In what follows, graduate student Rebecca Munson gives a brief account of the talk Professor John Kerrigan recently gave on “Shakespeare, Oaths and Vows.”
Professor John Kerrigan, a fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, visited the Berkeley English Department recently to give a lecture on “Shakespeare, Oaths, and Vows.” Professor Kerrigan has written widely on seventeenth-century literature, most recently on the cultural relations among the three Stuart kingdoms which he addressed in his book Archipelagic English: Literature, History and Politics, 1603-1707 (a work which the Berkeley community got a foretaste of in his talk on “Archipelagic Macbeth” in the fall of 2007). As anyone will see, however, from his volume on Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon, Professor Kerrigan possesses a synthetic approach to the study of literature with interests ranging from the medieval ‘complaint’ tradition to modern British and Irish poetry.
Professor Kerrigan’s talk attracted a diverse audience composed of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members including some of Berkeley’s best-known Shakespeareans (past and present). Professor Kerrigan addressed the “structural, psychological, and verbally minute, inventive work” of oaths and vows in Shakespeare’s plays, paying special attention to Troilus and Cressida and The Winter’s Tale. He cited as the point of origin of his study not only the fact that, in Early Modern England, the legal and religious worlds were rife with debates over the practice of oath-swearing and force of such promises, but an interest in examining oaths as performative acts which, when presented onstage, take on an added dimension of significance.
Professor Kerrigan illustrated how, over the course of his work, Shakespeare dramatizes characters grappling with the problematic idea that oaths make truths, a notion consistently undermined, one way or another, from Shakespeare’s earliest works (like Love’s Labours Lost) to his latest (like The Winter’s Tale). He discussed the way in which this problem of identifying the “truth,” an eternal one for oaths and vows, becomes a dramatic question also when presented in the theater (a genre which itself turns on questions of truth and deception).
The most striking example that Professor Kerrigan cited of the way in which oaths can create as much doubt as they dispel is the famous (or perhaps just famously strange) oath-swearing that follows Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost. In it, Shakespeare offers a parody of a typical oath-swearing situation (in which the binding word would remove deliberation) as Hamlet demands several times, and with increasing urgency, that Horatio and Marcellus swear they will not give away his “antic disposition.” The scene, Professor Kerrigan argued, is “dramatically potent because insufficient,” an illustration of the fact that, for Hamlet as for us, mere repetition or emphasis does not makes neither an oath nor a truth.
Following the lecture, the audience repaired to the lounge for an intimate reception with Professor Kerrigan in which several lines of inquiry, inspired by his talk, were introduced and discussed by all attending.