by Joshua R. Held
University of Alabama Press, 2023
Paper: 978-0-8173-6111-2 | Cloth: 978-0-8173-2155-0 | eISBN: 978-0-8173-9448-6
Library of Congress Classification PR438.C657H45 2023
Dewey Decimal Classification 820.935309032

How the conscience in early modern England emerged as a fulcrum for public action
Bold Conscience chronicles the shifting conception of conscience in early modern England, as it evolved from a faculty of restraint—what Shakespeare labels “coward conscience”—to one of bold and forthright self-assertion. The concept of conscience played an important role in post-Reformation England, from clerical leaders to laymen, not least because of its central place in determining loyalties during the English Civil War and the regicide of King Charles I. Yet the most complex and lasting perspectives on conscience emerged from deliberately literary voices—William Shakespeare, John Donne, and John Milton.

Joshua Held argues that literary texts by these authors transform the idea of conscience as a private, shameful state to one of boldness fit for navigating both royal power and common dissent in the public realm. Held tracks the increasing political power of conscience from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Henry VIII to Donne’s court sermons and Milton’s Areopagitica, showing finally that in Paradise Lost, Milton roots boldness in the inner paradise of a pure, common conscience.

Applying a fine-grain analysis to literary England from about 1601 to 1667, this study also looks back to the 1520s, to Luther’s theological foundations of the concept, and forward to 1689, to Locke’s transformation of the idea alongside the term “consciousness.” Ultimately, Held’s study shows how conscience emerges at once as a bulwark against absolute sovereignty and as a stronghold of personal certainty.