Shakespeare’s Binding Language 
by John Kerrigan.
Oxford, 622 pp., £35, March 2016, 978 0 19 875758 0
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‘There is a touch​ of Shylock in this,’ John Kerrigan says of a moment in King Lear. There are touches of Shylock in many places outside The Merchant of Venice, and indeed outside Shakespeare altogether, but this one is of unusual interest. It is in Cordelia’s speech responding to her father’s question about which of his daughters loves him most – well, to be precise, which of his daughters he is to say loves him most. He is not asking for an answer, he is asking for a show.

The connection between Shylock and Cordelia rests on their common use of the single word ‘bond’. ‘I stay here on my bond,’ Shylock says, meaning he will not diverge in any way from his literal claim on what is due to him. Cordelia says: ‘I love your majesty/According to my bond, no more nor less.’ The power of the connection lies both in the word’s general meaning and its behaviour in the context in which these two use it – in their crazy literalism, their faith in language’s stability, as if it were immune to metaphor or displacement. Do moneylenders get their pound of flesh if we default on a debt? And how. They take our houses or put us in jail. Do daughters love their fathers exactly as much as they are supposed to, neither more nor less? With any luck a little more, but they are right to save some love for one or two other creatures. But then we are not talking about actual pounds of flesh or mathematical quantities of affection, and Shylock and Cordelia are.

‘Shylock and Shakespeare are nothing if not subtle,’ Kerrigan says. The character’s literalism is calculated, he wants to avenge himself for his debtor’s insults, while the author wants to explore what happens when apparent securities become loose. Cordelia is not subtle; she thinks subtlety is the family problem. She wants to rebuke her two sisters for their extravagant lying in their answers to their father’s question and to bring her father back to some sense of reality, but in effect, as Kerrigan says, she initiates the sequence of acts of ingratitude that structures the play. Her speech is ‘valid but peremptory’, and what it does takes her far from what she means.

Shylock fails to understand language use too, or fails to understand that his own subtlety, his anger masked as legality, is not going to enable him to get what he is after. ‘Shylock’s bond,’ Kerrigan shrewdly says, ‘is not rightly made to secure what Shylock wanted … because of the ambiguities of its wording, even its making use of language at all.’ He can’t have his pound of flesh, to summarise an argument from the play too crudely, because a pound is too exact a measure and flesh doesn’t include blood. He is defeated, that is, by a better literalist than he is, and the double (mock) literalism shows you can do almost anything with words except rely on them. ‘The ambiguities in Shylock’s bond are easily exploited by the tongue of man, or at least by a boy pretending to be a woman disguised as Dr Balthazar.’ ‘Easily’ is a finely chosen word for this set-up, and suggests something of the complicated interpretative skills we have when we are not pretending things are simpler than they are.

‘Language cannot secure what the characters want to have fixed,’ Kerrigan says in another context, that of a quarrel about truth in The Winter’s Tale. Hamlet and his father’s ghost seek to swear others to silence, ‘to bind by the flux of words’. The failure of language in these cases is not Kerrigan’s only or even his main subject, but it is part of an awareness that ‘oaths and vows are … means not just of assurance but of deception and self-deception.’ And the question keeps recurring. ‘Does binding language bind?’ Yes, but it is ‘naively unhistorical’ to ‘assume that binding language ought always to bind’. Shylock himself is defeated by his own ‘unbindable binding language’. The title of Kerrigan’s book names a prospect or a project rather than a stable or closed practice. Even in instances of success, as Kerrigan says in a rather technical near pun, ‘the quality of the performance affects the quality of the performative’.

Shakespeare’s Binding Language offers ‘linked case studies’ of a large number of plays, with a discreet and persuasive glance at the Sonnets in an epilogue. The ground of the work is historical, a study of the attachment to a ‘whole array of utterances and acts by which the people of early modern England committed themselves to the truth of things past, present and to come’, and of Shakespeare’s ‘extensive recourse to oaths, vows, promises, contracts, penal bonds, covenants and the like’. The practices explored include the declaration and execution of revenge, the borrowing and lending of money, accusations of lying, protestations of honesty, swearing allegiance, announcing fidelity, cursing and prophecy. In the background, or the near foreground, are the Gunpowder Plot and a series of controversies about religious allegiance and acts of real or supposed blasphemy. Lancelot Andrewes, the recently appointed bishop of Chichester, for example, seems to have thought that the oath Guy Fawkes and the others took in the name of the Trinity and the sacrament they received was ‘almost the worst thing about the conspiracy’. ‘Blasphemous equivocation’ might be more heinous than blowing up a parliament, and this extravagant thought matches Kerrigan’s reminder that even though ‘complaints of moral decline are routine in most periods’, the early modern age distinguishes itself by its ‘focus on oaths and vows’. ‘Was ever an age so outragious in Othes?’ Edmond Bicknoll asked in 1579. ‘So blasphemous in railing? So rooted in periurie?’ The answer is probably yes, lots of ages were, but it’s the mood of the questions that is important.

Kerrigan’s Shakespeare does not join the complainers, or even represent the age’s oaths and vows in a strongly formal or legal way. ‘His is not a theatre of deeds, mortgages and wills,’ Kerrigan writes. ‘The reason for the unusually high incidence of verbal bonds lies elsewhere.’ And here Kerrigan’s interesting general history meets his skilled exercise of literary criticism. If not every case of swearing or promising is different from every other – there wouldn’t be any cases if this were so – the sheer intricacy of individual instances in Shakespeare is amazing.

The book opens with an extraordinary scene from Troilus and Cressida. The siege of Troy has been going on for years. Hector is determined to rejoin the battle but his wife, Andromache, cries out ‘Unarm, unarm, and do not fight today,’ because she feels her ‘dreams will sure prove ominous’. Hector’s sister Cassandra appears and confirms Andromache’s prediction, adding the authority of prophesy to the fears of love. Hector refuses adamantly to change his decision. ‘The gods have heard me swear,’ he says, and ‘Mine honour keeps the weather of my fate.’ Cassandra and Andromache then offer two interesting arguments. The first says that ‘the gods are deaf to hot and peevish vows’; the second that Hector should ‘not count it holy/To hurt by being just’. Hector is unmoved and after his father, Priam, is brought into the conversation, goes off to the war and dies.

Hector’s appeal to honour is convincing and perhaps indisputable in his culture. But what about his claim to have sworn to go, which seems quite different? And, as Kerrigan asks, ‘is Andromache’s ingenuity desperate, or is she justifiably reminding Hector that oaths are … caught up in moral reasoning? And how convincing is Cassandra?’ More convincing to Elizabethans than to Greeks perhaps, since the former knew that to persist in ‘a rash oath, adds sin unto sin’. The whole picture is skewed, of course, by our knowledge of what happens. Andromache and Cassandra are right about the result even if Hector is right about his honour. But this just shows how complicated such transactions are: they take place in the present but always involve investments in ‘the shape of the future’.

Romeo swears by the moon, and his language is ‘charged with his yearning’. But his language also ‘acts as a species of lie-detector’, and Juliet is ‘right to doubt him’. I’m not sure she has to doubt him but she does doubt his fancy words, and she is certainly nervous about the noise he’s making. She’s not just nervous, though, she’s funny, and she anticipates Rosalind in As You Like It, the wittiest of Shakespeare’s characters on the subject of the acting that goes into speech acts. Orlando says he will die if Rosalind does not accept his suit. Rosalind, at this point pretending to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind, makes a fine doubting speech about romantic hyperbole, which ends ‘Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.’ ‘From time to time’ is magnificent, as if dying is a bit of a stretch for most people, and the unloving worms remind us how many mundane reasons there are for eating.

Shakespeare’s Binding Language has close commentaries on Titus Andronicus and Hamlet and several history plays, and a wonderful essay on Measure for Measure. The last chapter looks at Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, and connects two of Shakespeare’s many jugglings with the word ‘nothing’ in a striking way. Cordelia repeats the word when invited by her father to say something that will allow her ‘to draw a third more opulent’ than her sisters’, obstructing ‘the delusions of the love-trial’, whereas Leontes’s insistent uses of the word in The Winter’s Tale are ‘dynamic’: ‘obsessive, emphatic, epistrophic’. They shape the logic of a whole paranoid fantasy:

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh? …
Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings
If this be nothing.

The person in The Winter’s Tale who comes closest to Cordelia is Leontes’s suspected but innocent wife, Hermione. She too thinks honesty is enough, but that is because ‘she does not yet understand how deluded her husband is.’ By failing to protest too much she confirms his suspicions. But she would also have confirmed them if she had protested more. This is one of the ways in which binding language works: it ties everyone in knots.

The book ends with a commentary on Sonnet 152, which begins ‘In loving thee thou know’st I am forsworn,’ and closes ‘For I have sworn thee fair – more perjured eye/To swear against the truth so foul a lie.’ The ‘more perjured eye’ is also a more perjured ‘I’, and we may hear a faint announcement of Macbeth’s unintended verbal collusion with the witches. When he says he has never seen ‘so foul and fair a day’, he doesn’t yet know that ‘fair is foul and foul is fair.’ The sonnet is full of energy and wit in its double-dealing, but, as Kerrigan says, it also evokes ‘that queasy, less deceived state which often follows a binding utterance’. It’s as if the witches’ glee and Macbeth’s forebodings were inhabiting the same mind.

These​ intricate instances may seem to complicate the realm of oaths and vows beyond redemption. The complication is real, but there are two reasons why it is not the whole story. One is Shakespeare himself as he appears in Kerrigan’s book. These characterisations are incidental to the argument but add up to a convincing portrait of the artist as inquirer. He has an ‘impulse to engage critically with the socially given’; with him ‘nothing is unmixed’; he ‘always escapes the sociological diagram’. He doesn’t believe in neat endings, and an ‘untidy teleology’ is the best we can expect from him. ‘All’s done, my lord,’ Ulysses says in Troilus and Cressida, but as Kerrigan comments, ‘in Shakespeare, that is rarely true.’ Shakespeare ‘was doubly engaged by the ethical weight and airiness of verbal bonds’; ‘substantially and deeply preoccupied with what they tell us about the make-up of truth’. He ‘felt impelled to pursue the make-up of truth-telling’. This, Kerrigan writes, was an ‘exploratory drive’ that no doubt had its roots in his lived experience but requires no ‘autobiographical assumptions’ for us to see it or understand it. It’s true that the ethical airiness of these bonds often seems to interest Shakespeare more than their weight, but that may be the professional tilt of the poet and playwright; and in any case a person interested in the conveyance of truth would have to be interested in the multifarious ways in which truth is bent or lost. Kerrigan’s use of the word ‘make-up’ has a double edge.

Indeed it directs us towards the second reason why complication is not the whole story. Outside Shakespeare, and even outside literature, ambiguities abound. They cause plenty of trouble but also often help us out. This is true to such a degree, I think, that J.L. Austin’s wonderfully clarifying thoughts about speech acts and their success or failure (their felicity or infelicity, as he put it), and above all his sense of how firmly the boundaries between what he calls ordinary and parasitic versions of utterances can be policed, how clear the distinction is between speaking seriously and acting or quoting, now look rather wishful. Kerrigan’s book, in effect and perhaps in intention, invites us further into scepticism about these dealings than many of us may want to go.

Kerrigan notes the considerable cost of deception or illusion in the business of binding in language: ‘Oaths and vows can reinforce the very doubt they are meant to allay’; ‘The higher the speech act, the harder, more dramatic the fall.’ There are many moments when ‘language cannot secure what the characters want to have fixed.’ There is ‘violence … inherent in oaths and vows – the world must be made to fit the word’. Words may fall into ‘disgrace’ through their sheer slipperiness. This is not to say that we have to doubt every oath, or that speech acts have to fall or fail, or that language can’t help us get what we want. Sometimes the world fits the word with minimal violence, and there may be no disgrace in the offing at all. The practical question, though, is not about the possibility of success or failure in promising or swearing, but about the actual occasions of either or both.

The sort of scepticism about words that Shakespeare models for us, the idea that ‘speech act and doubt go together,’ as Kerrigan puts it, does not, I think, imply that our words are likely to behave improperly, as if they were unruly children or rebellious populations. It does imply that their behaviour depends on how we treat them.

What happens when we trust someone’s language, believe what they say, and prove to be right in the placing of this trust and belief? What will have counted is the local action of the words and their relation to whatever knowledge we have and whatever faith we can or want to muster. A King Lear who was less like an old-time movie producer would have understood Cordelia better even if she was overdoing the Puritan candour. But don’t the words mean what they mean? Yes, but I am suggesting – or proposing as a summary of what provocations all around us have long been suggesting – that this meaning is not a code or a base, a stable centre of sense that is modified in one way or another to form what Austin calls the force of an utterance. The given meaning is material for making meaning, a toolkit that doesn’t work until used. This is the reason yes can sometimes mean no, and this is the way the whole Freudian concept of negation works. If in answer to your kind question about how I feel I say I’m all right, thanks, your response will depend on how well you know me, my tone of voice, your degree of attention and distraction, various surrounding conditions and histories and much else. When you collect the results you can decide whether to say you’re glad to hear it, or to call an ambulance.

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