Shakespeare the Swedenborgian

AFTER an exhaustive study of approximately five days I’ve concluded that there is ample evidence to prove that William Shakespeare was a Swedenborgian.

According to Wikipedia, the standard of excellence for studies like this, “Emmanuel Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, and theologian.”  He has been termed a Christian mystic by some sources, including the fusty old Encyclopedia Britannica online version and the Encyclopedia of Religion  (1987), which starts its article with the description that he was a “Swedish scientist and mystic.”  Swedenborg termed himself  “Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” in True Christian Religion, one of his published works. Perhaps he thought he was St Paul.  It annoys some people that he lived smack in the middle of the Enlightenment.  But there you go.

Anyway, he was an extremely accomplished guy and had many radical ideas, such as the idea that the last judgement had already happened (or was happening) and that the Bible should be used as a repository of spiritual truths. Likewise, Shakespeare according to some scholars (though none come to mind except F R Leavis and he didn’t say this) was  very radical and used the Bible as a repository of quotations he could skim for his plays.  The first act of Macbeth, for example is full of biblical references and stuffed with mystical beliefs.  As my full length study, Shakespeare and Swedenborg: A Spiritually Dynamic Duo, will show, these similarities cannot be explained as mere accident.

In his book Life on Other Planets, Swedenborg stated that he conversed with spirits from Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus, and the moon.  He did not report conversing with spirits from Uranus and Neptune, however, which had not been discovered in his day.  This crucial piece of information lends veracity to his claim since an unscrupulous scholar might say he had conversed with spirits from undiscovered planets.

Significantly, Shakespeare’s references to planets are also well known. So is his belief in astrology, as we can see in All’s Well That Ends Well (I.i)

HELENA. Monsieur Parolles, you were born under a charitable star.PAROLLES. Under Mars, I.

HELENA. I especially think, under Mars.

PAROLLES. Why under Mars?

HELENA. The wars hath so kept you under that you must needs be born under Mars.

PAROLLES. When he was predominant.

HELENA. When he was retrograde, I think, rather.

PAROLLES. Why think you so?

HELENA. You go so much backward when you fight.

And, of course, references to the moon (“the inconstant moon”) abound.

No wonder Shakespeare, who was born in 1564, was an avid follower of Swedenborg, whose more scientific observations must have had their appeal in an earlier century.

Swedenborg's flying machine; cf. A Midsummer Night's Dream,' Act V. Scene I

OT only this, but Shakespeare also enjoyed writing about human beings conversing with spirits and ghosts.  If the ghost of Hamlet’s father weren’t enough proof, there’s also Banquo, Julius Caesar, probably a dozen in Richard III, and the mother of Posthumus in Cymbeline, which no one has ever read, and several in Antony and Cleopatra, which seven people have.

Geographical evidence for the “Emmanu-Will connection” is not lacking. Not coincidentally, Swedenborg lived in London for four years from 1709 until 1713, almost exactly one hundred years after the first performance of Shakespeare’s blockbuster hit, The Four Noble Kinsmen.  Circumstantially but crucially in my opinion: Shakespeare was also born in England.  One of his most famous plays is about a Scandinavian prince; and Swedenborg, as his name suggests, was also a Scandinavian.

Swedenborg’s scientific accomplishments have often been overlooked, especially his work in metallurgy.  He was a pioneer in the study of the smelting of lead and copper.   We find a similar interest in Act 2 scene 7 of Merchant of Venice, where a drawn curtain reveals three small caskets made of lead, silver and gold. In this scene Shakespeare shows his acquaintance with Swedenborg’s work in the quotation, “All that glisters is not gold” but there are equally decisive references to metals that range beyond a mere casual interest in the topic in both Macbeth and Hamlet.

After his retirement from the Board of Mines, Swedenborg was best remembered as a biblical interpreter. Usually abbreviated as Arcana Cœlestia and under the Latin variant Arcana Caelestia (translated as Heavenly ArcanaHeavenly Mysteries, or Secrets of Heaven depending on modern English-language editions) his writings on scripture swelled to eight volumes of impenetrable prose.

In a nutshell he thought thought the last judgement had begun in 1757 because the Christian church had lost faith and charity.  This is the scenario Shakespeare uses in Macbeth 1.2, when Banquo says to the hags, “If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me” (1.3.60).  There are all kinds of references to the supernatural in Shakespeare’s plays, but after five days I have only been able to track down a few.  One thing is sure, however:  both men believed in heaven, hell, and the devil. To wit, the Comedy of Errors (Iv.iii)

Ant. S. Satan, avoid! I charge thee, tempt me not!
 Dro. S. Master, is this mistress Satan?
 Ant. S. It is the devil.
 Dro. S. Nay, she is worse, she is the devil’s dam; and here she comes in the habit of a light wench; and thereof comes that the wenches say, God damn me;’ that’s as much to say, ‘God make me a light wench.’ It is written, they appear to men like angels of light.” 

This is just one example of Shakespeare talking about spirits and demons.  There are lots of others that point directly to his mystical infatuation with the idea of conversing with the dead.

Finally, Swedenborg wrote that “eating meat, regarded in itself, is something profane,” and was not practiced in the early days of the human race. Swedenborg’s landlord in London, a Mr. Shearsmith, said he ate no meat but his maid, who served Swedenborg, said that he would occasionally indulge in eating eels and pigeon pie.  Similarly, Shakespeare’s vegetarianism, derived from Swedenborg”s, is evident in the Witch’s Brew of Macbeth, Act I:  According to many scholars, the “ghastly preparation” qualifies for a vegetarian repast because it avoids the flesh of newt and frogs.  This cannot be pure coincidence. According to the same calculation, Falstaff, especially in Henry V,  can be seen as an allegory of the price of a strict carnivorism.  Nor is it merely “interesting” that both Swedenborg and Shakespeare wrote a lot about marriage and conjugal love, though both seemed to have lived as bachelors for most of their lives.

T  SHOULD not surprise us that we can confidently add the name of Shakespeare to the long list of famous men who have been attracted by Swedenborg’s ideas.  Kant, William Blake, Balzac, Henry James, Emerson,  Karl Jung and Jorge Luis Borges, to name only the most turgid,  have all been admirers and disciples.  Women, not so much.

Skeptics may contend that Shakespeare cannot have been influenced by Swedenborg because the bard lived in a previous century.  That, in my view, is the sort of discriminatory, limited, and shallow thinking that has kept history the poor sister of the sciences for a long time.

By what right do we proclaim that influence only moves from antecedent to subsequent events?  In the case of Shakespeare and Swedenborg, the evidence is overwhelming that history moves in all sorts of interesting directions, unlimited, like the cosmos itself, by conventional ideas of cause and effect.

10 thoughts on “Shakespeare the Swedenborgian

  1. Thomas Carter in “Shakespeare and Holy Scripture” argues that “no writer has assimilated the thoughts and reproduced the words of Holy Scripture more copiously than Shakespeare”. Carter describes his work as “richly stored with the thoughts and words of the English Bible”. It is indeed. PhD theses, academic and dramatic societies, seminars and social conversations, are devoted to demonstrating how Shakespeare doesn’t merely borrow an occasional phrase or allusion from the Bible for enrichment of the dramatic language, but he derives the central ideas and images that run through all his plays.

    With so much scholarship focusing on which version of the Bible Shakespeare used, even speculations arising as to whether he wrote the KJV, and all the conspiracy theories created around authorship, including that conspiracy based on the correspondence between marginal citations in Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible and Shakespeare’s biblical references in his plays, there isn’t any doubt that Shakespeare (whoever he was) loved the Bible and that he was a Believing Christian. The only real dispute is whether he was a closet Catholic or whether he was obedient to the newly founded National Church. The general view has tended to favour the former. Finally, this essay settles it: Shakespeare was a Swedenborgian. Time becomes irrelevant, anachronisms become anachronistic, and contradictions are merely arbitrary and shallow. When the evidence is so penetrating and clear, as it is here, this conclusion is overwhelmingly convincing.

    I wonder if Shakespeare wrote Swedenborg. William Blake painted Shakespeare and Swedenborg read Blake so there is a striking relationship. I am more than slightly suspicious of John Thomas Looney’s theory about Edward de Vere. Ted may well have read Will’s work but he didn’t write it.

  2. That Shakespeare was a Swedenborgian is old news, and Dr. Hoffman might have saved himself five days of reading by simply reading the fifth statement of George W. Baynham’s Conclusion in his Swedenborg and Shakespeare: A Comparison (“Swedenborg was the seer, Shakespeare was the poet who illustrated his teaching”).

    What might have motivated Dr. Hoffman’s “bravura performance”? Who can say? And who knows what he might have come across during his five days of extensive reading. Perhaps he noticed at one point Swedenborg having written, “There is nothing that cannot be confirmed, and falsity is confirmed more readily than truth”, and thought this principle worthy of illustration. With a wink, no doubt.

  3. I have to say that I am deeply disappointed in the travesty of scholarship displayed in this article. It is obvious to anyone who has ever studied these questions that the works popularly attributed to Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare were in reality written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who faked his own death in order to become an actor because he was tired of seeing his masterpieces ruined by people jigging about.

    In addition I strongly believe, but cannot yet prove, that he was also the author of approximately 900 works attributed to Lope de Vega, who, as we know, was insignificant enough to sail with the 1588 Armada; I hope that you will at least concede that this was not the sort of role appropriate to the genius of the Golden Age of Spanish literature.

    You may, however, have tangentially identified an important point in detecting similarities in the works whilst overlooking the obvious answer; Swedenborg was not actually Swedenborg. He was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who had emigrated to Scandinavia when Cromwell ordered the closure of the theatres in 1649.

    I realise that some deluded people will want to appeal to the supernatural in explaining De Vere’s longevity, but there is a perfectly rational explanation; I need hardly remind you that the Tudors’ preferred mode of executing aristocrats was beheading. It is difficult to imagine a clearer recognition of the dangers posed to the Nouveau Roi by vampires of the Ancien Régime…

  4. So who did die in a brawl in a public house in Deptford all those years ago? Perhaps the T9 predictive spelling on a mobile ‘phone I possessed many years ago was correct when I tried to write send a text to an employee whereupon it resolutely inserted Bacon. Don’t laugh too soon, much bacon in Europe comes from Denmark, along with Princes and Vikings. The Scandinavian lead is ignored at our peril.

    • Actually, Franklin, I reckon that one’s pretty straightforward; the Elizabethans had a robust attitude towards people who didn’t stand their round, hence the widespread use of the term ‘atheist’ to signify someone who did not believe in that fundamental covenant between man and man.

      Kit’s death meant that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, could no longer channel his plays to the Admiral’s Men, where Edward Alleyn played the leading roles, and so Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was forced to make do with the Burbages instead.

      It’s clear from the texts that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was seriously hacked off with the protection team he had in place on Kit, and, since I am far from uncritical of him, I would note that his reliance on werewolves was an undoubted error on his part, given the stage of the lunar cycle. He really should have taken John Dee’s horoscope rather more seriously.

      Unsurprisingly, bereft of the supreme works of the age, Edward Alleyn retired from acting in 1597 to concentrate on making a great deal of money, but he never forgot, nor forgave, the architects of his artistic demise. His portrait in a stained glass window at St Giles Cripplegate, here in the Barbican, shows him wearing their pelts…

  5. “By what right do we proclaim that influence only moves from antecedent to subsequent events? In the case of Shakespeare and Swedenborg, the evidence is overwhelming that history moves in all sorts of interesting directions, unlimited, like the cosmos itself, by conventional ideas of cause and effect.” ???

    I’m afraid this post is lost on me, or you have an agenda I missed, else surely you jest.

  6. Pingback: O What Fools | Foolery news for the week of January 26, 2012 | The Shakespeare Standard

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