“The Poet’s Eye in Fine Frenzy Rolling”: Shakespeare and the Origin of Religion

From William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Act 5, Scene 1 (Theseus speaking):

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,

Are of imagination all compact.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is, the madman; the lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

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.

Such tricks hath strong imagination,

That, if it would but apprehend some joy,

It comprehends some bringer of that joy;

Or in the night, imagining some fear,

How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!

Notice in the above passage that Shakespeare suggests that vague feelings and energies are personified, by the strong imagination, into mythic or intentional beings at work in the world—from a common woman’s face (“a brow of Egypt”) turned into Helen of Troy to a rustling bush turned to a bear, to joy arising from a god that brings that joy to the soul.

As social animals, in other words, we extend the habit of discerning intentions in people to intentions in things.

I thus detect here in Shakespeare a partial explanation for religion. 

Strongly imaginitive people (prophets and religious seers) anthropomorphize and mythologize the doings of nature (lightening, for example, as an expression of a god’s anger) and history (God led the children of Israel out of Egypt) in a way that gives all actions—not just human actions—conscious intention and meaning.

Likewise, the poet transforms energies into myth and metaphorical meaning.

The prophet and the poet are kin.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to “The Poet’s Eye in Fine Frenzy Rolling”: Shakespeare and the Origin of Religion

  1. Steve says:

    Beautiful passage from Shakespeare. And beautiful analysis too, Santi.

  2. Pingback: The Poet’s Eye | My Floating Worlds

  3. hank spottswood says:

    would be interested in your thoughts on Ernest Becker’s THE DENIAL OF DEAT…among other observations

  4. WayneSL says:

    I was pleasantly surprised once more, Santi, that when I searched for this Spearshaker passage (one of my favorites ) Google pointed me to you. I appreciate your concise yet sufficient analysis.

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