The year 1600, writes Helen Hackett in her ambitious study of the mental world of the Elizabethans, was ‘a moment of the mind’. Around the turn of the 17th century, an unusually rich crop of literary works was published and performed that took as their principal subject the nature of the mind and mental processes, character and self, and the impact of ‘passion’ (in other words, emotion) on human thought and action. Among the products of this great age of literary flourishing were Ben Jonson’s ‘humours’ plays, which made comedy out of the ancient notion that bodily humours reified character, Thomas Wright’s The Passions of the Mind (1601), a systematic handbook on the management of the emotions, and John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays (1603), which unabashedly set up the autobiographical ‘self’ as a subject for philosophical and literary analysis (‘myself am the groundwork of my book’, wrote Montaigne). Most famous of all, of course, are the existential ruminations of Hamlet (c 1599–1601), analysis of which inevitably features in the preface and the conclusion of Hackett’s book.
Hackett argues that a confluence of technological, educational, religious and philosophical developments nurtured this novel concern with selfhood and the processes of thought and feeling in the later 16th century. As the printing press came of age, medical treatises popularised remedies for discontented mental states caused by the