Sunday, November 6, 2011

Alterations of State by Richard McCoy

Richard McCoy's Alterations of State is a survey of Reformation-era literature that seeks to investigate changing ideas about sacred kingship. To those of us who, in our high school history classes, congratulated ourselves for not belonging to a society that believes in divine right, McCoy's book does a good job outlining the theological complexities of that philosophy, which give it force beyond the need to consolidate a monarch's power.

McCoy argues that the idea of sacred kingship was ultimately a response to the Reformation's abolition of "real presence" from the sacraments, churches, and relics of England. He takes us back to Marburg (cue Ford Madox Ford) where Zwingli rejects Luther's claim to Christ's presence in the Eucharist and tells us that "Monarchy's enduring power derives in part form a vague but persistent desire for a real presence in the face of an 'essential absence.'" That is, because we could no longer locate Christ's presence in the traditions and icons of the church, a national vision of Christianity required that presence to be relocated in the figure of the King himself.

Alterations of State is persuasive and thorough, yet highly readable. Most of the chapters are organized by the authors in whom McCoy tracks the conflicts over sacred kingship, including Skelton, Shakespeare, and Marvell. Perhaps the most interesting of these, for me, was the chapter on Shakespeare, in which McCoy contends the relationship between Hamlet and his father's ghost mirrors the Reformation-era compulsion for an obviated spiritual presence in the Catholic sacraments. Though I wouldn't recommend this for most readers here, I found it fascinating.