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Power Plays: Forgiveness in Shakespeare

HOYT, ELIZABETH,MAY (2021) Power Plays: Forgiveness in Shakespeare. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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Over the course of his plays, Shakespeare explores the fluid and contested nature of forgiveness. Is it possible for a leader to forgive his opponents without undermining his own hold on political power? Should secular law allow scope for Christian mercy, in keeping with the principle known as equity? Do the imperatives of honour require revenge, rather than forgiveness? Is it possible to forgive oneself? Through a variety of hypothetical plot-lines, Shakespeare evokes the ideas of influential classical and early modern philosophers such as Aristotle, Seneca, and Machiavelli, as well as theologians such as Calvin, evaluating the merits of their claims about power, mercy, and the value of forgiveness in light of his own compelling, persuasive, and particular sense of human nature.

In the Greco-Roman tradition forgiveness was passive, more akin to the forgoing of revenge than to the active rituals found in the New Testament. David Konstan, for example, goes so far as to argue that forgiveness, as we understand it today, did not exist in the ancient world. The advent of Christianity, as well as the later Reformation, reshaped assumptions about the nature of forgiveness, giving rise to incongruities and tensions, not only between Christianity and pagan thought, but also within Christian theology itself.

Throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime, foreign ideas flooded into England. The most influential such import was Continental Calvinism, as the previously Catholic nation transformed into a stronghold of the Reformation. Calvinist soteriology changed how Shakespeare’s contemporaries understood their relationship with God, which in turn affected their relationships with each other. The abolition of sacramental confession left English Protestants without a recognised common expression of forgiveness; no longer could they simply go to a priest for ritual absolution. Forgiveness thus became a more varied, uncertain, and public transaction.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:Shakespeare; Forgiveness; Machiavelli; Leadership; Seneca; Honour; Revenge; Aristotle; Law; Equity; Calvin; Theology; Confession; Shame; Guilt
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > English Studies, Department of
Thesis Date:2021
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:02 Mar 2021 09:31

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