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Magical Mystery Tour

Theatre of the World

by Frances A. Yates
University of Chicago, 218 pp., $8.50

One should not be deceived by Frances Yates’s disclaimer that she has been only an ardent reader. She is a person of immense learning. When in May, 1966, she claimed in these pages that she had found in an illustration by Robert Fludd the secret of the structure of the stage in Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, she raised, as might be expected, a small storm. There are, to be sure, many objections to her proposal. Yet over the years in a sequence of profoundly researched books she has been doing nothing less than reinterpreting the nature of Renaissance humanism. Indeed, she has gone far to prove that there were two different Renaissance humanisms: one originating in the fourteenth century with the revival of Latin texts by Petrarch, the other originating in the discovery of Hermetic texts in the fifteenth century. These two humanisms meant two contrasting experiences, the first academic and stylistic, the other magical and astral. The latter humanism may be the authentic one, associated as it was with the most potent exercise of the artistic, philosophic, and religious imagination.

A specialist’s specialist in Hermeticism, Miss Yates has been led by a sort of domino sequence from John Florio to Shakespeare, then to Bruno and the art of memory, and back to Shakespeare and his Globe. We do not understand Prospero’s magic without having followed Miss Yates through her detailed examinations of the Renaissance mnemotechnics. For the art of memory generated a symbolism within the tradition of the Corpus Hermeticum—treatises allegedly written by Hermes Trismegistus, dating, we now know, from the second and third centuries A.D. This symbolism derives not primarily from Plato or Renaissance humanism as it was for a while conceived, but is deeply tinged with a mysticism in the Cabbala, the Sephiroth, the Hebrew letters signifying the name of God. The Middle Ages fostered necromancy and magic, but Renaissance Hermeticism is a new magic depending not on demonology but on the harmony between microcosm and macrocosm.

The necromancer became the new Magus, “a being who has within him the powers of the Seven Governors and hence is in immediate and most powerful contact with elemental nature.” This is not Christian humanism; it is Christian Hermeticism, a talismanic system that fuses science with magic and, as in Ficino, reconciles Moses, Hermes Trismegistus, and Christ. Miss Yates remarks, “We have, in short, to think of Renaissance magic as both in continuity with mediaeval magic and also the transformation of that tradition into something new.”

Leonardo, for example, has been called a technologist living in a paradise of mathematics. But, as Sir Kenneth Clark notes, Leonardo lived in “an interlunar period in the history of thought,” passing from mathematics to fantasy. In so far as it was in the Hermetic tradition Renaissance science was still a version of magic, a branch of theurgy. Miss Yates has explored this interlunar period, and the text for all her work is her article on “The Hermetic Tradition in Renaissance Science,” where she mentions the “enormous gaps in the history of science as it emerged from the hermetic.” She distinguishes between the first hermetic phase “with its basis in an animist philosophy” and the second mechanistic phase of the seventeenth century. Behind the scientist is the Magus; behind the mechanic is a mystic mathesis: “I would thus urge that the history of science in this period, instead of being read solely forwards for its premonitions of what was to come, should also be read backwards, seeking its connections with what had gone before.”

Whitehead implies as much about seventeenth-century science, and Arthur Koestler in The Sleepwalkers holds that behind Kepler’s mathematics was a mythology from which astronomy had not freed itself. Kepler’s cosmology was penetrated by a symbolism echoing harmonies from the Ptolemaic system, the Harmonium Mundi consonant with neo-Platonism, Paracelsus, astrology, and Hermeticism.

But the real Magus was the artist, and Alastair Fowler’s Spenser and the Numbers of Time shows what lies behind the allegory of The Faerie Queene, a poem at least partly constructed on the Pythagorean monad, dyad, triad, the tetrad, pentad, and hexad. The shift from the cruciform to the centrally planned church is, as Wittkower tells us, another testimony to the Pythagorean creed of the Renaissance architect, who believed that all is number—the number betokening a harmonic structure in the universe. In this new world of “the incorruptible certitude of mathematics,” the circle is the perfect magical design in a cosmos imaging the divine mind, center and circumference, a means of knowing God.

The great difficulty for the modern mind is to comprehend the Renaissance mode of belief. It was a mode that made possible Shakespearian drama, existing as it did in multiple worlds, an interlunar experience where science was astral. Exactly what did the Elizabethan audience believe when they heard Prospero tell Miranda that by his prescience he finds his zenith depending on the auspicious star confirming his fortune? Or when Ariel tells Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio that he is a minister of fate, an agent of the Destiny to be visited on their sins?

In her successive studies Frances Yates defines the context in which this poetic, this magical, drama occurs. She would daringly “rehabilitate Rosicrucianism,” using the term not to denote a later debased esoteric lore but, instead, the theurgism saturating protoscience thought. Traditionally Francis Bacon has been seen as an originator of our science; but Miss Yates regards him as one who misunderstood the very nature of Renaissance science. His experimental method (which we now see was not so experimental after all) was a reaction against the Hermeticism in prevailing science, valuing number above all. Bacon slighted mathematics, perhaps because he was averse to the Magus and cosmic mysticism. Yet paradoxically Bacon was himself eager to attain what the Magus wanted to attain, that is, to redeem the fallen state of man by making him master of nature, linking the physical with the celestial world.

In other words, Bacon was reacting against Bruno, who for Miss Yates is the great Magus of the Renaissance. As she confesses, Bruno is “the real center of all my studies.” Her biography of Florio (1934) suggests that he knew Bruno while both were at the French embassy in London. While he was in England Bruno published a half dozen works presenting Copernican theory “in a context of astral magic” which was at odds with the mere affectations of Petrarchan verse. In fact Bruno seems to have affronted the poets by writing in his dedication to Eroici furori that “To fix all one’s thought and study upon the beauty of a woman’s body is the mark of a base, brutish, and filthy mind.”

Bruno was offended by the pedantries he found at Oxford, and in her Study of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1936) Miss Yates turned to Shakespeare’s attack upon the little group of academicians, perhaps led by Raleigh, and known as The School of Night. She suspects that Bruno’s name is echoed in Berowne, and that there is a reference to Bruno’s Pythagorean numerology in Berowne’s speech (IV, iii) on fiery numbers and the love which lives not in the brain “but with the motion of all elements,” giving a double power to every power “above their function and their offices.” In any event the play is anti-academic.

But even the pedantries could be hermetic, and in The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century (1947) Miss Yates finds that behind the doctrines of the Académie de poésie et de musique, the instrument of the Pléiade, there again appears the Renaissance reconciliation, under the auspices of Florentine neo-Platonism, of Christianity with philosophy. And again Bruno was influential with his Hermeticism, for the synthesis of musical with theological and theurgic ideas in the Pléiade shows how the Renaissance found its repertory of images in “a language used by art and literature in all European countries to which the learning of the humanists had penetrated.”

So after her detective-like venture in The Valois Tapestries (1959) Miss Yates turned directly to her great “magician” in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), revising the definition of humanism. To her, the major humanist tradition is found in the Corpus Hermeticum and the “Egyptian” astrological framework of the Pimander, paralleling the Biblical account of the creation of the world and the fall of man. This tradition fissured into two orders of hermeticism: philosophical or astral magic, and vulgar or demotic magic. The boundary between them may not be so clear as she implies. Yet undeniably the highest Renaissance mathematic is associated with astral magic, and the Magus plays a semi-mystic role, as Ficino shows, studying the Nous or divine Mind whose power is revealed in cosmology.

Celestial magic is the authentic science of the Renaissance, transposing number into archetypal images which, if remembered, can reflect the universe in the mind. As Magus, Bruno designed his enormous thirty-fold “memory system” in a circle which even Miss Yates admits she cannot entirely read, a hieroglyph of universal symbolism that embraces his Copernican science. Miss Yates dates the close of this magical Renaissance at 1614, when Isaac Casaubon announced that the writings of “Hermes Trismegistus” were not Egyptian but post-Christian. Thereafter came the mechanical system of the world, deprived of magic.

The operative faculty of the Magus was the mental image, and Miss Yates devotes The Art of Memory (1966) to her searching analysis of mnemotechnics, a discipline known to ancient rhetoric, depending upon the ability to impress “places” and “images” upon the mind as a means of recollecting by association. The tradition of mnemotechnics runs unbroken from Simonides of Ceos (c. 556-468 B.C.) through Quintilian and the anonymous Ad Herennium through the Middle Ages and Ramon Lull to Bruno and Robert Fludd. The method relies upon “corporeal similitudes,” often in the form of statues but, more systematically, in the guise of a theater, which under the influence of Hermeticism became a visualizing of a “theater of the world,” a diagram enabling the mind to encompass and symbolize the whole cosmology. “Artificial memory” became vision.

Giulio Camillo in his L’Idea del Theatro dell’eccellen (1550) presents a theater of the world (he built a wooden model) representing “the universe expanding from First Causes through the stages of creation,” a fusion of Hermetic doctrine and Vitruvian theater adapted to exhibit the world, the stars, and the supernal wisdom beyond. “Into the old bottles of the art of memory there has been poured the heady wine of the currents of Renaissance ‘occult philosophy.’ ” His memory theater “houses Ficino and Pico, Magia and Cabala, the Hermetism and Cabalism implicit in Renaissance so-called Neoplatonism. He turns the classical art of memory into an occult art.” The mind of man becomes a magical instrument for grasping the divine.

By 1582 Bruno evolved his own all-inclusive memory system in De umbris idearum (Shadows), showing how the mind works only with images, the imagination being the link between the world and the soul: “The Hermetic principle of reflection of the universe in the mind as a religious experience is organized through the art of memory into a magico-religious technique for grasping and unifying the world of appearances through arrangements of significant images.” It is no wonder the Church burned Bruno; his images were his philosophy.

Yet St. Ignatius Loyola used imagination in much the same way in his Spiritual Exercises (1521-2), saying “When the contemplation or meditation is on something visible, for example, when we contemplate Christ our Lord, the representation will consist in seeing in imagination the material place where the object is that we wish to contemplate.” St. Ignatius is simply affirming that sensibilia are more accessible to memory than intelligibilia. Thus Bruno’s imagination fastens on images, often statues intensely visualized. “To think,” he says, “is to speculate with images.” Coleridge, with his vivid “ocular spectra,” would understand. Mnemotechnics made thought a sensed experience, felt as immediately as the odor of a rose, to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase. There was no dissociation of sensibility in this Hermetic tradition.

Protestantism with its iconoclasm hastened the end of this imaginative access to truth, and to the artifices of memory. Ramus, with his dialectic moving by classification from general to particular, substituted the grammar of the printed page: “gone in the Ramist system are the images, the emotionally striking and stimulating images” of the classical mnemotechnics. It was left for Hobbes to dismiss imagination as mere decaying sense. Along with the printed book came the phase of Renaissance art that expelled the magic from mathematic until orthogonal perspective in painting became a mode of rational demonstration, a geometry (unlike the earlier geometry) without cosmic resonance. At the dead end of this decline appears Descartes, whose mathematical method was a rejection of Bruno’s mathematical symbolism. For as Miss Yates says, “The occultist tide was receding and in the charged atmosphere the search turns in the direction of rational method.”

But before Descartes clarified everything by the intuitus intellectus, Shakespeare had his own imaginative vision of the world, a theater not identical with the wooden structure of the Globe but rather what Miss Yates in this latest book suggestively calls the Idea of the Globe Theater, with all its cosmic meanings. Her book is devoted to three themes: that John Dee and Robert Fludd were deeply influenced by the mnemotechnics of Magi like Bruno, that the mnemotechnical designs of the cosmos were in turn deeply indebted to the Vitruvian design of the theater, and finally that this Vitruvian design reappears in modified form in the actual Elizabethan theater like the Globe, which embodies in its structure the symbolic geometry relating microcosm to macrocosm.

The drift of Miss Yates’s argument is not new. Lately we have suspected that the innyard did not satisfactorily explain the design of London theaters. The hall must have had its influence, as well as primitive “rounds” and animal-baiting rings; and there has been endless controversy about the validity of DeWitt’s sketch of the Swan stage. Glynn Wickham holds that the Shakespearian stage “was not a single, rigid theatre such as we have become acclimated to in various reconstructions of ‘The Globe,’ but a frame with a stage in it that was as adaptable as was necessary to meet the needs of a travelling company of professional actors.” J. L. Styan confirms that the platform was the main vehicle. And the inner stage has been rejected for want of evidence of its existence.

In Microcosmos Thomas B. Stroup makes essentially Miss Yates’s point that the Shakespearian stage was macrocosmic as well as local—though Stroup conceives it as a simple “beam structure” like that seen in Renaissance paintings of the Nativity or Adoration of the Magi, a local framework opening upon the world. So we are no longer confident about the Globe. Miss Yates argues that it is an adaptation of the open-air Vitruvian theater with all the magical symbolism attached to that design. She traces the Vitruvian influence through John Dee (known to Burbage) and Robert Fludd to Inigo Jones.

In his Art of Memory (1619) Fludd has a design for the Theatrum Orbi (Theater in the World—not Theatrum Orbis, Theater of the World) which illustrates five “memory places” by five doors, three at ground level, two above, bracketing an upper chamber with two windows. The entire scene is enclosed by rusticated walls, and “downstage” are drawn the bases of five columns: round, square, hexagonal. The columns themselves are not drawn, but only “imagined.” Since Fludd is speaking of mnemotechnics, he insists that “the operation of the fantasy begins from real things” and not from imaginary places. Thus Miss Yates supposes that Fludd’s design represents the stage of a “real” theater—the second Globe, she says, for the first Globe burned in 1613. Fludd printed his book in 1619, though Miss Yates presumes he may have been writing it “a good many years” earlier.

The rejections of this proposal have been vigorous. Glynn Wickham is “astonished” that Miss Yates should argue in so undisciplined a way, and suggests that the Fludd illustration may be of the Blackfriars, a Court of Chivalry, or the Tiltyard at Whitehall. And indeed, there are extrapolations from the evidence. The crux is that Fludd should have only “feigned” the five columns, whereas Miss Yates herself affirms that Fludd insists upon using “real” places. Furthermore Miss Yates ends by modifying the Fludd illustration in presenting her own altered version of the print, making the enclosing walls curved and changing the structure of the upper chamber. The difficulties increase when she takes other Fludd drawings to represent secondary stages like “smaller screens” placed within the main stage. Besides, the zodiac diagram in Fludd’s Art of Memory shows in the Ram a stage that appears to be quite unlike the five-doored stage.

But the problematic validity of the Fludd drawing must not diminish the importance and the validity of Miss Yates’s larger thesis about the Idea of the Globe Theater and what it owes to the Hermetic theater of memory and to the associated Vitruvian tradition in architecture. Surely it is evident on the basis of Miss Yates’s findings that the Vitruvian open theater contributed to the design of the Elizabethan public playhouse as well as to the stagecraft of Inigo Jones. Most important of all, the Elizabethan theater was in its own unique and mighty way a theater of the world, true Theatrum Mundi, in which appeared the image of Vitruvian man, living imaginatively in the magical interval of a Renaissance vision—a vision that could not isolate science from art, art from philosophy, or the harmony of the microcosm from the harmony of the macrocosm. This is the Idea of a Theater we have lost, and it is what made possible the sea-changes in the Shakespearian world. Regardless of its wooden fabric the Globe provided the “symbolic geometry” in which Vitruvian man could see his representation. Frances Yates has given us, in depth, the history of such an idea, and, as she modestly says, has asked questions that have seldom been asked.


Theatre of the World March 12, 1970

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