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Different critics have talked about Hamlet’s tragic flaw in different ways, but what most of them boil down to is dithering.
Coleridge talkesabout “the lingering and vacillating delays of procrastination”, A.C. Bradley bewails “the endeavour at a resolution, and the sickening return of melancholic paralysis”, Goethe’s take, summarized by Ernest Jones, is that “Hamlet, for temperamental reasons, was fundamentally incapable of decisive action of any kind”, and Dover Wilson opines that “the procrastination is due to the distemper, is in fact part of it”.
Hamlet doesn’t seem to be able to get on with it and just do the job. Instead, he pretends to be mad, worries about whether what the ghost has told him is true – did Claudius really kill Hamlet’s father? – and misses an opportunity to kill Claudius while he’s praying, because he thinks that a person who is praying at the moment of death will go to heaven, and he, of course, wants Claudius to go to hell.
But there is something else, something even more fundamental, that makes Hamlet hesitate, and that is that, by taking revenge, he will himself be punished by God and end up in hell.
This aspect of Hamlet’s hesitation is often missed, and the reason it gets missed is that his famous “To be or not to be” speech is widely misunderstood as being about suicide, when clearly it is not.
Hamlet has already talked about suicide. Suicide is the topic of his first soliloquy, in Act 1 Scene 2:
“O that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!”
Why would he return to this topic in Act 3 Scene 1? This is a revenge tragedy, written in an age when society was making the transition from individuals seeking revenge by themselves to those who have been wronged having recourse to the law and taking their grievances through authorized channels. Why would Shakespeare not talk about that?
We all know what Elizabethan men looked like, right? They looked like this…
They are almost always depicted as wearing a sword, or some kind of weapon. That’s just the way things were in those days. Men carried swords, and if they were crossed, they took their swords out and they used them. The dramatist Christopher Marlowe, with whom Shakespeare collaborated in some of his early plays, was stabbed to death in what either was, or was made to look like, a drunken brawl. This kind of thing was a common occurrence.
But this was also a period in which wide-ranging religious reform was going on, supposedly based on a close reading of a Bible that tells us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), a Bible that very clearly and repeatedly states (in the words of the Geneva Bible, which Shakespeare quotes from so often in his works), “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord” (Geneva Bible, 1560, Romans 12:19).
What we’re seeing in Shakespeare’s time is a shift from taking revenge into one’s own hands to submitting to a higher authority – theoretically God, but in practice essentially the state – and trusting to that authority to administer justice. The ethics of taking revenge were a central issue in Shakespeare’s day, and it is hardly likely that he would have Hamlet contemplate all the ifs and buts of taking revenge and leave that out.
So now let’s take a look at Hamlet’s speech in Act 3 Scene 1:
“To be, or not to be, that is the question:”
Here Shakespeare sets up an opposition. He queries whether something is “to be” or “not to be”. But what is it that is to be or not be? He continues:
“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?”
So the opposition is between suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” – that is, just putting up with things – and taking arms “against a sea of troubles” and so putting an end to them. Just putting up with things means doing nothing, not making anything happen, so I would equate that with “not to be”, while taking arms against a sea of troubles suggests doing something about it, making something happen, making something “be”.
There’s nothing in those opening lines that makes me think they are about suicide. The choice is stated very clearly, and it’s a choice between putting up with injustice and fighting back and doing something about it.
Hamlet then goes off on what seems to be a tangent:
To die—to sleep, No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d.
If death is just like sleep, he says, if death simply means the end of all the heartache of this life – well, in that case, who cares about dying? But he continues:
To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause.
Suppose death isn’t just a kind of sleep? Suppose the Bible is right, and the sleep of death is filled with dreams – dreams of heaven and dreams of hell. What then? Well, then we’re in trouble….
There’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of?
Who would take the passive route – who would put up with all the injustices of this world – when he might “his quietus make with a bare bodkin”? A bodkin is a type of dagger, typically worn in a sheath strapped to the wrist, so it could be hidden by the sleeve and used as a weapon if necessary.
But the real issue here is the word “quietus”. There’s a general assumption that Shakespeare is talking here about a man putting an end to all the injustices of this life by turning a dagger on himself, by killing himself. But that’s not what “he himself might his quietus make” means. Take a look at some of the examples in the Early English Books Online database. To make one’s quietus means to settle one’s debts, in other words to pay people back, to pay back the oppressor and the proud man and the insolent official. Why, Shakespeare asks, would we not just kill all those who do us wrong, “but that the dread of something after death…makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”?
In other words, the only thing that stops us from taking our revenge on those that wrong us is the fear that we will be punished after death. I really don’t think this can be understood in any other way. Hamlet is not talking about running away from the dangers and difficulties of life by killing oneself; he is talking about the ethics and morality of taking revenge into one’s own hands.
And, finally, he concludes:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment, With this regard their currents turn awry And lose the name of action.
Whatever suicide is, it can hardly be described as an enterprise of “great pith and moment”. That is not what Hamlet is talking about here. He is talking about conscience making us think twice about lashing out in fury against those that wrong us. He is talking about how we restrain our impulse to take revenge because we fear that to do so is sinful and we will be punished after death.
Now, finally, we know what is “to be” and what is “not to be”; acts of revenge – enterprises, as he calls them, “of great pith and moment” – “lose the name of action”, cease to be, fail to materialize, remain merely what we would like to do, not what we will actually do – unless, of course, we ignore our conscience, we ignore everything the Bible says about turning the other cheek and trusting to God to administer justice, and take the law into our own hands.
This is Hamlet’s tragic flaw. He is right to hesitate, he is right to consider the implications of taking revenge, but he is wrong to dissemble and plot as he does. When his mother asks him, in Act 1 Scene 2, “Why seems it so particular with thee?” he says, “I know not seems”, but his whole strategy is based on a pretence, the pretence that he is mad. It is all about “seeming”!
In Shakespeare’s works a just and noble revenge is one that is pursued openly and backed up by the authority of a legitimate state, like the young Fortinbras’s revenge in “Hamlet”, or Macduff’s revenge in “Macbeth”. Shakespearean tragedy is essentially about good men getting tricked. Macbeth is tricked by the witches, Othello is tricked by Iago, Lear is tricked by Goneril and Regan and, in the end, Hamlet is tricked by the ghost. Regardless of the fact that what it says is true, and Hamlet’s father really was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet is tricked into taking revenge in a way that takes innocent lives and spells his own doom. That is his fatal flaw, not the fact that he hesitates about taking action, but that he takes action in defiance of the moral code, the law of God, if you want to see it in religious terms.
Finally, then, what does it matter? Why should we care about what Shakespeare says in a play written over 400 years ago?
Why? Because the swords of Shakespeare’s day are the open carry of America today. The vigilante justice that Hamlet metes out is the “stand your ground” of Alabama, Florida and other states. The revenge he exacts has its modern counterpart in the invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the attempted attack on the Capitol.
Steven Pinker (The better angels of our nature) points to Shakespeare’s period as a turning point in the history of violence. This, he says, is the time when society began to turn away from individuals taking revenge and towards states seeking to administer justice. This, according to Pinker, is a vital component in the civilizing process.
In that context, Hamlet’s speech on the ethics and morality of revenge is as relevant today as it was when Shakespeare wrote it 400+ years ago, and it’s vital that we understand clearly what he was saying in order not to end up as Hamlet does, doomed and with the blood of innocents on our hands.
This interpretation of Hamlet’s soliloquy is not my own. Davis D. McElroy wrote about it in 1964 (College English, 25:7, pp. 453-5), and it was not new even then. McElroy, however, feels that Hamlet’s thoughts turn from revenge to suicide during the course of the soliloquy, whereas I see the whole speech as being about revenge.
Vincent F. Petronella (Studies in Philology, 71:1, pp. 72-88) credits A.C. Bradley with coming up with the suicide analysis in 1904, and I am still working on what the prevailing understanding was before that. One thing I can say with some degree of certainty is that that key word “quietus” was not used to mean suicide in any text from the time of Caxton right up to the end of the 17th century. If that is what Shakespeare meant by it, then it is a lone anomaly.
This is the second (1687) edition of a folio publication, over 700 pages long, divided into two parts, with the option of viewing further subdivisions for convenience / speed of downloading.
Although the book is billed as being Charles’s own work, John Gauden, Bishop of Worcester also played a part – possibly a large part – in authoring it:
As there is substantial historical and stylistic evidence to support both the authorship of Charles I and John Gauden, we are best served to read the King’s Book as a heteroglossic, collaborative royalist effort.
This last engraving is of especial interest. It’s a different engraving from that in the first (1662) edition, and shows the Churches of Rome and England as two of the branches of the “Church Catholique”, as distinct from false sects, represented by offshoots and saplings.
Although his scope is broader than the early modern period, he devotes a lot of attention to it. The central pillar of Herman’s analysis is the paradox of terrorism as something that both speaks – “To the perpetrators, terrorism has a precise and clear message” – and is unspeakable: “To its victims, the terrorist act is so horrible it defies language”. He traces “the origin of this paradigm” to the Gunpowder Plot (“A deed without a name”: Macbeth, the Gunpowder Plot, and terrorism, March 2014, Journal for Cultural Research 18:114-131).
The 1660 edition of Lucius Cary’s Discourse of Infallibility (first published in 1646 ) is my latest book scan. There’s more interest these days in Cary’s mother, Elizabeth (1585–1639), the first woman writer known to have written a play. Elizabeth Cary’s literary career isn’t really relevant here, but she plays a part in the complex web of relationships and discussion that shapes the book by virtue of having converted to Catholicism in 1634.
Cary rejects his mother’s adopted faith on the grounds that the Catholic Church contradicts itself on several points and that it is therefore impossible to “prove by any fallible way, the Infallibility of the Church of Rome” (sig d4v).
Two discourses on episcopacy, one by Cary himself and the other by William Chillingworth, who waspart of Cary’s Great Tew Circle, are included in this edition.
The Great Tew Circle included such Churchmen and men of letters as Jeremy Taylor and Abraham Cowley. Thomas Hobbes, Ben Jonson and other well-known figures of the time are also associated with it and it can be roughly categorized along with the Little Gidding Community and the Cambridge Platonists as one the reformist Christian humanist groups of the 17th century, while also espousing rationalism and fomenting scientific method and empirical enquiry.
I posted a reply to a question on Quora that has attracted quite a lot of attention. The question was, “Can you fail a Ph.D. thesis defence?” and, having failed mine twice, I felt I was in a good position to answer!
Several people posted comments asking what the thesis was about so, instead of explaining it afresh to everyone each time, I decided I’d post an answer here…
Off to a good start
In 1975, I registered at the University of Cambridge for a PhD on translations of Spanish literature into English during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
I soon found out that Professor Wilson had a thesis in his head on early modern English translations of Spanish devotional literature and his plan was for me to write said thesis. All went well for the first year, but at some point during the second year he fell ill. The last time I spoke to him he was confident of making a full recovery, but in fact he died.
Professor Wilson was a very kind and generous-spirited man, but I knew there were topics I was interested in that didn’t fit with his ideas and approach. Recklessly, I started to stray from his straight and narrow path.
Eventually, I was reassigned to another advisor, Dr. Richard Luckett, at that time a junior research fellow at St. Catherine’s College, but soon to transfer to Magdalene – my own college – where he remained as Pepys Librarian for thirty years.
Again, Dr. Luckett was basically well-disposed, but he was not to know how far I had swerved – to my cost – from the well-laid plans of Professor Wilson. There were other things going on at that time, but I’m sure that played its part in what came next.
I won’t go into details. Suffice to say that I submitted the thesis, failed the viva, was given the chance to rewrite and resubmit, did so, and failed again. The title (both times) was “Translations of Spanish Devotional Literature into English, 1500-1700”.
The years in the wilderness
I won’t go into details of what came after that, either! My already somewhat chaotic and unconventional life now entered a phase of full-blown bohemianism – mostly in the south of Spain…
I kept tabs on the field, though, and found that my straying from the beaten path was not entirely without justification. It’s complicated, but my analysis of the impact of the Spanish devotional writers was partly dependent on recognition of Judaic and Islamic influences on the Spanish writers, thus making translations of their work a conduit for certain motifs and ideas that were otherwise unknown elsewhere in Europe.
My main source for these ideas was a Spanish scholar active mainly in the 1920s and 30s, by the name of Miguel Asín Palacios. My problem was that Asín Palacios’s work in this area was, at that time, considered discredited. To get that part of my thesis accepted I would need to convince the examiners that Asín Palacios was wrongly reviled and had a point. This was one hurdle too many. I’m not saying it’s the reason the thesis wasn’t accepted, but it certainly didn’t help.
Anyway, the turning point was a book by Luce López-Baralt entitled Huellas del Islam – exactly the same title as Asín Palacios had given his work in 1941! Obviously, I was fascinated, and completely bowled over when I read it. López-Baralt nailed it! There was no doubt about it; I wasn’t an expert in the Judaic/Islamic/Spanish side of the matter, but if I’d presented my thesis with the solid and irrefutable scholarship of López-Baralt to back it up, that component of my work would no doubt have been a very different story.
The prodigal returns
It wasn’t until a few years later that I decided to actually do something about it. I dug out the thesis and worked on a chapter on the English translation of a text by the Spanish mystic Juan de Ávila, dealing with the symbolic significance of aloes in Islam and showing how that aspect of the text was dealt with in translation, not just into English, but into French, Italian and Dutch. That paper isavailable on JSTOR (click here for an open-access version).
I went on to publish a number of other papers and bits and bobs of that kind, somewhat switching my focus at that point to Protestant translations and adaptations of Catholic literature more generally, not just focusing on Spain. Most of those publications are listed onGoogle Scholar.
But it was that article on Juan de Ávila’s herbal terminology that led me on the path to Discourses of Suffering. Ávila’s book is a collection of letters written by Ávila to various people, and there is a heavy emphasis throughout on the patient acceptance of suffering. It struck me as being very far from the kind of comforting bedside talk one might expect. To one lady on her sick-bed he wrote, “Madam, I have heard that you are sick, and am not sorry about it” – not from malevolence or ill-will, but because, as Ávila saw it, through suffering she had an opportunity to purify her soul.
I started to piece together other texts that had that kind of perspective, and somewhere along the line it hit me that these Catholic ascetics resembled nothing so much as the puritans who rejoiced to suffer for Christ’s sake, seeing in that a sure sign that they were among the saved.
But there was a crucial difference. Catholics did penance, and so could bring suffering upon themselves, whereas Protestants could only wait and hope to be chosen to suffer. I had read Bunyan’s Grace Abounding – and written a paper on it – as an undergraduate, so I was well aware of how angst-ridden he was until he was finally imprisoned and could deem himself worthy of being chosen in this way to be persecuted for his beliefs and so suffer for Christ. Happiness at last!
Putting it all together
At some point a Catholic bibliophile friend with an interest in the period asked me about an English edition of the life of Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi. I wasn’t familiar with the work, so I looked it up and found that, contrary to what my friend believed, it was not a Catholic edition but a Protestant one.
What was particularly interesting, though, was that there was nothing to overtly indicate that it was a Protestant edition and very little had been changed from the original Catholic text.
It was quite simply reproduced verbatim, without comment, because it was patently obvious to the translator that the book itself, in its unadorned state, was, to a Protestant readership, the best possible argument against Catholicism that one could wish for.
And why? Well, partly because of the accounts of miracles, but also because of some pretty extraordinary descriptions of self-abasement, such as Pazzi pleading with her Mother Superior to be allowed to be tied up and placed in front of the altar for the other sisters to “vilify & laugh at her” (a request which the Mother Superior granted!).
This reminded me of some passages from an English translation of the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián, in which people are tied up and whipped by “‘a beautiful Woman” and her cohorts.
I went back to my original thesis and reviewed what I had written about Gracián. The English text (which was published as a kind of early philosophical novel, rather than as a religious text) played up the sexual aspects quite a bit, and played down the religious ones. The Spanish can be read fairly straightforwardly as a metaphor for the beautiful-seeming but treacherous world, while the English translation was basically just lascivious.
This led me to the conclusion that (as I went on to write in the monograph) “it had quite simply become impossible for a narrative such as Gracián’s to work at the level of moral edification or as religious or philosophical discourse in English”. It belonged more in the realms of Nicolas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica, an early pornographic text, in which (among other things) a Catholic priest whips a naked mother and her daughter before the altar.
I dug up a few more texts – lives of saints and so on – which basically confirmed my thesis. Protestant discourse had a radically different approach to suffering, and texts which, in their Catholic context, were completely orthodox and “normal”, were taboo in a Protestant context.
Ultimately, this could be traced back to the idea of “penance” as it occurs in Saint Jerome’s Latin Bible, which the Protestant reformers insisted should be “repentance” – heartfelt regret for one’s sins, rather than flagellating yourself for them.
All’s well that ends well
Finally I got a sabbatical year from my university in Japan and went back to the University Library in Cambridge, where I had done the bulk of my research years before. This time, the thesis revolved around the theme of early modern attitudes to suffering. I dug up a range of other texts – from Catholic saints to ascetic puritans, from stoics to epicureans, exalted sufferers to “flogging cullies” (as proto-masochists were known in early modern England). I wanted to get a handle on the whole spectrum and I had a year to do it. The book – and this blog – was the result, and on the back of it (and the other papers) Cambridge finally gave me a PhD!
Wentworth’s path from Lord Deputy of Ireland to the executioner’s axe is well enough known in its broad outlines, but with so many twists and nuances that it is hard to evaluate.
The decisive change in his fortunes came when the king, Charles I, recalled him from Ireland and charged him with putting down the revolt in Scotland (the Bishops’ Wars), along with making him Earl of Strafford.
He soon found himself the target of both sides in the dispute, but was persuaded to hang on in there by Charles, who promised him protection and then threw him to the wolves when Parliament impeached him.
If you want something a bit more meaty than the usual potted biographies there’s a chapter in Alan Orr, Treason and the State that’s worth taking a look at.
But the reason I’m posting this is because I’ve just finished scanning two thick volumes of Stafford’s collected letters, edited by William Knowler from the originals held by Strafford’s great grandson and published in 1739.
I did post a little tidbit a while back about Laud supposedly eating the puritan William Prynne’s ears, but the twist of fate that subsequently led Prynne to be the gaoler and prosecutor of his persecutor is one of the darkest tales of the seventeenth century and deserves a more prominent place on these pages.
Although this work was published many years after the events it describes, and its main content is reprinted, it also contains the first printing of a number of letters relating to the plot.
It is not a scarce work, and there is at least one other online copy (in the HathiTrust digital collection), but the margins are frustratingly narrow, making it difficult to scan.
I’ve done my best to scan each page fully, and the book can be viewed HERE. As with my other text-searchable PDF scans, the page may take some time to load. If it refuses to load at all on one browser, try opening it on another. I’m working on dividing these PDFs into smaller, more easily loaded, sections, but it all takes time!
Click HERE for a bit more detail about the book and its contents.
This full-page frontispiece is prefaced by the following poem:
These lines speak for themselves, describing “Albion” as “Three Nations doom’d t’eternal slavery”, symbolized by the figures crushed under the wheels of the hellish chariot that represents the Interregnum and Cromwell’s Protectorate.
That gives a pretty clear idea of where this book is coming from. The proceedings of the trial are taken from the official records, but accompanied by a lengthy introduction and copious commentary, leaving the reader in doubt but that the whole thing was nothing short of a heinous murder.
For a text-searchable scan of the whole book, click HERE.
For related texts and further details, click HERE.
This week’s book scan is a bit different from my usual fare. It’s a manuscript, it’s from the 15th century, it’s not primarily related to suffering and – because of the limitations of OCR (optical character reader) software – it’s not text-searchable.
But if you have any interest in this kind of thing I think you’ll find it’s worth taking a look! Here are a few sample pages, just to whet your appetite…
For a “guided tour” of this Book of Hours, click here. To see scans of the entire book, click here.
It’s a common enough tale, I suppose. Young man goes to Cambridge, studies law, goes to the inner Temple to complete his training, gets converted to Catholicism and ends up being hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.
Maurus Scott was one of some 355 Catholics who were either put to death or died in prison during the early modern period, 40 of whom were subsequently canonized, while a further 242, of whom Scott was one, were beatified.
I don’t have anything in particular to say about him. The little that is known can be gleaned easily enough from Wikipedia or other sources, and I created a short entry for him on the Discourses of Suffering website.
I’d like to say dive over there, everyone, and get the lowdown on Maurus Scott, but Narratio mortis in odium fidei Londini in Anglia illatæ R.A.P. Mauro Scotto is in Latin, which limits its readership somewhat. I made a start on translating it, and I uploaded that too, but I haven’t got very far and (let’s be honest!) I probably won’t have the stamina to work right through it.
The OCR works reasonably well, though – in addition to the problems of early modern spelling conventions – there are occasional misreadings (“o” and “e” sometimes get misread as “c”, for example).
There’s already a copy of this available in Google Books (with many of the same problems when it comes to scanning), but the more online copies the merrier!
I finally splashed out on a CZUR overhead scanner, which I picked up at a substantial discount from the regular market price.
I strongly recommend anyyone to get one of these. Forget that dishwasher you were saving up for, or the new hairdryer you’ve been promising yourself; for real consumer satori nothing beats an overhead scanner!
Finally I am able to scan my early modern books and upload high quality text-searchable PDF files. I’ve made a modest start with half a dozen works (bound together) on “the horrid Popish Plot”. The collection focuses on martyrs and relgious controversies, and I’m planning to add one book a week, so if that kind of thing floats your boat stay tuned for updates!
Samuel Smith’s story is told in An Account of the Causes of some Particular Rebellious Distempers viz. the Scurvey, Cancers in Women’s Breasts, &c… (pp. 24-5), an anonymous work, published in London in 1670, and in William Salmon’s Ars Chirurgica (London, 1698), which repeats the 1670 account verbatim (p. 695). Immediately after dipping his finger into a gland of the woman’s severed breast and touching it to his lip, he experienced an insurmountable revulsion which he was unable to shake off:
…although he presently spit out and wash’d his Mouth with Water…and also with Wine…yet could not get rid of the Taste thereof, but it continued…and brought him…into a Consumption…which in a few Months after killed him, the Taste thereof never going off from his Tongue to his dying Hour… (An Account, p. 25.)
Bowman’s article examines five late seventeenth-century French autobiographies – by Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, Jeanne Bouvier de La Mothe Guyon, Antoinette Bourignon, Soeur Jeanne des Anges and Joseph Surin – and notes four recurrent themes running through all of them: ‘the consumption of disgusting matter and vomiting; the rejection of sexual activity and especially horror at sexual penetration; the fear of a fall through space; the refusal of the edenic myth of childhood’. He further points out that:
If all four have a spiritual context (Christ was given vinegar to drink, chastity is prized by the Church, the fall through space is a symbol of Adam’s fall and the fall from grace, and children are not innocent in a world of original sin), they also indicate a tension between the self and the world, about penetration by or movement in that world, about the links between past and present, family and self. (P. 26)
Bowman has a number of significant points to make, among them the links between spiritual biography and sadomasochistic discourse. There are sadomasochistic overtones in Alacoque’s relationship with her ‘harsh’ Superior and, Surin’ – whose autobiography Bowman considers ‘one of the most remarkable … ever written’ (p. 26), ‘Damned by God, forbidden to be good … knew the full consequences of deifying evil and makes one feel that such later writers as Sade or Lautréamont only play with the idea’ (p. 34).
There are also some interesting issues arising from the account of Smith’s demise; it is perhaps no accident that it is a poison emanating from a woman’s breast that leads to his downfall. For now, though, I will focus on just one issue – the light that these accounts shed on the way in which these accounts throw into relief changing attitudes towards feelings of repugnance, in particular the rejection of Stoic principles of inuring the impulses of the flesh and the shift towards the perception that natural revulsion is not there to be overcome but to be heeded as a matter of common sense.
To begin with, let me cite Bowman at greater length on the subject of eating nasty things. He notes traits which perhaps resemble what today we would call anorexia in Surin, and continues:
Jeanne had a predilection for eating vile food: «I used wormwood and gall to sprinkle what I ate in order to kill off in myself all kinds of taste» (p. 153). One of her devil’s tricks was to make her spit the Host out at the priest’s face once she had received it, and eating and vomiting were activities the demons inspired in her … Mme Guyon was something of a gourmet, … [but] this did not prevent her from learning how to consume others’ spit: «One day when I saw some spittle, the ugliest I’ve ever seen, I was obliged to put my mouth and tongue on it; the effort I made was so strange that I could not recover from it, and I had such violent retchings that I thought a vein was going to burst and I would vomit blood. I continued doing so as long as my stomach found it repugnant, which was quite a while» (p. 39). Alacoque exceeds the others. Her demons attacked her with «this abominable temptation of gourmandizing» (p. 351), so the Superior mortified her every time she asked for food. Moreover,
I was so very delicate that the least filthiness upset my stomach. He [i.e., God] corrected me so strenuously about this that once, wanting to clean the vomit of a sick person, I could not restrain myself from doing it with my own tongue and eating it, saying to him [i.e., God]: «If I had a thousand bodies, a thousand loves, a thousand lives, I would immolate them all to be enslaved to you.» I found so many delights in this act, that I would have liked to discover similar ones every day.
Once, on having an attack of dysentery, Alacoque consumed something so vile that her editor – and Bowman – forebear to give the details (p. 27).
Stoic attempts to overcome disgust by mortifying the taste buds were a feature of Catholic practice, and are echoed in Protestant attacks on absurd Catholic practices, such as Pierre de Moulin’s Le Capucin (1641), which (in the English translation of 1665) mocks the Capuchin monks for such penances as ‘eat[ing] with a Cat in the same dish’, or ‘lick[ing] up the others spittle’ (The Capucin Treated, pp. 21 & 22). And, while Bowman (rightly) emphasizes the differences between hagiography and spiritual autobiography – ‘Spiritual autobiographies do not always aim to describe exemplary conduct and, if only because of Christian humility, neglect the good deeds and signs of holiness which are the staple of hagiography’ (p. 24) – there are, nevertheless, close parallels between these accounts and the lives of saints. Catherine of Siena and Francisco Xavier are among those saints who sucked the pus out of the ulcerous sores of diseased people, though this was presumably done at least partly with the intention of benefiting others, and not simply out of an impulse to self-abasement (though that may have played a part, particularly in Xavier’s case). It is no accident that ‘Mme Guyon knows Catherine of Siena’ (p. 36), or that Surin justifies his spiritual crises by drawing parallels with figures like Ignatius, Suso and Magdalena de Pazzi (p. 37).
Loth as I am to play the amateur psychiatrist, one cannot but be struck by the confluence of eating foul things, feelings of guilt, unhappy childhoods and aversion to sex in the writers Bowman examines. If they knocked on the door with money in their pockets they would give any modern psychoanalyst a field day.
It is possible to see Smith, too, as suffering from a perverse compulsion, but the rationale behind his action is completely different. Smith is acting, supposedly, out of curiosity (whether idle or scientific), whereas the autobiographers are motivated by the underlying assumption is that it is right for the spirit to attempt to overcome the predilections and aversions of the flesh. This difference in intent is underlined by the very great difference in outcome.
So far, I have not been able to find any independent verification of this account of Samuel Smith’s death, but the fact that Salmon finds it worth repeating in a work published 28 years later indicates that it was accepted as true at the time. It is only the account of Smith’s death itself that Salmon borrows verbatim; though he takes it as proof of the same general principle as the author of the 1670 account (i.e., that there are certain very rare cancers of a particularly toxic nature), Salmon differs considerably in his explanation of the details.
But (for me at least) it is not the literal truth of the story that matters so much as what it represents – a rejection of Stoic principles that were widely accepted, at least until the later part of the seventeenth century, a mockery of Christian injunctions to ‘rejoice to suffer’ for the sake of one’s Lord. It is not just its staunch secularity that makes the juxtaposition of the account of how curiosity killed the surgeon with the spiritual accounts so remarkable. The moral of Smith’s fate is that one cannot simply overcome one’s natural repugnance, that, in fact, repugnance is so powerful that it can kill.
On the one hand, the juxtaposition of these scientific and spiritual accounts illustrates the way in which the one was emerging as an objective, rational discourse that has all but replaced religion in many people’s lives, while the other, insofar as it survives at all, has morphed into the realms of psychological analysis and attempts to rationalize the subjective impulses and perceptions of the individual. At the same time, though, it is notable that the scientific account is in the context of Protestant culture, with its rejection of the belief in mortification, while the spiritual conflict of the autobiographies takes place within the context of Catholic culture.
I am not trying to argue that either type of discourse is superior to the other, nor am I saying that scientific discourse is more essentially the property of a Protestant society than a Catholic one. What I am pointing out here is a basic incompatibility between these discourses, that the scientific perception leads inevitably to the marginalization of the worldview expressed by the autobiographers, culminating in the characterization of the impulses and sufferings of the tortured soul as madness, as the title of Bowman’s paper makes clear.
I’ll no doubt be back in gear with more insights into early modern suffering sometime during 2021, but for now I’m working on a series of videos on “Shakespeare the man”. Here’s the first one, just giving a general overview.
This next one is the first of several I’ll be doing on Shakespeare’s Stratford friends. Following Kate Pogue, I’m starting with Richard Quiney:
And here’s the third one, on Thomas Greene, which is as far as I’ve got so far:
I’m working on placing Shakespeare in his social context, showing the kinds of people he mixed with and the circles he moved in. The unspoken subtext of the videos is that, despite the claims of those who, for some reason, desperately need for Shakespeare to have been a country bumpkin who could never have written the plays published in his name, he was closely connected to people like Quiney and Greene, who were highly literate and well-educated.
In addition to my own series on Shakespeare, I’ve been editing and producing a series of interviews for a series of interviews by Thomas Dabbs, of Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, called “Speaking of Shakespeare”. These are a kaken-funded project, originally intended to finance a number of “live” appearances of visiting lecturers, but adapted because … well, because!
Here they are:
Both series are growing, so if you want to follow them check them out on YouTube and subscribe to the respective channels!
Here it is! Something tangible and irrefutable, something that makes 2021 better than 2020 (not that that would be hard!), something to cheer the spirit and warm the cocckles of the heart. Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership Phase 2 is now in the public domain, bringing 60,331 early modern works in text-searchable form within reach of anyone with access to the internet.
The Centre for the Study of Medicine and the Body in the Renaissance (CSMBR) is starting a new series of digital material. The first video in the series, Vegetable Harmonies, a short video with the Illuminations by Gherardo Cybo (1512-1600) on Mattioli’s Discorsi sopra la Materia Medica di Dioscoride Pedacio (BL Ms Additional 22333) accompanied by Monteverdi’s madrigal La Giovinetta Pianta (1592), was published just a few days ago: