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Comparative Literature Studies 42.1 (2005) 50-73

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Metatheater and Skepticism in Early Modern Representations of the Saint Genesius Legend

Queens College—City University of New York

One of the defining features of early modern literature of all genres is its emphasis on the work of art as a set of arbitrary conventions, rather than as a direct or "natural" imitation of reality. This practice is rooted in the "baroque" preoccupation with the indeterminacy of reality itself—how can art hope to imitate a perceived reality when the artist has doubts about the reliability of perception?1 Although the importance of meta-art in early modern Spanish and French dramaturgy has been definitively established over the past three decades, far less critical attention has been devoted to the emergence of philosophical skepticism in the seventeenth century, and even less to the synergetic relationship between artistic self-referentiality and skepticism as an emergent philosophical mode of inquiry.2 J.R. Mulryne examines the self-reflexivity of the Dover Cliffs scene in King Lear, which lays bare stage conventions concerning exotic locales, as an illustration of the way that early modern meta-art explores epistemology, presenting the relationship between illusion and truth as a "necessary and mutually sustaining co-presence" rather than as polar opposites (60). In this essay I will examine two plays, Lope de Vega's Lo fingido verdadero [The Role that Became a Reality] and Jean Rotrou's Le véritable Saint Genest, [The Real Saint Genesius] in which the relationship between self-referential dramaturgy and philosophical skepticism is particularly noteworthy and "mutually sustaining" because the protagonists of these texts inhabit the shadowy borderlands where "real life," acting, and epistemological confusion meet and mingle.3 [End Page 50]

Early Modern Skepticism

Richard Hornby attributes the popularity of metadrama in the early modern period to the Christian doctrine of contemptus mundi, which envisioned life as "an illusion, a secondary world in contrast to the real world of heaven."4 However, this is only a partial explanation; it is the dialectic between this theologically grounded Counter Reformation vision and emergent discourses of philosophical skepticism which forms the basis for the conflicts that self-referential drama explores. In the past fifteen years, historians of early modern philosophy and theology, including Richard Popkin, Alan Charles Kors and David Berman, have demonstrated convincingly that seventeenth century writers produced a wide range of epistemological models, ranging from the Christian fideism of Montaigne to the outright atheism found in anonymous pamphlets.5 As these and other historians have observed, the punishments inflicted upon those who voiced unorthodox religious beliefs functioned as a deterrent to freedom of expression in the period as well as providing an obstacle for contemporary study of this phenomenon. Nonetheless, as I have demonstrated previously in my examination of skepticism in El burlador de Sevilla, [The Trickster of Seville] this "emergent" philosophy can be found in a surprisingly large body of early-modern philosophical and literary texts.6 The symbiotic relationship identified between meta-artistic dramaturgy and unorthodox philosophy in El burlador de Sevilla is even more striking in the two texts under consideration here, for they dramatize the on-stage, but "real," conversion of a pagan actor to Christianity.

The re-emergence of philosophical skepticism in the sixteenth century is associated with Latin translations of the Pyrrhonian skeptic, Sextus Empiricus, published as early as 1520. His classic text, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, was available throughout Europe by the 1560s, and was widely read. Renaissance skepticism is an important turning point in human history, part of the general movement to seek out scientific explanations for "supernatural" phenomena as well as to feel comfortable with the discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus. Richard Popkin explains that the basic tenet of Pyrrhonian skepticism, the most influential form of skepticism in the sixteenth century, is the rejection of Academic skepticism's belief that nothing at all can be known for certain because of the unreliability of sensory perception, and the resultant impossibility of establishing reliable criteria for judgment. Pyrrhonists emphasize the cultivation of...


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