The Uses of Intellectual History
|Debora Shuger's Political Theologies in Shakespeare's England is an interesting little (140 pp., noted out of gratitude and appreciation) book, and there are many aspects of it that I liked. I'll list a few of these at the end in typical blog-bullet format, but I wanted first to address at more length the methodology of the book, which is intellectual history of a particular kind.|
As Simplicius detailed, Shuger writes in her introduction that "the book does not present a reading of Measure for Measure in the ordinary sense ... but rather uses the play ... as a basis for rethinking English politics and political thought circa 1600" (1). This is an intriguing idea for a book; what would it mean to use a play as the basis for a discussion of political thought? Such a program might make for a provocative reversal of the normal trajectory of literary historicism, which typically moves from historical texts to a new reading of a literary text. Shuger's alternative might provide a nice change of pace from the usual production of literary critics attempting to discover yet another "reading" of a Shakespeare play. In the end, though, I'm not sure how successful this trajectory is in Political Theologies. Shuger uses the play as a jumping-off point for thinking about political thought in the period, but most of the time, it seems like the book could have been written without considering Measure for Measure very much at all; not that it doesn't illuminate the play (it does), but rather that it's not clear why the play needed to be the starting point for the historical investigation.
The exception, I think, is in the last chapter, in her insightful discussion of "What to do about Barnadine?" This section illuminates both the play and political history for me, precisely by putting the two together: "what to do about the presence of goats in the godly sheepfold. In Tudor-Stuart England this was a profoundly important and profoundly divisive issue, at the core of Puritan-Anglican debates over the nature of Christian community" (117). This debate (for instance, over whether to refuse communion to the ungodly, or instead to admit all into the national church since we mortals are unable to discern reprobates from elect) was, as Shuger quotes Peter Lake, "arguably the crucial divide in English Protestant opinion during the period" (122-3). (I would add that this divide is to some extent imported from the Low Countries, where it was a major part of the Remonstrant/ Counter-Remonstrant crisis of the early seventeenth century, which finds its way into England through the Synod of Dort and the rise of Arminianism.) In this section, Shuger's program of intellectual history via literary criticism works exemplarily.
On the larger level, however, I don't think the intellectual history succeeds as well as it does in this particular section. Shuger's goal, as was also the case (if I recall correctly) in Habits of Thought: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture, is to investigate what is "obvious" about the play. She deliberately ignores "the silences and opacities of Measure for Measure" because "one learns ... by moving from the known to the unknown" (such words take on unfortunate new meanings in the wake of Don Rumsfeld's tangled discussions of "known knowns" and "known unknowns"). She therefore "confine[s] [her] attention to what the play makes clear, explicit, and overt, since only what is itself evident can serve as evidence of something else" (6). Left out, then, are: Isabella's famously silent non-response to the Duke's marriage proposal; the Duke's motives for ceding power; indeed, all the "dark corners" of the play that Lucio brings to the fore. When Shuger writes that "to use the silences and opacities of as a starting point for an inquiry into this political landscape would ... be a fool's task" because "an argument cannot illuminate one obscurity by means of another" (6), she is really rejecting most literary criticism for the past quarter-century, both of the deconstructive post-structuralist type (aporia and all) and of the symptomatic-reading type associated with, say, Fredric Jameson. To me, at least, this seems a radical impoverishment of the possibilities of reading.
Now it is, I think, a perfectly reasonable and important project to illuminate what is "obvious" about a culture, but to explain a culture's orthodoxy, to describe its "common-sense" opinions, one needs also to be aware of everything that may be so obvious that it remains unstated and of everything that may be sayable only in hints and contradictions and allusive silences. And such a project is only one way of proceeding: while Shuger attempts to reject the alternative - working symptomatically from obscurities, silences, gaps - in quasi-syllogistic fashion, I'm not convinced. Furthermore, if one ignores what a literary text does not say, what it makes clear that it cannot or will not say, and yet uses this literary text as the basis for an investigation into the political thought of a culture, doesn't it stand to reason that one will be unable to see all the elements of that culture that did not accept or agree with the obvious or orthodox?
It's not that Shuger neglects "debate" or "controversy": she lays out clearly the differences between "Anglicans" (not my favorite word for the pre-Restoration period) and "puritans" over a variety of doctrinal and disciplinary matters. The problem, as I see it, instead involves three closely inter-related issues:
if we simply bring together pieces of political theory understood out of context it is quite easy to pit them against one another and produce a "debate" or disagreement that never took place. In fact, claims and principles addressed to different audiences might be rather like ships that pass in the night, and their supposed conflict a fiction. Such differing claims were the product of different languages being used for different purposes. There were, in other words, accepted conventions in Jacobean England governing the use of available political languages. (118)I think the same critique could be fairly leveled against Shuger, and it accounts for the aspects of the book that I found most frustrating: texts from Plato's Laws to Bucer's De regno Christi to Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity to St German's Doctor and Student to Hake's Epieikeia are placed side-by-side as if they were "speaking" to each other, when in fact the rhetorical purposes, situations, speakers, and audiences relating to these texts varied widely. (And drama, of course, has its own accepted conventions [of genre, of performance] that make it indeed possible to learn from the silences and gaps in a particular play by reading it against these conventions.)
As a result both of the emphasis on the self-evident features of texts and of the book's somewhat deracinated view of textuality, the argument generally takes texts entirely on their own terms, with the result that it usually provides explications of texts rather than investigations of their uses and functions in early modern culture. So while "debate" is presented, the rather messy religious situation in the early seventeenth century seems to be tidied up into a battle between two orthodoxies, each of which can be understood by reading its representative theology and legal/political philosophy: Anglicanism and puritanism (the "ism" itself misrepresents the religious situation but I think accurately represents Shuger's approach). One wonders, for instance, how the different views on the nature of Christian community, on goats and sheep, played out in local parish churches; how the Jacobean emphasis on the king as a mixta persona incorporating both secular and spiritual authority played differently when spoken in the pulpit, in parliament, in the courts, and in the privy council; how puritan ideas of sexual regulation actually worked or didn't work "on the ground" (after all, William Gouge altered the text of his Of Domesticall Duties after his women parishioners objected to his over-stress on wives' submission to their husbands).
Ok, I'm now feeling like this post probably over-represents my critique of the book; there was a lot that I enjoyed about it. It does illuminate the relationships between sexual regulation, differing views of Protestantism and religious community, law and equity, and Measure for Measure. And it lends further depth to the somewhat well-worn idea that Measure for Measure represents a very Jacobean position on religion--for instance, by explicating James's understanding of the role of the king as mixta persona and how this position exemplifies his via media: "a king is not mere laicus, as both the Papists and Anabaptists would have him, to the which error also the Puritans incline over far" (qtd on 110).
Other things I liked and/or found provocative about this book: