Shakespeare and Forgiveness

Posted By on September 17, 2012

Ecclesiasticus 28.1-5 from the de Vere Geneva Bible, by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library. This is the source of many passage in Shakespeare on the theme of forgiveness, including of course Prospero's "As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free."

A Guest Post by Thomas Bruder

In the same essay, Dante (1929), in which TS Eliot famously wrote that “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third,” Eliot compares the two poets:

And gradually we come to admit that Shakespeare understands a greater extent and variety of human life than Dante; but that Dante understands deeper degrees of degradation and higher degrees of exaltation . . . . Shakespeare gives the greatest width of human passion; Dante the greatest altitude and greatest depth.

Thus, Eliot depicts the genius of Shakespeare as occupying the horizontal axis of human experience, its variety, but the genius of Dante as occupying the vertical axis of human experience, its frightening and grotesque depths, its heights of bliss.

Eliot’s remarks are intelligent, and it is easy to see why he would characterize the poets this way, given the unified, cosmological representation of psychological states in Dante’s great comedy, and the shifting abundance of character, setting, tone, and theme in Shakespeare’s plays.

And yet, the restoration of the Earl of Oxford as the author behind the Shakespeare corpus reveals that, as noted recently  in Mark Anderson’s Shakespeare by Another Name, Shakespeare’s plays are really a matter of theme and variations.

Following Anderson’s assessment that de Vere obsessively revisited autobiographical elements in his writings, one finds that de Vere’s perspective on the people in his life shifts from fury, loathing, and resentment, to forgiveness, kindness, and reconciliation. The plays, in effect, have their own vertical axis, which, given time constraints, I will explore very briefly in three sets of characters from the canon: representations of Anne Cecil, of Lord Burghley, and of de Vere himself.

Anne Cecil de Vere

Anne Cecil was Edward de Vere’s long suffering first wife. He appears to have accused her of infidelity with respect to the birth of their first daughter, and she served as something of an unwitting pawn in the strained relationship between de Vere and her father, Lord Burghley. She died young and unexpectedly. We see her most darkly portrayed in Hamlet as Ophelia, where she is verbally abused by Hamlet, sings bawdy songs as she dwindles into madness, makes fleeting references to abortifacients, and drowns in circumstances suggesting a suicide. She is brutally murdered as Desdemona by Othello under allegations of infidelity.

She appears in the Winter’s Tale as Hermione, whom Leontes (again) accuses of infidelity and berates so aggressively, that she collapses and seems to die offstage. By the end of that play, however, the Oracle at Delphi has pronounced that Hermione was faithful (although there are hints that the Oracle is of doubtful veracity—did the messengers actually go to Segesta instead of Delphi?), and she has achieved a state of apotheosis as a miraculously living statue; Leontes begs her forgiveness. We also see a passing reference to Anne Cecil in the Tempest, when Prospero says to Miranda that her mother “was a piece of virtue and she said thou wast my daughter” (emphasis added).

There are numerous other characters informed at least in part by de Vere’s tumultuous relationship with his first wife, and they appear in a number of different lights in the plays. We can detect a trajectory in these portrayals from anger, bitterness, resentment, then murder and despondency, to idealization, forgiveness, and sober reflection.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley

Lord Burghley was Queen Elizabeth’s chief advisor and the power behind the throne. He raised and educated de Vere when de Vere was a ward of the state. He became de Vere’s father in law when de Vere married Anne Cecil.

We find Lord Burghley mocked as the officious and meddlesome busybody Polonius in Hamlet, where he is full of sentences but short on wisdom. He tries to arrange a marriage between Hamlet and his daughter, suggesting that such a marriage would solve Hamlet’s gloominess (and, we may deduce, secure his family’s position at court). Hamlet murders Polonius when he finds that Polonius has been spying on him.

Lord Burghley reappears much later, and much changed, in the Tempest, as Gonzalo, councilor to the King of Naples. Prospero recalls him fondly and with only kind words: Gonzalo was a “noble Neapolitan” who, when Prospero was exiled from Milan, furnished Prospero with books that Prospero “prized above [his] dukedom.” Prospero embraces Gonzalo when they meet on the island, stating that Gonzalo’s “honor cannot be measured or contained.” The dark portrayal of a scheming politician has been transformed into a kindly portrait of the man who raised de Vere, perfectly forgiven.

Edward de Vere

The greatest transformation is in representations of de Vere himself. De Vere could have been England’s greatest statesman, and perhaps general, but his fortunes took a hit with the early death of his father. He was raised a ward of the state and served as ambassador to Queen Elizabeth, but he fought bitterly with other figures at court, fell out with his wife, lived a bohemian lifestyle surrounded by shady characters, and dissipated his fortune, all while devoting himself in secret to literature, then considered an ignoble pastime.

We find him in the comic lowlife Falstaff and the spendthrift misanthrope Timon of Athens. The portrait turns darker in the disinherited and afflicted man-child Hamlet, the great but misled, ultimately murderous general Othello, and the howling, enraged father King Lear.

But later, we also find de Vere in Prospero, an ousted duke who lost his dukedom because he was too “rapt in secret studies.” Prospero spends the Tempest rounding up the villains from his former life for a final reconciliation. When Alonso suggests he must ask his son’s forgiveness for his earlier treatment of Prospero, Prospero councils: “There, sir, stop. Let us not burden our remembrances with a heaviness that’s gone.” Notice that the heaviness is “gone” and therefore need not even be forgiven.

Another of de Vere’s exiled dukes sagaciously declares, “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” and his attendant responds, “Happy is your Grace, that can translate the stubbornness of fortune into so quiet and so sweet a style.” Here, we are a long way from the declamations of Timon.

Similarly, at the end of Measure for Measure (one of my favorite plays), the Duke finds an “apt remission” in himself for Angelo, the play’s villain. He turns to Lucio, who for much of the play has venomously attacked the Duke for licentiousness, and says, “Thy slanders I forgive and therewithal remit thy other forfeits.” He further councils Angelo to forgive the provost for disobeying Angelo’s orders to put another character to death, for, “th’offense pardons itself.”

Such are the musings of an author who must have achieved great insight through sustained and reflective forgiveness. Indeed, in his parting words, Prospero councils the audience (and us) to forgive others as the only means to be themselves forgiven: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.”

*          *          *

Restoration of de Vere as author of the Shakespeare plays reveals that, like Dante, the works of Shakespeare explore both the darkest depths of the human psyche, and its most exalted heights, which for Shakespeare means forgiveness, kindness, and self mastery. That they do so with respect to the same characters, characters who represent real people in de Vere’s life, shows a vertical shift in awareness on the part of the author. His final emphasis on the circularity of forgiveness, that it is received as it is extended, is truly beatific.

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One Response to “Shakespeare and Forgiveness”

  1. kenkap says:

    I think you make a point, but a limited one. I never see Shakespeare as overtly metaphysical in his writings. I agree with Elliot that Shakespeare is supreme in the horizontal, the depth and width of human emotion. Shakespeare imo does not really grapple with God or transcendence in a meaningful way. Witness Lear, an amazing, yet nihilistic play.

    Issues such as forgiveness are lovely, but they don’t address the type of interaction with Divinity that was central to.Dante.

    That was the point and I think it stands. Shakespeare is just not primarily mystically oriented and does not really display an interest in that arena. When he does allude to it, it is for dramatic convenience. the ghost in Hamlet, the witches in Macbeth, etc.

    The thrust of the plots have nothing inherently to do with divinity or the nature of divinity in the human realm.

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