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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: April ::
Germens
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1183  Monday, 29 April 2002

From:           John D. Cox <
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Date:           Monday, 29 Apr 2002 09:41:00 -0400
Subject:        Germens

I was intrigued to read W. C. Curry's argument recently (though he made
it in 1937) regarding the origin of "germens" in *Lear* and *Macbeth*
(*Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns* 29-49).  Curry argues that
Shakespeare's "germens" are the *rationes seminales* of Augustine,
translating the Stoic and Neo-Platonic *logoi spermatikoi*.  He makes a
convincing case, to my mind, particularly with regard to Shakespeare's
witches, except for one point:  the Latin sources he cites never use
*germen* (a Latin word that Shakespeare used as such, without
translating, though he gave it the English plural); they all use
*rationes seminales*.

This makes me wonder where Shakespeare found "germen," and I naturally
checked the index to Stuart Clark's *Thinking with Demons*, to see if he
discusses the word, but he doesn't.  My guess is that Shakespeare read
it in an English translation of something, but what?  I've looked at
Harsnett (on exorcism) and King James on demonology, but to no avail.

I'd be interested to hear other suggestions.  It would seem likely to be
a source that gives a credible version of the Augustinian doctrine,
using "germen," since that's what Shakespeare reproduces in *Macbeth*
(4.1.56-65 and cf. 1.3.58-60).  He may have been reading Augustine on
the Trinity, of course, but it seems unlikely, and judging from Curry,
Augustine doesn't use "germen." Editors routinely gloss "germens"
without suggesting where this unusual word might have come from.
(Defining the word is easy to do with a Latin dictionary, though
interestingly it doesn't appear in Cooper's *Thesaurus* of 1565, and the
definition in Thomas Thomas's *Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et
Anglicanae* of 1587 doesn't point in the direction of Augustine's idea
at all)

Incidentally, William Elton's note in MLN 65 (1950), 196-97, refers to
another source for the Augustinian doctrine (Timothy Bright's *Treatise
of Melancholy*), but Bright uses "seeds" not "germens."

John Cox
Hope College

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