Geoffrey Aggeler. "Nobler in the Mind": The Stoic-Skeptic Dialectic in English Renaissance Tragedy. Newark and London: U of Delaware P, 1998. 197pp. ISBN 0 87413 661 X.
Yvonne Bruce
The Citadel

Bruce, Yvonne. "Review of Geoffrey Aggeler, "Nobler in the Mind": The Stoic-Skeptic Dialectic in English Renaissance Tragedy." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 8.1-6<URL:

  1. Geoffrey Aggeler's recent study explores the fruitful tension existing between Stoic and Sceptical systems of thought in English Renaissance drama, as these systems mirror the tensions between Christian humanist thought and its Senecan antecedent. But Aggeler is chiefly interested in something both more general -- the relationship between faith and reason -- and more particular -- the expression of this relationship in the revenge dramas of Kyd, Marston, Chapman, and Shakespeare.

  2. Aggeler's first chapter, "Reason's Spark and Skeptical Doubt," examines in detail the critical history of this dialectical relationship, beginning with the tension between Seneca's drama and his Stoic philosophy. Aggeler contends, following the work of Gordon Braden and Thomas Rosenmeyer, that Stoicism engendered its own Skepticism and that the furious revenges of Senecan drama "acted out," so to speak, frustration at the impossible Stoic ideal of total detachment and dispassion. This ideal and its defects informed the "moral theology" of the Reformation (34), as Luther and Calvin struggled to reconcile the haughty pagan rigours of Stoicism with the humility essential to existing in a state of Christian grace. The exemplar of this struggle, however, is Montaigne, who embraced Stoicism early in his career, only to later reject its reliance on man's unreliable powers of reasoning.

  3. In "English Seneca" Aggeler narrows in on the dialectical relationship of faith and scepticism in the Renaissance revenge drama as preparation for his supremely sceptical reading of The Spanish Tragedy. Aggeler constrasts Seneca's sapiens, whose revenge beliefs are "generally harmonious with those of Christian moralists" (56), with Aristotle's man of honour, for whom revenge is an individual (pagan) issue. Aggeler takes up the long-standing but oft-challenged critical perspective that the morality of private revenge -- which usurps the authority of God -- always condemns the revenger. Kyd's drama thoroughly scrutinizes the pros and cons of revenge, both public and private, as it was denounced and in some cases excused by Christianity. Ultimately, The Spanish Tragedy, its Christian Stoic centre framed by an indifferent cosmology, enacts the futility of faith. The play exists at one extreme of Aggeler's dialectical spectrum; at the other exists Tourneur's Atheist's Tragedy. In between is Marston's Antonio's Revenge, Chapman's Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, and finally, Hamlet (60).

  4. Antonio's Revenge addresses the "interesting question of whether or not a sage could ever execute blood vengeance without abandoning his moral purpose" (59). In Chapter 3, "John Marston's Sparkling Steel," Aggeler parallels Marston's dramatic growth with Montaigne's philosophical growth; again, Aggeler's claim is not a new one, as he readily admits. The appeal of his investigation here, like the appeal of his investigation in Chapter one, lies in its exactness and depth. Aggeler traces the trajectory of Marston's Neostoic idealism, from Marston's criticism of Stoic apatheia in Antonio and Mellida I, through his exploration of Stoic irrationality and its uneasy relationship to Machiavellianism in Antonio's Revenge and The Malcontent. Aggeler finds in Sophonisba the fullest expression of Stoic possibility; Sophonisba is a woman who, could she exist, would exemplify an ideal of virtuous perfection: one living with passion but capable of transcending it when Providence demands submission.

  5. The question raised by Antonio's Revenge is begged somewhat by the pagan response Sophonisba provides (although Aggeler claims "this isn't an issue" [108]). Not until Chapman's Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (1613), whose "Clermont D'Ambois remains uncorrupted by destructive passion" (59), does the English stage produce a sapiens who is vengeful and moral. Considered together, however, Clermont and his brother Bussy, in The Tragedy of Bussy D'Ambois and The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, provide Chapman with material for expressing "the most complex representation of the Stoic-Skeptic dialectic in English Renaissance literature" (109). Bussy, like Hamlet, remains skeptical of the role Stoicism can play in a providential world and how far one can resist the pull of Christianity on the individual soul. But unlike Hamlet, Bussy is largely untroubled by the implications this sceptical train of thought has for his own moral code. Aggeler enlarges upon recent critical studies that see the two Bussy plays as a debate: "In The Revenge of Bussy the dialectic of virtue continues [from The Tragedy], and although it finally seems to be resolved unequivocally in Stoic terms, Chapman again maintains a skeptical perspective" (127).

  6. Chapman's Bussy plays grapple with the disjunction between the Stoic ideal and its inadequate real-world applications. The exemplification of this disjunction in the figure of Hamlet -- Chapman's model for Bussy and Clermont -- is the subject of Aggeler's final chapter, "'Nobler in the Mind': The Dialectic in Hamlet." Although Aggeler describes "Shakespeare's tragic design [as] more encompassing" than Kyd's, reading Hamlet in terms of this dialectic feels somehow limiting; for example, Aggeler interprets the Christian debate in both Hamlet's first soliloquy ("O that this too too sullied flesh would melt") and the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy as centred around Hamlet's fear that death will not end his consciousness -- that the elusive Stoic ideal of rationality will inform his consciousness even after death -- when in fact Hamlet seems just as fearful of possible release from this consciousness. And yet, Aggeler attempts to unfold Hamlet's moral character from the play's unconscious, if you will, by speculating on the shipboard "seachange" he undergoes, and on the dialectical repercussions of Fortinbras' vague but annoying paternal influence. Hamlet's Skepticism "may prepare one for faith" (157), according to Aggeler, but ultimately, I believe, the dialectic informing the play must also prepare one for the possibility of a Skeptical vindication.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).