On “A Soldier and Afeard: Macbeth and the Gospelling of Scotland” by Paul A. Cantor

In Part I of Paul Cantor’s “A Soldier and Afeard: Macbeth and the Gospelling of Scotland” (Interpretation Journal), our attention is drawn to a “seldom noticed but revealing moment” In Act III, scene i of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which Macbeth, the newly crowned king, is trying to convince a contingent of desperate men to hunt down and murder Banquo. He asks the men: “Are you so gospell’d, To pray for this good man, and for his issue…” or, in other words, Macbeth asks, “will you turn the other cheek?” Macbeth, who was recently praised as a noble warrior, expresses a certain degree of contempt for Christian forbearance, and by questioning the manhood of these men, they appropriately respond: “We are men, my liege.”

Cantor notes that Macbeth continues by asking if these men will rise above the status of mere human beings (anthropoi) so that each of them will individually become a hero in the classical sense (aner). Macbeth seems to be aware that the latter way of being is under threat in Scotland since “a new gospel is broad in the land, which teaches a Christian way of life, a gospel of peace and humility, opposed to the way of life of the warrior.” However, what are we to make of this new gospelling of Scotland? Is it such a bad thing? If it prevents tyrants like Macbeth from ruling, surely it cannot be the worst turn of events (even if it means suffering the rule of enfeebled leaders like Duncan)?

Cantor’s thesis is as follows: “Shakespeare develops the tragedy of Macbeth out of this tension between the heroic warrior’s ethic and the gospel truth. The story of Macbeth gave Shakespeare a chance to portray a world in which Christianity has penetrated and indeed changed the fabric of society, but in which some characters still think back –nostalgically is too weak a word– to the time before their nation was gospelled.” Throughout his tragedies, Shakespeare often shows us a clash of ethical alternatives, setting the action at a point of intersection where two antithetical ways of life cross. Macbeth shows us characters caught between two ways of life –old and new. In this case, we are caught between warlike paganism and saint-like Christianity. Geographically speaking, this is represented in the west and the north (the Hebrides and Norway) on the one hand, and in the south which is ruled by the delicate and enfeebled Edward the Confessor in England. Here, Cantor unfolds his compelling thesis of the “borderland” interpretation of Shakespeare’s key tragedies –as in the case of Cyprus in Othello and Denmark in Hamlet. For Macbeth, he is prevailed upon by two competing values –the heroic warrior and the humble servant, the worldly versus the otherworldly ways of life.  

In Part II of his analysis, now that the setting has been carefully laid out, Cantor turns our attention to Duncan, king of Scotland. Duncan is a pious king who looks to Edward the Confessor as his guide –he is portrayed as meek and evoking emotions like pity. He is presented as something of an anomaly in Scotland, especially in contrast to the savagery of his warlike Thanes. Duncan does not lead his men into battle, and we first meet him clutching his pearls when asking, “What bloody man is that?”

Cantor argues that Duncan’s mistake comes when he attempts to undo the elective rule of the Thanes by appointing Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland, thereby ensuring his son’s hereditary inheritance of the monarchy. As is the case in other tragedies, most notably King Lear, political succession is shown to be an extremely delicate moment which can either mean the rise or the downfall of the regime. At any rate, Duncan seems unfit for a kingship over a land which is in constant warfare as described in Shakespeare’s source, Holinshed’s Chronicles. Shakespeare also explored similar contrasts between the saintly Henry VI and the warlike Richard III in one of his earliest works (and his first study of tyranny, according to Cantor). Macbeth, therefore, points us to the issues raised in Shakespeare’s tetralogy of the Wars of the Roses –“The destruction of the great aristocratic leaders in England, culminating in the carnage created by Richard III, made possible the centralizing of the English monarchy under Henry VII and the Tudor dynasty.”         

Macbeth seems to understand this phenomenon. He notices that new religious ideas have brought about “progress” in Scotland –“a process of civilizing in which the Christian spirit has tamed the barbarism of its warriors (‘humane statute’ has ‘purg’d the gentle weal’).” Shakespeare continually illuminates for us the modern view of a stark distinction between the natural and the supernatural –hence why Macbeth is utterly horrified by apparitions. We know from the works of Seneca that supernatural events occurred in classical pagan literature, and in Shakespeare’s Roman plays, we also see ghosts and apparitions appear from time to time (even though Shakespeare took great labors to reduce their prevalence), however the key distinction is “the gulf between the natural and the supernatural was not as wide or as sharply drawn in paganism. Strictly speaking, one might even say that paganism predates the genuine and full distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Allowing for a continuum between god and man, with all sorts of intermediary figures such as heroes and daimonia, paganism does not tend to separate a divine realm from a human realm in the radical way that Christianity does, with its transcendent conception of deity and hence its sense of the unbridgeable gulf between man and God. This is admittedly a complicated issue, but with all the necessary qualifications being made, it is accurate to say that Christianity is distinctly more otherworldly as a religion than classical paganism.” With this in mind, Macbeth reacts violently to the appearance of apparitions because it causes a radical shift in his temporal existence, “marking a kind of epoch.” In response to my earlier question regarding the suggested problems posed by this new form of gospelling, Cantor offers the following response: “In short, the key point in Macbeth is not the impact of Christianity per se, but the impact of Christianity on a man who has been used to thinking in pagan terms. Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth is perhaps the one in which supernatural forces have the most disturbing effect. The subject gave Shakespeare a chance to explore what happens to a pagan warrior wrenched out of his narrow horizons and displaced into a Christian context, with its radical divide between this world and the next.”

In Part III of his essay, Cantor examines the downfall of Macbeth’s character throughout the play. He begins the play as a model of courage and fearlessness on the battlefield (Cantor likens him to a “Scottish Achilles”). He runs into the Achilles-Agamemnon dilemma wherein a legitimate king is weaker as a military figure than one of his great warriors. However, as the plot unfolds, Macbeth is continually tormented by doubts, cast upon an endless sea of skepticism. “This strange pattern results from Macbeth’s unnerving displacement from a pagan to a Christian cosmos.” If he begins the play as a Scottish Achilles, he certainly doesn’t end the play in the same place –in this case “the hero becomes crueller as the play progresses.” To account for this, Cantor offers what might initially appear to be “an extremely perverse argument,” which is that “the transformation of Macbeth can be traced to the impact of Christianity.” This might initially seem to be counterintuitive since “a gospel of meekness ought to tame the savagery and fierceness of a warrior, not inflame it.” However, this is a complex play and a complex character that attempts to explore “what happens when a warrior retains his martial spirit, and yet allows it to be redirected or reconstituted in a new Christian context.” He remains very much a warrior, albeit deeply affected by the new religion. What Macbeth has learned is a newfound contempt for the transitoriness of pagan values and a nascent appreciation of eternity (hence why he considers falling on his sword at the play’s end to avoid disgrace, however he stops himself when acknowledging those ancient Romans were vain ‘fools’). He remains loyal to the warrior ethic while reinterpreting it through a new, inverted morality. Cantor puts it rather succinctly as follows: “In the figure of Macbeth, Shakespeare contemplates the demonic counterpart of this happy synthesis of pagan and Christian, a heroic warrior who turns tyrant in pursuit of a secularized version of the Christian Absolute.” Macbeth becomes an absolutist, dwelling upon the “be-all and the end-all” which leads him to seek refuge in a kind of safety and security that would be unheroic by classical standards.

In Part IV of his essay, Cantor sheds light on ideas about the “life to come” that have begun to pervade Macbeth’s mind, particularly when killing Duncan. The new expansion of Christian horizons changes the terms of a heroic action, he becomes “Achilles with a conscience.” For Cantor, “Shakespeare reveals a character with a richly developed psychological interior, torn by conflicting impulses and struggling with a nascent conscience.” He now has depth to his actions that previously were not as prevalent as in, say, the case of Brutus and his decision to kill Caesar in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Through his soliloquies, we can see how Macbeth is torn between the city of God and the city of man. In another age, Macbeth might have been greeted with warmth and celebration for liberating the kingdom of Scotland from its weak and unsatisfactory king, a man who is unrepresentative of his people. However, instead Macbeth is a usurping tyrant, obsessed with royal succession in the context of absolute perfection, apocalypse, and eternity. This is perhaps best expressed in Macbeth’s famous “tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow” soliloquy, in which he dwells deeply upon the melancholic lostness of yesterday and the unending futurism of tomorrow leading to “the last syllable of recorded history,” yet has no thought for today. “He has lost the pagan ability to take pleasure in the moment, to live happily in this world, without looking beyond its borders to eternity. This speech thus sums up all that has destroyed Macbeth’s happiness.” He is no longer “Disdaining Fortune” as when we first met him in Act I. “Ultimately Shakespeare shows that Macbeth’s nihilism is the obverse of a kind of religious faith; this world becomes worthless to him when it fails to live up to an otherworldly standard of absolute perfection.”

In Part V of this essay, Cantor expounds upon how “Macbeth comes to be governed by a demonic parody of a religious faith” which is shown by the appearance of the Weird Sisters. They represent an unnatural appearance who are the enemies of orthodox religion, however they nevertheless serve as teachers of the dangers of believing in providence. Their appearance conveys a sense that earthly events are governed by higher powers. Once Macbeth begins believing in these higher powers, he begins to act secretly himself, giving a false display of good will. He covets all the virtues of the new religion and becomes subsumed in feelings of guilt and shame –” Chafing under the constraints of a new morality, he eventually repudiates all restraints on his actions, and becomes a slave to his basest desires.”

In Part VI, we address potential disagreements of these arguments. The Weird Sisters are, after all, ambiguous and equivocal. Despite being opponents of the legitimate forces of Christianity in the play, in that they seem to point to older pagan forces in Scotland, the Weird Sisters also seem to be aligned with lading Macbeth out of the pagan world. They are representatives of the supernatural and lead him to believe in a divine providence. “In Macbeth’s case, Christianity does not, as it usually does, temper the fierceness of the pagan spirit, but paradoxically inflames it. Supplying an absolutism to Macbeth’s pagan spirit, Christianity or rather his distorted interpretation of it turns him into a crueller and more devious figure.” He becomes a demonic parody of a Christian crusading warrior, hence why the legitimate Christian characters in the play regard Macbeth as a fiend.

The tragedy of Macbeth is that no synthesis can be found between these opposing worldviews, and in its wake lies a perverted sense of tyranny and confusion –in particular distinctions between the sexes grow more concerning throughout the play. Consider, Lady Macbeth’s taunting of her husband and deriding his manhood, and similarly, Macbeth does the same for the mercenaries he implores to kill Banquo. “Far from constituting a simple, straight forward opposition in the play, the boundary between male and female is always on the verge of dissolving, creating new hybrid forms.” As an example, consider Lady Macbeth’s dark prayer to become “unsexed.”

In Part VII, Cantor suggests one final way the Weird Sisters impact Macbeth in the play –they lead him to develop a contempt and even hatred for the natural world. In doing so, Shakespeare “establishes a connection between Macbeth’s desire for the infinite and his tyrannical nature.” The tyrant is at war with himself, fighting against any limits set to his will, and since the very idea of a natural order is that there are limits set to things, Macbeth now longs for a moment wherein “Nature seems dead.” This leads him to curse “nature’s germains” and all the seeds out of which the natural world springs forth. And he murders the whole line of Macduff –including his wife and children –a profound act of evil indeed. “But there is a profound irony in Macbeth’s attack on the children of Scotland his own marriage appears to be barren, thus leaving him without the heirs he needs to perpetuate his line and hence his achievement. Even the tyrant cannot dispense with the power of nature, for he needs it to generate an heir.” Even Lady Macbeth curses her own potential to become a mother –perhaps Shakespeare suggests there is a pattern that those who curse nature will live to regret it, as nature has a way of coming back to take revenge. Nature is, broadly speaking, a generative power but a tyrant like Macbeth has embraced ideas of the supernatural over and against the dominion of nature. In the end, he finds himself defeated by nature, as the supernatural claims of the ‘man not born of woman’ merely turns out to be the result of a Caesarean section, and the miraculously moving forests turn out to be nothing more than a camouflage maneuver. Perhaps Macbeth should have avoided interpreting the prophecies altogether. “His experience with the witches’ apparitions suggests even more strongly that he would have been better off trusting what he saw with his own eyes, rather than allowing himself to be tricked into interpreting the revelations in light of his own hopes and desires.” And isn’t this the case with all claims to divine revelation? To summarize this problem Cantor offers the following: “One might sum up the Weird Sisters’ strategy this way: awakening Macbeth’s infinite desire and appealing to his dream of omnipotence, they make him long for a supernatural alliance and breed a contempt for the natural world in him. Thus they blind him to the power of nature, which eventually destroys him.” In many ways, this brutal tragedy of a Scottish warrior is also the tragedy of modernity. Cantor speculates that perhaps if Macbeth had truly found a way to translate his personal hopes for heaven on earth into a political program, or what we might call an ideology, he may well have served as the distinctively modern tyrant.   

Cantor, Paul A. “A Soldier and Afeard: Macbeth and the Gospelling of Scotland.” Interpretation Journal, Spring 1997, Vol. 24, No. 3.

Professor Cantor, one of the finest Shakespeare scholars in the United States, just recently passed away in 2022. By all accounts he was a delightful person and a beloved teacher for many years at the University of Virginia.

On a final note, Professor Cantor opened this essay with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche which may help elucidate his argument:

“I regard the bad conscience as the serious illness that [men were] bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change [they] ever experienced that change which occurred when [they] found [themselves] finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace. . . . Suddenly all their instincts were disvalued and “suspended.” . . . They felt unable to cope with the simplest undertakings; in this new world they no longer possessed their former guides, their regulating, unconscious and infallible drives: they were reduced to thinking, inferring, reckoning, co-ordinating cause and effect . . . they were reduced to their “consciousness.” …I believe there has never been such a feeling of misery on earth . . . and at the same time the old instincts had not suddenly ceased to make their usual demands! Only it was hardly or rarely possible to humor them: as a rule they had to seek new and, as it were, subterranean gratifications.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

The Papacy: Innocent III (1198-1216)

After a much-needed respite from the austere history of the Papacy –from which I sought greener pastures among the likes of Shakespeare– I decided to revisit this project and continue my inquiry into the nature of absolutism and theocratic global rule. How has the political theology of Christianity provided fertile ground for such an enduring regime? To what extent has the sovereignty of a universal supreme pontiff –a ruler who governs the poor in spirit– either blossomed or withered over time? These and other questions I hope to explore as I revisit this project from time to time.

A 13th century fresco of Pope Innocent III at the Monastery of Sacro Speco of Saint Benedict 

Under Pope Innocent III, “the medieval Papacy reached its zenith. No pope ever had a more elevated conception of his position than Innocent III; he was indeed the Vicar of Christ on Earth (a designation that first became current in his day), standing, as it were, halfway between God and man. But his complete confidence in himself –together with a sense of humor rare in the Middle Ages—made him patient, simple, and always approachable, genuinely loved by those around him” (171). For example, we receive a warm vignette of his character in a letter written by one of his papal staff to an absent colleague: in August 1202, during a blazing hot summer, Pope Innocent III and his Curia traveled through Latium and stopped at Subiaco, a town thirty miles east of Rome where a monastery stood. However, there were not enough lodgings for the full papal procession, so all members, including the Pope, camped in tents on a nearby hill, battling arid heat and flies. While many were too tired, the Pope made the difficult sojourn down to a nearby lake to cool himself. These anecdotes help to fill out the man behind the papal mystique.

Lotario di Segni was born around 1160 into an aristocratic Italian family (his father was Trasimondo, the Count of Segni, and his mother was Claricia, a Roman of the patrician Scotti family). Being well-connected to the seat of power, his uncle was Pope Clement III, and his nephew was the future Pope Gregory IX. Lotario was raised as a worldly intellectual with a world-class education. He studied theology in Paris and law at Bologna. In his youth, he made the pilgrimage to Canterbury only a year or two after the murder of the Thomas Becket. He was appointed a Cardinal in 1190 by his uncle, Pope Clement III (who was pope from 1187-1191), but the subsequent pope, Celestine III (1191-1198), pushed Lotario into the background owing to a long-standing familial dispute. Not to be deterred, this small, handsome, humorous man of wits used his time in metaphorical exile to write several religious tracts, including the popular De Miseria Condicionis Humane (which survives today in some seven hundred copied manuscripts).

By all accounts, Lotario was a charismatic fellow. On the very day of Pope Celestine III’s death –January 8, 1198—at age thirty-seven, Lotario was unanimously elected Pope Innocent III. Within two years, he was to enjoy a privileged rule afforded few popes: he found himself without a secular rival in Europe. Henry VI of Germany (son of Frederick Barbarossa) had died leaving the House of Guelf and the Hohenstaufen in a state of civil war while Sicily was no longer independent since it was technically under the rule of Henry VI’s three-year-old son, Frederick II. In the east, Byzantium was in chaos under the rule of the ever-ridiculous Emperor Alexis III Angelus, while in the west, France and England were subsumed by problems following the death of Richard I “Coeur de Lion” in 1199. “The pope was consequently in a stronger position than any of his recent predecessors, and without a hostile emperor to intrigue against him he was soon able to reassert his authority both in the Papal States… and in Rome itself, reconciling the various aristocratic factions” (172).

Here was a master diplomat, however Innocent’s fortunes were soon tested when he gave his blessing to the Fourth Crusade. In yet another ill-fated effort to recover Jerusalem from perceived Muslim occupation, a 2.5 percent tax was levied on clerical incomes but still the proper funding could not be raised for the war. Thus in Venice 1202, an alliance of Venetians and crusaders decided to sack Zara (now known as Zadar on the Dalmatian coast), one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Croatia to this day. Both the Crusaders and the Venetians disputed the spoils and wound up dividing the city for themselves during the long winter. Outraged at the whole expedition, Pope Innocent excommunicated the whole contingent (later retracting part of his harsh sentence).

Meanwhile, Frederick Barbarossa’s fifth youngest son, Duke Philip of Swabia, proposed a deal with Innocent. If Papal Crusaders would escort his brother-in-law, Alexius (son of the dethroned Byzantine Emperor Isaac II Angelus), to Constantinople, then Alexius would finance future advancing crusades with an army of ten thousand. Also, the 150-year schism would be revisited with Constantinople intent on submitting to Rome as the true authority. However, trouble was brewing. Escorting Alexius to Constantinople in 1204 soon led to “the most unspeakable of the many outrages in the whole hideous history of the Crusades” (173). Constantinople was brutally sacked by men wearing the Cross of Christ and they partitioned the city. As a result, these “Frankish thugs” occupied the throne of Constantinople for the next fifty-seven years. “Byzantium was to endure for almost two centuries more, but only as the palest shadow of what it once had been” (173).

Now, the Albigenses was a “heretical” Christian sect which first appeared in the Languedoc region (southern France) beginning in the eleventh century. Their heresy was known as Catharism, or to the Armenians they were called Paulicians, and to the Bulgarians and Bosnians they were Bogomils. This sect caused many painful headaches for the ruling parties in Byzantium. The Albigenses were Manichaeans who believed in the otherworldly ascetic ideal. They viewed life as one grand battlefield between two separate deistic spheres of good and evil. The Albigenses maintained strict adherence to spiritual habits, especially under their leaders who were known as the perfecti, a group that abstained from consuming meat or engaging in sexual activity. They also rejected imagery, saints, relics, and most church sacraments like baptism and marriage. Pope Innocent simply could not tolerate the presence of this heretical sect so he sent a delegation to France for negotiations in 1209, but when one of the delegates (Peter of Castelnau, Abbott of Citeaux) was found murdered by a henchman of Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, the Pope declared another crusade. Known as the “Albigensian Crusade” or the “Cathar Crusade” (one of many crusades spurred on by the pope against heretical or schismatic Christian sects), the fighting was to last another twenty years. The northern barons (led by Simon IV de Montfort) battled those in the south. It was a brutal, destructive war –in particular, the Massacre at Béziers in July 1209 is often acknowledged as one of the first instances of modern genocide. The entire city was burned, homes were invaded, women were raped and slaughtered, children were publicly executed, and churches were looted with priests strung up and massacred regardless of their allegiances. A letter sent to Rome described 20,00 innocents put to the sword, regardless of age or sex. In the letter, it was praised as “divine vengeance” and a “miracle.” In the end, much of medieval Provencal civilization was decimated in this monstrous atrocity. Scores of “heretics” were massacred even as the Treaty of Paris was being signed in 1229, yet the Albigenses refused to entirely disappear. It wasn’t until the gruesome efficiency of the Spanish Inquisition nearly a century later that the last of the Albigenses were finally snuffed out by the pious adherents of Christian orthodoxy.

It was at the start of the Albigensian Crusade in 1209 that two important mendicant orders were established –St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic. Both men were known to Innocent, and he approved the Franciscan Order in April 1209. The Franciscans were a band of humble preachers who worked for poverty wages, typically in agriculture, and cared for the sick while preaching to the peasants. It was an immensely popular order and grew precipitously. The Dominicans would be sanctioned in 1216, five months after Innocent’s death.   

One of the pre-eminent concerns of Innocent’s early papal reign concerned the future of the German crown following the death of Emperor Henry VI, whose son Frederick of Sicily was still only a child. This led to a power vacuum and a disputed successorship which ensued between his uncle, Philip, Duke of Swabi; and Otto, Duke of Brunswick (son of the Guelf leader the Lion, Duke of Bavaria and Saxony and his wife, Matilda, daughter of Henry II of England). Innocent threw his support behind Otto, Duke of Brunswick in the hopes of regaining Sicily. Philip was murdered in 1208 by the Count Palatine of Bavaria after refusing one of his daughters in marriage. With the path now clear, Innocent happily performed Otto’s coronation ceremony on October 4, 1209.

“But the Duke of Brunswick proved a sad disappointment. Within weeks he was showing himself every bit as arrogant and bullying as Barbarossa or Henry VI had ever been, and in the summer of 1210 he invaded the Sicilian kingdom and took possession of all South Italy” (176). Otto was already on shaky ground being the nephew of King John of England, who infamously refused the pope’s selection for Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, and then confiscated all papal lands. The situation culminated in John’s excommunication, and his kingship suffered in ensuing years after a failed invasion of France to regain the Angevin territories he lost and new parliamentary restraints were then placed upon the king with the signing of Magna Carta. At any rate, Otto was promptly excommunicated after his invasion of Sicily and the pope sought a new Germany ally. He extended an invitation of German kingship to Otto’s only remaining rival, the seventeen-year-old Frederick in Palermo. After a politically fraught series of months, Frederick accepted and was crowned king in Germany (whose soil he had never set foot in). The relationship between Frederick and Innocent was mutually beneficial, at least initially. He attended the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, which John Julius Norwich dubs “the climax of his pontificate, and indeed of all medieval papal legislation” (178). In attendance were some eight hundred abbots and priors, the envoys of Frederick (king of Sicily and Germany), the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, as well as the kings of England, France, Aragon, Hungary, Cyprus, and Jerusalem. The council concerned itself with two chief things: “the occupation of the Infidel of the Holy Places and the recrudescence of heresy.” A new crusade was proposed for 1217, along with its required taxes, however Innocent’s death on July 16, 1216 postponed the military campaign. The Council had, in total, promulgated some seventy-one canons, or decrees, covering issues like transubstantiation, new religious orders (like the Dominicans), confession, communion, prohibitions against illegitimate sons of clergy inheriting their fathers’ churches –and many canons barring commerce with Jews, compulsory garb for Jews and Muslims so they could be publicly identified, prohibitions against Jews appearing in public during Holy Week, and the barring of Jews from holding public office over Christians. Indeed, before the end of the century, King Edward I “Longshanks” of England would banish the entire Jewish community from English soil.

Innocent’s reign “marks the apex of the temporal power of the medieval Papacy, but none could have foreseen the suddenness with which it came to an end” (180). Pope Innocent III, while en route northward to resolve a dispute between Pisa and Genoa, experienced a resurgence of malaria (a disease which had afflicted him years earlier), and he died at the age of fifty-five at Perugia. The following night, his body was stolen and robbed. It was found a day later, stripped naked and decomposing in the hot sun before it was hastily buried in the Cathedral at San Lorenzo. At a later date, “the bones of the greatest –if not the greatest—of medieval popes were heedlessly thrown, together with those of Urban IV and Martin IV, into a box which was stored in a cupboard in the sacristy of the new cathedral. At the end of the nineteenth century Leo XIII ordered that they be brought back to the Lateran; and so they were finally returned to Rome, in the suitcase of a priest, by rail” (180).   

For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy.

On “Chaucer’s Dialectic: How the Establishment Theology is Subjected to Scrutiny in Five Canterbury Tales” by Barbara Tovey

In Barbara Tovey’s essay “Chaucer’s Dialectic: How the Establishment Theology is Subjected to Scrutiny in Five Canterbury Tales” (published in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy in 2004), she begins her examination of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by contextualizing the Middle Ages –an epoch which many of us are inclined to say is “characterized by an overwhelming uniformity of thought and belief, a time when independence of inquiry was utterly stifled. That the vast majority of people accepted unquestioningly and on faith the teachings of a single and as yet undivided Christian Church is, of course, not to be doubted, and in this respect the age contrasts markedly with our own.” However, while this is a broadly accepted portrait of the age, Tovey makes note of a small but “educated minority” wherein skepticism and unbelief were by no means unknown phenomena, particularly at the universities at Padua and Paris, where Arab influence was the strongest. And the heresy of courtly love which prevailed among the unlearned aristocracy sheds light on certain tensions with the teachings of the Christian Church.  

With this in mind, the fourteenth century’s “intense intellectual activity” is reflected perhaps most strongly in the poetic works of Chaucer. And yet, tempted as we might be to simply suggest Chaucer is a mere poet and nothing more, following from his intellectual predecessor, contemporary, and model –Bocaccio– Chaucer offers us something deeper, as in the rich tradition of Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch. “The greatest poetry invariably presents, although in veiled and secretive form, a teaching concerning the central philosophic questions.”    

Unlike other poets of the age, Chaucer’s “chief concern was undoubtedly with human beings and their problems” –showcasing all manner of natures and labors (as Shakespeare will emulate centuries later). And despite not being a theologian himself, “Chaucer was sufficiently wise to know that the answers to these questions depend greatly upon the solution that is given to certain crucial theological and metaphysical problems.” For example, if there is an afterlife which renders this life little more than a moment (i.e. the body being merely a purgatorial passage until the soul can finally be liberated to life ever-lasting), our attitudes toward “this world” will be starkly different than if we accept our lives as the end-all be-all. Or if an all-wise, all-good Providence rules the universe, then our interpretation of human life would be different than if we held the contrary opinion. With this premise in mind, Tovey’s thesis is that “Chaucer believed these problems to be of the utmost importance. Whatever his ultimate conclusions about these questions, he was not content to simply adopt the establishment teaching without questioning the ready-made answers provided by the official teachings of the Church.” Tovey likens Chaucer to the The Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales, rather than Griselda in The Clerk’s Tale, because like The Wife of Bath, Chaucer approaches difficult questions with a spirit of “critical, independent inquiry,” which makes him “a non-conformist in the highest and best sense of the word, a free spirit who took the sublime liberty of subjecting the assumptions of his age to critical scrutiny.” Therefore, Tovey endeavors to examine at least five of Chaucer’s tales in order to disentangle a dialectical discussion of key philosophical problems, allowing for certain orthodox and unorthodox views to consider, respond, and confront one another.

Chaucer’s esotericism is borne out of a need to protect himself from retribution for asking unorthodox questions. Thus, we see him place his most controversial opinions in the mouths of his traveling pilgrims, who fabricate their own stories –and the most unorthodox views are espoused by characters largely portrayed as disreputable (Shakespeare also tended to place his own unorthodox views within the mouths of his fools and madmen). As a model for the medieval theological understanding, one of the chief sources of inquiry for Chaucer was Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, and it is worth noting that nowhere in Chaucer’s poetry does he concern himself with the parts of Dame Philosophy’s argument (namely, regarding the perfectness and goodness of God), though his characters frequently raise this question as a subject for critical speculation. For example, Tovey notes that Philosophy’s answer to Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy regarding foreordination and free will is indicated in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, though the narrator refrains from accepting the answers provided by either Boethius, Augustine, or Brawardine. Tovey carefully reminds us that while the words of Chaucer’s characters cannot be personally ascribed to Chaucer himself, Chaucer’s technique –” the elaborate presentation of the argument against the established view followed by silence concerning the answer”—recurs again and again throughout his works, leading us to at least “the possibility that Chaucer, insofar as these particular theological problems were concerned, intended us to see that his silence concerning the accepted Christian solution was tantamount to a statement of the inadequacy of this solution.”

Regarding the question of Chaucer’s awareness of his esotericism and his need to be silent on certain matters, consider the ending of The Canon Yeoman’s Tale in which philosophy is compared to alchemy, and an injunction of silence is laid upon the philosophers with regard to their most profound truths, truths which are necessarily kept hidden from the “lewd” many. Tovey also points us to the subsequent tale, The Manciple’s Tale, where Chaucer presents a different, less sympathetic, portrayal of Phebus when contrasted with his source material in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Chaucer’s version, this simple morality tale, in truth, is revealed to be much darker –a cautionary tale about the nature of truth-tellers, and the scorn they will surely face from those for whom they lift the veil of delusion. Therefore, a “weakening of faith may well produce harmful effects for the majority of people.” The Manciple is portrayed in The General Prologue as an unscrupulous but clever rogue who, as a distinguished lawyer, was no doubt a master in the art of deception. After all, in the prologue to his tale, he presents an unpleasant truth which is then smoothed over with wine for the Cook –perhaps this is a metaphor for the Tales, as a whole, whose goal is to both edify and entertain (i.e. to “maken ernest of game!”).

However, Chaucer does not merely provide one side of the dispute. Tovey argues that the skeptical queries raised in The Knight’s Tale, for example, are responded to with an assertion of the accepted faith in the Man of Law’s Tale. A response is then given by the unorthodox and disreputable Wife of Bath, who is answered by the subtle and critical religious defense in the Clerk’s Tale, until a “final synthesis” is provided the Franklin’s Tale, who weaves together elements of orthodox and unorthodox views in an extraordinarily complex manner. Thus, we are given a subtle dialectical debate in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.     

With the Knight’s Tale, we are given a story that presents contrasting patterns of order and chaos in life. Order comes in the figure of Theseus and the livelihood of his court, whereas chaos comes from international relations which are out of Theseus’s control –the sacking of Athens by Thebes, casualties from the Theban War, and the harsh treatment of prisoners. Even the gods themselves are depicted as irrational beings, in conflict with one another, creators of disorder, and bringers of senseless human suffering upon the word. None of the characters seem to question the existence of divine powers, but the narrative is confined to questioning the beneficence of these rulers. For instance, Palomon bemoans his state of affairs, crying out against the order of divine providence while being counseled from his prison cell by Arcite and his Boethian advice of “resignation and patience in the face of the vicissitudes of fortune” is found sorely lacking. Arcite offers the solution to the problem of evil which has plagued Christian theology from the beginning –that in truth there is no evil. The appearance of evil is merely due to human lack of comprehension of the complicated, but ultimately beneficent workings, of Providence. Therefore, Arcite comes to light as a defender of the Orthodox Christian position. Palomon, on the other hand, challenges the goodness and justice of divine rule. He cries out at the indifference of the gods who apparently care very little for the affairs of humans. Why then does Arcite (who adopts the optimistic view of divine Providence) and not Palomon suffer death at the hands of the gods? Tovey says, “The upholder of the goodness of the deity is subjected to defeat and punishment; the unsubmissive rebel wins the ultimate victory.” Additionally, his excruciating death is given greater emphasis and detail than in the source material in Bocaccio’s Teseida. Since he dies not in battle, but rather from falling off his horse resulting from the careless, sickening forces of nature, his death is little more than a horrifying catastrophe. As he lays dying, rather than praising divine order, he bitterly laments his lot in life. It is the exact reverse of Boethius’s intellectual development in The Consolation of Philosophy.

Tovey delves deep into much of Chaucer’s prior writings as we uncover where the author stands on these difficult questions, in particular she examines Chaucer’s subtlety in raising doubts about immortality and an “afterlife.” Why? Because it relies upon faith in authority. Every person relies on trust in authority in some ways –how else would we know about the Aegean Sea? Surely not everyone would need to bear witness to the Aegean in order to possess some knowledge of it. And, on the other hand, most Christians would likely not accept the testimony that all written works equally share in self-proclaimed divine inspiration. For if all divinely inspired scripture is to be believed, then authority is diminished. Therefore, not all authority is reliable –we are naturally skeptical beings. “No Christian, of course, would contend that everything that is spoken or written should be believed. He would solve the problem in question by identifying his authority with the revealed word of God.” At any rate, in pointing us to this central problem of theology, Chaucer only offers his silence. We may only speculate, for example, as to why he uses the word “opinion” rather than “knowledge” in the Knight’s Tale when characters reference claims to a life after death.

The closing lines of the Knight’s Tale are often interpreted as a return to an optimistic orthodox perspective, however Tovey makes the compelling case for why this speech can be accepted as either pagan or Christian –ancient or modern—and that the speech revisits the tension between experience and authority (i.e. our example of the Aegean). It seems to point us to an answer, namely that experience is sufficient over and against the light of human reason. However, again, we return to the problem that a human being cannot have experiential knowledge of divine things –unless one is simply content to leave the question unanswered, and merely accept certain divine mysteries. Thus, the Knight’s Tale concludes with the impression of a return to the Boethian, orthodox Christian view of the universe, that is to say it concludes with the cloak of respectability after raising some daring questions in the main body of the text. Tovey likens it to the “one step forward, one step backward” technique which has been employed throughout Chaucer’s corpus of writings. Upon closer examination, the conclusion of the Knight’s Tale presents an unsatisfying answer to the problems it has raised. The chief problem concerns the existence of evil along with a Providence that is at once omnipotent and of perfect goodness. In some respects, in response, we may be tempted to join German poet Heinrich Heine who asserts that the best fate of all is not to have been born (especially in Theseus’s reference to “this foule prisoun of this lyf” in the tale). From this perspective, often portrayed as a brand of “hope” or “redemption,” life is degraded.

It is surely no accident that Chaucer describes his Knight as a man who has traveled to many different places, and has observed many different customs and religions –each believing their own customs and religions to be both natural and right. Tovey notes that at both Belmarye and Tramyssene the Knight would have witnessed the Islamic faith, and in Lithuania, which was not Christianized until 1386, he would have encountered an ancient pagan religion. The Knight was also was said to have fraternized with the lord of Palatye, a “heathen” who was bound by friendship with the Christian King Peter of Cyprus. Perhaps this experience of conflicting customs has led the Knight to a more skeptical perspective –since the natural tendency to accept one’s customs without question is sometimes shaken by the discovery of alternative creeds, especially those which seem to be just as veraciously defended. An unorthodox tale like the Knight’s Tale is fitting for a man with the Knight’s particular background.

Now, we turn to the Man of Law’s Tale, which Tovey suggests is “a reply to the Knight and a reassertion of orthodoxy.” The Man of Law, by his very title, is a defender of the status quo and consequently of the received faith. It should be noted that, per Aristotle, the laws of a country tend to be associated with its opinions and even religious beliefs. They also require unquestioning obedience. Therefore, there is a tension between law, legality, opinion, faith, which are frequently in opposition to philosophy (philosophy is a dangerous attempt to transcend opinion in search of knowledge). At any rate, whereas the Knight was well-traveled and observed the manners and mores of many different people, the Man of Law is an expert in the law of his own country. According to Tovey, the Man of Law has the appearance of “the superficial show of wisdom.” He is a great moralist who is nevertheless a man who makes many transactions for the purpose of personal enrichment. Chaucer offers the Man of Law for us to closely scrutinize his morality, wisdom, and justice.

While subtly portrayed as a hypocrite, the Man of Law’s Tale is “pious in the extreme and constitutes a praise of otherworldly Christian virtue.” His economic prowess is couched in Christian Biblical imagery and language. And in his tale, his theology is entirely Christian, whereas the Knight’s Tale was explicitly pagan (albeit couched in terms of a universal Providence which is nevertheless shown to be, at best indifferent, or at worst cruel toward the affairs of mankind). However, in the Man of Law’s Tale, the virtuous and pious are rewarded by divine dispensation after suffering at great length. We are confronted with repeated moments of a deus ex machina as it continues to bring miraculous salvation to Constance, rewarding her faith.

The vigorous defense of orthodoxy in the Man of Law’s Tale is met only by the equally vigorous response made by the Wife of Bath. By depicting the Wife of Bath as “coarse, low, and disreputable” Chaucer can safely permit discussion of such heterodox ideas without garnering the ire of the ruling regime of the Middle Ages. While on first glimpse the Wife of Bath is interested in only the issues that affect the immediacy of her livelihood, the arguments she employs imply a far more heterodox position –as in her profound rejection of the Church teaching with regard to the superiority of virginity over marriage, or the right of a husband to rule over his wife. She appears to us as a silly caricature; however, Chaucer allows us to at least consider her freethinking attitude and unconventional perspective. Her skepticism of authority leads her to accept experience, rather than authority, as her teacher. After traveling widely and marrying several men, she has witnessed the ultimate vice of complete deference to authority.

With the orthodox view having been vociferously attacked, the response in this dialectic now falls to the Clerk who reasserts the goodness of the Christian virtues of duty, humility, and temperance, regardless of whatever sympathies the Clerk, an Aristotelian, may have had for the intellectual freedom of the Wife of Bath. The Clerk is concerned about the Wife of Bath’s cavalier dismissal of moral virtue by both human reason and divine command. Thus, he provides a qualified defense of orthodoxy wherein evil exists in the universe in spite of God’s perfectness –a belief which would not have been permitted by the Church because it implied creation ex nihilo. Nevertheless, the Clerk offers a much more satisfying theodicy than the Man of Law. For the Clerk, God imposes trials on the innocent for the dual purpose of testing (rather than tempting) their virtue and disciplining their souls. In disagreeing with Boethius, the Clerk suggests that some suffering in the world is apportioned toward greater goodness, however not all “pain and evil” in the world can be explained in these terms. God tests people, but He does not have necessity to do so (to suggest otherwise would be to deny divine omniscience).

The Clerk’s ostensible purpose, therefore, is to reassert orthodox conceptions against the assault on virtue by the Wife of Bath and the skepticism of the Knight, as well as the unquestioned goodness of Providence as propounded in the Man of Law’s Tale. In order to tie these threads together, Chaucer must skate on thin ice and assign a tale to the Clerk who must look to trans-theological questions in order to justify the particularities of Christianity in all its vices and virtues. However, Tovey claims that the Clerk’s Tale actually ends in an unsatisfying answer. A further dialectical resolution is then provided in the Franklin’s Tale, a tale which shows that self-deception is costly, as the magic of disappearing rocks is shown to be as unsatisfying an answer as the Christian theological answers to these difficult problems. The marriage of Walter and Griselda in the Clerk’s Tale comes to represent a metaphor for the relationship between God and Man, whereas the marriage of Arveragus and Dorigen in the Franklin’s Tale represents the relationship between truth and truth-seeker. “The Franklin’s Tale climaxes the dialectical debate concerning the problem of evil that had been initiated by the Knight. Of all the tales that have dealt with this issue, it contains the most emphatic and most cutting rejection of the official Christian solution. For that very reason it presents its teaching more deviously than had been the case in any previous narrative .” In the Franklin’s Tale, the dialectic ends on an affirmative note –that “Trouthe is the hyeste thyng that man m ay kepe.”     

Tovey, Barbara. “Chaucer’s Dialectic: How the Establishment Theology is Subjected to Scrutiny in Five Canterbury Tales.” Interpretation Journal (2004).  

The late Professor Barbara Tovey taught Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, focusing on Shakespeare. This essay on Chaucer was left by Professor Tovey at the time of her death with instructions for it to be published. Her literary executor Professor Warren Brown of the University of New Hampshire and Professor Paul Cantor of Virginia worked to fulfill her wishes. Professor Cantor noted that the one question Tovey did not answer in this essay is why she selected these five tales. However, he managed to discover that she used the F.N. Robinson edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which orders the tales differently than many other modern editions. In fact, it should be noted that we are entirely uncertain of the originally intended order of the tales. We know that the pilgrims were intended to arrive at the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury, and that the Host had promised to reward the best stories with a meal at the Tabard Inn –even though both promises go unfulfilled in The Canterbury Tales (just as the dual promises of entertainment and food go unfulfilled in Plato’s Republic). Rather than food or prayer, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales we must find our satiation in his philosophical poetry and the enduring questions raised therein.

On “The Limits of Politics: King Lear, Act I, Scene I” by Harry Jaffa

In Harry Jaffa’s essential essay on King Lear (“The Limits of Politics”), which appears as the final essay in Allan Bloom’s book entitled Shakespeare’s Politics, Jaffa begins by reminding readers of Abraham Lincoln, a great student of Shakespeare, and the difficult task for leaders who face the need to preserve a political regime from one generation to the next:

“According to that profound student of Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, the most difficult task of statesmanship is that of providing, not for the foundation, but for the perpetuation, of political institutions. If the political institutions are the best, to perpetuate them is not only the most difficult, but also the greatest of all the tasks of the statesman” (113).

Jaffa then makes the case that Lear represents the greatest of Shakespeare’s kings. Nowhere else in Shakespeare’s plays, particularly in his English histories, do we see a king who rules over such an orderly and peaceful kingdom. Jaffa says, “the supreme object of monarchical policy in the English histories is the unification and pacification of England” (113). Only Henry V even comes close to meeting this policy with success. However, at the outset Lear presides over a unified and peaceful kingdom of Britain (not just England). There is no domestic strife, and abroad, rivals line up as suitors for Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia. “Never in the histories does Shakespeare represent his native land at such a peak of prestige and political excellence; in King Lear alone do we find actualized the consummation devoutly wished by all other good Shakespearean kings” (113-114). Why does Jaffa travel to such great lengths to remind us of Lear’s greatness? For starters, it bolsters our understanding of the depth of this tragedy.  

Jaffa provides a clever bit of conditional statements in examining this question. If it is true that Lear is Shakespeare’s greatest king and that the perpetuation of his regime is a greater task than establishing it, then the opening scene of King Lear illuminates the “supreme problem” of his career –“that of providing for the succession to his throne.” However, the opening scene might also represent more. If it is true that Lear’s succession is his greatest act, and if it is true that Shakespeare regarded monarchy as the best form of government (albeit only in a theoretical sense) and if Shakespeare, a “renaissance classicist,” regarded man as a political animal, then it is possible that Lear’s act of succession is Shakespeare’s presentation of the highest human function.

Jaffa continues by challenging the popular criticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge who suggested that omitting Lear’s first scene from the play would still allow for everything else in the play to remain intact. Coleridge likens King Lear to an absurd fairy tale. Jaffa then draws swords with Coleridge by noting that Shakespeare paid considerable attention to details in his plays and rarely wantonly added frivolous material –“That he was neither lazy nor indifferent in his attitude toward his stories is obvious from the fact that he frequently and freely altered his source materials” (115). Jaffa also expands upon A.C. Bradley’s well-regarded essays on Shakespeare to note that Coleridge is wrong in his assumption that the opening scene is somewhat careless.

Jaffa analyzes the political situation in this scene as Lear’s reign comes to a close. By now, there is a remarkable unity in Briton. Lear’s two elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, have been married for some time yet they have received no doweries (and have no children). Their husbands, Cornwall and Albany represent the extremities of Britain, north and south. Abroad, France and Burgundy make amorous overtures for the hand of Cordelia. Lear’s “original plan” was to dwell with Cordelia in her “more opulent” middle section of the country while Cornwall and Albany serve as his deputies in the far-flung regions. Therefore, a carefully crafted plan (with “intellectual precision”) is needed to secure Lear’s successorship.   

Once establishing the importance of the opening scene, Jaffa also critically examines popular theories of Lear being insane. “The generally accepted explanation is that of Bradley: Lear is a foolish, vain, selfish old man whose wits are beginning to fail” (117). If Lear is merely a foolish old man, our understanding of his suffering is diminished. “But great passion, be it that of Lear, of Oedipus, or of Jesus, implies greatness in the soul of the sufferer. A great passion is always, in some sense, compensation for a great error. As Plato teaches in the Republic, great errors are the work of great souls, souls capable of either great good or great evil” (117). Lear is hardly a feeble old man –we see him hunting while staying at Goneril’s castle, and even in the closing scene of the play, Lear still manages to kill a man single-handedly (he slays the hangman).  

Then why does Shakespeare show us the failure of a great king like Lear? Jaffa argues that we would be unable to see the greatness of the action if we did not witness its downfall. “In determining the tensile strength of a cord, it is necessary to find the least weight that will break the cord in order to find the greatest weight the cord will support. So it was necessary for Shakespeare to show us the point at which the most skillful policy of his most successful king broke in order to point us, and thus define for us, the limits of kingly virtue” (129). Jaffa suggests that Lear’s anger at Cordelia is actually a deep frustration with the collapse of his own elaborate plan –a plan which is premised on Lear’s godlike desire to control the comprehensive unfolding of events. “A god could be loved without loving, but a man cannot” –and therein lies the flaw in Lear’s love test. When Cordelia declines to participate in her father’s test, Lear quickly becomes alienated not only from his daughter, but also from himself and his knowledge and belief in justice. Cordelia’s rebellion exposes a tension between the values of truth and love against the value of justice. In spite of the uncaring skies and the gods who dwell therein, “the problem of the perpetuation of the perfect regime” persists and reminds us of the supreme tragedy in King Lear.    

Jaffa, Harry. “The Limits of Politics” as featured in Allan Bloom’s Shakespeare’s Politics (1964) University of Chicago Press (paperback edition).