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 …

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Letters

Theatre of the World March 12, 1970