Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Christopher Baker: “Religious Diversity”

Christopher Baker

Book Review

Arthur F. Marotti and Chanita Goodblatt, eds. Religious Diversity and Early Modern English Texts. Wayne State University Press (Detroit, MI, 2013), vi + 367 pp. Illus. ISBN: 9780814339558. $54.95 (USD)

1> In a 2004 essay in Criticism, Ken Jackson and Arthur Marotti outlined “The Turn to Religion in Early Modern Studies” that had begun to influence Tudor-Stuart literary scholarship. A decade on, religion as a vitally contested element in early modern culture is now an established topic of academic interest. In 2011, Jackson and Marotti extended their work by editing Shakespeare and Religion: Early Modern and Postmodern Perspectives. Now Marotti and Chanita Goodblatt have assembled a new collection of essays highlighting the hybrid nature of early modern religious experience, presenting an era in which Catholic, Reformed, Jewish, and secular influences complicate prior monolithic assumptions about religious belief and practice. The thirteen essays offered here (seven by Israeli scholars) bring fresh perspectives to both familiar and lesser-known works and literary figures.

2> The opening section of three essays addresses “Minority Catholic Culture,” beginning with Marotti’s essay contending that, since Elizabeth would have no other virgin queens before her, the composition of Marian verse constituted an act of both devotion and subversion. William Frost’s unpublished poetry, written under the reigns of both Mary and Elizabeth I, bemoans his country’s “fall into Heresy in the Henrician era and criticizes the Protestant assault on traditional Catholic devotion, particularly devotion to Mary” (27). Marotti notices more familiar names such as Southwell, Lodge, Constable, and Henry Garnet, but he sheds light as well on lesser-known Catholics such as Richard Verstegan and the convert Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel. Catholic resistance also took non-literary forms, as in William Blundell’s 1611 discovery of a cache of Anglo-Saxon coins on his Chester farm, which he took as evidence of an ancient Catholic heritage. As Phebe Jensen argues, “the early modern Catholic estate could itself be seen as a newly sacred site that had replaced the desecrated saints’ shrines, monasteries, and abbeys” (61); the English countryside itself became a “material text” (71) of recusant opposition. A third example of such resistance was the career of “Jesuitess” convent leader Mary Ward (1585-1645). Lowell Gallagher contends that the paintings of Ward’s life in her Augsburg center recapitulate Irenaeus’s reading of Lot’s wife in the Adversus haereses. Rather than a symbol of “sin or depravity”, Lot’s wife is “the biblical type of ecclesia, the sanctified community: suffering, patient, stranded in history, and holding onto the promise of the bridegroom’s return” (84). Gallagher answers early critiques of Ward by her Protestant and Catholic contemporaries by energetically employing Derrida’s concept of the equivocality of testimony to equate the biblical pillar of salt with the red chair in Ward’s paintings.

3> Section II, “Figuring the Jew,” opens with Avrahm Oz’s essay justifying the inclusion of “secular” in this volume’s subtitle, for Oz argues resolutely for Shylock as an irreligious, thoroughly material individual defined by commerce: his major characteristic “may be epitomized as the commodification of any [emphasis added] concept, value, or moral tenet” (109). In his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, Shylock mimics the Venetians, calling attention to his shared similarities with them to create a “vision of nationhood” (118) that appropriates Machiavelli’s rewriting of the identity of the nation-state. Oz’s discussion is provocatively reductive in its vision of the money-lender, prompting a reader to wonder if the ethical riddle posed by the trial scene can so neatly excise religion altogether. In contrast to Oz’s critical frame of material culture, Achsah Guibbory documents that Milton’s view of England was decidedly biblical, Israel’s history being the lens through which he saw Stuart politics. Though a chosen people, the English were nevertheless “an Israel rampant with corruption” whom he is called to summon to virtue (139). Yet, in Areopagitica, England is also “the redeemed Zion or Jerusalem described by Isaiah”, and “London is England’s Jerusalem” (140); in his Second Defense of the English People (1654) and The Readie and Easie Way (1660) it is a “reprobate Israel” with the potential to become “the restored Israel” (148). Guibbory helpfully synthesizes a variety of Milton’s works to show how the fraught Old Testament vision of a stubborn yet chosen nation became a working template for Puritan politics.

4> The longer Section III, “Hebraism and the Bible,” opens with Chanita Goodblatt’s discussion of six graduate students’ production of the mid-sixteenth century play The Historie of Jacob and Esau at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. After pedagogically summarizing the play’s staging and production, she presents her parshanut (exegesis) of the Genesis account, drawing upon Calvin, rabbinical commentary, Geneva text scholia, and the students’ responses. She generously allows that the student performers/commentators “were able to establish the authority of their interpretive process, ultimately vying successfully with the Reformation commentators and translators” (174). Anne Lake Prescott’s witty and “much abbreviated tale of Saul in Renaissance England” (190) tracks recontextualizations of the biblical king by early modern polemicists to serve their varying sectarian purposes; for example, “one finds allusions that situate endangered Protestants as fresh Davids and their Catholic persecutors as displaced or displaceable Old Sauls” (182). As Hannibal Hamlin demonstrated in Psalm Culture in Early Modern English Literature (2007), few biblical books were as influential in the Renaissance as the Psalms, and Elliot M. Simon argues for two medieval influences on the Psalm translations of Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney Herbert: the conceptions of prophecy of the twelfth-century Cistercian Joachim de Fiore (with whom they “could see themselves as historical incarnations of David”) and the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (who modeled for them the interpreting of “equivocal language of biblical texts”) (196). Using comparisons rather than directly demonstrable linkages to these medieval thinkers, Simon illuminates a larger Judaeo-Christian heritage for these translations. Opening a new avenue into the implications of George Herbert’s possible knowledge of Jewish oral tradition, Noam Flinker explores Hebraic sources “submerged” in Herbert’s “The Collar” and “The Pearl.” He finds that echoes of Genesis and the Psalms in “The Collar” intensify the “psychic destabilization and rebellion of the speaker” (238), while “The Pearl” draws upon the spiritual implications of the material jewel as discussed in the Talmudic commentary of Rabbi Joshua which Herbert may have known.

5> The first of two essays in Section IV on “Women in Religion”, by Yaakov Mascetti, argues for a Calvinist and gendered reading of Emilia Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum; this work incorporates a Reformed iconoclasm, serving “Calvin’s ideal reader [who] would thus see the living image of the Christian truth, not perceive it physically” (257). However, men, such as Caiaphas, because of their intentioned misapprehension, are more prone to miss Christ’s salvation than are women, who sin by virtue of their “undiscerning ignorance” (272). Jeanne Shami seeks to recover traces of early modern women’s religious lives by scrutinizing their representations in funeral sermons, a challenging task because this genre holds up women as virtuous models in ways that obscure historical details of their lived experience. Shami ends with six helpful suggestions for researchers interested in the ways “women engaged in post-Reformation sermon culture” (303).

6> The final section, on “Religion and Secularization”, opens with Noam Reisner’s discussion of Marlowe’s use of rhetorical style to subvert conventional religious assumptions with posited worlds that extend beyond the theatrical space. Oz’s Shylock would approve of Reisner’s Barabas as an agent of an exclusively material culture, The Jew of Malta creating “an irruption of ruthless Machiavellian pragmatism in a social and political world otherwise shaped by theories of providence and religious dogma” (318). In the closing essay, Sanford Budick grapples thoughtfully with the old question of whether King Lear is finally a declaration of nihilism or an assertion—however bleak—of an ultimate hope. For Budick, King Lear is a tragic community of figures playing out a “zero narrative” of successive humiliations, nevertheless culminating in a Kantian and sublime “recognition of a moral feeling that is completely separate from any thought of preserving their own lives” (333), a feeling necessary for their moral growth. Readers eager for an affirmative Lear will find new grounds for hope; those favoring a darker Lear will concur that the play’s affirmations are “by no means self-evident” (333). Scholars generally now recognize the syncretized religious culture of early modern England and its equally hybrid expression in a variety of literary genres. This valuable collection of essays presents new avenues of investigation into this complex milieu and new topics for debate among students and commentators.

Christopher Baker, author of Religion in the Age of Shakespeare (2007) and editor of Absolutism and the Scientific Revolution (2002) is Professor of English at Armstrong State University. His work has appeared in Milton Studies, the Ben Jonson Journal, Studia Neophilologica, Comparative Drama, and elsewhere. He is an assistant editor of the forthcoming MLA Variorum Cymbeline.
Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992,
Volume Seven (2014): Genres & Cultures

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