- Tragedy and Scepticism in Shakespeare's England
"Scepticism," William Hamlin asserts in this remarkable book, "is less a school of thought than a temper of mind" (5). While this may not startle anyone as an [End Page 638] expression of the Hellenic-Hellenistic epistemological practice that found its way to early modern continental Europe, the use to which Hamlin puts it strongly encourages us to rethink its relationship to English tragic drama. If the flaw in other studies of this subject has been to narrowly ascribe "sceptical" actions or motives to the characters of plays (most often Shakespeare via Hamlet), thereby suggesting that the dramatist had read Montaigne and others and then engaged in dramatizing philosophic practice, Hamlin is careful to delineate with great care the larger intellectual context in order to "isolate sceptical patterns in the larger fabric and dialogic structure of specific plays" (11). He does this by demonstrating that in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods a number of "thought trajectories" (62), once they had gained sufficient critical mass, resulted in "sceptical habits of mind" based on "sceptical paradigms" (10).
This study establishes the transmission of these paradigms through a meticulous sifting of written material in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England, and the way, for example, it draws on a burgeoning Continental traffic in skeptical sources: primarily Cicero's Academica, the doxographies of Diogenes Laertius, and the treatises on Pyrrhonism by Sextus Empiricus. Hamlin's copious archival research traces the flow of ideas into England through the physical presence of key texts of skeptical inquiry at Cambridge, Oxford, the Inns of Court, and in private collections, as well as through his detection of keywords and phrases in various texts as markers of skeptical fellow-traveling. Hamlin argues convincingly that such paradigms of skeptical thinking were widespread and deeply influential.
In the first half of the book, "The Reception of Ancient Scepticism in Elizabethan and Jacobean England," Hamlin offers a thorough and convincing survey of the way skepticism operated as a "force of transition" (6) for those involved in debates over witchcraft (the anti-Catholic exorcism debunkers Reginald Scot and Samuel Harsnett) a nascent scientific method (Bacon), controversies in religious doctrine (Arminianism and Socinianism), and so on. Detailed discussions of Montaigne's brand of "impure" skeptical inquiry, the tracing of the origins and speculation on the influence of the treatise titled "The Sceptick" (the first vernacular translation of Sextus Empiricus), and Bacon's "lifelong struggle with the challenges of epistemological doubt" (11) present a compelling argument for reevaluating the suitability of skeptical practice — anti-dogmatic, perspectival, conducive to dialogue and dramatization — for a period in which many forms of intellectual debate flourished. And not only in universities or in religious controversy or in state politics: "it might be said that the most searching moral philosophy of the age took place on the platform stages of London" (3).
In the second half of the book, "Fools of Nature: Scepticism and Tragedy," Hamlin devotes eight chapters to tragic drama: Doctor Faustus, The Spanish Tragedy, Troilus and Cressida, The Malcontent, The Tragedy of Mariam, Webster's tragedies, The Changeling, and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. In thus surveying the field he shows how the relatively more inchoate skeptical influences on Faustus and Spanish Tragedy give way to more sophisticated structures at the turn of the century (Troilus and Cressida) and on to a thorough saturation of skeptical casts of mind [End Page 639] in the violent paroxysms of Jacobean tragedy. What characterizes tragic drama's relationship to skepticism has less to do with making assertions about what individual playwrights believed than it does with reading their work to assess the impact of such a mode of thought. This reception "may be characterized," Hamlin writes, "more as distortion than as precise reflection, more as tendentious appropriation than as dispassionate representation" (119). The readings in these chapters are, on the whole, excellent. Only restrictions of space keep me from detailing his insightful readings of, especially...