William Shakespeare and John Donne

Stages of the soul in early modern English poetry

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.


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