Civil Idolatry: Desacralizing and Monarchy in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton
This book discusses the tensions in major Renaissance literary texts between the cult of monarchy and its subversions by Christianity. It corrects some modern scholars' assumptions of a prevailing divine-right theory of monarchy. A recurring theme from the English mystery plays to Milton proposes an inherent tendency of monarchy toward idolatry. The chapter on Erasmus makes a case for a strong tradition of political libertarianism that became a notable emphasis in English humanism. Then follow three essays on Spenser (especially Faerie Queene V and View), Shakespeare (especially the political plays of the late 1590s), and Milton (political writings, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained.)
Ozment and others have shown that the Reformation fostered the desacralizing of secular life, an impulse that Schneidau has seen as central to the Hebrew-Christian tradition. Texts like the infamous Vindiciae contra Tyrannos support this interpretation as regards monarchy, rather than the received views of Kantorowicz, which are perhaps more relevant to the Continent. The king-figure in the English mystery plays is often the butt of satire, in contrast to his more dignified counterpart in some Continental drama. The king-figure enters the morality-play tradition as the "pride of life," a transition observed in the hybrid play Mary Magdalene.
Erasmus's writings develop from a unified political and religious sensibility in accord with what Mesnard calls his evangelisme politique. For Erasmus, order is not an end in itself but serves the ends of peace, which in turn allow the human soul the optimum liberty to choose or reject the virtuous life. Thomas More's earlier agreement with, and later departure from, Erasmus's views on political authority are related to the Henrician political crisis. Spenser's anti-absolutism and Erasmus-like concept of peace, order, and liberty are disclosed in explications of the Isis Temple, Souldan, Gerioneo, and Grantorto episodes of Faerie Queene V. These and other writings show the poet's belief in the need for aristocracy to act in the service of truth.
Shakespeare's "second tetralogy" moves toward Henry V's renouncing "idol ceremony," in contrast to Julius Caesar, which presents a model of disordered polity. Civil idolatry (Milton's phrase) in that play and in Milton's long poems leads to tyranny and ritualism, accompanied by fear and awe. This logic is woven into the texture of hell in Paradise Lost. Paradise Regained advances the position through its redefinition of conquest and fatherhood in response to the "conquest theory" and patriarchalism with which monarchists justified their cause. Ultimately Milton places the blame for civil idolatry on the majority, who prefer a condition of subservience and awe because, as Shakespeare's Henry V declared, it relieves them of the responsibilities of consciousness. The epilogue glances at new directions in a comparison of the coronations of Charles II and of William and Mary.
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