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  • Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology
  • John S. Mebane
Julia Reinhard Lupton . Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005. xi + 277 pp. index. bibl. $35. ISBN: 0–226–49669–4.

Citizen-Saints is significant not only as a contribution to Shakespearean studies, but also as a reflection upon the nature of citizenship and the relation between [End Page 300] religion and politics in our own time. While acknowledging that religion often expresses "tribal or ethnic identities" (17), Lupton emphasizes religion's striving toward universalism. Using the term "saint" as a "placeholder for a shifting set of linked topics and problems — the sacred, the sacrifice, the exception" (12), she explores the manner in which characters retain or sacrifice their exceptionality as they become citizens in societies that require religious conformity.

Lupton begins by discussing the Apostle Paul's establishment of faith, rather than Jewish identity, as the means of "true inclusion among God's elect, which is no longer conceived as a national unit" (38). Yet the persistence of Judaism after the establishment of Christianity meant that Jews became resident aliens, so that incorporation into full citizenship required religious conversion. In The Jew of Malta, Abigail becomes a citizen-saint, dying metaphorically into citizenship by renouncing her Jewishness. Although Barabas initially displays creative and rebellious energies that parallel Marlowe's own, the play eventually retreats into medieval anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Lupton argues that even though Shakespeare affirms the superiority of the New Dispensation, he nonetheless develops Shylock as a well-rounded character, a member of the Jewish community that retains its historical importance as precursor to the Christian order. When the trial scene reduces Shylock to the subhuman — a dog — the Venetian claim to be a society founded on justice falters. The Duke's offer of relative clemency and Antonio's more generous offer of full citizenship in exchange for conversion resolve the crisis in a way that modern audiences obviously find difficult to appreciate. In an interesting conclusion, Lupton suggests that Shylock's nominal conversion foreshadows the historical process of Jewish emancipation that, despite its economic and political advantages, entails the loss of the community's identity.

Among Lupton's strongest interpretations is her analysis of Othello, in which she argues that the story of regression into Islam is an "auxiliary narrative" (120) that complements the play's references to paganism. Lupton comments perceptively that "Islamicization . . . reverts not to anarchy ante legem but to tyranny sub lege, a transformation manifested by Othello's increasing identification with a jealous justice" (113). Through a suicide constructed as an act of service to the state, "Othello becomes both saint and citizen, both true Christian and acknowledged member of the Venetian republic" (121).

Lupton parallels Sophocles' Antigone and Shakespeare's Isabella in Measure for Measure as exemplars of political autonomy. Isabella's decision to maintain her chastity rather than submit to Angelo is a movement toward challenging the hierarchical social relation to which she is invited by the Duke's offer of marriage. Emphasizing that Isabella's withholding her consent elicits from the Duke a more respectful expression of his offer, Lupton concludes that the actions of both Antigone and Isabella tend to preserve and expand "the equality, reciprocity, and pragmatism of citizenship" (155).

The chapter entitled "Creature Caliban" interprets the character as existing [End Page 301] "within an unredeemed Creation not yet divided into nations" (162). The chapter's extended theoretical meditation on this concept concludes with the valuable suggestion that The Tempest may engage us in a continuing dialogue about the forms of universalism that may evolve through the realization that "'all humans are creatures,' that all humans constitute an exception to their own set, whether conceived in general or particular terms" (178).

Lupton's commentary on Samson Agonistes emphasizes Milton's refusal to clarify the significance of Samson's act. Written after the failure of the English Revolution, Samson Agonistes assaults hierarchy but does not envision the forms of sovereignty or citizenship that may lie ahead.

In the epilogue, entitled "The Literature of Citizenship: A Humanifesto," Lupton argues eloquently and persuasively for academic humanists to become more effectively engaged in fostering...


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Archived 2009
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