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

Tue, Jan 22, 2013 - Page 12

The Victorians loved the Renaissance. To them it was a period of intellectual expansion, unparalleled individualism, bourgeois prosperity, the resurrection of secular values while continuing to respect spiritual ones, and enormous creativity in all the arts. It was a period, in other words, not unlike their own. The great book embracing this view was Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (German original 1860). The Renaissance was a re-birth (what the word means) of classical culture, and the period between the two classical eras was “the Middle Ages” (even “the Dark Ages”), because they stood between the two great, enlightened peaks.

Then came New Historicism, led by Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), citing such gurus as Clifford Geertz and Michel Foucault. The Renaissance, re-named the Early Modern period, was altogether darker, he argued. Individual freedom was curtailed, sexual self-consciousness was characterized by anxiety, and politics was dominated by tyrants and a Catholic Church whose most significant feature was the Spanish Inquisition. This view has dominated academic activity in the field for 30 years.

Chicago University’s Richard Strier seeks to redress the balance. In giving his new book the title The Unrepentant Renaissance he almost means that it’s he who’s unrepentant in putting the Renaissance back on its exalted pedestal. This was the period when pre-Christian Greek and Roman books were re-discovered in monastic libraries, sometimes, like Catullus and Petronius, in only a single volume; when Greek statues were unearthed and carried decked with flowers into the city squares; and when the subjects of ancient literature were again treated in books. Shakespeare was a Renaissance artist because human values characterized his plays (note the phrase “Renaissance humanism”), and religion scarcely figured. Twelve of his 37 plays are set in Italy where the Renaissance began and largely flourished.

But what Strier means by “unrepentant” is actually rather different. In turning their backs on medieval humility and subservience to the clergy, Renaissance writers recovered a sense of pride and even defiance. Despite their sufferings or their crimes, their anger or their brutality, Lear, Richard III and Macbeth don’t repent in any religious sense. Instead, they shake their fists at the gods. Nor are they the only characters in Shakespeare to do this — Titus Andronicus and Timon do the same. They’re unrepentant, in other words, and Strier sees this as characteristic of Renaissance writers, and their creations, in general.

Even strongly Christian English authors such as John Milton and George Herbert are unrepentant in their own way, Strier considers. And his book is largely taken up with considering a sequence of Renaissance authors, from Petrarch, Montaigne, Milton and Shakespeare to Herbert, John Donne and Ignatius Loyola.

It’s incontrovertible that the Renaissance, in reviving the classical world, was taking a stand against the power of the Church — not only against its warnings about human pride, but also its warnings on the pleasures of the flesh. Greece and Rome relished the body in a way Christianity found abhorrent (there were hundreds of public swimming-pools in ancient Rome, but after that no more were built in Europe until the 1890s).

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.”