Seeming Knowledge: Shakespeare and Skeptical Faith

Article excerpt

Seeming Knowledge: Shakespeare and Skeptical Faith. By John D. Cox. Studies in Christianity and Literature 1. (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2007, Pp. xvii, 348. $39.95.)

Critical interest in the possible religious beliefs and allegiances of William Shakespeare is far from a new phenomenon within that amorphous field of scholarly enquiry known as "Shakespeare Studies." There has been a resurgence of critical interest in Shakespeare and religion, most particularly in the relationship between Shakespeare and Roman Catholicism. Such a resurgence is almost inevitable given the dual, and perhaps at times contradictory, imperatives provided by almost three decades of critical ascendancy enjoyed by new historicism and cultural materialism and the so called "religious turn" in theory. Rather than offering arguments or evidence for Shakespeare's Roman Catholic or Protestant beliefs or applying anachronistic theoretical understandings and insights to Shakespeare's plays, John D. Cox's impressive contribution in Seeming Knowledge instead presents a much more suggestively nuanced understanding of the relationship between Shakespeare's works and Christian faith (s) via a re-examination of the bard's assumed skepticism.

Cox's magisterial volume questions traditional understanding of sixteenth-century skepticism as "a narrative about a deluge of disbelief" (1). He traces a history of skepticism that emphasizes its paradoxical inextricability from faith. Cox demonstrates the existence of a sixteenthcentury tradition - encompassing figures as diverse as John Foxe, John Bale, Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More - within which faith and skepticism were mutually enabling discourses. Although in agreement widi the general assumption that Shakespeare's philosophical position was one of skepticism, Cox's historically grounded re-assessment of traditional narratives of sixteenth-century skepticism lead him to propose "suspicion" rather than "scepticism" as more germane to the assessment of Shakespeare's diought. Cox argues that while the application of doubt to the knower was an innovation of the advanced skepticism of the nineteenth century, it has important affinities with a much older category of doubt: the suspicion of (fallen) human nature that is intrinsic to Christian thought, and that gave rise to early modern skepticism in the first place. Cox shows that Christian ideas as to the impossibility of perfection for the fallen human self, self-deception and self-division were widely available cultural images via their literal embodiment in the medieval morality plays. Such plays stage the drama of the self-divided within an explicitly Christian narrative. This tradition of religiously inspired doubt is shown to be available to Shakespeare not only in its theatrical incarnations, but, crucially, also in the work of Erasmus and More. These are exemplars of what Cox denotes "skeptical faith." As he argues, "Skepticism for these two did not supplant their faith; rather, skepticism and faith complemented one another as essential aspects of the same vision of the human situation. …

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