An Academic Undoes the Renaissance
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
By Stephen Greenblatt
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Pages: 368 pages
Review Author: Kenneth Colston
For the past decade, Stephen Greenblatt, probably America’s most prominent academic literary critic, now the editor-in-chief of the ubiquitous Norton Anthology of English Literature, has offered credibility to the thesis that William Shakespeare was a closet Catholic. His scholarly and groundbreaking Hamlet in Purgatory (2002) gave us New Historical ways to read the traditional Catholic religious assumptions of Shakespeare’s most famous play, and his bestselling biography Will in the World (2005) took seriously the Catholic influences on Shakespeare’s intellectual and artistic development. (The New Historians are a school of critics who restore the relevance of historical context to the study of literature, but with a postmodern difference à la Michel Foucault: They argue that history is a slippery, often artificially constructed, even oppressive category.) But Greenblatt’s recent works reveal his true colors as a secularist. Nevertheless, despite glaring blind spots to the Church’s rich intellectual heritage, they help us see more clearly not only the relationship between belief and art but also that the English language’s greatest writer has much more in common with the Catholics Dante and Chaucer than with the moderns Nietzsche and Sartre, who were ushered in by the classical poet Lucretius. If the latter are modern skeptics, Shakespeare emerges even more obviously as a Catholic-leaning dramatist.
What would a traditional Catholic playwright believe? One way to consider the question is to take an inventory of modern belief, which is exactly what Greenblatt does in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, his readable history of a papal scribe’s fifteenth-century rediscovery of Lucretius’s epic poem On the Nature of Things, though his title overstates the influence of the Latin epic poet who has long lain in the shadow of Virgil. Greenblatt lists the fundamental propositions of Lucretius’s Epicurean worldview as a way of entering the contemporary culture wars between Darwinians and proponents of intelligent design:
Everything is made of invisible particles.
The elementary particles of nature — “the seeds of things” — are eternal.
The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
All particles are in motion and in an infinite void.
The universe has no creator or designer.
Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve. [Greenblatt thus translates declinatio, inclination, or clinamen. The modern word from genetics would be “mutation.”]
The swerve is the source of free will.
Nature ceaselessly experiments.
The universe was not created for or about humans.
Humans are not unique.
Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
The soul dies.
There is no afterlife.
Death is nothing to us.
All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
Religions are invariably cruel.
The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.
It is clear where Greenblatt is going with this catalog and for whose side he is cheering: in lockstep agreement with the New Atheists Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris. His spellbinding narrative ends by nearly making Lucretius the intellectual forefather of the American Democratic Party! Thomas Jefferson, whom Greenblatt says possessed “a restless skeptical intelligence and a scientific bent,” owned five Latin editions of On the Nature of Things, as well as translations into English and French. It was one of his favorite books, “confirming his conviction that the world is nature alone and that nature consists only of matter,” and yet shaping his “confidence that ignorance and fear were not necessary components of human existence.” To be sure, Jefferson called himself an Epicurean, but what Greenblatt forgets is that man’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — all part of Lucretius’s “modern” project — are “endowed by the Creator.”
Now, ask yourself, would Shakespeare have assented to the propositions in this inventory? Some of his cynical characters and villains do, and so do some of his tragic heroes in their darkest moments, but not in their transformed states — and that in itself is an indication of Shakespeare’s own traditional system of belief, which Greenblatt wishes to make modern in the way he defines modern. If Shakespeare had held these propositions, then the royal censor, the Master of Revels, would not only have refused to let Shakespeare’s plays be performed (as they were, with Elizabeth I and James I front and center in the audience) but he would have promptly hauled Shakespeare before the courts for blasphemy. Of course, any specific claim concerning Shakespeare’s mind would require nuance and demonstration, play by play.
It is nevertheless quite significant that Greenblatt attributes very little of Lucretius to his “particular love” of Shakespeare, even though he claims that the rediscovered pagan poet ushered in the Renaissance’s “glorious affirmation of vitality.” Greenblatt’s only two examples of Lucretius’s influence on the Bard are bizarre and trivial: the perdurance of Romeo and Juliet as “embodiments of love” beyond the grave, and a faint echo of Lucretian atomism in Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in Romeo & Juliet. Greenblatt does not mention that it is precisely because of Christianity and the Christian Platonists, not Lucretius, that love in the Renaissance could have such transcendent value and that every single Renaissance artist whom he mentions as taking part in the “larger cultural movement” unleashing “constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, the claims of the body” were practicing if not orthodox Catholics: Alberti, Michelangelo, Raphael, Ariosto, Montaigne, Cervantes, Leonardo, and Caravaggio. This secular view of the Renaissance is an old canard: It is as if Aquinas and the theology of the Incarnation had never taken place. Christian Europe had already been revitalized by the High Middle Ages; the medieval period was never as dark an age as Renaissance humanists and later Renaissance scholars claimed; and Renaissance humanism was itself a Christian movement.
Greenblatt shows the secularist’s hostility toward medievalism. He informs us twice that curiosity was considered a sin, as it certainly was for both Augustine and Aquinas, but he utterly fails to mention its contrary virtue, studiousness, which can be found easily in Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. “Curiosity” appears as question 167 of the Second Part of the Second Part, and “studiousness” is question 166. All authors use selective scholarship, but why would anything but blindness or prejudice make Greenblatt leave the impression that the Church, with her obviously rich heritage in matters of the mind (Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, Bernard, Duns Scotus, and dozens of towering intellects), spent a thousand years as an anti-intellectual institution? To be sure, curiosity, or immoderate studiousness, can be sinful, but Aquinas allows two questions and four articles on careful distinctions precisely to order clearly the means to the highest activity of man, contemplation. Curiosity, when it is not a moderate search for knowledge (studiousness), can be prideful, dangerous, empty, and error-ridden. When immoderate, it can make us forget God, ignore our obligations, traffic in superstition, and transgress our natural limits as rational creatures. What we would call today intellectual curiosity, or desire for truth, is a virtue so long as it is in keeping with man’s limited rational nature, within bounds, and is not sinful tout court.
Similarly, Greenblatt pushes the most intellectually hostile reading of the Benedictine Rule, which calls for prayerful reading during periods between the various hours and manual labor. Greenblatt makes it seem that the monasteries were patrolled by inquisitorial enforcers who would beat any monk expressing aloud an exegetical idea about Scripture when, in fact, the Rule simply seeks to preserve quiet and concentration for private engagement with the Word at meals and in one’s study. Greenblatt asks and then presumes to answer, “But why should the Prince of Darkness be excited by a question about the reading? The answer must be that any question, however innocuous, could raise the prospect of a discussion, a discussion that would imply that religious doctrines were open to inquiry and argument.” There we have it: Christendom had written into its basic educational institution a code juridically opposed to the life of the mind! Passed over in silence are the great medieval schools that produced the quodlibets and articles and disputations of Aquinas and Abelard and Anselm and Scotus, in which it is clear that for centuries “doctrines were open to inquiry and argument,” to the chagrin of late Renaissance reformers such as Luther and Erasmus.
One could turn the Rule around one more time than Greenblatt has done and maintain that codifying silence during reading must in fact have been the result of a dynamic intellectual ferment that the reading of Scripture inevitably fostered in the monasteries. Why have a rule of silence unless there was a contrary tendency? Benedict was therefore simply applying the sensible principle from Ecclesiastes of everything in its proper time. Idle, distracting chatter was and is the enemy of the intellect; silence during prayerful reading is necessary for the Word to germinate in the heart of the reader.
Over and over again, Greenblatt draws the lines broadly and employs the usual anti-Catholic platitudes. Lucretius helped Europe rediscover the pleasure of pleasure, as if Aquinas’s commentaries on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which recognizes the proper place of pleasure in the good life, had never been written. He heralded both evolutionary and atomic theory, as if natural science were dead in the medieval university. He destroyed the metaphysics and ethics that put man at the center of things as a unique being, undoing one of the central tenets of the very Renaissance (a completely secular movement, of course). He inspired the Church-persecuted Galileo to refute Ptolemy. Greenblatt blames early Christian enthusiasts for burning the libraries of Alexandria, not mentioning the possible contributions to this unresolved scandal of the Muslims and Julius Caesar.
Medievalism is also the enemy in Greenblatt’s more academic work, Shakespeare’s Freedom, which places the Bard in the maelstrom of his own age’s culture wars fought by absolutists against absolutists. Greenblatt’s Shakespeare manages to live free from the extremes that held back Renaissance England from progressive modernism. On the one side is the absolute authority of the pope, which is replaced on the other side with the absolute authority of Scripture and faith. On the one side are Calvinistic absolutists for whom “God was no longer a monarch with whom lowly mortals could negotiate by means of supplications, ascetic self-discipline, and other propitiatory offerings.” In their view instead, “Divine decisions were incomprehensible and irrevocable, unconstrained by any form of mediation, contract, or law.” On the other side, Catholic theology and art had “stripped away…any halfway or compromise postures,” the sole evidence for which are “scenes of the Last Judgment on the portals of churches [which] do not admit of unresolved cases or make room for a middle ground.” And yet Protestants “rigorously eliminated Purgatory…swept away the power of the saints and the Virgin Mary, and denied the efficacy of ‘works.'” It is clear, therefore, from Greenblatt’s lists that the absolutes come mainly from the Protestant side: “absolute divine freedom, unbounded divine love, faith alone, prevenient grace, eternal damnation, once-for-all salvation.” Thus, the Catholic Shakespeare thesis sneaks in through the back door in Greenblatt’s book.
That’s because Greenblatt’s central claims in Shakespeare’s Freedom, although dressed in the language of high secularism, are in fact crucial tenets of orthodox Catholicism. He opens his argument with a wonderful example taken from the Bard’s Measure for Measure, whose title bluntly proposes (unmentioned by Greenblatt) the famous synoptic Gospel saying from the Sermon on the Mount. The self-exiled Duke needs a man’s head to replace that of the sinner Claudio, who has been sentenced to death for fornication (as was the law in Calvin’s Geneva, the civic model for some of Shakespeare’s English Puritan contemporaries), but the filthy drunken criminal Barnardine, named after the great Doctor of Love, refuses to have his own execution advanced by a single day to oblige the Duke. The Duke has second thoughts, which are those of a friar (his disguise) concerned about absolution and the afterlife, and strikingly similar to the complaint of Hamlet’s ghost that he had been “cut off even in blossoms of [his] sin, / Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d” (Hamlet, 1.5.76-77):
A creature unprepared, unmeet for death;
And to transport him in the mind he is
Were damnable. (Measure for Measure, 4.3.59-61)
Another substitute is found in the figure of a different prisoner who has suddenly died; so Barnardine gets his personal wish to live another day, then the Duke goes further and pardons him entirely at the end of the play in his restored role as father of the city. Here is all that Greenblatt makes of this marvelous display of the dignity of human life even in the lowest of creatures, of the wisdom of providence in working good out of evil, and of the quality of unstrained and gratuitous mercy: “Barnardine, so unnecessary and so theatrically compelling, serves as an emblem of the freedom of the artist to remake the world.” He is an emblem indeed, but one that remakes the world according to the Christian vision of things: a world of gift and forgiveness even for, in Greenblatt’s description of Barnardine, “the unrepentant, intransigent, rustling in the straw.” Can’t Barnardine here be seen as the Prodigal Son en puissance?
Greenblatt’s Shakespeare’s second freedom is freedom from the tyranny of unspecified idealized beauty. His beloveds bear human flaws, darkness, bad breath, and moles; they rise beyond their imperfections to become, in the late romances, as “something entirely natural…innocent and individuating.” No Christian would disagree, particularly not Oliver Cromwell — who wanted his portrait, warts and all — for grace perfects and the Incarnation has redeemed nature, which is why Hamlet can quote Psalm 8, putting man at the center of creation (Hamlet 2.2.311ff.), only to wince at his becoming a “quintessence of dust.” Hamlet’s problem can be seen as a struggle with his Protestant faith acquired at Wittenberg.
Shakespeare’s third freedom is freedom from a chauvinistic judgment of the other as a deserving target of absolute hatred. Shylock spares Antonio in his Jewish respect for the minutiae of law, and Shakespeare spares Shylock of the blood libel, which Chaucer and Marlowe had pressed in The Jew of Malta and The Prioress’s Tale. But isn’t freedom from absolute hatred simply living the Gospel command to love thy neighbor? Shakespeare’s presentation of Shylock’s humanity despite his villainy, his understanding of the Jew as victim of Christian prejudice, is certainly the dramatic playwright’s equivalent of seeing even the Samaritan as a recipient of God’s loving embrace. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” reminds us of the common humanity of all of God’s children, and “Shall we not revenge?” of the insufficiently followed Judeo-Christian injunction to turn our swords into ploughshares.
The fourth freedom is freedom from cruel royal authority on the one hand and democratic demagoguery on the other. Greenblatt shows how the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes by the rulers Cornwall and Regan refers topically to the public torture of alleged Catholic traitor Guy Fawkes, even revealing that the play was performed in 1610 at the country home of well-known Catholic recusants. Lear learns solidarity with the poor in the storm on the heath, a servant gives up his life in a failed attempt to protect Gloucester, another servant offers his bleeding face balming “flax and whites of eggs,” and yet Greenblatt concludes that “the dream of the absolute with which the play opens, whether absolute power or absolute love, has been destroyed forever.” What of the reconciliation between Cordelia and Lear? His beloved daughter, greatly wronged, returns like the banished Virgin Mary from Catholic France to fight and care for her father’s house, who looks upon her “as a soul in bliss.” He confesses that he has given her great cause for not loving him, and she forgives him utterly with “No cause, no cause.” Greenblatt understands Macbeth’s “We still have judgment here” to mean that political power must concern itself uniquely with the requirements of life on earth, when it can also be seen as an expression of the classic Christian natural-law teaching, available in popular Christian iconography and the morality plays, that sin diminishes the life of man now. Prospero’s return to the compromised city, putting aside his magic powers, or Edgar’s (or Albany’s, depending on whether the folio or quarto ending of Lear is chosen) resignation to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” can be seen as the Christian understanding that the city of man is fallen, explaining more completely that the dream of absolute power is an illusion because political rulers and political subjects are sinful.
The fifth freedom is freedom from the illusion of artistic autonomy. Shakespeare is not limited by the classic unities of time, place, and action, or by formulaic requirements not to mix high or low diction. He does not, says Greenblatt, go as far as Sir Philip Sidney in his Apology for Poetry in an aesthetic autonomy free from the constraints of observed nature in order to radically remake a new nature according to the vatic vision of the poet. Unlike Elizabeth and James, who imitated Calvin’s voluntaristic God in claiming royal prerogatives and political autonomy, Shakespeare rejected the dreams of “physical autonomy, exemption from the mortal vulnerability of the flesh,” of “social autonomy, independence from the dense network of friends, family, and alliances that ties the individual to a carefully ordered world,” and of “mental autonomy, the ability to dwell in a separate psychic world, a heterocosm of one’s own making.” The exiled Coriolanus, who feels not his wounds, his family, or his Roman identity, finally collapses at the entreaties of his mother Volumnia and is killed by a mob, “society’s definitive response to the man who imagines that he can live after his own law.” Greenblatt reminds us that Bottom’s dream in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a parody of First Corinthians (“Eye has not seen, ear has not heard”), but he does not mention that other Pauline doctrine, the body of Christ, that surely grounds Shakespeare’s understanding (in the words of the Christian poet John Donne) that “no man is an island, apart from the main.” Nor does he mention that the turn from aesthetic autonomy is fidelity to Aristotle’s poetics and a consequence of realist philosophy championed by Thomism and Shakespeare’s most influential theologian, Richard Hooker, a more moderate and orthodox (Catholic-thinking) Protestant than the Huguenot-leaning Sidney.
Shakespeare’s freedom indeed, but Catholic readers have every reason still to call it mercy and love and prudence and sin and grace. For the secularist to come to terms with the traditional (Catholic-leaning) Christian dramatist whom he loves, he must first confront the Bard as he is.
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