“Turning away,” writes bell hooks in All about Love: New Visions, “we risk moving in a wilderness of spirit so intense we may never find our way home again. I write of love to bear witness both to the danger of this movement, and to call for a return to love.” In Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare, Regina Schwartz echoes hooks in calling for a return to love, particularly in the realms of political thought and philosophy, by turning to the dramatic offerings of the beloved Bard.
Schwartz, an English professor who specializes in early modern literature, also teaches classes to law students. She notes in her introduction that in the many tomes on justice lining her shelves, she finds few references to love: “While whole sectors of our culture are preoccupied with love—novels, film, painting, music, poetry, religion—it has been marginalized or even exiled from other spheres—from political, economic, legal thought, and largely, even from philosophy” (3–4). Yet Schwartz, with her expertise in the Hebrew Bible and Milton’s Christianity, recognized a loss in these “preoccupations with distribution, duty, and rights”: an erasure of the rich Jewish and Christian tradition that understood justice precisely as love, justice embedded in the Hebrew Bible’s commands to love both neighbor and stranger and in the New Testament’s further command to love one’s enemy.
In secular modernity, the way back to biblical wisdom is perhaps a narrow road. Schwartz’s tactic here is to highlight another source of this wisdom in the venerated plays of William Shakespeare, whose drama, she writes, “often depicts justice as love” (16). Shakespeare’s plays emerge from an era uniquely marked by both a religious worldview and also the beginnings of the secular age as we know it. Shakespeare, then, is a door through which we secular sorts might find our way back to an understanding of justice as love-for-the-other.
The book divides this emphasis into five categories: experience, law, power, economics, and forgiveness. Schwartz offers carefully honed readings of four of Shakespeare’s plays—King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet, as well as creative readings of as many biblical narratives, including the story of Moses and the Law, Jonah’s call to Nineveh, and Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers. These readings of the dramas and the scriptures are contextualized in a wide-ranging engagement with other thinkers: Plato and Aristotle, Moses Maimonides and Rowan Williams, Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Luther, Emmanuel Kant and Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv.
Importantly, Schwartz also contextualizes her scholarly work in a story of her own. The book begins with a personal narrative about her mother’s final years, the lengths to which Schwartz had to go to secure robust care for her, insisting to doctors and hospital ethicists that her mother’s quality of life should be understood not in terms of cost-benefit charts but by the love she could give and receive. By introducing the book in this way, Schwartz reminds us that the question of love’s displacement from conceptions of justice has inescapable real-world consequences. It arises from lived life. It indelibly marks lived lives.
These material concerns also surface at points when the book nods toward contemporary crises: Shakespeare’s handwritten revisions to the earlier play Sir Thomas More, including a passionate response to anti-immigration riots in 1517 London, “have reached across the centuries to rebuke the present” (48). Similarly, Hamlet’s “anti-revenge plot,” in Schwartz’s reading, suggests the forgotten power of forgiveness within a contemporary frame of retributive justice. In a world of caged asylum-seeking children and grossly disproportionate minority incarceration, such visions remind us that another way is possible.
Our symposium’s panelists open up a multidisciplinary conversation about Schwartz’s book, several of which note the challenge defining love presents: at points the book points to love as an act of care-for-another, while at other points love seems to be importantly emotional. Nicholas Wolterstorff commends Schwartz’s engagement with love and justice in the biblical tradition but wonders whether love is precisely as equivalent to justice as the book seems to suggest: is love always a response to human need? Might there be other ways of loving, and other ways of doing justice? Vittorio Montemaggi also wonders about the slippage between love and justice, noting that the book suggests a “medieval” idea of human and cosmic love as continuous. Rather than rejecting this capacious understanding of love as both feeling and doing, Montemaggi wonders whether it might be possible to extend it even further to love as human being.
Montemaggi also highlights Schwartz’s inclusion of personal narrative as a distinguishing methodology: this emphasis on personal experience, he argues, is the book’s ultimate authority on love. Practicing this methodology herself, Julia Lupton recounts her experience of a “moving lecture” by James Clifford about sculptures of saints culled from churches and reinstalled in a medieval Verona castle-turned-museum. Lupton anchors her reading of Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare in the experience of this lecture and its accompanying images, highlighting the role of interpretive context in readings of ancient art. Thus Lupton contrasts Schwartz’s “unabashedly religious” reading of Romeo and Juliet with Paul Kottman’s “resolutely secular” one.
Michael Shapiro similarly focuses on the readings of the plays, offering an overview of the book’s interpretations before detailing his own fuller reading of The Tempest to extend Schwartz’s and supplement her treatment of Hamlet as an “anti-revenge play.” And finally, Penelope Geng highlights the book’s contribution in bringing original readings of Shakespeare to questions of contemporary urgency. Focusing on King Lear, Geng wonders about where the book’s arguments might be extended by a fuller engagement with the scholarship on “the culture of neighborly justice in English common law culture.” Noting the evolution of scholarly conversations and recent reevaluations of their ethical weight, as well as the passionately engaged style of writing Schwartz models, Geng ends with a future-oriented question we all might do well to ponder: What does Schwartz—and what do we—hope to see from this and the next generation of scholars?
What might it look like for scholars to unabashedly embrace love?