Roger Peters Copyright © 2005
The possibility of a philosophy in Shakespeare's poems and plays
The claim William Shakespeare wrote all his poems and plays with a brilliant
philosophy in mind should not surprise. Yet in 400 years of commentary
and scholarship no one, not even Samuel Taylor Coleridge, has derived a
philosophy from the poems and plays in keeping with their greatness.
Some commentators suggest Shakespeare had little or no philosophy or,
despite evidence to the contrary, they decide his philosophy was Platonic
or Christian, albeit in a covert form. Others, who sense the possibility of a
profound philosophy, readily admit their inability to derive it from his works.
Just as odd is the traditional treatment of Shakespeare’s complete works.
Until recently only a select number of plays were performed, and frequently
they were heavily edited or even rewritten. Coupled with these preemptive
practices was the denigration of the 1609 edition of the Sonnets as little more
than autobiography. While there is now an interest in expanding the traditional
repertoire to include all the plays, the Sonnets are still treated as an
autobiographical resource, or at best a set of mismatched poetic conceits.
The commentaries on the poems and plays in this volume are based on
the evidence presented in Volumes 1 and 2 that Shakespeare did articulate
the philosophy behind all his plays and poems and that he gave the
philosophy definitive expression in Shake-speares Sonnets of 1609. The
inability of orthodox commentators to appreciate the philosophy behind
Shakespeare’s works over the last 400 years has been a consequence of the
application of an inadequate level of philosophical understanding. The traditional
Judeo/Christian paradigm, particularly, has been found wanting in the
face of Shakespeare’s profound natural logic.
When the prejudice toward the complete works is redressed, and the
Sonnets are recognised as Shakespeare’s definitive statement of intent for all
the plays and poems, a sense of perspective and even justice is restored.
Instead of dismissing the Sonnets as an unauthorised miscellany harbouring
some of the greatest love poems in English literature and lamenting their
lack of organisation, their consistent and comprehensive philosophy can be
appreciated as the foundation for all his works.
This means it is now possible, after an interval of 400 years, to articulate
a consistent and comprehensive understanding of Shakespeare’s poems and
plays. In this volume nine plays and poems are considered individually. Each
commentary explores the relation of the underlying logic of each play and
poem to the philosophy of the Sonnets.
The uniqueness of the Sonnet philosophy
In Volumes 1 and 2, the uniqueness, consistency and comprehensiveness of
the philosophy structured into the whole set was revealed. The logical
consistency and the mythic depth of the philosophy were explored at length.
The body of evidence presented demonstrates that the edition of 1609 could
only have been assembled by Shakespeare and then published under his
supervision. The organisation and the logical structuring of the whole set
is definitive and authorial.
The Sonnets are unique in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. No other work
published while he was alive shows such attention to structural detail. As
they were published under his direct control, and because the 1609 edition
is still available in the form in which it was published, Shake-speares Sonnets
is the definitive text for understanding his plays and poems.
Contrary to conventional scholarship, there are only twenty or so
typographical mistakes in the complete text of the Sonnets, and the majority
of these are elementary spelling errors. When the text is viewed from the
basis of its inherent philosophy it has more or less the same number of
typesetting errors as a book produced today. The anecdotes about a text rife
with error have gained currency because, since Malone in 1780, the Sonnets
have been subject to an inadequate level of philosophical expectation based
primarily on the Judeo/Christian paradigm. Consequently, an academic
industry has developed to emend, reorder, and generally disparage the credibility
and authenticity of the original.
Besides the Sonnets, only the first editions of the two early poems, Venus
and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594), were most likely published in accordance
with Shakespeare’s intentions. Like the Sonnets, they present relatively
clean texts, but they lack the precision and subtlety evident in the Sonnet
organisation and numbering.
The status of the plays
It was not until seven years after Shakespeare’s death that his colleagues
published 36 plays in the 1623 Folio. (Two Noble Kinsmen was published
separately in 1633, and Pericles was published in the 1663 edition of the
Folio.) Of the 36 plays in the Folio, eighteen appeared in print for the first
time. Of the others, anywhere from one to five quarto editions were
published during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The quarto texts all vary in some
way from the Folio texts. Adding to the issue of authenticity are the traditional
suppositions that Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights on
five or so plays. The authorial status of the plays, therefore, is not as certain
as that of the Sonnets.
The differences between the quarto and Folio texts of the plays are due
to a number of factors. Changes made by the author to stage scripts to
improve or adapt them for different circumstances would have created a
number of variant scripts. Then, as there was no copyright for published
material, a number of quarto editions were most likely pirated from stage
scripts or compiled by actors from memory. To counter the inaccuracies of
the pirated versions Shakespeare’s company may then have published an
authoritative edition of the plays. The state of the quartos is consistent with
one or other of these possibilities. Given the publishing conditions of the
day, Shakespeare’s lack of interest in publishing all his plays is understandable.
If the play texts were all that were available to determine Shakespeare’s
philosophy, then the possibility of arriving at a definitive account of the
philosophy would always be overshadowed by questions about the authenticity
of the quarto texts. In 400 years it has not been possible to determine
Shakespeare’s philosophy from a study of the plays. Instead, the conclusion
generally adhered to is that expressed by T. S. Eliot in his introduction to
Wilson Knight’s The Wheel of Fire (1965) to the effect Shakespeare had no
philosophy of his own, or at best a ‘ragbag’ philosophy accumulated from
his various sources.
The Sonnets for their part have been trivialised and dissected with gay
abandon. Even Ted Hughes, who at least appreciates that Shakespeare bases
his logic in the priority of the female, reduces the Sonnets to an expression
of arcane mythology and derives a mythological theory based on Venus and
Adonis that he is able to apply to only a third of the plays.
Under these circumstances it is interesting to consider Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Besides being a play of Shakespeare’s invention, it was also the first to be
published under his name. If, in the 1590s, he did trial the presentation of
his philosophy in this play (Coleridge comments on its didactic tone in his
Shakespeare Lectures and Notes, 1907), it seems he gave away the possibility
of similar experiments when the prospect of creating a dedicated set of
sonnets offered a more appropriate medium for a systematic expression of
the philosophy. The authenticity and definitiveness of the Sonnet text
provides the measure to assess the way in which the various plays and poems
explore aspects of the overall philosophy.
The analysis of the plays presented here will demonstrate that every play is
based on the logic of Shakespeare’s philosophy as presented in the Sonnets.
Because the Sonnets present the definitive philosophy, the need to establish a
definitive text for each play, or revisit the traditional issues of dating and
ordering, is eliminated. Because of the difficulty publishing the definitive text
of a play in Shakespeare’s day, he would have been aware of the impossibility
of depending on the plays as vehicles for his philosophy. So the philosophy of
the Sonnets is the ultimate recourse when there are difficulties in interpretation
in the plays. In King Lear, for instance, Cordelia’s response to Lear, and
Edmund’s first speech, which have been consistently misunderstood, find
their true meaning when examined in the light of the Sonnet philosophy.
Throughout his playwriting career Shakespeare wrote without regard for
the conventional modes of drama. The traditional categorisation of his plays
as comedies, histories, tragedies or romances provides no guide to the underlying
philosophy. The categories are secondary to Shakespeare’s consistent
exploration of the Sonnet philosophy over his lifetime. The categories remain
secondary to the way any particular play explores various aspects of his
thought. Plays like Troilus and Cressida and Pericles challenge the need to
categorise, and a history play like Henry VIII, coming as it does late in his
career, upsets the tidy trajectory from history to comedy to tragedy to
romance. And any particular play in the course of its five acts has elements
of the various categories, much to the chagrin of commentators such as
Samuel Johnson who are constrained by orthodox prejudices.
While Shakespeare’s vision matured with age his basic philosophic
outlook remained the same. He could mix dramatic modes because his
philosophy transcended such categorisation. This is consistent with the
philosophy of the Sonnets being a natural philosophy without apology or
prejudice. What shifts from play to play is the point of focus within the
comprehensive dynamic of the philosophy, and it is the shift of focus that
creates the difference in dramatic, or poetic, intensity.
The plays, as do the Sonnets, make the same fundamental points again and
again. Shakespeare was conscious of the repetitious nature of the argument in
the Sonnets due to the simplicity of his logic and the need to include sufficient
sonnets to give the logic an appropriate numerological structure. Sonnet 76
and others acknowledge the repetitive nature of the basic argument. Poets
such as Wordsworth, who have had no idea of the content of the Sonnets,
note the ‘tediousness’ in the sequences (see The Sonnets and the Narrative
Poems, 1988). All commentators record their inability to appreciate the role of
the more philosophic sonnets. They gravitate toward the mainly lyrical
sonnets such as 18, 116 and 129.
By their nature the plays are unsystematic compared with the Sonnets.
For instance, Shakespeare uses humour in the plays much more immediately
than he does in the sonnets. In the plays he uses passages of high
humour as a deliberate strategy to enliven the performance by counterpointing
the underlying seriousness. By interspersing comedic passages he
creates a dramatic form at once logically exacting and at the same time
readily appreciated by an audience wishing to be entertained. Shakespeare’s
common-sense Nature based philosophy enabled him to achieve this
The philosophy in the early work
Once it is accepted that the Sonnets were specifically structured and
numbered to present Shakespeare’s philosophy, and were published by him
in 1609 as a definitive statement of his philosophic understanding, then it
follows that the philosophy of the Sonnets is the basis for the appreciation
of the poems and plays. If, as suggested in Volume 1, Shakespeare had at
least the rudiments of his philosophy worked out by the early 1590s, then
the development of the philosophy into the systematic expression in the
Sonnets of 1609 should be traceable in the plays and poems of the 1590s and
The most telling example is Love’s Labour’s Lost. As the only early play
completely of Shakespeare’s invention, the plot structure anticipates the
logical principles later defined in the Sonnets.
The deliberate creation of a philosophic play in the 1590s, possibly before
Shakespeare decided to present the philosophy in a sonnet sequence (a
number of sonnet sequences by other poets were published by the mid-
1590s), gives some idea of the development of his thinking at the time. As
the experiment was not repeated in later plays, Shakespeare most likely
realised the difficulty of articulating the philosophy systematically for a
dramatic performance. His decision to create a unique sonnet sequence to
present the philosophy explicitly meant the use of the philosophy in the plays
could remain implicit. This allowed the dramatic aspects of the plays to be
continually developed into tour de force achievements for the stage.
nbsp; Also noteworthy is the gradual development of Shakespeare’s philosophic
themes in the long poems of the early 1590s and 1601 before they were
given their definitive expression in the 1609 Sonnets. Venus and Adonis
of 1593, Lucrece of 1594, and The Phoenix and the Turtle of 1601 contain
rudiments of the Sonnet philosophy.
Venus and Adonis is centered on the increase argument in Nature, it
mentions both truth and beauty, and subjects celibate Adonis to the audit
of the Nature goddess Venus. Lucrece is likewise centered on the natural logic
of the increase argument. When chastity and beauty become overvalued
objects of masculine pride, the consequence is the tragic inability of the male
(or female) to assess the natural logic of truth, or right and wrong. The
Phoenix and the Turtle is based on the increase argument in relation to chastity,
with the consequent audit by Nature of the two idealistically deluded birds,
along with the addition of a direct inter-connection between truth and
beauty, and an awareness of the use of numbers in relation to content.
Shakespeare takes the early explorations of these basic philosophic themes
and give them a precisely structured and numbered presentation in the
Sonnets (as discussed in detail in Volume 1).
So by 1590 Shakespeare had an inbuilt philosophic system against which
he was able to critique all other philosophies. He used its logical principles
to evaluate and adapt the source material for his plays and poems. Because
each poem and play is primarily an expression of his philosophy, he altered
the dates and sequences of events in the sources to suit his larger purpose.
He used the philosophy with consistency throughout his career to write with
unparalleled logic and common sense.
By contrast, anyone approaching Shakespeare’s works with an inadequate
philosophy has great difficulty understanding their inherent meaning. It is
only necessary to read the patronising comments of Coleridge, despite his
recognition of the possibility of a profound philosophy in the plays and
poems, to get a measure of the problem. Coleridge’s religious belief in the
‘inalienable acknowledgement of God’ is inadequate before the comprehensive
and consistent philosophy of Shakespeare (see Shakespeare Lectures
and Notes, 1907). His comments on the plays inevitably jump from quibbles
to hyperbole and back to quibbles because he has no idea of the Sonnet
The development of the precise logic of the Sonnets out of the experiments
in the early plays and poems suggests Shakespeare had the rudiments of his
philosophy worked out by 1590. It is possible the process began even earlier.
The pivotal experience might have occurred when he fell in love with Anne
Hathaway, the mother of his children and his partner for life. The evidence
of the Sonnets, with its basis in the priority of the female over the male, its
arguments against the excesses of idealism, and its punning reference to Anne
Hathaway in sonnet 145, supports the idea that his relationship with her,
with its prenuptial pregnancy and her greater maturity in years, was the
formative experience for his mature views.
Shakespeare’s professional life in London was always secondary to his
family situation in Stratford. This is evident in his property interests in
Stratford and his eventual retirement there. It is significant that Anne is the
only female alluded to by name in the Sonnets. As a counterpoint to the
mention of ‘Will’ in sonnet 135 and 136 she is invoked in sonnet 145 as ‘hate
away’. The experiences of Shakespeare’s younger days most likely crystallised
his realisation of the priority of the female over the male, the significance of
increase for human persistence, and the limitations of adolescent idealism for
the progress to a mature understanding of truth and beauty.
On the evidence of the Sonnets, Shakespeare’s personal reflections arising
from his relationship with Anne Hathaway were a major influence on his
deep mythic appreciation of the natural logic of life. A profound sense of
Nature, an appreciation of the fundamental logic of increase for human
persistence, a deepened sense of the source of love, and an unprejudiced
understanding of the logical relationship of ethics and aesthetics, was
awakened in the young Shakespeare through his early experiences.
In Shakespeare’s day the revival of interest in the Classical world and the
revelations of science, especially regarding the disposition of the planets,
brought about a re-evaluation of man’s place in Nature. For some, the influence
of Platonic idealism on Christianity was replaced by a more Aristotelian
regard for life. Shakespeare, who does not mention Plato in the plays but does
refer to Aristotle twice, located idealism within the processes of life.
Shakespeare, though, as shown by the appeal of his work across sectarian
lines, did not merely establish another point of view. The philosophy articulated
in the Sonnets shows the logical relationship between beauty and truth
or the senses and language, and bases that relationship in all encompassing
Nature and the priority of the female over the male in the sexual process.
His is a complete philosophy whose consistent logic accommodates both
unity and diversity.
For Shakespeare, and for anyone brought up in the climate of sectarian
prejudice and violence of the sixteenth century, the personal reflections were
undoubtedly intensified by the inconsistencies evident in the theory and
practice of Christianity out of the Old and New Testaments. What began
1500 years earlier, as an attempt to break the Jewish hegemony on the privileged
relation of the Hebrew to the one and true geocentric God, collapsed
after the Reformation into an internecine set of contrary expectations
tearing at the fabric of English society.
The Elizabethan England of Shakespeare’s youth may have fostered his
non-sectarian understanding. Shakespeare was born after Elizabeth had
proscribed and suppressed most sectarian violence between Catholics and
Protestants. Elizabeth, rightly or wrongly, was the symbol of unity for the
England of the first 40 years of Shakespeare’s life. His experience of two
idealist systems both claiming absolute right, with the ensuing moral turpitude,
and the fostering of the supremacy of celibacy over the natural
processes of life by Catholics and the supremacy of the male God over its
female counterpart by both Protestants and Catholics, could well have struck
the brilliant mind of the young Shakespeare as ludicrous.
When the poems and plays are analyzed it should not surprise that they all
articulate the combination of these influences. The personal experience of
the persistence of life across generations, the awareness of a heliocentric
model for an understanding of the world, and the effect of domestic politics
combine to provide a logical critique of biblical/Christian/Platonic inconsistencies.
The positive effect of the critique is evident in the Sonnets. As the
greatest love poems in English literature they are not founded on the fantasies
of idealism but, to the disbelief of idealists, on the logic of the relation of the
human being to Nature. The Sonnets affirm the natural basis of love.
Throughout his life Shakespeare sought to redress the offence to natural
logic represented by the theology and practices of the institutional Church
(see sonnet 129). In his day he was partly constrained by the rules of
censorship and the powers of the Church. The execution of Giordano Bruno
in 1600, and the incarceration of Galileo, his exact contemporary, was
symptomatic of the dangers of the period. Shakespeare’s saving grace was a
philosophic mind that enabled him to express his deeply felt ideas without
taking literally the mythological symbolism of the divided Churches.
Because Shakespeare’s writings operated at the level of mythic understanding
without the traditional mythological trappings, they would not have
appeared obviously mythical to an audience used to expecting myths in the
guise of the images and symbols of the revealed faiths. Shakespeare probably
escaped censorship by making his critique of the Christian Church invisible
to the prejudiced eye (the ‘perjured eye’ of sonnet 152).
So the critique of the above influences in the plays and poems is not just
a matter of happenchance. The rigorous and precise logic of the Sonnets
articulates the exact relation between Nature, the sexual possibility, and the
possibility of understanding or truth and beauty. The inability of 400 years
of commentary, interpretation and scholarship to understand the plays and
poems is directly attributable to their unwillingness to countenance the
possibility of a consistent and comprehensive mythic philosophy in the
A mythic philosophy
The mythic depth of the Sonnets has not been understood because the
expectation persists that mythical writing should look and sound like the
myths of old. This is the mistake made by Ted Hughes in his Shakespeare
and the Goddess of Complete Being. The philosophy of the Sonnets is not
mythological in the religious sense, nor classically mythical in the sense explored
by Hughes. Rather it is mythic in its philosophic rigour and precision
in identifying the logical conditions for any mythological possibility.
The characters in the Sonnets are not mythological beings. Nature the
sovereign mistress, the Mistress, the Master Mistress, and the Poet, are not
cast in a mythical guise. Yet the content of the Sonnets is more purely mythic
than any other writing. Because Shakespeare’s philosophy operates at a
mythic level of expression, it opens the way for an unprejudiced exploration
of the logic of myth.
As a mythic philosophy it transcends genre and allows the development
of characterisation in the plays without prejudice, particularly the prejudices
associated with the Judeo/Christian paradigm. The word Bible, for instance,
does not occur in the works of Shakespeare except in one mocking instance
as ‘pible’. This is a telling slight because humour, except for a particular type
of scorn, does not occur in the Bible.
The Sonnets present the logical conditions for any mythic possibility,
including the Hebraic and Christian myths. By basing his mythic understanding
in Nature and in the priority of the female over the male, Shakespeare
demonstrates the logical distinction between the sexual as biological
and the erotic as conceptual dynamic of the mind. As explored in detail in
Volume 1, Shakespeare’s realisation that the myths of old are logically erotic
because the sexual is prior to the erotic provided him with the basis of a
devastating critique of traditional mythological expectations.
Shakespeare’s consistent erotic logic, based as it is in Nature and the sexual
dynamic, imbues every word and phrase of his writings with the mythic level
of understanding. He is able to write at a mythic level without confusing
the eroticism of his expression with the sexual dynamic out of Nature. This
is the fundamental error made by most belief systems based in traditional
mythologies. They invert the natural order to give the erotic dynamic undue
priority over the sexual. The greatest travesty is the priority given to the
male God over the natural priority of the female in Nature. Shakespeare’s
works are a logical critique of the psychology of such overweening desire.
The plays, then, do not require a set of mythological characters to convey
their mythic level of expression. Shakespeare’s achievement was to create
believable or realistic characters who embody the mythic level of philosophic
sensibility. Ironically, the same plays and poems that appeal to many who
believe in traditional mythologies, incorporate an implicit critique of the
illogicality of believing literally in mythical expression.
The 400-year ignorance of the Sonnet philosophy is due primarily to the
lingering persistence of the Christian/Platonic paradigm in the culture.
Volume 1 argued that the Christian/Platonic paradigm is an inadequate tool
for the appreciation of Shakespeare’s consistent and comprehensive philosophy.
Its inappropriate application to the works of Shakespeare has led commentators
to disregard the significance of the Sonnet set and to disparage individual
sonnets, and has created intractable problems with the plays and poems.
The so-called ‘problem’ plays are symptomatic of the malaise. They
appear problematic for the same reason the movements of the inner planets
seemed retrograde under the Ptolemaic astrological system. The plays as a
whole have been viewed from the wrong perspective. Even worse have been
the emendation and alteration of the originals where the meaning has not
been apparent to the inadequate sensibility. Most of the emendations made
by editors have nothing to do with textual problems. Instead there has been
an unrelenting determination on the part of most commentators to discredit
the deeper meaning of Shakespeare’s works. The reliance on Christian/
Platonic idealism in the interpretation of tragedies such as Hamlet, Othello,
Macbeth, and King Lear, has distorted their significance. Their philosophic
content has been misinterpreted persistently by commentators who want
Shakespeare to be at least a closet religious idealist.
It is only necessary to consider statements by two commentators,
esteemed by the defenders of the old paradigm, to get a sense of the injustice.
A. C. Bradley, in Shakespearean Tragedy (1963) acknowledges that there is
nothing in the works to support a Christian basis for the plays, yet he still
suggests Shakespeare might have held privately to the Christian faith.
Similarly, but even more bizarrely, in Themes and Variations, Blair Leishman
acknowledges the lack of reference to matters Christian or Platonic in the
Sonnets and the other works yet still has the temerity to suggest that if
Shakespeare was asked about the omission he would have replied that ‘he just
hadn’t noticed’. Such license in interpretation, against the facts, is scandalous
yet is typical of the attitude toward the works over the last 400 years.
By articulating the logical conditions for any mythology, the Sonnets
establish the foundation for a consistent understanding of the place of
humankind in Nature. They correct the mythological inconsistencies behind
the contradictions in traditional apologetics. Shakespeare’s natural philosophy
is the logical resolution at the level of mythic expression of the more
rudimentary philosophy developed by Aristotle. Only an appreciation of the
mythic implications of the natural logic structured into the Sonnets can reveal
the intended meaning of the plays and poems.
As the Sonnets were written purposefully to present the philosophy
behind all the poems and plays it follows that the logical elements in the
Sonnets are the principal determinants of meaning in the poems and plays.
Nature, the sexual dynamic, the increase argument, and the truth and beauty
dynamic form the logical architecture within which love, which reaches an
unmatched intensity in the poems and plays, has its natural expression.
Shakespeare based his philosophy in Nature, which he characterised logically
as female. His regard for Nature is evident throughout the poems and plays,
and is apparent from the evidence of the commendatory prefaces and poems
written between 1600 and 1640 by those who knew him personally (see
appendices in Volume 1).
The familiar comment that Shakespeare held a ‘mirror up to Nature’ is
typical of the general recognition of his sensitivity to the inextricable place
of Nature in the lives of humankind. While this recognition has been given
freely it has most often been conditional on the expectation that Shakespeare
adhered in some way to the ascendancy of the male Christian God over
Nature. Commentator after commentator has struggled with this expectation
against the lack of evidence for it in the plays. Coleridge’s Notes and
Lectures provide one of the more notable instances of the ludicrousness of
the expectation. Worse, for Coleridge, is the evidence to the contrary. In
keeping with the Aristotelian basis for his natural logic, Shakespeare
acknowledges the primacy of Nature in all of his poems and plays. His
natural logic allows him to avoid the contradictions of the old faiths.
The evidence of the Sonnets suggests Shakespeare’s disposition was
profoundly philosophic. He had no need for the psychology of religion. For
this reason his understanding escapes the prejudices and contradictions of
the traditional faiths. Because he appreciated the natural logic of life, with
its regard for the primacy of the female in Nature, he had no need for a
faith, even a personal one, in the male God of the Bible.
There is no evidence for such a belief in Shakespeare’s works. He was
not unsympathetic, though, to individuals with a psychological need to
believe in a male God. In the plays he does not ignore the importance of
such an entity in the lives of individuals who are religious. It remains
obvious, however, that the male God is represented as an aspect of the
psychology of the individual character. The male God is a psychological
element within Shakespeare’s philosophic overview based in Nature. The
contextualisation of the word God in the plays, frequently in the mouths
of characters of a religious disposition, or as a common phrase of exclamation
or abuse, identifies the word God as the expression of the ideal
within the human mind.
As Nature is prior to the possibility of a male God, the characteristics
of such a God are considered in the sonnet sequence to the youth. The
youth sequence spells out the benefits and the limitations of the idealised
male as a psychological condition.
As Nature is the primary entity in Shakespeare’s logical pantheon, all the
plays are based in the priority of Nature. The philosophy of the Sonnets is
unequivocal about the priority of Nature. The precisely organised and structured philosophic declaration in the Sonnets removes any doubt about
Shakespeare’s philosophic sensibility. Nature is the determining state of
being, with the whole set of 154 sonnets representing Nature the sovereign
mistress. Nature, though, does not have the status of a goddess, as the
originary female or the ‘sovereign mistress’ is logical not religious. Her
female characteristic is a consequence of her logical status as the determining
state of being for humankind.
The Sonnets articulate the conditions for a consistent logic between
Nature as the world about and the dynamic of the human mind. Nature is
the prior condition out of which all other possibilities derive. When the
plays are examined one by one it will be seen that the logical relation of
Nature to human expectations is a constant theme.
The sexual dynamic
If the Sonnets and the poems and plays are based in Nature, the next logical
element that determines their content is the possibility of the sexual dynamic
in Nature. The Sonnets are structured to represent the biological division in
Nature between female and the male. The whole set as Nature the sovereign
mistress divides into two sequences representing the female and the male.
Numerologically the 154 sonnets to Nature contain 28 Mistress sonnets
and 126 Master Mistress sonnets. The arrangement represents the logical
basis for the mythic event at the heart of all cosmologies where the female
and male separate within the unity of Nature.
Every play bases its mythic content on the logical relation of the female
and male out of Nature. The Sonnets, as the expression of Shakespeare’s
philosophy, establish the logical conditions for the mythic dynamic of the
plays. The logical relation of female and male out of Nature generates the
basic elements for the mythic drama of the plays.
The role of each character in the plays is an expression of the logical
dynamic of female and male. The fate of each character exemplifies the
consistent application of natural logic. Shakespeare explores the complex
range of possibilities throughout the plays. The logically archetypical female
and male are comic or tragic depending on the degree to which they
conform to natural logic. The greater the disparity the greater the tragedy.
The dynamic of increase is the logical consequence of the division of the
sexes in Nature. The logic of the sexual dynamic entails that humankind
persists through increase.
The first 14 sonnets of the youth sequence present the increase argument.
Logically, if no one increased then there would be no human beings (sonnet
11). Human nature would no longer be differentiated within Nature. The
development of the sexual possibility from Nature and its persistence
through increase, establishes the logical precondition for human existence.
The division of the female and male in Nature and the consequent
requirement for increase provides the motive force behind the delineation
of characters in the plays. Every play explores the consequences of the logical
requirement to increase. Some consider the implications of the abrogation
of the increase possibility. The persistent themes of posterity, hereditary and
genealogy, and the critique of celibacy all derive from the dynamic.
As the biblical faith, in its literal application of mythological expression
to natural logic, denies the significance of the increase possibility it is not
surprising that it is the primary target for criticism in Shakespeare’s plays.
Most plays begin with the rupture of the logical requirement to increase
and examine the consequences. The plays either effect a resolution of the
contradictions that gave rise to the rupture, as in the comedies and romances,
or examine the consequences of their irrecoverable loss, as in the tragedies.
All plays are object lessons in the fate (or ‘doom and date’, sonnet 14)
awaiting those who ignore the natural logic of their human nature. Even
the history plays track through the genealogical patterns of hereditary from
the available records of the chronicles. The persistence of a particular line
of descent is not a logical issue, but the persistence of at least some lines of
descent is essential to natural logic for humankind, even amongst lesser
mortals. The frequent concern of commentators that the end of a play seems
to give succour to a minor line or a marriage of convenience reveals their
blindness to the logic of Shakespeare’s philosophy. Shakespeare never sacrificed
the integrity of his logic for the sort of idealised dramatic resolution
expected by his apologists.
Truth and beauty
Having established the logical relation of Nature to its possibilities of sexual
differentiation and sexual increase, the Sonnets then demonstrate the logical
dependence of the possibility of sensation and ideas (beauty and truth) in
the mind on the sexual in Nature. Because human understanding derives
from Nature and because the human possibility is logically dependent on
sexual persistence, all processes of the conscious mind are conditioned by
the sexual possibility.
The mind, because it is conditional on the sexual process, cannot
perpetuate humankind without recourse to the body. As the logic of the
mind is predetermined by the need for sexual increase, it is characterised by
desire or the erotic. The erotic is the logical condition for the possibility of
understanding. In drawing a logical distinction between the sexual and the
erotic Shakespeare establishes the logical distinction between persistence in
life and art. Significantly, only the increase argument of the first 14 sonnets
contains no deliberate erotic allusions.
In the Sonnets, the logic of increase generates the erotic dynamic of
understanding or truth and beauty. Truth and beauty, or the dynamic of
language (saying) and sensations (seeing), derives from the logic inherent in
Nature (sonnet 137). Because Shakespeare has a philosophy consistent with
the processes of life, the logical relation of truth and beauty in all his works
rings true to life. This is evident even to those who believe in a religious
faith contrary to natural logic. When such minds approach the works they
do so with the expectation that the incredible veracity to life will be
consistent with their illogical beliefs. But invariably they reveal their religious
prejudices when they find fault with and change passages or words in the
poems and plays that are relentlessly consistent with natural logic.
The fundamental distinction in the logic of human awareness between
the sexual and the erotic gives Shakespeare’s poems and plays their acute
sense of artifice. Because artifice is logically erotic, the erotic pervades every
aspect of his work. This is much to the annoyance or disgust of minds determined
to view the world illogically out of Platonic or Christian prejudices.
They characterise the erotic in the plays with the euphemistic term ‘bawdy’.
While there are passages in the plays that include the bawdy dimension of
human experience (as in Pericles, Prince of Tyre), to misrepresent the profound eroticism of
other passages as bawdy belittles their logical function.
The logical relationship of Nature, increase, and truth and beauty is very
evident in the two long poems of the early 1590s and The Phoenix and the
Turtle of 1601. Because this natural dynamic is at the heart of Shakespeare’s
philosophy, it can be said categorically that failure to appreciate the natural
logic of truth and beauty out of Nature will result in the failure to understand
the plays. As the following commentaries reveal, every play explores
the consistent dynamic of truth and beauty evident in the poems and articulated
precisely in the Sonnets.
All the plays take Nature as the prior condition for humankind. All the
plays acknowledge the sexual dynamic and the logical requirement to
increase. But because the plays are presented in the medium of written and
spoken language, or the dynamic of truth and beauty, it is the dynamic of
truth and beauty that is explored in all its possibilities throughout the 38
plays. Through his understanding of the logical relation between the three
possibilities Shakespeare is able to create plays of a mythic depth of expression
without recourse to traditional mythological characters.
The erotic logic of the plays is an expression of Shakespeare’s awareness
of the logical conditions for drama as a mythic expression. In the Sonnets,
where Nature and sexual differentiation are represented by the overall
structure, and the increase argument occupies only one eleventh of the set,
truth and beauty is by far the most significant issue to be addressed at length.
In the plays countless examples present the Sonnet understanding of the
relation of truth and beauty. The ‘endless jar’ between ‘right and wrong’,
the relation of the red and white roses, the notion of degree in responsibility,
the failure of idealised expectations, the confusions of twinning and
cross-dressing, and the unrelenting erotic puns are all manifestations of the
logic of truth and beauty. There are also many instances in which the inconsistencies
of traditional understanding are parodied in the plays.
The mythic Poet
Shake-speares Sonnets were written to articulate the philosophy behind all the
plays and poems. The above account considers their logic out of Nature,
the sexual dynamic, the increase argument, and the relation of truth and
beauty, but as yet the logical role of Shakespeare as poet and dramatist has
not been considered.
Commentators acknowledge the significance of Nature in Shakespeare’s
plays, yet the increase argument and the truth and beauty dynamic escape
their attention. Just as critically, the role of the Poet in the Sonnets is completely
misrepresented. Shakespeare’s plays, particularly, are distinctive for the
ubiquitous presence of an author who never lets his reader or audience forget
they are looking at effects generated by Shakespeare as author.
In the Sonnets, Shakespeare delineates the logical characteristics of a Poet
capable of writing plays and poems at a mythic level of expression. The
author of the plays and poems is given a logical status in the Sonnets as the
person who understands the philosophy behind all the other works. The
Poet of the Sonnets is author of the plays who is capable of operating at the
mythic level. In the Sonnets he articulates the logical conditions for any
mythic expression. The Poet gives the logical conditions that enable
Shakespeare to write with a consistent philosophy of life.
From the perspective of Nature, the Poet is logically the last possibility
in the line of succession. Whether or not the Poet writes his verse is
dependant on the a priori conditions for human persistence, and this is
reflected in the attitude Shakespeare has to the worth of his writings. The
Sonnets, as poetry, can only provide the most limited form of immortality
to the youth. From the perspective of the Poet, though, the ability to articulate
a consistent philosophy and give it mythic expression is his greatest
contribution to the possibility of human truth and beauty. As a human with
the capacity to express truth and beauty, the least the Poet can do is give his
poems and plays a consistent expression.
And this more than anything is Shakespeare’s contribution to the wellbeing
of humankind. The fact that no one has yet recognised his accomplishment
is a telling comment on the unpreparedness of humankind to act with a
maturity befitting a quaternary species with an advanced capacity for
The logical structure of the Sonnets presents the correct multiplicity between
the world about and the operations of the mind. The entities in the Sonnet
philosophy, Nature, Mistress, Master Mistress, and Poet, have their logical
equivalents in the mind. The external characterisations or persons give rise
to corresponding internal personae. Throughout the Sonnets continual
reference is made to the logical interaction of the entities. They are representatives
of logical states in the world and they are representatives of logical
states of the mind.
As suggested in Volume 1, the persons and personae of the Sonnets are
the logical underpinning for all the characters in the plays. The characters
in the plays can be seen or read as both persons on the world stage and as
personae in the human mind. Each play can be read as a description of the
logical relationships in the world and as the logical relationships in the
workings of the mind.
In particular, the logical distinction between female and male, characterised
as the Mistress and the Master Mistress in the Sonnets, is the basis of
all the gender interrelationships in the plays. The potential confusion
between the feminine and the masculine aspects of the characters, which
drives all the plays, is resolved by considering the logical implications of
sexual differentiation in Nature.
The Poet of the Sonnets has a corresponding presence as the ubiquitous
author in the plays. The characterisation of the author in the plays forms
their dramatic backbone. Each play explores the trajectory the Poet travels
between adolescent idealism and a mature mythic expression based in natural
Nature has a role both as the elemental force that creates the external
conditions for the dynamic of the drama and the setting in the mind of
human nature. The likelihood of a character resolving the dilemma
presented early in the first act of a play depends on their willingness to
reconcile external Nature with their internal nature (as explored in sonnets
67 and 68).
Increase and truth and beauty are also personified in the characterisations
of the plays. The difficulty traditional commentary on the plays has
with ‘problem’ plays and characterisations is due largely to the ignorance of
the logical relationship of increase and truth and beauty in the Sonnet
The logical template
The complete logical template derived, in Volume 1, from the organisation
of the sonnets in Q can be applied to the individual plays and poems to
reveal their particular philosophic focus within the complete template. Even
though the template encapsulates the implicit philosophy behind all the
plays and poems, no play gives full expression to all aspects of the template.
Shakespeare articulated his philosophy in the 154 sonnets because it was not
possible to do it justice in a long poem or in the theatrical dynamic of a play.
In the terminology of the Sonnets:
Complete template (Sonnet numbers)
One of the beneficial consequences of using the template as analytic tool
is the elucidation of the meaning of passages in the plays and poems that
have been disparaged by commentators operating out of the inadequate
paradigms of idealistic Platonism and Christianity.
As the commentaries unfold, the frequency with which the poems and
plays mention the terms in the template will become apparent. At the end
of each commentary the relationship of the logical dynamic in the poem
or play to the complete template will be examined.
Shakespeare's place in literature
Two considerations place Shakespeare in relation to his peers. The first is
the profound failure of authors such as Wilde, Johnson, Coleridge, Keats,
Eliot, Joyce, Pound, and Shelley to recognise the philosophy structured into
the Sonnets. In their attempts to understand the basis of Shakespeare’s
achievement they exhibit a fatal dependence on the inconsistencies of the
traditional Platonic/biblical paradigm. The failure of such great minds to
appreciate Shakespeare’s profound articulation of the natural logic of life
indicates the inadequacies of the corrupt paradigm.
The second is the abysmal level of critical and literary expectation authors
and commentators alike have had of Shakespeare’s writings. He is treated
frequently as an idiot savant who does not deserve serious literary or philosophic
consideration. After an initial flurry of academic theorising most
commentators dive directly into autobiographical and historical speculation.
But the diversion is no more than a substitute for their inability to fathom
the nature of his ‘genius’. Jonathan Bate's The Genius of Shakespeare is a typical
instance of the genre.
The common problem is the inability of commentators to see past their
prejudices to the commonplace profundity of Shakespeare’s achievement.
When they write about Shakespeare they are caught between a high esteem
for his work and their unwillingness to admit openly that the error in their
assessment is rooted in the inconsistencies of the traditional paradigm.
Ironically, both the Sonnets and the poems and plays are designed to be
helpful to such minds. The Sonnets and plays they so vainly pontificate about
contain within them a critique of their difficulties. The logic of the Sonnets
and many of the characters in the plays parody in advance the frustration of
For obvious reasons then, the commentaries presented here have a logical
independence of all previous attempts to understand Shakespeare. The few
references to the existing literature illustrate the effect of the crippling
prejudice inherent in the traditional Platonic/biblical approach.
The order of commentary on the poems and plays
There is no consensus amongst scholars as to which of the early plays was
written first, nor the exact year they were written. And neither is it possible
to determine definitively the order in which they were written. Some plays
can be dated with reasonable accuracy because of records of performance
and publication or other contemporary accounts. The rest of the plays are
inserted in the gaps according to stylistic or other criteria.
Because the Sonnet philosophy is the ultimate determinant of the meaning
of the poems and plays, the approach adopted in these commentaries is to first
consider the poems and plays that were deliberately written to articulate
Shakespeare’s current state of philosophic understanding. Venus and Adonis,
Lucrece, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Phoenix and the Turtle and Measure for
Measure will provide the benchmark for considering all the other plays.
By demonstrating the logical coherence between the five poems and
plays and the Sonnets, from the period 1593 to 1604, the presence of the
Sonnet philosophy in the other plays will be obvious. The greater percent
of the problems traditional scholarship has had with Shakespeare’s works will
evaporate. The residue of prejudice and frustration commentators harbour
toward the works should then be turned on the inadequacies of their
The Folio text
The failure of commentators over 400 years to understand the logic of the
Sonnets has led to the reinstitution of the 1609 edition as the default text.
Similarly, the failure of the Judeo/Christian paradigm to do justice to the
poems and plays has led to a greater respect for the Folio texts despite their
discrepancies with some earlier quarto versions of the plays. Some recent
performances of the plays have been based on the Folio texts and have been
acted using Elizabethan/Jacobean theatrical methods.
The Original Shakespeare Company is one such group, and one of its
principals, Patrick Tucker, has been associated with the publication of a
paper-back version of the Folio text to enable as many as possible to read
the originals uncorrupted by 400 years of prejudiced commentary and
editing practices. While the OSC is no more aware of the Sonnet philosophy
than their predecessors, their discomfort with past interference is symptomatic
of current trends.
Because all edited texts make changes to the wording of the Folio and
alter the original stage attributions and directions at whim, it is impossible
to give act, scene and line numbers that are universally accepted. And
because all such versions are corrupt it is unseemly to use any one of them
as a standard. While they are useful for incidental word meanings and
historical information their ignorance of Shakespeare’s philosophy taints
them irredeemably. Even the Alexander Text that returns to the ordering
of the plays in the Folio persists with corrupt emendations.
To encourage the trend back to the Folio, the commentaries in this
volume will use the line numbering provided in the Norton Facsimile, Second
Edition, 1996. The changes of act and scene will be indicated in parenthesis
but the line numbering will be continuous from beginning to end of the
Bibliographic details for most of the occasional references to other authors
in this volume can found in the selected bibliography in Volume 1 of William Shakespeare's Sonnet Philosophy.
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Roger Peters Copyright © 2005
Venus and Adonis
Rape of Lucrece
The Phoenix and the Turtle
A Lover's Complaint
Love's Labour's Lost
Measure for Measure