Storm splashes out of teacup, washes over saucer, stains tablecloth, trousers and reputation

19 Aug

Yes, The Tempest…Shakespeare’s one.

Because relatively little is known about Shakespeare, it is easy to pour imagined realities into his work and breathlessly assure all and sundry that they really are true. The controversy about “who really wrote” the plays and sonnets and other poems springs from this and those who follow this blog will know my opinion on that. Just to save any new readers some time if not fun, I am not among those – Shakespeare, often with collaborators, wrote the plays and the rest.#

Inside the plays though, in the area of “what is this about?”, there are plenty of opportunities to wax lyrical with fantasies, or as journalists often say, “interview your typewriter”. It is one of the things that makes Shakespeare fun. Chasing down various angles of interpretation and other aspects is a bit like a detective story. Indeed a detective story writer, Josephine Tey, arguably rescued the reputation of Richard III, the one whose bones were recently discovered under a carpark in Leicester.##

One of my fantasies is about the “real life” model for Prospero in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s next to last work. I’ve used some of this in Savonarola’s Bones, a light novel I wrote as an experiment in some other things. But I left a lot out, and not wanting it to go to waste, here is the argument rendered much more full.

Most scholars think Prospero was based on one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, John Dee and it would diminish Shakespeare’s creative imagination to think that Prospero wasn’t at least partly modeled on this magus who was an amazing character.*

Dee however was influenced by another school – the so-called Hermetic tradition associated with the Florentine renaissance and two figures there: Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

I reckon Shakespeare modeled Prospero at least partly on Pico. This is my little “discovery” and so far as I know no one else has ever suggested it.

Is it piffle?


Here are my reasons.

Pico’s family ruled the tiny principality, Mirandola and had connections with the rulers of Milan (the Sforzas) as well as other ruling families. Giovanni was much younger than his two brothers and while not the ruler as sometimes supposed, he was among the few of the emerging aristocracy of the time to get totally sold on philosophy. He studied in Ferrara and elsewhere and fetched up in Florence, where he immersed himself in Hermetic philosophy at the “court” of Plato as funded by the ruling Medici family and organised by the priest Marsilio Ficino. He was also a friend of the renegade reformist monk Girolamo Savonarola..

During the renaissance Pico was famous. Nowadays he is still remembered for his Oration on the Dignity of Man. But he’s not known today for the magus stuff, The Heptaplus and other Cabalistic writings that were later to influence Dee. Even so, his devotion to “philosophy” as it was then understood was widely admired.

The connection with Shakespeare comes via Sir (Saint) Thomas More. More was a figure in the Henry VI plays as a sheriff of London who quelled riots of 1517. In real life he also resisted the break with Rome under Henry VIII, was tried for treason and beheaded.

Despite the fact that More was on the outs with the Tudors and hence Elizabeth there were several attempts to make a play out of his career. Perhaps hoping to escape censure a group of writers including Shakespeare shared responsibility for a revision of a script previously knocked back by the censor or Master of the Revels. There is no evidence it was ever produced and in retrospect it seems a naive indeed pious hope that even a non-Tudor monarch (James I) would allow production..

The revised manuscript survives. While some disagree it is usually accepted that it contains the  only example of Shakespeare’s dramatic work in his own hand.(“Hand D”).

We can take from this that Shakespeare was more than vestigially familiar with the martyred More.

Today’s More’s Utopia is the only one of his works to be at all familiar, even to educated people. But his collected works begin not with one of his own books, but with a translation of Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola’s biography of his uncle Giovanni.


So there are reasonable grounds for supposing that Shakespeare knew of Pico, and was familiar with his life as recounted through More.**

There is more! Like Dee, Pico acquired a large library and his nephew was grateful that he inherited the books on Pico’s death. Tellingly, Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest is named Miranda, and it is a coinage of Shakespeare’s, like Imogen***

So there is more to Pico than Dee, really, in “Prospero-speak”: Like Prospero he was of a ruling house, with connections to Milan; and he was so struck by philosophy he abandoned all other pursuits. He had the secret books. He wrote extensively about white magic, the stuff of the magus. And Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, has an obvious “Mirandolic” connotation, given that this was a name Shakespeare created for his character and as we know a number of Shakespearean names have reasons behind them.

Yeah, but so what?

Pico died, apparently poisoned, in 1494, a little more than a century before The Tempest was written, but the Hermetic tradition he followed was still current. Dee studied and wrote in Hermeticism, for example. So did the Italian monk Giordano Bruno.

Bruno was another of those renaissance characters whose lives today seem rather odd. He grew up in what is now southern Italy and made a name for himself with memory systems, which were popular in an age when books were relatively rare. He could recite vast slabs of texts. But he also wrote philosophical tracts as he traveled throughout Europe.

His real interest was in the Cabala and other Hermetic notions, and he pursued these to the point of death, since he was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600, fervently believing that if he could only talk to the Pope all would be smoothed over.

Bruno lived in London for a while, staying at the home of the French ambassador. It is possible that he knew Shakespeare, and certainly was a part of the many secret circles then fizzing about the city discussing religious, philosophical and scientific ideas. The character Berowne in Love’s Labour Lost is commonly taken as modelled on Bruno (which means Brown in Italian). Some think Berowne is a mocking portrait, others a sympathetic one.

Bruno’s crime was to believe in the writings of one Hermes Trismegistus.(this last meaning thrice great) a philosophical guru who was alleged to have lived at the time of Moses and who was believed to have predicted the coming of Jesus. The evil in this was to attach Christianity to other religions. It seems Bruno hoped to resolve the schisms that had taken place in 16th century Europe between Rome and various stripes of breakaway churches by placing all of them under the umbrella of Hermes.

From the point of view of Rome, this was and could only be heresy. Bruno has never been absolved and when on the four hundredth anniversary of his death half a million people demonstrated in the Eternal City at the site where he was burned at the stake demanding he be pardoned, the Church was unrepentant.

In England, the perspective could be a bit different. Hermeticism could be regarded as a means of peaceful resolution of the schism between the Church of England and Rome, as Bruno meant it. And at a time when being a Catholic in England was risky that was no bad thing.

There is some evidence that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic. A Catholic tract signed by his father John was found hidden in the roof of John’s house in Stratford in the 18th century. Many scholars have joined dots of various sorts to show Shakespeare to be a “recusant”.

One of these, Richard Wilson^, argues that while a Catholic, Shakespeare nonetheless was a faithful servant of the English and then British Crown and that the secret message of his works was actually one of tolerance and acceptance.

If this be true – frankly, I have no idea – when Prospero abandons his books at the end of The Tempest, he is not just leaving his power behind as he returns home to Milan. Shakespeare can be taken to signify to his fellow closet Catholics that the Church of England is there to stay and they should give up their dreams of restoring “the one true faith” in the sceptred isle.

The Tempest is dated at 1609, and its first publication was in the Folio of 1623, where it is the first entry. By the end of the 17th century Hermeticism and with it white magic had been dealt heavy blows: Newton may have spent decades studying alchemy, but the scientific method had really won out by 1700. And for poor Bruno and Dee, and Pico, and Ficino and all their fellows, possibly including Shakespeare, the Hermetic manuscripts, so prized evidence of a grander faith uniting the peoples, had been shown a post-Christian forgery.^^

After all this, was it worth it? Possibly not. I am not a Shakespeare scholar but a Shakespeare lover, and I have used this somewhat tortuous argument in abbreviated form in my novel Savonarola’s Bones, as I used Troilus and Cressida and an argument that is less tenuous in Kaos. Even so, it is a long way from the posturings of those who think someone else wrote Shakespeare.

There is much more to The Tempest than this, which is a bit like a footnote but with some more important implications. Colonialism, imperialism, classical learning and “classicism”, the “tabula rasa”, racism, and more get amazing airings from the scented literary breath of the greatest of all writers at the height of his powers. It is true as I have written elsewhere that Shakespeare was published in his lifetime and shortly after because plays are not only to be seen, but to be read, and were thought of in that way then.

Still, when seeing a good production of this one, the play really is the thing.

Thanks for reading.


#See my post “Charles’ secret spell on the throne”.

##Tey’s novel is Daughter of time. For more Shakespeare detective work that turns a text into a marvel, try the Arden editions. Among my favourites are Frank Kermode’s edition of The Tempest, Harold Jenkins of Hamlet, and David Bevington’s of Troilus and Cressida. Each is a masterpiece in its own right.

*See Wikipedia

**More’s translation, the first item in his complete works as if he was the author, is available online. It seems that when Pico was born a flame appeared on the wall above the bed.

***From the online site “Behind the Name”: Meaning, Origin and History of the Name Miranda. Derived from Latin mirandus meaning “admirable, wonderful”. The namewas created by Shakespeare for the heroine in his play ‘The Tempest’ (1611). It did not become a common English given name until the 20th century. Imogen by the way is thought to be a mistake for the existing Innogen..

^Secret Shakespeare (2004).

^^For Bruno see Frances Yates Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic tradition. A lot of, by and on Pico can be found there also. Yates has also written on memory systems and other aspects of Shakespearian interest. Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being is also interesting. Some people still believe in Hermes.


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Posted by on August 19, 2014 in Uncategorized


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