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Shakespeare Biography and the Theory of Reconciliation in Edward Dowden and James Joyce

From: ELH
Volume 72, Number 4, Winter 2005
pp. 799-822 | 10.1353/elh.2005.0039

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ELH 72.4 (2005) 799-822

Nathan Wallace

Union College
The people's William. For terms apply: E. Dowden, Highfield house.
—James Joyce, Ulysses
I will think over the English Literature scheme . . . [but] I fear . . . if we were to allow contributors to treat of the influence of writers in times subsequent to their death we should open the door to a vast amount of unscientific lucubrations.
—A. M. M. Stedman to Edward Dowden, 29 June 1898

In the 1990s the term reconciliation gained new prominence as a concept by which to rebuild political cultures and develop transitional states, from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement. Forgiveness is the key psychological term in almost any account of reconciliation, and on the South African model forgiveness is sought from two sources. On one hand the new state grants amnesty to almost all of the applicants who have committed human rights abuses on either side of the conflict. On the level of communal healing, on the other hand, a more important element of forgiveness comes from the victims and survivors themselves. Paradoxically enough, this often happens either when they find out the full story of how loved ones have been killed, or when their own narratives of trauma are finally acknowledged publicly in the course of the Commission's official hearings. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has described these acts of forgiveness—by survivors rather than by the state—as acts of sanctification.

Reconciliation is not a new term in political discourse, but it has not always been thought to work this way in relation to the state. Victorian imperialist reconciliation, by contrast, did not imply negotiation between the colonizer and the colonized. The colonizers rather enforced their own ideas of justice on the colonized, and the colonized were left to reconcile themselves to the hard facts of their own subalternity. The twentieth-century collapse of Britain's colonial empire brought the colonizer to the negotiation table, and considering where that collapse began it is not therefore surprising that the democratizing reinvention of reconciliation took place early on among Irish writers. Ulysses was published in France two months after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in London, and each document proposed new reconciliations—through sundering—to Irish audiences back home. This essay will describe a transforming moment in the history of reconciliation as a literary and political concept by comparing the opposing models of William Shakespeare's biography in the writings of Edward Dowden and James Joyce.

The Irish reformulation of reconciliation takes place against the backdrop of the Victorian Romanticist construction of the moral, literary, and political history of the English conscience that I call the Burke/Wordsworth nexus. To begin with the Christian theological definition, reconciliation is the sacrament whereby God redeems humanity from the alienation of sin and welcomes it, like the Prodigal Son, back into the Father's House. In the Middle Ages a disciplinary narrative of atonement was worked out (largely by Irish monks) so that sinners could be reconciled through repentance, confession, penance, and communion. In the aftermath of the Reformation this narrative of authority was destabilized because the conscience, that inner spur to repentance, came to authorize the individual's dissent against Church and State. For English literary history the problem of this volatile interiority is exemplified by Shakespeare's Hamlet. If we continue to think this problem through on the level of English literature, Hamlet's problem of reconciliation is revisited during the French Revolution when the English individual conscience, exemplified by William Wordsworth, experiences a new kind of alienation— not from God or the Church or the State but from Englishness. Once he has lost faith in the Revolution, our traditional narrative of English literature goes, a dejected Wordsworth reformulates reconciliation so that he may come home to Edmund Burke's England. In this process he reinvents the modern poetic subject. Matthew Arnold, eager to redefine English national character for an imperial era, further develops Wordsworth's national reconciliation in the name of empire. He attributes the reconciling authority to the state and extrapolates on the state's reconciling function through the language of culture. Arnold...



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