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The Qabalah and Shakespeare

By Barbara Barnett

Published at Imbolc 2002

Qabalah and Shakespeare

In my article 'Qabalah the tree of life ' I sought to write a little about the meaning and history of the Qabalah and introduced the Sephira and traced the lightning flash down the tree. I wanted in this article to look in more detail at the 22 paths of the tree that connect the sephira and to explore something of their meaning using by way of illustration some of the plays of William Shakespeare.

Exploring the Paths

The paths are numbered 11 to 32 and each path can be connected to one of the archetypal figures of the Major Arcana of the Tarot.

The triangle connecting the Spheres Kether Chockmah and Binah 'The Supernal or Spirit Triangle' is formed by three paths the 11th path between Kether and Chockmah , 'The Fool' the 12th path between Kether and Binah ' The Magus or Magician' and the 14th path between Chockmah and Binah 'The Empress' . The 14th path forms the base or balance of the spirit triangle and connects Wisdom with Understanding. The 13th path the path of the 'High Priestess ' leads down from Kether and connects right into the heart and centre of the Soul Triangle at Tiphareth .

From Chockmah the first sphere on the right hand pillar of Mercy two paths lead down to connect to the Soul Triangle the 15th path of  'The Star' connects the wisdom of Chockmah to the beauty of  'Tiphareth' and the 16th path of  'The Hierophant' connects the wisdom of Chockmah with the mercy of Chesed .

From Binah the first sphere on the left hand pillar of severity two paths lead down to connect with the Soul Triangle. The 17th path of 'The Lovers' connects the understanding of Binah to the beauty of Tiphareth and the 18th path of 'The Chariot' connects the understanding of Binah with the strength of Geburah.

The Soul Triangle is made up of three paths the 19th the 20th and the 22nd. From Tiphareth the centre of the Soul Triangle two paths the 20th and the 22nd reach upwards like two arms outstretched to receive the abundance of the light and energy pouring down from above. The 20th path of 'The Hermit' links Tiphareth with Chesed the sphere of mercy on the right hand pillar of mercy and the 22nd path of Adjustment links Tiphareth with Geburah the sphere of strength on the left hand pillar of severity. Mercy and Strength are joined together and balanced by the 19th path of lust (in the sense of lust for life) or strength .

There are thus five paths leading to Tiphareth from the spheres of Kether, Chockmah, Binah ,

Geburah and Chesed and bringing the energies from those spheres to Tiphareth as a central junction box - these are 'The Fool' 'The Magus' ' The High Priestess' The Lovers' and 'The Star'.

There are three paths leading down from Tiphareth and taking energy from the Soul Triangle to the Personality Triangle. The central path leading from Yesod the Sphere of Foundation is the 25th path of  Temperance is depicted in many Tarot packs as standing with one foot on land and one in water. As I look at the Temperance card of the Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot I see that Temperance left foot, for she is facing me, is on land and this could be represented by the 26th path of 'The Devil' which leads from Tiphareth to Hod the sphere of Thoughts  and her right foot  is over the sea and could be represented by the 24th path of 'Death' which leads from Tiphareth to Netzach the sphere of feelings. In the Rider Waite Tarot pack Temperance as a winged angel holds two everflowing chalices and combines their contents by pouring them into one pool - Yesod.

The 21st path of the ' Wheel of Fortune' connects Netzach to Chesed bringing Mercy to Feelings and the 23rd path of the 'Hanged Man' joins Hod to Geburah bringing Strength to Thoughts Will and Intention.

The three spheres of the Personality triangle Yesod Hod and Netzach   are braced from above by the 24th 25th and 26th paths but they are also braced from below to allow the energies and experiences of the Personality on earth to be fed back to the Soul.

On the right hand side pillar of Mercy the 28th path of 'The Emperor' connects Yesod the Sphere of Foundation with Netzach the sphere of Victory and on the left hand pillar of severity the 30th path of 'The Sun' connects Yesod with Hod the Sphere of Splendour.

So these nineteen paths connect the three triangles of Spirit Soul and Personality to each other and allow energies and communications to pass between them. However the sphere of Malkuth the place where these energies are manifested and brought into physical being needs also to be connected to the tree to receive the energies and report how these energies manifest in physical form. Malkuth is connected to the tree by three more paths. On the right hand pillar of mercy the 29th path of ' The Moon' connects Malkuth to Netzach . On the left hand side pillar of severity the 31st path of 'Judgement' connects Malkuth to Hod. In the centre the 32nd path of ' The Universe' connects Malkuth to Yesod and through Yesod to Tiphareth the sphere of the Guardian Angel and through Tiphareth directly to Kether the Source.

Shakespearian Correspondences

I felt a yen to explore the plays of Shakespeare as correspondences to the tree of life. Well I know a bit about Shakespeare I studied Macbeth at school (twice over) and Othello. I once had to write an essay entitled 'The Truth of Shakespeare's comedies is that we are all united the Truth of his tragedies is that we are all eventually alone - Discuss' This led me to study Hamlet and King Lear and also some of the comedies 'As You Like It' 'Twelfth Night' 'Much Ado About Nothing' and of course 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

As I reflect on the task in hand it seems a little daunting and I've promised to have an article prepared in a week! I wonder whether like Macbeth I'm suffering from  'vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself and falls on the other'

However its an article I'd love to write simply for the pleasure of doing it so I don't think its ambition that leads me by the nose. Maybe its the energetic concepts of the 'Fool' of the 11th path eager to step onto the path of new experience. However I must remember that the distortion of that path is impracticability so perhaps I should not attempt to work with the correspondences to all the paths for that would mean revising almost the entire works of Shakespeare in a week.

I seek counsel from the Mother sphere of Binah and whilst she applauds my 'Good Works' she warns me that to try and read all the plays in a week would be a little greedy!

So should I step out fearlessly on the path of the fool? I have the works of the Bard himself to help me and the wonderful Shakespearian Tarot cards created by Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki to act as my guide as to which plays might fit to which paths. Should I disregard any misgivings that are coming to me from my experiences of 52 years on earth in this incarnation or should I pause for a moment just to listen to the voice of experience. Maybe it would be better to limit it just to work with the paths that form the three triangles and yet as I ponder archetypes crowd my mind and jostle for precedence.

'You can't miss me out' cries Othello, 'I'm an old friend you studied me at school' - but maybe the fact that he connects with the 26th path of 'The Devil' is a warning that he is an illusion tempting me off the straight and narrow path. But the final tribute to him at the end of the play was that he was great of heart so maybe......

Can I really afford to miss out the fairy tale magic of A Midsummer Night's Dream but that connects with the 29th path of 'the Moon' not a path of the three triangles. Having worked with the three triangles maybe I could extend the brief a little and work with the three paths connecting them to Malkuth because I do want to bring my ideas into manifestation on the physical plane.

And what of the meaning behind the title of the plays? 'As you like it' connects with the path of ' The Universe' which runs between Yesod and Malkuth . What better reminder could we have that when we come to earth we enter the world of free choice. However it is easy to forget that we are responsible for our thoughts and actions and must think and act with wisdom and understanding.

The title ' Twelfth Night' is also interesting. Shakespeare gave it the alternative title of ' What you Will' Did that mean he was dissatisfied with the title Twelfth Night but couldn't be bothered to think of anything better? I don't think so! The Twelfth Night after Christmas is Epiphany - described in the dictionary as a commemoration of the manifestation of a god. This could be the link between the Fool of the 11th path and the Magus or Magician of the 12th path both of which emanate from Kether the Source. 'What you will' reminds me of 'Do What Thou Wilt' Aleister Crowley in the 'Book of Lies' says that 'Do What Thou Wilt' is the only Law and identifies it with the secret fourfold name of Horus. He also says that those four words 'Do What thou Wilt' are probably connected with the four possible modes of conceiving the Universe and Horus unites these.

Another thought provoking title is 'Much Ado About Nothing' Nothing is the number of the fool in the tarot and it also corresponds to the Negative which is before Kether in the Qabalistic System. Crowley describes the Ante Primal Triad as 'Nothing is, nothing becomes and nothing is not'

So to return to my dilemna. My thoughts working from the pillar of severity tell me that if God could create the world in seven days surely I could revise the Works of Shakespeare in a week. But I'm going to allow that to be tempered by the influence of the pillar of mercy and I will do exactly as much or as little as feels right. I will step out onto the path of the Fool but I will not be fettered by fears of problems that may arise on paths that may or may not become the subject of this article.

Two Gentlemen of Verona  - The 11th path of the Fool

Will Parfitt in 'The New Living Qabalah' suggests as keywords to connect with the 11th path wholeness, stimulating expressive energetic and original . I will bear those words in mind as I proceed.

I reflect also on the fact that 'Verona' is in the title of the play. This reminds me of Truth. I am in the Spirit Triangle on the path from Kether to Chockmah and Chockmah is the sphere of the Logos . In the Beginning was the word and the word was made flesh.

This is a tale of Love and the two 'gentlemen' Proteus and Valentine are at times different at times the same representation of Love. The adjective Protean means readily assuming different shapes, variable., inconstant and Shakespeare's Proteus readily fits this description. at first he falls in love with Julia and when his friend Valentine is going on a journey declares himself too much in love with Julia to want to be separated from her. This separates him from Valentine who travels to Milan . At his father's insistence Proteus does undertake a journey to Milan where he is reunited with Valentine . He then forgets his love for Julia and falls in love with Silvia whom Valentine also loves causing conflict and further separation from Valentine .

When Silvia rejects his advances rebuking him for his inconstancy and disloyalty to Julia he begs a picture of her so that if he cannot possess the real Julia he can at least have the image.

(This reminds me that man is made in the image of God and for me it has a connection with St Veronica who wiped Christ's face with her handkerchief and the Divine Image was imprinted on the handkerchief and the handkerchief subsequently used in healing) Both Veronica and Verona seem to have a link with the search for truth.

But to return to Proteus he eventually tries to force Silvia to take notice of his attentions but fortunately at that point Julia who has come to Milan disguised as a man reveals her true identity and Proteus remembers that she is the one he truly loves. I notice that Milan contains the word man and 'il' which is the French for 'he'.

Valentine approaches the experience from a different angle. At first in Verona he cannot uinderstand Proteus feelings for Julia and cheerfully sets out on his journey to Milan accusing Proteus of having 'love as his master' and being 'yoked by a fool' . On reaching Milan he falls in love with Silvia and is able then to appreciate and relate to Proteus when he arrives to join him. Silvia is betrothed to Thurio but undaunted by this Valentine plans to rescue her with a ladder of cords put up to her window. However in his naivity he is trapped into revealing his plan to the Duke her father who has also been tipped off by Proteus of the intended plan.

He is banished to a forest near Mantua ( Silvia seems to connect with Silvan and Woods) where a band of outlaws make him their leader. Thurio is shown to be a coward and Silvia's father relents and allows the marriage of Silvia and Valentine . Valentine showing loyalty and love for the bvand of outlaws asks the Duke for forgiveness and employment for them. Proteus and Valentine are reunited in love when Proteus returns his love to Julia

But the Fool of the Tarot is often depicted with a dog at his heels and the character in the Two Gentlemen of Verona who is depicted in this way is the servant Launce . Valentine and Proteus love Silvia and Julia because they see them to be beautiful and good on the outside but Launce can see and love the inner beauty of the outwardly ugly and bad tempered dog Crab . He is prepared to make a gift of Crab to Silvia when he perceives that is what is required of him but when the gift is rejected lovingly takes him back and when Crab disgraces himself by 'pissing' under Silvia's table and is threatened with a whipping Launce saves him by saying that it was he not Crab who had pissed under the table and takes the whipping instead.. it is not without significance that the dog is called Crab for Crab is the symbol of the sign of Cancer and relates to the 18th path of the Chariot and the 'Grail' .

In the Book of Thoth Aleister Crowley gives this lovely description of the 11th path:

' Be silent babe in the egg of blue that thou

Mayest grow to bear the Lance and Graal!

Wander alone and sing! In the king's palace

His daughter awaits thee'

I love the simple beauty of this story but am in danger of spending a disproportionate amount of the article on it if I linger further. In danger of making 'Much Ado about Nothing' ie the Fool. I must move on the chariot awaits and maybe Crab is snapping at my heels.

'The Tempest' and 'The Winter's Tale'-  The 12th and 14th paths

Both of these titles plainly indicate that the forces of nature and of the elements are involved here. There are many representations of Magickal Forces in Shakespeare but I think one of the most powerful is Prospero in 'The Tempest' . Prospero is a  magician. He can command the elements He has as his servants the Air Elemental Ariel and the monster Caliban. The latter could be said to represent the animal nature of man. Both of these are pressing him for their freedom.

The New Living Qabalah suggests as keywords for this path willful quick unpredictable graceful talented and deceptive and all these.qualities would be present in the spells cast by Prospero with the help of Ariel whom he eventually sets free.

There are a lot of sea images in this play which relate to Binah which is appropriate for the path of the magician is travelling from Kether the Crown to Binah the sphere of Understanding.

Let us now move on to the Winter's Tale and the 14th pathwhich links Chockmah (wisdom) with Binah (understanding). This is the balancing path of the spirit triangle and is the path of the Empress . The empress is ever pregnant with the abundant opportunities for creation love growth and development offered by the Source as gifts to his creation.

Hermione in the Winter's tale is pregnant with the child of her husband Leontes but he in a fit of jealousy believes the child to be that of his friend Polixenes and imprisons Hermione and causes the child when it is born to be taken and abandoned in some remote and desert place. He seeks counsel from the oracle at Delphi and Hermione is vindicated but too late, for Leontes is told that she is dead. The oracle also says that Leontes will not have an heir until that which is lost has been found.

The baby who is called Perdita is found and brought up by a shepherd. Sixteen years pass and she meets Florizel the son of Polixenes and they fall in love but Polixenes will not allow them to be married because of the low birth of the 'shepherd's daughter' The lovers flee to the kingdom of Leontes where the true identity of Perdita is discovered and the lovers are allowed to wed. The story ends with Leontes being asked to view a statue of Hermione only to discover that the statue is not a statue but is the true living Hermione who embraces him.

As in Two Gentlemen of Verona we have emphasis on the 'image' Leontes on meeting Florizel says

'Your mother was most true to wedlock prince for she did print your royal father off conceiving you' And the statue of Hermione which at first appeared to Leontes just to be an image turned out to be the true living Hermione returned to him.

The New Living Qabalah gives the keywords of the 14th path as unconditional tolerant forgiving embracing and sharing and all these qualities are reflected in the love Hermione showed to Leontes - continuing to love him during the period of her enforced separation from him and totally forgiving him for his foundationless jealousy and embracing him when they are reunited. 

Antony and Cleopatra  - the 13th and 19th paths

In relating Antony and Cleopatra to the 19th path of Strength I cannot overlook that it also relates to the 13th path of the High Priestess and this is interesting from the point of view of the position of the paths on the tree. The 19th path crosses the tree horizontally and balances the paths of Chesed and Geburah. (Mercy and Strength) the 13th path travels vertically down the tree from Kether to Tiphareth and at the point where it meets the 19th path the two paths form a cross. The two paths reflect on the two different aspects of Cleopatra the immortal 'Priestess of the Silver Star' and the mortal Queen of Egypt .

The 19th path the horizontal path relates to the mortal side of Cleopatra . The New Living Qabalah suggests as keywords for this path 'beautiful limitless affirming certain and passionate ' Cleopatra is beautiful and her love for Antony is passionate. The 19th path is the path of teth the serpent and Cleopatra dies by putting one poisonous asp or serpent to her breast and another to her arm. The serpent and the breasts are both qabalistic correspondences to this path. It is the path of magickal union . This could be taken as the union of Cleopatra with Antony or as the union of the Serpent with Cleopatra . As Eve's connection with the serpent in the Garden of Eden caused her transformation from immortal to mortal so Cleopatra is being transformed through the serpent energy from mortal to immortal. This is further substantiated by the words of Cleopatra as she prepares for death: 'Give me my robe put on my crown I have immortal longings in me, now no more the juice of Egypts grape shall moist this lip' In relinquishing the purple grape she is moving from the purple of the 19th path and taking up her immortal role on the 13th path. She says 'Dost thou see my baby at my breast that sucks its nurse to sleep?' again indicating that she is about to leave her 'nurse' her physical body.

King Lear - The 20th and 21st paths

If Antony and Cleopatra relates to the way energy passes between the Soul and the Spirit triangles King Lear is about the way energy passes between the Soul triangle and the personality triangle. The twentieth path of 'the Hermit' connects the sphere of Mercy Chesed with the sphere of beauty Tiphareth the heart centre of the Soul triangle. The 21st path of the Wheel of Fortune connects Chesed to Netzach the Feelings sphere in the Personality triangle.

It is interesting that both of these paths are on the right hand side of the tree and lead down the tree from the sphere of mercy Chesed .

King Lear is relinquishing his kingdom and dividing it between his daughters. Maybe at soul level he knows that he needs to spend some time as a hermit to reconnect with his soul. However instead of dividing the kingdom between his three daughters unconditionally he asks each daughter in turn how much she loves him. The two older daughters are greedy for their share and find elaborate words to flatter him with but the youngest Cordelia (cordial reviving the heart or spirits) who truly loves her father cannot abuse the words of love by using them for the object of material gain. Lear believes the flattery of the two older daughters and is angry with Cordelia for not expressing her love in a similar way.  He divides his kingdom between his two older daughters.and excludes Cordelia . Discrimination is a quality of Malkuth and discriminating a keyword of the 20th path. By abusing his powers of discrimination and using them in a way that lacked both judgement and mercy Lear has cut himself off from Malkuth . he is ungrounded.

Once Lear has relinquished his kingdom his fortunes change. His two older daughters offer him a home only reluctantly and impose conditions he finds unacceptable so he is driven out to face the elements. The needs of a physical body can often be in direct conflict to the needs of the soul and although the period 'in the wilderness' may have been what his soul needed his mental state suffers and he loses his reason. He is however able to recognise Cordelia when they meet again and they are reunited. When Cordelia dies his heart is broken and he dies shortly thereafter.

The New Living Qabalah suggests keywords for the 20th path of the hermit of introspective discriminating sober sufficiency and separated and these are the aspects and challenges Lear has to face when exposed to the elements. The suggested keywords for the 21st path of the Wheel of Fortune are change opportunistic courageous extremist and gambling all of which could be applied to Lear

'Julius Caesar' and 'Richard III' the 28th and 27th Paths

In the correspondences to The New Living Qabalah the 28th path is the path of the Emperor . He is the ruler and the 'son of the morning' and Julius Caesar reflects these qualities. The magickal vision of this path is the power of Consecration and Caesar was deified two years after his death. The keywords for this path are suggested as discipline anaytical stable solid and materialistic . The path joins the Feelings Sphere of Netzach to Yesod the Sphere of foundation.

The dark and mysterious death of the Princes in the Tower is a fitting Shakespearian correspondence for the 27th path of the Tower. The dark figure of Richard III said to have been responsible for so many deaths and this eventually caused the fall of the tower that was the Plantagenet dynasty. In Shakespeare's play the ghosts of his victims appear to Richard just before his last battle to curse and condemn him and to provide encouragement to his rival Henry Earl of Richmond later Henry VII.

The New Living Qabalah suggests keywords for this path of purifying motivated cathartic and releasing and these qualities are often present when the old order ends and a new one begins.

A Midsummer Night's dream - 29th Path

The magickal vision of the 29th path is bewitchments/casting illusions and there is plentiful evidence for this in A Midsummer Night's Dream . The aspect I would like to consider is the story of the weaver Bottom who was appointed to play Pyramus in 'Pyramus and Thisbe'

the play within a play. Bottom accepted the part of Pyramus but wanted more information about the character he was to play. Was Pyramus a tyrant or a lover? On being told a lover he said he would have preferred to have played a tyrant. When he discovered there were other parts on offer he wanted to play them all - Pyramus, Thisbe and the lion that roared but he was told that his part was Pyramus .

Bottom accepts his fate and begins to practice totally confident and blissfully unaware how bad his performance is. he is watched by the fairy Puck   who is so amused that he puts an asses head on Bottom . Bottom comes down to Earth with a bump.

But Bottom survives his coming to Earth because showing great courage he refuses to be upset by this transformation. Then Lady Fortune smiles and life brightens up for Bottom . Titania the Queen of the Fairies falls in love with him and declares him as wise as he is beautiful. He has a wonderful time basking in her endearments and being waited on by her four attendants.

However it is not destined to last; Titania has been acting under an enchantment put on her by her husband Oberon and when she awakens out of this enchantment she finds Bottom not so attractive.

Bottom too wakes up and is left perceiving that the attentions of Titania and her attendants were only a dream However he is not downhearted because he knows that it was HIS dream.

He is now eager to continue with playing the part of Pyramus but decides that a separate piece should be added to the play to record his experiences in fairyland which he wants to be entitled Bottom's dream because he says it has no Bottom .

So who was dreaming and who was awake. Was Pyramus playing Bottom or was Bottom playing Pyramus ? Was the dream Bottom's dream or was bottom someone else's dream? Someone else who was watching a dream within a play within a play. Bottom's dream may have been just one of a soul's journeys into manifestation in a human body.

AND who is really looking down? It is interesting that following all the struggle death and carnage in the soul and personality triangles When we reach Malkuth we return to the same playful innocence that was present in the spirit triangle and we realise that Bottom is the fool of the tarot in a manifested form. So, I repeat who is really looking down? Could it be Launce and the little dog Crab? Maybe as we look up we see a glimpse of them and Crab no longer appears bad tempered and ugly but beautiful and sweet tempered as he always truly was and his master always knew him to be. Perhaps they were dreaming the dream or then again perhaps they were part of the dream too.. 


The Shakespearian Tarot. Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki.

The New Living Qabalah. Will Parfitt.

The Book of Lies Aleister Crowley.

The Book of Thoth Aleister Crowley.

The New Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot Sandra Tabatha Cicero.

Rider Waite Tarot Deck Pamela Colman Smith.