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Confession and Memory in Early Modern English Literature: Penitential Remains.

Confession and Memory in Early Modern English Literature: Penitential Remains, by Paul D. Stegner. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Pp. viii + 232 . Hardcover. $95.00

Paul D. Stegner's Confession and Memory in Early Modern English Literature: Penitential Remains examines post-Reformation engagements with confession in theater and poetry. Stegner admirably keeps multiple religious traditions in play in his readings, highlighting the ways that these texts negotiate the tensions between them. The book attends to the problem of memory in penitential practice both for individuals and English society more broadly. For penitents, recounting past sins in order to renounce them threatens to entangle the speaker in their sinful desires again. On a national scale, cultural memory of the Catholic rite impinges on penitential practices in the Church of England. One of the book's broader interventions is to break from a Foucauldian critical tradition that focuses on the socially regulatory uses of confession, to stress instead its pastoral value as a means of spiritual consolation. Stegner demonstrates the ways that shared recognition of the benefits of confession was complicated by post-Reformation controversies over the question of priestly mediation in penitential practice.

Stegner's first chapter traces the uneven movement of private confession from a mandatory Catholic sacrament to its reformed presence in the Church of England as a useful but optional remedy for cases of extraordinary spiritual vexation. Stegner's wide ranging account of the transformation of penitential practice rightly attends to variations among Henrician, Lutheran, and Calvinist strains of Protestantism, as well as to differences between traditional Catholic and post-Tridentine manifestations of the sacrament. While Stegner incorporates evidence from popular Protestant casuistry books, such as William Perkins' Golden Chain, there remains an opportunity for further work building on this valuable study to examine more closely the role of these manuals of cases of conscience, as well as the texts that circulated among Catholics guiding self-examination and contrition in the absence of priests.

Chapter 2 investigates the surprisingly positive treatment of traditional penitential practices in Edmund Spenser's Legend of Holiness. In Stegner's reading "the diversity of Spenser's engagements with traditional and Reformation belief... resists attempts to read the episode as a definitive shift from a ritual-based Catholicism to a faith-based Protestantism" (60). Stegner calls attention to both Redcrosse's reliance on the mediation of Patience for absolution and his penance of physical mortification, as well as to the dark inversion of the confessor figure embodied in Despaire. In chapter 5 Stegner reads the fickle maid's narrative in William Shakespeare's A Lover's Complaint as a recursive confession that leads her back into her former desires. In a complicated discussion of the Sonnets, Stegner explores the ways that the speaker's identification with the young man troubles the possibility of repentance. In chapter 6, Stegner locates Robert Southwell's St Peter's Complaint in the context of the Elizabethan criminalization of confession. Through a particularly persuasive reading, Stegner argues that Southwell "renders Peter's complaint as an always-imperfect substitute when compared to the benefits of sacramental confession in order to heighten the sense of loss and the absence of consolation in the present" (169).

In chapter 3, Stegner tracks the failure of Faustus's Ovidian fantasy of endless power and variety to evade the consequences of sin and the Christian mandate of repentance. Stegner calls attention not only to the play's anticlerical satire, but also to Mephistopheles complex role as an ersatz confessor. In this reading, "Faustus dismantles the efficacy and applicability of penitence even as he surrounds himself with remnants of sacramental confession" (77). Chapter 4 attends to the hybridity of confessional paradigms in Hamlet that offer the possibility of consolation and reconciliation that ultimately cannot be realized in the play. While the characterization of Hamlet's confrontation with Gertrude as motivated by a general Christian desire to bring her soul to contrition loses sight of the prince's own misogynist obsession with her sexuality, Stegner aptly calls attention to the link between confession and revenge, both practices intent on extracting hidden crimes and exacting restitution. Grounded in a strong reading of Hamlet and audiences' shared inability to read Claudius' internal state in confession, Stegner argues that "the priestly authority over the spiritual states of others to which [Hamlet] lays claim throughout the play becomes radically literalized and destabilized when yoked into the service of revenge" (117).

Stegner's epilogue tracks the complex evolution of penitential practices beyond the Elizabethan period. He identifies John Donne's Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions as participating in a renewed emphasis on private confession in the Laudian Church, and calls attention to the gap between the direct reception of Adam and Eve's penitential prayer in John Milton's Paradise Lost and the necessity of mediation for Spenser's Redcrosse Knight in the House of Holiness, as indicative of the internal variations within Protestant treatments of confession. Stegner rightly observes that "the development of auricular confession in early modern England follows not a model of succession, but rather diffusion into the varieties of penitential experience" (179). Confession and Memory is a valuable, broad-ranging, clearly written exploration of the persistent problems of repentance in post-Reformation England, both for individuals negotiating the danger of renewed temptation that arises from the necessity of recounting past transgressions, and for a culture in which the social memory of Catholic sacramental confession troubles the reformed penitential practices of the present.

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Author:Gurnis, Musa
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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