the modern age.

Schools and Teaching

The article owes much to the message of Frithof Shuon -  I prefer to avoid the word “teaching” as it carries with it the implication that what is not relative can be taught.  Frithof Shuon disseminated the Perennial, as is well known, but held that the Renaissance humanism created a barrier to its continuance beyond the Middle Ages . 

I first comment on how a school of teaching can become itself a block to the realisation of what it seeks to propagate.  I cannot say if this is the case with the followers of Frithof Shuon and his teachings but there is this possibility. 

For some 20 years I attended evening meetings and (once a year) a residential week run by a school of philosophy.  The school was the vehicle of the Perennial as expressed in the Vedanta scriptures and sages of India.  I slowly came to recognise that the essence of the Perennial was the perception of the universal appearing in many varied expressions of wisdom and of beauty.  It seemed that an institution created, with best intentions, to disseminate such notions was bound to become an identified entity and its teachings more than propositions.  Ultimately it seemed to be inescapable that there could be no authority for the teachings other than knowing and that there is no name or place or time or text that is essential to comprehension of the Perennial.

I recall trying to see how it was and why the countryside and the river and lakes I used to visit for fishing were beautiful.  I could see intellectually how a universal principle of proportion and harmony would inform architecture and music.  But what I could not reach, as it were, was the thing itself.  Although the school I attended was most enlightening, the teaching of schools often adheres to an institution or place or a person and tends to foster in the minds of disciples a form of belief.  So often it happens that institutions cluster round an inexpressible reality like mussels on a rock eventually obscuring it almost completely – as with Christ’s message and Christian doctrine of the Church. 

It seems that anything which creates duality of thought, if not resolved in an encompassing principle, is likely to lead to trouble.  Belief does not admit a universal world in which there are many streams with one sea.  For the believer his is the only way and the only salvation.  The heretic, infidel, Jew, Catholic, Protestant, Running Dogs, are existential threats to the belief and thereby to the believer, since belief is a form of identity with the believed.  Realisation of the misery and suffering that this inflicts may bring about a perception of a supervening reality.  Deep discontent seems to be a necessary state – though not sadly sufficient!

Mediaeval Cathedral Architecture

Lings’ article starts well with a reminder that the cathedrals of Europe of the 11th – 13th centuries allow a glimpse of a divine reality.  He is sure that these are evidence of what he calls the universality of the Middle Ages.  As he puts it “…earthly things can only be referred back to their spiritual archetypes through…..perception…which pierces through the symbol to the universal reality..”.  This is reflects in part a tenet of the Perennial. 

I have eliminated from this extract Lings’ reference to intellectual perception since, in modern parlance at least, perception of a universal reality is not a faculty of intellect.  Such perception is an aspect of being, not of thought; a realisation or recognition - a knowing which is itself a state of singularity or “I”.  It may of course be that Lings is using the term ‘intellect’ to mean spiritual perception or realisation but I take him to mean something else. 

There is a famous description of Le Corbusier when he describes the worth of the Parthenon in his “Vers une Architecture Moderne” (1923).  He describes it as ‘Architecture pure création de l’esprit’:  a phenomenon which “is the sounding board of the Absolute in our being”. 

There could not be better intellectual appreciation of this wonderful created form.  But it is not a perception as a form of knowing without thought.  It is a concept which may lead to perception only when the concept gives place to realisation.  For that is the nature of realisation.  It is of who we are in essence – our state of consciousness – our very being.  Huxley speaks of this in his “Perennial Philosophy” when he describes knowledge as a state of being.  It is not thought, with its limitless activity of classification, names, memories, comparisons, mental positions of every conceivable (literally) kind.  

It seems to me that Lings falls into the very error of dual thinking that I have mentioned.  He sets a mediaeval ideal of the universal Spirit shining from behind a human veil against a humanist obsessed Renaissance.   He contends that the spirit seen through the veil is the essence of the mediaeval age.  He denies that the Renaissance reveals such perception.  

It is true that the Church was ‘universal’ but only in the sense that the secular world of the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman church governed all Christendom.  It also true that the mediaeval period had its exponents of the Perennial.  However Lings denies the recognition in the Renaissance of universality of Spirit illuminating form.  He speaks of the Renaissance as in opposition to that ideal: that it considered man and other earthly objects for their own sakes and not for what informs them and is revealed by them. 

Moreover Lings addresses only one element of the Perennial. – the universal.  He does not address the essential characteristic of the Perennial  namely the  immanent.  That is the ‘I am that Brahma’ or ‘I am that I am’ which I refer to more fully below.  Although the human form is temporary it is informed by consciousness which is not other than the universal consciousness of which mankind can be aware here and now as the indwelling “I” or ‘kingdom of heaven’.

Some mediaeval mystics touch on this but it surely does not reflect the prevailing spirit of that age.  That was more the redemption of mankind from endemic sin through the mediation of Jesus.  The notions found in medieval Christianity of original sin, guilt, repentance, the journey to salvation, ascetism, the exacting process of passing through Purgatory to sanctification and the intercession of Jesus are doctrines not to be found in the Perennial.  Nor is the indwelling divinity of Man a fundamental tenet of mediaeval theology.

The gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages employ the pointed ogival arch and the vaulting found in the edifices of Islam which had themselves been devolved from India and Hindu culture.  The vaults of Naytn are not later than the tenth century.  It also appears that the pointed vaults adjoining the Mlhrab in the Masjid-i Jumeh of Shiraz are of the end of the ninth century[3] well before the emergence of the gothic in the early 12th century.

Use of the pointed arch enabled ecclesiastical sacred buildings to loosen the restrictions imposed by the Romanesque basilica with its semi circular barrel vaults.  A structure with ribbing, buttresses and clustered columns allowed for heights of 150ft or more to the roof apex.  The procession of stately columns leads the eye and the worshipper to the East – the direction of Jerusalem.  The structure enabled the illumination of the vast space with high stained glass fenestration and rose windows of great beauty in the East and West elevations.

The purpose of such architecture was to inspire awe, fear and wonder.  In Genesis 28:10–17 a ladder to heaven appears to Jacob in a dream.  Upon waking he declares How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."  Such is the traditional intonation prescribed for the Mass for consecration of a church.  The mediaeval cathedral was a gate to heaven which is other than an immanent kingdom capable of being known on earth.

The Dedication of the Church of St John Lateran includes this passage[4]A ray of the divine presence ought to pierce our souls when we approach the sanctuary and we ought with trembling say to ourselves “How terrible is this place! This is no other than the house of God and the gate of heaven”

It succinctly epitomises the spirit and ethos of mediaeval cathedral architecture. 

Continue here to read the full article, Shakespeare - A Renaissance Perennial.

[1] pp177 188 of “ Ye Shall Know the Truth: Christianity and the Perennial Philosophy” by Mateus Soares de Azevedo (Editor) © 2005 World Wisdom. Also  The Secret of Shakespeare: His Greatest Plays Seen in the Light of Sacred Art Published by Quinta Essentia, 1998

[2] Page i para 1

[3] CAIS Iranian Architecture Gothic Architecture and Persian Origins.  Prof. Arthur Upham Pope  - June 1933

[4] Lives of the Fathers Martyrs and the Principal Saints by Rev Alban Butler 1833.   Extract for November 1X