Shakespeare

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(Sri Aurobindo:) “Shakespeare is a poet of the vital inspiration, Homer of the subtle physical, but there are no greater poets in any literature.”[1]


(Sri Aurobindo:) “At a certain time in a certain country one named Shakespeare created a new world by the force of his Avidya, his faculty of imagining what is not. That world is as real and unreal today as it was when Shakespeare created it or in more accurate Vedantic language asrijata, loosed it forth from the causal world within him. Within the limits of that world Iago is real to Othello, Othello to Desdemona, and all are real to any and every consciousness which can for a time abstract itself from this world [of] its self-created surroundings and enter the world of Shakespeare. We are aware of them, observe them, grow in knowledge about them, see them act, hear them speak, feel for their griefs and sorrows; and even when we return to our own world, they do not always leave us, but sometimes come with us and influence our actions. The astonishing power of poetical creation towards moulding life and history, has not yet been sufficiently observed... Yet these images, which we envisage as real and confess by our words, thoughts, feelings, and sometimes even by our actions to be real, are, all the time and we know them perfectly well to be as mythical as the dream, the mirage and the juggler on his rope. There is no Othello, no Iago, no Desdemona but all these are merely varieties of name & form, not of Shakespeare, but in which Shakespeare is immanent and which still exist merely because Shakespeare is immanent in them. Nevertheless he who best succeeds in imaging forth these children of illusion, this strange harmonic Maya, is ever adjudged by us to be the best poet, Creator or Maker, even though others may link words more sweetly together or dovetail incidents more deftly.”[2]


(Sri Aurobindo:) “Let us ask ourselves, what it is that has happened when a great work of creation takes place and how it is that Shakespeare’s creatures are still living to us, now that Shakespeare himself is dead and turned to clay. Singular indeed that Shakespeare’s creations should be immortal and Shakespeare himself a mere short-lived conglomeration of protoplasmic cells! We notice first that Shakespeare’s dramatic creatures are only a selection or anthology from among the teeming images which peopled that wonderful mind; there were thousands of pictures in that gallery which were never produced for the admiration of the ages. This is a truth to which every creator whether he use stone or colour or words for his thought-symbols will bear emphatic testimony. There was therefore a subtler and vaster world in Shakespeare than the world we know him to have bodied forth into tangible material of literature. Secondly we note that all these imaginations already existed in Shakespeare unmanifested and unformed before they took shape and body; for certainly they did not come from outside. Shakespeare took his materials from this legend or that play, this chronicle or that history? His framework possibly, but not his creations; Hamlet did not come from the legend or the play, nor Cassius or King Henry from the history or the chronicle. No, Shakespeare contained in himself all his creatures, and therefore transcended & exceeded them; he was and is more than they or even than their sum and total; for they are merely limited manifestations of him under the conditions of time & space, and he would have been the same Shakespeare, even if we had not a scene or a line of him to know him by; only the world of imagination would have remained latent in him instead of manifest, avyakta instead of vyakta. Once manifest, his creatures are preserved immortally, not by print or manuscript, for the Veda has survived thousands of years without print or manuscript, — but, by words, shall we say? no, for words or sounds are only the physical substance, the atoms out of which their shapes are built, and can be entirely rearranged, — by translation, for example — without our losing Othello and Desdemona, just as the indwelling soul can take a new body without being necessarily changed by the transmigration. Othello and Desdemona are embodied in sounds or words, but thought is their finer and immortal substance. It is the subtler world of thought in Shakespeare from which they have been selected and bodied forth in sounds, and into the world of thought they originally proceeded from a reservoir of life deeper than thought itself, from an ocean of being which our analysis has not yet fathomed.”[3]


(Sri Aurobindo:) “[Milton] does not stray into ‘the mystic cavern of the heart’, does not follow the inner fire entering like a thief with the Cow of Light into the secrecy of secrecies. Shakespeare does sometimes get in as if by a splendid psychic accident in spite of his preoccupation with the colours and shows of life.”[4]


(Sri Aurobindo:) “It might be said of Shakespeare that he was not predominantly an artist but rather a great creator”[5]


(Sri Aurobindo:) “Arthur [in King John], whom the Shakespeare-worshipper would have us regard as a masterpiece, is no real child; he is too voulu, too eloquent, too much dressed up for pathos and too conscious of the fine sentimental pose he strikes. Children do pose & children do sentimentalise, but they are perfectly naive and unconscious about it; they pose with sincerity, they sentimentalise with a sort of passionate simplicity, indeed an earnest businesslikeness which is so sincere that it does not even require an audience. The greatest minds have their limitations and Shakespeare’s overabounding wit shut him out from two Paradises, the mind of a child and the heart of a mother. Constance, the pathetic mother, is a fitting pendant to Arthur, the pathetic child, as insincere and falsely drawn a portraiture, as obviously dressed up for the part. Indeed throughout the meagre and mostly unsympathetic list of mothers in Shakespeare’s otherwise various & splendid gallery there is not even one in whose speech there is the throbbing of a mother’s heart; the sacred beauty of maternity is touched upon in a phrase or two; but from Shakespeare we expect something more, some perfect & passionate enshrining of the most engrossing & selfless of human affections. And to this there is not even an approach. In this one respect [Kalidasa], perhaps from the superior depth and keenness of the domestic feelings peculiar to his nation, has outstripped his greater English compeer.”[6]


(Sri Aurobindo:) “Shakespeare was to the French classicists a drunken barbarian of genius; but his spontaneous exuberance has lifted him higher than their willed severity of classical perfection. All depends on the kind one aims at — expressing what is in oneself — and an inspired faithfulness to the law of perfection in that kind.”[7]




  1. Letters on Poetry and Art, p.25
  2. Kena and Other Upanishads, p.386, “The Philosophy of the Upanishads – VI”
  3. Ibid., p.387
  4. Letters on Poetry and Art, p.38
  5. Ibid., p.69
  6. Early Cultural Writings, p.230, “Vikramorvasie: The Characters”
  7. Letters on Poetry and Art, p.180


See also