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Paul Cefalu, associate professor of English, has published two interdisciplinary books that offer significant new insights into English literature.

Moral Identity in Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge University Press) examines an overlooked aspect of theology in relation to literature; Revisionist Shakespeare: Transitional Ideologies in Texts and Contexts (Palgrave Macmillan Press) is a polemic against Renaissance scholars’ interpretations of the economic trends presented in Shakespearean drama.

Cefalu’s scholarly career has focused on literature’s relationships with philosophy, ethical theory, religion, and political theory, and the interdisciplinary nature of his work is clearly seen in both books.

In Moral Identity in Early Modern English Literature, Cefalu analyzes ways in which classical ethical theory, especially Aristotelian, Stoic, and Platonic theories, influenced 17th-century writers, including John Donne, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and various theologians of that period, and focuses on the tension between religious theory and religious practice.

“[That tension] is a very technical issue, but one that has important consequences for understanding the way in which theology is represented in literature,” says Cefalu. “[It] has been overlooked by Early Modern scholars.”

The tension begins with the theory holding that once converted to the Protestant cause, one acquires virtues that are bestowed by God, making the individual one of the “Puritan elect” and closer to redemptive status than non-converts.

“There’s tension because practically speaking, these people sin all the time, and there’s a certain kind of hypocrisy given that the elect often end up being the most hardened, egregious sinners,” explains Cefalu.

“The problem is that Protestant theology doesn’t allow for a theory according to which people through habituation after practice can gradually acquire virtues, according to the Aristotelian tradition. Aristotelian theory says we become virtuous by practice; we acquire traits by acting that way. Protestantism was militantly against that, and argued that it was too perfectionistic to argue that through one’s own efforts one could acquire virtue. God has to infuse it in you.

“In theory that sounds great, but practically speaking, these so-called ‘elect’ who had this infusion of virtue were still sinning all the time. So there is a tension between religious theory and practice that is unresolved during that period, that hasn’t been talked about by scholars, and that comes into play in all sorts of ways in Early Modern literature.”

In Revisionist Shakespeare: Transitional Ideologies in Texts and Contexts, Cefalu takes exception with Renaissance scholars who hold that Shakespearean drama “allegorized the transition between feudalism and capitalism during the 16th and 17th centuries.”

As an example of what he is countering, Cefalu cites these scholars’ interpretation of King Lear, where Lear and his loyal followers supposedly “represent the old guard, the waning aristocracy and decline of feudal values, while the new guard is represented by the greedy, materialistic sisters who dispossess Lear and are the embodiments of a new capitalistic ethos of greed and inquisitiveness. This clash of characters allegorizes a historical clash between two modes of production, feudalism and the capitalism that is displacing it.”

“I have found that to be a contrived, unwieldy argument,” he says. “I offer an alternate theory drawn on revisionist history that says the transition to capitalism was less linear than people have assumed and I try to apply the revisionist history to an understanding of Shakespearean drama.”

Cefalu says getting access to a specialized database that held the 200,000 documents he needed for research was one of his biggest challenges.

The Moral Identity in Early Modern English Literature project also required that he learn Latin, philosophy, and ethical theory in graduate school.

He had no formal background in Latin, so he took an intensive Latin course while at University of Chicago that helped him translate original documents. About 10 percent of the source documents he examined had never been translated.

Cefalu refined his interest in philosophy and ethical theory by engaging in conversations with colleagues in the philosophy department.

What made his research easier, however, was the help he received from two Lafayette students.

Brian Want ’00 pored over 20 volumes of Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s sermons in 16th-century tomes in order to find important quotes, many of which I used in the book, and Jeb Madigan ’04 proofread the entire manuscript,” Cefalu says. “So it’s not the case that since we are at a small college, [professors] can’t enlist the excellent resources of our students to help us get our work done.”

His interdisciplinary view of scholarship extends to his students. For example, he mentored psychology majorJenny Boyar ’08 (Hillsborough, N.J.) as she analyzed epilepsy in literature and gained new insights into the representation of the disease in the works of three noted epileptic writers.

“I knew from taking his Literary Questions class that he is knowledgeable about a wide range of topics, including psychoanalysis,” says Boyar. “And he’s been just as passionate about my project as I am.”

Cefalu also doesn’t look at texts from just a literary point of view in the classroom.

“I’m very interested in interdisciplinary work, so every time I look at a literary text I’m thinking of it in the context of the philosophical, theological, historical, and political background,” he explains. “That feeds into [my] classes.”

Cefalu’s latest project, a book manuscript titled “Sublime Objects of Theology: Contemporary Theory and Early Modern English Literature,” is under review by Palgrave Macmillan Press.

He also has shared his research through articles, reviews, and conference presentations.

Cefalu serves as a reader for Cambridge University Press and the journal Literature and Theology. He is a recipient of a Woodrow Wilson Foundation fellowship and a fellowship and teaching prize from University of Chicago.

Cefalu joined the Lafayette faculty in 1999 after receiving his Ph.D. from University of Chicago. He graduated with honors in English from Johns Hopkins University.

Categorized in: Academic News