Depicting soul and spirit
Spenser and Shakespeare
in Renaissance psychologies
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The most comprehensive divergence of Spenserian and Shakespearean psychology concerns ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’, the human essence made in God’s image. Spenser situates each soul-maiden in a hierarchic house made with Plato’s ideal geometric forms. No such structure assists Shakespearean protagonists like Hamlet, Timon, Antony, and Prospero as they assess their identity amid changeable clouds or, like Juliet and Cleopatra, amid fancies of a noble but discredited beloved. In Shakespeare’s darkest play, references to ‘soul’ nearly vanish; though Hamlet and Othello refer endlessly to their soul (a word used 40 times in each play), in King Lear the word appears only twice. Equally definitive is the poets’ contrary use of ‘spirit’. For Spenser this word usually betokens transcendence (soul, supernatural spirits), only rarely referring to bodily spirits; but Shakespeare stresses its embodiment, staging the multilevel meanings of spirit as a continual warfare between bodily and heavenly referents: ‘the expense of spirit in a waste of shame ….’

Renaissance psychologies

Spenser and Shakespeare


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