Intervals of Grace: Shakespeare and Chaucer’s Existential Romances and the Repair of the Past
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Intervals of Grace: Shakespeare and Chaucer’s Existential Romances and the Repair of the Past

  • Author(s): Cibula, Peter Robert
  • Advisor(s): Lupton, Julia R
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY-NC-SA' version 4.0 license

“Intervals of Grace: Shakespeare and Chaucer’s Existential Romances and the Repair of the Past,” argues that Augustine’s theology allows us to see providence in romance as a doubled perspective that recognizes the existential smallness of individuals and their collective participatory power in a plural world. In The City of God, Augustine uses an aesthetic metaphor to describe the power of God’s providence: “a picture may be beautiful when it has touches of black in appropriate places; in the same way the whole universe is beautiful, if one could see it as a whole, even with its sinners, though their ugliness is disgusting when they are viewed in themselves.” The dual perspective of Augustinian grace – the dark spots of sin and the beauty of providence – can allow us to better understand the structure of romance as a genre. However, rather than viewing romance as a “secularization” of Augustinian theology, I argue the “existential romances” of Shakespeare and Chaucer - Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale and The Clerk’s Tale and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale – recover an existential perspective embedded in Augustine’s theology in their concern with the existence of evil in the world. I argue the “existential” quality of Augustine’s theology comes from how his doubled perspective anticipates the dual pressures of existentialist thinking: the fundamental historicity of human life, rooted in both sacred and secular history, and the thrownness that humanity experiences in the encounter with the absolute gratuity of divine grace. For all the supernatural machinery that these romances may possess, their happy endings are arrived at through human means. When we view romance through an existentialist Augustine, we can better recognize how these texts come to their happy endings through realistic forms of action sensitive to the historical unfolding of life. Augustine’s attention to life embedded in a historical world made him of interest to the existential thinkers of the early twentieth century, who found in his theology a careful examination of being in the world. My reading of Augustine as an existential thinker follows the work of three 20th century German-Jewish thinkers: Erich Auerbach, Hannah Arendt, and Ernst Kantorowicz, who are all sensitive to how Augustine recognizes the limits on human agency. These thinkers also allow me to show the tension between what we might call Augustine’s political theology (the two cities) and his existentialism (providential history). In Augustine’s existentialism we find human action repaired by grace and humility. The idea of humility (humilis) – which comes out of Auerbach’s work – allows us to see feminine forms of active suffering in romance as powerful forms of Arendt’s action; in the non-sovereign power of Augustinian humility, we also find human action that does not rely on the political theological rhetoric of sovereignty.

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