The ‘Mind as a Beautiful Miracle’

Marilynne Robinson, Iowa City, 2005
Brian Ray/AP Images
Marilynne Robinson, Iowa City, 2005


Marilynne Robinson, best known as a novelist (especially for her Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead of 2004), is also a scholar. She received her doctorate from the University of Washington in 1977, with a dissertation on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part Two. She now admits, wryly, that she would not gladly read that dissertation. She also said, when she turned seventy, that she had neglected Shakespeare for decades, but was boning up on him again. I don’t believe her. She clearly has been pondering the plays all her life. She thinks through Shakespeare. She does not try to draw meaning out of the plays, but brings her own intuitions to them for validation. Her novels have many indirect references to lines from Shakespeare, and the essays in her new collection, The Givenness of Things, discuss his works directly.

When, for instance, she reflects on the meaning of “servant,” she reminds us that Shakespeare’s troupe was known as the servants of the Lord Chamberlain and later of King James. In both capacities he and his fellow actors wore the livery of their “Lord.” No wonder Shakespeare shows a great awareness of the duties and privileges of servants of various kinds in the plays. The servants can be treacherous, loyal, or sycophantic. Some prove themselves a truer servant of their lord by disobeying him (like the disguised Kent disobeying Lear’s decree of banishment). Others carry out their lords’ evil directions (Antigonus exposing the baby Perdita in the wilderness).

One might expect that Robinson, when she considers the social conditions of Shakespeare’s time, might be joining the New Historicists, such as Stephen Greenblatt, but she gives them the back of her hand. She is always more interested in theology than in the social sciences. According to some of Robinson’s favorite authors, we are all servants to God, and that service is ennobled by the fact that Jesus came as a servant to us. John Wycliffe called Jesus “a servant God.” William Langland wrote that “Jesus is truly his [the poor man’s] servant (for He said so Himself) and wears the poor man’s livery…. Jesus bears the sign of poverty, and saved all mankind in that apparel.” Paradoxes of that kind are present in servants’ conflicting obligations throughout Shakespeare.

The importance of theology is even more pressing when Robinson brings one of her favorite themes to the plays—grace, by which she means giving more than one owes and receiving more than one deserves. She finds a very riot of such givings and receivings in Shakespeare’s “romances.” The agenda she perceived in these plays seems set by Posthumus in Cymbeline: he says, when Iachimo kneels to ask for forgiveness, “Kneel not to me; the power that I have on you is, to spare you.”

The importance to Robinson of grace lets her bring together…

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