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  • Ambiguous Antidotes: Virtue as Vaccine for Vice in Early Modern Spain by Hilaire Kallendorf
  • Shifra Armon
Hilaire Kallendorf. Ambiguous Antidotes: Virtue as Vaccine for Vice in Early Modern Spain. u of toronto p, 2017. 337 pp.

hilaire kallendorf's Ambiguous Antidotes: Virtue as Vaccine for Vice in Early Modern Spain frames Spanish comedia within the Counter-Reformation discourse on moral action, or what she calls "Virtue." The word "antidote" in the book's title nods toward Derrida's understanding of language as pharmakon, or substance that can contain the seed of its own undoing. The alliterative subtitle, "Virtue as Vaccine for Vice," makes this link explicit, for vaccines rely for their protective properties on injecting into the patient's bloodstream a tiny amount of the contagion that they aim to avert. Kallendorf links this pharmacological conceit to the realm of ethical behavior. As the dust jacket warns, "Ambiguous Antidotes confirms that you can in fact have too much of a good thing."

A prologue traces the etymology of the word virtue and outlines the book's methodology: a combination of large-scale quantitative analysis and close philological readings. After the preliminary matter, an extensive introduction announces the book's major themes: the concept of Virtue as a cure for, rather than an agonistic opponent of, Vice; the paradox of the pharmakon as expounded by Plato and later, Derrida; and the "Golden Mean" as a corrective for extremes of both Virtue and Vice. The next five chapters explore an equal number of ethical imperatives, or Virtues, staged by diverse Spanish comedias. An additional chapter asks, given that the word virtue derives from the Latin virtus, associated with masculine military valor, whether virtuous action tended to be gendered male, and iniquity, female. The expansive conclusion reviews Juan de Mena's, Machiavelli's, and Erasmus's relativistic views of Virtue and Vice. Kallendorf adds a brief epilogue in which she endorses the ambiguous "messiness" of these moral categories and urges her readers to seek that "sweet spot between two Vices which is the Golden Mean" (198). Chapters vary in length from fifteen to thirty-four pages and bear such catchy titles as "Fleeting Fortitude" and "Prudence: Panacea or Placebo?" Copious footnotes and bibliography and an index of the nearly five hundred cited comedias, loas, and autos [End Page 295] sacramentales account for over one hundred pages of text. The index further enhances the scholarly value of the volume.

Of the four Cardinal Virtues, Justice, Fortitude, Prudence, and Temperance, Kallendorf devotes chapters to the first three. Nonetheless, the "Golden Mean" of Temperance is never far from sight, functioning as a check on excessive behavior in all realms of ethical action and merging in certain respects with Prudence. Of the three "Theological Virtues" extolled by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 (Faith, Hope, and Charity), the author includes Charity. Guiding the author's selection of Virtues is her interest in those that she perceives to have "generated the largest nodes of cultural anxiety regarding their definition, breach, and execution" (xvii). Due to cultural anxieties surrounding sex in the early modern period, an additional chapter is reserved for dramatic representations of chastity, although it figures among neither the Theological nor the Cardinal Virtues.

Each chapter opens by surveying numerous comedias that portray the Virtue under discussion in a positive light, either personified as allegory or embedded in the dialogic exchanges of characters confronting an ethical choice. Ambiguity soon creeps into these dramatic examples until the chosen Virtue begins to take on immoral tones. Faced with these paradoxes, a naive voice often interjects to express discomfiture: "Huh? When did treason become Justice?" (63);"But wait a second … surely true Prudence could not be mixed with cruelty!" (134); "At this juncture are we hopelessly lost?" (140). These tokens of exasperation are presumably meant to throw an Ariadne's thread to readers disoriented within the labyrinth of contradictory examples that illustrate the ambiguity of each virtuous remedy.

Hilaire Kallendorf's previous books include Exorcism and Its Texts: Subjectivity in Early Modern Literatures of England and Spain (U of Toronto P, 2003); Conscience on Stage: The Comedia as Casuistry in Early Modern Spain (U of Toronto P, 2007...


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