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Introduction: Conspiring Elements

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 September 2017

Donovan Sherman
Affiliation:
Seton Hall University, New Jersey
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Summary

What is a soul?

The question seems both radical and obvious. In fact, it is radical because of its obviousness: a soul must, by necessity, act as a self-evident entity. It resists explanation because it remains when explanation ends. Whether spiritual or merely rhetorical, we talk about souls as connotations of quintessence; a description seems too flimsy a costume for it to wear. Its common usage gives us, however, a hint at the paradoxical qualities that lurk under this overfamiliarity. ‘Soul’ may be used as a metonym of identity – ‘he's a kind soul’ – or as something that can be possessed – ‘she has a good soul’. Both of these benign-sounding possibilities lead to thorny conclusions if allowed to live side by side: on the one hand, simply being a soul implies a fusion with the non-corporeal; on the other, having one suggests a fragmented character whose speaking-self lays claim to a presumably silent, though still crucial, component.

In a general sense, this book stages its questions in this space between being and having, where identity fluctuates in its interplay with the soul's sameness and otherness. Specifically, in the pages that follow, I explore these questions as they resonate in early modern England, a site perfectly suited for such an inquiry, given its entanglement in competing belief-systems and poetic imaginations. The long wake of the Reformation dispersed Protestant ethos throughout residual facets of Catholicism, while the rise of humanism introduced translations of classical polytheistic texts into circulation. This network of religious and scholarly ideologies, which Stephen Greenblatt calls a ‘whole, weird, tangled cultural inheritance’, made conceptualisation of the soul a multifaceted and unsteady process. Broadly speaking, Anglican theology sought to eliminate its representational capacity, Catholic recusants retained belief in its conscious caretaking, and Neoplatonist and Aristotelian pedagogy conceived of its metaphysical vitality. These characterisations, of course, are highly reductive. Endless conceptual shading exists within this basic structure, with individual artists, politicians, ministers, and other figures borrowing, amending, and creating more nuanced properties. As a result of these disparate understandings, the soul seemed to be both hyper-legible and removed from perception – something that was beyond any earthly means of apprehending the world, yet also something that needed to be thought through, reckoned with, and compartmentalised.

Type
Chapter
Information
Second Death
Theatricalities of the Soul in Shakespeare's Drama
, pp. 1 - 12
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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