Doubt as Emotion in an "Age of Faith":
The Case of The Second Shepherds' Play
Rossell Hope Robbins Memorial Lecture
March 1, 2013, 7:30 p.m.
CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue, Room 4406
Sarah McNamer, Associate Professor
Department of English, Georgetown University
This talk participates in a current of recent work that locates forms of Christian doubt in an 'Age of Faith.' It does so by approaching the subject from the point of view of affective experience, as this experience appears to be expressed in and scripted by literary and dramatic texts. Doubt, I suggest, can and should be considered a 'cognitive feeling' or 'intellectual emotion.' These concepts can open up new ways to explore the contours of unbelief prior to Descartes. They can also open up familiar texts: in this case, The Second Shepherd's Play. The heart of this lecture is an extended reading of this, the most beloved and heavily-anthologized of all Middle English plays. This is not, I argue, a simple, harmless, farcical play designed to serve faith -- as religious drama is so often assumed to do; rather, it is a daring experiment in cultivating an experience of radical doubt: doubt in the divinity of Christ, in the scheme of redemption, in the right ordering of the universe. A close reading of the literary qualities of the play -- features such as wordplay, soliloquy, generic swerves, dramatic structure, characterization, and competing aesthetic registers -- suggest that it appears to have been designed to generate radical, affectively-produced, existential doubt. This reading of the play invites a reconsideration of its date; its place in the history of emotion; and the borders of the medieval and the modern.