The best books on how Shakespeare thought about the mind

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve always loved all things Elizabethan, and I especially love spending time with books and manuscripts where voices from the period speak to us directly. Wanting to understand how Shakespeare and his contemporaries understood themselves led me to investigate their ideas about relations between mind and body, about emotions, about the imagination, and about the minds of women and those of other races. I’ve learned that the Elizabethans grappled with many conflicting ideas about the mind, from classical philosophies, medieval medicine, new theologies, and more – and that this intellectual turmoil was essential fuel for the extraordinary literary creativity of the period.


I wrote...

The Elizabethan Mind: Searching for the Self in an Age of Uncertainty

By Helen Hackett,

Book cover of The Elizabethan Mind: Searching for the Self in an Age of Uncertainty

What is my book about?

When watching a Shakespeare play or looking at an Elizabethan portrait, it’s easy to assume that their ideas about the mind and selfhood were like ours. In fact there were many differences: for instance, they thought the imagination was sinful and evil; they lived in fear of invasion of the mind by the Devil; and they thought of the mind politically, as a miniature commonwealth needing government by reason. Even so, some of their ideas about the organic integration of mind and body anticipate current thinking in wellbeing and neuroscience. Exploring Elizabethan ideas about emotions, dreams, and mental health provides a richer understanding of their literature and culture – and can help us to re-examine our own assumptions about our minds and selves.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance

Helen Hackett Why did I love this book?

A brilliantly researched and argued book that transformed the intellectual landscape.

In the 1980s and 1990s many writers on Shakespeare and his contemporaries asserted that when reading their works we had to put aside modern concepts of selfhood as anachronistic. To some extent they were right: Elizabethan and Jacobean ideas about the self were different from ours; but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

Maus shows that Elizabethan and Jacobean authors were obsessed with what they called ‘the inward self’ or ‘the inner man’, and that their drama was shaped by this preoccupation with disparities between a performed public self and a concealed inner self. There’s also a fascinating chapter, wittily called "A Womb of his Own", on how male writers appropriated childbirth metaphors to represent their intellectual creativity.

By Katharine Eisaman Maus,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This text explores the preoccupation of many Renaissance writers' with the inwardness and invisibility of truth. The perceived discrepancy between a person's outward appearance and inward disposition, it argues, influenced the ways in which English Renaissance dramatists and poets conceived the theatre, imagined dramatic characters and reflected upon their own creativity. Reading works by Kyd, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson and Milton in conjuction with sectarian polemics, gynaecological treatises and accounts of criminal prosecutions, the author delineates unexplored connections among religious, legal, sexual and theatrical ideas of inward truth. She reveals what was at stake ethically, politically, epistemologically and theologically when a…


Book cover of Being Protestant in Reformation Britain

Helen Hackett Why did I love this book?

The most seismic cultural shift of the sixteenth century was undoubtedly the Protestant Reformation.

It affected everything: not only religion and politics, but also, profoundly, how each individual thought about themselves. Ryrie uses many sources from the period to show how private prayer, meditation, and self-examination became central to everybody’s life.

Spending time in contemplation was not just an anticipation of modern mindfulness practices: it was a matter of eternal life or death. In looking within, you were searching for certainty that you had received God’s saving grace, destining you for bliss in heaven, not endless torment in hell.

Inevitably this created turbulent states of doubt and anxiety, and Ryrie shows how Protestants came to value the passions (what we call emotions) as a necessary part of inward spiritual struggle.

By Alec Ryrie,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Being Protestant in Reformation Britain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Reformation was about ideas and power, but it was also about real human lives. Alec Ryrie provides the first comprehensive account of what it actually meant to live a Protestant life in England and Scotland between 1530 and 1640, drawing on a rich mixture of contemporary devotional works, sermons, diaries, biographies, and autobiographies to uncover the lived experience of early modern Protestantism.

Beginning from the surprisingly urgent, multifaceted emotions of Protestantism, Ryrie explores practices of prayer, of family and public worship, and of reading and writing, tracking them through the life course from childhood through conversion and vocation to…


Book cover of The Worlds of Renaissance Melancholy: Robert Burton in Context

Helen Hackett Why did I love this book?

Elizabethan ideas about the mind were based on the ancient medical theory of humours: fluids whose proportions in the body dictated character, and whose circulation and fluctuation triggered fleeting moods.

Shakespeare and his contemporaries were particularly obsessed with black bile, or melancholy, whose long list of symptoms included sadness, bad dreams, seeking darkness and solitude, and suicidal thoughts. It also enhanced intellectual and creative powers, so had a certain glamour.

Understanding melancholy is essential to understanding Hamlet and many other works from its period. Gowland traces the sources of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, a compendious work published shortly after Shakespeare’s death, and thereby illuminates sixteenth- and seventeenth-century understanding of what we would call psychology.

By Angus Gowland,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Worlds of Renaissance Melancholy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Angus Gowland investigates the theory of melancholy and its many applications in the Renaissance by means of a wide-ranging contextual analysis of Robert Burton's encyclopaedic Anatomy of Melancholy (first published in 1621). Approaching the Anatomy as the culmination of early modern medical, philosophical and spiritual inquiry about melancholy, Gowland examines the ways in which Burton exploited the moral psychology central to the Renaissance understanding of the condition to construct a critical vision of his intellectual and political environment. In the first sustained analysis of the evolving relationship of the Anatomy (in the various versions issued between 1621 and 1651) to…


Book cover of Phantasmatic Shakespeare: Imagination in the Age of Early Modern Science

Helen Hackett Why did I love this book?

A startling finding when I was researching Elizabethan ideas about the mind was how far their attitudes to the imagination differed from ours.

We see it as a creative force to be encouraged and liberated, but for them it was dangerous, deceptive, and unruly, leading towards sinfulness and madness. Roychoudhury explains how early scientific thinking was starting to unsettle this traditional view of the imagination as reprehensible, and traces the effects of this in works including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Sonnets, and Macbeth.

I would add that the new commercial playhouses for which Shakespeare wrote became experimental crucibles: these were spaces where the combined imaginations of playwright, actors, and audiences created virtual realities, unleashing an exhilarating and magical sense of the powers of imagination.

By Suparna Roychoudhury,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Phantasmatic Shakespeare as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Representations of the mind have a central place in Shakespeare's artistic imagination, as we see in Bottom struggling to articulate his dream, Macbeth reaching for a dagger that is not there, and Prospero humbling his enemies with spectacular illusions. Phantasmatic Shakespeare examines the intersection between early modern literature and early modern understandings of the mind's ability to perceive and imagine. Suparna Roychoudhury argues that Shakespeare's portrayal of the imagination participates in sixteenth-century psychological discourse and reflects also how fields of anatomy, medicine, mathematics, and natural history jolted and reshaped conceptions of mentality. Although the new sciences did not displace the…


Book cover of Shakespeare, Rhetoric and Cognition

Helen Hackett Why did I love this book?

Renaissance writers were trained in rhetoric: how to use language to work through a problem or convey a state of mind.

Today, theories of cognition explore how linguistic devices relate to processes in the brain; for example, metaphor replicates how the mind understands something by associating or comparing it with something else. Lyne’s radical innovation is to bring together these historical and contemporary frameworks for understanding thought and language.

He explores points of contact between Renaissance rhetorical theories and present-day cognitive theories, then applies his insights to analyse works by Shakespeare. This offers a wholly fresh approach to understanding how Shakespeare translates thoughts – his own and those of his characters – into words; and how those words in turn work on our minds as readers or listeners.

By Raphael Lyne,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shakespeare, Rhetoric and Cognition as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Raphael Lyne addresses a crucial Shakespearean question: why do characters in the grip of emotional crises deliver such extraordinarily beautiful and ambitious speeches? How do they manage to be so inventive when they are perplexed? Their dense, complex, articulate speeches at intensely dramatic moments are often seen as psychological - they uncover and investigate inwardness, character and motivation - and as rhetorical - they involve heightened language, deploying recognisable techniques. Focusing on A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello, Cymbeline and the Sonnets, Lyne explores both the psychological and rhetorical elements of Shakespeare's language. In the light of cognitive linguistics and cognitive…


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By Jim Brown,

Book cover of Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

Jim Brown Author Of Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

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Why am I passionate about this?

I have spent my entire professional life quietly patrolling the frontiers of understanding human consciousness. I was an early adopter in the burgeoning field of biofeedback, then neurofeedback and neuroscience, plus theory and practices of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, plus steeping myself in systems theory as a context for all these other fields of focus. I hold a MS in psychology from San Francisco State University and a PhD from Saybrook Institute. I live in Mount Shasta CA with Molly, my life partner for over 60 years. We have two sons and two grandchildren.

Jim's book list on brain, mind, and consciousness

What is my book about?

In this thoroughly researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development.

He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind.

Brown then offers a model of optimal human learning through lifelong brain development within a supportive culture--drawing on the work of Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Steiner--and how that work is being vastly expanded by neuroscience and dynamical systems thinking.

Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

By Jim Brown,

What is this book about?

In this thoroughly-researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development. He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to truly engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind. Brown then offers a model of optimal human learning through life-long brain development within a supportive culture--drawing on the work of Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Steiner--and how that work is being vastly expanded by neuroscience and dynamical systems thinking.


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