Originally published by Chatto & Windus in 1960 as the second volume in a trilogy, this book has long been out of print. It offers a viewpoint seldom considered: an unusual and exceptionally clear insight into Shakespeare’s philosophy. It does so with freshness, modesty and conviction.
John Vyvyan continues his exploration into Shakespeare’s philosophy, begun in The Shakespearean Ethic, which he believes to have been consistent, consciously held and profoundly Christian. However, appreciating the danger faced in writing at a time of major religious intolerance, for ‘by the orthodox standards of his age, [such a] philosophy was heretical’, Vyvyan explains how Shakespeare used the medieval allegory of love, The Romance of the Rose, to veil his ideas.
The ultimate principle of his unorthodoxy, Vyvyan points out, was not original. It was one that had ‘been getting the mystics into trouble repeatedly since the early Middle Ages. Shakespeare’s view, that love leads to the recognition of unity, in essence is a poet’s presentation of the doctrine of divine immanence. This is something the mystics are continually reasserting’.
In The Romance of the Rose, the heroine symbolises the highest form of Love, not just romance, but also the qualities of purity and constancy, as Vyvyan reveals by discussing at length Love’s Labour’s Lost, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet. He shows that, even in his earliest work, Shakespeare was moving towards the universal ideas of love, forgiveness and regeneration which found their fullest expression in The Tempest and A Winter’s Tale.
‘There is no other voice from the past’, Vyvyan writes, ‘to which we still listen so willingly; and this is not merely because he entertains us, even in the higher sense, but also because there is something in his outlook on life that is deeply satisfying.’
John Vyvyan, born in 1908 in Sussex, was educated mainly in Switzerland. His first profession was archaeology, and he worked with Sir Flinders Petrie in the Middle East. Illness, which dogged him all his life, ended this kind of arduous field work, and he retired from archaeology to become a Shakespearean scholar and to write. In recognition of his contribution to Shakespearean scholarship in his trilogy, The Shakespearean Ethic (1959), Shakespeare and the Rose of Love (1960) and Shakespeare and Platonic Beauty (1961), he was offered, but unable to take up, a visiting lectureship at the State University of New York. He died in Exmouth in 1975.
Keywords: Literary criticism, Allegory