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Angelika Zirker, William Shakespeare and John Donne: Stages of the Soul in Early Modern English Poetry
by David Marno

Angelika Zirker, William Shakespeare and John Donne: Stages of the Soul in Early Modern English Poetry. Manchester University Press, 2019. 280pp. ISBN: 9781526133298. £80 hardback.


Comparing Shakespeare and Donne is an exercise simultaneously appealing and tantalising. They are the most canonised early modern authors in their respective primary genres, and their works show persistent parallels, including not only experimental prosody, bold rhetoric or shared themes such as the relationship between the Catholic past and the Protestant present of early modern England, but also a deep and probing investment in what has often been perceived as a familiar, modern sense of the self.

And yet if a closer look at the two authors – the professional playwright who wrote and not infrequently catered for audiences on the one hand, and the coterie poet who recanted the publication of the only two poems he published in his lifetime – doesn’t erase the similarities, it at least highlights a certain imbalance between them. When Donne asks in disbelief, ‘Why should we rise, because ’tis light? / Did we lie downe, because ’twas night?’, or even when he turns complaint into verbal and logical gymnastics, as in ‘Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one / Inconstancy unnaturally hath begot / A constant habit’, we might feel as though we encountered not so much an author but another character in a Shakespeare play. Or, to put it differently, it is as if Shakespeare might have written words such as these, but Donne might have spoken them.

Perhaps as a result, the question of influence has long exercised scholars of the two authors. Did Donne, who had a reputation as a theatregoer and most likely saw at least some of Shakespeare’s plays, rely on the playwright’s works in developing his lyric style? Or could Shakespeare have encountered the young courtier’s lyrics in manuscript, and could he have drawn on them in shaping some of his most famous characters?

Angeline Zirker’s new monograph William Shakespeare and John Donne: Stages of the Soul in Early Modern English Poetry offers a third option, one that doesn’t require any direct influence but instead assumes a third, older and independent tradition that may have shaped both Shakespeare and Donne’s writings. It does so, however, in a fashion that may at first sight seem counterintuitive. The subtitle Stages of the Soul in Early Modern English Poetry, Zirker explains in the introduction, ‘points towards the two genres of drama and lyrical poetry’ (1). Yet the book does not consider dramatic works in any sustained fashion, and of the two poems that it does focus on, Shakespeare’s epyllion The Rape of Lucrece, and Donne’s devotional Holy Sonnets, only Donne’s sonnets can be considered lyrics. Instead of investigating the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays and Donne’s poems might be related, Zirker is interested in those moments when dramatic elements appear in both authors’ non-dramatic poetry, including narrative as well as lyric poems. An insight about such moments serves as the point of departure for her argument: ‘[e]arly modern poetry becomes dramatic whenever the soul is at its focus; and the soul comes to the fore, whenever the link between poetry and drama can be observed’ (15). That is, rather than speculating about authorial influence one way or another, Zirker’s initial gambit is that both Shakespeare’s and Donne’s non-dramatic poems begin to appear dramatic when someone in them engages in a dialogue with themselves, usually by addressing, implicitly or explicitly, their souls. Hence the central question of Stages of the Soul: if it is indeed the case that the non-dramatic poetry of these two major early modern authors occasionally turns into ‘stages of the soul’, that is, a dramatic space in which the soul is split from the self and becomes a character as well as a conversational partner, what might explain this metamorphosis of poetry into drama?

The answer, in short, is the tradition of the soliloquy, not as a theatrical device but as a Christian religious and devotional form. Since the vast majority of Zirker’s book focuses not so much on articulating this answer, but on highlighting, via nuanced close readings of both Shakespeare and Donne’s works, the various ways in which their poems become stages of the soul, it takes a while for this answer to unfold. The topic of the soliloquy is first broached in the introduction, where Zirker makes the claim that ‘we can only understand how the nature of dramatic soliloquy as a new form of self-reflection, of making the private public, was established in Elizabethan drama by considering poetry as a genre in which the speaker enacts a dialogue with and of the soul; at the same time, the dynamic reflection on the fate of the soul in early modern English poetry would have been impossible without incorporating dramatic elements’ (13). While this passage and the rest of the introduction doesn’t provide a full historical or conceptual account of the soliloquy’s devotional precedents, they already suggest that the link between poetry and drama, and the way in which they resemble each other in moments of preoccupation with the soul, has to do with the formal device of the soliloquy in religion. After the introduction, the book’s first half does not yet elaborate on this suggestion. While soliloquy does appear in Zirker’s analysis of Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece, especially in the context of Tarquin’s deliberations, here it is used primarily in the currently primary sense of a theatrical device, without an explicit connection to its devotional precedents.

It is in the second half of the book, in the context of examining Donne’s Holy Sonnets, that Zirker finally makes her case for considering the soliloquy in the sense of a devotional form as a major precedent and model for dramatic moments in non-dramatic poetry. Examining a range of theatrical elements in Donne’s poems, Zirker allows that some of them might be explained by reference to late medieval religious drama, as for instance the allegorical and somewhat quaint use of the colours black, red, and white in the sonnet ‘Oh my black Soule’. But in order to understand where the more fundamental and pervasive tendency of the self to split into two and to engage in a dialogue with itself comes from, Zirker turns to the longer and originally devotional tradition of the soliloquy. While soliloquies, in the sense of a sole actor talking on stage without any other character present, were present in classical drama, it is Saint Augustine in the Soliloquies who not only coined the term itself but who reinvented the form and established it as a device for the religious and philosophical practice of the self having a dialogue with itself. This Augustinian sense of the soliloquy as a formal device of dramatising the self stands at the beginning of a tradition that can be traced through Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi to Thomas Roger’s 1592 Soliloquium Animae (supposedly a translation of a chapter in Kempis’s Imitatio Christi, but in reality a paraphrase of pseudo-Augustinian meditations). And this sense of the soliloquy as a formal device representing a religious practice is what, Zirker argues in ‘Sole-talk and soul-talk: Donne’s so(u)liloquies in the Holy Sonnets’, the central chapter of the book’s section on the Holy Sonnets, influences the specific ways in which Donne in his devotional lyrics turns mental prayer into poetry.

This is a persuasive thesis. Indeed, it would be difficult for me to disagree with it, since I have put forward a similar argument in Death Be Not Proud (Chicago, 2016). But whereas in that book I considered Augustine’s Soliloquies as a model for understanding Donne’s Holy Sonnets, Zirker’s book is rather more ambitious in making a broad historical claim for the influence of devotional soliloquies on both poetry and drama in the early modern period. This version of her argument suggests that, to quote one of the book’s formulations, ‘playwrights found this form (ie. “the phenomenon of solitary speech on the stage”) in the inner debate that are Augustine’s Soliloquia and that was still popular in the devotional writing of the time; they began to stage its theatrical (and secular) equivalent’ (162). There is reason to find this claim appealing, and the few times when Zirker turns to drama in the book, such as her brief analysis in Chapter 7 of Richard III’s soliloquy in 5.3, the parallels she highlights between the devotional form and the theatrical device are compelling. The problem is that since Stages of the Soul doesn’t offer any sustained analysis of early modern theatre, and especially no examination of a potential historical link between devotional and theatrical soliloquies, the reader is not provided with sufficient evidence to decide one way or another. In this regard, Zirker’s book articulates an important and engaging question, but doesn’t fully answer it.

But there are a number of other ways in which the book does deliver, perhaps even beyond its articulated ambitions. Though Zirker doesn’t seem particularly interested in the category itself, Stages of the Soul offers an important contribution to the debates about what critics have traditionally called ‘dramatic monologue’. Accounts of the dramatic monologue, in attempting to explain how and why poetry may occasionally become the stage for dramatic interactions even though there is only one voice speaking, have usually focused on the potential influence of drama on poetry. Even when they go beyond the genre of drama, as in the recent entry on the subject in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which considers the Psalms as a potential model, they tend to ignore the various traditions of prayers, spiritual exercises, meditations and soliloquies that seem like obvious candidates for sources. In this regard, Zirker’s monograph offers a helpful and timely corrective. Moreover, Stages of the Soul may also be of interest to those who would like to think about dramatic monologues from a conceptual point of view. It is worth remembering that the New Critics tackled the question of dramatic utterances in non-dramatic poetry by inventing the category of the poetic ‘speaker’ and demarcating it from the poet. From the beginning, one problem with this solution has been that it denies poetry, and especially lyric poetry, one of its most valuable resources: its ability to create an ambiguity about its own speaker and to dwell in this ambiguity. And yet it is precisely this ambiguity, the tantalising possibility that perhaps the poet does speak in his poems, that distinguishes Donne’s lyrics from comparable utterances in Shakespeare’s plays. By recovering the religious precedents of these ambiguous speech acts, and especially by highlighting how devotional soliloquies involve a performative dialogue of the self, Zirker’s monograph may invite us to reconsider our conceptions of the dramatic monologue and its speaker.


David Marno

University of California, Berkeley



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David Marno, "Angelika Zirker, William Shakespeare and John Donne: Stages of the Soul in Early Modern English Poetry," Spenser Review (Winter 2020). Accessed August 8th, 2022.
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