posted November 19, 2007

Book Explores Faith and Doubt in Shakespeare

Dr. John Cox of the Hope College English faculty is author of "Seeming Knowledge: Shakespeare and Skeptical Faith," which revisits the question of Shakespeare's connection with religion by focusing on the intersection of faith and skepticism in his writing.

The book was published earlier this fall through the new "Studies in Christianity and Literature" series of Baylor University Press of Waco, Texas.

Cox, who is the DuMez Professor of English at Hope, examines Shakespeare's works in the context of the 16th century, when thinkers such as Thomas More and Erasmus wrote skeptically to expose the weaknesses of Christians without doubting the truth of Christianity itself.

Cox sees in Shakespeare's work "continuing reflection on the narrative of salvation history and its way of imagining the human situation." In his preface Cox notes that Shakespeare's response to that situation "might better be described, I suggest, as suspicion than skepticism, because he is more doubtful about those who know than he is about what they know."

Debora Shuger of the English faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles has said of the book that "John Cox offers a compelling account of the Christian premises of Shakespeare's plays," noting that "'Seeming Knowledge' makes apparent how fully the faith informing Shakespeare's plays registers the duplicities of false consciousness and the opacity of mortal suffering."

Following an opening chapter on skepticism and suspicion in 16th-century England, the book is divided into two sections. The first considers Shakespeare's work by genre: "Comic Faith," "Tragic Grace," and "History and Guilt." The second explores ideas that can be discussed in the context of Shakespeare and skeptical faith, including faith, ethics, esthetics, and the relationship of Shakespeare's thought to contemporary thinking in France.

The title "Seeming Knowledge" is itself taken from one of Shakespeare's plays, "All's Well That Ends Well": "They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear."

Cox wrote "Seeming Knowledge" with support from a prestigious fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) that he had received for the 2004-05 school year. He had previously received NEH awards for two other book projects. His first book, "Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power," published by Princeton University Press in 1989, was supported by another year-long fellowship from the NEH. In 1993, he was awarded a summer grant from NEH to work on his third book, "The Devil and the Sacred in Early English Drama," published by Cambridge University Press in 2000.

Cox is also co-editor of two other books: "A New History of Early English Drama," published in 1997 by Columbia University Press, and the Third Arden Shakespeare edition of "Henry VI, Part 3," published by Thomson Learning in 2001. He has also written many scholarly articles and book reviews on Renaissance drama and contemporary writers.