- Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness
In the crowded field of Shakespeare studies, Sarah Beckwith has found an opening on two seldom-linked fronts. This study makes a new contribution both to studies of the enduring, universal, themes in Shakespeare’s works, and to studies of the specific cultural and historical contexts that shaped his writings. The theme in question is forgiveness, and the cultural and historical context is that of early modern views on repentance. In addition to its bold synthesizing of two approaches that are usually kept separate, what sets this book apart is Beckwith’s expertise as a scholar of medieval theatre and religious culture whose work has played a major role in breaking down the rigid periodization that has—with historical inaccuracy and critical unhelpfulness—long severed the medieval from the early modern. Any understanding of forgiveness in Shakespeare’s plays, as Beckwith convincingly shows, has to reckon with the continuities with, as well as the breaks from, older doctrines of penance that were fundamental to late medieval religion.
Four plays are at the heart of this book: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. That all four were written after the great tragedies, and are thus “post-tragic,” is crucial to Beckwith’s claims about them, since in her reading, all four hold out the possibility of a redemption unavailable to Shakespeare’s tragic figures. While figures like King Lear are locked into the irreversible consequences of their passions and behaviors, penitence and repentance become the means by which Shakespeare’s posttragic heroes and heroines find forgiveness and, through forgiveness, a return to the human community—or what Beckwith calls “acknowledgement.”
As Beckwith notes, the sacrament of penance was the medieval location of the language of acknowledgment, especially through the act of confession. In the late romances, the language of acknowledgment develops in the absence of the auricular confession and priestly absolution that for some 300 years had shaped penance, but that by Shakespeare’s time had been rejected by reformers, who in its place offered up (although far from neatly) repentance understood not as an outward ceremony, but as a turning of the self toward God. Beckwith traces the controversies over the components of the sacrament of penance—contrition, confession, and absolution—in order to map the contours of forgiveness in Shakespeare’s late plays.
Changes in the status of penance and repentance were bound up with changing forms and conventions of speaking, as a whole range of speech acts, such as confessing, absolving, blessing, and baptizing, among others, were transformed by the English Reformation. Shakespeare’s plays, Beckwith argues, chart this revolution in language, including instances in which the authority of the speech acts of the priesthood was undermined and replaced by the claims of everyone for authority over human relations. In Beckwith’s view, the result is a new forging of bonds of community, which lacking other foundation had to be continually remade through conversation. For Shakespeare, Beckwith claims, human speech is what makes or breaks the ties among people, hence the “grammar” of the book’s title, which points to the relations among words linked to the sacrament of penance and makes a connection between the practices of ordinary language philosophy and the theatre, both of which understand language as situation and as act.
After a section charting transformations in the language of forgiveness following the abolition of the sacrament of penance, the book’s second section offers a reading of promises and marriage in Measure for Measure, before turning in the third section to an analysis of forgiveness as an act of community in the four late romances. While a discussion of promises might seem out of place in a study of forgiveness, it fits with the book’s reliance on speech-act theory as a methodology and looks forward to the later plays, in which marriage turns less on issues of future promises than on forgiveness of past actions. Beckwith’s aim, when she takes up the four late romances, is to explore how Shakespeare treats...