Acknowledging the Past in Donne’s Ignatius His Conclave

  • Anita Gilman Sherman


If in The Anniversaries and The Winter’s Tale, both Donne and Shakespeare test the contours of skepticism by mourning an unknown woman and repudiating the past, in the next pairing of texts, they continue their philosophical forays by turning to history and its gallery of “Equivocal men” (27).1 Instead of finding solace in silent wonder over strange facts or resorting to the strenuous aestheticization of wit, in their return to history both Donne and Shakespeare seek release from a cacophony of voices whose competing claims produce uncertainty. Stanley Cavell has made discerning remarks about “the intractableness of the past” and “the consciousness that history will not go away, except through our perfect acknowledgment of it (in particular, our acknowledgment that it is not past).”2 In the following two chapters, I argue that Shakespeare and Donne try to make history go away by perfectly acknowledging it; they share a need to exorcise the past, although they take different approaches. In his satirical polemic, Ignatius His Conclave, Donne at once enacts and condemns a skeptical aesthetic even as he tries to salvage a skeptical ethic from its blistering, intellectual rampage. He adopts rhetorical forms associated with skepticism while disowning the aestheticizing tendencies of its skeptical characters. In the process, Ignatius explores the challenges of arriving at consensus and of imagining political alternatives. In Henry VIII or All Is True, Shakespeare (with Fletcher) also adopts a skeptical aesthetic in hopes of helping us to imagine a present free from the burdens of the past.


Collective Memory Personal Memory General Council Henry VIII Humane Infirmity 
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© Anita Gilman Sherman 2007

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  • Anita Gilman Sherman

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