Plato’s Tripartite Soul in Shakespeare

Plato’s Tripartite Soul in Shakespeare

In the Republic, Plato divides the human soul into three parts: the Appetite, the Rational, and the Spirited. The Appetite part of the soul desires bodily pleasures such as food, drink, sex, etc; the Rational part desires to exercise reason and make rational decisions; and the Spirited part desires honor above all else.

Throughout his works, William Shakespeare presents numerous characters who are dominated by one aspect of their soul. For example, the Appetite part of the soul dominates Tarquin in The Rape of Lucrece, the Rational part of the soul dominates Hamlet, and the Spirited part of the soul dominates Coriolanus.

In The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare tells the story of Tarquin, who is the son of a Roman king. Tarquin decides to rape Lucrece after listening to her husband, who is a Roman soldier, boast about her beauty and virtue. The Spirited segment of his soul warns Tarquin of the resulting shame which will accompany his crime, and the Rational part argues that Tarquin is damning his soul for “a dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.” Despite the warnings given by the other parts of his soul, Tarquin acknowledges that the Appetite part controls him entirely, “Affection is my captain, and he leadeth.”

Lucrece desperately tries to persuade Tarquin not to rape her. But she “Pleads, in a wilderness where are no laws/ To the rough beast that knows no gentle right/ Nor aught obeys but his foul appetite.” In this stanza, specifically the last word “appetite,” Shakespeare explicitly evokes Plato’s theory of the tripartite soul. Tarquin proceeds to rape Lucrece, and tragedy naturally ensues for Lucrece, Tarquin, and all people associated with them. Thus through the character of Tarquin, Shakespeare draws attention to the inevitable calamity which arises when the Appetite part overpowers an individual.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare presents the story of an intellectual and melancholy Prince of Denmark. After the ghost of Hamlet’s father reveals that Hamlet’s uncle Claudius murdered him, Hamlet vows to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius. But after reflecting upon his encounter with the ghost, Hamlet concludes that “the spirit I have seen may be a devil sent to damn me.” Thus, instead of acting according to his carnal instinct for revenge, the Rational part of his soul delays the action. He decides to stage a play similar to the murder of his father. The play is called the Mousetrap. Hamlet reasons that Claudius will disclose his guilt either explicitly or by some involuntary sign.

At the play, Claudius does manifest signs of guilt, and he runs out of the room. Hamlet is ecstatic that he now possesses definitive proof of Claudius’ guilt. He feels as if he can “drink hot blood and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on.”

Determined to kill Claudius, Hamlet finds him praying alone in a private room. The circumstances could not be more favorable for Hamlet – Claudius is alone, unarmed, and unaware of Hamlet’s presence – but the Rational part of Hamlet’s soul delays his vengeance again. Hamlet believes that if he kills Claudius while he is praying, then Claudius’s soul will ascend to Heaven. This is unacceptable; and therefore he decides to wait for a more suitable time when Claudius is engaged in sin so that his “soul may be as damned and black as hell, whereto it goes.”

This is the decisive point in the play. If Hamlet had killed Claudius, then the tragedy of the play and the deaths of Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet would have been avoided. Alas Hamlet learns to late that “our indiscretion sometimes serves us well.”

In Coriolanus, Shakespeare presents the tragedy which can arise when a soul is governed by the Spirited part. Coriolanus is a courageous Roman general who is willing to “venture all his limbs for honor.” He is unable to humble himself before the citizens of Rome because he believes it to be dishonorable, and thus the Tribunes banish Coriolanus. His love for honor and lack of humility ultimately lead to his tragic death. His life warns us of the dangers that attend a soul dominated by the Spirited part.

In conclusion, Plato’s theory that the soul comprises three parts is enlightening when it is applied to the poems and plays of Shakespeare. One can see how the dominance of one part of the soul results in tragedy.


3 thoughts on “Plato’s Tripartite Soul in Shakespeare

  1. Great post! I love Shakespeare and Plato, (among many other classics), and your examples of Plato’s tripartite soul in the characters of Shakespeare was both insightful and interesting!

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