“In the Middle Ages,” said a candidate for a position in medieval literature at my college, “beauty was considered sinful.” Someone should have told Dante, who wrote that beauty is the prime attraction of the human soul, not to mention that he wrote a beautiful poem. Someone should have told Saint Francis and Giotto, and the illuminators with their brilliant blue, and the masons and sculptors and glaziers of Chartres and all the other cathedrals brightening the face of Europe, and the guildsmen who required a masterpiece for full entry into their trade, and the composers, and the troubadours, and the Victorines with their theology of light, and Thomas and Bonaventure and Duns Scotus and—you see the point. If they thought beauty was sinful, they sure managed to hide that thought under a lot of gloriously beautiful things.
The candidate didn’t get the job. Her error, as it turns out, was but the error of her mentor, Stephen Greenblatt, in caricature—a bad tune played on a harmonica rather than on a violin. Greenblatt is a brilliant scholar. His writing is bold and clear. He ranges across a variety of disciplines, but not theology, about which his ignorance is disappointing. He reads literature as literature, rather than imposing a prepackaged theory on what he reads.
Yet there’s a curious omission in the work of Greenblatt and his peers, who can be found in almost every English department in the country. They miss everything that really matters.
A Christopher Dawson, or Etienne Gilson, or Robert Louis Wilken attempt to relate to us not simply what happened in the past but what it was like to be a human being then. What did the people give their hearts to? What did they believe about life and death? What were the great virtues they struggled to practice? Where did they seek the good? What were the bonds that held their communities together? What aroused their wonder, their awe? You do not have to believe in God to sense what it was like to be a human being back then. But you have to be alive to the possibility.
If you cannot answer these questions, or if you do not ask them to begin with, or (as seems to be the case with Greenblatt) you do not even know that they are questions to be asked, you may know some things about a people, but you do not really know them as people. You have reduced them to facticity. You miss everything that makes them interesting, that distinguishes them from each other and from us, that lets them speak to us and challenge us and perhaps judge us, in their own voice.
Here’s how it’s done. You begin with a cultural authority. You then reduce a transcendent value to an absolutist human claim, with all depth removed. You notice that your subject’s portrayal of human life does not fit that claim. You declare that he bravely denied not only the transcendent value but the transcendent itself. He is, this cultural authority, actually a modern man, a sign that the greatest of writers and thinkers of the past knew, though they lived in such religious times, that religion is an illusion and a mistake.
Here is an illustration. In his recent book Shakespeare’s Freedom, Greenblatt cites the fifteenth-century Neoplatonic architect Leon Battista Alberti on ideal beauty. Alberti’s description seems to locate beauty in a harmony that leaves the particulars of the beautiful objects far behind. Greenblatt adds citations from Schiller and Lessing, though they wrote centuries after Shakespeare. He finds a portrait by Leonardo, the Lady with an Ermine, which can plausibly be said to embody that view of beauty (though Leonardo’s sacred paintings certainly do not embody it). This view he calls “featureless” and “impersonal.” He notes that theologians said that the resurrected bodies of the saints—with the notable exception of the wounds of the martyrs—will not have freckles or stains or blurs or moles.
Then he makes his move. Shakespeare often describes moles or birthmarks as individuating marks of beauty: for example, the cinquefoil mole, in Cymbeline, on the breast of Imogen. Shakespeare was boldly exploring his freedom to press beyond the “cultural hegemony” of the (featureless and impersonal) dream of perfect beauty. The stain is what individuates.
Why choose Alberti? Because he is handy, as is the Lady with an Ermine. What’s not handy? All kinds of things. We could start with Thomas, and his insight that the beauty of creatures is a particularized beauty, hardly featureless. We might note in Duns Scotus the exaltation of the individual creature that so inspired the nature poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins; for Scotus, matter alone is insufficient to individuate one material creature from another, and that is why Hopkins strove to peer into what he called the “inscape” of things. Then we might have a look at Franciscan spirituality generally, and see the art that it produced, beginning with the paintings of Giotto, like the stern look of Mary staring into the distance as she carries the Christ child into exile in Egypt. We might note Cranach’s portrait of Luther, or Raphael’s portrait of Paul III. In the faces of the saints in Fra Angelico’s Final Judgment we will see portraits of individuals marked not only by the wounds they may have borne for the faith, but by the stamp of holiness on their souls; they are beautiful, and they are sweetly distinct.
Greenblatt’s is the characteristic error of those who will not see. Here’s another example. He quotes with approval the philosopher Bernard Williams, who decries the long Western tradition that holds, with Plato, that the desires must be subject to reason. That gives us a false picture of the moral life, because “the truly moral self is characterless.” Since Shakespeare portrays characters so unique and memorable—a Prospero who, as Greenblatt says, cannot “be mapped comfortably onto a stable distinction between moral and nonmoral motivations”—the Bard must be rebelling against that bit of cultural hegemony too.
Where to begin with this one? Note that language of good and evil has been elided; we have “moral” and “nonmoral” motivations. Note too that the idea that man possesses an end toward which the virtues lead him is ignored, and along with it a two-thousand-year-old meditation on the building of character by means of good habits: no Aristotle, no Thomas.
It is, again, as if in the literature of the West there were no sharply delineated saints, nor the sludge and indistinguishability of the evil. For every memorable sinner Dante gives us in Inferno, there is a pack of the nameless, the stupid, the caricatured, the monotone, fixed in the evil they gave their hearts to, as surely as the traitors are encased in ice. Shakespeare himself shows the deterioration of personality that habitual evil brings, with Macbeth as the classic case. The insight is that doing good creates character and doing evil destroys it, but that insight Greenblatt cannot, or does not, see.
“Shakespeare,” he writes in the book’s opening sentence, “as a writer is the embodiment of human freedom.” Now, if he were at all theologically aware, he would notice that such a definition of freedom is, as Shakespeare abundantly shows, self-destructive. He might pause to ask what St. Paul meant by “the glorious liberty of the children of God,” or what Augustine meant when he said, “Love, and do what you will,” or what Dante meant when his Thomas Aquinas suggests that anyone who denies a just desire “would not be free, would have such power / as rivers not returning to the sea.”
Human freedom, as Shakespeare clearly knew, is always freedom for: It makes no sense outside of the love we owe to God and to our fellow men. That would explain why Shakespeare’s epilogues are so often apologues: They are invitations to the audience to join him in a community of forbearance and forgiveness.
Suppose there were a strange disease that allowed you to hear the words of an opera but not the melodies. It would lead you into the most astonishing errors. So Greenblatt writes of the Duke in Measure for Measure: “He manages to leave the city in precisely the state of moral disorder with which it began.” Let’s see. We have a dozen brothels pulled down. The process by which a constable is chosen is being reformed. The evil of fornication is brought to everyone’s attention. Those are not trifles.
In the grand final scene of the play, we witness the moral regeneration of a human being, the wicked Angelo, while the rigorist Isabella has been brought to the point of using the technicalities of the law not to hang but to pardon the man she thinks guilty of murdering her brother, and she does this in answer to an appeal for mercy in the person of the good woman who has never stopped loving Angelo. That woman and Angelo are now married, and a terrible wrong is thus set to rights. Reading Greenblatt’s claim, we feel as if a man were resurrected in one’s midst, and one continued to talk about the finality of the tomb.
Greenblatt calls Isabella “a failed believer in absolutes,” but again, this is nonsense. She begins the play as a woman longing for rigor, and treading dangerously near to self-righteousness; she ends by embodying the meaning of the verse from Psalm 85: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” That verse is part of the reading for Mass on December 26, the day when Shakespeare opened this play at the court of King James.
There are many other such errors and omissions, but I will end with one. Greenblatt was invited to the White House, and in conversation Bill Clinton opined that “Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.” Greenblatt was struck by the “aptness” of the comment and concluded that Clinton missed his true vocation, which was to be an English professor.
“An ethically inadequate object”—notice the puffy abstraction, the evasion. Greenblatt does not. Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan was an act of pure evil, but Clinton could not bring himself to say it. Greenblatt shows that in Shakespeare “no character with a strong desire to rule over others has an ethically adequate object.” True, but why not? Greenblatt does not say. It is because ambition itself is evil. It subordinates others to the good of oneself and thereby inverts the whole message of both Judaism and Christianity.
Shakespeare was no simpleton. He knew that the ruler required more than piety. He needed resolve and prudence; he had to be as wise as a serpent, and as innocent as a dove. If he is called to rule, and he wishes not to, he must still humble himself to the task, and Shakespeare always punishes those who abdicate their legitimate authority. But the ruler must heed the words of Jesus, who saw through our pretensions:
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them.
And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in thekingdom of heaven.
These verses, and others like them, are central to the spiritual symbolism of the play. The man who murdered a good king in his bed soon finds himself murdering children, and is deposed in the end by a mere youth.
Greenblatt insists that Shakespeare is a subverter of all absolutes. Quite the contrary. He is the subverter of all purely human attempts to establish absolutes: Those are caricatures. But there are absolutes everywhere in Shakespeare. Perhaps it is better not to identify them with terms, which in their bald abstraction can cause confusion, but with the ancient revelations of Judaism and Christianity, expressed in verses that point us toward a blessed and truly human way of life.
They are, for Shakespeare, our reminders of everything that matters. I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. The foolishness of God is wiser than men. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
Anthony Esolen is professor of English at Providence College.