Shakespeare and Sacraments (seminar)

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For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a spring 2012 semester seminar led by Sarah Beckwith.

An unprecedented, astonishing revolution in the forms and conventions of speaking, hence of modes of human relating, took place in the sixteenth century in England. Confessing, forgiving, absolving, initiating, swearing, blessing, baptizing, ordaining: these are a mere few of the speech acts so transformed in the English Reformation. These changes are fundamentally linked with a transformation of sacramental theology and practice and a reduction of the seven medieval sacraments to two: baptism and eucharist. Who has the authority to bless, to forgive and absolve, to ordain? And what happens to the sacramental rites that both initiate and end human life? Shakespeare’s theater charts, from first to last, and 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, and judgments of every person who must single him or herself and others out in these particular instances of authority. This seminar explored Shakespeare’s plays for transformations of ceremonial practice, the changing theology of the sacraments, questions of authority, liturgy, in sum, the ordinary language philosophy of speech acts—especially promising, confessing, and forgiving.

Director: Sarah Beckwith, Professor of English at Duke University, has written Christ’s Body: Identity, Religion and Society in Medieval English Writing (1993), Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in York’s Play of Corpus Christi (2001), and Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness (2011).