Spenser and Shakespeare

Thirteen writers have comprehensively explained the Renaissance scheme of physiology-psychology used for nosce teipsum, to ‘know oneself’, and other scholars have analysed key features like humours, bodily spirits, passions, reason, inner wits, soul and spirit, mystic apprehension. Only poets with epic scope, like Spenser and Shakespeare, depict human nature holistically, yet these finest poets have radically distinct psychologies. Spenser’s Christianised Platonism prioritises the soul, his art mirroring divine Creation as dogmatically and encyclopedically conceived. He looks to the past, collating classical and medieval authorities in memory-devices like the figurative house, nobly ordered in triadic mystic numerical hierarchy to reform the ruins of time. Shakespeare’s sophisticated Aristoteleanism prioritises the body, highlighting physical processes and dynamic feelings of immediate experience, and subjecting them to intense, skeptical consciousness. He points to the future, using the witty ironies of popular stage productions to test and deconstruct prior authority, opening the unconscious to psychoanalysis. This polarity of psychologies is radical and profound, resembling the complementary theories of physics, structuring reality either (like Spenser) in the neatly-contained form of particle theory, or (like Shakespeare) in the rhythmic cycles of wave theory. How do we explain these distinct concepts, and how are they related? These poets’ contrary artistry appears in strikingly different versions of a ‘fairy queen’, of humour-based passions (notably the primal passion of self-love), of intellection (divergent modes of temptation and of moral resolution), of immortal soul and spirit, of holistic plot design, and of readiness for final judgment.

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Robert Lanier Reid
in Renaissance psychologies
Robert Lanier Reid

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.

in Renaissance psychologies
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Robert Lanier Reid

The poets also differ in portraying the four humors and their passional offshoots. The diverse humoralism of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Jonson is missed if we assume humoral consistency and ignore the role of intellect and providence in managing it. Spenser controls the humors partly by figurative houses: passion is spiritualised in the House of Holiness, it is simply moderated in Alma’s Castle. Spenser views humoral passions (and the body) negatively, needing moral guidance and Christlike rescue. In contrast to his restrictive allegory of humor figures (fiery Pyrochles, watery Cymochles, airy Phaedria, earthy Mammon and Maleger), the humor-types in Shakespeare’s Henriad (melancholic Henry IV, choleric Hotspur, phlegmatic Falstaff, sanguine Hal) are spacious and flexible, gifted with self-conscious speech and witty mimicry of the others. Shakespeare’s view of humoral passions evolves into dazzlingly complex nuances and paradoxes in the tragedies and romances.

in Renaissance psychologies
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‘Experience, though noon auctoritee’
Robert Lanier Reid

Spenser and Shakespeare also diverge in portraying intellect. Alma’s stately tour strikingly contrasts Lear’s impassioned self-stripping, shedding housing, clothing, and sanity with a shivering fool and demon-haunted beggar on a stormy waste. Alma shows the hierarchic harmony of belly, heart, and brain. Lear distraughtly reacts to raw nature, wounded self-love, anguished severance of bonds. The contrary depiction of intellect is evident in temptings. Spenser’s patterned sinning recaps Eden’s triple tempting, a doctrinal trope so awkwardly used by Shakespeare in Macbeth 4.3 that the scene is often cut. Spenser’s temptings (the Sansboys, Despair, Mammon, Acrasia) learnedly allude to most epic temptings. In striking contrast is the experiential subjectivity and psychic complexity of Shakespeare’s temptations. Divergent use of intellect also appears in moral counsel. Spenserian heroes are educated to achieve virtue, but in books 1-6 moral advice schematically shrinks in scope – intellective authorities in 1 and 2, equivocal passional advisors in 3 and 4, problematic sensate counsel in 5 and 6. (Would this development reverse in books 7-12?) Shakespeare’s moral authorities show a contrary development: early farces of parents and friars (notably Polonius), counselors who grow by suffering in the tragedies, artfully effective counselors in the romances.

in Renaissance psychologies
Spenser and Shakespeare
Robert Lanier Reid

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 ….’

in Renaissance psychologies
Robert Lanier Reid

Christian Platonic hierarchy shapes Spenser’s epic: a hierarchic family triad, three stages of fall and of recovery. Spenser radically revises this allegory, blaming man, whom woman lovingly seeks to cure. Books 3-5 show Britomart’s chaste power defeating all males, freeing woman from mastery and self-induced suffering. The intellective allegory of books 1 and 2 reform higher reason, then lower reason, each in tripartite form: a triadic family, triple temptings, three-phase training of the spiritual and then natural bodies, ending with a triadic Eden. The passional allegory of books 3 and 4 is again transcendent, then immanent. Britomart brings female ascendancy by chaste skill with arms and providential goals. She unfolds in three heroic Graces (Florimell, Belphoebe, Amoret). In these passional books the male counterparts (Artegall, Marinell, Timias, Scudamour) are paralyzed; virtuous reunion comes by female prowess and endurance, aided by mothers and female deities. A female theology rests on virginity and marriage, immaculate conception, Trinitarian identity, epiphanic unveilings, female endurance of a Passion. The sensate allegory of books 5 and 6 subject even Gloriana/Mercilla and Arthur to confusing materialism. Does the ontological ‘dilation’ of books 1-6 (narrowing images of Duessa, Timias, and satyrs-salvages) show despondency about Irish terrors, or prepare for reversal in books 7-12?

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Revealing the unconscious in chiastic symmetry
Robert Lanier Reid

Shakespearean dramaturgy highlights apprehending a wondrous other: intense epiphanic encounters are fulcrums of passional cycles. Each play forms a chiastic symmetry, beginning with a two-act cycle (act 2 reversing/completing act 1) and ending with a two-act cycle (act 5 reversing/completing act 4); between them an intense one-act cycle (with no known source). These encounters recall biblical epiphanies: nativity, baptism, transfiguration, resurrection, crucifixion. Meaningful epiphany evolves gradually: in early plays it is sensational farce or horror; in mature plays the epiphanies systematically illuminate the soul’s powers. Macbeth’s chiastic sequence neatly divides into three murders – progressively blinding anti-epiphanies: killing a king centers the opening two-act cycle, killing a best friend centers act 3, killing a mother and children centers the final two-act cycle. The three murders suggest a Freudian ‘repetition compulsion’, but the regicide is not just Oedipal, nor the only important slaying. The murders are psychically conjoined, diminishing the Macbeths by travestying each psychic cathexis – sublimation, projection, introjection – annihilating all bonding. King Lear’s complementary sequence of three shamings again forms a chiastic 2-1-2 cycle of acts, but Lear’s strippings paradoxically bring psychic recovery through his epiphanal encounters with Goneril, Poor Tom, and Cordelia at the center of each cycle.

in Renaissance psychologies
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Final vistas of Spenser and Shakespeare
Robert Lanier Reid

Does Spenser’s Mutabilitie Song complete his epic, or point to a more transcendent scope in its final half? It derogates the pagan gods; it reforms the titan Mutability (unlike the discarded demon-titans in books 1-6); and its grand pastoral pageant falls short of the symbolic city toward which the poem moves. Spenser’s holistic design is more clearly implied in his ordering of deadly sins (FQ 1.4). Compared with Dante’s pattern of sins, of purgations, and of ascensions in the Commedia, it offers a vital clue to The Faerie Queene’s format – based on the Christian-Platonism that informs all its figures and sequences. Much evidence suggests Elizabeth I would admire a mystic structuring of this epic that so honors her. As for Shakespeare’s attentiveness to last things, we explore the theme of ‘summoning’ in Hamlet and King Lear, both concerned – as in The Summoning of Everyman – with ‘readiness’ and ’ripeness’ in the face of death and judgment. In The Tempest’s deft collocation of all social levels and artistic genres, and its odd convergence with Spenserian allegory, we debate the insistence on Shakespeare’s secularism by examining the range of meaning in Prospero’s ‘Art’.

in Renaissance psychologies
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Robert Lanier Reid
in Renaissance psychologies