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Stages of the soul in early modern English poetry
Author: Angelika Zirker

This study analyses concepts and representations of the soul in the poetry of William Shakespeare and John Donne. During the early modern period, the soul is often presented as an actor on the stage of the poem, and the soul often becomes a stage by itself when conflicts within it are being enacted, in the tradition of psychomachia. The soul thus becomes a linking element between the genres of poetry and drama; at the same time, poetry becomes dramatic whenever the soul is at its focus. This double movement can be observed in the poems by Shakespeare and Donne that are concerned with the fate of the soul and represent inner states and processes: in The Rape of Lucrece the inner drama of the soul is being enacted; the Holy Sonnets are soliloquies by and about the soul. Here, the connection between interiority and performance, psychology and religious self-care can be found which is central to the understanding of early modern drama and its characteristic development of the soliloquy. The study thus offers a new reading of the poems by Shakespeare and Donne by analysing them, in different ways, as staged dialogues within the soul. It furthermore contributes to research on the soliloquy as much as on concepts of inwardness during the early modern period; it shows how the reflection on the soul and religious care for salvation develops in interaction with inwardness and theatrical exposure. It is aimed at readers interested in early modern literature and culture.

Donne’s so(u)liloquies in the Holy Sonnets
Angelika Zirker

This chapter first presents instances of a speaker addressing his soul in the Holy Sonnets to then move on to the history and tradition of the soliloquy as so(u)le-talk. The soliloquy – or soliloquium – was defined by Augustine and can be regarded as a ‘dialogue of one’, a notion taken up by Donne in ‘The Extasie’ and in his religious poems. This concept can also be found in the translation by Thomas Rogers of Thomas à Kempis’ De imitatione Christi which he titled Soliloquium Animae: The sole-talk of the Soule. The chapter goes on to link the devotional practice of the soliloquy with the theatre by looking into early modern meanings and usage of the word ‘soliloquy’ (and soliloquium). It then presents examples in poetry and on the stage by considering the practice of meditation as well as the final soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard III and his Sonnet 146. Concerns about the soul are expressed dramatically in poetry by taking recourse to the form of the soliloquy.

in William Shakespeare and John Donne
Holy Sonnet ‘This is my Playes last Scene’
Angelika Zirker

Donne’s Holy Sonnet ‘This is my Playes last Scene’ opens with an allusion to the stage, the ‘last scene’ of the play that is the speaker’s life in the theatrum mundi. The perspective of life as a stage is merged with the inner stages on which the separate parts of the speaker appear in a manner reminiscent of medieval allegorical plays. The speaker reflects on death and the separation of body and soul – but adds a third element to his self and this separation: his sins. All will go to their place of origin eventually, which allows the speaker to hope for his redemption. The chapter also shows how, in the final couplet, Donne avoids making a denominational statement about the imputation to righteousness that can be unequivocally attributed to Catholicism or Protestantism but rather uses ambiguity to reflect on the dependence of human beings on the grace of God. He thus prepares the happy ending of the speaker’s play in a double discourse: by talking about the event of death and what happens after dying, the speaker links religious and dogmatic terms with reflections on drama.

in William Shakespeare and John Donne
Donne’s Holy Sonnet ‘Oh my black Soule’
Angelika Zirker

In this chapter, one of the Holy Sonnets, ‘Oh my black Soule’, is analysed in detail against the background of its dramatic elements. These mainly consist in allusions and references to medieval morality plays such as Everyman, allegory and personification. Allegorical elements relate to colour symbolism and the change of colours that occurs in the sestet. The latter have sources in medieval drama as much as in the Bible. The pun in the final couplet on ‘dy(e)ing’ shows links to Prudentius’ Peristephanon Liber as much as to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; it refers to both the death of Christ that saves humankind and to the physicality and personification of the soul: death can be overcome in spite of sin, and the speaker is reassured of his redemption.

in William Shakespeare and John Donne
Angelika Zirker

This short concluding chapter brings together the analysis of Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece in the context of poetry and drama, the soliloquy and the soul. The correlative of the self-division into body and soul is the communicative situation of the soliloquy. The speakers in both texts become observers of what is going on within them, which creates distances from as well as involvement with what is being witnessed. The soul becomes a stage and it appears on the stage of the theatre. Thus, the self begins to establish and define itself in a complex interplay of interiority and theatrical exposure both in poetry and the theatre. It is the soul that provides the link between self and (literary) self-expression, and the soliloquy provides a communicative mode that allowed writers to form this self-expression.

in William Shakespeare and John Donne
Antagonism, parallelism, and chiasmus
Angelika Zirker

The rape affects the soul of Tarquin and the body of Lucrece, and their antagonistic relationship that has been established throughout comes to its climax. Shakespeare expresses this relationship linguistically through parallelism and chiasmus which lends the epyllion iconic and performative qualities through the dynamics based on these formal structures. The opposition between the characters forms a unity. The action taking place between Tarquin and Lucrece becomes a reversed (and even perverted) love tragedy: lust encounters chastity and destroys it. At the same time, Tarquin’s evil action leads to political change and the institution of the Roman Republic. The underlying allegory connects poetry and drama with narrative as well as inner debates and the soliloquy in this drama of the soul.

in William Shakespeare and John Donne
Abstract only
The speaker, his soul, and the poem as stage
Angelika Zirker

John Donne was deeply influenced by the theatre and, as the chapter elucidates, this also shows in his religious poetry. In the Holy Sonnets (~1609), he repeatedly has a speaker reflect on or address his soul as in a soliloquy. The poems thus become stages on which the soul goes through stages in life towards death. The soul itself may become the theatron, the place of dramatic action, and the speaker is often doubled in being an actor and an audience in the scene presented. The sonnet itself structurally shows similarities to drama in which the speaker finally arrives at a climax and a happy ending, which turns these poems into divine comedies. Drama in the sense of dramatic allusion, the stage and stages, the communicative situation of the soliloquy, provides a key to processes of recognition and anagnorisis within these texts. At the same time, these dramatic elements help to explain the popularity of the soliloquy in contemporary drama.

in William Shakespeare and John Donne
Angelika Zirker

This chapter summarizes how the soliloquy helps the speaker approach his soul and meditate on its condition in Donne’s Holy Sonnets. The soliloquy is based on a double perspective: a speaker is confronted with his soul and talks to it, and he is affected as an anguished soul and talks to himself. The effect of this doubling is personification, which helps him express psychological urgency. The soliloquy thus turns out to establish a connection between religious self-assurance of redemption and the psychology of the speaker. Donne’s perpetual reference to drama through allusion and the communicative situation makes the Holy Sonnets extraordinary in their poetic quality. Donne’s speaker explores the condition of the soul, and, in this exploration, comes to know not only himself but also God.

in William Shakespeare and John Donne
Lucrece, her body, and soul
Angelika Zirker

This chapter focuses on the perspective of Lucrece. When Tarquin threatens to rape her, she becomes the voice of reason. She is also described in terms of a besieged town that is about to be taken by force and hence allegorized. Lucrece finds herself as part of a drama that concerns her life and her inner being, and she acts in surroundings that become a stage. After the rape, the focus turns to the inner division of Lucrece that eventually leads to her suicide. She has to choose between her body and her soul, and wishes to restore her honour. Shakespeare integrates the debate about her suicide and argues against the position taken by Augustine in his City of God, who condemns her for killing herself: he has her stage her suicide in a way that it is in fact Tarquin who kills her by guiding the hand that gives the wound to her body. Lucrece is thus exempt from any blame.

in William Shakespeare and John Donne
Tarquin’s inner stage and outer action
Angelika Zirker

This chapter focuses on the struggle and internal debate that is taking place in Tarquin’s soul and the outer action he takes, namely the rape of Lucrece. From the beginning, Tarquin’s self is described as being divided, which has an effect on his body and his soul: he experiences both a physiomachia and a psychomachia. Tarquin’s inner forces, his reason and his will, fight each other, and, eventually, reason is overcome. Shakespeare bases this character representation on patterns from medieval morality plays and allegorizes Tarquin but also lends him psychological depth on this basis. In Tarquin’s encounter with Lucrece, a relationship of exchange becomes obvious between them: she becomes the voice of reason, and, after the rape, a link is created between her body and his soul. The chapter also takes into account contemporary and classical sources on inner debates and the soul.

in William Shakespeare and John Donne