Heather Hirschfeld. The End of Satisfaction: Drama and Repentance in the Age of Shakespeare.
In The End of Satisfaction: Drama and Repentance in the Age of Shakespeare, Heather Hirschfeld argues that the Reformation's rejection of the sacrament of penance problematized the meaning and availability of satisfaction, from satis facere--to do or to make enough. Early modern theater engages this crisis in satisfaction in a way that is (on Hirschfeld's view) largely critical of the Reformed theology of repentance whence it originated. What was the Reformed theology of repentance, and why should it have occasioned such a crisis?
In the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church specified that the sacrament of penance was composed of three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. The penitents sorrow for her sins was expressed in her confession of them to the priest, and was completed in her punishment of these same sins through works of satisfaction--usually almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. Although the penitent was absolved of the guilt (culpa) of her sins immediately after her confession, the temporal punishment (poena) due to them was still owed; in carrying out her assigned penance, then, the penitent cooperated with the grace made available by the sacrament and satisfied God's justice. Reformation anthropology, however, rejected human cooperation with the divine in this capacity, and consequently denied satisfactory value to penitential acts. At the same time, the English Reformers continued the practice of penance well after 1553, when it was last recognized as a sacrament, though they limited the work of "satisfaction" to Christ alone.
Hirschfeld is interested in what happens to satisfaction when it is removed from the ambit of human agency and appropriated by the divine. Because (she argues) the meaning of satisfaction originally involved "a concrete principle of both exchange and contact between the individual and the divine," its consolidation in Christ would seem to open an experiential gap on the side of the believer that doctrine by itself could not fill (29; italics in original). The Reformers' strategy was to balance the attribution of objective satisfaction to Christ with a new emphasis upon the subjective satisfaction felt by the believer: "having degraded and eliminated satisfaction as something humans do, Reformers replaced it as something humans feel" (36). Yet the Reformers' avoidance of works-righteousness--of doing enough--could easily result in the problem of feeling enough, as in Daniel Dyke's 1616 Two Treatises: "We must feede and nourish this sorrow, never satisfie our selves, but wish with the prophet, that our heads were continuad, unemptiable fountaines of teares" (36; italics in original). If it is true that "humans do not satisfy God," Hirschfeld astutely notes, it seems "they also do not satisfy--are not satisfied--themselves" (36).
The End of Satisfaction tracks the paradoxes of Reformed repentance across several plays that "work through a pursuit of satisfaction that arises precisely when and because it is declared 'impossible'" (10). In a chapter on Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Hirschfeld argues that the play engages sixteenth-century controversies over Christ's descent into hell. Did Christ descend to "a real, localized hell," as the medieval tradition and Luther held, or was his descent "a particularly internal form of ... torment," as Calvin taught (47)? Hirschfeld suggests that the "latent preoccupation" of the debate was the question of "what counted as 'enough' for Christ to do to redeem mankind" (43). This approach complicates the standard view of Doctor Faustus as a (diabolical) imitation of the Harrowing of Hell pageants in earlier biblical drama. Hirschfeld helps us to see that, in Faustus's "imitado Christi," Faustus himself seems "uncertain of exactly what he is imitating" (56).
The book's widest-ranging chapter, "Setting Things Right: The Satisfactions of Revenge," draws from the Reformed theology of repentance a novel account of revenge tragedy. Focusing on Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy, Hirschfeld shows how the plays embody the "special reciprocity, even entanglement, between revenge and repentance" (65). The protagonist in revenge tragedy, she argues, reflects Protestantism's "sanctioning of penitential self-punishment alongside its refusal of penitential satisfaction" in two important ways (66): first, his "retribution against others incites him to turn his vengeful energies on himself" (71); and second, the violence he directs against others and himself is never enough, so that his desire for satisfactory retribution is always a desire for more of it. For Kyd's Hieronimo and Shakespeare's Hamlet, the pursuit of vengeance is also a confrontation with original sin and hence with their own implication in the crimes they would redress; for Middleton's Vindice, the unavailability of "confessional exculpation" transforms his own "self-disclosures" into compulsive and sadistic "delight" (8991). In all three cases, the "conceptual vacuum" opened by Reformed theologies of repentance turns the "cherished mechanisms" of Catholic penitence into "forms of aggression" (93).
Chapters 4 and 5 explore the causal impact of Reformed repentance on the social practices of economic exchange and marriage. In these chapters, Hirschfeld is concerned to demonstrate that Reformed repentance is not just "structurally homologous" with these other aspects of social life but "organiz[es] or interven[es]" in them directly (11). (Hirschfeld suggests that the earlier chapter on revenge tragedy does the same work, though it is not clear that revenge constitutes a social practice in the same way that trade and matrimony do.) Chapter 4 argues that William Wager's Enough is as Good as a Feast and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice exploit the "semantic tension" between an "economic moralism that prescribed enough' as a social and affective goal, and a Christian penitential structure built around the rejection of making or feeling satis" (99). Wager's morality play stages the "conceptual disjunction" between the economic morality whereby "enough" is always better than "more," and the penitential economy whereby "enough was ...never enough" (105,104; emphasis in original). Shakespeare's Merchant analyzes the same disjunction from the standpoint of debt rather than gain. The Jew Shylock offers the Christian Antonio a "principle of calculation and proportionate adequation" that is missing from the Christian community itself, providing Antonio with "the possibility of a penance [he] sees no other way of making" (111, 112). Portias "dismantling" of this penance, moreover, is undertaken in bad faith; the "unconditional mercy" she purportedly celebrates is not extended to Shylock himself, whose punishment at the hands of the Christians evinces "the lingering attraction to and reliance on the economies of satisfaction in the face of their disavowal" (118).
Chapter 5 looks to Shakespeare's Othello and Beaumont and Fletchers Love's Pilgrimage in arguing that matrimony and "marital satisfaction" were similarly affected by "the period's reconfiguration of penitential enough'" (120). Othello, Hirschfeld claims, is informed by the "pervasive" understanding of "marriage as an object of penitence" in early modern England (125; emphasis in original). Notwithstanding the many paeans to marriage in English Protestant writing, the very valorization of marriage as redeeming "a post-lapsarian condition of sin and misery" makes it vulnerable to the "various crises of 'making enough'" occasioned by the "theological problem of penitential satisfaction" (128). The unhappy marriage, then, "becomes its own kind of sorrowful--but inefficacious--suffering" (128). On this reading of the play, Othello's erotic anxiety is not, as Stephen Greenblatt has argued, a commentary on Catholic scruples so much as a sexualized version of the Reformed theology of satisfaction: "Othello ... recognize[s] that enough' is unavailable for him to make or do for his partner or himself" (135). Fearing that he cannot satisfy the young Desdemona, Othello is unable to satisfy his own desire to repent of their marriage. The domestic tragedy of Othello thus "returns us ... to the terrible irony embedded in the structure of revenge," as Othello's punishment of the (unsatisfied) Desdemona becomes also his (unsatisfying) self-punishment (136).
By contrast, the happy ending of Beaumont and Fletcher's Love's Pilgrimage, which revises Cervantes' novella in Novelas Ejemplares (1613), relies upon the achievement of satisfaction "in both [the] conjugal and penitential realms" (144). The Spanish Catholic setting of the play "licenses the playwrights to design a drama in which marriage and repentance are still sacraments and to reinforce satisfaction as a marital as well as penitential possibility" (145-46). Beaumont and Fletcher's "particular enthusiasm" for "penitential and marital satis',' Hirschfeld concludes, "derives from a basic acknowledgment that it has been, for their world, fundamentally disabled" by the "Protestant theology of repentance" (146).
In the Postscript, Hirschfeld makes explicit the "performative connections between the stage and repentance," and suggests that the "mundane spectator" of the professional theater sought from the "pleasures of a play" something very like the "satisfaction" which had been "disallowed by Protestant theology" (148, 152) She concludes: "the stage reminds us that it has preserved for its audience what was displaced, over the course of the Reformation, from the relation between God and sinner" (152).
The End of Satisfaction makes a real contribution to our sense of how changing theologies of penitence were registered by the culture--and especially the drama--of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. The book nicely complements Sara Beckwiths Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness, which stressed rather the recuperation of satisfaction by Shakespearean tragicomedy instead of the unsettling effects of its dismantling, and Hirschfeld's theological analysis of the genre of revenge tragedy will benefit and (I hope) influence future work on these plays. Yet the line of inquiry opened up by The End of Satisfaction will require some amount of modification if it is to prove finally persuasive. Let me suggest why this is so.
Hirschfeld does not emphasize enough that in Catholic theology the satisfaction undertaken by the penitent did not effect the remission of the sin itself, but rather its temporal punishment. She mentions this crucial distinction once, but misdates its origin to the "High Middle Ages" when it can already be found in Gregory the Great (21). I suspect this is due in part to her conflating the Council of Trent's declarations on penitential satisfaction with the Pelagianism of the via moderna. Glossing Gabriel Biel's dictum '"Facere quod in se est,' to do what is in oneself," Hirschfeld writes that "this efficient phrase crystallizes the prevailing logic of penitential satisfaction against which the Reformers ... would take their stand" (25). But there are two problems with this claim. The first is that Biel's dictum encodes his understanding of the entire process of justification rather than the theology of penitential satisfaction itself, which dealt with the narrower question of the temporal remittance of forgiven sins. As noted above, penitential satisfaction did not "satisfy" God for the guilt (culpa) of sin itself--all parties agreed that only Christ did that--but for the temporal punishment (poena) that remained. The second problem is that Gabriel Biel's theology of justification is not "echoed in Counter-Reformation defenses of the sacrament [of penance]"--both because these are separate, albeit related, issues, and because Trent codified a strongly Augustinian theology of justification that was antithetical to Biel's (25). When Cajetan writes that "in so far as [our works] proceed from the divine grace that precedes, accompanies, and completes them, [they] are meritorious and consequently of satisfactory value," he intends to reject--not to echo--the basic premise of the via moderna, and is in any case speaking of the temporal punishment for sins, not their forgiveness (25).
Is this distinction between culpa and poena somehow operative in the complex temporality of revenge tragedy? Likewise, what of the vexed distinction between "contrition" and "attrition" in Scholastic thought? The sorrow of "contrition" is motivated by one's love for God, and was itself taken by Peter Lombard as a sign that one's sins (and their punishments) had already been forgiven, whereas the sorrow of "attrition" is motivated by one's fear of God, and was thought to be devoid of actual grace. Hirschfeld notes the distinction, but she doesn't pursue its implications. If Catholic "contrition" is not all that different from Reformed "repentance," then can the confessional lens adopted by The End of Satisfaction offer a truly satisfying analysis of early modern English theater? Part of the book's achievement is that the questions it continually seems to elicit from the reader are as surprising as Hirschfeld's own argument is provocative.
University of St. Thomas
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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