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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness
  • Nils F. Schott
Sarah Beckwith. Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2011. 232 pages.

Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness brings together several strands of criticism that, in the course of the last decades, have reshaped the way we think about Shakespeare: the investigation of Shakespeare’s medieval heritage, the reconstitution of the Elizabethan institutional and, above all, religious milieu, and the sustained philosophical reflections on and with Shakespeare’s plays inspired by the work of Stanley Cavell. More ambitiously, it provides a much-needed theoretical engagement with the importance of forgiveness that does not suggest forgiveness to be a blanket solution to practical problems or, worse, exploit the shock value of atrocities to make acts of forgiveness seem all the more heroic (which often they are) and, thereby, all the more unattainable as a practical solution (which, unfortunately, they often are, too). Beckwith’s highly original synthesis of theater and theology, criticism and critique, review and reflection persuasively argues that a “grammar of forgiveness” can account for how the “post-tragic” plays traditionally referred to as the Late Romances “make community” (9) in the fragility of language and mutual acknowledgment. The book draws on a wealth of material, which is too varied to even begin to outline but crucially includes an adoption of ordinary language philosophy, that enriches our understanding of Shakespeare’s late plays but, equally importantly, emerges enriched itself. Central to Beckwith’s project is her insistence on transformations, processes of change that figure the temporality of forgiveness in a curious historicity that both places Shakespeare firmly within a historical context and has him respond to (as well as inform and illustrate) a variety of attempts to come to terms with “commonalty” (12) under the conditions of modernity, in which self and community are not acquired but given each time anew in the interaction with others.

The first chapter examines English Reformers’ “ardent desire” to heal the split between the inner and the outer, to bring “men and women to a place where they can mean what they say because they understand what it is they are saying” (27). In “a cruel, unintended irony,” however, the imposition of a single form of worship that was to make such understanding available to everyone intensified the very split to be overcome (32). Since believers’ understanding of ritual—which alone would justify participation in the sacraments and save them from the “theatricalization” of the Roman liturgy—is neither wholly rational nor wholly linguistic, since it is also gestural, visual and more broadly sensual, the enforcement of uniform worship (and, even more so, the imposition of oaths of allegiance) undercut the very goal the Reformers pursued, namely to found religious practice on a free conscience. Beckwith insists on the devastating consequences:

The perceived split between ‘outward’ behavior and ‘inner’ thoughts is an intrinsic denigration of expressive culture and of the human voice. . . . Shakespeare lends his art to restoring the mind and the soul to the face, and in the process evolves theatrical forms in which reconciliation and forgiveness become central.

(33) [End Page 1137]

To show how Shakespeare’s “post-tragic” plays (a term of Beckwith’s that gestures at the temporal complexity of her topic) come to terms with the “revolution of ritual theory” (28) that reduces confession to an impossible act of self-knowledge and abolishes any human agency in absolution, Beckwith in her second chapter examines how a move from the privacy of the confessional to the “external forum” of the congregation complements this concentration on the inner world of the believer’s conscience. The most significant result is that “[w]hen people confess and forgive in the absence of an office of forgiveness they are newly exposed in their words” (54). (The third chapter brilliantly shows how in Measure for Measure the unavailability of confession as an act of repairing relations with the self, with God, and with one’s neighbor leads to “a theater of exposure and humiliation” [80].) Individuals’ roles and actions then have to be created in what Beckwith calls with Stanley Cavell a “rediscovery of speech”:

We are both “singled out” in...


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