William M. Hamlin. Tragedy and Scepticism in Shakespeare's England. Early Modern Literature in History. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. xiii+306pp. ISBN 1 4039 4598 5.

Dermot Cavanagh
University of Edinburgh

Cavanagh, Dermot. "Review of William M. Hamlin, Tragedy and Scepticism in Shakespeare's England." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.2 (September, 2006) 12.1-6<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/12-2/revhaml.htm>.

  1. In this erudite and engaging study, William M. Hamlin reanimates a topic that has been dormant for some time. His book claims that we can consider Renaissance tragedy as a branch of the period's moral philosophy. In particular, tragic drama demonstrates how deeply sceptical attitudes had penetrated Renaissance habits of thought.

  2. In the first part of his study, Hamlin outlines the continental recovery of classical scepticism with its emphasis on doubt and the "radical situatedness" of all claims to knowledge (3). He then provides a detailed study of the reception of this tradition in Elizabethan and Jacobean England up until the founding of the Royal Society. Hamlin provides a valuable account of the sceptical tradition and of its major participants: Bacon, Montaigne, Pierre Charron and John Donne. He also reveals how scepticism flourished in England by demonstrating in impressive detail that its key writings were widely owned and disseminated. Two main intellectual lineages are emphasised. One derives from Sextus Empiricus and stresses that we have inadequate grounds for claiming certain knowledge on all matters where conflicting judgements arise; we should therefore suspend judgement. The other, although this was a closely aligned position, was outlined in Cicero's Academica and argued that epistemological certainty is impossible and that it was only possible to arrive at probable forms of understanding through the scrupulous study of appearances. Yet, as the intellectual variety of the figures that appear in this study suggests, being a sceptic in the early modern world did not involve anything like belonging to a cohesive movement. It rather involved 'participation in a complex calculus of deployments and partial deployments of sceptical theory' (66). Put broadly, we can discern the presence of a sceptical mode of thought whenever a questioning attitude to received or doctrinaire ideas can be identified along with a commitment to open-minded enquiry.

  3. It is in this flexible manner that Hamlin encourages us to consider the interaction between scepticism and Renaissance tragedy. In the book's fourth chapter, he extrapolates the major paradigms of scepticism that became available to playwrights. This reminds us that the tradition was nourished by, rather than opposed to, Christian thought, especially in terms of two crucial ideas: Original Sin and the anti-rational basis of faith. Hamlin also emphasises how traditions of popular materialism informed the period's sensitivity to human weakness and perceptual frailty alongside those more intellectual forms of doubt regarding epistemological certainty. Scepticism held up to scrutiny two critical areas that were of great moment for tragic drama: the problem of how human beings arrive at an understanding of themselves and others and the equally problematic nature of their agency in the world, especially in terms of the exercise of political power. In general terms, tragedy could also follow these modes of enquiry and demonstrate how judgements and values could clash often in painful ways. Such an understanding of the fallibility of human propensities and capacities becomes especially intense in a genre where questions of perception and judgement are of such critical importance.

  4. In the book's second part, Hamlin treats the significance of sceptical patterns in nine of the period's major tragedies. These include an insightful discussion of Doctor Faustus as a sceptical depiction of attachment, problems of justice and judgement in The Spanish Tragedy and a striking analysis of the forcefulness of doubt in Troilus and Cressida. The other plays analysed are The Malcontent, The Tragedy of Mariam, both of Webster's great tragedies, and The Changeling and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.

  5. This is a wide-ranging and learned study. At a time when there has been a widespread return to the significance of religion in early modern study (not to speak of its resurgence in the contemporary world), it is instructive to be reminded of those traditions that emphasised toleration and intellectual humility. This study succeeds in both renewing attention to a crucial ingredient in the intellectual formation of the period and in sustaining fresh readings of its tragic drama.

  6. Some sceptical questions are also provoked by it. The cursory treatment of Stanley Cavell's work was surprising. This represents the most profound contemporary attempt to revive scepticism as a category that is fundamental to the understanding of Shakespeare's work. Hamlin points to some of the limitations of this approach in his analysis of Doctor Faustus, but the richness of Cavell's insights deserved better than these few dismissive pages. The treatment of genre is glancing throughout and it never really becomes clear why tragedy should be distinctively receptive to scepticism in contrast to other genres. However, it is a merit of this fine book that it provokes further thought about how its implications might be extended.

    Work Cited

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

© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).