THE TRIAL OF MAN: CHRISTIANITY AND JUDGMENT IN THE WORLD OF SHAKESPEARE
By Craig Bernthal
ISI, $25, 316 pages,illus.
REVIEWED BY TOM O’BRIEN
Craig A. Bernthal’s “The Trial of Man: Christianity and Judgment in the World of Shakespeare” has the virtue of being learned without being tediously academic. Mr. Bernthal intends his work not for experts but generally intelligent readers, and, if lovers of Shakespeare number among them, he will serve them well. This is solid and interesting fare on an overarching issue in the plays,the enactment of justice, both moral and poetic.
At a time when Shakespeare studies and performances are bedeviled by postmoderism, feminism, new historicism, Mohawks on Mercutios and Rapsters on the Rialto, it is refreshing to read someone who believes the 16th century offers something to listen to — without either putting it down or, so to speak, “undressing” it up. Interpreting the plays, Mr. Bernthal says, “requires us to make the effort to understand Shakespeare on his own terms.”
It is easy listening to Mr. Bernthal, who understands but is free of current critical jargon, at which he takes some feisty but judicious potshots in his opening and close. In the middle, he relates in rich detail how plays both major and minor relate to two Elizabethan contexts: Christian theology and English legal tradition. The first claimed justice would always prevail, and the second aimed at making that happen.
A lawyer and professor at California State University in Fresno, Mr. Bernthal is clear that he thinks Elizabethan justice was rough and often unfair. Without arraigning an epoch, he focuses on whether and how Shakespeare’s plays depict the triumph of justice as conceived at the times.
Mr. Bernthal’s careful style fits a subject this rich. For example, one of the most famous lines in Shakespeare about the law, Mr. Bernthal shows, points in many directions:
“First thing we do,” says one of the followers of the rebel Jack Cade in Henry VI, Part II, “is kill all the lawyers.” Yes, Mr. Bernthal says, Shakespeare did it for humor, and groundlings loved it. Satire on lawyers, he notes, is as old as Roman comedy and as new as the latest joke by the watercooler. But Mr. Bernthal also documents how the late-16th century had become especially litigious; resentment against lawyers was running high. He also shows Shakespeare uses the line to satirize the general anarchy that Cade represents. There is cause to be upset with lawyers, the play implies,but no cause to upset the whole social order.
The book draws on excellent source material that, Mr. Bernthal shows, worked its way into the plays: English histories (such as “Holinshed’s Chronicles”), transcripts of treason trials (especially Walter Raleigh’s), and medieval codes for trial by combat. In discussing narrative sources, Mr. Bernthal aptly notes, “A good way to approach the question of Shakespeare’s intentions in a play is to note the deviations between his script and the story as told by his sources.”
This is an excellent suggestion; if ever followed, it might save large acreage in the national forests from being turned into books (many both unread and unreadable). It has, alas, the enormous defect of restricting wild speculation, which, even before the nouveau gauche showed up, has a venerable history in Shakespeare criticism. The Freudians, desperate to claim everything for Oedipal theory, lasciviated over “Hamlet” back in the 1940s, without ever considering that Shakespeare’s intent might have been found in how he cooled down the intense mother-son story in the source.
In discussing “Hamlet,” Mr. Bernthal commonsensically focuses on the challenges the prince faces in finding justice for his father’s murder — both because of his passion for revenge and the conspiracies against him. As Mr. Bernthal shows, the plot suggests that Hamlet handles challenges better when he abandons counter-conspiracies and puts his trust and faith in God. Mr. Bernthal also glosses some hilarious lines on lawyers from the gravedigger scene, where one of their skulls is waved about for comic relief.
Mr. Bernthal is commonsensical not only about moral judgments in Shakespeare but also about Shakespeare by critics today. Key to his case is “The Merchant of Venice,” since it combines legal and divine judgement in a trial scene, which, through Portia’s speech on the “quality of mercy,” becomes an allegory about the Old Testament and the New. The depiction of Shylock, Mr. Bernthal concedes, shares the “anti-Semitic tone” of almost everyone in the age (for far worse, see Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta”). Still, he argues, rightly. “If Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, his imaginative sympathy for his characters and his sense of human fallibility astonishingly transcended his sixteenth century English prejudices.”
Other chapters cover “The Tempest,” “Measure for Measure,” and “Henry VIII.” The best is on “King Lear,” which provides one of Mr. Bernthal’s toughest challenges: the wicked suffer but so too the innocent, in excess; nevertheless he marshals interesting arguments that suggests its Christian themes have been underrated.
In an “Epilog to Students,” Mr. Bernthal attacks the glut of theory in Shakespeare studies. He is right, but for one cavil. As he himself notes, Plato had a theory; Aristotle did too; they went at it early on, fruitfully. In truth, theory is no enemy. The problem is dogmatic belief in an overbearing and fairly one-dimensional Theory, the Icon of those who substitute 100 years of cranky output from Frankfurt garrets and left-bank cafes for the entire history of philosophy and aesthetics. Small, modest, genuinely skeptical theory is a weapon against such Theory.
Indeed, theory undergirds Mr. Bernthal’s case. Devotees of Theory stress Shakespeare’s sociology. Since no author can entirely escape his or her times, they then label him sexist, racists and “class-ist.” What they omit — and what Mr. Bernthal closely scrutinizes — is his psychology, his insight into the mind, its hopes, fears, and dreams.
For centuries, lovers of liberty have revered Shakespeare because they understood the link between his insights into the individual mind and the growth of respect, eventually, for all individuals. Howsoever Shakespeare depicts social structure, he makes you care about people in a way that nurtures respect for human rights. Generations (even of radicals) knew this; now you need an advanced degree in literature to miss it. Mr. Bernthal has a theory too, and had he argued for it even more vociferously, he would have made a very good book into an even better one.
Tom O’Brien, who has lectured at the Folger Shakespeare Library, is an editor of Arts Education Policy Review.