It is a well-known, but insufficiently explored, truism
that early modern societies were steeped in various forms of oral contract,
including promise, oath, honour and shame. More broadly, early modern
culture could be viewed anthropologically as cementing notions of order
in place by means of these linguistic, legal and social ligatures, against
a background of repeatedly impending breakdown. While Shakespeare's
Promises ostensibly belongs in this territory, its scope and purpose
is really quite different.
Rather than providing us with either a theoretical or
a cultural history of the promise, Kerrigan's book sets out to tease out
the meanings of promising, and its various cognates, through detailed
readings of three Shakespearean plays. His choice of Richard III ,
The Merchant of Venice and Othello might appear a little
eclectic, not to say eccentric, to the reader thinking of ideas of promising
in Shakespeare more generally, and coming to rest on Measure for Measure
or The Taming of the Shrew as pre-eminent examples. Nevertheless,
with the possible exception of Richard III Kerrigan does manage
to pull the reader in and engage her with a series of cruxes relating
to notions of bonds, oaths and promises. In this sense, the book really
falls into two parts; the former (including the very useful historical
overview) looking at the relationship between the self and what it utters,
and the latter concentrating on the conflicting obligations of marriage
and friendship. Kerrigan is deeply aware of the messy territory that he
is trying to inhabit, but his honestly professed avoidance of the legal
contexts which structure early modern promises seems a strange decision,
given that this is the cultural milieu in which Shakespeare's dramatic
usage of the promise was forged and would have been understood.
In many ways, Shakespeare's Promises is a rather
old-fashioned book, depending as it does on the role of the critic as
interpreter, producing close textual analysis predicated on character,
theme, and the autonomy of the author. For example, he writes 'the play
will remember this proferred vow' (80) or of Desdemona '[f]inally appreciating
an irony, she seems to understand that Shakespeare is foreshadowing her
end' (178). Whilst by no means being a committed deconstructionist, I
have difficulty making sense of these statements. Behind Kerrigan's often
suggestive readings lurks a larger argument about the inadequacies of
recent Shakespearean criticism. On one of the rare occasions on which
this is made explicit, Kerrigan writes '[a]s quickly as the productive
system of modern literary theory can emit naiveties, they are cast into
the word-processed seethe of contemporary Othello criticism'
(153). His critical giants are T.S. Eliot, A.C.Bradley and A.P. Rossiter,
all readers with much to recommend them, but the book would have been
less disorienting had this potentially fascinating critical argument been
made in the open. Kerrigan's zeal sometimes leads him to overstate the
case, or to miss what is truly interesting about Shakespeare's engagement
with the promise. By asserting the agency of characters, Kerrigan sometimes
neglects the wider contexts, in particular the crucial question of how
promises work in relation to performance and to the audience, or how the
verbal promise in drama is often predicated on the (absent) written. Again,
the deliberate avoidance of the legal context means that a complex, but
crucial, structure into which Shakespeare's treatment of the promise fits
is absent. He is excellent, however, on the broken promise as plot device,
and on the ways in which promises of various kinds illuminate relationships
Given that the issue of promises is essentially verbal,
and that Kerrigan's strengths lie in nuanced readings, it is a little
surprising to find some evidential problems here and there throughout
Shakespeare's Promises . For example, the claim that Shakespeare's
'verbs of willing must teem with precedence' (23) because the Oxford
English Dictionary 'repeatedly' cites him in its entries on 'shall'
and 'will' cannot be allowed to go unchallenged in the light of recent
thinking about the authority of the OED; the OED's own heavy
emphasis on the writings of Shakespeare makes this a circular argument.
Similarly, the assertion that Nashe 'was probably alluding to Richard
III ' in Pierce Penilesse is made without adducing any further
evidence. Kerrigan's commitment to the autonomy of both author and interpreter
occasionally leads him to readings that lack authority; nowhere, for example,
can I find support for his idea that '[t]he word bury carries
the double sense of a ritual of interment and a sexual entrance' (81).
I assume that the persistent misspelling of Cyprus as Cypress (151, 152,
153, 163, 164, 196 etc.) is a copy-editor's error. If not, the decision
to use this reading requires brief explanation; the quarto, for example,
uses 'Cipres', 'Cipress' and 'Cypresse'.
The question of promising in Shakespeare specifically,
and in early modern culture more generally, is a complex matter, and Kerrigan's
book lays out some parameters and makes some suggestive readings. However,
in the light of his gentle dismissal of J. L. Austin, the promise would
seem to demand stronger contextualisation, and needs to be read in relation
to the social practices outlined by critics and historians like David
Cressy, Adam Fox, Laura Gowing and Bernard Capp. Shakespeare's Promises
is a book of considerable interest, with many thought-provoking readings
of specific speeches and dramatic moments, and sketches the scope of this
vast subject with admirable brevity and clarity.
- Capp, Bernard. When Gossips Meet: Women, Family and Neighbourhood
in Early Modern England . Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.
- Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion, and
the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England . Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
- Fox, Adam. Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500-1700 .
Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.
- Gowing, Laura. Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early
Modern London . Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).