- Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness
It has often been noted that the pivotal moment in The Tempest occurs in act 5, scene 2, when Ariel convinces Prospero to exchange vengeance for virtue and take pity on Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, and their followers. Ariel does so in part by describing their misery to Prospero: "If you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender" (5.1.18-19).1 Prospero responds with a question: "Dost thou think so, spirit?" (5.1.19). In a brilliantly detailed reading of this scene in her new book Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness, Sarah Beckwith points out that this moment in itself marks a crucial transition in Prospero's attitudes: he has so far spoken primarily in imperatives rather than in questions. Moreover, the questions he asks before act 5 tend to be rhetorical, designed to demonstrate power over others rather than openness to their views. When Ariel informs Prospero that his prisoners "cannot boudge till your release" (5.1.11), Beckwith observes, the syntax suggests that this statement could refer just as much to Prospero's own release from the prison of his vindictiveness as to his command to free his prisoners. This psychological release involves an acknowledgment of others and of their suffering, yet a genuine mutuality between Prospero and those he initially sought to punish is never achieved. Beckwith shows how the closing scene of the play avoids any reciprocal confrontation between Prospero and the men in his power in which both parties can speak and respond. Rather, Prospero utters his expressions of forgiveness and fellow-feeling, some of which are highly ambivalent and conflicted in their own right, "in the absence of any possible response" (168). Gonzalo, for example, has not yet been fully released from Prospero's spell and is unable to speak. In addition, Antonio never responds to Prospero and therefore never expresses the penitence that the latter seeks to instill in him.
Beckwith reads The Tempest as an exploration of the problem of forgiveness, especially in its closing scene. If Prospero ultimately decides to forgive, this forgiveness remains problematic, most importantly because he is unable to reveal his own vulnerability, as a wronged man, to his wrongdoers. It is only in the epilogue that he enters into a reciprocal relationship—in this case with the audience—in which he acknowledges his own need for forgiveness from others: "As you from crimes would pardon'd be, / Let your indulgence set me free" (epilogue, 19-20).
Beckwith's book as a whole explores the theme of forgiveness in the late, or post-tragic, plays: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. Because she deals first and foremost with these plays, the title of her monograph could be seen as slightly misleading, since it suggests an investigation of forgiveness in the entire Shakespeare canon, although a more elaborate title specifying the focus [End Page 106] on the romances would arguably have been less elegant. Beckwith's description of the four late plays as post-tragic is illuminating and appropriate: she shows convincingly that these plays revisit issues also explored in the tragedies, especially in King Lear, but this time with an interest in the possibility of redemption. As Beckwith shows, this in turn produces a concern in the late plays with the language and rituals of forgiveness and repentance.
In this respect, Shakespeare's late plays also form a sustained response to the transformations in the languages and forms of repentance and forgiveness introduced by the Reformation, and can be seen as part of a larger cultural debate about the meaning of forgiveness in early modern England. In broad terms, Protestantism no longer understood penance as a matter of ritual actions presided over by a priest but as a form of inner repentance—an inward (re)turning to God that exists independently of what the Elizabethan homily on "Repentance and True Reconciliation with God" calls "outward ceremonies" (quoted on 3). Forgiveness, therefore, could no longer be granted by a priest acting on...