An Alchemical Viewpoint

of

Romeo & Juliet

 

 

  

You Must Believe that We are Magic

 

by

Mather Walker

 

No one who has compared Arthur Brooke's, "Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet" to Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", can doubt that the author of the later work had the ability to turn base metals into gold. However, only if one realizes Francis Bacon was the author, and is familiar with his customary practice, can one realize that, as regards to this particular play, the ability to turn base metals into gold is true in a much deeper sense.

Because, in addition to fashioning an entertaining story on the surface of his plays, Bacon crafts two faces in the underlying allegory; one looking toward some aspect of ancient knowledge; and the other demonstrating the operation of his discovery device in inquiring into the form of some related aspect of future knowledge. And the underlying allegory of the face that looks toward the past in "Romeo and Juliet" deals with nothing less than the secret of how to transmute a base metal into gold.

 

THE FACE LOOKING TOWARD THE PAST

 

The face looking toward the past in "Romeo and Juliet" combines the elements of astrology and alchemy to comprise the more comprehensive science of Natural Magic. The key to this aspect of the knowledge concealed in "Romeo and Juliet" is Mercutio. Like Charles Dicken's Christmas Carol where the fact that "Marley was dead" had to be distinctly understood at the beginning, or nothing wonderful could come of the story, in "Romeo and Juliet" the fact that Mercutio is Mercury must be distinctly understood at the beginning, or nothing wonderful can come of the study of the Play.

The word Mercutio means Mercury. Since Mercury was the Roman god of eloquence, it also means eloquent, quick-witted, lively, loquacious, and all those other qualities that make Mercutio one of the most memorably witty and lively characters in Shakespearian drama. Mercurio is also the Italian word for quicksilver. 

The fact that Mercutio represents Mercury can be accepted as a given. Joseph A. Porter wrote a 280 page book, "Shakespeare's Mercutio" in which he demonstrated in exhausting detail that Mercutio in the play is actually Mercury. Moreover, Porter demonstrated that Mercutio comprises three aspects: He is the god Mercury; He is the planet Mercury; and he is the metal mercury.

These facts already established, there is no need to re-invent the wheel. The business at hand is, with Mercury as premise, to see where the logic leads. 

A very significant point (in view of the fact that Bacon said he would use allusion to convey information he wished to conceal) is that the other suitor for Juliet's hand is Paris. Paris was the shepherd in the Trojan War myth to whom was entrusted the task of judging who was the most beautiful among Minerva, Juno, and Venus, and to whom was also entrusted the golden apple that was to be given to the winner. The golden apple was a gift of Eris, the goddess of discord, and when Paris choose Venus as the most beautiful, his choice set off a chain of events which led to his elopement with Helen, and eventually to the Trojan War. According to Ovid it was Mercury who carried the golden apple to Paris.

Quarto versions of the play of "Romeo and Juliet" contained a prologue:

 

Chorus. Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blook makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

 

The quartos also referred to Romeo and Juliet as "an excellent conceited tragedy." The First Folio is missing both this, and the prologue, a fact which obscures the sense of the play. In Elizabethan days "Conceited" meant some theme, device, or idea was concealed in the play. The chorus lets us in on the secret: "Two opposing houses"; "star-crossed", "two hours" traffic." These are all astrological references. A horoscope, in astrology, is divided into 12 houses. The houses directly opposite each other are called "opposing houses." "Star-crossed" applies to planets in opposing houses. The 12 houses of a horoscope comprise the 24 hour daily cycle, so each house represents two hours. 

It is significant also that the setting is in Verona. This is the same Verona that we have already seen in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and which I have described in, "The Mystical Roots of The Two Gentlemen of Verona." Escalus, the prince in Romeo and Juliet, was seen before in "Measure for Measure", and I have described his meaning in the, "Duke of Dark Corners." His name derives from della Scala, that is, of the ladder, and he represents that hierarchy of powers which maintains the balance of forces in the universal framework of nature. The background on the relation of all this in the play can be better understood by reading Bacon's. "Thoughts on the Nature of Things", and, "Of Principles and Origins."  

In his description of The Intellectual Globe, Bacon says,

"Besides the sun manifestly has Venus and Mercury as its satellites."

And we see in the play Mercutio and Benvolio as companions of Romeo. Although it is unusual to symbolize Venus as a man, Benvolio is given all the astrological characteristics of Venus in the play. Benvolio means well wishing, and benevolent.

By repeatedly trying to act as a peace-maker Benvolio shows his character is not only consonant with his name, but with the astrological attributes of Venus who represents benevolence and peace-making as well as love. (Benvolio is probably symbolized as a man because in the other, "alchemistic", symbolism of the play, where the trio represents the three basic alchemistic elements of salt, mercury, and sulphur, salt is an active, or masculine element.)

Romeo is depicted in the play as addicted to love. Before he becomes capitvated by his first sight of Juliet he was obsessed with the fair Rosaline. 

There are indications in the play that Benvolio and Mercutio are very close. In Abraham Fraunce's, "The Third Part of the Countesse of Pembroke's Yuychurch" we are told that :

"If...at any mans birth, there be a coniunction of Venus and Mercurie, it maketh him neither man nor woman, both woman and man, giuen to inordinate and vnnaturall lust...For these two planets are so repugnant, that they can neuer be well conioyned sith Venus is all for the body, and Mercury onely for the minde." 

Caesar's statement to Brutus not withstanding, the fault is not in Romeo, but in the stars that he is addicted to love. We know from astronomy Mercury is the planet closest to the sun, and Venus is next. In a horoscope Mercury is never more than one sign away from the sun. Mercury and Venus are never more than 76 degrees apart. But astrology has a weird idea. It says that if Mercury gets too close to the sun, it becomes "combust" and it's influence is "killed." In the play Mercutio is killed at the point where he is nearest Romeo. 

The Italian noun Romeo means "pilgrim." This comes from the idea that he "roams" just as a pilgrim does. John Florio's 1598 dictionary translated it as "palmer", a pilgrim whose palmleaf shows that he has visited the Holy Land. And the scene, in which Romeo and Juliet have their first exchange of dialogue, develops elaborately the apt conceit that Romeo is a pilgrim or palmer visiting a shrine or beseeching a saint. This idea, both of one who roams, and of a pilgrim, applies to the sun who roams, or makes his pilgrimage across the sky above the eartheach day. The idea of the pilgrimage of the sun is an allegory often used in medieval and Renaissance works. Montague comes from the Italian Montecchi. That is, Monte+chi (mount+who), i.e. one who mounts, just as the sun mounts upward each day. The event where Romeo first sees Juliet is described as "an accustomed feast", and, "an ancient feast." The seasonal celebration which would fit the time frame of the play is the Summer Solstice on June 21. At this point the sun is at the pinnacle of his splendour, but it follows that the day after is the beginning of his decline, and the downward path that leads to his death.

The idea that Romeo is the sun seems to be contradicted in the play where Romeo sees Juliet and exclaims : 

"What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun." 

However, Bacon consistently employs the conventions of the "trattato d'amore", (Love Treatises), that literary genre which began with Marsilio Ficino's commentary on the Symposium of Plato. In this convention the beloved becomes the lover. So rather than contradicting the idea that Romeo is the sun, this passage actually supports it. 

The next point is to identify Juliet. In Brooke's narrative poem Romeus first sees Juliet at a party during the Christmas season. In Romeo and Juliet, the party where Romeo first sees Juliet takes place either in late June or early July. The name Juliet means "born in July", and we are told by the nurse thatJuliet was born on Lammas' Eve, i.e. on July 31. But her birthday is not a birthday, it is a birthnight. The nurse says, "on Lammas Eve at night shall she be fourteen." so Bacon not only intentionally changes her birthday to conform with her name, he ensures we are aware she was born on July 31, and at night. The question is why? Lammas day was a harvest festival formerly held in England on August 1, when bread baked from the first crop of wheat was consecrated at Mass. If we seek to determine which of the astrological luminaries would be associated with a harvest festival there is no question that it would be the moon. In addition it is to be noted that Juliet's birth date puts her in the astrological sign of Leo. In Ancient Egypt the moon was referred to as the eye of the cat. 

This idea of the cat is supported also by the character of Tybalt in the play. The "Tibalt" in Bacon's source, "Romeus and Juliet" ("Teobaldo" anglicised) was as fiercely aggressive as his counterpart in Bacon's play; but a new development is that Bacon's exploits the feline associations of the name. "Tybalt" was traditionally a cat's name. Bacon's contemporary, Thomas Nashe (one of Bacon's masks?) refers to "Tibault....Prince of Cattes"; and hence Mercutio refers to Tybalt as "More than Prince of Cats:, "Good King of Cats" and "a cat, to scratch a man to death." Since Juliet was born in the sign of Leo, her house would be occuppied by the sign of Leo. Consequently, Tybalt a member of her house would be in the sign of Leo. This is borne out by the fact that Mercutio's name for Tybalt as "King of Cats" associates him with the lion "the king of beasts" (and of cats) which is the animal associated with the sign of Leo, and which retains the idea of the cat associated with Juliet, and points toher identity as the moon. Tybalt is evidently cat-like in his lithe energy, predatory vigilance and relish for territorial combat. In the play looking for conflict with the Montagues is referred to as "going mousing." While Tybalt retains his cat association he is warlike and probably represents the planet Mars.

Once we entertain the idea of Romeo as the sun, and Juliet as the moon the symbolism unfolds in a clear and plausible fashion. All those night scenes, in which Romeo encounters Juliet, become significant. The moon is encountered at night. 

In addition, the fact that the moon is in opposition to the sun means that it is a full moon. This is also supported by the fact that Juliet is almost 14 years old (and it is 14 days plus odd days to her birthday). From the birth of the moon at New Moon it is 14 days to full moon, and in astrology a year corresponds to a day. Juliet (as the full moon) is in the full splendour of her glory when Romeo first sees her. The word "capulet" as a covering for the head, implies Aries which rules the head. Since Juliet is born in the sign of Leo the sign occupying her house cannot be Aries.

However the first house is ruled by Aries, and a rising full moon in the first house means her physical persona is augmented because it implies someone of considerable physical attractiveness. This also means Romeo would be in the seventh house which has to do with marriage. It would follow that since the seventh house is in opposition to the first house, it is in opposition to the marriage partner in the first house, and the marriage is afflicted.

Juliet (the moon) is directly opposite the location of Romeo, i.e. directly on the other side of the earth from the sun. The next significant point in the symbolism relates to the monthly cycle of the moon. Today we can become all confused with the idea of the 27.32 days of the sidereal period of the moon, and the 29.5 days of the synodic period of the moon. In Bacon's day things were simpler. They used the 28 day period. That is what you get if you actually count the days from one full moon to the next. And this is the period you get if you use an ephemeris to verify to the nearest whole day the time it takes for the moon to circle the zodiac and return to its beginning sign and degree in the zodiac. 

In the play the nurse says it is a fortnight(14 days), and odd days, until Juliet's birthday when Juliet will be 14 years old. In using each day as corresponding to a year, in progressing horoscopes, astrologers frequently refer to the passage in the Bible in Ezekiel, Chapter 4, verse 6 where God says to Ezekiel: 

"I have appointed thee each day for a year." 

This number, 14, is stressed in relation to Juliet in the play because, from the full moon which marks Juliets beginning position in opposition to Romeo, to the location of conjunction or union with Romeo (the sun) it would take exactly 14 days for the moon to circle the zodiac to reach the point where Romeo (the sun) is located and where a solar eclipse and the death of Romeo could take place. 

In addition, if we examine the altitude of the moon in relation to it's monthly cycle, we find that at the full moon the moon is elevated at an altitude which is well above the horizon. In the monthly cycle the moon actually has a high point of about 66 degrees above the horizon and a low point of about 66 degrees below the horizon. Hence the balcony scenes between Romeo and Juliet (with Juliet at full moon) has her elevated at her window, or on her balcony, to represent the 33 degrees of altitude of the full moon above the horizon. But, as the monthly cycle of the moon continues, the moon sinks lower and lower until she is below the earth. So we find that Juliet, when she is given the portion by the Friar which puts her in the deathlike state, is put into the vault below the ground. This represents the location in the monthly cycle of the moon, of the moon at the beginning of the New Moon phase which is about 33 degrees below the horizon. At this point the moon is located below the earth. What comes next in the astrological symbolism of "Romeo and Juliet" is the symbolism of a solar eclipse.

During the New Moon phase the moon is in close alignment with the sun so that the sun shines on the half of the moon which is away from the earth, leaving the half facing the earth in shadow so the moon remains invisible during the phase. This covers a period of several days. The Friar says his portion will put Juliet in a deathlike state for 42 hours. This does not cover the entire period of the New Moon phase. However, if you assume a solar eclipse as part of the New Moon phase than this time period as the span from the beginning of the new moon phase, up to the solar eclipse, fits very well. 

If the moon is in exact alignment with the sun (something which happens very rarely) a solar eclipse occurs. Ancient belief or symbolism was that the sun died during this event and that the new sun which was born afterwards was another sun, quite different from the sun that died. (The Implication of the symbolism in Romeo and Juliet implies that this new sun is a disk of gold).

It is to be noted also that, in total eclipse, the sun disappears completely. As the shadow of the moon moves away from the sun a crescent appears as if the moon has been brought back to life. This crescent then disappears as if the moon has died again. This is the astrological symbolism which Bacon has set out in "Romeo and Juliet" with Juliet in her deathlike trance. Romeo comes and sees her, and thinking she is dead, kills himself. Then Juliet awakens, and seeing Romeo dead before her, kills herself.

One could terminate the exegesis at this point. A superficial appraisal would indicate the symbolism has been satisfied. That the face looking toward ancient knowledge in the play deals with astrology. However, there are two or three points in the symbolism which are still hanging out, twisting in the wind. A closer examination of these makes it possible to peel another layer away from Bacon's intellectual onion, to reveal a still deeper level of meaning.

 At the vault in which Juliet is interred Romeo has a fight with Paris and kills him. Then we are told there will be gold statues of both Romeo and Juliet. Why Paris at this point? In mythology he had one feature in common with the ending of the play. He was, at one time, possessor of the golden apple. This golden apple not only represents an analogy to the golden statues at the end of the play, it has another association which is very interesting. It is associated with strife and discord, and this takes us to a deeper level of the symbolism. 

In the De Augmentis Bacon includes Natural Magic as a part of metaphysics, and says,

"We here understand magic in its ancient and honorable sense-among the Persians it stood for a sublimer wisdom, or a knowledge of the relations of universal nature, as may be observed in the title of those kings who came from the East to adore Christ. And in the same sense we would have it signify that science, which leads to the knowledge of hidden forms, for producing great effect, and by joining agents to patients setting the capital works of nature to view."

Then he goes on to add,

"And here we may properly observe, that those sciences which depend too much upon fancy and faith, as this degenerate magic, alchemy, and astrology, have their means and their theory more monstrous than their end and action. The conversion of quicksilver into gold is hard to conceive, though it may much more probably be effected by a man acquainted with the nature of gravity, color, malleability, fixedness, volatility, the principles of metals and menstruums, than by one who is ignorant of these natures, by the bare projection of a few grains of the elixir." 

I suppose his statement, "as may be observed in the title of those kings who came from the East to adore Christ," refers to their title of "The Wisemen". Tradition says that their names were Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior. It is significant that the name of Romeo's man in the play is Balthasar. This is part of Bacon's practise of employing allusion, and lets us know he is dealing with the science of the Magi, or Natural Magic in the play. 

In the introduction to "The History of the Sympathy and Antipathy of Things" Bacon has a fragment which is very suggestive. He says:

"Strife and friendship in nature are the spurs of motions and the keys of works. Hence are derived the union and repulsion of bodies, the mixture and separation of parts, the deep and intimate impressions of virtues, and that which is termed the junction of actives with passives; in a word, the MAGNALIA NATURAE. But this part of philosophy concerning the sympathy and antipathy of things, which is also called Natural Magic...." 

Not only is it highly significant for Bacon's system of knowledge that he designates this as "the keys of works", but it is also highly significant that this deals with the same subject matter which we see in the play. If we look at the works of Robert Fludd, who, I believe, was one of Bacon's masks, we are told that there are three primary elements,- darkness, light, and the waters. And the Fluddean philosophy teaches that these three primary elements: darkness, light, and the waters are the true origin of the four qualities of the ancients since darkness and cold, and light and heat are related, and between these extremes there is a need for a humid mean.

Caroline Spurgeon, who made an extended study of the imagery in the plays, said that in Romeo and Julie

"The dominating image is light, every form and manifestation of it; the sun, moon, stars, fire, lightning, the flash of gunpowder, and the reflected light of beauty and of love; while by contrast we have night, darkness, clouds, rain, mist and smoke."

All of this shows the mental canvas on which Bacon painted his symbolism in Romeo and Juliet. Natural Magic combines both Astrology and Alchemy, and we must next seek some background in alchemy before considering the alchemical allegory in the play.

Alchemy was called the "black art." It was black in the sense that it was kept religiously secret and dark. And it had two divisions. One was the secret art of how to transmute baser metals into gold. The other was the philosophic and exact science of the regeneration of the human soul from its present sense-immersed state into the perfection and nobility of that divine condition in which it was originally created.

I will not go into the latter of these two divisions since "Romeo and Juliet" appears to deal with only the first. The records of Alchemy appear to present a number of instances in which the transmutation of baser metals into gold was apparently actually effected. One particular base metal was normally utilized for this transmutation. That metal was mercury or, as it was sometimes called, quicksilver. 

The story of Nicholas Flammel and his wife Pernelle is very interesting in this regard. They were both of humble origin, but had a sudden accumulation of wealth of which they made a charitabledistribution. Their eminent piety and the mystery of their lives, attracted great attention in their own country. According to his own story Flammel was a Scrivener, living in Paris around the year 1399. He relates that there fell into his hands by chance a gilded book, very old and large, which cost him only two florins. It was written with strange characters of letters which he did not understand. He poured over these characters for years until, after much study and fruitless toil, their meaning was explained to him by a Jewish stranger. Still for more than three years afterwards he wandered in a labyrinth of errors, doing nothing but studyingand labouring, until finally he found what he desired. After this he transmuted a quantity of Mercury into pure gold.

Another story which appears to deal with a genuine transmutation is that of John Dee and Edward Kelly. According to this story, in John Dee's diary, Kelly transmuted an ounce and a quarter of common mercury producing almost an ounce of pure gold. 

In her chapter entitled "Theory of Transmutation" in her book "Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy" Mary Ann Atwood says: 

"The theory of Alchemy, though arcane, is very simple; its basis indeed may be comprehended in that only statement of Arnold di Villanova, in his Speculum,- That there abides in nature a certain pure matter, which being discovered and brought by art to perfection, converts to itself proportionally all imperfect bodies that it touches." 

Not only does Mercury, as well as the sun and the moon, play a significant part in this process, but a lion is also frequently used as a symbol. I have before me a copy of "The Hermetic Musuem." On one page is a symbolic picture showing Mercury standing in the center with the sun on one side of him and the moon on the other side. On another page is a symbolic picture of two women, each sitting on a lion, and each holding the symbols of the sun and moon in their hand. And here in a copy of the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum of Ashmole is a symbolic picture showing two dragons intertwined with the sun on one side, and the moon on the other side. Symbols of this type occur throughout the alchemical texts.

In "Shakespeare's Mercutio" Joseph Porter shows various items identifying the god Mercury with the metal Mercury in the play, and says: 

"Mercury's uniquely uniform nomenclature accords well with the fact that, while gold is the common aim in alchemy, mercury is central and preeminent for achieving that aim during the millennium from the fifth to the fifteenth century, 'Mercury, either asquicksilver or as the metallic 'essence,' invariably appeared as a central figure'. Mercury's centrality derives from its liquidity (the characteristicShakespeare highlights in his two references to the metal as quicksilver in 2 Henry 4 and Hamlet) and consequent ability to seem to dissolve other metals by forming alloys. Alchemical theory derives the centrality of mercury as a catalyst in the transmutation of baser metals into gold from Aristotle and other authorities, and holds that the constituents of all metals are mercury and sulphur(to which Paracelsus adds salt as a third essential constituent). Distinction is often made between the familiar metal and 'our mercury' of the alchemists, aconveniently elusive substance that could at once be the same as and different from the metal.

To look forward, all this suggests an alchemical underpinning for the action of Romeo and Juliet, where the titular heroes are transmuted into statues of 'pure gold'-in Brooke the tomb is of marble, and no statues are mentioned. And in that transmutation Mercutio plays a key catalytic role."

In this symbolism, Mercutio's death is part of the ongoing transmutation process where symbolically, at some point the Mercury dies as it is transmuted into gold. The death of Juliet and Romeo are a part of the final stage of transmutation where the opposites symbolically die as the transmutation is effected. Alchemy is a definite part of the symbolism in the play, but Bacon derides the efforts of the alchemists, and instead utilizes Natural Magic, the science of the Magi, where he applies the "strife and friendship" found in universal nature as the "spurs of motions and the keys of works." His science works by the "junctions of actives with passives." There is a great deal of other symbolism in the play along these lines, but to go further in this matter would, to quote Bacon,

"open that which I think good to withdraw. So I will omit."
 

 THE FACE LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE 

 

The allegory of the operation of Bacon's discovery device in the play shows that the "form" found by the inquiry is "transmutation." The particular in nature which, when analyzed is reduced to the "form" of transmutation is present in the first 32 speeches (the table of presence), and absence in the next 32 speeches (the table of absence). It is necessary to examine these two sets of speeches very carefully in order to detect the particular. From the aspect of astrology we are dealing with the opposition of the two houses, and this opposition is present in both the first 32 speeches, and the next 32 speeches.

From the aspect of Alchemy and Natural Magic, however, there is one peculiar particular present in the first 32 speeches which is absent in the second set of 32 speeches.

The distinction between the table of presence and absence in this play is that in the first there is present that "First Matter" of the alchemists which is described by Arnold di Villanova, in his Speculum : 

"That there abides in nature a certain pure matter, which, being discovered and brought by art to perfection, converts to itself proportionally all imperfect bodies that it touches." 

Mary Ann Atwood says of the Alchemists,

"It is not species that they profess to transmute; nor do they ever teach in theory that lead as lead, or mercury as mercury specificate, can be changed into gold, any more than a dog into a horse; a tulip into a daisy, or vice versa, in this way, anything of unlike kind; but it is the subject-matter of these metals, the radical moisture of which they are uniformly composed, that they may be withdrawn by art and transported from inferior Forms, being set free by the force of a superior ferment or attraction." 

In his works at various places Bacon restricts this and implies that only mercury can be transmuted into gold. In its common state the "First Matter" is said to be everywhere and is called a "thing vile and cheap." Vaughan says it is,

"the very love and seed of nature, the mixture and moisture of heaven and earth." 

So in the first 32 speeches the "first matter" that "thing vile and cheap" yet mighty, is appropriately expressed by Samson the lowly servant man. His dialogue in the first 32 speeches is constructed so it expresses that mysterious "enabling agent" which must be present in order to transmute mercury into gold. As Mary Ann Atwood says,

"without this nothing, with this everything." 

Before the reader runs out and buys some mercury, however, I would add the caution that the symbolism indicates certain astrological configurations as well as indicating that a certain period of time is involved in the process, and that, lastly, without a knowledge of the "first matter" nothing can be effected.

***