Wavering in Faith: Pythagoras, Metempsychosis, and the Fate of the Soul in English Renaissance Drama


  • Todd H.J. Pettigrew Cape Breton University


Pythagoras was widely celebrated in the early modern period as a consummate authority on a wide variety of topics. But one area of his thought deeply troubled thinkers of the time, his belief in metempsychosis, or reincarnation. The idea that a human soul could have once inhabited an animal called into question the noble divinity of humanity. Further, the notion that the soul, after a person's death, would progress neither to Heaven nor to any realm of punishment shook the very foundations of Christian justice.

For this reason, metempsychosis was routinely dismissed as nonsense or heresy. And yet early English dramatists were fascinated by it, invoking it repeatedly in plays as a means of testing the limits of acceptable doctrine on the soul, all the while sheltering their dangerous speculations under the name and reputation of Pythagoras.