- Shakespeare's Binding Language by John Kerrigan
In his meditation on "What is a 'Relevant Translation?'" Jacques Derrida writes, "When I swear, I swear in a language that no human language has the power to make me abjure, to disrupt, that is to say, to make me perjure myself" (quoted in Kerrigan, 194). John Kerrigan's Shakespeare's Binding Language offers an extended challenge to these lines. Derrida might draw attention, as Kerrigan puts it, to "the perplexities of a speech which says that speech has no power to undo a speech act" (194). But, as Kerrigan goes on to argue, binding language does not always bind. Oaths can be retracted; bonds can be undone; and knots and charms, like plots, can unravel. An analysis of Henry V reveals, for example, how oaths "can be designed less to bind the speaker than to rally good opinion among its auditors" or "to function as a threat" (242). Oaths in Troilus and Cressida, including those spoken by Troilus, "are peculiarly susceptible to being incomplete, self-serving, and unreliable" (261). Or, as Kerrigan suggests in a brilliant reading of Measure for Measure, oaths and vows are not always "free-standing, load-bearing speech acts. Swearing can go with the flow, sliding into abusive practices that include lying and defamation" (294). Finally, language proves, as Kerrigan reveals in a dazzling pairing of Macbeth with All's Well That Ends Well, to be equivocating and riddling, speaking in a "double sense" (335).
In Shakespeare's Binding Language, Kerrigan undertakes a Herculean task: to illuminate the variety of forms of "binding language"—including oaths, threats, vows, charms, pledges, and promises—in Shakespeare's plays, and to expose their sustained undoing, through equivocation, riddling, and speaking in precisely the "double sense" familiar from Macbeth. Developing its argument over eighteen chapters, the book moves in a rough chronology, from the Henry VI plays and Love's Labor's Lost to Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. In the process Kerrigan tracks historical pressures on binding language, linking the plays to controversies surrounding such speech. His book illuminates shifting attitudes toward revenge oaths, for example, in relation to Hamlet, Othello, and Titus Andronicus. He surveys debates about slander at stake in Measure for Measure, and he explores the oath of allegiance controversy marking the post-Gunpowder Plot era, relevant for Macbeth. Most particularly, the Act to Restrain Abuses of Players (1606), which legislated against swearing onstage, features in the argument of several chapters, as Kerrigan explores this legislation's impact on Shakespeare's staging of vows and oaths to the divine. It may be, Kerrigan suggests, that Shakespeare's shift to pagan settings in his later plays allowed him to retain vocative language without trespassing the legislation's embargo on impious swearing of oaths.
This capacious, generous book is not, however, purely chronological in its argument or development, for the chapters circle back to earlier discussions, returning to key plays such as Love's Labor's Lost, Troilus and Cressida, and The Merchant of Venice. Furthermore, in order to illuminate Shakespeare's innovations, each chapter [End Page 397] studies its Shakespeare plays in relation to other writings, including contemporary plays; early modern theological tracts; and classical, biblical, and medieval sources. For example, Kerrigan teases out the range of oaths in revenge drama beyond Shakespeare before turning to the key revenge plays noted above. Ultimately, then, the forms of binding language, rather than chronology, serve as the organizing principle, as the book moves from revenge to swearing, from oaths to slander, from charms to bonds.
Kerrigan's style is inviting. His argument develops through ebbs and flows, examining the function of oaths from one vantage point—such as oaths that bind, or that are taken in groups—and then another—such as oaths that are slippery or solitary. For a book of such monumental size, it is readable and discursive. Part of this success could, arguably, be seen as its downside: the book does not foreground its contributions through direct conversation with...