THE ESOTERIC SIGNIFICANCE
Beryl C. Pogson
"In these days also, he that would illuminate men's minds anew in any old matter, and that not with disprofit and brashness, must.....use the help of similies."
Cymbeline is a play which has received much adverse criticism because of the improbability of its plot and characters (notably what is termed 'the monstrous conduct of Posthumus') and because of the alleged anachronisms in its historical background. A strange plot and unusual behaviour on the part of some of the characters at once suggests an allegory, such as is often found in Greek Drama, for an allegory or parable is only explicable by virtue of the meaning behind it, being forced into a certain shape to fit the message which is intended to enfold. In the words of Bacon :
"For such tales as are probable, they may seem to be invented for delight, and in imitation of history. And as for such as no man would so much as imagine or relate, they seem to be sought out for other ends." (Preface to De Sapientia Veterum)
As for the historical background in this play, it
too has a special significance, which is worthy of examination.
In these later plays, The Tempest, A Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline, the author has two themes, which he works out in different ways. His main theme is the possible spiritual development of Man. And this is the 'old matter' with which he sets out to 'illuminate men's minds anew.' His secondary theme is personal--the theme of the missing heirs who must be found so that they may come into their rightful inheritance. This also has an inner meaning.
Consider the first theme of Cymbeline. Certain clues are at once apparent in the text--for instance the name of Posthumous Leonatus, the part played by Jupiter and the words spoken by him, and the oracular message of divine prophecy in the last act. Now the name Posthumus is derived from the Latin postumus which means final or ultimate. (The h in the spelling, by the way, has crept in accidentally through a misunderstanding of the derivation.) Thus Posthumus stands for the 'ultimate Man'---that is, the fully developed Man, Man as he might become if he developed spiritually. Then the secondary meaning of the name is equally significant--born after the father's death. Posthumus is therefore a Widow's Son, a recognized term for an Initiate, or one who has undergone spiritual re-birth. Thus he follows in the train of Perceval and a long line of Initiates in Esoteric Legend in the tradition of the Son of Isis. The surname Leo-natus suggests that his father had reached the Lion Degree of Mithraism--and this fits in with the traces of Mithraism which are to be found in the background of the play. After the Roman occupation there were centers of Mithraic worship in Britain.
Let us consider the story of Posthumus as it is presented in the play. He has been brought up at the court of the King, and, like Arthur's knights, he has been ennobled with all the culture of the age. We are told that the King, his guardian,
"Puts to him all the learnings that his time
Could make him the receiver of; which he took,
As we do air, as fast as 'twas ministered,
And in's spring became a harvest."
(I, i 43-7)
He has married Imogen, the King's daughter. Now Imogen would appear to stand for the Divine Spirit attainable by Man, for she is flawless. Listen to the words of the Soothsayer, the Truth Teller, interpreting the Oracle to Cymbeline at the end of the play :
"The piece of tender air, thy virtuous daughter,
Which we call mollis aer; and mollis aer
We term is mulier : which mulier, I divine,
Is this most constant wife."
(v. v. 446-449)
Imogen is called mollis aer, tender air, the
Divine I, the Holy Spirit. It is significant that the marriage has
already taken place, but after the first union, very brief, Posthumus
has to go through a long initiation before he can win her. It is as
though the first recognition of the Divine in oneself comes gently,
with joy and ease, but for it to be prized at its true worth it must
be lost and sought for on a long quest, like the Quest of the Holy
Grail, and paid by suffering, and at last found again.
Posthumus has to be proved, tempted, like the Grail Knights, but instead of having to fight dragons and giants, he has the psychological experiences which these adventures represent allegorically in the Grail Romances. The play is a story of temptations, although it it has not always been recognized as such. The clue to this is given in the words of Jupiter when he descends on the royal eagle, like the deus ex-machina of Euripedes, to the sleeping Posthumus and says, speaking to the ghosts of his parents :
"Whom best I love I cross; to make my gift
The more delayed, delighted. Be content;
Your low-laid son our godhead will uplift."
(v. iv. 101-3)
Posthumus has to be laid low in order to lifted up. These words of Jupiter are surely meant to shew that all that happens to him ordained. It is not a haphazard story. All trials offered to Initiates are pre-arranged. In the Grail Quest, certain dangers and difficulties are placed in the paths that the knights have to follow--varying according to type. Perceval, Lancelot, Gawain and Galahad each had different adventures, differernt obstacles to overcome. Posthumus is tempted through his spiritual pride. After his banishment he boasts about the Lady Imogen to his friends in Italy. It is as though he were boasting about his attainment of the Divine Spirit, although he admits that this is "not a thing for sale, and only the gift of the gods." (I. iv. 92) The incident of the temptation of Posthumus is taken from one of the Decameron Tales but the ending is changed for a particular reason. Now it is very interesting to study the form of the temptation and temper. First of all it is important to remember that the tempter comes from God. Jupiter's words, already quoted,
"Whom best I love I cross,"
show that he was responsible for this trial of one of whom he says "Our jovial star reigned at his birth," and whom he wants to bring to his real destiny. Likewise in the Book of Job God allows Satan to tempt Job in order to prove him, and in the Book of Genesis, the Serpent, symbol of Divne Wisdom, is understood esoterically as form of God Himself. In the play Cymbeline the devil is represented as having charm and culture and wit. He is a poet. What masterly cunning he displays in the scene where he gradually leads Posthumus on to wager his diamond ring against his wife's virtue. Imogen, being wholly divine, withstands all temptation. Iachimo recognizes that she is unassailable. He plays his part as the slanderer, with singular lack of sucess. Whereas Posthumus reasons with evil on the level of the ordinary mind. Imogen, the higher part of the Soul, the Spirit, has immediate intuition of its presence. Iachimo has to change his tactics. What magic is in the sense in which he hides in the trunk in Imogen's bedchamber and creeps out when Imogen sleeps. The meaning of the scene is indicated in the last line :
"Though this is a heavenly angel, hell is here."
(II. ii. 50.)
There is an ironical touch in the hint that she is reading an old Greek tale of rape and cruelty. Iachimo says :
"She hath been reading late the tale of of Tereus; here the leaf's turned down where Philomel gave up."
(II. ii. 44-46)
This allusion to Ovid's tale of of the cruel king
who seduced his wife's sister and afterwards cut out her tongue,
would suggest to anyone who recognized it that Imogen was in the
presence of danger. With Italianate cunning, Iachimo takes back
circumstanstial evidence of Imogen's seduction and Posthumus falls an
easy prey to his lies. It is not difficult for him to be persuaded
that what he valued most is no good, because he reasons, and
truth cannot be apprehended by the logical mind. And now Posthumus
falls into the other extreme and seeks to destroy what he formerly
prized. One moment Imogen was perfect, the next he longs to tear her
"limbmeal." This is characteristic of a man based on logical truth,
who cannot understand that "a thing is neither good nor bad." A man
who has had a glimpse of heaven may fall into a hell of doubt and be
ready to deny God all in a moment. If this were a Grail Romance,
Posthumus would be represented as crossing the Waste Land, or in some
such imagery, but here he meets two stages of hell in himself
psychologically---first the hell of doubt, and then the hell of
remorse. This is all in the path of self development. He has to see
the possibilities of evil in himself before he can rise above them.
It is a fundamental law that the way to heaven lies through hell.
In the first stage of his despair Posthumus gives orders to his servant Pisanio to murder Imogen. The servant plays an important part in esoteric tales. In this instance he protects his master against himself. It is as though he signifies something real, his conscience right and wrong, being in touch with the divine part of him. Indeed, it is possible that Imogen's exclamation :
"I false! thy conscience witness!"
(III, iv. 47)
refers to Pisanio, who has just given her the
accusing letter from her husband to read. It is notworthy, if Pisanio
really stands for the conscience that Posthumus tries to command
him, but Imogen obeys him. The Ancients recognized in the
conscience a daemon, a guide, and Pisanio certainly acts as a guide
in this play.
In the second stage of his despair Posthumus is overcome with remorse, filled with horror at the discovery of the depths to which he has fallen. There is now a complete reversal. We can recall how Lancelot had to approach the Castle of the Queen, in the Cart used to convey prisoners to the gallows, than which there could be no greater disgrace. Likewise Posthumus has been laid low and has overcome his pride. He who had wanted to destroy Imogen now says :
Against the part I come with, so I'll die
For thee, O Imogen! even for whom my life
Is every breath a death; and thus, unknown,
Pitied nor hated, to the face of peril
Myself I'll dedicate. Let me make men know
More valour in me than my habits shew.
Gods! put the strength o' the Leonati in me.
To shame the guise of the world I will begin
The fashion, less without and more within."
(v. i 24-33)
This is the reversal of the Prodigal Son, the
turning round, that must take place before any spiritual re-birth is
possible. "I'll fight against the part I come with" signifies that he
turns round. He calls on the strength of Leonati, not only for
physical prowess, as might appear on the surface, but for the power
to "shame the guise of the world"---by having "less without and more
within." He has reached the stage where his inner life is more
important than his outer life.
Dressed as a poor soldier, Posthumus fights bravely for Britain, and when tken prisoner he welcomes his bonds, saying that he will die for Imogen. When he at last falls asleep in the prison, prepared for death, always the last stage of initiation, he has the vision of Jupiter, who speaks words of divine comfort and promise, and he awakens to find the tablet with its oracular message lying "on his breast." "And so I am awake," he says. He is now the awakened Man, what St.Paul would call the new Man, or the pneumatic, the spiritual Man. And in the eleventh hour the messenger arrives saying,
"Knock off his manacles; bring your prisoner to the king."
(v. iv. 200)
This is in the true tradition of Mithraic and
other initiations. The candidate was brought to the point of being
ready to die, but in the end his life was spared. Posthumus' union
with Imogen is now imminent.
Let us return for a moment to Imogen. Pisanio calls her "goddess-like," the Second Lord at the Court speaks of her as "Divine Imogen," to Iachimo she appears " a heavenly angel." When Belarius first sees her he says : "Behold Diviness, an angel."
Arviragus exclaims : "How angel- like she sings." She has the power to discriminate between Good and Evil. She knows, for instance, that Cloten is worthless, Iachimo false. No derivation has been found for the name Imogen. Spelt Innogen it appears in another of the plays, but in its present form it is an annagram of i-gnome, which suggests a Greek equivalent of without name. This is interesting, because Imogen is described by the Soothsayer as unknown to Posthumus. A man's spiritual being is unknown to him at first. Her new name, Fidele, denotes the enduring love which can exist in this part of the Soul and her change into a man's apparel marks a higher stage in spiritual growth. In the preface to the Gollancz edition of the play the Editor points out that Imogen corresponds to the Snow-White of the old esoteric fairy tale, who the evil plots of her wicked stepmother cannot destroy. Imogen is sheltered by her brothers, not by dwarfs, yet the scenes in the Cave of Belarius are comparable with those in the fairy tale. Like Snow-White, Imogen enters the empty dwelling and is found there by the occupants on their return home, and cared for by them. Like Snow-White she falls into a death like sleep through taking the drug of her stepmother and is mourned for by her companions who deck her grave with flowers and sing a dirge for her. Like Snow-White she symbolizes the higher part of the Soul, the spiritual part of us, which is always attacked by Evil and yet protected by a higher power. The physician, Cornelius, who gives the Queen a harmless substitue for the poison that she requires, may represent the Wisdom that is aware of Evil and limits its activity. The brothers here would seem to signify the purest Essence of the Soul which can inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. These golden lads and their sister do indeed seem to belong to another world remote from this. Perhaps the author is here depicting the spiritual world where like is drawn to like, and truth and affection produce harmony. The divinity in Fidele is instantly aware of the divinity in the brothers.
The secondary theme of the play, the story of the missing heirs and their reinstatement, is a most signifcant invention, incorporated into the historical part of the plot. An urgent personal note is sounded by the author when ths subject is touched upon :
"He had two sons; if this be worth your hearing,
Mark it; the eldest of them at three years old.
I' the swathing clothes the other, from their nursery
Were stolen; and to this hour no guess in knowledge
Which way they went."
(I. i. 57-61)
"That a king's children should be so conveyed,
So slackly guarded, and the search so slow,
That could not trace them! "
(I. i. 63-65)
In relating how these young princes were brought up by foster parents in ignorance of their royal birth, Francis Bacon is surely describing the experiences of himself and his younger brother Essex. These boys are portrayed with a wealth of tender affection, and in particular their royalty of nature is stressed.
"How hard it is to hide the sparks of nature!
These boys little know they are sons to the king....
......And though trained up thus meanly
I' the cave wherein they bow, their thoughts do hit
The roofs of palaces and nature prompts them
In simple and low things to prince it much
Beyond the trick of other....."
(III. iii. 79-86)
Belarius distinguishes between the boys. The
younger, like Essex, is the more original and acts more on his own
initiative, showing "much more of his own conceiving." The elder,
Guilderius, has been named Polydore, meaning 'richly -dowered.'
The theme of foster-parentage recurs in legend. How many princes and heroes of mythology have been stolen or hidden away and brought up by foster parents in ignorance of their true birth--Zeus, Oedipus, Jason, Thesus, our own King Arthur, and many more.
These princes of Britain, Cymbeline's sons, are nutured in a cave. A cave at once suggests an age old tradition. In Cheiron's Cave the sons of heroes were trained; in a cave Elijah hid before he heard the still, small voice; David hid in a cave before the prophet Samuel came to him, Mithra was born in a cave. A cave is a place of preparation for Initiates in the Mithraic and other Mysteries. Listen to the words of Belarius when he leads the boys out of the cave to greet the morning Sun, the first act of the day. He says :
"Stoop, boys; this gate
Instructs you how to adore the heavens and bows you
To a morning's holy office......"
(IIIl. iii. 2-4)
And again he says : Good-morrow to the Sun. Hail,
thou fair heaven! We house in the rock......" (III. iii. 6-7) The
rock, the Sun worship at dawn, the feast that is shared in the Cave
(the Mystic Meal) before the supposed death of the beautiful youth,
Fidele, the mourning with flowers and song, are all suggestive of
Mithraic-ritual---the ritual that precedes spiritual re-birth.
The events of the play work up to a conclusion in which all the threads of the plot are drawn together and all differences are harmonized according to the words of the Oracle. Iachimo's repentance and forgiveness may seem at first sight out of character and yet it is here that the author has deliberately altered the ending of the Decameron story. In the original the deceiver suffered a horrible punishment, being made to die a lingering death. In Cymbeline, however, there is no equivalent of punishment for Iachimo who has played his part by divine command. Notice that the author loved Iachimo and gave him lines to speak of enchanting beauty. Thus Iachimo's forgiveness fits in with the general harmony.
Consider now the text of the Oracle which is fulfilled :
"When as a lion's whelp shall, to himself unknown, without seeking find, and be embraced by a piece of tender air; and when from a stately cedar shall be lopped branches, which being dead many years, shall after revive, be jointed to the old stock, and freshly grow, then shall Posthumus end his miseries, Britain be fortunate, and flourish in peace and plenty."
That Posthumus Leonatus, the Lion's Whelp, shall end his miseries is equivalent to the 'living happily ever after' of the fairy tales, an esoteric phrase of very deep meaning. When the Prince in the Fairy Tale, after many adventures, at last wins the Princess, he comes into his spiritual being and thereafter he can no longer be dragged down into the sorrows and cares of ordinary life, because he has a world within to which he can withdraw. It is to this world that Imogen alludes when, in answer to her father's remark that by the discovery of her brothers she has lost a kingdom, she replies
"No, my lord; I have got two worlds by't."
It is in this way that Posthumus will end his
miseries and there is an echo of the same mystery in the Ritual Dirge
sung at Fidele's grave, which implies that there is a way of release
from the slander, censure, tyranny, and dangers of this life on
Thus the Oracle is fulfilled : in the union of Posthumus Leonatus and Imogen, the unknown part of the Soul, the tender air, or Spirit, and also in the union of the royal house of Britain, represented by the stately cedar, which shall flourish when the princes take their rightful place as heirs to the kingdom. The Cedar in the Bible often stands for Truth; the branches are branches of Truth, which have been hidden. Thus secret history must be revealed before Britain can come into her prosperity.
The historical background of this play, with its so-called anachronisms, has also an inner meaning. The mingling of ancient Romans and Sixteenth Century Italians appears to be not fortuitous but deliberate. The historical background is surly an allegory representing Britain's debt to Renaissance Italy and Classical Rome, which cannot be separated because one is the complement of the other. Perhaps too the author is here acknowledging his own debt to Latin and Italian literature. The incident of the tribute money suggests this interpretation. Consider Cymbeline as standing for Britain. Prompted by his evil Queen and her son, he at first refuses to admit the necessity of continuing to pay the annual tribute to Rome, although he recognizes what he owed to Julius Caesar personally who knighted him. Cloten in ths scene seems to represent the ignorant man in the street who is self-complacent and insular, saying :
"Britain is a world by itself, and we will nothing pay for wearing our own noses." (III. i. 12).
All through our history this type of man h as existed, who, being self-satisfied, and not seeing beyond his own immediate environment, fails to realize, that the civilization, the culture, the glory of his country wherein he has the privilege to live, owes much to its connection with , first Rome, and then, the learning of the Renaissance, in the form of French and Italian culture inspired by the philosophy and literature of the Ancients. But the King becomes himself again, when, at the end of the play, his wife dead, her son beheaded, victory against the Romans won, his sons restored to him, he acknowledges the justice of the tribute, admitting that he had only been dissuaded from this by his wicked Queen. This would appear to be equivalent to an acknowledgement of one's own limitations and one's debt to ancient culture and all the riches of the past. Then, when Britain and Rome are united, prosperity is assured to Britain, the allegorical meaning being perhaps that the author deems the advancement of learning necessary for his country's welfare.