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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

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 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).

  • At 5/03/2006 08:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    yay! i would love a few episodes of the hieronimo and simplicius show! esp. if Inkhorn jumps in. No offense, Truewit.


  • At 5/03/2006 10:06:00 PM, Blogger La Lecturess wrote…

    Oh no! I'm not done yet--I'm in the midst of the third chapter, what with writing three final exams and trying to cobble together an RSA proposal these first few days post-teaching. Hopefully I'll be able to finish up tomorrow, whilst sitting around monitoring said exams.

    So far, I very much agree with both your & Hieronimo's assessments.


  • At 5/03/2006 10:16:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Don't worry, LL, I was only teasing. I realize how busy you surely are right now (like Inkhorn and Truewit), and these posts won't be going anywhere anytime soon. School first; blogging second. But I am curious what a Mil/ton/ist thinks.


  • At 5/04/2006 10:00:00 AM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    What is the emoticon for the feeling of taking offense only because someone has assured you that you are not supposed to take it?


  • At 5/04/2006 11:21:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Reverse wink, obviously.


  • At 5/06/2006 12:35:00 AM, Blogger La Lecturess wrote…

    My friends, it's late Friday/early Sat and I'm terribly drunk and on my way to a conference-y thing entirely too early tomorrow (today) a.m. Oddly enough, one of the first papers I'm to hear is on "political theologies," which seems indeed to be the hot subject of the day.

    Will report back if there's anything of relevance to the book at hand. Or even if not.


  • At 5/06/2006 01:06:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Hilarious. It's late Fri/early Sat and I just read your comment and I'm still up and I'm not terribly drunk, which is much sadder.

    Have fun and let us know how it goes. Or if it goes.


  • At 5/06/2006 11:33:00 PM, Blogger La Lecturess wrote…

    Okay, so I'm back from this bizarre thing (actually quite fun, but to describe it further would destroy whatever thin shred of pseudonymity I may have left), and I regret to report that, although "political theology" did indeed feature in the very vague title of a paper given by a big-name critic, the term was never uttered in the course of the paper itself (which turned out to be about Paradise Regained--something that *wasn't* suggested by the title).

    Since Shuger herself never defines or explains the term, I wonder whether this is a trend: we throw the term around because it sounds cool, but it doesn't necessarily mean anything more than "some combination of religion and politics."

    Now, don't get me wrong: I'm all ABOUT religion and politics, and "political theology" seems like a potentially useful and specific concept. It's just that I'm still not sure exactly what it encompasses!

    (Oh, and P.S.: if you were wondering, my free advice for the week is that one should not do Tequila shots the night before going to a conference. And no, not even if it's very *good* Tequila.)


  • At 5/07/2006 12:03:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    LL, rest assured your pseudonymity is fully intact for me! Perhaps tequila shots during the conference would have been more helpful?

    About the term, I agree: it's hot right now and it seems like when an older term becomes suddenly in vogue, it can lose all its meaning. It's odd that Shuger gives only very brief mention to Carl Schmitt's Political Theology and little to Ernst Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, two of the loci classici for the concept. She does discuss them briefly, but not very explicitly.

    For Kantorowicz (flipping through my old grad-school copy to jog my memory), the term refers to the legacy of theology that informed and underwrote early modern legal theories on kingship: "It is evident that the doctrine of theology and canon law, teaching that the Church, and Christian society in general, was a 'corpus mysticum the head of which is Christ,' has been transferred by the jurists from the theological sphere to that of the state the head of which is the king .... Royalty, by this semi-religious terminology, was actually expounded in terms of christological definitions" (Princeton UP, 1997 [orig. pub. 1957], 15-16).

    I don't have my copy of Schmitt with me, but as I recall, the term for him signifies that in the final analysis, sovereignty can never be defined or circumscribed purely by "politics," by legal and constitutional norms, since there will always be some exceptional or emergency state that eludes these norms (and is in fact defined by the elusion of these norms). "Sovereign is he who decides the exception." In this sense, the sovereign is "above" or "outside" politics/law, again lending sovereignty a theological cast (or perhaps better, this is the residue of theological kingship sedimented into modern "secular" sovereignty).

    Inkhorn knows this stuff better than I do, though... Ink?


  • At 5/07/2006 10:04:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Talk about taking your concepts for granted. Understanding "sacral kingship" or working for the common good is apparently, in DKS's view, utterly foreign and ridiculously difficult because they are un-American concepts. But everyone remembers what Kantorowicz and Schmitt had to say say about Political Theology.

    If we turn again to the endnotes, Shuger calls this claim by Schmitt "no less suggestive for being only half-true": "all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts" (149n). It's not immediately clear what's "half-true" here and what's not, but she means that Plato himself articulated two different political theories. In the first, with the divine shepherd kings gone, humans must learn to fend for themselves and to reproduce sexually (this is in the Statesman). Plato retells the same story in the Laws, but in it, humans must "submit to the rule of the divine spirit residing within us, which is what Plato means by law. The law is the shepherd-daemon of this latter age" (40). So even Plato put forth two theories of political theory, one theological and one not.

    As she continues, she makes her clearest statement about her idea of "political theology": "According to the Statesman, the question then becomes how a community is to govern itself; according to the Laws, the question is in what more attenuated or mediated forms the gods still guide the community. One might distinguish them by saying the first question gives rise to political theory, the second to political theology, but these are both political discourses" (41).

    Again, though, given the histories of English legal theory offered in Pocock and Burgess, it seems highly improbable that Plato played any role in early modern understandings of the law and royal prerogative. It seems that DKS is using the term less with Schmitt and Kantorowicz in mind, and that she wants to locate it back in Plato. She does admit that Plato's story [sic, should be "stories"] is not the source for Shakespeare's play, "but rather the two versions of the tale stand at, or very near, the origin of the two main traditions in western political thought, one of which remains the dominant language of politics; the other went underground at the Restoration, disappearing from both history and memory" (41). But a) because Plato is earlier does not necessarily mean he was "the origin"; b) the second theory did not go "underground at the Restoration"; and c) it certainly hasn't disappeared "from history and memory."

    Note to self: explicitly define your terms, especially if they're in your title.


  • At 5/07/2006 10:09:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    As someone who's happened to drink at bit much at a conference or two, I feel your pain, LL. Hope you made it through the day without too much agony.

    But I would like to encourage you (and others) to continue leaving drunken blog comments. Those are always the most fun to read.


  • At 5/07/2006 11:17:00 AM, Blogger La Lecturess wrote…

    Thanks, both, for those elaborations--though it increases my belief that the paper I heard yesterday actually had nothing to do with political theology, properly speaking.

    I'm actually rather proud of that initial comment, which (I dimly recall) took me some ten minutes to write without any typos.


  • At 5/07/2006 12:08:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    But a) because Plato is earlier does not necessarily mean he was "the origin"; b) the second theory did not go "underground at the Restoration"; and c) it certainly hasn't disappeared "from history and memory."

    Love it. The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire.


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