Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness

Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness

Sarah Beckwith
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness
    Book Description:

    Shakespeare lived at a time when England was undergoing the revolution in ritual theory and practice we know as the English Reformation. With it came an unprecedented transformation in the language of religious life. Whereas priests had once acted as mediators between God and men through sacramental rites, Reformed theology declared the priesthood of all believers. What ensued was not the tidy replacement of one doctrine by another but a long and messy conversation about the conventions of religious life and practice. In this brilliant and strikingly original book, Sarah Beckwith traces the fortunes of this conversation in Shakespeare's theater.

    Beckwith focuses on the sacrament of penance, which in the Middle Ages stood as the very basis of Christian community and human relations. With the elimination of this sacrament, the words of penance and repentance-"confess," "forgive," "absolve" -no longer meant (no longer could mean) what they once did. In tracing the changing speech patterns of confession and absolution, both in Shakespeare's work and Elizabethan and Jacobean culture more broadly, Beckwith reveals Shakespeare's profound understanding of the importance of language as the fragile basis of our relations with others. In particular, she shows that the post-tragic plays, especially Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, are explorations of the new regimes and communities of forgiveness. Drawing on the work of J. L. Austin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Stanley Cavell, Beckwith enables us to see these plays in an entirely new light, skillfully guiding us through some of the deepest questions that Shakespeare poses to his audiences.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6062-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction: Promising, Forgiving
    (pp. 1-12)

    This is a book about the grammar of forgiveness in Shakespeare’s late, post-tragic plays, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. In it I explore the conditions of possibility of this grammar, its historical contours in the abandoned sacrament of penance, and the changes to it entailed in the revolution of ritual theory and practice we know as the English Reformation. I draw out the implications and consequences of this grammar in the new post-tragic forms of theater that Shakespeare develops in these astonishing experimental plays.

    Each of these plays ends with a public spectacle, event, or ceremony, one...

  6. Part One: Penance to Repentance

    • 1 The Mind’s Retreat from the Face
      (pp. 15-33)

      I take the title of my chapter, “The Mind’s Retreat from the Face,” from Fergus Kerr’s classic, Theology after Wittgenstein.¹ The phrase is a haunting, alarming way of picturing a pervasive notion of the face as a mask obscuring the mind’s inaccessible internal objects. In this picture, “the mind retreats from the face, just as the immaterial soul once disappeared behind the body.”² This picture of the relation of mind and body is most famously associated with Descartes’ description in the Second Meditation.³ It is not, however, merely a philosophical idea but a common experience of self, one intrinsic to...

    • 2 Rites of Forgiveness
      (pp. 34-56)

      Several critics have recently explored the idea that the idioms of Shakespearean theater are eucharistic. Anthony Dawson sees the actor’s body shared and given, offered up to spectators, as a version of real presence; worthy reception is participation in theater and communion alike, and the actor’s sharing of his flesh with spectators is a “secular enactment of eucharistic community.”¹ Likewise Jeffrey Knapp suggests that Shakespeare frames Henry V as a sacrament whose “real power lay in the minds of its spectators” and thus represented his theater as a means not to “fight against [God’s] word, but to save it from...

  7. Part Two: Promising

    • 3 Repairs in the Dark: Measure for Measure and the End of Comedy
      (pp. 59-82)

      In Measure for Measure, the marriages that conventionally end comedy are a punishment woven into the penitential investigations of the play, made necessary because sex is seen under the sign of sin. At the end of Measure for Measure, there are two forced marriages and an ambiguously unwelcome proposal for another. Lucio the feckless slanderer and wit is forced to marry Kate Keep-down, who has carried his child; Angelo is forced to marry Mariana, the betrothed woman he jilted and then, unknown to himself, bedded. Isabella’s notorious silence at the Duke’s proposal is usually read, and often played, as shock...

  8. Part Three: Forgiving

    • 4 The Recovery of Voice in Shakespeare’s Pericles
      (pp. 85-103)

      In this chapter I will not be so intimately concerned with the resources of penance and its transformations. Instead, I will be examining Shakespeare’s exploration of the wording of the world in Pericles. This chapter then explores the “post-tragic,” a term I have already used, but so far not defined. It also shows how Shakespeare develops in Pericles a new form of romance in which a community is re-created through the recovery of voice.

      To understand Pericles, we must begin with King Lear.

      Gloucester’s eyes are out. There is nowhere to be led except to the place from which he...

    • 5 Acknowledgment and Confession in Cymbeline
      (pp. 104-126)

      What is it I can confess? I can confess that I envy that man’s art and this man’s scope, the anger I failed to suppress at the last faculty meeting, that I have been wasting my time. To whom am I confessing this? If I have been unfaithful I can confess this to my husband; if I am Bill Clinton, I must apparently confess this to the nation. Who will then forgive me or him? Can I confess that my very existence here and now takes up far more than my fair share of the world’s resources, and so I...

    • 6 Shakespeare’s Resurrections: The Winter’s Tale
      (pp. 127-146)

      Let’s forget about the ghosts that have troubled Shakespearean theater in recent years. Let’s for the moment lay to rest Clarence, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and other haunted and haunting spirits.¹ Such ghosts are conjured in The Winter’s Tale, the subject of the present chapter, but though they lend the play their title, they are not finally its subject or its medium (no pun intended!). Hermione’s ghost is twice conjured in the play. When she appears to Antigonus to name her child Perdita, she is strictly provisional, for Antigonus has “heard (but not believ’d) the spirits o’th’ dead/May walk...

    • 7 Making Good in The Tempest
      (pp. 147-172)

      Hasn’t anyone who has been hurt wished above all that the one who harmed him could come to understand the measure of the hurt? This desire is informed by a longing for justice, but also a hunger for recognition as an aspect, even a condition of it. There are dangers in this. For in entertaining the idea that the person who hurt us will acknowledge the full dimensions of that hurt, we may forget that we must in this case see ourselves as the one so nearly crushed or defeated by that hurt, see ourselves as his victim when it...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 173-202)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 203-218)
  11. Index
    (pp. 219-228)