Jean H. Hagstrum. Esteem Enlivened by Desire: The Couple from Homer to Shakespeare. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. xvi + 518 pp (includes 31 illustrations).
Review by,
Paul G. Stanwood
University of British Columbia

Stanwood, Paul G. "Review of Esteem Enlivened by Desire: The Couple from Homer to Shakespeare. Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 8.1-5 <URL:

  1. In this elegantly written book, Jean Hagstrum concludes the investigations that he began a number of years ago and published as Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart (1980), Eros and Vision: The Restoration to Romanticism (1989), and The Romantic Body (1985). Now he has turned to the art and literature of the earlier periods, to Western antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, and his aim is to follow the representations of love, friendship, and marriage across some two thousand years. Hagstrum's main topic is "long-standing amorous commitment" (xiv), illustrated principally through texts that describe fulfilment in love, and that also provide theoretical dimensions of long-term intimacy in Western culture. The book is essentially about marriage, or the lasting fidelity of heterosexual couples, and the discovery of what constitutes the "ideal" relationship, of "esteem enlightened by desire." To what extent--and out of what historical process--does the first Book of Common Prayer reveal this ideal? Marriage, it declares, is for procreation, for a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication, and for mutual society--this last becoming first in recent revisions which say "that with delight and tenderness" men and women marry so that "they may know each other in love, and through the joy of their bodily union, may strengthen the union of their hearts and lives."

  2. The book is organized chronologically, mingling social history, "intellectual codifications" (that is, theological and philosophical statements), mythology in sacred writings and early epics, and art and literature. The book seems to me best when it takes up literature, for in such sections as those on Homer, Ovid, Augustine, and Shakespeare, Hagstrum displays acutely his very formidable analytical and critical skills and his wonderfully judicious literary intelligence. Yet throughout the book, Hagstrum reveals deep learning, brilliance, and rich ingenuity in selecting and summarizing from an enormous wealth of material. The book is filled with many high points, a feature which seems just right in a story that does not so much develop as proceed. Near the beginning, of course, is Homer, and the homecoming of Odysseus. What could shake his dedication to hearth and home? Nothing at all; for in Odysseus and Penelope, Homer shows ideally "the couple--not just the loving and desiring couple but the generative, propertied, managing, cooperating, intelligent, and resourceful couple" (61). And such a couple "is one of the highest values Homer knows. And Homer was the teacher of all Greece, and all the world."

  3. Hagstrum surveys much of classical literature before turning next to "The Jewish and Christian Testaments: Adam to Paul," a chapter that deals best with Ruth and Boaz and with the Song of Songs, but least satisfactorily with Jesus in the gospels, and with the Pauline epistles. The words of 1 Timothy 2:11-14 seem to Hagstrum to entail "a frustrating and even enslaving legacy on woman in Western culture" (161), and Jesus's teaching in Matthew 19 seems to set up further "granitic hardness" in its treatment of the Deuteronomic texts. Of course, there is much more to be said about these "founding" Christian statements, but Hagstrum is little concerned about their later interpretation. His intention, never so much theological as literary, is to display moments and visions. He thus warms to an account of Augustine, particularly of the Confessions, a work he regards as a love poem, though lacking metrical form:

    Augustine has by his Confessions helped perpetuate the tradition of spiritual sensualism. . . . Despite intellectual, moral, and emotional distances, he can still appeal because he ran the gamut of amor and never lost his dionysiac frenzy even in his highest ascents and most rarefied imaginings. His love affair with God eventuates in the longest of long-term couplings. It can inspire the marital even though it does not itself arise out of or reflect the marital. The application of his devoted love to so precarious a condition as even sacramental marriage may have given Augustine the theologian pause. But his art, if not his theology, reveals a kind of trembling joy that cannot be denied a place in our legacy of love from the past. His magnificent displacement of sexual desire and erotic longing upon his unseen Creator is perhaps the greatest verbal achievement in the extensive Western pantheon of physical-spiritual, religio-artistic monuments. (194-95)

    This passage reveals Hagstrum in his most plangent style, in a warmly persuasive yet emotional description not necessarily sustainable in the obvious light of reason. Perhaps Augustine is, indeed, the "ideal" lover according to a remarkable set of transcendent dimensions, which long to be ubiquitous. But much of Hagstrum's writing, well illustrated by this passage, will seem to many readers unsatisfactory; for Hagstrum probably attempts too much in his sweeping and selective survey of western civilization, which measures all ideas against a single overarching paradigm and theme.

  4. Succeeding chapters take up the high Middle Ages (courtly love, Heloise and Abelard, Tristan and Isolde) to show "intellectual paradigms and social backgrounds," and in a further chapter on the Middle Ages Hagstrum writes of the "imaginings" of long-term love: Chretien de Troyes, Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Chaucer, Malory. This astonishing survey reaches its apogee in the final chapters on the Renaissance, of which there are three: "Struggles to Unite Eros and Marriage"; "Literature and the Problematics of Marriage"; "Shakespeare." Spenser naturally finds a place in this discussion, but Shakespeare is most tellingly illuminated, especially the comedies, and surprisingly Othello. For Hagstrum sees the love, the coupling of Desdemona and Othello, as one suggesting "creative complementarity of the rarest kind" (404). Their marriage is filled with the promise of esteem and desire, its principals endowed with superior character and high adventure:

    The poetic art of this work devotes itself from the beginning to presenting the courtship and elopement as high romantic adventure undertaken by interesting, bold, and imaginative people, and when Desdemona accompanies her husband on his military mission to Cyprus Shakespeare shows two high-spirited people achieving a new kind of extradomestic intimacy. (400-1)

    Finally, as we know, the hero throws away "a pearl . . . richer than all his tribe," and this jewel, Hagstrum says, is a person of course "but also a relationship, one of 'esteem enlivened by desire'" (404).

  5. Hagstrum's eloquent book, so long, so vividly narrated, so magisterial, cannot be adequately summarized though its theme is clearly set before us. Certainly this splendid book does have self-imposed limitations, mostly of selection: one might be given more than a glance forward to Milton's Paradise Lost (partly the subject of a previous book by Hagstrum), whose treatment of companionate marriage might seem a more appropriate conclusion than Shakespeare's domestic tragedy. Also, Hagstrum's views about Antony and Cleopatra would surely have been fascinating in this present context--and so also Virgil's story of Dido and Aeneas. But these exclusions in no way mar an uncommon achievement, an old-fashioned literary and critical study of magnitude and power.
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(RGS, rev. 2 March 1998)