Neoplatonism in Shakespeare and its Effect on Modern Literature
Few writers have managed to enter the world-wide public consciousness as well as Shakespeare; everyone knows his name and can terribly misquote his plays. Yet, for all his popularity, many of his critics have called him unlearned, saying his plays are entertaining but shallow. These same critics often point at the many inconsistencies of his writing, claiming that Shakespeare was not trying to convey anything but witticisms and beautiful sounds. Of course, even his harshest detractors acknowledge his plays and sonnets have influenced the world's literature on a scale that is intimidating; every writer of his era stood in his shadow, and modern literature stands on his shoulders. Shakespeare was a product of his time as much as any man must be, and his writing is rife with the ideals of Neoplatonism, which was only just surfacing in the European realm of thought as Shakespeare began writing. Platonism and its effect on Shakespeare, and in turn his effect on modern literature, has had lasting repercussions.
Neoplatonism: A School of Thought
Many philosophers other than Plato himself make up the umbrella of Neoplatonism. These philosophers, both contemporaries of Plato and his successors, offered varied viewpoints and fleshed out Plato's ideas. Neoplatonism is the result of an amalgamation of both philosophic and religious/mystic beliefs. Kaballah, Islam, and the more esoteric elements of Christianity were incorporated into the framework of Plato's teachings. Arcane practices such as alchemy and theurgy, now known to be foolish pseudo-sciences, arose out of Neoplatonic beliefs.
One of the key tenants of Plato's teachings is The Forms. Plato attempts to explain them many times through dramatic dialogue. An excerpt from "The Republic" attempts to clarify the term:
"[Socrates:]'Since the beautiful is opposite of the ugly, they are two.'
[Glaucon:]'Of course.' 'And since they are two, each is one?' 'I grant that also.' 'And the same account is true of the just and unjust, the good and the bad, and all the forms. Each of them is itself one, but because they manifest themselves everywhere in association with actions, bodies, and one another, each of them appears to be many.' "
What Socrates is attempting to explain to Glaucon in the above passage is that all the forms arise out of The Form of Good. The Form of Good is essentially the Ideal world. Everything in the Phenomenal world, or the world that each individual person and society as a whole exists physically in, is a less-Good representation of the Ideal Realm; in the allegory of "The Cave", the Phenomenal world is represented by shadows of actual things being thrown onto a wall. So, Socrates is saying to Glaucon that the Ideal realm is a perfected, real version of our own world, and that each thing contained within our world has an Ideal form, of which the physical objects are merely bad representations. Interpreters of Plato...