Once born into the physical world, human beings quickly forget the unity from which they have sprung and see only multiplicity. But as there is an outward movement of creation that stems from the One, so there is a return, for, if man so desires, he may be drawn back to his source through the power of love.
This is achieved by following a clearly defined route. In Ficino’s words, it is a path that “by restoring us, formerly divided, to a whole, leads us back to heaven.”
Love is awoken by beauty. The beauty of every world is a reflection of the beauty of God and, by falling in love with the beauty of each world, it is possible to rediscover its source. Thus the first step in the return to this divine beauty is to fall in love with the beauty of an outward form in the material world. This may be a work of nature or of art but, to Renaissance poets like Shakespeare, it is invariably the beauty of a woman. Shakespeare, like other Renaissance poets, follows the convention that, when women first attract love through their beauty, they become personifications of men’s souls. “Women,” wrote Ben Jonson, “are the souls of men.”
The lovers in Love’s Labours Lost are on their first steps along the path of love. During the course of the play they find their true soul-mates and discover that love is more than desire for an outward form and physical gratification. Falling in love with the outward beauty of the princess and her ladies, the lovers woo with fanciful verses and make fools of themselves in the guise of Russians. By the end of the play they have progressed in the love game so far as to declare their love honestly and openly.
Before the princess of France and her attendants arrive at the Court of Navarre, the king had resolved to withdraw from the world for three years to lead a monastic life without women and to spend his time studying philosophy with his companions. This little academy will, he believes, bring fame to himself and his court. Their resolve is short-lived for they have not yet set foot on the first step of the spiritual path, which entails falling in love. And so, unwilling to appear rude when the ladies unexpectedly arrive, they entertain them and the game of love begins.
Their mistresses not only represent the heavenly beauty of their souls with which they may, when they have proved themselves, be joined in the union of marriage but, as is customary in all these comedies of love, they also act as the men’s tutors. So they are set on the next step by the ladies’ giving them tasks to perform that will enable them to love the good, the virtues of the higher world, and the true beauty of their beloved. In this way they are given the opportunity to discover the virtues lying hidden within their own souls, which will make them worthy of marriage. The princess tells the king to follow the austere life he had earlier proposed, this time not for the fame he had first desired, but to discover the true virtues of goodness, constancy, and patience:
If this austere insociable life
Change not your offer made in heat of blood;
If frosts and fasts, hard lodging and thin weeds,
Nip not the gaudy blossoms of your love,
But that it bear this trial and last love;
Then at the expiration of the year,
Come challenge me, challenge me by these deserts,
And, by this virgin palm now kissing thine,
I will be thine.
On the other hand, Rosaline sends Berowne to a hospital where his customary mocking wit and biting tongue may be turned to kindly use, to help rather than hurt:
You shall this twelve month term from day to day,
Visit the speechless sick, and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be
With all the fierce endeavour of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.
Throughout the play Berowne has had more insight into the Platonic ascent of love than the other young men. Punning on the word “light” by referring to eyes as light, he scorns study as a way to darkness rather than light since, he says, reading wears out the eyes and will lead to the darkness of the blind rather than to enlightenment! The only true light, he insists, lies dazzling in a woman’s eyes:
Light seeking light doth light of light beguile:
So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
Study me how to please the eye indeed,
By fixing it upon a fairer eye,
Who dazzling so, that eye shall be his heed,
And give him light that he was blinded by.
When they have all finally admitted their love to each other, Berowne reassures them that they have followed the right course and that they will indeed learn more from a lady’s eyes than through any book:
From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive:
They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;
They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain, and nourish all the world.
The true lover, although first attracted by the beauty of form, will come to realize that it is the splendor of divine light sparkling in the eyes of the beloved that mirrors the soul to itself and draws the lover forward on his path. Berowne calls this light the true, or right, Promethean fire, referring to the original fire that Prometheus stole from the gods for the benefit of mankind. This gift was far greater than the ordinary light and warmth of physical fire. It is the essential fire, the splendor of God, whose ray lights the beauty of all worlds and that lovers see sparkling in the eyes of their beloved.
Shakespeare and the Ideal of Love
• Shows how Shakespeare’s works offer a path back to the divine unity of all things
• Explains the role of love in the Christian-Platonic concept of the three worlds
In Love’s Labours Lost, Shakespeare talks of the true Promethean fire that is lit by the doctrine he reads in women’s eyes. What is this doctrine and what is this true Promethean fire to which it gives birth? In Shakespeare and the Ideal of Love, Jill Line shows that Shakespeare shared the perennial philosophy of a long line of teachers, including Hermes Tristmegistus, Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus, and especially the Florentine scholar and mystic Marsilio Ficino. The answer to these questions, Line claims, lies in Ficino’s Christian-Platonic philosophy of love, from which all Shakespeare’s plays have their genesis.
Love, according to Ficino, is the force that inspired the creation of the worlds of the angelic mind, the soul, and the material, and it is through love that each of these worlds expands into the next. Love is also the vehicle that allows human beings to make the return journey to the source of their being, where they find unity in God. This is the path on which all of Shakespeare’s lovers embark. Jill Line explains how Shakespeare’s plays represent more than poetic literary constructs: They are mirrors of the progress of the soul, in many conditions and situations, as it returns to the divine unity of all things.