Essay: Shakespeare & Novalis

Essay by Bruce Donehower

“Now I begin to intuit what makes Shakespeare so unique. It may awaken in me divinatory powers . . .” – Novalis

At the local group’s meeting on November 28, 2020, I presented a brief summary of an essay that originally appeared in the 2001 issue of Das Goetheanum in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the death of Novalis. A revised version of the essay also appeared in a 2016 edition of the Section Newsletter when our local Section group was studying the late plays or “romances” of William Shakespeare. I updated the essay for the recent meeting in 2020, and I present it here because it is part of our local group’s study of Novalis.

Shakespeare & Novalis: A Mysterious Friendship

Persons unfamiliar with German literature may not appreciate the revolutionary impact that the Bard of Avon had on German literary sensibilities. Germans throughout the eighteenth-century lauded Shakespeare as a poet-magus. Goethe’s words spoken in 1771 are typical.

The first page I read made me a slave to Shakespeare for life. And when I had finished reading the first drama, I stood there like a man blind from birth whom a magic hand has all at once given light. I realized and felt intensely that my life was infinitely expanded. Everything seemed new to me, unfamiliar, and the unaccustomed light hurt my eyes. Gradually I learned to see, and, thanks to my awakened spirit, I still feel intensely what I have gained. (Shakespeare, A Tribute, 163)

Goethe describes his experience in language very much suited to an initiation. “We cannot talk about Shakespeare; everything is inadequate,” a much older Goethe said to Eckermann.

Shakespeare also inspired Novalis.

As is well known, the crucial existential event in the life of Friedrich von Hardenberg, the poet Novalis,1 was the death of his fiancée Sophie von Kühn in March 1797. We are fortunate to have a journal that Hardenberg kept, beginning on April 18, 1797 and ending July 6, 1797, which records a day-to-day account of Hardenberg’s inner life in the weeks following Sophie’s death. During these weeks, Hardenberg began a dramatic transformation of identity. Starting from a nadir of grief and despair, he slowly moved from thoughts of suicide to an acceptance of fate to a dawning awareness of his destiny as a poet. While much has been made of Goethe’s literary influence on Hardenberg during this time of crisis, Shakespeare also influenced this transformation subtly yet precisely.

It is a well documented irony that on May 13, 1797—about midway through the pages that constitute his journal of grieving—Hardenberg received from his friend Friedrich Schlegel a new translation of Romeo and Juliet done by Friedrich’s brother August Wilhelm.2 On that same day, May 13, he visited the grave of Sophie and underwent his famous Graberlebnis (grave-side experience)—an event that Rudolf Steiner compared to St. Paul’s experience at the gates of Damascus.3

Based on this assessment, one might expect the journal entry for May 13 to be especially noteworthy. But, in fact, the entry for that day is rather understated.

I got up early at 5 a.m. The weather was beautiful. The morning passed by without too much activity on my part. Captain Rockenthien, his wife and children stopped by. I received a letter from Schlegel with the first part of the new Shakespeare translation. After lunch I went for a walk—then coffee—the weather became a bit heavy—first lightning, then cloudy and stormy—very lively—I began to read Shakespeare—I became quite engrossed in him. Toward evening I went to Sophie. There I was indescribably joyful—a lightninglike moment of enthusiasm—the grave blew away in front of me like dust—centuries were as moments—her presence was palpable—I believed that she would always be near—How I came home—had some touching conversations. Otherwise, I was very satisfied the entire day. Niebekker came by in the afternoon. In the evening I had a few good ideas. Shakespeare gave me much to think about. (IV, 35)4

In an article entitled Novalis and Shakespeare, Helmut Rehder examined the clear affinities between Hardenberg’s experience at Sophie’s grave, with its striking resemblance to the third hymn to the night, and the remarkable poetic affinities that this experience and hymn have to the famous tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet. He noted how Romeo, much like Hardenberg, becomes aware “of an absolute, the reality of an existence that is exclusive and irreplaceable” (618).

Yet, while it is certainly true that the imagery and language of Shakespeare’s play bear likeness to the language and imagery of the third hymn to the night, we find nonetheless very little of this language in Hardenberg’s journal. If Shakespeare, via the decisive scene in Romeo and Juliet, had influenced the experience on May 13, we might expect more evidence in the journal. Instead, one is struck by the journal’s overall lack of dramatic language and emotion. True, as Rehder argues, the influence of Romeo no doubt slumbered for many months until it helped to inspire the poetry of the Hymns. But is there a more immediate and crucial sense in which Shakespeare might have given Hardenberg—the soon-to-become magical idealist poet Novalis—“much to think about” in the spring of 1797?

Indeed, there is. Along with Romeo and Juliet, another play and character of Shakespeare made decisive contact with Hardenberg at this time. That character is Hamlet. Hardenberg mentions Hamlet explicitly only once in the pages of his journal—briefly toward the end in an entry dated June 29. In this passage, Hardenberg says simply “in the evening I retired to bed to read Hamlet” (II, 48). Not much to go on in itself, but in fact there are even more decisive, albeit implicit, references to Hamlet throughout the earlier entries of the journal.

Time and again, between the journal’s beginning on April 18 and the decisive experience on May 13, Hardenberg states that he is busy reading and rereading Goethe’s famous novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship). In the entries prior to May 13, he mentions Goethe’s novel nineteen times. Significantly, a large part of this influential novel’s plot and theme concerns Wilhelm Meister’s contemplation of Hamlet. The example of Hamlet, the play and character, has a decisively important formative influence on Wilhelm Meister’s development. In a sense, Hamlet is a lodestar for Goethe’s hero, and much of Goethe’s literary critical appraisal of Hamlet is contained in this novel.

In a well known characterization of Prince Hamlet in Book IV of Wilhelm Meister (which Rudolf Steiner echoed in his last lecture on Speech and Drama given September 23, 1924),5 Goethe characterized Hamlet as “wavering.” Hamlet, says Goethe, is a person between worlds, who cannot make up his mind or rise to the moral authority of the occasion. Goethe, behind the mask of his hero Wilhelm Meister, cites as Hamlet’s most critical lines: “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right.” Hamlet speaks this couplet after the appearance of his father’s ghost, which is a moment of supersensible insight that shapes Hamlet’s destiny decisively. Goethe then adds:

In these words, I imagine, will be found the key to Hamlet’s whole procedure. To me it is clear that Shakespeare meant, in the present case, to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it. . . . A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden it cannot bear and must not cast away. All duties are holy for him: the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him—not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him. He winds and turns, torments himself; he advances and recoils; is ever put in mind, ever puts himself in mind; at last, does all but lose his purpose from his thoughts, yet still without recovering his peace of mind. (234)

The challenge, then, from Goethe’s point of view, is for Hamlet to shoulder the burden laid on him by his experience of the supersensible—as bodied forth by his father’s ghost. And for Goethe, Hamlet fails.

But Goethe, or perhaps Wilhelm Meister, misreads Shakespeare’s play and overlooks what has puzzled many readers (now and in the eighteenth century): the odd fifth act and the change that Hamlet undergoes during his sea voyage to England. We’re not dealing with the same Hamlet at all in Act Five. On the contrary, Hamlet’s character is immeasurably more complex and mysterious as a result of this final act, which begins in a cemetery with two clowns digging a grave for Hamlet’s girlfriend.

In Act Five, unlike our previous close observations of Hamlet, we observe that Hamlet has changed, but we do not know why. Something happened to him during the voyage to and from England. But it is something we haven’t seen. We only hear the gist of this transformation in lines that are arguably the culminating lines of the entire drama. These occur in Act V, scene ii, just before Hamlet begins the duel with Laertes. He speaks to Horatio:

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

These lines—spoken off-handedly and in prose—give echo to the famous soliloquy in Act III (“To be or not to be”) as well as to Hamlet’s dilemma generally, which is how to deal with Claudius. In speaking them, Hamlet shows that he has “overcome Hamlet.” Or rather, the wavering “I” who was the doubting individual, Prince Hamlet, has become one with his greater destiny, it would appear.

This mysterious, inner achievement parallels in many ways the achievement of Hardenberg in spring of 1797.

Friedrich von Hardenberg, at the beginning of his journal, poses for himself two contradictory goals: suicide or self-mastery. From April 18 until the journal concludes in early July, he “wavers” with indecision. Yet, he doesn’t swallow poison or drown. He keeps on observing himself and he keeps on reading and writing. And throughout this period of observation and “wavering,” the figure of Hamlet is constantly in sight, via the theatrical stage of Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister. As Hardenberg’s Journal tells us, Hardenberg perused Goethe’s novel often; he nearly knew it by heart (Mähl).

Then, at what is arguably one of the most important days in Hardenberg’s life, Goethe’s literary critical presentation of Hamlet briefly recedes and in place of Goethe’s Hamlet, William Shakespeare steps forward into the spotlight of Hardenberg’s attention. This occurs on May 13, when Hardenberg received A.W. Schlegel’s new translation of Romeo and Juliet and a letter from Friedrich Schlegel admonishing him to reevaluate Shakespeare’s genius. In other words, Hardenberg shifts his attention from a secondary text—Goethe’s literary critical interpretations of Shakespeare that we find in Wilhelm Meister—to a primary text, Shakespeare. From that moment until the journal’s conclusion, we find only two more references to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. Goethe recedes, and Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s Hamlet step forward. This is not, however, the “wavering” Hamlet of the first four acts of Shakespeare’s play that Goethe describes in Wilhelm Meister, but the mature Hamlet who has come to terms with karma, fate, and destiny.

We find evidence for this in the closing pages of the Journal that detail the events between June 16 – 29. In the days just prior, Hardenberg still showed the influence of his reading of Romeo and Juliet, as on June 13, when he writes: “She is dead—so die I also—the world is barren” (IV, 46). Events appear to be heading for a tragic or perhaps maudlin conclusion. But then suddenly, unexpectedly, the journal introduces changes of scene. The days June 16 – 29 pass in a flurry of visits, travel, and conversations with various acquaintances. These days are detailed in one long entry, written on June 29. Unlike the preceding entries, there are no outstanding references to suicide or despair in this entry.6 Hardenberg says he spent time consulting his parents in regard to his career and life’s direction and that he felt inspired by conversations with acquaintances and by a letter from Friedrich Schlegel, which set his “philosophical powers in motion again.” He had begun, too, to reread Fichte, for whom activity and self activity are the hallmarks of enlightened responsibility and virtue.

And now we come to the climax of this entire process, such as the journal presents it.

Yesterday, [June 28] very early I wrote some philosophical thoughts of great value—I read a bit in Schelling’s Letters Concerning Dogmatism and Criticism, traveled with my father to Kösen—wrote to Karl in the afternoon—went to Severin and in the evening retired to bed with Hamlet. This morning, early, I read Schelling again and Schlegel on the Greeks—went walking and fantasized what I well might see fit to do, were I the Count of Saxony. . . . the weather was lovely—and I made many literary plans. Most especially I was pleased with the idea of a journal, which would bear the title: “Contributions toward a scientific history of humanity.” . . . My head was very clear this evening. I feel I have advanced several steps. Also, my memory, my powers of observation, and my expression have improved. My presence of mind (Besonnenheit) must, however, grow stronger. There are too many slips (Lacunen). My decision [to die] remains steadfast. Since my journey to Rosstrapp I am again somewhat satisfied with myself — it must, however, always improve — presence of mind (Besonnenheit) and serenity are the main things. (IV, 48)

It is this repeated reference to cultivating “presence of mind” and “serenity” that makes this conclusion Hamletesque and shows that we are far from the mood of suicidal Romeo or the wavering Hamlet of Goethe’s commentary. The character Hamlet, the archetype of spectator consciousness, is ennobled when the power of the consciousness soul becomes joined to conscience and authentic moral purpose. Hamlet achieves this breakthrough by the end of Shakespeare’s play. And here, in the concluding pages of the journal, Hardenberg reaches toward such an achievement also. He is no longer “wavering,” in the manner that we find him discussed in Wilhelm Meister. He is resolved and has learned to hover lightly with equanimity, one might argue. And like Hamlet at the end of Shakespeare’s play, Hardenberg too has become an authentic “prince.” He has taken the first steps toward the identity Novalis and the works that will bear that name.

In a poetic sense, the spirit of the “magus” William Shakespeare oversees this transformation of the provincial law clerk Hardenberg into Novalis, poet of magical idealism. In a letter to Friedrich Schlegel (May 25, 1797), written after Hardenberg had read more of Shakespeare directly, Hardenberg wrote:

It is remarkable that you sent me Romeo just now—I’ve read it often. There is a profound meaning in what you say, that here we find more than mere poetry. Now I begin to intuit what makes Shakespeare so unique. It may awaken in me divinatory powers. . . (IV, 227)

While one cannot insist too strongly on a direct, exoteric influence, esoterically one can speculate that in this inspirational meeting between Shakespeare and Hardenberg, something quite significant came to pass. Shakespeare, the Elizabethan “magus,” touched the future poet of magical idealism inspirationally at a profoundly important moment of his destiny. He put before Hardenberg three figures: Romeo, Hamlet, and Shakespeare himself. From Romeo, Hardenberg glimpsed the poetry of night and love and death and transcendence; from Hamlet, the poetry of the awakening consciousness soul, an openness to doubt, hovering, and contradiction. But from Shakespeare the playwright, Hardenberg glimpsed an intimation of a life praxis that was “more than mere poetry.” He called this playful praxis magical idealism and renamed himself “Novalis.”


Works Cited and Consulted

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books,1998.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. ‘Shakespeare: A Tribute.” Goethe: Essays on Art and Literature in Goethes Collected Works, Vol. 3. Ed. John Gearey. Trans. Ellen von Nardroff and Ernest H. von Nardroff. New York: Suhrkamp, 1986
—. Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Frankfurt: Insel Verlag, 1980.
—. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Trans. Thomas Carlyle. New York: Heritage Press, 1959.
Mähl, Joachim. “Novalis’ WilhelmMeisterStudien des Jahres 1797.” Neophilologus 47 (1963): 286-305.
Novalis. Schriften. Ed. Paul Kluckhohn and Richard Samuel. 5 Vols. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1960.
Rehder, Helmut. “Novalis and Shakespeare.” Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 63, Nr. 2 (1948): 604-624.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet.
—. Romeo and Juliet.
Steiner, Rudolf. Occult History. Trans. D.S. Osmond and Charles Davy. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1982.
—. Speech and Drama. Trans. Mary Adams. New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1986.
—. “The Last Address given by Rudolf Steiner at Dornach, on Michaelmas Eve, 1924.” Karmic Relationships: Esoteric Studies. Vol IV. Trans. George Adams with a preface by Alfred Heidenreich. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1997.
Williams, Simon. Shakespeare on the German Stage. Vol I: 1586-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.


1 Friedrich von Hardenberg, the poet Novalis, only assumed the pen name Novalis after the period of mourning for Sophie. The name Novalis had significant personal family meanings and cultural / literary meanings for Hardenberg. By adopting this name Novalis, Hardenberg signaled an important transformation, which he entirely understood. I discussed this change of identity at length in my book The Birth of Novalis. It can be argued that to call Hardenberg Novalis before Hardenberg named himself Novalis sows confusion and leads to a misreading and misunderstanding of Novalis and his intentions.
2 Hardenberg received the first volume of August Wilhelm Schlegel’s translation of Shakespeare’s dramas. Prior, to this, however, Hardenberg knew Shakespeare through Wieland’s popular translations. In November 1797, Hardenberg expressed his appreciation for Shakespeare and Schlegel’s translations in these words: “In the end, all poetry is translation. In am convinced that the German Shakespeare is better than Shakespeare in English. I am as joyous as a child when I read Hamlet. . .” (IV, 237)
3 “… A deeply shattering event in life made him [Novalis] aware, as by a magic stroke, of the relation between life and death and, as well as the great vista of past ages of the earth and cosmos, the Christ Being Himself appeared before his eyes of spirit. . . . This experience was like a repetition of the happening at Damascus, when Paul, who had hitherto persecuted the followers of Christ and rejected their message, received in higher vision the direct proof that Christ lives, that He is present!” (Occult History, 124)
4 Citations followed by parentheses with roman and arabic numerals refer to volume and page of Novalis’ collected works, ed. Paul Kluckhohn and Richard Samuel.
5 Steiner uses this characterization when discussing the famous soliloquy “To be or not to be”:  And now at this point, the Hamlet we know so well, the wavering—begins to show himself. In the lines that I have read, Hamlet was still speaking entirely out of the thought that had flashed into his mind. Now he stands there in his true character. (404) By the conclusion of the drama, however, Hamlet finds a steadiness lacking in these earlier scenes. He no longer hovers weakly in indecision; rather, he hovers in mature spiritual readiness in in appreciation for the mystery of Being. Similarly, Rudolf Steiner in the Last Address speaks of Novalis as hovering or wavering during the crisis weeks of 1797, and he draws a comparison to Raphael.  When we consider the life of Novalis, what an echo we find there of the Raphael life. . . . His beloved dies in her youth. He is himself still young. What is he going to do with his life now that she has died? He tells us himself. He says that his life on Earth will be henceforth to ‘die after her,’ to follow her on the way of death. He wants to pass over already now into the supersensible, to lead again the Raphael life, not touching the Earth, but living out in poetry his magic idealism. He would fain not let himself be touched by Earth life. (170)  This characterization, too, brings to mind the Hamlet of acts one to four, with his attitude of adolescent world-weariness. “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world! / Fie on’t! ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden / That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely.” One might argue that Hamlet’s dramatic problem, as with Raphael / Novalis, is this: how to find the right relationship to earthly incarnation, fate and destiny; how to take up the “burden” of one’s existence as a magical idealist praxis.
6 Novalis does indeed mention suicide one last time, acknowledging that his “decision [to die] remains steadfast,” but the tone has subtly changed. A feeling of stoic resolve, an acceptance of fate and destiny has entered the journal at this point. One may feel that Novalis has given himself over to his “decision” in the sense that Hamlet has given himself over to the unfolding events in Shakespeare’s fifth act. They have decided to “let be.”