Members of His Body

Shakespeare, Paul, and a Theology of Nonmonogamy

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Will Stockton
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , May
     2017.
     188 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780823275519.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this provocative, novel, and dense study, Will Stockton seeks to reveal a structural perversion in Christian marital theology in which “the distinction between the couple and the group” dissolves so that the “dyad becomes a plurality” (5, 11). Stockton undertakes in depth readings of four Shakespearean plays as well as other early modern texts in order to explore some of these non-dyadic options. Thinking the question of Christian non-monogamy from this angle, Stockton’s theoretical and methodological approaches—as well as specific conclusions—stand in contrast with related studies, such as John Cairncross’s After Polygamy Was Mad a Sin (Routledge, 1974), and John Witte Jr.’s The Western Case for Monogamy Over Polygamy (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Stockton’s ideas also promise to help us arrive at new insights into other early modern texts, such as John Donne’s holy sonnet “Show me deare Christ, thy Spouse.”

Refreshingly, Stockton admits that his study contains “dually historicist and presentist aspirations” (118n29). What this means is that Stockton argues not only that certain polygamous arrangements exist in some of Shakespeare’s plays, but also that contemporary Christian apologists—especially Stockton’s “evangelicals”—for monogamy, as it is usually understood, get something fundamentally wrong about Christian marital theology, even if their readings and practices dominate the tradition (3, 114n9).

One of the many intriguing elements of Stockton’s approach to these readings is not only his thoughtful engagement with biblical scholarship, but also his dabbling in some of his own. In Members of His Body, Stockton claims, “biblical marriage is plural marriage” (5). And he understands this “biblical marriage” to cast a long shadow over Christian history. Stockton primarily derives this claim not, as we might expect, from polygamy in the Hebrew Scriptures, but by way of Ephesians 5:22-33 as well as a few other passages in the Pauline corpus—texts written both by the historical Paul and others writing in his name. Stockton seeks to identify a (historical) theology of Christian marriage, one that aids in “developing both queer and feminist Christian theologies” (12). This theology is, moreover, a political theology given that Stockton keeps his critical eye on marriage as a “status as a vehicle of Christian citizenship,” an issue explored most explicitly in chapters 1 and 2 and in the coda, which deals with three early modern utopian texts (3).

Chapter 1 is perhaps the most important in the book as it is where Stockton undertakes his most thorough engagement with Eph. 5. Stockton reads Eph. 5 as proffering a vision, via the “one flesh” model, in which “the marital body and the body of Christ are both male bodies that subsume the female in the process of growth and perfection” (28). This model of incorporation—through marriage, for Stockton, into the body of Christ—opens up the question about how many people are actually married due to the nature of shared flesh. Reading Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, Stockton points to how the flesh of the double set of identical twins—four functionally interchangeable people in the play—and sororal siblings works when mixed with marriage to create the possibility of incestuous plural unions that are inclusive of same-sex combinations (35-41). While Stockton marshals evidence from the play to support his reading, I wish he had done more to explain how siblings share flesh in the early modern imagination in order to clinch his argument.

In his reading of the anti-Semitic The Merchant of Venice in chapter 2, Stockton argues that this play “blurs the boundaries between Christian marriage and friendship, on the one hand, and Jewish sodomy on the other” (48). He advances this argument by way of a reading of Romans 1—and early modern interpretations of it—and associations of the English renaissance theater with idolatry and sodomy. Read from this perspective, we can see “husband and wife, husband and friend, and friend and wife, are all one flesh” (56). But this marital model renders Jewish presence a troubling form of difference in the body of Christ (58-60).

In chapters 3 and 4, Stockton tracks how adultery and individuation can distend the “one flesh” of marriage. He starts this exploration with Desdemona in Othello. Thinking with the early modern idea that chastity was a state of mind as well as body, Stockton show how a woman’s individuation and desire adulterate a strict understanding of the joint marital body since said woman refuses a “complete relinquishment of mind and body to her husband” (65). Stockton’s reading of The Winter’s Tale in chapter 4 explores the relationship of humans to animals, plants, and minerals in order to extend his argument that fallen humans are an always-adulterated species.

I have two main criticisms of Members of His Body, and neither of them are fatal. My first major concern for this study is how Stockton approaches his crucial reading of Eph. 5:22-33. If I understand his reading of these verses correctly, everything pivots on his interpretation of v. 31’s “For this cause” (the Geneva version). There is a real ambivalence in this clause, but throughout Members of His Body, Stockton fails to offer a justification for his reading of Eph. 5 that marriage causes a person to become Christian, rather than that being Christians causes a person to marry, and to do so in a proper manner per the household codes of Eph. 5 (cf. 4-5).

Secondly, I wish Stockton had made his book more accessible to non-Shakespeareans. I read his introduction as desiring a wide audience. But he presumes, for example, that his readers possess an intense familiarity with the plays he discusses. At critical moments, furthermore, he fails to walk his reader through how he arrived at his position (e.g. the familial flesh issue noted above). I fear these issues will hinder this book from garnering the broad audience of people interested in Christianity and sexuality, the history of Christian marriage, and formations of political theology that it deserves. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

William E. Smith III is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Will Stockton is associate professor of English at Clemson University.

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