Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing.
By Claire McEachern
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018
It may be counter-intuitive to begin at the end of a book that proposes to substitute a hermeneutics of suspense for a hermeneutics of suspicion. But the Epilogue of Believing in Shakespeare: Studies m Longing offers such a precise articulation of Claire McEachern's project and its stakes that it deserves the lede. The book, as she explains, charts the "mechanics and affects and origins of Reformation believing"--particularly Protestant doctrines of predestination--as constitutive of Shakespeare's formal techniques and thus his "manufacturing of illusion[s]." And his believable, cherished illusions sustain audiences today because they elicit a kind of care, both personal and political, that is "not a simulacrum of the connections we form with 'real' people; it is their original" (297).
The historical and analytical scaffolding for this claim, with its earnest appeal in a time of increased challenges to the relevance of the humanities, represents a persuasive, original contribution to contemporary discussions about Shakespeare and religion. McEachern herself provides a comprehensive review of earlier as well as more recent scholarship (14-18) before turning to her own account, a sustained argument that the doctrinal changes of the Reformation influenced the production and consumption of age-old dramaturgic principles. Her proposal is an elegant instance of contextualized formalism: Protestant soteriology, however variegated, instructed its followers in forms of belief and practices of piety that incorporated feelings of doubt as potentially positive signs of salvation, and these forms and practices are developed and deployed in Shakespeare's treatment of characters, plot design, dramatic irony and anagnorisis. These treatments, in turn, invite the audience to believe in and long for them.
In its discussion of Shakespeare's absorption of distinctly Calvinist theological premises into his plays, the proposal is also daring. The trend in much recent scholarship on Shakespeare and religion has been either to emphasize the playwright's lingering attachments to Catholic theology and the pietistic or festive medieval practices associated with it, or to analyze his challenges to the spiritual losses or anxieties that follow on Reformed positions on predestination, the Eucharist, or confession. Such work is consistent with other historical or literary studies that focus on the continuities in both doctrine and practice across a Reformation divide. But McEachern grounds her argument on the differences, rather than the continuities, between Reformed theologies of salvation and those of medieval or post-Tridentine Catholicism. She is careful, of course, to admit the persistence of "confessional commonalities," but her interest is "less [in] doctrinal overlap than the way in which a shared awareness of the political and personal stakes of the changes underway in the Reformation conditioned all species of contemporary Christianity" (19). And those changes were nowhere as salient as in doctrines of salvation. Calvinist predestination, then, and the ways in which it motivated spiritual thought and practices designed to gauge the status of one's soul, are thus at the core of the book. These in turn, she argues, influenced the "dramaturgical technologies" of Shakespeare's plays in ways that condition our relationships to them today (20).
The connection hinges on the experience of believing: believing in election, and believing in plays. And this kind of belief includes doubt. The book's first two deeply researched chapters establish the grounds of this premise, with a thorough discussion of the "English absorption of the Calvinist imperative to self-knowledge" prompted by the conviction that one's salvific status is always already determined and known by God (7). While earlier scholars such as John Stachniewski understood this theory as a source first of doubt and then of anxiety and desperation ("the doctrine of reprobation made for despair"), McEachern offers a more optimistic interpretation, one that makes doubt--and all the emotions and sensations attendant upon it--proof or assurance of one's redemption. (1) English Calvinism, especially in the experimental forms promulgated by theologians such as William Perkins and Henry Smith, "imagined for itself" a "new and better believing ... in which doubt did not erode belief but worked to thicken and substantiate it in ways that were both affectively positive and empirically positive" (23). Invoking Francis Bacon, whose empiricism did not evacuate the role in the world of the divine, she suggests that the inclusion of skepticism in the pursuit of knowledge about the predetermined fate of the soul generates an "intense imaginative commitment" to the self and to others, including staged others (36). As McEachern explains, experimentalism and Shakespeare's plays were "fellow responses to the disconcerting prospect posed by predestination, namely that God knows something about us that we may hope to discover." Even more crucial, the plays "curate our knowledge" to "engage our emotional involvement: how we feel implicated in, touched, or moved by the plights of characters" (82). One of McEachern's most compelling, as well as salutary, claims here is that this engagement does not come in the form of identification, the customary model for our attachment to the plays. Rather, as the rest of the book elaborates, it comes in the form of charity or caritas, a feeling for or toward the character that is "not the experience of recognizing ourselves in a character but the longing to be recognized by one" (90).
From this foundation McEachern launches two robust chapters that explore Reformation effects on dramatic recognition and irony. Chapter 3 suggests that in a world shaped by Calvinist predestination, dramatic irony does not distance the audience, secure in its superior knowledge, from the characters but makes them feel for or involved with them in acute ways. The same kind of feeling informs scenes of recognition, in which the characters' knowledge meets up with ours so that it "feels to us like we have been recognized. In a word, elect" (100). Prior to this moment, we have been kept in a position of uncertainty, a distinctly Protestant "literary suspense" which, McEachern claims, "Calvin and Shakespeare, between them, invented ... from our wanting to be known" (105). Here McEachern makes her confessional distinctions clear, recruiting Shakespeare to the Protestant side: "Catholic salvation is thus what we might call the more cliffhangerish" while "the suspense of Protestantism resides instead in the work of discovery, which is a kind of hide-and-seek between divine knowledge and human inquiry" (106, 107). Her test cases for these models are four Oedipus plays, since "resemblances between Oedipus's fate and Christian predestination were certainly not lost on Reformation writers" (118). She compares the dramas of Sophocles and Seneca, against which she then contrasts two Tudor versions, Alexander Neville's translation (1563) and a manuscript from a grammar school production thought to date from the 1580s (121). The Tudor plays, she suggests, are more Sophoclean than Senecan, distancing us from the protagonist and his plight at the famous moment of recognition. They thus offer a kind of anti-example for a range of Shakespearean characters. None of them are Oedipus himself, but they grapple with the question of their salvation in ways that, McEachern argues, solicit our charity in accordance with the "sense the drama conjures of events hanging in the balance" (124).
Chapter 4 picks up these questions of asymmetrical knowledge between audience and characters in terms of two generically opposed cuckold plays, Much Ado About Nothing and Othello. As McEachern notes, scholars have long recognized that for Shakespeare's male characters the threat of female infidelity is linked to cosmic crises of faith in the self and the universe. She even sketches a religious allegory of this dilemma, according to which Shakespeare's concerns, and Elizabethan "horn humor" more generally, "could be said to express the unnerving soteriological condition of being at a disadvantage concerning knowledge.... What better expression of this unruly and alienated inwardness--of not possessing what most ought to be one's own--might there be than an otherwise self-possessed man undone by the question of whether an enigmatic subaltern loves him" (139). But McEachern's interest is less in the male characters' inward suffering from disbelief in their beloved than in the audience's suffering from an imbalance of knowledge, the fact that we know the beloved is faithful. "Our stake in the play lies not in doubting female fidelity along with the hero but in wondering whether, how, and when our hero will come to know what we do: that he has erred" (142). Her argument includes an exciting account of the iconography of the cuckold's horn (with reference to both Acteon and Moses) and the kinds of confession-driven humor it invited, as well as a reflection on the generic instability of the two plays, so that the ending of Othello can feel "triumphant" while a significant portion oi Much Ado can "hover near tragedy" (156).
But the heart of the chapter is its discussion of the select moment from each of the plays that invites our movement toward the stage in a surge of pity or charity. For Much Ado, that moment is Beatrice's demand of Benedick that he "kill Claudio," since we feel with her the pressure of the knowledge, rendered inefficacious, of Hero's chastity. Perhaps more surprisingly, for Othello McEachern locates that moment in Emilia's revelation that she gave Iago the handkerchief. Throughout the play, she explains, we have been dogged by our sense of "the limited nature of our witnessing power" (169) and burdened by the knowledge not only that Desdemona is chaste but that "Othello is bent on murder" (172). So, whether or not we are already familiar with the play or its Italian source, we remain invested in its outcome--not the narrative inevitability of Desdemona's death but rather "in seeing Othello disabused.... we want him to see how wrong he was, which is only possible if he kills her" (179). Thus our point of maximum entry to the play is Emilia in her final protestations, when she speaks to and against both Iago and Othello in ways that "make our version of the story stick" (180).
The final three chapters of the book tackle the categories of character, plot, and place, and the ways in which Shakespeare orients them based on doubt-produced believing. The excellent premise of chapter 5, on character, is to "nudge discussion of belief in Shakespeare away from verisimilitude," focusing instead on his characters' strangeness or incongruities in order to discover "what it is about character that requires caritas of us" (189). The test case for McEachern is Richard II, although she approaches the play only after an extended consideration of the ways in which both tetralogies cultivate the audience's knowledge. The Henry VI plays and Richard III, she explains, "are formally designed to produce the pleasure of recognition," while the second tetralogy "assumes, cultivates, compounds, and prolongs our ignorance" (195, 202). Her discussion of the rhythms of Richard II is bracing: in the opening act, the King is mysterious, opaque, beyond our ken; by act 3, he has to catch up to what we already know, Bolingbroke's return. We are repelled, she suggests, by his initial arbitrariness and then by his histrionic self-pity. But by act 4 Shakespeare has fashioned, on the model of Christ on the cross, "a king whose loss we mourn" (213). His exclamation in the deposition scene of 4.1, that "Fiend, thou torments me ere I come to hell," is the moment of contact, as "we watch a monarch that we seem to accompany in real time, as if we were moving into an unknown future with him, whom we know not less than, or more than, but with" (221). And this tense experience, she emphasizes, is the result of Protestant experimentalism: "Much as a soul might keep the possibility of salvation in play by means of self-inflicted doubts, the uncertainty surrounding the moment of deposition is what makes us feel something is at stake in this play, every time as if for the first time" (221).
The two chapters on plot and place are less effective than the one on character. Chapter 6 surveys critical suspicion of seemingly artificial plots, concluding that in fact such doubt, in a predestinarian epistemology, contributes to, rather than distracts from, a play's believability. It is an auspicious opening. But it is difficult to separate these concerns from those of character, so when McEachern turns to a reading of King Lear, her focus is inevitably on the protagonist, on Lear as the cause of the destruction he wished to avoid. The plot's terrifying ending comes to seem not "impersonal, bespeaking a random or even cosmic indifference to the person it befalls," but rather the consequence of the protagonist himself (236). This is a classic definition of tragedy and the tragic hero, and it seems impervious to the soteriological influence that McEachern elsewhere tracks with such acumen. Indeed, this chapter, like the following one, loses its moorings in Calvinist belief, so that McEachern is thrown back onto arguments from performance rather than audience experience. She admits rather startlingly that her "reflections may be of no use to even a seasoned observer of King Lear while the scene is in train. However, they are the kinds of things actors must ponder in order to find a place from which to inflect Shakespeare's language" (251). This is not to discount the actor's concerns; it is to notice that something has gone awry when the author herself, who has not considered the player's perspective for some 250 pages, suddenly invokes it to make sense of her account of the first scene and Lear's various possible motives for the division of the kingdom. Her answer to this perennial question, designed to establish the protagonist as a "particular and exceptional creature in whose loss the world loses something rare and irreplaceable," is the counter-intuitive proposition that Lear might actually understand himself, his family, and the demands of sovereignty all too well rather than, as his daughters say, "slenderly" (269). McEachern thus suggests that the curses Lear gives his daughter or his declamations on the heath reflect not the see-saw ravings and epiphanies of a shocked, aging man but the insights of a wise, able king who "speaks with the fury of one wishing others could just see what he has always seen" (271). Such a reading involves some interpretive gymnastics, but the analysis of Cordelia's death it yields is deeply moving: McEachern treats it as "the unbelievable but wholly believable thing, the event [Lear] cannot credit has come to pass even though he always knew it was not just possible but maybe even an inevitable outcome of his very own actions" (273).
The final, brief chapter is about place, or, more accurately, place as the setting for the carefully timed encounters of the characters we care about. Protestant soteriology here is less a structuring influence than an evidentiary standard that allows for the coincidences of romance--or the programmatic machinations of an autocratic magician. McEachern's reading of the The Tempest traces Prospero's efforts to keep characters separated from one another until he orchestrates the ending--the marriage of his daughter, the punishment and forgiveness of his enemies, the drowning of his books--he has promised by the end of day. Prospero has given himself a deadline, McEachern reminds us, in order to create a "sense of occasion," but it is also a dramaturgic ploy that asks us to inhabit Prospero's perspective, "to see as a god might see" (295). And that perspective, like Prospero himself--whether we take him for a benign creator or a malevolent imperialist--is less interesting than the human one. That's why, McEachern says, Prospero breaks his staff, because "the view from ground level--our view--is the sight to which belief belongs" (296).
This is a fitting, moving end to a deeply researched book that folds into its study of Shakespeare and belief a range of concerns central to contemporary scholarship--epistemology, cognition, affect--while attending to principles of dramatic form and their appeal to audiences. Also embedded here is McEachern's engagement with questions of secularization, and she earns her conviction that the perceived modernity or secularity of Shakespeare's plays is the result of their commitment to Reformed principles of belief. But there are some weaknesses--unavoidable in a book that runs to nearly 300 pages. Indeed, the length itself is a dilemma, one that McEachern refers to explicitly, and one that could have been solved, at least partially, with more scrupulous editing. There was no need, for instance, to query all of Lear's possible reasons for dividing his kingdom, just as there was no need to query all of Prospero's reasons for imposing upon himself a deadline: "Is it because he needs to keep his own desire to punish his enemies within a self-ordained limit? Will a brisk pace help with bewildering them into a state of tractability? Is he attempting to distract himself from the pain of and resistance to losing his own child or to disguise the true nature of his project from himself--or her? Is it so as not to procrastinate the imminent abdication of his powers? Are short good-byes easier than long ones? Is he tired? Are his elves restless?" (295).
The tone at the end of this list, a kind of glib good humor, is also a problem. It can make McEachern's summaries of contemporary criticism seem dismissive (as when she explains that "much of the scholarship of recent generations has in fact sought to determine what we can assume about what sorts of cultural literacy Tudor-Stuart audiences implicitly brought to their viewing experience," and then shrugs it off with the observation that it endows "Joe Elizabethan with an encyclopedic command of reference and resonance" ). It also seems incongruous as well as unnecessary during discussions of theology (as when she explains that Protestant experimentalism was "extremely practical, anchoring the evidence for salvation in physiological signs.... These are considered to be involuntary and hence presumably (in advance of method acting) incapable of fabrication" ).
But of greater concern is the assumption of the uniformity and transhistoricity of the "we" and "our" that dominate the book's discussions of audience response. McEachern's first premise is that Shakespeare's plays participated in the structures of belief presented by Reformed doctrines of predestination, and that their use of standard dramaturgic principles such as irony or recognition both rehearsed these structures and exploited their capacity to make audiences believe and care for the characters and situations they saw. Her second premise--which suffuses the book in its sustained discussions of how Shakespeare directs "our experience" or determines what "we know" in relation to the characters--is that the plays operate in the same way today, for contemporary audiences. Shakespeare's dramaturgic techniques, she maintains, precisely because of their theological attachments, continue to provoke belief, even for audiences which are, at least in considerable part, far removed from the injunctions of Calvinist experimentalism. I am not unsympathetic to claims on behalf of the power of Shakespearean dramaturgy and language, or to the possibility that plays rooted in a particular context can have maximal impact in a later one. Shakespeare's plays, that is, are both for an age and for all time. But it is difficult to avoid the feeling that the "believing in Shakespeare" that McEachern imagines for "us" unavoidably depends upon our becoming experimentalist Protestants in the process, whether Shakespeare intended to indoctrinate us or not. McEachern has taken too little care of this in what is otherwise a learned, methodologically expansive, and acutely observed book.
Reviewer: Heather Hirschfeld
(1.) John Stachniewski, The Persecutory Imagination: English Puritanism and the Literature of Religious Despair (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 25.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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