Shakespeare and Donne: Generic Hybrids and the Cultural Imaginary

By Judith H. Anderson; Jennifer C. Vaught | Go to book overview

9.
Working Imagination in the Early Modern
Period: Donne’s Secular and Religious Lyrics
and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth, and Leontes

JUDITH H. ANDERSON

Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Donne in his youth was “a great frequenter of Playes,” and, in the melancholy of his maturity, he pondered the subject of self-slaughter.1 His tonal range included irony, sarcasm, satire, and more, with a special, witty, punning emphasis on sex. Death, as dying and lying, was never far from his sight. Whether in prose or verse, he was given to a dramatic speaking voice and to expressive forms suggesting dramatic context, dialogue, and soliloquy. If imaginatively agitated, he spoke, like Hamlet, in an extravagant multiplicity of puns, figures, extensions, and amplifications. As a writer, he was intensely self-conscious. Religion was part of his world and for a good part of his life a troubled and troubling part. He, too, had a haunting family past. He was also educated, underemployed, and ambitious. But I don’t offer these coincidental similarities as prelude to a whimsical characterization of Donne as tragic Dane. They are instead my apologia for beginning an essay on the contemporary London poets Shakespeare and Donne with Hamlet’s soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” which is provoked by the recitation he shares with his “old friend” the First Player.2 My plan, which is selective and exploratory, is to consider the workings of imagination in this Shakespearean passage and its immediate context and then in two others, Macbeth’s dagger soliloquy and Leontes’s abrupt shift into his own affective world—momentarily into virtual soliloquy—early in The Winter’s Tale. I then play these workings off against those in selected secular and religious lyrics by Donne. My aim is comparison, a sharpening of definition within a cultural resemblance rather than sameness or influence. An intellectual culture whose roots, putatively like those of the imagination itself, are affective and material

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