Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 193
If you’ve asked yourself, during a performance of Hamlet, “What on earth is Hamlet thinking?!” you’re not alone. But to figure that out, you might have to figure out what Hamlet—and Shakespeare—thought about what it means to think.
That’s the argument University College London professor Helen Hackett makes in her new book, The Elizabethan Mind: Searching for the Self in an Age of Uncertainty, a wide-ranging study of the many conflicting ideas that Elizabethans had about their own minds. She concludes that the period marked an unusually rich moment for theories of consciousness and for the representation of thought in literature. Host Barbara Bogaev talks with Hackett about the four humors, anxiety about imagination, demonic possession, and more.
Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you find your podcasts.
Helen Hackett is a professor of English at University College London. Her book The Elizabethan Mind was published by Yale University Press earlier this year.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published September 27, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California and Gareth Wood at The Sound Company in London. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
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MICHAEL WITMORE: If you’ve ever said to yourself during a performance of Hamlet, what is Hamlet thinking? You’re not the only one, but did you ever stop to wonder what Hamlet thinks about thinking itself?
From the Folger Shakespeare library this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger director.
Hamlet is a play obsessed with the difference between inside and outside. When Hamlet tells us he has, “That within which passes show,” or that he’ll put on an antic disposition, Shakespeare points out the gap between outward appearance and inward reality.
To a modern audience that seems obvious. We all feel that our innermost thoughts are well private and that we can choose which version of ourselves we want to present to the world.
But thinking that way about our own thoughts requires a whole series of ideas and assumptions about how the mind works, assumptions that wouldn’t have seemed obvious at all to Shakespeare or his contemporaries.
If we’re to have any hope of figuring out what on earth Hamlet was thinking, first we have to learn what Shakespeare would’ve thought about the act of thinking.
At least that’s the argument Helen Hackett makes in her new book, The Elizabethan Mind: Searching for the Self in an Age of Uncertainty. Hackett, who teaches at university college London has produced a wide ranging study of the many conflicting ideas that Elizabethans had about their own minds. She concludes that the period marked an unusually rich moment for theories of consciousness and for the representation of thought in literature.
Here’s Helen Hackett as interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: I have a really basic question to start with: What do you mean when you talk about the Elizabethan mind? Do you mean how people thought about the mind back then or how they thought, period? Or are we getting into these huge issues of the workings of the brain and even the soul?
HELEN HACKETT: The book is specifically about how the Elizabethans thought about the mind. It’s about their ideas of the mind. Their theories about the mind.
It did start off as being a much bigger project. Actually, I discovered what was really an over ambitious project, which was going to try to look at the Elizabethan mentality more generally. It was going to have chapters on all sorts of key topics like thinking about God, thinking about language, thinking about the world, thinking about money, and so on. Thinking about the mind was just going to be the first chapter. But the more I researched that, the more I found that this was absolutely not going to fit into one chapter.
So the book is about ideas of the mind. Thinking about the mind. Theories of the mind. However, what I then realized is as I continued to put it together, is that I actually did kind of come back full circle, and that it still was a book on broader aspects of the Elizabethan mentality. Because, if you look at ideas of the mind, it intersects with so many fields: with medicine, with philosophy, with religion, of course with literature, which is my primary area of expertise.
So, it’s focused on ideas of the mind. But through that, I hope that’s a kind of doorway to thinking about the Elizabethan mentality more generally.
BOGAEV: We’re going to talk about a lot of that, but it is such a huge topic. There’s a context for it because it’s huge, in part, because as you point out, the Elizabethans themselves were fascinated with the mind.
My question is, why? What was driving this fascination?
HACKETT: Yeah, I think there are a couple of things. I think, first of all, the period is caught between different belief systems and different intellectual frameworks. Lots of ancient classical philosophies are being revived, like Neoplatonism and Neostoicism. They teach a certain kind of separation of mind from body, an opposition between mind and body.
At the same time, the Elizabethans are still working with ancient medical ideas from Galen and the Hippocratic Corpus, which very much place the mind within the body as something organic, as something integrated with the body.
Now immediately, you can see there’s a clash there. Those are two inconsistent belief systems in many ways. Of course, we’ve also got to bring Christianity into the picture in the late 16th century. Christianity is in turmoil in the wake of the reformation. There are some aspects of Christian thinking that reaffirm that idea of contempt for the body and the mind, and spirit needing to rise above the body and govern the body.
But on the other hand, some Protestant theologians like Calvin are preaching that the passions—what we call the emotions—are really important. That they have a part to play in religion, and that they’re a way of kind of knowing and expressing your faith.
What I was trying to do in the book was to chart these many different frameworks within which the Elizabethans were trying to navigate a way. I think, in a way, because they’re caught between so many different frameworks, that’s one reason why they’re so fascinated with the mind. They’re trying to, kind of, work out a way of reconciling all these different systems for thinking about the mind.
BOGAEV: Yeah. It’s particularly interesting to me how you talk about the new practices coming out of the reformation of private prayer and self-examination for signs of divinity. And you—I think this is a quote from you, “deep entering into consideration with myself.”
HACKETT: Yes, time. That’s a really important Protestant practice, which is something that Calvin very strongly advocates. Also, all his many followers, many Elizabethan churchmen and religious writers in this period are followers of Calvin.
It’s very important. Of course, the Protestant doctrine is that you can’t earn your way to salvation by good works. You’ve got to just wait really to receive divine grace and to know that God has saved you, that you’re one of the elect. One of the very small band of people that God has chosen to save.
How do you know whether you are in that group? Well, you have to look within, and if you have been saved, you’re supposed to feel certain of it. You’re supposed to have a kind of inner core of absolute knowledge that God has saved you.
But Calvin, interestingly—he also says there is an element of process in this because, as I said earlier, the passions are really important. You have to go through a kind of period of inner turmoil and inner cleansing, where your passions, your emotions, are all in a kind of churn. You go through a state of penitence, you go through a kind of self-cleansing. Through that, you come to what Protestants call “contentment” or “contentation” where you have this certainty of salvation.
But it’s important for mind-body relations, because you really have to feel this deeply within yourself. So, feeling becomes a form of knowing.
BOGAEV: Is this what are called know-thy-self books?
HACKETT: Yes, it is. But I would say that that’s broader as well. Actually, one of the principal uses of the phrase “know thyself” is in its Latin form, which is nosce te ipsum. It’s actually a very popular, very favorite Elizabethan saying.
It’s used by a poet called Sir John Davis as the title of a philosophical poem in 1599. He kind of invents a new genre of the philosophical poem and he writes this quite lengthy poem about the mind, about looking into his own mind. He says, “Myself am center of my circling thought. Only myself I study, learn and know.”
So there’s the idea in this period that the mind in itself—your own mind and selfhood—can become in itself the subject of a whole quite lengthy poem. I think that’s partly generated by this Protestant practice of self-examination.
On the other hand, Davis’ poem, it’s not particularly religious. It’s a more secular philosophical kind of poem. I think that demonstrates to us how this knowing yourself, looking within kind of practice has extended really widely. Of course, the culture is all religious. It’s all permeated by religion. But, you know, even beyond what we would think of as religious, this idea of looking within and exploring yourself has become absolutely endemic.
BOGAEV: I have a lot of questions and I want to get to Shakespeare. And I also want to get to a huge topic that is integral to this, which is the humors.
We talk a lot about the humors on this podcast about Shakespeare, of course. And just to reiterate, the humors were thought to be formed of four elements— earth, water, air, and fire—and each was associated with a different fluid or humor in the body. Earth is black bile and water is phlegm. I’m sure everybody listened to this podcast knows all of this better than I do.
But my question for you is, can you let us into your thinking about what their relationship was to the evolving understanding of the mind and Elizabethan times? Can you give us some examples in Shakespeare of how an understanding of this Elizabethan theory of humors and their relationship to the mind illuminates the text?
HACKETT: Yeah. I think there’s something very distinctive going on in terms of the relationship between the humors and drama.
We get the development in the late 1590s of a type of play called “humors comedy.” Some of the main authors of these are George Chapman. He writes a play called An Humorous Day’s Mirth. Ben Johnson writes a couple of humorous comedies, such as Every Man in His Humor, Every Man Out of His Humor.
What these plays do is they take humoral types of characters who seem to exemplify each humor. You’ve just very eloquently laid out what the different humans were. Of course, they went with different character types: That, if you were sanguine when you were kind of optimistic and cheerful. If you were choleric, you were quick to anger. If you were phlegmatic, you were a bit slow, a bit dull, a bit solid. If you were melancholic, you were suffering from a disease of mind and body that made you very downcast, very solitary.
Humors comedies took these character types and they presented them on stage, in a rather two dimensional way, to satirize them, and also extended that kind of two-dimensional characterization. A humor could become just a kind of obsession, like jealousy, or it could become an eccentricity. It was a way of having characters who were slightly flat but had recognizable kind of ticks and mannerisms. You could sort of set them off like mechanical toys and see how they interacted with each other, and that was where the comedy of these comedies lay.
Humors kind of get away from the idea of being a physiological, innate medical condition, which is how they started out: that you have these fluids in your body. They determine your character. They determine your mood. It starts to become something on stage that’s much more performative. Of course, because it’s drama, it’s kind of inevitably performative. But the performative becomes what’s accentuated.
Also, these plays becomes so fashionable that “humors” becomes a buzzword that you just find all over the place. You know, it gets kind of emptied out of its meaning. Johnson, actually, then, in a preface to Every Man Out of His Humor saying, “Look, you know, we’ve got to get back to the real medical meaning of what humors are and how they are a much deeper innate physiological condition.”
BOGAEV: Of course, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s famous, infamous melancholiac—or is he just acting like one? Maybe you could unpack that for us.
HACKETT: Yes. Now in Hamlet’s case, he describes himself as a melancholic. His uncle Claudius also identifies him as a melancholic.
Now, is he the medical kind of melancholic who’s genuinely afflicted with a condition of mind and body? There’s lots of reason to think that he is. He has lots of reason to be like that, after all, his father has just been murdered, his mother has married his uncle.
Or is he one of these more dramatic role-playing, posing, superficial melancholics that we’ve seen in humors comedies? He tells his friends and tells us, his audience, that he’s going to put on an antic disposition, which suggests that he’s role-playing melancholy.
He, you know, he becomes a kind of comic melancholic, doesn’t he? He’s very witty. He does funny and absurd things. He’s very like the kinds of melancholics we’ve seen in the humors comedies, where melancholy is often being sated as just a kind of social pose.
I think that leads us to a question—the central question of Hamlet, really—which is what is the inner reality of Hamlet and what is the performative social, outer part of Hamlet? Where are the boundaries between those two aspects of Hamlet?
We never really know, do we? This is the key to Hamlet. That he’s always peeling away layers of himself. But the more layers he peels away, the more seem to remain, to be understood and revealed, and we never quite get to the core of him. I think this question about the humors in general, and about melancholy, in particular, that has run through later Elizabethan drama is very much informing this presentation of Hamlet. What is role-play? What is the real true inner self of this character?
BOGAEV: I want to back up for a moment, because when you were talking about melancholy or the humors becoming kind of a trendy device used in theater, it made me think of the term, “Jump the shark.”
HACKETT: I think that’s right. Yeah. I think that does happen. And I think perhaps it happens particularly with melancholy. Melancholy, by the late 16th century, it’s become a very fashionable, very aspirational identity. It’s associated with being of the social elite. We’ve got various portraits of courtiers presenting themselves as melancholics in dark clothing, standing alone, under a tree, reading a book or whatever.
Also, it’s become associated with intellectual powers. There’s a type of—there are lots of subcategories of melancholy. There’s a whole kind of cult of melancholy, almost where lots of books publish long lists of all the subcategories.
BOGAEV: Why were they so into it? What was that about, though?
HACKETT: I think you can do so much with it. So as one of the categories is witty melancholy, which is the idea that your intellect is especially well-developed. But at the same time, there are other kinds of melancholy. You might have windy melancholy, which is a kind of melancholy very much rooted in the body and associated with indigestion and constipation.
BOGAEV: Wait, are we talking about As You Like It now? Because you described that as, “Shakespeare’s exploration of the 1590s fashion for melancholy.” And Jaques, isn’t he the melancholic who was melancholic because of constipation?.
HACKETT: Well, we can read him either way. I think, you know, he clearly is intellectual. He likes to kind of wander around the forest on his own. He likes to muse on things. He has the wonderful set piece speech, “All the world’s a stage,” which, you know, people love it. It gets used as a kind of detached performance piece from the play because it seems so deep. It seems so profound.
He brings a kind of gravitas to the play, but I think he is being made fun of at the same time. He may have this constipated kind of melancholy. His name can be pronounced Jakes, which is Elizabethan slang for a toilet.
So, you know, there is that going on there. He’s both kinds of—he’s lots of kinds of melancholic, all kind of overlaid on each other and being satirized a bit like in the humors comedies.
I mean, even Hamlet, if we think about his stuckness, yeah? His inability to do anything or move forward, there’s a kind of metaphorical constipation going on there. So, that is another association of melancholy.
It’s a really complex condition that has, as I say, lots of different subcategories, lots of different effects on mind and on body. But it has become—in the humors comedies—it has become something to be satirized, something seen as an affectation.
BOGAEV: Well, so much scholarship has been written about the humors. What do you see that you’re adding with this book?
HACKETT: I think one thing that I found myself thinking about a lot as I got towards the end of the book was actually parallels with now. Because the humors theory, it very much grounds the mind in the body. It sees the mind as organically integrated with the body.
Neuroscientists now are in many ways returning to that position. You know, all the advances that have been made in brain imaging over the last few years, last few decades have enabled neuroscientists to see mental processes actually happening in the brain. And they’re becoming increasingly confident that they might find physiological, or even if you like, mechanical explanations for lots of our mental processes.
I mean, there’s still lots of work to be done on that, but the idea of the embodied mind is very big now in cognitive neuroscience. That, to me has quite a lot in common with humors theory. Also, the Elizabethans were very interested in ideas from Aristotle about the mind as embodied.
But another thing I want to add, which I do think is new actually, and is important, is that there’s been a dominant discourse for quite a long time now, which places a watershed moment beyond the Elizabethan period, in the 1630s. When the French philosopher René Descartes is writing and he comes up with the very famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am.”
It’s often been argued that really from Descartes onwards, until this recent return to the embodied mind, we’ve been dominated by the idea that our selfhood is in our minds; That it’s detached from our bodies, or opposed to our bodies, that there’s a separation of mind and body. And that before that, everything was a kind of prelapsarian state of mind and body as being integrated.
The new thing I’m trying to argue is, yes, the embodied mind was an important idea before Descartes, but also before Descartes, there are lots of ways of thinking about the mind as detached from, separated from, opposed to the body, through classical philosophies that are being revived—like Neostoicism, Neoplatonism—through various kinds of Christian thought. There is that opposition that’s splitting of mind and body already present before Descartes.
The argument I’m trying to make is very much that the Elizabethans are wrestling with competing conflicting ways of thinking about mind, body relations, and this is a problem for them. This is why they’re thinking in such kind of fertile and active ways about mind and body, because they can’t really resolve these different belief systems that they have all in circulation alongside each other.
BOGAEV: Hmm. And I think you really see that in the… they’re thinking about gender and the mind.
HACKETT: Yes. They had very specific ideas about the female mind. I mean, they start from the position of the embodied mind, and in some ways they apply that even more to women than to men. They say—they see women’s minds as very much constrained and limited by their bodies.
In the first place, they argue that women should normally or ideally be phlegmatic in humor’s theory. That means cold and moist. That’s good for, sort of, fleshiness and fertility, but it’s bad for the mind. It means your brain is slow and you are dull witted, but that’s how a woman is supposed to be. If she’s not like that, then you can dismiss her as unnatural or mannish, if she shows temper or if she wants to be dominant, or if she shows intellectual pretensions.
And there are lots of—in the book, I quote lots of really appalling misogynistic statements by Elizabethans about how they thought women couldn’t control their passions. Couldn’t control their bodily desires, couldn’t control their imaginations, and so on. Women are, kind of, out of control because they don’t have as much reason as men. They can’t govern themselves.
BOGAEV: And now we’re talking about Taming of the Shrew.
HACKETT: We can talk about that.
BOGAEV: Let me ask you the $60,000 question, which is, what is going on with Kate in her big soliloquy at the end, which starts, “Such duty as the subject owes the prince, even such a woman worth to her husband.”
She does this huge 180, of course, and surrenders the autonomy of her mind and her passion to Petruchio, her husband. So, what insight does your research into the Elizabethan understanding of the female mind lend to this mystery of why Kate submits herself, or seemingly submits herself?
HACKETT: Well I’m, I’m afraid, I still think I can’t give you a definitive answer to how to read that final speech. Because it is, on the one hand—as it’s often been observed—it’s absolute Elizabethan orthodoxy. It goes back to the hierarchies in the cosmos, in the state, in the family. The patriarch is in charge of the family, as God is in charge of the cosmos, as the Queen is in charge of the state. And all these elements of these hierarchies have to stay in their place. They have to stay in order, and Kate finally seems to be embracing that.
I just feel that, as so often in his plays and as so often happens in comedy, Shakespeare has unleashed such energies in the course of the play and has given us such cause to sympathize with Kate that we can’t really accept that as a happy ending. I would like to think that there’s something satirical going on here. That by stating that position in such an extreme and emphatic way, and after what has happened in the course of the play, Shakespeare’s inviting us actually to look at it critically. To examine it, to analyze it, and perhaps to question it.
I think a context for that, if we think about the research that I’ve done on the female mind in the period, is that all the things I was mentioning earlier about all the very negative views of the female mind that we get in lots of didactic texts in the period. They sit very uncomfortably alongside what women are actually doing in the period, because we know lots of women were active in lots of ways, in lots of areas of society. And in particular, quite prominent, women are exercising their minds, their intellects.
BOGAEV: Well, and you have this extraordinary ruler, this extraordinarily intellectual ruler, Queen Elizabeth.
HACKETT: That’s right. I mean, in a way, Elizabeth doesn’t help us much and she didn’t help Elizabethan women much because she was always being praised as an exception. Clearly she had a tremendous intellect. She’d had a wonderful education. She was exemplary in the range of languages that she knew. The fact that, you know, she did translation as a hobby, it was just something that she loved. She was always putting down foreign ambassadors fluently in Latin or in their own languages.
But she’s consistently praised as an exception from what women are generally like. So, in a way, the more she’s praised for her intellect, the more it kind of puts other women in their place and puts them down.
But I think at the same time, there are lots of other elite women in the period. There are people like the Cook sisters who are all notable scholars and translators and authors. Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, who’s the sister of so Philip Sidney. She’s very active in lots of areas of literature, both as a patron, as an author, as a translator.
So, there are women who are active in literary and intellectual fields and are constantly disproving all this disparagement of the female mind that we find. Once again, I think we’re seeing really contradictory ideas sitting uncomfortable alongside each other. And the Elizabethans struggling to work their thoughts out about what they really do think about all of this. We can see Taming of the Shrew. We can situate it in that context, I think.
BOGAEV: Well, that leads me to another big topic that is full of contradictions, which is Shakespeare and the imagination.
He seems to often disparage it, but of course you then have the constant imagined choruses where Shakespeare exhorts the audience to imagine things. This was a period, as you write, that the imagination had so many connotations and meanings. It could be seen as something very dangerous—and it certainly was by the church and others.
But, also, there was this idea that imagination is the height of the mind’s powers. It’s interesting to think about people being in the theater at that time when they’re sitting through this beautiful, imagined chorus that maybe it was a little bit dangerous to them.
BOGAEV: I mean, when you hear them performed on stage now, it’s just…you know, there’s nothing threatening. It just seems this is conventional. It’s what Shakespeare did, or this is what they did back then. But did they seem boundary pushing back then?
HACKETT: Definitely. I think the imagination is one of the key areas where Elizabethan thought is really different from our own, much more different than we might realize if we’re in the theater, watching a Shakespeare play, or if we’re reading a Shakespeare play.
Because, yes, the predominant way of thinking about the imagination in this period is that it’s dangerous. It’s threatening, it’s unruly. The Bible tells people that the hearts of men full of wicked imaginations. In the law, treason is defined as to compass or imagine the death of the Monarch.
The imagination can be identified with subversion. It’s seen as the kind of subversive power in the mind. It’s very identified with kind of sensual appetites and with dreams. With fantasy, with making up all kinds of monstrous visions and lies in the mind. The imagination is getting a really bad press in this period.
And I think Shakespeare actually—along with a few other playwrights, but you know, Shakespeare most eloquently actually strikes out in a different direction, because he celebrates imagination. Particularly in, you mentioned, Henry V, and how it has the chorus which are urging the audience to imagine, to behold and make pictures, to create a virtual world in collaboration with the playwright and the actors. And also very much in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You know, I really see the whole of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a kind of hymn to the imagination really, which reaches its peak at the beginning of act five, when Theseus has his wonderful speech about “shaping fantasies.” He says, And as imagination bodies forth/The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen/Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name.”
You know, that can seem to us wonderfully eloquent, but at the same time we can think, what’s the big deal? Yeah. That’s what we understand imagination to be. It should be allowed to roam free. It’s creative, it’s exciting. It’s magical.
Very few Elizabethans thought of it like that. We think of it like that because passages like that from Shakespeare influence later thinkers, particularly the romantic poets and passed on this celebratory idea of the imagination to us. But it’s really a new, quite radical idea in his period.
I think it is very much produced in the playhouse. What we have to remember is the commercial playhouses in London, they’d only been going since the 1570s. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play of the mid-1590s. These structures, they’ve only been around for about 20 years. They’re almost like a kind of new technology of the imagination, if you like. They provided a really new experience where, in this circular or polygonal space you’ve got, we think, up to 3,000 people gathered, they’re all focused on the stage, working in collaboration with the words of the playwright, the performance of the actors. They can make virtual worlds, they can make a kind of virtual reality.
I think Shakespeare and his colleagues were experiencing this as audiences were, as a new kind of exhilaration, a new kind of revelation. I think he’s really feeling and flexing his powers and what he can do with the imagination in place like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry the V.
BOGAEV: Well, this really leads me to ask you about soliloquies, because we generally just assume soliloquies are a window into a character’s mind, as a modern theater-goer. But is that how theater-goers in Shakespeare’s time thought of them?
HACKETT: To some extent, I think, yes. There is definitely a way of thinking about language in and around the time when Shakespeare’s writing Hamlet, which is about how can you use words to look into the mind to express what’s going on inside a character’s mind.
I think Shakespeare, in Hamlet, is one of a cluster of writers around the end of the century, around the end of this turbulent decade that everyone’s been living through, who is trying to find ways of putting inner states, putting thoughts, into words.
We see it happening in prose fiction in the period, where there are lots of experiments with solitary monologues. And lots of other genres too: female complaint—male authors seem to have enjoyed impersonating women in a genre called “female complaint,” where abused or abandoned women talk about their inner turmoil. All of this feeds into the dramatic soliloquy.
All of this is kind of converging on Hamlet where Shakespeare becomes almost obsessed with the soliloquy. The count of the number of soliloquies in Hamlet varies, according to which critic you use. I think the maximum we get to is 12. Five big ones spoken by Hamlet alone, another really important one spoken by Claudius. It’s a play that’s really obsessed with the soliloquy. So here Shakespeare is really trying out everything he can to do with it here.
BOGAEV: Do you see it as a real breakthrough in representing the workings of the mind, or at least how the Elizabethans thought about the working of the mind? Or is Hamlet just very much a piece of the literary and the dramatic preoccupations of the time? I mean, it is tempting always to think that Shakespeare was a step ahead of other playwrights, but was he really?
HACKETT: Well, I think for one thing, the soliloquy is a gradual development. It doesn’t spring from nowhere. I mean, dramatic soliloquies themselves have been used by ancient Roman authors like Seneca. They’ve been used in medieval drama by vice figures, figures who kind of reveal their evil plotting to the audience.
I think there’s a gradual development towards the kind of soliloquy that we see in Hamlet. But then it takes them to a greater depth and sophistication that they’ve never had before, because so many works in different genres are published in the late 1590s/early 1600s, that are all about the mind.
Hamlet comes out of that whole creative ferment. Yes, it’s a work of genius, but it doesn’t sort of spring fully-formed from Shakespeare’s head in isolation. It comes out of lots of forces, lots of preoccupations, lots of influences that are all in circulation at the time.
BOGAEV: One of the most fascinating things I find about this period is just how similar in some ways the early moderns were to our way of thinking. . . And then we can get it so wrong. Reading your book over and over again, I think, “Oh my God, they really did think so differently about these things than we did”. Although, there are glimmers and there are overlaps as well.
And it made me wonder whether there’s any one passage or soliloquy or a scene in Shakespeare that leapt out at you while you were researching this book, that would drive home just how differently the Elizabethans did think about things like thinking and the mind than we do today?
HACKETT: I think to emphasize difference, I would have to look to Hamlet’s speech when he wonders whether the devil has actually sent his father’s ghost to tempt him out of his weakness and his melancholy.
I think to us, that can read like just to sort of figure of speech, but I think to the Elizabethans, that had a reality. One preoccupation of the period is demonic possession, which is probably one of the ways of thinking about the mind which is most different, in the period, from how we think about it now.
Even those writers who think that there isn’t really such a thing as demonic possession, what we would call the “skeptical writers,” they still account for the debate that’s going on. They say, “People who believe in demonic possession, it’s because they’re superstitious. Who planted those superstitious, mistaken thoughts in their minds? It’s the devil.” So, the whole thing comes back full circle.
The devil is a real force in the world. This goes back to something we talked about earlier, this need for constant introspection and looking within. Yes, it’s partly to look for signs of, “Have you been saved? Can you detect signs of divine grace in yourself?” But also you’ve got to keep monitoring your own mind all the time because the devil might be invading it.
It was a real fear of pretty much everyone that the devil could enter the body, particularly in melancholy. That the black bile that caused melancholy was thought to be a congenial habitat for the devil and his ministers. Through that, he would circulate around your body, get into your mind. There, he could plant temptations. He could plant evil thoughts. He could plant delusions. Hamlet thinks he may be suffering from one of those delusions in thinking that he can see his father’s ghost.
I think that that passage takes us to that kind of reality of the threat of the devil for Elizabethans, which is something that seems quite kind of remote and distant for most of us now.
BOGAEV: Well, I love that we’re ending on one of my favorite quotes for Shakespeare, which is, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
HACKETT: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. Yes. That’s a very good place for us to end up. Yeah.
BOGAEV: Oh, such a joy to talk with you. Thank you so much.
HACKETT: It’s been a huge pleasure. Thank you very much, indeed. It’s been great.
WITMORE: Helen Hackett is a professor of English at University College London. Her book The Elizabethan Mind was published by Yale University Press earlier this year.
This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Paul Luke at VoiceTrax West in Studio City, California, and Gareth Wood at The Sound Company in London. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu.
Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.