Seeming Knowledge: Shakespeare and Skeptical Faith. By John D. Cox. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-932792-95-9. Pp. xvii + 348. $39.95.
As John D. Cox effectively argues in Seeming Knowledge: Shakespeare and Skeptical Faith, skepticism provides a fitting way to situate Shakespeare’s achievement in the intellectual history of the sixteenth century. Focusing on Erasmus and Thomas More in order to establish the model of skeptical faith that Shakespeare inherited, Cox distinguishes between skepticism of particular objects and suspicion of particular subjects. Although the book sometimes elides the distinction, skepticism, whose object is knowledge, is especially relevant to religious disputation, while suspicion involves doubts about the knower grounded in divided consciousness and self-deception. In short, Shakespeare thought critically about faith in the context of human beings’ fallen nature.
The first chapter, “Skepticism and Suspicion in Sixteenth-century England,” establishes the impact of the classical stoicism of Lucian and Sextus Empiricus as mediated—and sometimes translated—by Erasmus and More. Cox’s use of this material deepens, in particular, Stephen Greenblatt’s source study of King Lear. Whereas Greenblatt traces theatrical kenosis back to Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603), Cox shows that Erasmus and More emphasize the same point—thus demonstrating skeptical faith—much earlier in the sixteenth century. The chapter then shifts from skepticism in philosophical texts to the self-division that justifies suspicion in two literary works, Book I of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and More’s The Praise of Folly. In Spenser, for example, Sans Foy, Sans Loy, and Sans Joy allegorize the Redcrosse knight’s divided psyche; and Cox could easily have extended the analysis to encompass other allegorical figures such as Una, Duessa, and the dwarf. Making good use of Shakespeare’s biblical allusions, the author concludes the chapter by reading Love’s Labor’s Lost and The Comedy of Errors as illustrations of moral suspicion about human “self-ignorance and self-deception” (16).
The rest of the book divides into two sections—skepticism’s relationship to Shakespeare’s use of genre and skepticism’s impact on his understanding of specific philosophical issues. Cox argues that Shakespeare’s plays depict the fallen world, somewhere between the Creation and the Last Judgment, as the setting for the three genres in the First Folio. Chapters Two, Three, and Four deal with comedy, tragedy, and history, respectively: human beings approach perfection asymptotically (comedy); because suffering is mysterious, we must acknowledge others’ pain (tragedy); and characters determine their own destiny according to their free will in a world that is open to time on both ends because political events are part of a continuum (history). Cox’s main point is that “salvation history” or “divine comedy” relates to all three genres (34).
In the comedies, the self-deception of the divided psyche yields to self-awareness and to improved—but not perfected—relations in the community through virtues such as “grace, mercy, charity, and forgiveness” (62). The skepticism lies in the ambiguity—i.e., the qualified nature—of Shakespeare’s comic endings. Here Cox might well have addressed Oberon’s blessing of the newly married couples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as an example of such ambiguity (5.1.400-05). But he does apply the story of David and Bathsheba as an example of restorative faith and then presents As You Like It, Pericles, and Measure for Measure as illustrations of improved but not wholly perfectible human relations, whereas Love’s Labor’s Lost and Troilus and Cressida, like Jonson’s plays, seek “simply to expose human weakness, not to suggest a possibility of overcoming it” (49).
The skepticism with which the reader approaches tragedy relates to the difficulty of knowing the meaning of suffering, a mystery that is not completely secular “because enigma lies at the heart of Christian affirmation” (75). As Cox reads all the major tragedies, he stresses that although tragedy places us squarely in the fallen world so that the end of a play is not “the promised end” or Apocalypse mentioned in King Lear (5.3.268), virtues like faith, hope, and love do point toward the eschaton. Such qualities are bound up with the “Tragic Grace” that is the chapter’s title. The word “grace,” though not clearly defined, appears to be multivalent: grace enables Cordelia’s forgiveness, is perhaps “the transcendent goodness with which suffering inexplicably coexists” (85), and thus promotes greater self-understanding through tragic circumstances.
Cox’s earlier work on medieval drama informs his treatment of the history play, which frequently alludes to characters such as Vice. Regarding the three Henry VI plays, the chapter argues that John Skelton’s Magnificence taught Shakespeare how to combine secular history with moral insight from medieval drama and that the plays’ “skepticism about human perfectibility” (97) relates to the skeptical faith and vision of history in More and Erasmus. Cox believes that a specific temporal segment conveys ambivalence and irony because we lose track of its place in history’s overall comic shape. Such segments, which do not imitate comic history but seem to contrast with it, focus on the workings of power of two sorts—de facto power and de jure power (power in fact versus legitimate power). These types highlight the moral failings of rulers who would wield power in the medium of time, and Shakespeare’s interest in that medium distinguishes him from Machiavelli.
In the book’s second section, Cox deals with a series of ideas: politics and ethics receive separate chapters; but esthetics, epistemology, and ontology are treated together in a single chapter because they were not regarded as separate issues prior to the Enlightenment. Although ethics logically precedes politics, the author deals with the latter first in order to achieve continuity with the previous chapter on the history plays. The Preface includes this summary statement about Shakespeare in Chapter Five, “Politics”: “I argue that his focus on the struggle for political power is skeptical, topical, and original” (xiv). Shakespeare’s plays challenge divine right (skeptical); succession is the common theme (topical); and Machiavelli does not emphasize succession (original). More specifically, the plays are skeptical about politics because of suspicion—derived from dramatic tradition—about humans’ moral limitations and self-deception, a view that nicely complements E.M.W. Tillyard’s use of the hierarchy and order in the Great Chain of Being to approach history. Cox’s analysis of the second tetralogy (Richard II through Henry V), along with his earlier treatment of King Lear, are the best readings in Seeming Knowledge. Although he would do well to relate George Herbert’s “The Pulley” to Richard II’s situation (in each case, material loss promotes spiritual benefit), the reading of the deposed king’s final soliloquy is particularly sensitive; and a sharp distinction between skepticism about prayer and suspicion of human motives informs an excellent discussion of Henry V’s prayer on the eve of Agincourt and Claudius’s failed attempt to pray in Hamlet.
Chapter Six, “Ethics,” argues that the main theme in the Roman plays is stoicism, which holds that perfection can be achieved through human effort. Cox observes a shift from a positive affirmation of stoicism in Titus Andronicus and The Rape of Lucrece; to a skeptical consideration of its ambiguities in Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, and Antony and Cleopatra; to the infusion of Christian value through biblical allusion in Cymbeline. Shakespeare also critiques stoicism in Othello by showing the failure of the title character’s self-sufficiency and in Measure for Measure by showing that the impossibility of “stoic confidence in the possibility of self-perfection” points toward the need for “mercy, forgiveness, and charity in explicitly Christian terms” (174).
Chapter Seven, “Esthetics, Epistemology, and Ontology,” provides both some of the book’s most sensitive readings (of Sidney’s Defense of Poetry and Kate’s transformation in The Taming of the Shrew) and a series of statements that admit qualification. Cox’s point is that the three areas in the chapter title “are bound up with issues concerning liturgy, drama, religious reform, the status of signs, the nature of illusion, the quality of belief, miracles, wonders, devils, and God” (196); and that Sidney’s Defense is an appropriate starting point because poetry and theater—both fiction—are appropriate objects of skepticism. The chapter discusses biblical simplicity, the plain style favored by the reformers, antitheatricalism versus the ecclesiastical service, and the nature of signs (literal truth or truth in disguise?)—all in connection with the truth or fiction of the theater. Although Cox relates Sidney’s work to Elizabeth’s compromise with the bishops, the historical connection would benefit from the obvious literary illustration, Spenser’s Kirkrapine; and the term “erected wit” might be efficiently summed up in the word “reason” rather than in Cox’s more elaborate definition (199). The author’s treatment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream lacks a little because he takes Hipployta’s response to Theseus out of context (5.1.23-27) and does not fully account for Bottom’s “most rare vision” (4.1.203)—both involve a paranormal experience that would enhance the chapter’s rubric. One may also quibble with the claim that Prospero’s “masque is not…an expression of its composer’s and producer’s mind in the same way that Hal’s play extempore [1 Henry IV 2.4] is an expression of his and Falstaff’s minds, because Prospero is not a player in the masque” (209). Still, both Hal’s imitation of his father and Prospero’s creation of the masque directly express intention: Hal will go to the court in the morning, and Prospero’s mythological characters underscore the premarital chastity to which he has just exhorted Ferdinand.
In the final chapter, “Shakespeare and the French Epistemologists,” Cox argues that Shakespeare’s differences from Descartes and Montaigne outweigh their common ground. Shakespeare shares with Montaigne, for example, similar points about self-deception in prayer and about the relationship between virtue and vice. But Shakespeare’s assumptions derive from salvation history, Montaigne’s from rational judgment. Similarly, for Shakespeare, the road to self-knowledge runs through an awareness of “bodily vulnerability” (Lear on the heath), not “disembodied cognition, as for Descartes” (239). Cox finds, however, that Pascal and Shakespeare share Christian skepticism’s dual emphases on faith and human beings’ need for grace.
The chapters just described display Cox’s comprehensive knowledge of the most important developments in Shakespeare criticism throughout the twentieth century up to the present. He is equally at home with the earlier generation of critics and with more recent studies, particularly those by Harry Berger, Howard Felperin, Stephen Greenblatt, Patricia Parker, and Susan Snyder. Seeming Knowledge is an excellent study by a top-echelon Shakespeare critic, and it is a pity that the book’s editing does not match the book’s impressive argumentation. Among the errors on the lower order, inconsistencies in punctuation in citations and in possessives, as well as two botched sentences (136-37 and 244), are particularly distracting. Despite these technical shortcomings, however, this study adds significantly to Shakespeare criticism by expanding the intellectual context in which the playwright’s Christian inheritance is usually considered.
It is fitting, in conclusion, to acknowledge that Seeming Knowledge’s dedication “To Hope” is a pun. Cox means, first, the liberal arts college in Michigan where he has taught for more than a quarter century. But hope, as theological virtue, also figures thematically in the book’s use of salvation history. “Comedy is the genre Shakespeare most favored,” Cox writes in Chapter One (34), which means that the playwright’s vision of human life is ultimately hopeful because improvement is definitely possible in the self and in the community through self-knowledge, forgiveness, and charity. The readings that proceed from this point will enhance Shakespeare courses at all levels and should provide professional scholars with insights for many years to come.
Matthew A. Fike