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v2.1 Reference

Shakespeare's Promises

"It is impossible to imagine any kind of moral life without obligations, and impossible to imagine obligations without types of promises. We are always up against them. Before we ever reflect on what a promise is, we have made them and are expected to make more of them. We are born into nations that enter into treaties and agreements. Promises are with us like gravity. Man is a promising animal."—from Shakespeare's Promises

Oaths, vows, contracts, and promises are among the most momentous actions human beings can perform, in art as well as life. Although virtually ignored by literary theorists, these obligations motivate plots, test characters, provide rhetorical occasions, structure ironies, and open thematic horizons. According to William Kerrigan, they had particular importance for Shakespeare, who wrote at a decisive moment in the history of promising, toward the end of its High Christian phase and near the beginning of its metaphysically lessened, though still central, role in the "contractual" state. Motivating his plots and supplying his characters with lofty rhetorical occasions, Shakespeare gave promising great dramatic life. More than that, promises made and kept "in good faith" reside at the heart of his idealism. Yet he also explores the ways in which promising and morality, for a variety of reasons, part company.

Kerrigan's is the first book to treat this subject with the amplitude it deserves. After a discussion of promises in philosophy, law, psychology, politics, language, and ordinary life, the author presents detailed studies of Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello, and concludes with a brief visit to the swearing scene in Hamlet. Shakespeare's Promises is a unique and valuable resource, providing a fresh perspective that will benefit all readers of Shakespeare.

About the Author

William Kerrigan is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His books include The Idea of the Renaissance, written with Gordon Braden, and Hamlet's Perfection, both available from Johns Hopkins.


Impressive in its intellectual reach, often witty, and always moving in its claims for the powerful and inescapable bonds that make us human.

- Journal of English and Germanic Philology

A book of considerable interest, with many thought-provoking readings of specific speeches and dramatic moments, and sketches the scope of this vast subject with admirable brevity and clarity.

- Danielle Clarke - Early Modern Literary Studies


This is a critical book on Shakespeare that is fascinating to read. Kerrigan is wonderfully in control of his subject, and his writing is vigorous and excellent. It is very engaging for general readers of Shakespeare, particularly those interested in The Merchant of Venice, Othello, or the early history plays.

- Maurice Charney, Rutgers University
Johns Hopkins University Press
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9780801877438 : shakespeares-promises-kerrigan
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$30.00 USD

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