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Claire McEachern, Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing
by Adrian Streete

Claire McEachern, Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 324.


How do we believe in what we see on stage? Is our engagement with person, plot and place shaped by broader structures of thought within a given culture? In the case of Shakespeare’s theatre, do the contours of Reformist thought play a part in how the playwright constructs his plays? For Claire McEachern, the answer to this last question is ‘yes’, although she is less interested in ‘what Reformation persons believed in than in how they believed in it’ (6). In this respect, McEachern follows in the footsteps of Debora Shuger who, nearly thirty years ago, coined the term ‘habits of thought’ to refer to the plural categories of interpretation that so mark religious debate in this period. In the intervening years, scholarship has broadened our frames of reference to consider – amongst other things – the intersections between religion and classical thought, colonialism, natural law, the passions, rhetoric and gender in literary culture. While the truism that religion informs nearly all aspects of human activity in this period may occasionally run the risk of banality, the richness of ongoing work in this field shows just how fertile this ground is. McEachern’s is undoubtedly a fertile book. While not everyone will agree with its premises or methods, it is a compelling and provocative account of why paying close attention to habits of thought can yield significant insights into how the early modern theatre compels belief.

Starting, then, with the premises: although in part one of the book she offers a fair and comprehensive conspectus of the ‘turn to religion’ in early modern scholarship, McEachern has little truck with the claim that Shakespeare’s theatrical practice is infused with Roman Catholic theology. She finds instead that the playwright’s methods for structuring his drama are informed by Calvinist soteriology. This concept refers to the decree of election and, in particular, to ‘the powerful notion that individual human salvation is known to God and must be conjectured about by human beings’ (7). Despite a vigorous pastoral debate about assurance and its concomitant signs in the period (the matter of chapter 2), within Protestantism true knowledge of one’s elect status can only be known after death when the individual comes face to face with their maker. While a number of critics (myself included) have made similar arguments about how soteriology shapes dramatic form, the originality of McEachern’s intervention lies in her ability to connect this soteriological principle to different aspects of Shakespearean dramaturgy. In Shakespeare’s plays, argues McEachern, true knowledge is invariably incomplete, conditional and partial. The precondition of belief is doubt: these terms are not antonyms. This principle is in keeping with the tenets of experiential Calvinism. While this system may not have offered believers unconditional assurance of election, the emphasis that it placed on affective self-examination is central to McEachern’s effort to recapture predestination in both its terror and its appeal for early modern people. Her argument that ‘it is the unavowedly, unabashedly interested conjecture from affective experience to celestial futures, an evidence-based practice distinct from faith, on the one hand, and confirmed knowledge, on the other’ (55) goes to the heart of her redefinition of belief in this book. Belief, for McEachern, ‘occupies the ground between faith and knowledge, toggling between them in pursuit of a hypothesis, until the moment of confirmation arrives that will convert the former into the latter’ (55). So when we encounter characters, situations or locations in Shakespeare’s plays, they produce in us a desire to recognise, to be assured, to know, that is never quite fulfilled. This ‘narrative structure informed by a tension between anticipation and delay’ (76) lies at the heart of Shakespeare’s dramatic practice.

The second part of the book contains two chapters, ‘Feeling Your Knowledge’ and ‘Genre, or the Tupping Point’, that turn more squarely to the theatre. The first chapter considers how the ‘hide-and-seek between divine knowledge and human inquiry’ (107) informs literary concepts such as ‘suspense’ and dramatic irony. Taking as her case studies two Elizabethan translations of Sophocles and Seneca’s Oedipus as well as Ovid’s Actaeon, McEachern moves suggestively - if at times digressively - between Classical models, Protestant determinism, choice and probability, in what is a richly layered chapter. The next focuses on two plays, Much Ado About Nothing and Othello, that ‘worry the tupping point between comfort and despair’, playing on Iago’s obscene comment on the sexual activity between Othello and Desdemona that may or may not be taking place (129). McEachern is good on the generic instabilities that characterise these dramas, and her argument that they are both concerned with the ultimately unanswerable question ‘am I known?’ (132) is compellingly made. I was perhaps less convinced by the section on cuckoldry in this chapter, not because it isn’t suggestive, but rather because the connections between the concept of cuckoldry in popular culture, classical myth and the Old Testament, tend to rely on proximal inference than true analogy, and thus risk trying the reader’s patience (something that the author admits on page 155). Still, the sections on the plays contain many fine close readings, and McEachern’s argument for the significance of Desdemona’s ‘spiritual learning curve’, as well as her unusual ability to ‘imagine the possibility of another’s personhood’ (177), struck me as both original and true.

Part three of the book contains three chapters dealing with, respectively, person, plot and place. Here McEachern really expands on the implications of her soteriological model, traversing the literary history of these three terms from the Classical period to the postmodern with panache. In the chapter on person, the focus turns to our identification with individual characters, and specifically to what happens when identification is rendered partial or impossible. In such cases, ‘what is it about a character that requires caritas of us?’ (189) A character’s lack of full disclosure, as well as our own historical distance from their personated subjectivity are, McEachern notes, woven into Shakespeare’s dramatic practice in the history plays. In a wide-ranging traversal of this dramatic terrain, the chapter argues that in the early history plays, Shakespeare only presumes the audience’s knowledge of what he has shown them; we rarely know more than the characters know, and if we do then it is not for long. Richard II, suggests McEachern, marks an important shift in Shakespeare’s dramatic practice. Here the playwright is no longer ‘solicitous about our ignorance’ (202) but instead cultivates it in order to disorientate both our sense of ‘history’ and our identification with the titular character. Richard’s self-identifications with Christ are read, via Calvin, as mimetically improbable yet soteriologically significant. At the end of a complex and demanding argument, McEachern observes that our most compelling insight into character lies not in soliloquy but in the fleeting, evanescent remark – Sir Andrew’s ‘I was adored once, too’, for instance – remarks that tell us more than the speaker understands, pointing beyond self-representation to what we might know for a character (219-220). This is a brilliant insight, one that could be extended further into the unique patterns of speech and lexis that make representations like Richard II distinct; the morphology of Shakespearean character, as it were.

The next chapter on plot is perhaps less consistently illuminating, partly because it traverses well-worn critical ground and so occasionally strains for novelty, and partly because McEachern’s occasional leaps between formal academic prose and a more demotic register (‘However, “shit happens” does not a believable plot make”, 232) are more prevalent here and can occasionally jar. Yet the chapter’s sections on probability and plot, and the relative import of beginnings, middles and ends for theatrical audiences all contain noteworthy arguments. King Lear provides the case study here. McEachern is convincing on the double plot of the play, and on the causal inscrutability of this drama (260). Her claim is that Lear is anything but ignorant; rather he is more ‘intimately acquainted with and subject to’ (269) the constraints of necessity than anyone else in the play. The case is convincingly made, and it stands in counterpoint to those readings (and productions) of King Lear that might stress an incipient senility or cruelty as the dominant driver of the king’s actions.

We end with place, and with the simple but far-reaching observation that ‘Shakespeare’s increasingly global domination has also served to delocalize his settings’ (277). The chapter covers a lot of metaphorical and critical ground. The author is very conscious about taxing her readers’ patience by this stage in the book (cf. p. 282), but for this reader at least, the sections on destination, congregation and deadline in The Tempest contain numerous fresh insights. I particularly liked her revisionist take on Prospero not as tyrant or patriarch, but as representing a God’s eye view of causality and action, one albeit that is ‘less compelling than we might have imagined, void as it is of suspense, of uncertainty, and of mystery’ (295). Others may want to consider further why Shakespeare constructs this particular perspective at this late stage in his career, and how it might relate to the agency of the various deities that populate the late plays.

There are, of course, some aspects of the book that readers may find less compelling. As noted above, the tone of the argument can be jarring in places, needlessly apologetic in others, and the structure is sometimes digressive. McEachern is overly fond of the formula ‘In other words’, and sentences are not always as clear and direct as they might be. I also wondered if the book might have benefitted from a more consistently comparative framework. Non-Shakespearean drama appears only fleetingly here: what about Middleton, for example, a playwright whose ‘veiled’ dramatic epistemology is certainly connected to his Protestantism? Or Jonson? Does his flitting between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism produce different approaches to mimesis, personation and theatrical suspense? However, no book can do everything. This remains a compelling study, full of insight and learning. Indeed, readers of this journal may find the ‘habits of thought’ identified here a useful prompt for reconsidering Spenser’s own soteriological preoccupations, especially in The Faerie Queene. In the Proem to Book I, Spenser cannot think or write about Elizabeth, the ‘glorious type’, without her aid. His remains an ‘afflicted stile’ (4: 7-8), and the quest of the Red Cross Knight initiates a similar tension between faith and knowledge. This is, after all, a poem where the words ‘belief’ and ‘believe’ appear almost as rarely as the unambiguously straight and narrow way.


Adrian Streete

University of Glasgow




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Cite as:

Adrian Streete, "Claire McEachern, Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing," Spenser Review 49.2.16 (Spring-Summer 2019). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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