Theology and Philosophy

Abstract: "Shakespeare’s Soul"

May 4


Dr. Martin MacAvoy, Philosophy, ACU 


"Shakespeare’s Soul"



“After God,” said Dumas père, “Shakespeare created most.” Philosophers and theologians (and some poets) have frequently been concerned about such creativity. The philosopher Climacus, for example, himself an imaginative creation, claimed “God does not think, God creates. God does not exist, God is eternal.” Why should thinking and creativity be so different? Even such a creative artist as Blake considered creation an error, albeit a necessary one. Shakespeare’s great creativity, and what Keats calls his negative capability, his ‘broken music’ has been clearly the food of much love, yet it could be, like war music and muzak, the food of much else less savoury. It would be presumptuous to consider the state of his soul (though Nietzsche presumed him ‘probably… wicked’), yet Shakespeare’s attitude to soul, souls, or the Soul is surely worth considering seriously, given his extraordinary influence on our culture. In many ways he could be for us what Homer was to the ancients. If Plato’s Socrates acknowledged Homer to be his favourite poet, and at his trial compared himself to Homer’s Achilles, might we not be willing to recognise Shakespeare as having a comparable significance worthy of comparable consideration?

I try to approach Shakespeare like Homer, but Plato encourages us to approach everyone through his central character. For Socrates, what we think and say and do about our souls are intimately related and pressing, given the most important things we should care and take thought for till our dying day are “wisdom, truth, and the perfection of the soul [i.e., how to make it the best].” [Apology29e, 30b]. Chaucer also appears to see some similar kind of relationship as the key to understanding Plato: “As Plato says to those that can him read, the words must be cousin to the deed.”[Prologue to the Canterbury Tales 741-2] How close a cousin? Are the deeds the fruits whereby we might know what the words really mean? Can we have an attitude towards a soul without any opinion about a ‘Soul’? Wittgenstein suggests so, but he seems to want to teach us the difference violently, like Kent does Oswald in King Lear, he says. Shakespeare talks more of souls than bodies, but his characters reveal something of both in their words and deeds, and something of his own understanding of souls that looks and sounds both thoughtful and creative. I draw some very preliminary, tentative conclusions from one play, Twelfth Night [via for example the BBC version, or Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film, both on DVD] and one poem, Sonnet 146:

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,

My sinful earth these rebel powers that thee array,

Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,

Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?

Why so large cost having so short a lease,

Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?

Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,

Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?

Then soul live thou upon thy servant’s loss,

And let that pine to aggravate thy store;

Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross:

Within be fed, without be rich no more,

So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,

And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.