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<Β00({βί Performance (Reviews

Shakespeare andthe ÇrammarofTorgiveness

Sarah Beckwith. Cornell University ?ress. Ithaca and London: 2011. ISBN 9?8- 08014‫־‬-
4978-9. Pp. 228 (Hbk). $45.00.

Sarah Beckwith’s new book continues the project begun in her Signifying God,
a seminal work which treats the York Corpus Christi cycle as “sacramental theater.”
Beckwith now attempts to understand what she calls Shakespeare’s “post-tragic”
plays (traditionally called the romances) in the same sacramental terms, focusing on
the transformation of the sacrament of penance in the English Reformation. Beckwith
claims Reformed theology fundamentally altered ethical relations, especially forgiveness‫؛‬
she argues that Shakespeare’s theatre charts the seismic implications of this changed
language, foe struggle for community in a culture that has newly come to foe belief that
“nothing but language secures or grounds human relations” (5). Beckwith’s support for
fois thesis comprises not only elegant readings of Shakespeare and a wide variety of
historical sources but also a deep engagement with her chosen theoretical interlocutors,
ordinary language philosophy and sacramental theology.
In foe first section of foe book, Beckwith outlines her understanding of foe
cultural effects of Reformed sacramental theology. By undermining the supernatural
abi lity of the sacraments to form community, the Reformation created a sense that human
bonds rest only upon language rather than more transcendent ground. With the connection
between saying and doing thus put in ‫ ؟‬uestion, our responsibility to reground the link
between our words and the world becomes unbearable. Reformed theology attempts to
deal with this problem by subsuming human agency under irresistible divine grace, a
solution which Beckwith believes is for Shakespeare unsatisfactoty and “anti-theatrical”
(33). She finds support for this claim in Hamlet’s “Seems, madam?” speech, which she
reads as displaying Shakespeare’s fascination with a perceived split between inner belief
and outer expression, seeking authentic expression and a more secure ground for foe
language that supports human acknowledgement. When the Reformation abolishes foe
sacrament of penance in favor of the more nebulous doctrine of repentance, it leaves the
basis o f human relations unstable, and Shakespeare’s theatre relentlessly documents foe
conse^ences ofthat transition.
?arts twoand three ofthe book look at “foe afterlives ofthe sacrament ofpenance”
( l l ) i n Measurefor Measure and the post-tragic plays, analyzing how each play presents
76 Book & Performance Reviews
acts of forg^eness restoring the power of aetion to the forgiver. Beckwith structures
her argument around two speech acts identified by Hannah Arendt as those which make
the uncertainty of human action bearable: promising and forgoing. Shakespeare works
through the early modem transformation of penance in Beckwith’s reading, primarily
with reference to these two speech acts. Measure fo r Measure brings an end to “the
comic tradition in Shakespeare” (10) with its depiction of marriage promises made under
the injunction of the law. When human responsibility has been violated by the external
imposition of deeply personal promises (as it has been for the many characters in Measure
fo r Measure whom the Duke forces into marriage), forgi¥eness remains the only path to
agency. Beckwith finds this same emphasis on forgiveness as a renewal of the power
o f action worked out in foe post-tragic plays: Marina and Pericles’ recovery of their
voices in Pericles, foe outpouring ofhealing confessions in Cymbeline, resurrection and
recognition in A Winter ‫ ؤ‬Tale, and restitution and remembrance in The Tempest— m each
play, forgiveness restores foe forgiver’s ability to act. Beckwith thus reads foe post-tragic
plays as a series o f meditations on foe interpersonal value o f forgiveness and mutual
self-understanding. In essence, foe core ethic shared by all foe plays is a hermeneutic
of charity, in which forgiveness and acknowledgement depend on a compassionate
understanding and rejection of the search for the truth behind the mask of expression.
Although Beckwith’s focus is ethical relations between human beings rather than textual
hermeneutics, the grammar of those relations is dependent upon understanding and
expression; her argument thus carries clear hermeneutic implications.
The argument possesses rich theological, literal^, and historical depth and
originality. Her conversation partners are not the usual suspects, the (mfoertired, for some
of us) discussions occasioned by foe mainstream literary theories; her use of ordinary
language philosophy and historical theology is a novel and invigorating critical move.
Purthermore, her historical analysis of Reformed sacramental theology is impressive and
will likely prove both influential and controversial. Beckwith’s prose style has improved,
making Shakespeare and the Grammar ofForgiveness significantly more readable than
foe rather dense Signifying God. She uses collo‫ ؟‬uialism to winning effect, as when she
refers to “some of the most romancey forms” ٠٢ says “Shakespeare, 1 think, meant his
endings” (11). Nonetheless, moments of scholarly cliché remain, as in “draw[ingj o u t ...
implications” (1) and “form[s] of intersubjectivity” (138), and foe prose is sometimes
burdened with excessive and unnecessary expletive constructions (“It is...that”).
There is certainly material ofinterest in Beckwith’s scholarship to those working
in early modem or Shakespeare studies, but the audience for this book would seem more
to be those seeking a literaty-theological exploration of the themes of forgiveness, grace,
and repentance, with a compelling and controversial argument about the cultural effects
of Reformation theology. While those committed to a Reformed theology wifi differ with
her fre،!uently negative assessment of the effects ofthat theology, it cannot be denied that,
in taking it seriously as theology; Beckwith pays Christian thought a compliment literary
critics have too often withheld. Beckwith’s new book is thus an exemplary contribution
to the growing scholarly conviction that theology and theatrical studies have much to say
to one another.
Matthew Miller
Saint Louis University

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