Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Bacon and Shakespeare Theory of Spirits - 9 Conclusion

The Bacon and Shake-Speare Theory of "spirits"

part 9 of 9 


As said, there are a great many other references in Shake-Speare to "spirit" or "spirits" in the sense of one's inner spirits. Though these others refer less obviously to the technical doctrine of "spirits", the word is introduced in contexts in which it would probably not have been used if Shake-Speare had not had the technical doctrine in mind. For example, in Antony and Cleopatra 3.13.69 a character says to Cleopatra of Caesar: "It would warm his spirits/ To hear from me you had left Antony". If Shake-Speare had not, like Bacon, been so obsessed with "spirits", he might instead have used some such phrase as "It would warm his heart", or "It would cheer his soul".

We have seen Shake-Speare follow Bacon, not only in his obsession with inner spirits, but also in several of the incidents of the theory, namely: (1) the emphasis on the motions of the spirits; (2) joy is caused by the spirits coming into the outward parts, a consequence of which is that, if one's spirits are imprisoned, one will be dulled; (3) one is never merry when one hears sweet music because it stills the spirits and makes them attentive; (4) the concept of vital spirits being seized; (5) anger swells the spirits, which will shorten life; (6) indulgence in sex causes expense of spirit; and (7) blood and spirit are quite separate things.

Three of the parallels - in (b), (g), and (j) above - have helped to explain Shake-Speare texts which have hitherto puzzled editors.

There are also similarities in language - "motions of the spirit", "spirits coming or going forth", "spirits imprisoned", "spirits attentive", "vital spirits seized", "inflammation of spirits", "spirits swell", "expense of spirits", "spirits delighted", "alacrity of spirit", and "spirits extravagant".

Shake-Speare's interest in the spirits theory seems to have gone virtually unrecognised. Yet the parallels listed above in doctrine and in terminology are remarkable, and must be considered conclusive of common authorship unless some other explanation can be found for them. They certainly cannot be explained by mutual borrowing. Bacon's History of Life and Death and his Natural History were not published in Will Shakspere's lifetime. And though some of the Shake-Speare plays were available to Bacon, he would not have constructed his elaborate theory of spirits on disjointed and glancing allusions to it in the works of a contemporary playwright.

The one other possible explanation which does deserve serious consideration is that Bacon and Shake-Speare may have been echoing doctrines and terminology which were already standard in the subject. There was certainly some theory, centered on the "vital spirits" (as they were called), in Elizabethan times. According to Spedding Bacon followed Telesius (Bernadino Telesio, 1509-1588, Italian philosopher and natural scientist whom Bacon commended as "the first of the moderns") in ascribing "all the phenomena of animal life [which includes human life] to the spiritus".

In the English version of Telesio's The First of the Moderns (1932) his doctrine on spirits was that "All animate functions such as memory, desire, sensation and even reasoning and bodily movement are referred to this corporeal spiritus. All these functions, furthermore, are either expansions or contractions"; and "When it is asked why the body does what it is observed to do, the answer is inevitably in terms of physical changes in a corporeal spirit".

But are such answers by Bacon identical with any which may have been given by Telesius (whom Bacon cites several times but never regarding "the spirits")? There must be many matters of detail on which Bacon did not follow Telesius, since the number of different phenomena which Bacon explains in one way or another in terms of the activities of the spirits is so large. One certainly has the impression that Bacon was making the explanations up as he went along (and sometimes one has difficulty in reconciling them). But whatever the degree of correspondence between Bacon and Telesius, the vital question for our purposes is whether the particular parallels which I have listed above in doctrine and terminology are unique to Bacon and Shake-Speare, or derive from Telesius or other writers on the subject. I cannot answer this question but I surmise that some of them are unique. (If anyone knows, he could make a useful contribution to Shake-Speare studies).

Even if none of the parallels was unique, I would find it hard to believe that Will Shakspere would spend leisure - and his own spirits - in the study of Telesius or other writers on these niceties of theoretical natural science. For Bacon on the other hand such matters were a lifelong obsession and fundamental to his concept of nature. I would add that in so far as my own reading of non-Shakespearean Elizabethan drama has gone, I have only once come across any reference to "spirits" in the technical sense of Bacon and Shake-Speare, namely in Marlowe's Tamburlaine Part 2, 5.3.93-5

end of part 9 of 9


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