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Even when uttered with the best of intentions, an apology pursues contradictory goals: as a confession of guilt it invites condemnation, but as a petition for forgiveness it seeks to soften condemnation. Some philosophers have tried to clean up this illocutionary messiness by defining apology strictly as either moral acknowledgment or as an instrumental means to achieving pardon. Taking revenge tragedy as a literary genre that thematizes the refusal to forgive or forget past offenses, this essay considers three apologies in Shakespeare's Hamlet in order to argue that not only are philosophical efforts to purge ambiguity from apologies likely to fail but they are also ultimately undesirable.

Consider two infelicitous apologies from modern American public life. The first comes from the former boxer Mike Tyson, who in 1997 bit off part of his opponent Evander Holyfield's ear in a match. He offered a public apology shortly thereafter: "Evander, I am sorry. You are a champion and I respect that. I am only saddened that this fight did not go further so that the boxing fans of the world might see for themselves who would come out on top. When you butted in that first round, accidentally or not, I snapped in reaction and the rest is history."1 The second comes from Cathy Crowell, who in 1977 falsely accused Gary Dotson of raping her, resulting in Dotson spending six years in prison. In 1985, having recanted her charge, she issued this public apology to Dotson's mother: "I'm so sorry for what I did to you and your family, especially to Gary. I took six years away from him, and I really want your forgiveness, especially Gary's forgiveness."2 [End Page 155]

Both of these apologies go wrong, but they go wrong in different ways. The problem with Tyson's apology seems to be, among other things, that he mixes his confession of wrongdoing with a denial of wrongdoing. He implies that Holyfield might have deliberately head butted him, provoking the ear bite in the first place, and Tyson's concluding comments recast his distinct transgression as mere thread woven into a broad fabric of events: "the rest is history." He says he is sorry but does not appear to mean it. Crowell's apology is different: she does not deny her fault and she acknowledges the terrible consequences for Dotson. Instead, she mixes her confession of wrongdoing with an urgent request for pardon. Given the seriousness of her violation, this request seems importunate and premature. Her readiness to appeal for forgiveness might imply, as some commentators suggested at the time, that she does not believe the gravity of the injury to be a serious obstacle to reconciliation. She appears sincere, but about what, exactly—her intense contrition for the harm committed, or her intense desire to be forgiven?

For all their differences, however, these two compromised apologies have a common feature: the acknowledgment of wrongdoing, signaled through an expression of remorse, is forced to compete with other considerations, namely, either an implied denial of blame or an implied petition that the victim put blame aside.

These two examples point to several underlying conceptual difficulties about apology that I plan to explore in this essay, particularly with regard to Shakespeare's Hamlet. The practice of apology labors under an ambiguity of purpose: an apology seeks to acknowledge and condemn wrongdoing, but it also seeks forgiveness, if not explicitly then at least sotto voce. Self-condemnation implies that we think we deserve punishment, whereas petitioning for pardon suggests that we want to avoid punishment. The more heavily an apologizer emphasizes the petitionary aspect, the more likely his apology will begin to resemble an excuse or denial.

This ambiguity of purpose, I will suggest, is related to the question of sincerity. A sincere expression of remorse (as opposed to a merely calculated expression) ideally keeps the apology in the service of the moral duty to acknowledge wrongdoing, but the wrongdoer cannot make himself sincerely feel remorse. This is not to deny that he ought to feel remorse; it is merely to say that, at least in the short term, this feeling is not his to command. We can will ourselves to say the words, but we cannot will ourselves to mean them. To be sure, the unsatisfactory apologies of Tyson and Crowell arguably indicate a deficient sense [End Page 156] of moral culpability. But they are also extensions of instabilities inherent in all apologetic practice, namely, ambiguities about what we are actually trying to say to the offended party and about how we actually feel regarding the offense.

Contemplating the difficulty of coordinating the motives of an apology with its sincerity allows us to appreciate the massive job we expect this simple speech act to perform. Perhaps most fundamentally, apology confronts the implacability of action. Hannah Arendt famously argued of forgiveness that it frees us from the irreversibility of our deeds, since otherwise "our capacity to act would . . . be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever."3 Apology likewise seeks to release us from the grip of our past misdeeds, but unlike forgiveness it tries to achieve this release through a sincere acknowledgment of wrongdoing that, at its most intense, risks chaining us to that past. If the fault was really as bad as we sincerely confess, why should we or anyone else think we ought to be free of it?

This essay considers the efforts of two philosophical views on apology—which I dub the "categorical" and "instrumental" interpretations—to answer this question. I argue that neither interpretation ends up offering a coherent account of the motivations of apology in relation to its sincerity, insofar as each of them imagines (ideally) cleansing apologies of their illocutionary ambiguities. I further discuss three apologies in Hamlet as a means to illustrate the disjunction between sincere acknowledgment, on the one hand, and the request for pardon, on the other. The play offers an excellent example of apology's confrontation with a past wrongdoing because revenge narratives, perhaps more than any other literary form, obsessively thematize the irreversibility of action—the refusal of the past to release its grip on the present. Both Claudius and Hamlet find themselves in moral debt to offended parties, and both characters try to revise their relationship to the past through apology. Their respective failures intimate the shortcomings of apology conceived strictly as either a moral acknowledgment or as an instrumental means to forgiveness.


Given that an apology is a speech act, what is it trying to accomplish? In an effort to isolate apology's moving parts, it will be convenient to appeal to the taxonomy of illocutionary acts suggested by John Searle, [End Page 157] who sought to refine the classifications offered by J. L. Austin in How to Do Things with Words.4 Three illocutionary types in particular will concern us here. Searle distinguishes among "representatives," which state beliefs; "directives," which voice desires; and "expressives," which express feelings. So, for example, according to Searle, when we assert, we represent (I claim that . . .); when we plead, we direct (I beg you to . . .); and when we apologize, we express (I'm sorry that I . . .). Searle, like Austin before him, limits apologies to the category of expressive speech acts. Yet an apology, considered in its full role as a social ritual, in fact involves all three types of illocutionary acts. It is a representative insofar as it confesses wrongdoing, a directive insofar as it lobbies for forgiveness, and an expressive insofar as it displays contrition. The three aspects seem tightly bound together. Acknowledging our wrong action qua wrong is one of the ways that we imply contrition, and expressing contrition is one of the ways that we implicitly petition for forgiveness.

Just as clearly, however, these various illocutionary directions of force are also in tension with each other, especially if the apology is for a serious breach. As mentioned earlier, the confessive dimension implies that we believe we deserve and are ready to accept punishment, whereas the petitionary dimension implies that we wish to forestall punishment and obtain forgiveness. Confession gets us into trouble, and petition tries to get us out of it. An apology, in a sense, fights against itself. One cannot, it seems, be fully committed to self-condemnation at the same time one pursues pardon. Jeffrey Murphy puts the problem this way: "A truly repentant person . . . would normally see his suffering punishment as proper and might . . . even seek it out," which suggests that an intense desire for forgiveness implies, perhaps, a correspondingly lackluster sense of guilt.5

Now, this might seem like an overly strict standard. Do victims in fact demand this uniformity of motive from those apologizing to them? Yes, sometimes they do, as we can see from the language in which apologies are occasionally rejected: "So you think just saying 'sorry' will get you forgiven?" "How can you believe, after what you have done, that things will be all right between us?" The implied bid for reconciliation risks trivializing the gravity of the offense. This ambiguity of purpose is an important reason why apologies often seem unsatisfactory to the offended party, to third-party observers, or even to the apologizer herself.

Of course, in the case of many apologies this illocutionary tension between self-condemnation and petition-for-pardon slides by mostly unnoticed. We often intuit, without any particular distress, that the [End Page 158] person expressing remorse for seriously harming us is at the same time angling for pardon. Everyone gets what they want: the offended party feels acknowledged and the offender feels relieved. Arguably, many successful apologies depend on precisely this blunted sense of contradiction for their success. But this suggests, then, that apologies that go wrong have the best chance of sharpening our sense of the relations among the speech act's ingredients. As J. L. Austin remarked in his classic essay on excuses, it pays to study failure because, "as so often, the abnormal will throw light on the normal, will help us to penetrate the blinding veil of ease and obviousness that hides the mechanisms of the natural successful act."6 Failed apologies potentially allow us to notice that which is concealed or ignored in the performance of successful ones.

This possibility in itself supplies a good reason to pay careful attention to Hamlet's public apology to Laertes, when he expresses regret for killing Polonius, thus driving Ophelia mad, leading to her death. This apology goes wrong in ways that offer insight into what usually goes right, even if unnoticed, in a successful apology. Most centrally, this apology features an especially unstable mixture of confession and petition. In a number of lines Hamlet appears prepared to denounce his earlier actions. He acknowledges to Laertes that "I have done you wrong"7 and, by assuring him that he intended no "purposed evil" (5.2.188), the prince at least implies that he may have committed an inadvertent evil. Yet, on the other hand, the speech is full of requests for pardon: "Give me your pardon, sir"; "pardon't, as you are a gentleman"; "free me . . . in your most generous thoughts" (5.2.172, 173, 188).

Of course, a mixture of confession and petition does not necessarily amount to a failed apology, as I have already noted. Yet in this apology the petitionary dimension competes with, and eventually swallows up, the confessive dimension. Hamlet concedes that he has committed actions that require an apology, but he quickly slips into explaining the mental state that prompted these actions ("I am punished with a sore distraction"), and ends up divorcing himself from these actions entirely:

What I have doneThat might your nature, honour and exceptionRoughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.Was't Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet.If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes,Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.Who does it, then? His madness.

(5.2.176–83) [End Page 159]

In pressing the request for pardon, Hamlet transforms his apology into a defense or excuse. ("Defense" and "excuse" are in fact the primary meanings of the word apology in early modern English.) When we excuse ourselves, we ask our victim to see the infraction as part of a chain of events over which we had limited control. The agent shifts from the origin of action to one phase in a larger process. Accordingly, Hamlet offers plenty of representative (statement-making) speech acts—"I here proclaim"; "Hamlet denies it"; "Sir, in this audience, / Let my disclaiming . . ." (5.2.178, 182, 187–88)—but they all assert defense, not confession. Hamlet sets out to say he is sorry, but on closer examination he seems to deny the need to say "sorry." Apology slides into apologia.

Yet what distinguishes Hamlet's failed apology from the ones by Tyson and Crowell with which I began is that the prince does not seem merely to try to squirm out of trouble. He appears genuinely concerned that Laertes feel better. As Richard Strier has remarked regarding this speech, "Hamlet seems sincere. He does seem to bear no ill will toward Laertes, and perhaps to think of him as, in some sense, a 'brother.'"8 But if Hamlet is "sincere," his sincerity does not involve an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Rather, he sincerely believes that the interference of circumstances (his madness; his ignorance of who was behind the curtain) merits exoneration, and that this explanation will relieve Laertes's feelings of resentment.

Now, we might pause to express incredulity. Did not Hamlet earlier chastise his mother for ascribing his actions to insanity? Does he really think that he bears no responsibility for Polonius's death? Yet if we are able to set aside these skeptical questions and pursue the generous reading, we might say that Hamlet muddies his responsibility in order to comfort Laertes, to explain that the damage committed was not as deliberate as it might seem, and therefore to prompt reconciliation. He refuses moral acknowledgment with the best of intentions, unsatisfying as the speech might seem to us and to Laertes.9

There are many ways that actors can deliver, and have delivered, Hamlet's peculiar speech: as a heartfelt act of sympathy, a handsome courtly performance, an ironic comment meant for Claudius, a nervous self-extenuation, a confession of self-doubt, or even a taunting insult.10 The speech's uncertain tone in fact offers a powerful illustration of the inconsistent link between the feeling of sincerity and the motive for apology. The act of "apologizing sincerely" becomes vexed if we are unsure about what, exactly, we feel sincere. Do we sincerely condemn our action, sincerely want to comfort our victim, sincerely want to avoid [End Page 160] punishment, or some mixture of all three? This kind of ambiguity arises because apologies try to achieve too many illocutionary effects at once. Whereas the representative (statement-making) force of moral acknowledgment brings the wrongful act into painful focus, the directive force of requesting forgiveness seeks to blur the sharp contours of that act—to make it, if not forgotten, at least more thoroughly a thing of the past. When we apologize contritely for a serious wrong we have done, sometimes we hesitate, tremble, become defensive, look away, mumble, and tear up. This does not necessarily mean that we are insincere. It means that sometimes, when we apologize, we do not quite know what the hell we are doing.


Some recent philosophers have responded to the illocutionary excess of apology by trying to cleanse it of its ambiguity of purpose. They offer normative definitions of the phenomenon that either emphasize the confessive force of apology at the expense of petition or emphasize the petitionary force at the expense of sincere confession. I will refer to these two views as the categorical and instrumental interpretations. (Hopefully, the subsequent discussion will make clear that these terms refer to extremes on a spectrum along which we might place individual philosophical views.) To begin with the former: I borrow the term categorical apology from Nick Smith, since the allusion to Kantian moral philosophy brings out the question of motive.11 You will recall Kant's distinction between a hypothetical imperative, where one's maxim is a means to a further end, and a categorical imperative, where one's maxim expresses an end in itself. The categorical apology thus tries to avoid the pitfalls intimated by Hamlet's speech insofar as it seeks to achieve goals limited to the moral sphere of apologizing and not extraneous goals—such as relieving your guilt or avoiding punishment—that fall outside this sphere. This is what makes the apology categorical rather than instrumental.

Philosophers differ about exactly which key ingredients make up the categorical apology, but there is a general consensus about the requirements of confession and acknowledgment. The agent recognizes the action as wrong, confesses responsibility for it, and acknowledges the moral status of the victim, who did not deserve the injury inflicted. The categorical apology brings the wrong action into sharp focus: through acknowledgment, you sort out what you (as an agent) have done to [End Page 161] another (as a victim). This interpretation limits the petitionary dimension as much as possible; an apology should not primarily be a means to a further end. Kathleen Gill insists that it is a mistake to understand an apology as a payment or reparation to the victim: "The apology does not compensate for loss; it is instead a way to acknowledge the value of what was lost."12 Smith concurs: "There exists no economy of apology wherein the offender can simply repay a debt to clear her moral account" (IWW, p. 82). You may hope for certain results to follow your apology—forgiveness from your victim, the avoidance of retaliation, the calming of your conscience—but none of these constitute your motive for apologizing, which is limited to your moral duty to make sincere acknowledgment of action and victim.

In making one's motive as pure as possible, a categorical apology seeks to banish the ambiguity between the wrongful action and extenuating circumstance, in effect sanitizing apology of its linguistic history as apologia. Categorical apologies perform what I will call agent disambiguation. They isolate the incident as a wrong action and they isolate the agent as the only morally relevant cause of the incident. Even if many factors were involved, the apologizing agent acknowledges a unique and nonnegotiable link between the action and himself. This view of apology would call Hamlet out of bounds when he claims both that "I have done you wrong" and "Hamlet does it not." You cannot simultaneously apologize and excuse yourself; you have to pick one or the other. The categorical apology thus makes little room for the moral ambiguities occasioned by theories of determinism, virtue ethics, moral luck, and the like. Smith himself, although sensitive to the complications involved, concedes the Kantian moral template in operation when he notes "how conceptions of apologies and repentance buckle if not buttressed by modern notions of agency and responsibility" (IWW, p. 48).

On the other side of the spectrum, some commentators defend the instrumental interpretation of apology. This interpretation does not deny the value of moral acknowledgment; it simply places this value below the reparative effects of apology. Richard Joyce states this view succinctly: "The function of an apology is to reconcile discordant parties—in other words, although the content of the apology is oriented toward the past, the whole purpose of the act lies in its future consequences."13 Unlike the categorical apology, which sharply recalls the memory of the transgression to present attention, the instrumental apology seeks as much as possible to leave this transgression in the past. This view places far less of a premium on removing ambiguity about agency. [End Page 162] Extenuating circumstances can be combined with the confession of wrongdoing insofar as doing so helps alleviate the victim's resentment. Aaron Lazare argues that although adducing circumstances can risk the appearance of self-justification, "as long as they are reasonable and do not deny responsibility, such explanations are not offensive."14 Lazare in fact thinks that explanation aids the reparative goal of apology by demonstrating that offender and victim "share important values (e.g., one does not gratuitously inflict harm on another)" (OA, p. 144). In a given case, then, according to the instrumental view, an offender may want to avoid singling out himself too sharply as the agentive cause of the wrongdoing.

The instrumental apology likewise places a lower premium on the sincerity of acknowledgment than does the categorical interpretation. Although its proponents do not advocate dishonesty, they believe that the advantages of reconciliation can justify it. Joyce separates sincere remorse from apology's social function of mending fences: "I can apologize for something that I do not sincerely believe was wrong. . . . In the interests of calming stormy waters . . . I can apologize without feeling any guilt or shame" ("A," p. 165). Similarly, Lazare argues that "a fraudulent expression of remorse or a bogus explanation" (OA, p. 118), although ideally to be avoided, sometimes offers the means to achieve desired conciliatory effects: "How can we argue against social harmony among individuals, families, and nations? How can we argue against the avoidance of war?" (OA, p. 157). These commentators would be less inclined to judge Hamlet's apology morally incoherent and more likely to call it incompetently executed: it goes so far in the request for pardon that it risks no longer appearing like an apology at all, thus compromising the social goal of reconciliation. An instrumental apology may be insincere but should not seem insincere.


Probably none of the philosophers I have just discussed would argue that an apology could be either purely categorical or purely instrumental. Smith, for example, concedes that a given categorical apology will rarely include all the ingredients he lists, calling his definition merely a "prescriptive stipulation" (IWW, p. 25). Yet even this less ambitious sense of classification fails to account for the unstable illocutionary relation between apologetic confession and petition. The problem is not simply that the two aspects of apology necessarily contain traces of each other in [End Page 163] practice. The problem is that they necessarily contain traces of each other in theory as well. I do not deny that the categoricalists and instrumentalists have a real disagreement with each other; indeed, the seriousness of their dispute suggests that we cannot reconcile the confessive and petitionary forces of apology. I argue, rather, that there is an analytical point at which apology becomes conceptually incoherent without both dimensions, even though they are in some respects mutually exclusive. We can appreciate the degree to which both confession and petition must awkwardly sustain the concept of apology by briefly considering the phenomenon's relation to punishment and sincerity.

Apologies' resemblance to punishment has been long noted. Medieval Christians, for example, often remarked on the verbal proximity between penitentia and poenitentia, and centuries later prisons are still sometimes called penitentiaries. Both practices are responses to a past wrong, complementary acts to be performed by either the offender or the victim (or by someone acting on behalf of the victim). In one sense, punishment tracks well with the categorical interpretation of apology in that commentators sometimes describe punishment as a moral duty rather than as a means to an end. Just as forgiveness is not the primary aim of a categorical apology, so rehabilitation is not the primary aim of retributive punishment. Forgiveness and rehabilitation are happy consequences, but they do not morally explain why offenders ought to apologize or why they deserve punishment. Furthermore, explaining these things presents a similar kind of problem for both categorical apologies and retributive punishment: given that the action lies irreversibly in the past, what is the point of a response other than preventing a reoccur-rence in the future?

One way to grasp the justificatory difficulty facing retributive punishment is to observe that the offender, in the present, has no more control over that past action than does a bystander. Singling out the offender in this regard arguably involves a kind of magical thinking, implying that he is "in some mysterious sense metaphysically identical to the self that existed in the moment the bad act occurred," as Steven Knapp has remarked.15 Knapp proposes instead an account in which retributive punishment seeks to foist upon offenders the belief that they cannot disassociate themselves from their temporally distant actions:

We punish them in order to make them identify with the act in a way that will constitute their taking responsibility for it. . . . Being responsible in this sense precisely means having a disposition to identify with one's own [End Page 164] actual past, to think of oneself as inseparably bound to it, even as if one were presently performing one's past acts and therefore appropriately liable, in the present, to the experience of aversion that should have accompanied the bad ones or the experience of pleasure that should have accompanied the good ones.

("CM," p. 138)

The action lies in the past, but punishment tries to make the wrong-doer own that action as if she were presently performing it. Knapp's notion of compulsory identification parallels, I suggest, the notion of agent disambiguation in the categorical interpretation of apology. The aversion that should have attended the injury then occurs now, in the painful reception of punishment or in the painful expression of contrition. Both procedures seek to reduce ambiguity about the bond between the offender and her action, and affirming this bond ideally compels the offender to feel remorse or regret for her action. When Hamlet, for example, calls Claudius a "remorseless . . . villain" (2.2.581), he hints at one of the goals of his revenge. The apologizer says: I'm sorry for what I did; the punisher says: you're going to be sorry for what you did.

From the categorical point of view, then, the uncomfortable experience of apologetic remorse amounts to a kind of voluntary self-punishment. This self-punishment affirms the confessive implication that the offender believes he deserves punishment, and thus he administers it himself. Self-punishment is a marker of the sincerity of the offender's regret. It is not, in the categorical view, a payment or reparation to the victim. Philosophers of the categorical apology are firm on this point. Trudy Govier and Wilhelm Verwoerd describe the emotional pain of apology thusly: "In an effective apology, the emotion of other-oriented moral regret, expressed by the perpetrator, provides a reason for an emotional shift from resentment to acceptance on the part of the victim."16 The discomfort of remorse offers a "reason" to relinquish resentment, not a payment for doing so. In the categorical apology, the self-punishing quality of sincere contrition is not currency but rather evidence that the offender has recognized that moral dignity has no price.

And yet it is hard to be sure that either offender or victim will be able to hold this carefully orchestrated exclusion of an economy of exchange firmly in mind. Might not the victim take the apologizer's painful conviction that dignity has no price as itself a kind of payment? The apologizer can certainly insist that payment was not his intention, only moral acknowledgment, but he says this while standing in moral debt to a victim who, he knows, could relieve him of this debt. The [End Page 165] tendency of apologetic self-punishment to serve as compensation rather than acknowledgment has, in fact, long been recognized. As Aristotle notes, we relinquish our resentment

towards those who admit and are sorry for a slight; for finding as it were satisfaction in the pain the offenders feel at what they have done, men cease to be angry. Evidence of this may be seen in the punishment of slaves; for we punish more severely those who contradict us and deny their offence, but cease to be angry with those who admit that they are justly punished.17

Although Aristotle has in mind a dominance-and-submission model, this is not all he has in mind: the apologizer must feel "sorry," or metamelomenos, a painful feeling of regret. The unpleasant expression of sincere remorse represents a symbolic payment by the offender to his victim. Along these lines, in the Iliad Achilles rebuffs Agamemnon's offer of material goods as reparation for his insult, demanding instead a public act of contrition: "He must pay me in kind for the bitter humiliation I endured."18

These ancient views have persisted into present times. Much as we say that the punished criminal has "paid his debt" to society, so we say that an apology "offers satisfaction" to the aggrieved. In this instrumentalist view of apology, the expression of sincere remorse functions not as a sign of authentic acknowledgment but as an effort to make payment in kind. This is why apologies offered cheerfully or with a shit-eating grin do not seem like real apologies. Without an expression of uncomfortable regret, the agent fails to make the compensatory offering that might yield pardon for her action. No pain, no gain.

Self-punishing contrition, the paradigmatic evidence of sincere moral acknowledgment, is always liable to slip into the role of payment for pardon. This is not because the apologizer is morally defective but because the very act of apologizing entails illocutionary commitments that prevent a clean separation of confession and petition. Whatever your intentions, once you utter or inscribe words such as "I am sorry" or "I apologize" in the right context, you enter a social ritual that implicitly voices a petition for forgiveness. Not only categorical apologies risk dilution by the instrumental dimension; instrumental apologies cannot function without an implicit reference to sincere regret, no matter how crassly self-interested a given apology might be.

Apologies appear to have a profound dependence on sincerity. For example, compare insincere apologies to insincere charity. The [End Page 166] recipients of my charity will feel less regard for me if they learn that I acted solely in the hope that people would admire me; nonetheless, they will probably still appreciate the benefits they received. By contrast, the victims of my wrongdoing will only feel further resentment if they learn that I apologized without actually regretting what I did or without feeling remorse. Everyone knows that apologizers fake it sometimes for instrumental purposes, but apologies become incoherent without any expectation of sincerity. Remember, for example, what Kant said about promises: if we were to assume that promises are always broken, then the practice of making promises would vanish from the earth. The same logic applies to apologies: if all apologies were insincere, we would stop bothering to make them.


Thus far I have argued (1) that we cannot reconcile the divergent illocutionary forces of self-condemning acknowledgment and conciliatory appeal in apologies, and (2) that apologies become conceptually incoherent if we try to expunge either of these dimensions from an account of their function, as the categorical and instrumental interpretations implicitly try to do. I have also discussed the unstable role that sincere contrition plays in this problematic, offering Hamlet's speech to Laertes as an example of how even the most instrumental-seeming apology can express a sincere concern for the welfare of the victim. Now I wish to extend these points to argue that not only are we unable to purify apologies of their illocutionary tension but, further, it is, finally, not desirable to do so, despite the painful failures this tension sometimes precipitates. Neither apologetic acknowledgment nor exculpation, in their "pure" forms, would be preferable alternatives to the messy ambiguity that apology foists on us. I will make this case especially with regard to categorical apologies, using Claudius's attempt to repent to God as an illustration of moral acknowledgment divorced from the instrumental request of forgiveness.

What happens to the question of sincerity if we replace the human recipient of apology with God? The classicist David Konstan has recently argued that offenders cannot properly apologize to God, who enjoys invulnerability from harm, but rather can only implore Him for mercy.19 Yet, granting divinity's special status, we can still note that this argument overlooks the sense in which repentance to God represents an apologetic ideal of sincerity. The scenario eliminates calculatedly fraudulent [End Page 167] contrition, since God always knows whether you sincerely feel regret or not. And this in turn raises the difficult question of whether you know it or not: how much conscious control do you actually have over your motives? Premodern Christians understood clearly the delicate position in which the sinner found himself: only if he sincerely apologized to God could he avoid Hell, yet avoiding Hell could not be his motive for apologizing. Christian commentators and pastoral writers thus devoted much thought to the ways in which sinners might examine their conscience in order to fathom, and ideally to modulate, the nature of their remorse.20

One strain of Protestant Christianity, developed in the decades prior to Shakespeare's Hamlet, proposed a fairly radical relation between repentance and forgiveness—one that showcases the illocutionary difficulties surrounding apology that we have discussed. Protestant writers expressed skepticism about the capacity of sinners to parse the motives of contrition, especially when the threat of hellfire loomed, as the German theologian Philipp Melanchthon remarked: "When will a terrified conscience . . . be able to decide whether it fears God for His own sake, out of love, or is fleeing from eternal punishments?"21

Since human frailty meant that a mere desire to escape punishment would always taint the act of repentance, some Protestants reasoned that a purely sincere apology to God could only occur after the sinner knew that He had already forgiven him. Once forgiven, the sinner had no further reason to seek forgiveness, and thus his apology could offer undiluted acknowledgment. The English Puritan William Perkins explained that "no part of satisfaction or redemption is wrought in us or by us . . . and therefore we esteem of repentance only as a fruit of faith, and the effect or efficacy of it is to testify remission of our sins."22 Repentance has no compensatory force, no petitionary purpose, but rather its perfect sincerity "testifies" to the fact that God has forgiven us. This view of repentance yields a rather counterintuitive sequence of events: instead of apology preceding pardon, we are pardoned in order that we might then properly apologize.

This thumbnail sketch of one strand of sixteenth-century Protestant contrition theology cannot do justice to the rich complexity of the shift from Catholic to Reformed repentance practices.23 I offer this sketch simply as a historical example of debate about apology—and one relevant to Hamlet—that engaged the illocutionary tensions among representative, directive, and expressive forces in a rather explicit manner. Whereas in the course of many apologies, as I conceded earlier, we readily mute [End Page 168] or ignore these tensions, these devotional writers saw them as a matter of unavoidable practical concern. Some of them set a remarkably high standard for what might count as a sincere, categorical repentance undiluted by instrumental goals. The sinner could engage in extreme versions of apologetic contrition and agent disambiguation because his certain faith in God's forgiveness made these daunting experiences tolerable. The downside of this theology was that if God had not in fact forgiven the sinner, his act of repentance had rather little purpose or force. Without the assurance of forgiveness, one's repentance would retain a trace of petitionary desire, and so could not be completely sincere—that is, completely based on the love of God rather than on the fear of hell.

The extreme illocutionary arrangement proposed by this strand of early Protestantism illuminates some of the puzzles implied by Claudius's failed repentance in act 3 of Hamlet, after The Mousetrap's performance of royal murder has pricked his conscience. In part, Claudius's apology to God offers a counterpoint to Hamlet's apology to Laertes: whereas the prince's speech begins with a confessive gesture that slips into a bid for pardon, Claudius's speech works in the reverse direction. After some preliminary remarks about the gravity of his sin, the king prepares his repentance with a clear sense of its petitionary force: "What's in prayer but this twofold force, / To be forestallèd ere we come to fall, / Or pardoned being down?" (3.3.48–50). Contrite prayer amounts to an appeal for help, either to prevent sin before the fact or to secure forgiveness after. Yet Claudius quickly runs into a problem: he worries that his contrition will not pass muster so long as he retains his ill-gotten gains, namely, his queen and his crown (3.3.53–56). This raises a puzzling question. Claudius wants to repent; why, then, does he not simply renounce his stolen goods as a means to do so? Mainstream early Protestant commentators followed their Catholic predecessors in assuming that God would reject a sinner's repentance absent the restitution of any illegitimate gains.24 It would seem that Claudius has a clear choice before him: relinquish his stolen goods and be saved or retain his wealth and be damned.

We might conclude that for Claudius his earthly power and status simply outweigh the value of salvation, despite his expressed desire to repent. Lauren Bialystok, in a philosophical analysis of the relation between sincerity and authenticity, has offered Claudius's speech as an example of wholehearted intentional insincerity: [End Page 169]

Claudius chooses to identify with one consistent set of desires at the expense of another. He is unwilling to identify with his desire for remorse because he understands that it would logically deprive him of the consequences of his other desires, to which he still clings. Hence his attempts at prayer are hollow: he has expunged his desires for forgiveness from the consistent set of desires with which he identifies.25

According to Bialystok, Claudius wants power and wealth more than he wants to renounce his sin, and so he can only repent insincerely. Yet to say that he "chooses" his mercenary desires and is "unwilling" to identify with his remorseful ones underestimates the degree to which sincere remorse—the kind of sincerity at issue here—is not simply ours to command. The fratricidal king, according to his own account, wants to repent, tries to achieve sincerity, but is unable:

Try what repentance can. What can it not?Yet what can it when one cannot repent?O wretched state! O bosom black as death!O limèd soul, that struggling to be free,Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay.Bow, stubborn knees; and heart with strings of steel,Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe.


The highly wrought language suggests that Claudius has not simply chosen to enjoy queen and crown over repentance. This is not to say that Claudius here prays sincerely; instead, he prays to be granted the sincerity he wishes to feel. Certainly, he could return his ill-gotten gains and make restitution, but Claudius has come to believe that repentance amounts to something other than giving up his stuff, since giving up his stuff would be meaningless (to God) except as evidence of his sincere contrition, a contrition that God has not graced him to experience. He does not know where to start because he has glimpsed the lesson, advocated by some early Protestant divines, that the speech act of apology is not a request for divine forgiveness but rather a sign that indicates whether or not this forgiveness has already been granted. When Claudius later tells us that his words fly up but his thoughts remain below (3.3.98–99), he is not saying that he failed to try hard enough so much as he is reporting that forgiveness did not happen.

Claudius, then, does not have access to an effective petitionary apology, but instead only one of self-condemning confession. Although critics routinely call him insincere, we might alternatively describe him [End Page 170] as beholden to a supremely high standard of sincerity. His fear in this speech is not primarily that he will suffer punishment—he presumably believes that he deserves it—but rather that the agony of acknowledgment can find no relief. In this respect, we should notice that Claudius never mentions the torments of hell or purgatory, as the ghost of his brother does. Instead, he expresses terror at the thought of having to acknowledge his sin in heaven, because although on earth hypocrisy can cloak one's fault,

                 'tis not so above.There is no shuffling, there the action liesIn his true nature, and we ourselves compelledEven to the teeth and forehead of our faultsTo give in evidence.

3.3.60–64; (emphasis added)

Claudius imagines agent disambiguation brought to a transcendentally pure state, where confession produces a perfect identity between action and agent. This is what Claudius finds intolerable, and at this point in the soliloquy he starts to panic: "What then? What rests? / Try what repentance can" (3.3.64–65). He prepares to apologize, but the categorical logic of apology has taken on a merciless rigor for him. The repentance that he hopes will soften the fearful acknowledgment of sin requires precisely that fearful acknowledgment. We can plausibly read this moment as a commentary on the Protestant demand that the penitent simultaneously experience the depth of guilt as the proof of forgiveness, so that going to heaven might at the same time feel like going to hell. Claudius has glimpsed the sincerity he seeks and it terrifies him.


Thinking about the illocutionary effects of apology in terms of early Protestant contrition theology allows us to contemplate the pressures that would be imposed by a perfectly sincere categorical apology. In making this interpretation of Claudius's soliloquy, I do not deny that the king has done terrible things and that he should acknowledge them, nor do I suggest that modern philosophers of the categorical apology wish us to fall into despair. But I do argue that Shakespeare employs Claudius's failed repentance to illustrate extreme versions of problems that potentially dog the demand for sincere acknowledgment. One, the offender ought to feel sincere remorse, but that feeling remains outside [End Page 171] the immediate control of the will; and, two, moral acknowledgment, absent the petitionary hope of pardon, would condemn us to a brutally intense identification with our wrongful action. If we could imagine an apology in terms so categorical that it could in no sense "compensate for a loss" or "repay a debt to clear [a] moral account," as Gill and Smith argue, then we would confront our wrongdoings raw, rubbing our faces in their "true nature," "even to the teeth and forehead of our faults," as Claudius puts it. It is not clear that in such a scenario we could ever leave our transgressions behind us.

I earlier described Claudius's and Hamlet's apologies as counterpoints to each other, but they also share a common avoidance of acknowledgment. The idea of acknowledgment as a tragic theme has played an important role in modern interpretations of Shakespeare, perhaps most famously in Stanley Cavell's reading of King Lear as structured on an "avoidance of love."26 In this view, tragedy results from the failure of human beings to recognize the ethical and emotional demands of others, and, therefore, a failure to recognize aspects of oneself. In this respect, it is significant that Claudius, after fleeing terrified from the prospect of confronting his deed with perfect sincerity, appears to abandon any future efforts to repent. He spends the rest of the play trying to shut Hamlet up in order to avoid exposure. In effect, he gives up on apology wholesale, eschewing both acknowledgment and the desire for forgiveness. This confirms the reading of tragedy as a failed demand for acknowledgment, but it also suggests that too intense a requirement for sincere confession risks making acknowledgment intolerable.

We can read Hamlet's apology to Laertes through a similar lens, even though in tone it seems completely different from Claudius's. Hamlet's emphasis on petition and extenuation indicates an anxiety about acknowledging what he himself has done. The play hints at this anxiety when Hamlet expresses regret for his behavior at Ophelia's funeral: "But I am very sorry, good Horatio, / That to Laertes I forgot myself; / For, by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his. I'll court his favours" (5.2.76–79).27 Hamlet here concedes, albeit in conspicuously vague language, that he now inhabits a revenge triangle where he is not the avenger but rather the killer. In this new triangle, he is the Claudius and Laertes is the Hamlet ready to dole out punishment, compelling the killer to acknowledge his link to his action. In planning to apologize to Laertes, to court his favors, Hamlet hopes to transform the revenge plot into one of forgiveness, replacing punishment with reconciliation. [End Page 172]

Yet the apology Hamlet offers, as I have already remarked, seems curiously devoid of remorse, amounting to an excuse as much as to an act of repentance. In this avoidance of confession, then, apology obscures the painful link between agent and action by conceiving of the speech act as strictly a request for pardon, not a moral acknowledgment. Whereas Claudius could scarcely tolerate the intensity of agent disambiguation, Hamlet refuses to let himself feel it. Claudius, as it were, worries too much about sincere contrition; Hamlet does not worry enough. He never even specifies the "wrong" for which he is apologizing. Does he repent Polonius's death? Ophelia's madness? Her drowning? His obnoxious behavior at the graveyard? These are pressing questions because the extent of Hamlet's responsibility for these things remains genuinely debatable. He killed Polonius thinking someone else was behind the curtain, and he did not intend to drive Ophelia to insanity, let alone to suicide.

What exactly did Hamlet do? At what point does the sphere of action (in its "true nature") yield to the sphere of mere event, for which one does not need to apologize? We do not know how he thinks about his responsibility because he never acknowledges any wrongs he has committed. His apology, then, instead of offering relief from the rigors of Claudius's repentance, simply abandons them for a radically instrumental view of apology in which sincerity matters so little that no one, perhaps not even Hamlet, can tell if he really means it.

"I'll court his favours." Hamlet's passing phrase causes the plot's architecture of offense and retaliation momentarily to tremble. He apparently hopes that his act of apology has the potential to transform the way Laertes thinks about the past. This hope glimpses the possibility, albeit from the corner of the eye, that Claudius might likewise apologize to Hamlet, confess his sin, suffer the shame of the admission, and beg forgiveness. We could then imagine, in a remarkable counterfactual, that Hamlet might forgive Claudius in the way the prince hopes Laertes will reconcile with him. The revenge triangles would collapse, avengers would stop begetting new avengers, the past would partly release its death grip on the present. For this possibility to have even a chance at fulfillment, however, the play would have to relinquish its fantasy of a perfectly categorical apology, which draws an absolute link between agent and event, a fantasy in which we confess this link "even to the teeth and forehead of our faults." In such a fantasy, the terror of acknowledgment prevents Claudius from requesting pardon, while the need for pardon prevents Hamlet from acknowledging what he has done. [End Page 173]

I should come, finally, to the third apology I mentioned in my introduction, which for some people may not even seem to count as an apology. After the poison plot has been disclosed and Hamlet has forced Claudius to drink from the lethal cup, Laertes says to the prince,

             He is justly served;It is a poison tempered by himself.Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,Nor thine on me.


He dies, and Hamlet responds by saying, "Heaven make thee free of it! I follow thee" (5.2.285).

What exactly has happened here? Have Laertes and Hamlet, by forgiving each other, also apologized to each other? Laertes's statement does acknowledge the wrongs committed—his poisoning of Hamlet and Hamlet's killing of his father. Yet he lumps these together with his own death, for which he cannot reasonably hold Hamlet responsible since the prince did not know the sword tip was poisoned. Does Laertes not see the difference; does he not care? Furthermore, this imperfect acknowledgment follows on the observation that Claudius, also a killer, has been "justly served." If Claudius was not eligible for forgiveness, why are Hamlet and Laertes? In this light, the exchange of forgiveness might seem like a self-interested swap by which the remaining killers try to dodge due punishment: I'll forgive you if you forgive me. Similar questions haunt Hamlet's response to Laertes, "Heaven make thee free of it!": we cannot tell if Hamlet's absolving Laertes on behalf of heaven amounts to forgiving him personally, and therefore it remains unclear if Hamlet in any sense acknowledges his own actions that require forgiveness.

It is possible to pose these skeptical questions about this short exchange, but I want to suggest a more recuperative reading. This hasty assertion of mutual forgiveness differs from the earlier two apologies by Claudius and Hamlet in that it neither morbidly dwells on, nor elaborately avoids, the agent disambiguation demanded by apology. The exchange acknowledges fault, to a point, but Hamlet and Laertes do not pursue the precise degree and distribution of guilt. Instead of drawing the sharp boundary between culpable action and extenuating circumstance that a categorical apology demands, it allows this boundary to remain fuzzy. True, this fuzziness prevents a full understanding and recognition of what these [End Page 174] men have done, partly dissembling their similarity to Claudius. Yet it also temporarily relaxes the relentless linking of agent and action that has fueled the revenge plot of the play, without completely abandoning that link in a scramble of denial.

The instances of saying "sorry" in Hamlet lay bare the pressures of extreme versions of apology, and in so doing offer a kind of anatomy of the illocutionary difficulties attending apology in general. The petitionary force of apology, its illocutionary effort to prompt forgiveness, always risks turning an apology into an excuse. Conversely, the confessive force of apology, its illocutionary effort to condemn wrongdoing, risks marginalizing the need for and value of forgiveness. The fact that many apologies do not succumb to these risks results from a happily blunted attention to detail, on the part of both offender and victim, as much as it does from good intentions. Hamlet is a play that dramatizes the desire for sincere categorical acknowledgment, but with its final apology it also implies that this desire is not inevitable. Sometimes we neither rigorously draw, nor anxiously erase, the line between agent and action. Sometimes we neither punish nor exactly forgive. Sometimes, like Hamlet and Laertes, we adopt the mixture of generous harmony and lazy shrugging that occurs when offenders agree to say to each other, in modern parlance, "Shit happens."

Andrew Escobedo
Ohio University


1. "The Text of Mike Tyson's Statement," Las Vegas Sun, July 1, 1997.

2. "Lies Brought Man 6 Years in Prison: Victim Apologizes to 'Rapist's' Mother," Los Angeles Times, March 29, 1985.

3. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 237.

4. John R. Searle, "A Classification of Illocutionary Acts," Language in Society 5, no. 1 (1976): 1–23, esp. 10–13.

5. Jeffrey Murphy, "Repentance, Punishment, and Mercy," in Repentance: A Comparative Perspective, ed. Amitai Etzioni and David Carney (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), p. 158.

6. J. L. Austin, "A Plea for Excuses," Philosophical Papers, ed. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 180. [End Page 175]

7. William Shakespeare, The Oxford Shakespeare: Hamlet, ed. G. R. Hibbard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 5.2.172. All subsequent citations are to this edition; references are to act, scene, and line.

8. Richard Strier, "Excuses, Bepissing, and Non-being: Shakespearean Puzzles about Agency," in Shakespeare and Moral Agency, ed. Michael D. Bristol (New York: Continuum, 2010), pp. 55–70 (57).

9. It is hard to know precisely what Laertes thinks of this apology. He provisionally accepts it—"I am satisfied in nature, / . . . But in terms of honor / I stand aloof" (5.2.190–93)—but as he speaks these words he is planning to murder Hamlet, not forgive him.

10. Lars Engles notes the variety of goals that possibly motivate this speech: "Hamlet wants to be thought mad by Claudius and Polonius, and he wants those toward whom he is trying to behave nobly to recognize he is telling them something real about themselves" ("Moral Agency in Hamlet," Shakespeare Studies 40 [2012]: 87–97 [96]).

11. Nick Smith, I Was Wrong: The Meaning of Apologies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), esp. pp. 28–107; hereafter abbreviated IWW.

12. Kathleen Gill, "The Moral Functions of Apology," The Philosophical Forum 31, no. 1 (2000): 11–27 (16).

13. Richard Joyce, "Apologizing," Public Affairs Quarterly 13, no. 2 (1999): 159–73 (171); hereafter abbreviated "A."

14. Aaron Lazare, On Apology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 144; hereafter abbreviated OA.

15. Steven Knapp, "Collective Memory and the Actual Past," Representations 26 (1989): 123–49 (138); hereafter abbreviated "CM."

16. Trudy Govier and Wilhelm Verwoerd, "The Promise and Pitfalls of Apology," Journal of Social Philosophy 33, no. 1 (2002): 67–82 (69).

17. Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. John Henry Freese, Loeb Classical Library (1926; repr., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 2.3.5 (1380a13–18). My thanks to Beth Quitslund for calling my attention to this passage.

18. Homer, Iliad, trans. E. V. Rieu (West Drayton: Penguin Books, 1950), 9.387.

19. David Konstan, Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Although Kanstan's official topic is forgiveness, he also proscribes moral, interpersonal apologies to God. See especially his chapter on "Humility and Repentance" (pp. 125–45).

20. For a survey of these ideas in the late Middle Ages, see Thomas N. Tentler, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

21. Philipp Melanchthon, The Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531), trans. F. Bente and W. H. T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia, 1921), 7.5.

22. William Perkins, A Reformed Catholik (London: John Legat, 1598), p. 323.

23. For accomplished recent accounts of this shift as expressed in Renaissance literature, see Sarah Beckwith, Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness (Ithaca: Cornell University [End Page 176] Press, 2011), and Heather Hirschfeld, The End of Satisfaction: Drama and Repentance in the Age of Shakespeare (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).

24. On this point see Deborah Shuger, who applies the doctrine to Claudius's effort to repent: "The Reformation of Penance," Huntington Library Quarterly 71, no. 4 (2008): 557–571 (570).

25. Lauren Bialystok, "Refuting Polonius: Sincerity, Authenticity, and 'Shtick,'" Philosophical Papers 40, no. 2 (2011): 207–31 (217). See also Ramie Targoff's analysis of this scene as a "detailed exploration of the devotional process that fails to produce a sincere state of contrition" in "The Performance of Prayer: Sincerity and Theatricality in Early Modern England," Representations 60 (1997): 49–69 (49).

26. Stanley Cavell, "The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear," in Must We Mean What We Say? (1969; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 267–353.

27. The First Folio (1623) has "I'll count his favours" rather than "I'll court his favours," the latter reading first proposed by Nicholas Rowe in 1709. Although some modern editors retain the F1 reading, arguing that count means "emphasize" or "focus on," I find the apologetic sense of court his favours more persuasive, particularly since Hamlet has just said, "I am very sorry." [End Page 177]

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