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Shakespeare, Oaths and Vows

Shakespeare Lecture, delivered by Professor John Kerrigan, on 23 April 2009 (venue: The British Academy).

The language-world of early modern England was thick with oaths and vows, ranging from casual profanity in taverns to the solemn undertakings of those marrying or accepting public office. Moralists urged the seriousness of oaths; casuists advised on how to undo them. There were religious, legal and philosophical debates about what it meant to swear and how firmly one should keep a promise. The literature of the time reflects the prevalence of oaths and vows and the arguments about their status. But Shakespeare was exceptional in the density, depth and subtlety with which he explored these issues. His plays and poems are full of oaths and vows doing structural, psychological and verbally minute, inventive work. This lecture will seek to rectify scholarly neglect of the topic, highlighting Shakespeare's awareness of the paradoxes of oath-taking and vowing and their potency in performance. The aim is not just to elucidate a key element of his artistry but to understand more fully his general construction of human experience.

About the speaker
John Kerrigan is University Professor of English 2000 in the University of Cambridge, a Fellow of St John’s College, and one of the leading critics of English literature. In 1998 he won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism for Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon, an ambitious study in comparative literature. His research covers Shakespeare, early modern literature, and modern British and Irish poetry. His latest book is Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603–1707 (2008)

Lecture Chair: Professor David McKitterick FBA

More about the Shakespeare Lectures


This lecture was published in Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 167, 2009 Lectures.

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