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Forgiving the Gift

The Philosophy of Generosity in Shakespeare and Marlowe

by Sean Lawrence

Publication Year: 2012

Forgiving the Gift challenges the tendency to reflexively understand gifts as exchanges, negotiations, and circulations. Lawrence reads plays by Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare as informed by an early modern belief in the possibility and even necessity of radical generosity, of gifts that break the cycle of economy and self-interest. The prologue reads Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus to show how the play aligns gift and grace, depicting Faustus’s famous bond as the instrument simultaneously of reciprocal exchange and of damnation. In the introduction, the author frames his argument theoretically by placing Marcel Mauss’s classic essay, The Gift, into dialogue with Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Paul Ricoeur to sketch two very different understandings of gift-giving. In the first, described by Mauss, the gift becomes a covert form of exchange. Though Mauss contrasts the gift economy with the market economy, his description of the gift economy nevertheless undermines his own project of discovering in it a basis for social solidarity. In the second understanding of gift exchange, derived from the philosophy of Levinas, the gift expresses the radical asymmetry of ethical concern. Literature and philosophy scholars alike will benefit from the original readings of The Merchant of Venice, Edward II, King Lear, Titus Andronicus, and The Tempest, which constitute the body of the text. These readings find in the plays a generosity that exceeds the social practice of gift-giving, because extraordinarily generous acts of friendship or filial affection survive the collapse of social norms. Antonio inMerchant and the title character in Edward II practice a friendship whose extravagance marks its excess. Lear, on the other hand, brings about his tragedy by attempting to reduce filial love to debt. Titus also discovers a love excessive to social convention when rape and mutilation annihilate his daughter’s cultural value. Finally, Prospero in The Tempest sacrifices power and even his own life for the love of his daughter, giving a gift rendered asymmetrical by both its excess and its secrecy. While proposing new readings of works of Renaissance drama, Forgiving the Gift also questions the model of human life from which many contemporary readings, especially those characterized as new historicist or cultural materialist, grow. In so doing, it addresses questions of how we are to understand literary texts, but also how we are to live with others in the world.

Published by: Duquesne University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

Acknowledgments constitute a distinct genre, as Daniel Pennac shows to hilarious effect in his monologue, Merci. If I frustrate generic expectations, it is not because I fear acknowledging my debts. On...

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Prologue: The Satanic Pact

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pp. xi

The central and initiating event of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is an exchange. The episodic plot achieves narrative unity in following “the form of Faustus’ fortunes, good or bad,” as the prologue...

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pp. 3-39

Marlowe’s Faustus makes a reciprocal exchange the basis of its plot but also presents exchange as the diabolical opposite of saving grace. In our own time, by contrast, few things attract suspicion as reliably as generosity, which we dismiss almost reflexively...

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1. The Venice of Merchants

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pp. 40-61

In his moment of triumph, immediately after choosing the correct casket, Bassanio turns to Portia: “Fair lady,” he defers to her, “by your leave, / I come by note, to give and to receive.” He refuses to believe his...

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2. Romans and Venetians on Grace and Exchange

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pp. 62-82

Few readers would dispute the importance of Christianity in The Merchant of Venice. Biblical references suffuse the play, providing Shylock with Old Testament citations and his Christian interlocutors with New Testament counterarguments. Critics may nevertheless...

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3. “Nothing Will Come of Nothing”: Avoiding the Gift in King Lear

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pp. 83-105

Mauss insists not only upon the ubiquity of exchange but also that a belief in pure generosity obfuscates it.1 This assumption governs a number of readings of King Lear. William Flesch, for instance, cites...

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4. Speaking and Betraying Love

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pp. 106-125

Despite a great deal of commentary, the nature of Antonio’s love for Bassanio remains opaque. Antonio himself expresses bewilderment at his own emotions in the play’s opening line: “In sooth, I know not...

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5. The “Dearest Friend” in Edward II

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pp. 126-142

The theme of friendship commands attention in Marlowe’s Edward II. The words “friend,” “friends” or “friendly” occur a total of 55 times, compared to 37 times in the combined parts of Tamburlaine and...

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6. Listening to Lavinia: Emmanuel Levinas’s Saying and Said in Titus AndronicusM

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pp. 143-164

King Lear and Faustus reveal exaggerated faith in the reciprocity of exchange as a tragic error. Even in the comedic world of The Merchant of Venice, the rejection of free gifts implies also the rejection of a doctrine of salvation...

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7. Returning to the World: Prospero’s Generosity and Power

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pp. 165-184

“‘The true life is absent,’” Levinas writes, quoting Arthur Rimbaud, in the opening words of Totality and Infinity. “But,” Levinas continues in his own voice, “we must live in the world. Metaphysics arises and is maintained...

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pp. 185-194

To the frustration of biographical criticism, Shakespeare writes almost entirely in the voices of characters. In response, James S. Shapiro turns away from Shakespeare’s psychology and personal views to “what can be known with...


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pp. 195-220


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pp. 221-238


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pp. 239-244

E-ISBN-13: 9780820705804
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820704487

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Shakespeare, William, -- 1564-1616 -- Criticism and interpretation
  • Marlowe, Christopher, -- 1564-1593 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Generosity in literature.
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