The charismatic queen and the centrality of self-love
in Renaissance psychologies
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Two distinct portraits of a ‘fairy queen’ imply contrary views of human nature and contrary aesthetics. In Spenser’s epic a mystic Gloriana draws noble heroes to realise the twelve virtues, perfecting the soul in Godlikeness. In Shakespeare’s comic stage-play a sensually potent Titania evokes a different fairy realm. Directly experienced, her bodily splendor and witty combative speeches arouse desire not just in the privileged but in rude commoners, who commandeer the play’s most engaging scenes. Instead of vying with Spenser’s elite quests for morality in an intellectual heaven-based allegory, Shakespeare views morality in all social classes, the humbler earthy sort matching the more pretentious. Both are ego-driven yet communally civil. This ironic engagement with Spenser’s ‘supreme fiction’ wondrously expands Shakespeare’s own artistry. Equally polarized are the poets’ views of self-love as a touchstone of human psychology. Like Calvin and Luther, Spenser discredits self-love as shameful, both in monarchs like Lucifera and in louts like Braggadocchio, causing Redcrosse’s wretched fall and Guyon’s helpless faint. In contrast, Shakespeare’s characters, noble and vulgar, show a positive form of self-love if carefully managed, as observed by Aristotle, Aquinas, and Primaudaye.

Renaissance psychologies

Spenser and Shakespeare

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