Political Theologies: An Overview
This post inaugurates a series of posts we here at Blogging the Renaissance are planning to devote to Debora Shuger’s book, Political Theologies in Shakespeare’s England: The Sacred and the State in Measure for Measure (New York: Palgrave, 2001). I say planning to devote because the series runs the risk of turning into the Simplicius and Hieronimo Show, which is a program I personally enjoy but which others may not have as much interest in. And to be honest, I generally find myself avoiding discussions of academic books on other blogs either because I haven’t read the book or because I have read it and have already made up my mind about it and don’t want to wade through others' comments on it. (There’s also a third category: when I’ve read the book and find myself virulently disagreeing with the opinions of others, which gets me all riled up to no good end.) So, if people are interested, we potentially have a lot to say, but we’re not going to turn this into All Political Theologies All The Time. And I’ll try to keep my end of things a bit less formal and a bit more lively than the traditional book review, though not as lively as the typical Truewit post. Oh, and for all you Google searchers out there, you might consider these posts to be “Teaching Measure for Measure, Part II.”
First a brief summary of Shuger’s project. Here’s how she describes her general aim in Political Theologies:
The book does not present a reading of Measure for Measure in the ordinary sense; it says virtually nothing about imagery, irony, or characterization; some chapters, particularly the first, do not mention the play for considerable sketches. The book is not about Measure for Measure, but rather uses the play (together with its primary source, George Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra) as a basis for rethinking English politics and political thought circa 1600. I became interested in the play precisely because it raised various questions of a broadly political nature: Why does Shakespeare associate Puritanism with sexual regulation? (1)
As Shuger goes on to explain, this book comes out of her view that “Measure for Measure construes the deep structure of Tudor-Stuart politics in radically different terms from those found in more recent histories of the period, not only because the latter know about the constitutional struggles to come, but also because they define the political in a way that excludes the religious ideals that unfold at dead center of early modern thinking on government and its properties” (2).
I’ll have more to say about this claim below, but for now I’ll note that one of the real pleasures of reading Shuger’s book is the range of sources she draws on and the unexpected turns her arguments can take. Her book includes extensive discussions of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Bucer, and others—not quite the typical cast for a book on early modern theology or political theory. I also like the idea of using plays to open up historical questions, and of burrowing deeply into the ideas that shape and inform a play. If one treats plays as historical texts in their own right, then they can occasionally yield new insights into early modern politics and religion. Likewise, such endeavors can, ideally, yield new readings of the plays themselves. There is a very loud lawn mower right in front of my present lodgings.But there’s something odd about the claim that historians and literary scholars in the late 1990s excluded “religious ideals” from their analyses of Tudor-Stuart politics. The work of such revisionist historians as Conrad Russell, Anthony Milton, Glenn Burgess, Peter Lake, and Kevin Sharpe immediately comes to mind. And, in fact, I kept having this experience as I was reading Political Theologies: the book repeatedly approaches certain issues and institutions in ways that are strikingly different from how they are typically discussed. This originality sometimes pays off nicely, but I frequently found myself less convinced than I would have liked to be. For example, the book has a chapter on England’s legal system, specifically its courts of equity (Chancery and Star Chamber). In its delineation of the respective terrains of common law and equity courts, however, there is no discussion of J.G.A. Pocock’s The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, and only the briefest of mentions of Glenn Burgess’s The Politics of the Ancient Constitution and Absolute Monarchy. Perhaps Pocock and Burgess shouldn’t be a part of the argument Shuger wants to make, but since they have played such a key role in shaping how many other scholars think about the early modern legal system, it would have been nice for the book at least to deal with them. And without them, I had a hard time figuring out how reliable Shuger’s account of sixteenth-century equity courts really is. I'll deal with this issue in more detail in a subsequent post, but, for now, the chapter summaries.
Chapter 1: “The Rebel Codpiece and the State”
This chapter tackles the question of “why the Protestant Left [i.e., Puritans] saw the elaborate regulation of sexual behavior as a deeply good thing, why they supported laws only slightly less draconian than the one Angelo tries to enforce” (9). [For those of you rusty on your Measure for Measure, in Act I of the play Angelo (the acting Duke of Vienna) sentences Claudio to death for having impregnated his fiancée.] The chapter’s central argument is that we should “view Tudor-Stuart disputes over the regulation of sexuality (and, more generally, of private morals) as a conflict between, on the one hand, a sacral, communitarian vision of the state, whose hold on the political imagination of the West lasted from Plato to Puritanism, and, on the other, a recognizably modern politics, one that does not require the state to embody God’s will or to make men virtuous, but restricts its jurisdiction to secular, public concerns, which in effect both privatizes the sacred and legitimates the private (at least in the long run), and does so by leaving interstitial spaces in the fabric of the common law, spaces where the individual is a law unto himself (sui iuris)—the literal meaning of autonomy, but also a standard definition, from antiquity on, of personal freedom” (yes, that’s a long sentence: 143 words in total) (34). Or, more briefly, the chapter examines “the supersession of authoritarian Christian society by the modern secular state” (34).
Chapter 2: “Political Theology”
This chapter never defines “political theology” as explicitly as I wish it did, but the concept basically concerns the intersection of politics and religion. Shuger notes that Plato’s Laws conceives of politics “as the attempt to discern those loci within the otherwise secular framework of the state where the transcendent remains available to the temporal. If the well-being of a community depends on having God and not man for its ruler, then the crucial political question becomes, who or what in the state is the bearer of the holy” (40). As you won’t be surprised to learn, the King (or Queen) was “the bearer of the holy” in early modern England, and a good king would also be a good person.
Chapter 3: “The Throne of God: Absolutism, Equity, and Christian Justice”
This chapter builds on the theory of “sacral kingship” developed in Chapter 2 and explores how early modern courts of equity became “sacral loci,” sites for the exercise of Christian mercy and justice. One of its primary claims is that the king had a “duty to protect the weak from the strong” (75), not the typical way we think of early modern kingship, and equity courts became one of the primary locations in which the monarch could perform this sacred duty.
Chapter 4: “The King of Souls”
The book’s final chapter tries to answer the question of “why does Shakespeare’s Duke attend primarily to the good of individuals?” (102) Or, from the opposite point of view, how should the play's Duke deal with the unrepentant murderer, Barnardine? In addressing these questions, Shuger outlines two conflicting theories of “the nature of the Christian community” (118). On the one hand, Puritans argued for a strict separation of the godly and the reprobate, the latter of whom, Puritans believed, deserved harsh punishments for their crimes. In contrast, Anglicans (her term, not the one I would use) urged a more penitential approach to the ungodly. In short: Puritans believed the ungodly deserved to be punished for their sins and crimes while Anglicans believed that “sins are cured by repentance rather than punishment” and that “God’s justice always aims at the soul’s health and salvation” (122).
This post is already running long, and I have a fair number of things I’d like to say about Shuger’s book, but I think I’ll stop for now so that Hieronimo can chime in. And anyone else out there who has read the book, please feel free to join in (I'm looking at you, LL).