New book: Sarah Beckwith’s “Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness”

We are absolutely thrilled to announce the publication of Sarah Beckwith‘s eagerly anticipated new book, Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness (Cornell University Press, 2011). Anyone interested in Shakespeare, ordinary language philosophy, or the concept of forgiveness will want to read this book (and after reading Prof. Beckwith’s study, one will see clearly how intimately interwoven are all three topics). To order a copy on Amazon, please click here.

Here is the press’ description of the book, followed by a few endorsements:

Shakespeare lived at a time when England was undergoing the revolution in ritual theory and practice we know as the English Reformation. With it came an unprecedented transformation in the language of religious life. Whereas priests had once acted as mediators between God and men through sacramental rites, Reformed theology declared the priesthood of all believers. What ensued was not the tidy replacement of one doctrine by another but a long and messy conversation about the conventions of religious life and practice. In this brilliant and strikingly original book, Sarah Beckwith traces the fortunes of this conversation in Shakespeare’s theater.

Beckwith focuses on the sacrament of penance, which in the Middle Ages stood as the very basis of Christian community and human relations. With the elimination of this sacrament, the words of penance and repentance—“confess,” “forgive,” “absolve” —no longer meant (no longer could mean) what they once did. In tracing the changing speech patterns of confession and absolution, both in Shakespeare’s work and Elizabethan and Jacobean culture more broadly, Beckwith reveals Shakespeare’s profound understanding of the importance of language as the fragile basis of our relations with others. In particular, she shows that the post-tragic plays, especially Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest, are explorations of the new regimes and communities of forgiveness. Drawing on the work of J. L. Austin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Stanley Cavell, Beckwith enables us to see these plays in an entirely new light, skillfully guiding us through some of the deepest questions that Shakespeare poses to his audiences.


Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness is a permanent and elegant work, and I could not be more grateful for it, nor, if I may say, more confirmed and inspired by it.”—Stanley Cavell, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, Emeritus, Harvard University

“Sarah Beckwith brings to her rich study of Shakespeare’s late plays both a deep knowledge of late medieval and Reformation religious culture and a clear and subtle sense of the philosophical issues at stake. Her book needs to be well and widely read, as it offers important insights into what Shakespeare was up to in these last, often elusive works.”—Tom Bishop, University of Auckland

“Sarah Beckwith brilliantly engages both speech-act theory and historical accounts of the sacrament of penance in order to explore the secular magic of human forgiveness in Shakespeare¹s late plays. One leaves this moving book not just with a transformed sense of these miraculous plays but also with a deepened awareness of the possibility and necessity of forgiveness.”—Michael Schoenfeldt, John R. Knott, Jr., Professor of English and Chair, Department of English Language & Literature, University of Michigan

“In Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness, Sarah Beckwith explores Shakespeare’s profound shift in emphasis from vengeance to virtue (as Prospero would have it) as he moved from writing the great tragedies to his late romances. She also defines the grammar this shift represents: the virtual formulas, ritual echoes, and cultural significations resulting from centuries of Roman Catholic sacramental uses of penance.”—John C. Coldeway, University of Washington

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