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Robert Lanier Reid, Renaissance Psychologies
by Yulia Ryzhik

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

The study of Renaissance psychology and passions, humoral and otherwise, is a rich, complex, and crowded field, as the eighty-four footnotes in the first two pages of this book attest. What distinguishes Robert Lanier Reid’s Renaissance Psychologies: Spenser and Shakespeare — and what, for Reid, unites Spenser and Shakespeare and distinguishes them from their contemporaries — is the holistic, systematic view of two holistic, systematic, if ‘radically distinct,’ psychological schemes (2). The epic scope of Spenser’s and Shakespeare’s corpora, in which they construct and advance these schemes, is the main point of contact between them. From there, Reid argues, their views of psychology are divergent, contrary, even to the point of polarity, and can be traced along opposing axes of philosophical and theological allegiance (24-5). Spenser’s Christianized Platonism privileges the soul; Shakespeare’s sceptical Aristotelianism privileges the body. Spenser rejects self-love as a form of pride; Shakespeare admits a benevolent view of self-love, which develops in complexity over the course of his oeuvre. Spenser’s psychology is ultimately more Protestant, medieval, and Apollonian; Shakespeare’s is more Catholic, modern, and Dionysian. Spenser and Shakespeare are shown to be, in short, ‘attractive opposites’, as in the subtitle of the collection of essays edited by J. B. Lethbridge.[1] Reid’s essay in the collection is an early articulation of the holistic view that is expanded to book length here.

The monograph is exhaustive in its scholarship, and represents a culmination of a career of thinking and publishing on Spenser and Shakespeare. Several parts of several chapters have appeared in print before, but it is telling that no single chapter corresponds to an earlier article in its entirety. A holistic overview requires meticulous organization, and in this respect Renaissance Psychologies gives the reader exactly what she needs, branching into subsections and sub-sub-sections, each with a clear heading, and making effective use of numbered, emboldened lists to present complex arguments and objections. Its first section, ‘Anatomy of Human Nature,’ is itself a kind of anatomy both of the topic and of the field. Each chapter is devoted to an aspect or subset of Renaissance psychology (self-love, humoral passions, intellect, soul and spirit), addresses the prevailing scholarship in the subfield, argues for Spenser’s and Shakespeare’s divergent views on the subject, and examines several practical manifestations of the concept in their works, united by a shared theme. For instance, the two authors’ divergent views of the intellect manifest in radically different depictions of moral counsel.

The book’s second section, ‘Holistic Design,’ presents two longer, separate accounts of Spenser’s and Shakespeare’s psychological schemata before concluding with an evocative chapter on ‘last things,’ treating the themes of death and judgment in both authors and meditating on their late-career thought. Both Spenser’s and Shakespeare’s holistic designs, Reid argues, are based on triadic structures. Spenser’s triads include the hierarchical family structure (a building block of his epic allegory), three stages of temptation and sin and their counterpart three stages of development in the natural and spiritual body, the triplicate nature of the ascendant female protagonist, and, on a larger scale, the division of the six completed books of The Faerie Queene into intellective, passional, and sensate allegories. In Shakespeare’s plays, especially mature tragedies such as Macbeth and King Lear, Reid perceives passional cycles with an underlying chiastic structure: symmetrical two-act cycles on either side of an intense central act that exploits one of five Biblical epiphanies to further the protagonist’s psychological development and self-discovery, for better or for worse. Macbeth’s progression of three murders is juxtaposed with Lear’s three shamings and recognitions, producing a poignant commentary on Shakespeare’s depiction of human bonds.

Sustaining a book-length argument based on radical opposition carries two major risks. The first is the tendency of such arguments to be a little static, as bringing two authors side by side for comparison is not always conducive to forward movement. Reid counteracts the problem mainly by framing it in terms of developing scholarly trends. For example, his chapter on the passions offers an important update of Gail Kern Paster’s work on humoral psychology, adding moral and theological dimensions to her model and reaching beyond its potentially determinist tendencies by showing the productive interplay of humours in both Spenser’s and Shakespeare’s works, especially the latter. However, while Reid makes a convincing case for the Henriad as the site of Shakespeare’s most concentrated elaboration of humoral psychology, it remains unclear how these plays operate collectively as a ‘rival epic’ to Spenser’s (85). Reid’s argument is at its liveliest and most compelling when we see a more relational opposition between Shakespeare and Spenser, even if the relation goes only in one direction. One particularly revelatory section (40-45) demonstrates the profound, if contrary, influence of Spenser in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In a brilliant send up of Spenser’s elitism, Shakespeare transforms the mystical Gloriana into the charismatic but decidedly earthy Titania, dragging the fairy queen down to the body and standing her holiest subtype on its head. The section includes a delightful and instructive pedagogical anecdote involving Una’s ass. Meanwhile the increasingly pessimistic, historical 1596 Faerie Queene is revealed as an important intertext for later plays.

The other risk of portraying two authors as polar opposites is that of elevating one at the expense of the other. This is especially the case when many of the polarities can be attributed at least in part to the differences of medium, genre and mode. One can hardly fault Spenser for not depicting Mammon, Maleger, and Acrasia as ‘holistic characters’ in the mould of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Hamlet, or Cleopatra (93). It is the nature of allegory to split complex psychologies into daimonic figures, and even Spenser’s more developed figures such as Britomart and Arthur ‘resist full personhood,’ approaching but never reaching it.[2] Reid acknowledges as much, but his argument nevertheless yields a colder, more rigid, more puritan Spenser when reading him alongside Shakespeare in the earlier chapters than when reading him in his own right, especially in the latter parts of the book. Local analysis often reveals a greater degree of nuance and mutability in the two authors’ myriad influences and allegiances. For instance, the respective alignment of Spenser and Shakespeare with Plato and Aristotle is not necessarily fixed. As Reid later argues, Spenser’s depiction of the intellect integrates Aristotelian and Platonic ideas. By a similar token, Reid’s excellent reading of Britomart (204-220) as a—if not the—dominant linchpin of Spenser’s allegory and as its most psychologically developed character provides the necessary counterbalance against the potentially diminishing view of Spenser as Shakespeare’s foil.

The study concludes felicitously by returning to a larger, holistic view of both Spenser and Shakespeare and the relation between them. In a reprise of an earlier essay in Jane Grogan’s edited volume,[3] Reid argues that Spenser’s Cantos of Mutability, often regarded as a gloomy conclusion to The Faerie Queene, rather point towards a more optimistic transition, an intended continuation of the epic that was to culminate in the defeat of pagan gods by Christian virtues and a glorious vision of the holy city.  Reid’s final section on Shakespeare returns to his earlier suggestion that Shakespeare ‘absorbed Spenser’s art and thereby expanded his own, widening its intellectual and spiritual scope’ (45). In The Tempest Reid sees a recapitulation of Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre in its varied genres, and also, surprisingly, a convergence (though never a complete merging) with Spenserian allegory, Christian and moral, showing just how far-reaching Spenser’s influence has proved in Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare’s allegory, however, is not restricted to any single moral framework, but rather accommodates and celebrates the multivalent richness of human nature and art.

This study will be of interest to scholars of Spenser and of Shakespeare alike, and fills an important niche in the study of early modern psychologies by presenting a holistic approach to two major authors’ large-scale systems of thought on the subject. In turn, it makes possible renewed, closer examinations of any of the subsets of Renaissance psychology and their respective scholarly subfields, which could be enriched by taking a broader view into account. Similarly, in arguing for the radical divergence between Spenser’s and Shakespeare’s psychologies, the book opens potentially productive avenues for further research on relations and crossovers between the two apparently dissimilar authors, as well as opportunities for triangulation vis-à-vis their shared influences.


Yulia Ryzhik

University of Toronto, Scarborough

[1]Shakespeare and Spenser: Attractive Opposites, ed. J. B. Lethbridge (Manchester UP, 2008).

[2] Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Princeton UP, 2012); David Lee Miller, ‘Temperance, Interpretation, and ‘the bodie of this death’: Pauline Allegory in The Faerie Queene, Book II,’ English Literary Renaissance 46.3 (2016), 393-4.

[3] Celebrating Mutabilitie: Essays on Edmund Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos, ed. Jane Grogan (Manchester UP, 2010).


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Yulia Ryzhik, "Robert Lanier Reid, Renaissance Psychologies," Spenser Review 48.1.11 (Winter 2018). Accessed May 22nd, 2018.
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