Tue, Jan 22, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Book review: The Unrepentant Renaissance

Richard Strier’s new book revises the notion that the Renaissance was an era of enlightenment, intellectual rebirth and curiosity

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Such challenges were a risky maneuver, however. The authority of kings was based on the Christian doctrine that worldly rulers mirrored heavenly ones, and to deny the divinity of Christ was implicitly to challenge the entire temporal order. In England, two of Shakespeare’s fellow dramatists had suffered for their beliefs — Christopher Marlowe, who was reported to have expressed atheist sentiments, was murdered, and Thomas Kyd was tortured, also for reputedly denying the divinity of Jesus.

The times’ sanctions may have been cruel, but its artists usually sided with the new movement nonetheless. It’s even been claimed that opera had its origins in a plan (not mentioned by Strier) by a society in late 16th century Florence devoted to the recovery of Ancient Greek musical styles to secretly reinstate the ancient Roman worship of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, to replace the Christian Trinity.

Much of this book’s discussion of the selected authors is rather too specialized for the general reader. Nonetheless, there is some interesting comment on some of Shakespeare’s better-known plays.

On Macbeth, Strier tries to balance the need of Shakespeare’s company to present a play that marked the accession of a new, Scottish king, and at the same time to reflect that king’s belief that armed resistance to a tyrant was never justified. Macbeth presents just such armed resistance, but also includes many topics that King James held dear — witchcraft and the importance of virginity before marriage, among others. Strier manages to sort it all out to his own satisfaction — as, he claims, the play would have been to James’s — but is unconvincing, and adds nothing new to the very extensive commentary this play has generated.

Elsewhere Strier seeks to establish that Shakespeare felt guilty at the treatment he allowed Prince Hal to hand out to Falstaff, making up for it, as it were, with sympathetic portrayals of vain old men such as King Lear and (rather ridiculously) Mark Antony. These too are very well-worn themes, and Strier, while maneuvering his way through them reasonably deftly, doesn’t offer any novel evaluations.

On Thomas More’s Utopia, however, Strier confronts Greenblatt very effectively. This is a quite extraordinary work for its period that proposes such radical ideas as a six-hour working day, though people could work longer if they wanted, and the freedom to hold any religious belief without state reprisals (in an age when people were burnt alive for heresy). But Greenblatt, Strier says, had to play down this book’s astonishing humanism, and effective modernity, in order to make it comply with his thesis of a “dark” Renaissance, and he finds many instances of this less-than-transparent procedure.

By and large, then, The Unrepentant Renaissance is predictable in its detailed critical analyses while remaining an important milestone in the turning-back of the tide of New Historicism. It’s hardly surprising in this context that Professor Strier calls his first chapter “Back to Burckhardt.”

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