Shakespeare has a big place in our hearts over here at Misfit Press. 2016 is the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, and over the next year we’ll be releasing the exciting Shakespeare on the Road, a pocket poetry book of Shakespeare-inspired poetry, followed by a biography of Sam Wanamaker in early 2017.
After being on my reading list for some time, I recently finished the brilliant dystopian novel Brave New World (1931), by English author Aldous Huxley. Huxley, like Misfit Press, had a strong affinity with Shakespeare. He fell in love with his words at a young age – according to Nicholas Murray’s excellent biography, the 11-year-old Aldous “moved the old ladies in the audience to tears in his role as Antonio in The Merchant of Venice” – and continued to read him throughout his life. Hamlet, wrote Huxley in 1935, “is the work of art with the greatest amount of substance ever put into words.” In the essay I’ll look at in a moment, he describes the Bard as “a genius-of-all-trades, a human being who could do practically anything.”
This influence runs through Brave New World. Not only is the title taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (‘O brave new world, That has such people in’t!’) but Huxley also makes continuous references to Shakespeare’s works throughout his novel. The protagonist, John the Savage, nurtures what Murray calls an “addiction to Shakespeare.” John constantly references his Complete Works as a counterpoint to the placated, conformist society he encounters; as representative of what he feels full-blooded, feeling humanity should be.
The Bard’s words feature not only in Brave New World but throughout his many books and plays. An intriguing example of Huxley’s Shakespeare-inspired work, which speaks volumes about how much influence Shakespeare had on the author, is his very last essay, “On Shakespeare and Religion”. Huxley wrote the essay on his deathbed, in November of 1963. By this stage he was so weak from a long struggle with cancer that he had to partly dictate the essay to his wife, Laura.
In the essay, Huxley attempts to decipher some of the mystery around Shakespeare’s character and his personal religious views by examining the way they are represented in his works, posing the question “Who precisely was Shakespeare?… What were Shakespeare’s beliefs?”
The question is not an easy one to answer; for in the first place Shakespeare was a dramatist who made his characters express opinions which were appropriate to them, but which may not have been those of the poet. And anyhow did he himself have the same beliefs, without alteration or change or emphasis, throughout his life?
Though “our many-faceted Shakespeare commented on religion in almost all its aspects,” and though Huxley perceives ” a basic Christianity” in his works, he outlines how “the theology which finds expression in his plays is by no means consistently Protestant.” The existence of Purgatory, for example, is discussed in both Hamlet and in Measure for Measure, even though it is a Roman Catholic idea typically rejected by Protestantism. Huxley muses on the eclecticism of Shakespeare’s religious allusions:
Unlike Milton or Dante, Shakespeare had no ambition to be a systematic theologian or philosopher… What he gives us is not a religious system; it is more like an anthology, a collection of different points of view, an assortment of commentaries on the human predicament offered by persons of dissimilar temperament and upbringing.
What’s more, whatever Shakespeare’s religious leanings, Huxley argues that they were no simple consolation. He detects in middle portion of the Bard’s life “a spiritual crisis that made any easy kind of positive thinking or positive feeling impossible.” Even if, eventually, “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world,” Huxley writes, “on the way to the final serenity of The Tempest, what horrors must be faced, what miseries endured.”
Despite this “crisis,” Huxley does detect in Shakespeare’s very late development “a change of mood… a greater acceptance, a greater openness to the strange anomalies of life.” In a fitting parallel, Huxley uses the final lines of his last essay to address the final lines of Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, delivered by Prospero.
Our revels are now ended, these our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Prospero’s words, Huxley writes, are “enunciating the doctrine of Maya.” Maya is a complex concept from ancient Indian philosophy, referring to the limited reality revealed by everyday consciousness, behind the illusion of which lies a deeper, more unified realm. Huxley dissects and reflects upon this in the following beautifully-written paragraph:
The world is an illusion, but it is an illusion which we must take seriously, because it is real as far as it goes, and in those aspects of the reality which we are capable of apprehending. Our business is to wake up. We have to find ways in which to detect the whole of reality in the one illusory part which our self-centred consciousness permits us to see. We must not live thoughtlessly, taking our illusion for the complete reality, but at the same time we must not live too thoughtfully in the sense of trying to escape from the dream state. We must continually be on our watch for ways in which we may enlarge our consciousness. We must not attempt to live outside the world, which is given us, but we must somehow learn how to transform it and transfigure it. […] One must find a way of being in this world while not being of it. A way of living in time without being completely swallowed up in time.
What I find most interesting about this essay is how beautifully it concludes, by encapsulating not just Shakespeare’s but Huxley’s own beliefs and views on the world. Just five days before he died, Huxley was taking the time, as Murray puts it in his biography, to “frame his last expression of a worldview which had been evolved over a lifetime.” In this last paragraph, Huxley tells us we must acknowledge that our perception of the world is subjective, and clouded by our uniquely human experience – this is the “illusion” he speaks of – but that being aware of this limitation, we must continue to forge our lives mindfully, and constantly strive for ways to “enlarge our consciousness.”
This is something Huxley challenged himself to do throughout his own life, constantly and consciously seeking to expand his worldview through his exploration of various forms of mysticism, and his experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs (his accounts of which can be read about in The Doors of Perception and its sequel, Heaven and Hell). As J.G. Ballard writes in the foreword to The Doors of Perception; “Huxley believed that our brains have been trained during the evolutionary millennia to screen out all those perceptions that do not directly aid us in our day to day struggle for existence. We have gained security and survival, but in the process have sacrificed our sense of wonder.”
Huxley’s final advice to us in those two beautiful, strange sentences – “One must find a way of being in this world while not being of it. A way of living in time without being completely swallowed up in time” – is his encouragement to continue to pursue this sense of wonder, and to ask as much from our fleeting existence in this world as we can take.
(You can read Huxley’s full essay here.)