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  • Forgiveness and Literature
  • Michael Fischer

Imagine a community where constructive dialogue across political, class, and other differences is rare. Threatened by disagreement, individuals cluster together with like-minded believers, often egging one another on into taking even more extreme positions, usually against their ideological opponents. Sources of information are selected to ratify existing views instead of challenging them. Shielded from external perspectives, individuals stay stuck in anger, opposition, and resentment, recycling grievances against their enemies and spinning out fantasies of revenge.

Fresh insight into this not-so-hypothetical scenario comes from an unlikely source: recent studies of forgiveness, starting with Sarah Beck-with’s excellent Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness. Resentment and the longing for revenge are definitively studied in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Beckwith shows that the anguish in these tragedies runs even more deeply than feeling wronged, wanting to get even, and doubting that justice will be done unless one takes matters into one’s own hands. Hamlet, for example, feels not just outraged by his father’s murder but abandoned, trapped inside himself and radically on his own, unable to have his grief and sense of injustice heard by his mother, who joins her new husband in thinking Hamlet has mourned enough. When she asks Hamlet why grief “seems . . . so particular with thee,” her lack of sympathy triggers Hamlet’s angry response that he knows not “seems,” that he has “that within which passes show” (1.2.75–76, 85). Drawing [End Page 504] on the work of Stanley Cavell and J. L. Austen, Beckwith argues that such thoroughgoing loss of confidence in making oneself intelligible to others impoverishes the inner life it might seem at first to protect. Despairing of being heard, we end up feeling we have nothing to say, nothing, at any rate, that will matter.

Feeling betrayed by his mother thus pushes Hamlet to the conclusion that his words and actions cannot reach others. But this conclusion exerts its own pull on him because it exempts him from what Beckwith calls “the terrible responsibility of having to account for yourself.”1 If incomprehension is a foregone conclusion, then there is no need to try making oneself clear to others and no obligation to find the right words. The pressure to explain oneself can feel “terrible” because of “the relentless exposure to others [it] entails” (p. 19): others who can ask more or less helpful questions, misunderstand, and be influenced for better or for worse by what you tell them. As Beckwith shows, Shakespeare’s tragic heroes in different ways flee this exposure and seek some measure of control over the give-and-take of human relationships—at great cost to themselves and others. Othello is the clearest case of a man trying to wrench reality into his private fantasy, specifically his conviction that Desdemona is unfaithful and deserves death, which overrides anything she might do or say.

Forgiveness enters Beckwith’s account as a possibility that these tragic heroes resist granting or seeking. They balk at seeking forgiveness because it puts them at the mercy of unpredictable, independent others. These heroes find it difficult to grant forgiveness for much the same reason. Offering forgiveness exposes these tragic figures to the possibility of change, in this case the change that can result from creating new relationships no longer structured around the roles of avenger and wrongdoer. Beckwith cites Hannah Arendt’s view that forgiveness frees us from “the predicament of irreversibility”: “without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we would never recover” (p. 2). Forgiveness, in other words, breaks the hold of the past and allows a different future to emerge for both parties. Shakespeare’s tragedies show how the open-endedness of that future, its dependency on uncertain ongoing interactions with others, can be experienced as a terrifying loss of autonomy and control.

Beckwith focuses on how four late Shakespeare plays—Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest—embrace forgiveness while acknowledging the ongoing lure of resentment and revenge. She deftly [End Page 505] explores the cultural underpinnings of...


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pp. 504-512
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