Shakespeare and the Sacramental Crisis

Shakespeare’s plays are are a response to the crisis of authority and sacramental efficacy induced by the English Reformation, argues Sarah Beckwith in Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness . She writes of “an unprecedented, astonishing revolution in the forms and conventions of speaking, hence of modes of human relating. Confessing, forgiving, absolving, initiating, swearing, blessing, baptizing, ordaining – these were a mere few of the speech acts so transformed in the English Reformation” (4-5). After the Reformation, it was no longer clear how these acts were “performative utterances” or, to use the scholastic phrase, “efficacious signs.”

Enter the playwright, stage left: “Shakespeare’s theater . . . charts from first to last, with extraordinary clarity and remorselessness, the transformed work of language in human relating that follows from this revolution in language. When authority is no longer assumed in the speech acts of a sacramental priesthood, it must be found, and refound, in the claims, calls, judgments of every person who must single themselves and others out in these calls, grant them authority in each particular instance.” In this way, Shakespeare’s plays involve “a search for community, a community neither given nor possessed but in constant formation and deformation.”

Beckwith thinks this is linked to Shakespeare’s extraordinary linguistic creativity, his “expansion in the expressive range, precision, and flexibility of language as he takes up this terrible burden and gift of human relating when nothing but language secures or grounds human relations.”

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