Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing

Article excerpt

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. …

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