Robert Lanier Reid, Renaissance Psychologies: Spenser and Shakespeare

Robert Lanier Reid, Renaissance Psychologies: Spenser and Shakespeare (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2017) xiii + 368 pp. £80 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-5261-0917-0

Renaissance Psychologies: Spenser and Shakespeare is a work of comparative literature on an ambitious and impressive scale. This publication is avowedly multidisciplinary, in line with the mission statement for the 'Manchester Spenser series in which it appears. Reid places his two authors and their creative endeavours within a rigorous conceptual framework that builds cumulatively toward its conclusions. The book is also an act of rebellion, as Reid explains: 'long ago Arthur Kirsch warned me not to compare Spenser and Shakespeare –"apples and oranges" – their worldviews not fluidly complementary but mutually exclusive '(35).

The summary Reid offers of Chapter Four exemplifies his thematic approach to this material, addressing each dimension of character portrayal in turn:

'The most comprehensive divergence of Spenserian and Shakespearean psychology concerns "soul" and "spirit" […]. Spenser’s initial soul-maidens (Caelia and Alma) inhabit a house made with Christianity’s and then Plato’s ideal hierarchic forms. No such structure assists Shakespeare’s protagonists […] as they view their identity amid changeable clouds or […] amid fancies of a noble but discredited beloved. In Shakespeare’s darkest play "soul" nearly vanishes.' (4).

And later: 'The word [“soul”] does not disappear but is harder earned, and its value increases with this resistance to naming it' (171).

As a specialized and frequently technical text, Renaissance Psychologies is aimed at the postgraduate scholar, although undergraduates should not overlook it. All those interested in the evolution of the English language ought to pay heed. The lives of Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) and Shakespeare (1564-1616) overlap by 35 years, and yet the gulf between them in terms of linguistic expression and conceptual outlook is enormous.1

What about the evolution of character portrayal over time? Consider Spenser, who in Reid’s view depicts 'morally elite but largely unconscious protagonists who must be assisted by doctrinally trained advisers, by a poet gifted with magical language and a providential overview of characters and actions.' (153) Moving forward to Shakespeare's high-water mark, we observe a recognizable treatment of human instincts and motivations in which (for Reid) 'the humoral impulses interact with the rational soul and with supernatural powers that guide or countermand bodily causes – Thus Shakespeare is mostly early modern; his contemporary Spenser, late ancient.' (78)

Reid's insights come in such flurries that he makes the stale fresh, the unfamiliar enticing, eliciting many a gasp of delight, or shock of recognition. He will have his readers reaching anew for their Arden Shakespeares, but in the case of Spenser, they will be dusting off their dictionaries when Google does not suffice.

Some terms (like 'aporia') I could deduce; 'motility' I remembered from medical translations ('gastric motility'); while 'cathexis' stumped this reviewer altogether ('three murders deconstruct the three cathexes of human identity' in a discussion of Macbeth). Then there are some overly colloquial expressions: on p 300 we find 'a dumbing-down of Queen Elizabeth', 'the promiscuous chasing of eye-candy like Florimell and Paridell'. Ultimately, though, Reid's book is not intended for newcomers, and readers are expected to engage with the critical commentary. It is worth the effort.

Reid’s multifaceted analysis can leave one pleasantly dizzy, as one darts from subject to subject. In reading about Spenser's 'hierarchic architecture' I wondered; would Spenser's poetry have appealed to Borges? It turns out it did, as this reference in Borges's short story 'The Aleph' shows:

In its crystal the whole world was reflected. Burton mentions other similar devices — the sevenfold cup of Kai Kosru; the mirror that Tariq ibn-Ziyad found in a tower (Thousand and One Nights, 272); the mirror that Lucian of Samosata examined on the moon (True History, I, 26); the mirrorlike spear that the first book of Capella's Satyricon attributes; Merlin's universal mirror, which was "round and hollow... and seem'd a world of glas" (The Faerie Queene, III, 2, 19) (...) 2

Shakespeare plays his own game of Twister, with feet in several different camps, and Janus-faced glances cast forward and backward to ancient and modern medical thinking. Reid is incisive on the Bard's treatment of medieval humors, a theme in The Henriad ('I am now of all humours' (Prince Hal) – 1H4 2.4.92). And yet Galenic medicine was on its way out in Elizabethan times, courtesy of researchers in Europe such as physician Michael Servetus and anatomist Andreas Vesalius. Shakespeare knew such material had a shelf life: 'Such mindless abuse of Galenism, especially Nym's obsessive repetition of "humour" throughout Acts 1-2 of The Merry Wives of Windsor, signals the tediousness of the parody and the urge to annihilate it through reductio ad absurdum.' (111)

Supernatural motivations, too, begin to weary the Bard (forty references to 'soul' in each of Hamlet and Othello, just three times in King Lear – and not to be confused with 'spirit'). Reid observes that 'only twice does Shakespeare describe Prospero's power as "magic", precisely at the moments he surrenders control of it.' (316)

And, as Reid notes, Shakespeare is more 'democratic' than Spenser: 'in Spenser's fiction commoners hardly exist [...] in portraying commoners as vulgar but full-fledged exemplars of soul, Shakespeare again inverts the vision of Spenser, who (like Plato) restricts commoners to the labouring class base of the city-state, restricting their minds to the belly's lowly appetites.' (94) In relation to the prince Hamlet, an apparent exception to this characterization, Reid notes that he is 'approachable, likable, and respectful of [commoners who] lack the courtly pretence and jockeying for power so evident in Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Osric', and, as for Henry V, Reid comments that he rouses his men 'on Crispin's Day with a dream of social equality.' (53)

As is to be expected with any modern academic publication, obligatory references are made to present-day sensitivities: in Spenser, he comments, one notes 'the ruthless imperialism of its Irish project and the misogyny lurking beneath its adulation of Elizabeth'. And yet Reid is dispassionate and refuses to dismiss Spenser's writing because it doesn't correspond to contemporary moral standards: he notes Spenser's anti-Irish bigotry but also 'his compulsive truth-telling.' (339) All in all, this is a cogent and valuable contribution to Elizabethan scholarship.

Neil L. Inglis, Independent Scholar


1 Spenser was criticized in his own day for his antiquated forms and pretensions ('grandam words').