Our bookstore now ships internationally. Free domestic shipping $50+ →

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Waldorf Education and Anthroposophy I
GA 304

VIII. Shakespeare and the New Ideals

23 April 1922, Statford-on-Avon

From the announcement of the theme of today’s lecture “Shakespeare and the New Ideals,” it might be expected that I would speak, above all, about new ideals. But I am convinced that it is not so necessary to speak of new ideals today as it is to speak of a wider question, namely the following: How are men and women of our time to regain the power to follow ideals? After all, no great power is required to speak about ideals; indeed, it is often the case that those who speak most about these great questions, expanding beautiful ideals in abstract words out of their intellect, are those who lack the very power to put ideals into practice. Sometimes, speaking of ideals amounts to no more than holding onto illusions in the mind in order to pass over life’s realities.

At this festival, however, we have every cause to speak of what is spiritual as a reality. For this festival commemorates Shakespeare, and Shakespeare lives in what is spiritual in all that he created; he lives in it as in a real world. Receiving Shakespeare into our minds and souls might therefore be the very stimulus to give us men and women of today the power, the inner impulse to follow ideals, to follow real, spiritual ideals. We shall see our true ideals aright if we bear in mind how transitory many modern ideals have been and are, and how magnificently firm are many old ideals that still hold their own in the world by their effectiveness. Do we not see wide circles of believers in this or that religion, who base their innermost spiritual life and their inner mobility of spirit on something of the past, and gain from it the power of spiritual upliftment? And so we ask how is it that many modern ideals, beautiful as they are, and held for a while with great enthusiasm by large numbers of people, before long vanish as into a cloud, whereas religious or artistic ideals of old carry their full force into humanity not just through centuries but even through millennia?

If we ask this question, we are brought back repeatedly to the fact that, whereas our modern ideals are generally no more than shadow pictures of the intellect, the old ideals were garnered from real spiritual life, from a definite spirituality inherent in the humanity of the time. The intellect can never give human beings real power from the depths of their being. And, because this is so, many modern ideals vanish and fade away long before what speaks to us, through the old religious faiths, or through the old styles of art, from hoary antiquity. Returning to Shakespeare with these thoughts in mind, we know that a power lives in his dramatic work that not only always gives us fresh enthusiasm but also kindles within us—in our imaginations, in our spiritual natures—our own creative powers. Shakespeare has a wonderfully timeless power and, in this power, he is modern, as modern as can be.

Here, from the point of view of the connection between human ideals and Shakespeare, I might perhaps call to mind what I mentioned last Wednesday, namely Shakespeare’s deeply significant influence on Goethe. Countless books and treatises have been written on Shakespeare out of academic cleverness—exceptional cleverness. Taking all of the learned works on Hamlet alone, I think that one could fill library shelves that would cover this wall. But, when we seek to find what it was in Shakespeare that worked on such a man as Goethe, we finally come to the conclusion that absolutely nothing relating to that is contained in all that has been written in these books. They could have remained unwritten. All of the effort that has been brought to bear on Shakespeare stems from the world of the human intellect, which is certainly good for understanding facts of natural science and for giving such an explanation of external nature as we need to found for our modern technical achievements, but which can never penetrate what stands livingly and movingly before us in Shakespeare’s plays.

Indeed, I could go further. Goethe, too, from this standpoint of intellectual understanding, wrote many things on Shakespeare’s plays by way of explanation—on Hamlet, for example—and all of this, too, that Goethe wrote, is, in the main, one-sided and barren. However, what matters is not what Goethe said about Shakespeare, but what he meant when he spoke from his inmost experience, for example, when he said, “These are no mere poems! It is as though the great leaves of fate were opened and the storm-wind of life were blowing through them, turning them quickly to and fro.” These words are no explanation, but voice the devotion of his spirit. Spoken from his own humanity, they are very different from what he himself wrote by way of explanation about Hamlet.

Now, we might ask, why is it that Shakespeare is so difficult to approach intellectually? I shall try to give an answer in a picture. Someone has a vivid dream in which the characters enact a whole incident before the dreamer. Looking back on it later with the intellect, she or he might say that this or that figure in the dream acted wrongly; here is an action without motive or continuity, here are contradictions. But the dream cares little for such criticism. Just as little will the poet care how we criticize with our intellect and whether we find actions contradictory or inconsistent. I once knew a pedantic critic who found it strange that Hamlet, having only just seen the ghost of his father before him, should speak the monologue, “To be or not to be,” saying in it that “no traveller returns” from the land of death. This, the man of learning thought, was really absurd! I do not mean to say that Shakespeare’s dramatic scenes are dream scenes. Shakespeare experiences his scenes in full, living consciousness. They are as conscious as can be. But he uses the intellect only insofar as it serves him to develop his characters, to unfold them, to give form to action. He does not make his intellect master of what is to happen in his scenes.

I speak here from the anthroposophical view of the world. This view I believe, does contain the great ideals of humanity. Perhaps, therefore, I may mention at this point a significant experience that explains fully—by means of “artistic seership”—something that was first known through feeling. I have already had occasion to speak about the way in which “exact clairvoyance” is being cultivated at the Goetheanum, the school of spiritual science in Dornach, Switzerland. I have described the paths to this exact clairvoyance in the books translated into English as How to Know Higher Worlds, Theosophy, and An Outline of Occult Science. By means of certain exercises, carried out no less precisely than in the learning of mathematics, we can strengthen our soul faculties. Gradually, we can so develop our powers of thought, feeling, and will that we are able to live with our souls consciously—not in the unconsciousness of sleep or in dreams—outside the body. We become able to leave behind the physical body with its intellectualistic thought—for this remains with the physical body—in full consciousness. Then we have “imaginations,” by which I do not mean such fanciful imaginings as are justified in artistic work, but I mean true imaginations, true pictures of the spiritual world surrounding us. Through what I have called “imagination,” “inspiration,” and “intuition,” we learn to perceive in the spiritual world. Just as we consciously perceive this physical world and, through our senses, learn to build an understanding of it as a totality from the single sensory impressions of sound and color, so from the spiritual perceptions of exact clairvoyance we learn to build up an understanding of the spiritual world as a totality. Exact clairvoyance has nothing to do with hallucinations and illusions that enter a human being pathologically, always clouding and decreasing consciousness. In exact clairvoyance, we come to know the spiritual world in full consciousness, as clearly and as exactly as when we do mathematical work. Transferring ourselves into high spiritual regions, we experience pictures comparable, not with what are ordinarily known as visions, but rather with memory pictures. But these are pictures of an absolutely real spiritual world.

All of the original ideals of humanity in science, art, and religion were derived from the spiritual world. That is why the old ideals have a greater, more impelling power than modern intellectual ideals. The old ideals were seen in the spiritual world through clairvoyance, a clairvoyance that was at that time more instinctive and dreamlike. They were derived and taken from a spiritual source. By all means let us recognize quite clearly that certain contents of religious faith are no longer suited to our time. They have been handed down from ancient times. We need once more wide-open doors to look into the spiritual world and to take thence, not such abstract ideals as are spoken of on every side, but the power to follow the ideal and the spiritual in science, in art, and in religion.

If we approach Shakespeare with such powers of seeing into the spiritual world, we shall experience something quite specific, and it is of this that I wish to speak. Shakespeare can be understood with true and artistic feeling; exact clairvoyance is, of course, not necessary to have a full experience of his power. But exact clairvoyance can show us something most significant, which will explain why it is that Shakespeare can never let us feel he has left us, why it is that he is forever giving us fresh force and impulse. It is this: whoever has attained exact clairvoyance by developing the powers of thought, feeling, and will can carry over into the spiritual world what we have experienced here of Shakespeare. This is possible. What we have experienced here in the physical body—let us say that we have been entering deeply into the character of Hamlet or Macbeth—we can take this experience over into the spiritual world. We can see what lived in Shakespeare’s deep inner life only when we compare it with the impressions that we are able to take over into the spiritual world from poets of more modern times. I do not wish to mention any particular poet by name—I know that everyone has his or her favorite poets—but any one of the naturalistic poets, particularly of recent years, could be mentioned. If we compare what we take over from Shakespeare with what we have in the spiritual world from these poets, we discover the remarkable fact that Shakespeare’s characters live! When we take them over into the spiritual world, they act. They act differently, but they bring their life here into the spiritual world. Whereas, if we take over the characters created by a modern naturalistic poet into the spiritual world, they really behave more like dolls than human beings! They have no life in them at all, no movement! Shakespeare’s men and women keep their life and character. But the characters of many other poets, derived from naturalism, are just like wooden dolls in the spiritual world! They go through a kind of freezing process! Indeed, we ourselves are chilled by contact with such modern poetry in the spiritual world.

I am not saying this out of any kind of emotion, but as a matter of experience. With this experience in mind, we may ask again: what was it that Goethe felt? “It is as though the great book of fate is opened in Shakespeare, and life’s stormy wind is turning its pages quickly to and fro.” Goethe knew and felt how Shakespeare created from the full depths of the spiritual world. This has given Shakespeare his real immortality: this makes him ever new. We can go through a play of Shakespeare’s and experience it ten, twenty, a hundred times!

Ladies and gentlemen, you have had before you within the last few days the scene from Much Ado about Nothing where the Friar kneels down beside the fallen heroine and utters his conviction of her innocence. It is something unspeakably deep and true, and there is hardly anything in modern literature to be compared with it. Indeed, it is most often the intimate touches in Shakespeare that work with such power and reveal his inner life and vitality.

Or again, in As You Like It, where the Duke stands before the trees and all of the life of nature in the Forest of Arden, and says that they are better counselors than those at court, for they tell him something of what he is as a human being. What a wonderful perception of nature speaks from the whole of this well known passage! “. . . tongues in trees, books in the running brooks. . . .” Here is an understanding of nature, here is a reading of nature! It is true that the more modern poets can also indicate such things, but we often feel that in them it is something second-hand. In Shakespeare, we feel that he is himself everything. Even when they both say the same, it is altogether different whether Shakespeare says it or some other poet.

Thus the great question comes before us: how is it that, in Shakespeare, there is this living quality that is so intimately related to the supersensible? Whence comes the life in Shakespeare’s dramas? This question leads us to see how Shakespeare, working as he did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was able to create something that still had living connections with the life of the most ancient drama. And this most ancient drama, as it speaks to us from Aeschylus, from Sophocles, is in turn a product of the mysteries, those ancient cultic, artistic actions that derive from the most ancient, instinctive, inner spiritual knowledge. We can understand what inspires us so in true art, if we seek the origin of art in the mysteries.

If I now make some brief remarks on the ancient mysteries as the source of the artistic sense and artistic creative power, the objection can of course very easily be made that what is said on this subject from the standpoint of exact clairvoyance is unsupported by sufficient proof. Exact clairvoyance, however, brings us into touch not only with what surrounds us at the present day but also, most empathically, with the world of history, with the historical evolution of humanity, and of the universe. Those who follow the method that I have described in my books can themselves investigate what exact clairvoyance has to say upon the subject of the mysteries.

When speaking of the mysteries, we are looking back into very ancient times in human evolution, times when religion, art, and science did not yet stand separately, side by side, as they do today. Generally, people are insufficiently aware of the changes—the metamorphoses—that art, religion, and science have undergone before reaching the separation and differentiation that they experience today. I will mention only one thing to indicate how, to some extent, modern anthroposophical knowledge brings us into contact again with older forms of true artistic life.

Across the centuries, the works of earlier painters—those, say, before the end of the thirteenth and during the fourteenth centuries—come down to us. We need only think of Cimabue. Thereafter, something that has rightly held sway in modern painting enters into painting. This is what we call perspective. In the paintings in the dome of the Goetheanum in Switzerland, you can see how we are returning once again to the perspective which lies in the colors themselves—where we have a different feeling in the blue, the red, and the yellow. It is as though we were leaving the ordinary physical world: the third dimension of space ceases to have significance, and we work in two dimensions only.

Thus, a painter can return to a connection with the ancient instinctive spiritual experience of humanity. It is this possibility that modern anthroposophy seeks to give through all that I have said concerning exact clairvoyance.

Looking back at the life of ancient, instinctive clairvoyance, we find it connected equally with the artistic, the religious, and the scientific; that is, with the whole of the ancient form of knowledge. There was always an understanding for the union of religion, art, and science—which in those days meant a revelation of divine cosmic forces—in the mystery cults. Insofar as they were a manifestation of divine forces, the mystery cults entered deeply into humanity’s religious feelings; insofar as they were already what we call today artistic—what we cultivate in art—they were the works of art for the people of that time. And, insofar as those ancient peoples were aware that true knowledge is gained, not by seeking it one-sidedly through the head, but through the experience of the whole being, the ancient mysteries in their development were also mediators for human knowledge as it then was. Today, on the other hand, according to the modern view, knowledge can be acquired simply by taking ordinary consciousness—remaining as we are—and observing nature, forming concepts from the facts of nature.

Our modern way of approaching the world in order to gain knowledge of it is not the same as it was in ancient times. In the old way, to look into the spiritual world, one had to lift oneself to a higher level of one’s humanity. Of course, this ancient way of knowing was not the same as our present exact clairvoyance. Nevertheless, the human being did see into the spiritual world. The mystery rites were enacted, not to display something for the outer eye, but to awaken inner experience in the whole human being. Mighty destinies formed the subject of these mystery rites. Through them, human beings were brought to forget their ordinary selves. They were lifted out of ordinary life. Although in a dream and not as clearly as is required today, they entered the state of living outside their bodies. That was the purpose of the mysteries. By the witness of deeply-moving scenes and actions, the mysteries sought to bring the neophyte to the point of living and experiencing outside the physical body.

There are certain fundamental experiences characteristic of life outside the body. One great experience is the following. In the physical body, our ordinary life of feeling is interwoven with the organic processes in our own body. But when we are outside the body, our feeling encompasses everything that surrounds us. We experience in feeling all of the life around us. Imagine that a person is outside the physical body with his or her soul and spiritual life and experiences spiritually—not with the intellect’s ice-cold forces, but with the forces of the soul, with feeling and emotion. Imagine what it feels like to experience outside the body in this way. It is a great sympathy with all things—with thunder and lightning, with the rippling of the stream, the welling forth of the river spring, the sighing of the wind—and a feeling of togetherness also with other human beings, as well as with the spiritual entities of the world. Outside the body, one learns to know this great empathy.

Now, united with this great feeling of empathy, another fundamental feeling also comes over the human being in the face of what is at first unknown. I refer to a certain sense of fear. These two feelings—the feeling of empathy with all the world, and the feeling of fear—played a great part in the ancient mysteries. When the pupils had strengthened themselves in their inner lives so that they were able, without turning away and without losing their inner control, to bear both the living empathy with the world and the fear, then they were ripe enough and sufficiently evolved really to see into the spiritual worlds. They were then ready to live and experience the spiritual world. And they were ready, too, to communicate to their fellow human beings knowledge drawn from spiritual worlds. With their feeling, they could work down from the spiritual worlds into this world, and a new poetic power was revealed in their speech. Their hands became skilled to work in colors; they were able to command the inner rhythm of their organism so that they could become musicians for the benefit of other human beings. In this way, they became artists. They could hand down from the mysteries what the primeval religions gave to humanity. Anyone who looks into the Catholic Mass with inner spiritual knowledge knows that it is the last shadow-like reflection of what was living in the mysteries.

At first, what was living in the mysteries had its artistic and its religious side. Afterward, these two separated. In Aeschylus and in Sophocles we already see the artistic element, as it were, lifted out of the mysteries. There is the divine hero, Prometheus. In Prometheus, the human being comes to know something of the deeply-moving, terrifying experiences, the inner fear of the mysteries. What was living in the mysteries, in which the neophytes were initiated into a higher stage of life, becomes in Prometheus a picture, though permeated with living dramatic power. Thus drama became an image of the deepest human experiences. Aristotle, who was already, in a sense, an intellectual, still lived in some of the old traditions. He knew and experienced how drama was a kind of echo of the ancient mysteries. For this reason, Aristotle said, putting into words what was an echo of the ancient mysteries living on in Aeschylus and Sophocles, what has been dismissed by learned men again and again in their books: “Drama is the representation of a scene calling forth sympathy and fear, in order that human beings may be purified of physical passions, that they may undergo catharsis.” We cannot understand what this catharsis, or purification, means unless we look back into the ancient mysteries and see how people were purified of what is physical and lived through mighty experiences in the supersensible, outside their physical bodies. Aristotle describes what had already become a picture in Greek drama. Afterward, this passed over to later dramatists, and we see in Corneille and Racine something that is a fulfillment of Aristotle’s words. We see characters clothed, as it were, in fear and compassion—compassion that is none other than the ancient sympathy and experience with all the world that the human being experienced outside the body. The fear is always there when the human being faces the unknown. The supersensible is always, in a sense, the unknown.

Shakespeare entered into the evolution of drama in his time. He entered into a world that was seeking a new dramatic element. Something transcending ordinary human life lives in drama. Shakespeare entered deeply into this. He was inspired by that ancient dramatic power which, to a certain extent, was still felt by his contemporaries. And he worked in such a way that we feel in Shakespeare that more than a single human personality is at work: the spirit of his century is at work and, with it, the spirit of the whole of human evolution. Shakespeare still lived in that ancient feeling, and so he called something to life in himself that enabled him to form his dramatic characters and human figures, not in any intellectual way, but by living right within them himself. The characters of Shakespeare’s plays come, not from human intellect, but from a power kindled and fired in the human being. It is this power that we must seek again if we would develop the true ideal of humanity.

Let us come back to the unification of art, science, and religion. This is our aim at the Goetheanum in Dornach. By the development of exact clairvoyance, we come to understand what was at work in the ancient mysteries. The element that the mystery dramatists placed, as yet externally, before their audiences was still at work in Shakespeare who recreated it in a wonderfully inward way.

It is no mere outer feature of Shakespeare’s plays that we find in them about a hundred and fifty names of different plants and about a hundred names of birds, everywhere intimately, lovingly interwoven with human life. All of this is part of the single whole in Shakespeare.

Shakespeare took the continuous current that flows through human evolution from the ancient Mysteries—their cults and rites—wholly into his inner life. He took this impulse of the ancient mysteries and his plays come forth like dreams that are awake and real. The intellect with its explanations, its consistencies and inconsistencies, cannot approach them. As little as we can apply intellectual standards to a Prometheus or an Oedipus, just so little can we apply them to Shakespeare’s plays.

Thus, in a wonderful way, we see in Shakespeare’s own person a development that we can call a mystery development. Shakespeare comes to London where he draws on historical traditions for his material. In his plays, he is still dependent on others. We see then how, from about 1598 onward, a certain inner life awakens. Shakespeare’s own artistic imagination comes to life. He is able to stamp his characters with the very interior of his being. Sometime later, when he has created Hamlet, a kind of bitterness toward the external physical world comes over him. We feel as though he were living in other worlds and judging the physical world differently—as though he were looking down from the point of view of other worlds. We then see him emerge from this inner deepening of experience with all of its inner tragedy. First, Shakespeare learns the external dramatic medium. Next, he goes through deepest inwardness—what I would call the meeting with the World Spirit, of which Goethe spoke so beautifully. Then he re-enters life with a certain humor, and his work carries with it the loftiest spirituality joined with the highest dramatic power. Here, I am thinking, for example, of The Tempest, one of the most wonderful creations of all humankind, one of the richest products of the evolution of dramatic art. In it, Shakespeare, in a living, human way, is able to lay his ripe philosophy of life into every character and figure.

So, having seen the art of drama derive from the ancient mysteries whose purpose was the living evolution of humanity, we can understand how it is that such an educational power goes out from Shakespeare’s plays. We can see how Shakespeare’s work, which arose out of a kind of self education given by nature herself, which he then lifted to the highest spirituality, can work in our schools and penetrate the living education of our youth. Once we have thus experienced their full cosmic spirituality, Shakespeare’s dramas must be livingly present with us when we consider the great educational questions of the day. But we must be active with all of the means at our disposal, for only by the deepest spirituality shall we find in Shakespeare the answer to these questions.

Such are the ideals that humanity needs so sorely. We have a wonderful natural science in our time, but it places a world that is dense and material before us. It can teach us nothing else than the final end of it all in a kind of universal death. And, when we consider natural evolution, as it is given to us in the thoughts of the last centuries, it seems like something strange and foreign when we look up to our spiritual ideals. So we ask whether the religious ideal has a real force, adequate to the needs of the civilized world today. But it has not. We must regain this real force by rising to the spiritual world. Only then, by spiritual knowledge and not by mere belief, shall we find the strength in our ideals to overcome all material aspects in the cosmos. We must be able to lift ourselves up to the power that creates from truly religious ideals, the power to overcome the world of matter in the universe.

We can do this only if we yield ourselves to the spiritual conception of the world and, for this, Shakespeare can be a great leader. Moreover, it is an intense social need that there be a spiritual conception of the world working in our time. Do not think that I am speaking out of egotism when I refer once again to Dornach in Switzerland, where we are cultivating what can lead humanity once more into the reality of the spiritual, into the true spiritual nature of the world. Only because of this were we able to overcome many of those contending interests working in people today and so sadly splitting them into parties and differing sections in every sphere of life. I could mention that, from 1913 until now, almost without a break, through the whole period of the war, while nearby the thunder of the cannon was heard, members of no less than seventeen nations have been working together in Dornach. That seventeen nations could work together peacefully during the greatest of all wars, this, too, seems to me a great ideal in education. What is possible on a small scale should be possible on a large scale, and human progress—human civilization—needs it. And, precisely because we favor an international advance in human civilization, I point to Shakespeare as a figure who worked in all humanity. He gave all humanity a great inspiration for new human ideals, ideals that have a meaning for international, universal humanity.

Therefore, let me close on this festival day with these words of Goethe, words that Goethe was impelled to speak when he felt the fullness of the spirituality in Shakespeare. There then arose from his heart a saying that, I think, must set its stamp on all our understanding of the great poet, who will remain an eternal source of inspiration to all. Conscious of this, Goethe uttered these words on Shakespeare with which we may close our thoughts today: “It is the nature of spirit to inspire spirit eternally.” Hence, we may rightly say, “Shakespeare for ever and without end!”