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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare.
2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.