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  • The End of Satisfaction: Drama and Repentance in the Age of Shakespeare by Heather Hirschfeld
  • William Junker
Heather Hirschfeld. The End of Satisfaction: Drama and Repentance in the Age of Shakespeare. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014. Pp. xi + 239. $55.00.

In The End of Satisfaction: Drama and Repentance in the Age of Shakespeare, Heather Hirschfeld argues that the Reformation’s rejection of the sacrament of penance problematized the meaning and availability of satisfaction, from satis [End Page 110] facere—to do or to make enough. Early modern theater engages this crisis in satisfaction in a way that is (on Hirschfeld’s view) largely critical of the Reformed theology of repentance whence it originated. What was the Reformed theology of repentance, and why should it have occasioned such a crisis?

In the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church specified that the sacrament of penance was composed of three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. The penitent’s sorrow for her sins was expressed in her confession of them to the priest, and was completed in her punishment of these same sins through works of satisfaction—usually almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. Although the penitent was absolved of the guilt (culpa) of her sins immediately after her confession, the temporal punishment (poena) due to them was still owed; in carrying out her assigned penance, then, the penitent cooperated with the grace made available by the sacrament and satisfied God’s justice. Reformation anthropology, however, rejected human cooperation with the divine in this capacity, and consequently denied satisfactory value to penitential acts. At the same time, the English Reformers continued the practice of penance well after 1553, when it was last recognized as a sacrament, though they limited the work of “satisfaction” to Christ alone.

Hirschfeld is interested in what happens to satisfaction when it is removed from the ambit of human agency and appropriated by the divine. Because (she argues) the meaning of satisfaction originally involved “a concrete principle of both exchange and contact between the individual and the divine,” its consolidation in Christ would seem to open an experiential gap on the side of the believer that doctrine by itself could not fill (29; italics in original). The Reformers’ strategy was to balance the attribution of objective satisfaction to Christ with a new emphasis upon the subjective satisfaction felt by the believer: “having degraded and eliminated satisfaction as something humans do, Reformers replaced it as something humans feel” (36). Yet the Reformers’ avoidance of works-righteousness—of doing enough—could easily result in the problem of feeling enough, as in Daniel Dyke’s 1616 Two Treatises: “We must feede and nourish this sorrow, never satisfie our selves, but wish with the prophet, that our heads were continuall, unemptiable fountaines of teares” (36; italics in original). If it is true that “humans do not satisfy God,” Hirschfeld astutely notes, it seems “they also do not satisfy—are not satisfied—themselves” (36).

The End of Satisfaction tracks the paradoxes of Reformed repentance across several plays that “work through a pursuit of satisfaction that arises precisely when and because it is declared ‘impossible’” (10). In a chapter on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Hirschfeld argues that the play engages sixteenth-century controversies over Christ’s descent into hell. Did Christ descend to “a real, localized hell,” as the medieval tradition and Luther held, or was his descent “a particularly internal form of…torment,” as Calvin taught (47)? Hirschfeld suggests that the “latent preoccupation” of the debate was the question of “what counted as ‘enough’ for [End Page 111] Christ to do to redeem mankind” (43). This approach complicates the standard view of Doctor Faustus as a (diabolical) imitation of the Harrowing of Hell pageants in earlier biblical drama. Hirschfeld helps us to see that, in Faustus’s “imitatio Christi,” Faustus himself seems “uncertain of exactly what he is imitating” (56).

The book’s widest-ranging chapter, “Setting Things Right: The Satisfactions of Revenge,” draws from the Reformed theology of repentance a novel account of revenge tragedy. Focusing on Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, Hirschfeld shows how the plays embody the “special reciprocity...


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