Shakespeare and Skepticism


Joseph Loewenstein

1Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 It’s well-known that one of the key features of sixteenth-century intellectual culture was a renaissance in skepticism, a brooding recovery of that classical philosophical tradition most closely identified with Sextus Empiricus and Cicero (although Seneca is arguably as important a vector of this tradition). Richard Popkin wrote an impressively detailed account of this recovery, an account that attends carefully to the contributions of Cusanus, Erasmus, Montaigne, Bacon, Descartes, and Pascal in delivering formal skepticism to the likes of Hobbes, Bayle, and the Philosophes.

2Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Until quite recently, this intellectual history had been ignored by literary historians, but the past dozen years have corrected our inattention. Two things have facilitated the new attention to literary skepticism: first, a long-standing awareness of Shakespeare’s fondness for Montaigne, an awareness now easily recognizable as having long been treated in too casual a manner; and second, the brilliant essays of Stanley Cavell, the direct influence of whose work on Shakespeare and the indirect influence of whose (perhaps more ambitious work) on film and its genres have made it possible to understand the theater—and particularly the early modern theater—as a skeptical lab.

3Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The challenge to the members of this seminar was that we could improve this salutary new attention to skepticism and the early modern theater in two ways. The first would be to make sure that the skepticism of drama and of theater was situated in relation to the equally fervent skeptical probings of nondramatic literature. The obvious figures to be included in a nondramatic conspectus would be Harvey, Davies, Milton, and, above all, Spenser and Donne—and there were some unobvious figures to be included, and the papers of Professors Eggert and Hashhozheva succeeded brilliantly in such inclusiveness.

4Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The second improvement would be, I thought, a bit more difficult, since it would require our working out the relation of literary skepticism, not only to the sober epistemological formalities dictated by Cicero and Sextus, but to what might be called “vernacular skepticism,” those dispositions and idioms of discredit that animate mockery, insult, and polemic. It will take some doing to work out the relation of cheerful Bakhtinian uncrowning and blistering confessional polemic to genteel Montaignean doubt or to the disciplines of Cartesian epistemology, but to any reader of, say, Donne’s Epistles or of King Lear, it is quite obvious that they are related. Indeed, it seems fair to suppose that students of the early modern theater are in an especially strong position to assess the ways in which a culture of discredit conditions the progress of philosophical critique. Professor Bishop’s paper responds (albeit obliquely) to this challenge: he is less interested in the historical context of critique and more interested in plumbing the philosophical depths and gauging the aesthetic lightness of vernacular practice.

5Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 I would observe that the name of the seminar, Literature and Theater as Skeptical Lab, had been hastily chosen. Like most titles produced for conferences, the title was precipitous, something between a hunch and a hope, but in this particular case, the title was doubly precipitous. Lab work, experiment—or what had to be called “experience” for (happy) want of a properly mysterious professional term—lagged behind the early modern English theater. Salomon’s House itself was imagined just about fifty years after James Burbage erected the Theatre. So our title got ahead of itself.

6Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Moreover, the relation of skepticism to experiment isn’t so obvious that Popkin or Schmidt or Webster or any of the other important historians of the constructive (by which I don’t mean constructivist) turn in skepticism confront it in a forthright manner. It’s pretty fair to say that what went by the name of skepticism among Shakespeare and his peers was more of a psychotherapy, or meditative discipline, or formulaic rhetoric of jeering than a consequential method. By and large, the members of the seminar chose to address skepticism as a loose rubric of antifoundationalism, one that would include not only Cicero, Sextus, and Montaigne but also the work of Machiavelli (and its inheritance), of Lucian (and its inheritance), and Luther. (And because of an abiding undercurrent of interest in political theology, the pantheon of antifoundationalists was regularly extended to include St. Paul.) Interestingly, though, the psychotherapeutic aspects of skepticism, its formulary character, as a repertory for secular self-monitoring didn’t figure in the seminar papers.

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