Forgiveness and Revenge
in Shakespeare’s Plays

Bill Matchett's gracious, short book, Shakespeare and Forgiveness, is wonderfully available to the reader, written for our understanding, and on a carefully defined
topic: forgiveness. As the author shows, the word appears often in Shakespeare,
and it is a comic idea in the sense of offering pardon for our manifest failings
as human beings. Matchett follows the concept through the corpus, from
the earliest plays to the late romances, showing us how the idea grows
and ripens into the major theme of Shakespeare's last plays.A deftly
done essay for the general readerwho loves Shakespeare.
—David Bevinton,
Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities

Shakespeare and Forgiveness is William H. Matchett's study of a very important aspect of William Shakespeare's plays. In his earliest comedies, Shakespeare used pardon from the terms of a harsh law—often first presented as unbreakable—as a convenient plot device to achieve a happy ending. Pardon, a legal concept, differs from forgiveness, which is a psychological concept involving the one who forgives as much as the one forgiven. The second concept enters Shakespeare’s plays only gradually and not, in Two Gentlemen of Verona, convincingly. The Merchant of Venice is a major step in Shakespeare’s own development, both in his first facing of meaningful forgiveness, and in his learning the value of character contradictions.

The opposite of forgiveness is revenge and this Shakespeare also investigates with increasing subtlety in Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Troilus and Cresida. In Measure for Measure his portrayal of forgiveness is damaged by the contrivance required to allow it to occur. It is only with King Lear that forgiveness is fully and movingly presented, rendering even more devastating the final destruction of Lear and Cordelia. Finally, in The Winter’s Tale, we see forgiveness as a miracle which can, unbelievably, occur. Here it is no plot device, but one of theater’s great moments.

William H. Matchett is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Washington. He was Editor of Modern Language Quarterly from 1963 to 1982. He is the author of several books of poetry and criticism, and his poems, stories, and articles have appeared in dozens of magazines, including The New Yorker, Saturday Review of Literature, Harper's, and The New Republic.


Shakespeare and Forgiveness
by William H. Matchett
ISBN 1-56474-402-7, 48 pages, paperback, $5.00

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