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Reviews277 The Casuistical Tradition in Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, and Milton, by Camille Wells Slights; xix & 307 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981, $21.00. The purpose of this book is to "survey the casuistical tradition in English and trace its influence on the imaginative literature of die period" (p. xiv). While the casuistry of the medieval and renaissance Catholic Church was to help priests guide penitents in die confessional , Protestant casuistry tried to give individuals their own guide — in other words, to help them form their own consciences. After two introductory chapters the author proceeds to apply the method ofcasuistry to selected works by Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, and Milton. Although chapter one contains a particularly clear explanation of casuistry, much of what the author describes as the Protestant tradition does not differ essentially from Roman Catholic teaching in the Renaissance. On the whole, Ms. Slights appears well versed in her theology, but an occasional oversimplification appears. I observed, for example, a failure to distinguish between the positive and natural aspects of divine law (cf. the statement on p. 23 that "divine law is always obligatory"). Implied, of course, is the absence of a dispensatory power which, considering the Protestant context of the book, is understandable. The second introductory chapter, "Method as Form," discusses Robert Sanderson's analysis of the so-called Engagemem Oath, a moral dilemma presented in the oath of allegiance imposed by Parliament in 1649 and 1650. The author concludes that Sanderson is useful as a model "because he so admirably combines respect for the freedom of the individual conscience with veneration for die moral law, attitudes essential to the casuist's habit of mind" (p. 60). The major part of the study begins with four of Shakespeare's tragedies which are discussed in casuistical terms. Of these Julius Caesar and Macbeth seem particularly well chosen, although I cannot agree with die author that probabilism instead of simply faulty reasoning occasions Brutus's decision at the beginning of Act II: "then, lest he may, prevent ." It is difficult, however, to see how anyone discussing casuistry in Macbeth could resist taking up die celebrated case of Father Garnett and "Jesuitical" equivocation, and this indeed is die focus of the section on that play. In treating Donne, Slights concludes that Biathanatos, Donne's apparent attempt to show that suicide is in certain circumstances permissible, is a satire of the techniques of casuistry. She then applies the casuistical method to Satyre HI in which me poet shows his reader how to proceed rationally towards determining the identity of God's church. Finally, a brief discussion of the Songs and Sonnets serves as a transition to examining Herbert's lyrics. The inclusion of Herbert in this study seems particularly fitting. If Protestant casuistry served the pastoral function of forming consciences, then the lyrics of Herbert fit precisely into that tradition for they enable the pastor to transmit poetically the fruits of his own contemplation. The chapter on the pastor of Bemington is especially rewarding. Finally, Milton's insistence on die balance between human freedom and die law ofGod 278Philosophy and Literature makes him a most appropriate author widi which to conclude this book. Some attention is paid in Paradise Lost to the temptation of Eve who "chooses and falls . . . because she willfully interrupts the analytical process of her conscience" (p. 253). The major focus, however, is on Samson Agonistes in which the action of the drama and specifically of Samson 's understanding and will move beyond die limits of reason to the realm of grace. The thesis of the book is sound, though somewhat strained at times. Nevertheless it approaches these carefully selected works from a perspective that frequendy rewards the reader with new insights. This is especially valuable today when casuistry is for die most pairt a forgotten word, but moral dilemmas proliferate in bodi private and public life widi agonizing insistency. Willamette UniversityRichard D. Lord Semiotics and Interpretation, by Robert Scholes; xiv & 161 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982, $12.95. Some recent theorists —Jonathan Culler among them — have welcomed the prospect of an end to the business ofworkaday literary "interpretation." Semiotics, structuralism, and deconstruction are seen as providing an alternative...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 277-278
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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