by Stuart Kelly
John Kerrigan’s examination of the many vows, oaths, promises, pledges and profanities contained in Shakespeare’s plays provides further rewarding reading
Given this year’s 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, there was always going to be a slew of new publications; few, I suspect, will have as long-lasting an effect as John Kerrigan’s. His field of inquiry is both straightforward and complicated. It is almost retrospectively obvious that Shakespeare’s plays contain a great amount of vows, oaths, swearing both covenantual and vulgar, pledges, promises and imprecations. The same might be said for a great many playwrights’ works; but the depth of subtlety which Kerrigan finds in the handling of these specific rhetorical forms is compelling.
It comprises broad historical context —this was an age in which oaths of allegiance were politically demanded and theologians debated, sometimes clandestinely, the extent to which one might perjure oneself for a higher moral reason — and attentive readings of the plays. Although it deals with major texts, the concentration on less well known or infrequently staged plays is welcome: the forswearing of female company (and avowals of fidelity) in Love’s Labour’s Lost; the compacts of vengeance in Henry VI Part 2 and Titus Andronicus; the oaths and tokens in Troilus and Cressida and the forked-tongue allegiances in King John, Henry VIII and the unstaged Sir Thomas More.