Cynthia Lewis. Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays. Newark and London: U of Delaware P, 1997. 250pp. ISBN 0 87413 630 X Cloth.
Elizabeth Burow-Flak
Valparaiso University

Burow-Flak, Elizabeth. "Review of Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.2 (September, 1999): 10.1-5 URL:

  1. This character study examines the Antonios in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, tracing their roots to legends and iconography of St. Anthony of Egypt. Arguing that a fundamental conflict between extravagant love and more cautious, worldly wisdom is communicated by these and other characters named Antonio on the early modern stage, Lewis posits that such conflicts not only are communicated by, but also are at the heart of, each of the aforementioned plays. Her project is thus, in her words, a "sacred archeology" of unearthing the layers of meaning associated with this desert saint. In her first chapter, Lewis illustrates the history of Saint Anthony through sixteenth-century woodcuts, sketches, and paintings; legends that associate Anthony with healing, temptation, withdrawal from the world, and folly; and hospitals, operational in England until the Great Fire, that originally specified Anthony as the patron for sufferers of ergotism, a disease that causes its victims' flesh to rot. A particularly compelling point in her historiography of the saint is the intellectual bridge of Renaissance humanism between mediaeval saints' plays and ostensibly secular post-Reformation drama. This bridge, Lewis asserts, exists both in Thomas More's self-representation as St. Anthony in one of his last publications from the Tower of London, and in Erasmus's illustration of wise folly through the figures of Christ and Mark Antony. Lewis additionally identifies the hagiographical connection between Saints Antony and Sebastian, a connection prevalent in three of the four plays she discusses (Bassanio being a variant spelling of the Italian diminutive for Sebastian).

  2. Following her explication of the lore associated with St. Anthony, Lewis focuses on each of the plays in turn, reading them in light of additional artistic and hagiographical tradition, and through performance concerns often grounded in her own experience of directing the plays. Her first chapters on The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night stem largely from dilemmas associated with St. Anthony's reputation of generosity. About The Merchant of Venice, Lewis argues that Antonio's alternating largesse toward Bassanio and passive-manipulative demands on him as a result of that generosity epitomise the play's central conflict between living in the material world and being independent of it. Such a conflict, she argues, fits within the web of characteristics associated with St. Anthony, with his namesake in The Merchant of Venice erring alternately on the side of wisdom and folly as he replicates not only Anthony's extravagant generosity, but also his hermetic withdrawal from the world, struggles with temptation, and imitation of Christ. Lewis is quick to argue that enacted by Antonio, this final attribute becomes entirely self-serving. Linking Antonio's conflict at some length to dilemmas and life choices in general, she sees Antonio's predicament mirrored in the divided loyalties of Jessica, Launcelot Gobbo, Bassanio, and, to some extent, Portia. Identifying a less divided Antonio in the sea-captain in Twelfth Night, Lewis goes on to equate this Antonio with the extravagant love of both St. Anthony and The Merchant of Venice's Antonio, interpreting that love as the wise folly that Feste, in his own foolery, endorses. The Twelfth Night chapter additionally draws parallels between characters' eventual revelation of their true identities and the religious connotations of the festival of Epiphany. Finding in Feste a more flawed endorsement of Anthony-like play than Antonio's impersonation of Christ-like passion, Lewis nonetheless reads the prison scene as a potentially effective, if somewhat cruel, lesson in the merits of embracing joy.

  3. With Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest, Lewis's arguments veer from the world of the earlier comedies and settings that more explicitly represent European Christianity. In her chapter on Antony and Cleopatra, Lewis highlights St. Anthony's folly and sense of play as it blends with Mark Antony's previously existing name and characterisation in Plutarch. With an eye toward Caesar's prediction of "universal peace," she interprets Antony's behaviour both as mimicking the Christian love that the line, in part, anticipates, and as exploring the split between worldly and spiritual concerns that The Merchant of Venice investigates. Acknowledging allusions to Antony as Christ (for example, the Last Supper scene in 4.2) and Antony's apparent buffoonery before his death, Lewis argues that if Antony acts foolishly in sacrificing allegiance with Rome, he also exhibits a more divine, albeit still flawed, type of folly in his attempted martyrdom for Cleopatra. Particularly intriguing in this chapter are iconographic comparisons between Cleopatra at her suicide and the nursing Madonna.

  4. In her chapter on The Tempest, finally, Lewis undertakes the still more exacting task of linking Prospero's villainous brother to his much more charitable saintly namesake. Interpreting this last Antonio as an inverse of the saintly stereotype, she reads Antonio's struggle as an internal one similar to Prospero's: that is, as a struggle between grace and justice, and wisdom in a material, political sense and wisdom of a more transcendent nature.

  5. Lewis's book persuades, particularly in its opening chapter on Anthony of Egypt, and more generally in its overall project of identifying and interpreting the religious semiotics embedded in early modern culture, often from an earlier time. Such a project is also replicated, in varying ways, in Shakespeare studies in Judy Kronenfield's King Lear and the Naked Truth, Sandra J. Pyle's Mirth and Morality of Shakespeare's Holy Fools, and -- particularly pertinent to Lewis's chapter on Antony and Cleopatra -- an earlier essay by Laura Severt King on Cleopatra as Mary of Egypt, "Blessed when they were riggish: Shakespeare's Cleopatra and Christianity's Penitent Prostitutes." Lewis's definition, however, of certain conflicts in the plays as universally human and as more prevalent than the plays' portrayals of racism, sexism, and colonisation may unsettle readers who favour new historicist approaches, particularly in the chapters on The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest. Such an effect is nonetheless anticipated and acknowledged by Lewis, who addresses arguments by Greenblatt, Goldberg, and others directly. The book should prove useful to researchers with interests in performance and early modern religion, even if they do not agree on all of the conflicts that Lewis identifies as primary. The book also promises to be of interest to undergraduates, as it both models a well-supported and articulated argument, and acknowledges the insights of Lewis's own students in acting out and responding to her theories.

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