Alan Jacobs: The Hermeneutics of Love

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 4.05.13 PMAnything combining love and epistemology fascinates me, so I’ve thought of the following excerpt from Alan Jacobs’ challenging book A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love many times. If he or his publisher believes that including an excerpt of this length (I can’t remember the length of the Kindle excerpt) is detrimental to their sales rather than helpful, I will immediately take it down.

But I don’t think that will happen, rather the reverse.


Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, act 4, scene 1. The plot of Don John the Bastard has come to fruition, and Claudio has repudiated Hero before the crowd gathered for their wedding, shouting for all to hear that, while her blushes would seem to be maidenly they are in fact tokens of guilt: “She knows the heat of a luxurious bed” (1. 40). He thinks he has-to borrow a term from Othello, a play that shares this theme—”ocular proof” for his charge; we know he does not, and that he and his patron Don Pedro have been deceived. Among the characters, only Hero and Don John (the innocent victim and the villain) actually know that the charge of fornication is false.

Or do they alone know? That depends on what counts as knowledge. The first to speak on Hero’s behalf—after even her own father, Leonato, has accepted the charges against her (“Would the two princes lie, and Claudio lie?” [l. 153])—is the Friar who was to officiate at the ceremony:

Hear me a little,
For I have only silent been so long,
And given way unto this course of fortune,
By noting of the lady. I have marked
A thousand blushing apparitions
To start into her face, a thousand innocent shames
In angel whiteness beat away those blushes,
And in her eye there hath appeared a fire
To burn the errors that these princes hold
Against her maiden truth. Call me a fool,
Trust not my reading nor my observations,
Which with experimental seal doth warrant
The tenor of my book; trust not my age,
My reverence, calling, nor divinity,
If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here
Under some biting error. (11. 155-169)

It should register with us that the Friar lays no claim to some intuited gnosis or supernatural revelation divorced from the realm of the senses. Like Claudio and Don Pedro, he derives his judgment from what he sees, and he sees what they do: Claudio, as noted, has spoken of Hero’s blushes, but has interpreted them differently. And what the Friar calls attention to here is precisely the importance of interpreting the sensory phenomena correctly and, moreover, the need for the interpreter to possess certain virtues in order to “read” Hero’s blushes as they should be read—which is to say, in accordance with the truth of the situation and of her character.

Claudio and Don Pedro possess what they think of as “ocular proof” of Hero’s infidelity, and that alone serves to determine their reading of Hero’s blushes. No other factors shape their interpretation, nor, indeed, could they; for Claudio and Don Pedro have no other knowledge relevant to the interpretive task with which they are faced. Claudio’s own account, given to Don Pedro, of how he came to love Hero is instructive:

O, my lord,
When you went onward on this ended action,
I looked upon her with a soldier’s eye,
That liked but had a rougher task in hand
Than to drive liking to the name of love.
But now I am returned and that war thoughts
Have left their places vacant, in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires,
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying I liked her ere I went to wars. (I.i.277-285)

From this speech we learn two important things: first, that Claudio’s knowledge about Hero is almost totally visual, the product of his repeated “looking upon her”; and second, that the growth of “liking” into what Claudio calls love results not from some positive development of attention and appreciation but rather from the mere absence of martial thoughts, from the vacuum created in Claudio’s mind by the conclusion of the recent battle. Therefore, when presented with putative visual evidence of Hero’s faithlessness, Claudio cannot make recourse to any other knowledge that might incline him to question the trustworthiness of the spectacle Don John offers for his contemplation. And Don Pedro, who is not in love with Hero, has even less reason to doubt that “evidence.”

The Friar, conversely, claims an authority that allows him to connect the visual phenomena—which, again, he perceives precisely as Claudio and Don Pedro do—more responsibly and in a way faithful to the true character of Hero. This authority has, he explains, multiple sources: his age and consequent seasoning in the world (including, we may presume, the social world, the world of men-and-women-together, which Claudio and Don Pedro as soldiers have mostly avoided); his calling by God to the cure of souls, a calling that to be properly fulfilled requires constant attentiveness to the niceties of human character; his reading in wise authors and Scripture. Moreover, he claims that the judgments to which his age, vocation, and learning lead him have been tested (“warranted”) by experience (“experiment”), and that such judgments therefore deserve more credence than those of Claudio and Don Pedro.

But the Friar is not the only person present, other than Hero, who is confident of Hero’s innocence: There is Beatrice, whose trust in her cousin and friend is implicit and unwavering. In some respects Beatrice’s certainty differs from the Friar’s confidence, and not just in that it is certainty rather than confidence (the Friar acknowledges the bare possibility of his being wrong, Beatrice never does): Beatrice claims neither age, religious calling, nor erudition. Her certainty stems rather from her intimate personal knowledge of Hero. At this point the English language, as it does so rarely, fails us: Whereas it enables, as French does not, Claudio’s distinction between liking and loving, it cannot offer us what we need here, which is the distinction between connaitre and savoir—roughly, “knowledge of” rather than “knowledge about.” One of the most important and productive elements of the work of Martha Nussbaum has been her insistence, deriving from Aristotle, that love-especially philia, the kind of love that Beatrice and Hero feel for each other—is productive of this intimate knowledge, this connaissance.

The Aristotelian view stresses that bonds of close friendship or love (such as those that connect members of a family, or close personal friends) are extremely important in the whole business of being a good perceiver. Trusting the guidance of a friend and allowing one’s feelings to be engaged with that other person’s life and choices, one learns to see aspects of the world that one had previously missed. One’s desire to share a form of life with the friend motivates this process. (Love’s Knowledge 44)

Beatrice then claims an authoritative experience of Hero’s character that gives the lie to the princes’ accusation—and, one might add, to Leonato’s shockingly immediate acquiescence in his daughter’s condemnation. Beatrice’s claim comes not in the form of an argument but, instead, as a series of wounded and desperate cries that her beloved cousin has been wronged. The Friar indicates that he is confident rather than certain precisely by forming an argument, making a case. To doubt that Hero is pure is not possible for Beatrice; therefore, making a case for it is not possible.

Of course, the kind of claim Beatrice implicitly makes for Hero—though again it’s not really a “claim”—carries weight only if those who hear it approve the character of the one making it. There would be no reason to take such an avowal seriously if it came from the mouth of a habitually dishonest and morally slovenly person. This observation leads us to consider the one character on stage in this complex scene who is not sure about Hero, who is puzzled and confused: Benedick. He has been the companion, friend, and confidant of Claudio and Don Pedro, and yet, when they stride self-righteously offstage, he remains. But this does not in itself indicate his allegiance: Almost his first words after the denunciation of Hero are “For my part I am so attir’d in wonder, / I know not what to say” (IV.1.144-145)—he who has never lacked for something to say! On the one hand, he knows that Claudio and Don Pedro “have the very bent of honour,” and that they would not destroy an innocent woman unless they were “deceived” (11. 186-189). On the other hand, he knows that a practiced villain, Don John, accompanied Claudio and Don Pedro as they stalked away and, moreover, that those who are deceived are not always free from culpability for their state of misinformation (as he demonstrates in his stern treatment of both Claudio and Don Pedro later on).

But the deciding factor for Benedick derives from his love of Beatrice, which in turn depends largely upon his assessment of her character. Unlike Hero and Claudio, Beatrice and Benedick have known each other for many years. It appears that, before the “merry war” of wit (I.i.56) in which they have been for some time engaged, they had some sort of romantic relationship (II.i.261-264)—a relationship that, of course, this play sees them resume and nurture to fulfillment. Benedick’s knowledge of Beatrice, therefore, is far from being merely visual: It is no the savoir of “ocular proof” but the connaître of love.

It is Beatrice who reminds Benedick that, even if the princes were deceived, they failed to seek confirmation for their belief from sources other than their own eyesight and, moreover, made a point of condemning Hero in the most humiliatingly public way imaginable: before a crowd of family and friends waiting to celebrate her marriage (IV.i.300-306). They have therefore behaved cruelly even if they were deceived. It seems to be this incontrovertible point that drives Benedick to ask the question the answer to which settles for him his responsibility:

Benedick: Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?
Beatrice: Yea, as sure as I have a thought, or a soul.
Benedick: Enough! I am engaged, I will challenge him. (11. 327-335)

A few moments earlier, when Beatrice had asked him to “[k]ill Claudio,” Benedick had replied, “Not for the wide world” (11. 289-290). But now her exposure of Claudio’s cruelty and her absolute conviction that Hero has been wronged win him over. He can deny neither the justice of her argument nor the authority of her testimony to Hero’s character. A discrimination must be made here: Benedick need not know anything of Beatrice in order to acknowledge that, if Claudio and Don Pedro are wrong in what they charge, they have behaved abominably. But it is only his love for her, based upon his knowledge of her character—her honesty, perceptiveness, and faithfulness—that resolves for him that momentous “if” that must be resolved if he is to act rightly in this agonizing situation. It is love’s knowledge that puts into play the chain of arguments that determine that he challenge Claudio—which he soon does. Lacking the age, vocation, and learning of the Friar, lacking Beatrice’s intimate personal connaissance of Hero, Benedick nevertheless comes to share their conviction by acknowledging their claims to interpretive and moral discernment. For even before Beatrice convicts him of his responsibility with regard to Claudio, he encourages the grieving Leonato to be guided by the Friar’s advice (1. 244).

This scene from Much Ado About Nothing provides, even in its brevity, a remarkably comprehensive outline of a hermeneutics of love.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

2 thoughts on “Alan Jacobs: The Hermeneutics of Love”

Leave a Reply