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Shakespeare, William

Category: Genius

William Shakespeare was a playwright, a poet, a philosopher, a mystic, a writer, and a genius.  So classifying him as a source was somewhat difficult.  In the end I placed him in the genius category.

The following description is taken from the Romanes Lecture given by John Masefield in 1924 in the Sheldonian Theatre of Oxford University and entitled Shakespeare and spiritual life.  I have edited it to cut down the content which in its full form is over 30 pages, but otherwise I have not altered its contents:

"Great poets are not what is called 'pioneers of thought'. Usually they come towards the end of a remarkable mood of this world, and are remarkable because they preserve any thought or enjoyment that that mood had. They are great as that thought and enjoyment are great, since the life about them must necessarily be their foundation even if it be not their material.

All people use their imaginations when they think and enjoy. All, at such times, create living mental images according to their strength. The great poet gives intense life to the images in the mental world of his time.  …..If the intense thought and enjoyment of his time be in things which transcend this life of ours, ….. then the intense images of his work will be spiritual.

In the early sixteenth century, the imaginations of men overflowed the moulds of the world's mind.  Those moulds, both of Church and State, were broken.  Both by knowledge and imagination, the world's mind had grown bigger; it needed a larger scheme in which it could believe.  The half century of the overflowing of the moulds was one of intense mental exaltation. Its chief result for us was the preparation of the ground for the coming of our great poet.

Shakespeare was not trained for his life's work by any institution. His problems were not solved for him.  He picked up the food for his mind wherever he could find it: it was not found for him. Better still, it was not selected for him and forced into him.  He was born of middle-class parents, in a house which was neither fine nor poor, in a town of no great importance, in a country-side not otherwise distinguished.  There is lovely country near it; cattle pasture in the lowland and sheep pasture in the hills. Country life could be seen there at its best : farming, shepherding, and hunting.

The amusements of the place, apart from the sports, were fairs. Sometimes a company of actors came there.  The most beautiful work of art in the place was the parish church, which had been finished about fifty years before Shakespeare's birth. Changes in religious thought and in the fashions of art had no doubt made it seem old-fashioned and rather vulgar when Shakespeare was a boy. The people who built it had gone: their outlook and beliefs were  gone: it was all pre-Reformation : it must have seemed old, barbarous : what Victorianism is to us. We all can teach our grandmothers.

I must say a few words about the England of that time:-

England generally was sloughing the middle ages.  The active and inquiring mind had questioned, challenged, and overthrown the guidance and dominion of the Church. Rabelais had said, 'Do what you will; do the thing you want to do '; and this was being done by great men everywhere.  The land was self-supporting, though subject to years of scarcity. It was under-populated. The towns were small, and though, in some ways, they were filthier than our modern towns, the air was cleaner: men could walk from even the largest town into pleasant country in twenty minutes.  Work of a noble standard was being done in every way of mind and hand. Our coins were the loveliest in Europe.  The laws were savage, but that did not matter: the race, being law-abiding, kept the laws.

Pestilence visited the land each summer: sometimes terribly.

The race was much what it is to-day; a kindly, humorous race of individuals, each cherishing some little or big personal queerness of interest or intellect, and therefore not working well together in institutions, but uniting in sport, and giving much (as individuals) to the common weal. Our institutions sometimes fail, our individuals save us.

There was one great difference between Shakespeare's England and ours. England then was an English country. It had not yet been governed by the Scotch; the Welsh were rarities anywhere east of the Severn; the Irish were almost unknown.  Those were the days of which tradition speaks, when it says that England was 'merrie'.

Shakespeare grew up in the heart of this English England. What did he learn as a child ?  First, as to his religion. His father was a middle-class Protestant, who attended Church of England services as long as he could do so without fear of arrest for debt. His mother was a conforming Protestant with some Catholic relatives. Shakespeare was bred and remained a conforming Protestant: that is, there is no record of his being summoned for not going to church.

Next as to his superstitions. He was born into a superstitious country society, at a time when the land was undrained, the roads unpaved, and the winter nights unlighted. From November till March , travelling after dark was almost impossible. People sat by the fire and told stories of fairies, witches, and ghosts who then made darkness terrible all over the country-side.  Besides these things, there were other things. If like St. Withold, you  'footed thrice the wold', you were likely to meet the Night Mare and her ninefold.  The wold was only three or four miles from Stratford, up Meon Hill: the Night Mare ran there with her ninefold. In that under-populated England the Night Mare and her ninefold had a wide range of pasture. It was a long way between churches.

Next as to the period in history which seemed romantic to him as a boy. This must always be a deciding element in the growth of a poet, especially of a poet like Shakespeare, whose main teaching came from popular tradition.  To Shakespeare this romantic time was certainly the time of the later Wars of the Roses, when his great grandfather served Henry VII. There was some family tradition about this great-grandfather, who seems to have done the Lancastrians useful service long since forgotten.

Next, as to Shakespeare's schooling. This was sufficient for his needs: a little more at that time might have warped his use of English, or made him ashamed of English practice. Like most geniuses, Shakespeare had a power of self-protection which excluded what did not serve the needs of his being. Knowledge was not the law of his being: he got as much as was good for him; no more.

Lastly, as to what kindled him to poetry: I wish we knew. Plenty of books were in the world by the time he went to school: some good old English poets and other English poets who seemed good, being new.  Besides the printed books, there was some spoken poetry in the world: there were ballad-singers, pot-poets, and touring companies of actors. I imagine that poetry was an interest and a delight to him before he left Stratford.

Let me now turn over these things very briefly, to see what they amounted to. They were the things which most influenced the growth of a great poet's mind from without.

Orthodox religion, whether as ritual or as dogma, seems to have meant almost nothing to him.

His mental training on what we may call the masculine, or schoolmaster side, was also a slight thing to him. I think it gave him the feeling that dead flies had been put into the ointment of the apothecary.

His mental training on what we may call the feminine, or old wives tale side, was always profoundly important to him: it made his intensest self.  The memory of the country-side, the tradition of the great events of the past, which had led to marchings and violent deaths up and down the four counties best known to him, was much to him

That  is: Religion meant almost nothing to him, education little more, tradition a great deal more, and superstition very much indeed.

These were the things brought to him by others.  Let us now consider the aptitudes within himself.

From the very first, he had an intense delight in the beauty of natural objects ; a love of flowers, of effects of light, of the flights and cries and songs of birds, of the colours, joys, and changes of the seasons, of the flavour that these things give to life, and of the intensity of joy that comes from being at one with such mysteries.

Next, as he survived a Tudor childhood in a house where even the children would have had some share in the work, it is fair to suppose that he grew up to be a robust lad. Later on, even a few years later, the poems suggest that he lost this robustness, perhaps only for a time. But before he left Stratford, he was no doubt robust and took a wild young man's share in all the sport of the country-side. All the energy that was afterwards turned inwards, was then turned  outwards: all through his young manhood he was full of fun: very boisterous fun ; but his chief delight was hunting : all his early work shows how much the sights and excitements of hunting meant to his imagination.

He had, therefore, intense zest for the beauty and the rush of life:. On the top of these two zests, sex ran in him like a sea.

These things together made up his equipment for the craft and mystery of poetry, whose  kingdom is not altogether of this world.

In this world, things went unluckily for the young man. He seems to have been trapped into an undesirable marriage, and to have been in question for poaching, if not for libel.  He came to London to make a fresh start.

There is not a trace of spiritual life in the work with which he made his fresh start. On the contrary, his earliest work is full of temporal fashion. Very soon in his career he learned to indulge his will and to write out of what was strongest in him, his sense of country life and tradition. He trusted in that and in his own imaginative energy. He wrote easily and happily for at least ten years.  His work in those ten years was matchless in comedy, in lyric, in variety and colour of character, and in grace and charm of spirit and verse. No such work had been done by any European: it was both new and lovely. It was the work of one too well content to  'watch beauty like a hand dial, steal from his figure' to ask if the figure meant anything or what works might be behind the dial.

Of definite religious belief feeling, or opinion, there are, perhaps, a few barely discernible glimmers or rays, as of faintly awakened memory. One or two other glimmers show, perhaps, a sentimental sympathy with the idea of contemplation in seclusion. A saintly contemplative of no precise creed, who is yet empowered to marry people, appears in several plays. Besides this shadowy sympathy, there is a shadowy evidence of a dislike of Puritanism.

If one adds to these things a fondness for rituals, which could be made effective on a stage, one has perhaps the measure of the young man's religious feeling.

His standard of conduct, however, is very high : his sense of right and wrong is matchless : every age since him has felt this: one can give it no higher praise. It can be said of no other English writer.  Jews, Pagans, and Christians were men to him ; nothing more and no less: any least touch of religious bias in him would have blurred his vision of them.

Though he had little learning and less faith, he had much superstition. Such spiritual life as does appear in his early plays comes unchanged from popular superstition.

His ghosts are those of popular belief. They are usually the spirits of wronged or murdered men and women, who threaten and rouse up vengeance against their betrayers and killers.

His fairies were of two kinds. Firstly, a minute kind described minutely in Romeo and Juliet; and, secondly, a larger kind, big enough to appear upon the stage to pinch Falstaff and attend a fairy court in the wood near Athens.

Of these two, I think that Shakespeare had seen only the minute kind. He saw them with great distinctness, and described them with detail in action, just as he saw them. He saw them perhaps only once. It was a bright moment worth recording. Having described them, he saw other more important things in action, and turned to describe them. As one of his admirers says, 'He had the Phantsie very strong '.

 The fairies which he saw in his imagination in the Midsummer Night's Dream are not those of popular English tradition. They are not wild enough, nor unearthly and malicious enough.

English, Welsh, and Scottish fairies terrify. A seer once said to me: .

If a man tells you that he has seen the fairies, look if he be shaken. If he be not terrified, be sure that he has not seen.'

Shakespeare knew this very well. He took care to explain that his fairies were not those creatures who haunt at midnight by moonlight and are terrible, but shapes from India.

Remember that many in his audience had seen fairies; those who had wanted no more of them.  Shakespeare gave them gracious romantic inventions, who speak charming verse about the weather.

Apart from fairies, both in popular tradition and Shakespeare's system, yet of fairy nature, and in some ways linked to fairies, is the solitary spirit of puck or Robin Goodfellow, called good in propitiation.

It is plain that Shakespeare liked to have an elvish boy in a play of his. There can be no doubt of that.

It is also plain that there was in Shakespeare's company of players a boy who did not grow any bigger. There may, of course, have been a succession of boys, and yet I do not think so. This boy seems to have been specially tiny and a most remarkable comic actor.  The smallness and the comic talent coming together, as they do in several plays, giving me the impression of a person.

I think that he played Moth in Love's Labours Lost, Puck in the Midsummer Night's Dream,   Falstaff's page, both in Henry IV and in the Merry Wives of Windsor, Maria in Twelfth Night, the Player Queen in Hamlet, Mamillius in the Winter's Tale and Ariel in the Tempest.   I think of him as a real and strange figure, who was important to the company throughout Shakespeare's poetical life, and whose talents were often in Shakespeare's mind when he began a new play. I dare say that the company looked upon him with tenderness, as a mascot.

I am not going to strain the point any farther, because it is neither important nor very likely to be proved. It leads me to this further point, that when Shakespeare considered his own genius, he thought of it as an attendant boy-spirit. It is certain that in The Tempest he thought of his own genius as Ariel.

In the late, irregular sonnet, number 126, he addresses this genius thus:

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time's fickle glass his sickle hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show'st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow'st:
If Nature, sovereign-mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onward still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May Time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure !
She may detain but not still keep her treasure;
Her audit, though delayed, answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.

 In the great moments of his imaginings, whether in dream or vision, I do not doubt that that lovely, boy did appear to him with some message which Time cannot kill. To the extraordinary man extraordinary things are done, which ordinary people call coincidences. 

They are not coincidences: they come from the Helpers that attend all kindled imaginations. It behoves everybody to strive with the imagination,  because only so do the Helpers come down into this earth ; where many are striving, many help.

….Now artists of all kinds exist and progress by destroying those selves of them which, having flowered, have served. They are continually sitting in judgement upon themselves, and annihilating their pasts by creating their opposites. They know, better than any one, that they can only be saved if they are born again. They know, that they must follow their formulae unless their excitement over some new  idea be strong enough to burst a new channel. The great writer is as unexpected as life, and follows no formula: his morrow is not as his yesterday, and his night may blaze with comets.

 [Note:  It appears to be a widely held view amongst the medical profession that it was at this point that Shakespeare realised he had syphilis -  see Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers by Dr John Ross]

Out of some such rebellion and annihilation came Twelfth Night. There all the lovely, the lyrical, the golden in him overthrew all that was common, instinctive, and of the nature of habit. It was as a new Shakespeare which no man could have foretold.

But between Twelfth Night and the great tragedies there is an even greater gulf than between Twelfth Night and Henry V. In his earlier plays he had seen the actions and passions of men and women whimsically, fantastically, romantically, rhetorically, clearly, and intensely : now suddenly he saw them startlingly, and the difference is profound.

….It was in  Julius Caesar that he climbed from his instinctive and romantic self into the adventure of great poetry.

No doubt, like all poets, at first, he saw no more in the fable than the opportunity for some big scenes: then, no doubt he saw opportunities for the display of his own special powers, of being natural in the imagined scene and lyrical in the imagined passion..... The use of the theatre was second nature to him : he saw all things, even himself, in terms of drama. When he began to write, an excitement in the bigness and splendour of his subject made him see farther than he had seen hitherto; he began to see startlingly.  ….The play is spiritually true.......... The play was a new kind of vision of all the old evidences of the scheme of things. 

After this first great visionary play, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, which seems to be a questioning of vision. In Julius Caesar he had had profound visionary knowledge, attended with every ecstasy of power, of the spiritual nature of change in this world. The visitation of such ecstasy of power cannot but be a shaking experience, even to a man so infinitely greater than ourselves. For the time, I do not doubt that it seemed to Shakespeare a revelation of himself, the world, and the universe. But almost at once, all that was of the Renaissance in him, all the inquiring mind in him, rose up to test that revelation.

These portents, ..these ghosts, however just their cries for vengeance, are no holier than men; they are as  bloody and unmerciful as their killers, and far less holy than a fine man.  In Hamlet he imagines one lit (as he had been) with visionary knowledge, yet setting up a standard of fineness of thought, against that knowledge, as though whatever the multitude may imagine, the fine mind is still a finer thing. All the Renaissance was based on that idea and every church is against it.  Hamlet disobeys the orders given to him in vision; he questions them; he thinks subtly; he thinks, which in itself is rebellion against destiny.

Destiny is not altered, in this case, by the taking of thought: it is only made more tragic..... Destiny wins, yet the fine mind was right; it was lovelier than Destiny.

Three important plays follow this: they are plays of thought, not of vision. They are the difficult plays Troilas and Cressida, Measure for Measure and Othello.….In Troilas and Cressida he seems to be defining what he loathed in life, in women and authority. In Measure for Measure he sees government, ….being overset, in men and states, by desire  coming with opportunity.  In Othello government is in the hands of a credulous man, hated by a cunning man to whom chance gives opportunity after opportunity, till all that is lovely and generous is destroyed. His gift of lyrical excess was not with him when he wrote these plays; he seems to have been looking hard at life, with some disgust.

When he had finished Othello, he was forty years of age. He had written a great deal in many kinds of poetry, and for nearly two years had been more interested in structure than in vision. What was it which made him suddenly and swiftly blaze out into a poetry unlike anything in the world ? ...In Macbeth it flamed.  We do not know why.

Whatever main cause prompted Shakespeare, ...in the tumult of creation and the calm of vision he saw once more the workings of spirits in human life. The vision is like that in which he saw Julius Caesar, but it is very much more intense. In Julius Caesar he had seen powers outside human life trying to influence men for their good. In Macbeth, which is a distrusting of all such power, he had felt that promptings of the mind, especially those of the deeper mind, urging to caution, may be finer and wiser as guides to conduct. In Macbeth he saw powers (outside human life, and unable to act directly upon men) who want the rhythm of life broken, and strive to break it by promptings, by inarticulate cryings which are misunderstood and prophecies which are misinterpreted. He saw these powers as a devilish will in things, against which all that is upright in the soul of man is ever a barrier.

….When the efforts of the devilish will have triumphed, the hour strikes, Duncan is killed. At once it is seen that there was nothing in Macbeth or his wife except the will to be King and Queen: now that that will is glutted, they are no more King and Queen than they were,- they are two traitors trying to protect themselves by blood. They have set free into the world those leopards of blood which can only be chained by the blood of those who freed them.

All this is set forth with the utmost haunting magical power. All feel that power; but to a writer, to one that is, who knows that what was set down (even by Shakespeare's power) was only one-third of what was seen, this poetry is overwhelming. Even in cold print the words are marvellous. When they are spoken, when they are given their value from a mind and their barb from a voice, they overcome. No man can hear them without knowing that Shakespeare as he wrote was at the heart of life, in that rush and exaltation of ecstatic order which scientists now proclaim.

In the tranquillity of that energy, a thought not only took shape, it took presence and passion; blinding presence, overwhelming passion: virtues were pleading like angels, trumpet-tongued;  pity, like a naked new-born babe, was striding the blast, and heaven's cherubim were horsed

Upon the sightless couriers of the air.

I say that he touched the heart of life. In that mood, which was perhaps brief -  perhaps only the half of one day (for I have no doubt that at least half of Macbeth was written at a sitting), his mind became pure energy and its thoughts partook of the nature of pure energy : they became indestructible. They are real, while Shakespeare is dust. Intense thought is the only reality.

He did not quite reach this intensity again (even in King Lear), though his mind lived among glorious and lovely things until the end. At the very end, he considered the whole matter profoundly in his play of The Tempest. There he considers the Renaissance mind with the misgivings which comes to all who see the individual intellect soaring far beyond the social structure of its time. ...The attainment of intellectual power, being a life-work in itself, takes the man who should be the ruler from his government.: he is thereupon deposed by the knavish and the greedy, and cast out among the brutish: unless he can bend spirits to his aid.

….He frees an imprisoned Helper, who works for him in the shapes of the elemental and intellectual powers, until the brutish is disciplined and the knavish have restored the power usurped.

No doubt the 'lovely boy'  Ariel, was a real presence in Shakespeare's mind, one who had come there for many years, in many shapes, with help of many kinds, but was now craving: to be gone. What was Sycorax, who could imprison this spirit for twelve years in a cleft  pine tree?

What was the spirit who could be so imprisoned ?  He brought into life all that Prospero willed, yet longed for life of his own.

In the last act of this play Prospero reckons up the spiritual life that obeys him and the spiritual powers it has helped him to attain. The spiritual life is that of  popular superstition:  the elves, the sea-chasers and demi-puppets; the spiritual powers are those of the mind of energy in the moment of energy becoming one with energy.


Some have tried to prove that Shakespeare was a religious man. Others have written to prove that among other things he was drunk, mad, a thief, illiterate, Welsh, Scotch, Irish, Italian, French, German, Bacon, Essex, Oxford, a soldier, a sailor, a lawyer, a butcher, and a schoolmaster. I believe that he was an English poet of a great and beautiful mind, who held to no religion save that of humanity and his own great nature.

The great men of his time were not men of religion,....  His age was not building churches (I do not remember to have seen one built in his time) : it was preparing to smash churches …. To the cultured it was an age of belief in past ages: to Shakespeare, who had no culture, it was an age of belief in himself.

And at the end of it all, Shakespeare was a sick old man on a bed, hoping that men would leave his bones in peace, and tempering prayer with curse in his appeal to them to spare them. Then they wrapped him in a shroud and laid him in Stratford Church, where he lies quiet enough that once shook so with his sense of the glories of being man.

'My spirit', he wrote 'is thine, the better part of me'.

His spirit is ours, or would be, if we cared enough.  The images of his belief walk the world still like the only realities. They are the imaginations of the poet, in a way nothing but dreams, and in another way the rock which endures when the crown has fallen and the creed ceased and the race become a memory."


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