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"Acquire and Beget a Temperance": The Virtue of Temperance in The Faerie Queene Book II and Hamlet

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posted on 2021-11-10, 05:11 authored by Hubbard, Gillian Chell

Shakespeare's Hamlet, like Spenser's The Faerie Queene Book II, is a work systematically concerned with the virtue of temperance. This conclusion is reached partly from comparison between Spenser and Shakespeare. But I also set their works in the context of a range of relevant sources available to the Early Modern period. While comparisons between aspects of FQII and Hamlet are not unknown, critical attention to their common foundation in temperance has been limited. Like Spenser in FQII, Shakespeare in Hamlet is concerned with a virtue that has its roots in the interconnected Greek precepts "Know Thyself", "Nothing in Excess' and "Think Mortal Thoughts." To be sophron (temperate) is to live in accordance with these precepts. Spenser presents the opposed vice of intemperance through the excesses of avarice and lust in the Cave of Mammon and the Bower of Bliss. Shakespeare portrays a court in Elsinore where excess, irascibility, lust and avarice for power are barely concealed beneath a veneer of Ciceronian social decorum and a didactic commitment to self-control. Comparison with the varied aspects of temperance in FQII makes clear how constantly and variously Hamlet reflects upon temperance and intemperance. There is an underlying tension in both FQII and Hamlet between traditional ideals of moderation and self-control on the one hand, and imagery and archetypes of the Fall and tainted human nature on the other. This tension arises naturally in a treatment of a virtue which, although it derives from classical thought, was carefully assimilated into Christian theology by the Church Fathers. As in much Early Modern writing, we find strands of Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic thought that privilege reason (on the one hand) intermingled with (on the other) an Augustinian emphasis on the heart, the will, and dependence on Christian grace. In Hamlet Shakespeare portrays Claudius as one intractably intemperate in the Aristotelian sense, a condition made apparent in his inability to repent. Claudius' apparent rational self-control is based on premises that are ultimately false; his actions therefore derive from "false prudence" as defined by Aquinas. His projection of reasonableness forces his antagonist, Hamlet, into a range of irascible and irrational behaviour, some of which is calculated and some of which is not. Both Spenser and Shakespeare present an anatomy of the processes of rational self-control and their disruption by the passions. Both are also concerned with the metaphysical dimensions of temperance, both Platonic and Pauline. When Hamlet (like a Greek sophronistes) sees it as his duty to act against Claudius, "this canker of our nature," he is expressing a confused mixture of desires--for ethical and spiritual transformation, political reformation, justice, and an irascible lust for vengeance. It is no coincidence that the problematic endings of both FQII and Hamlet echo the conclusion of the Aeneid and its failure to reconcile justice and temperance.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Walls, Kathryn; Miles, Geoff