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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.