This article is a response to Joe Nickell's fine article, "Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare: Much ado about nothing" in Skeptical Inquirer magazine, November/December, 2011.
November 3, 2011
Great article on Shakespeare by Joe Nickell (SI, Nov/Dec 2011), especially in light of the new movie Anonymous that toys with the notion that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays. I would like to expand on Nickell’s idea of going through the looking glass rather than sticking with science or reality based analysis of Shakespeare. The Bard would have all of us go through the looking glass into another world, a world populated by his invention. Shakespeare may have intended the role of Prospero in his play The Tempest as a type, as the playwright as magician, but a magician who at the end of the play gives up his powers of magic and deception and bids his audience to take what they have enjoyed as they exit the theater back to the reality of their lives, lives hopefully enriched and ennobled.
In my work with people impacted by bizarre cult activity, this idea of “Through-the-Looking-Glass” Syndrome (down the proverbial rabbit hole or on the Yellow Brick Road in the Land of Oz) appeals to me as appropriate. We might argue that all religion and spirituality entertain some aspect of Looking Glass surrealism. Christians are reminded of St Paul’s “we now look through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13). William Blake speculated that a spectacular “cleansing” of all our senses or “doors of perception” in his illustrated work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell would enable us to see things perfectly, as they are. Blake’s prophetic prose inspired any number of ill conceived experiments with Dionysian lifestyles and psychedelic drugs. AndSt Paul’s cautionary truism has not deterred any number of foolish Christian prophets from making grandiose claims to revealed truth from heaven. The question remains how valuable or harmful is belief and participation in the world through the Looking Glass? Why do some people fail to realize that a theater or a church has exits with and for a reason?
I have a 1971, black bound edition of The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall (1928 original). One of the fifty chapters is “Bacon, Shakspere (sic), and the Rosicrucians,” wherein Hall includes a transparency of a pen and ink study of Sir Francis Bacon as an overlay to a pen and ink illustration of William Shakespeare. Voila! It is an apparently accurate fit. The suggestion illustrates Hall’s assertion that the drawings represent the same person. Hall and his ilk who claim that Bacon was the true Bard use the “first folio’s” Martin Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare as evidence. Nickell, rightly so, indicates that otherwise brilliant folks like Manly P Hall have a native intelligence working against them after slipping into the looking glass world and finding it satisfying. When science and reason compel us to hold on a minute, telling us there is nothing there—the Emperor has no clothes—why is it that so many smart people like Manly Hall remain in the looking glass world unto death?
It is easy to dismiss these folks: “But those who have stepped through the looking glass will not be dissuaded,” as Nickell coyly suggests in his article. The dismissal ignores the compelling aesthetic side of human beings. Ellen Dissanayake (1992) argued in her book Homo Aestheticus that this aesthetic or “making special” side of humans drives biological evolution as much as any environmental, social, or scientific aspect. Dissanayake’s books “are considered classics by Darwinian theorists and art historians alike.” As David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary theorist at Binghamton University, said, “The only social elixir of comparable strength [to art] is religion, another impulse that spans cultures and time.
Until skeptics come to grips with the aesthetic value in human experience, dismissive labels and attitudes will only serve to destroy communication with people caught behind the looking glass who perceive exit doors as invitations to perdition, ignorance, and hell. In general, cult members and other folks that believe in overvalued ideas are not mentally ill. Unlike truly mentally ill people, most of them are educable and can emerge from an unhealthy attachment to false and possibly harmful beliefs. A little intelligent sympathy went a long way whenever I attempted to intervene and exit counsel someone from a locked in or constricted mind-set.
If we are to begin this discussion to educate someone trapped inside a looking glass world, we must at least show some respect for that other world as somehow valuable to human existence and evolution, be it in art or in religion. Shakespeare seemed to have grasped this value and artfully illustrated it very well.