O, vengeance! Why, what an ass am I!

by Stuart Kelly

o-vengeance-why-what-an-ass-am-iJohn Kerrigan’s examination of the many vows, oaths, promises, pledges and profanities contained in Shakespeare’s plays provides further rewarding reading

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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.

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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.

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Read the complete review

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