“Our challenge is to remain true to the spirit of comedy in this play while not avoiding the difficult ending! How do we tell a story in which these guys can be credibly brought into a world we share?”

We are at an early rehearsal of my university’s summer production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. The director, Beth Lopes, is talking to the cast about performing Shakespeare’s earliest comedy in the age of #MeToo. And yes, the two gents ARE a problem. At the beginning of the play, Proteus pledges fidelity to his best friend Valentine and then declares his love to Julia. By the end of the play, Proteus has abandoned Julia for Sylvia, the beloved of Valentine. To get the new girl, he slanders his best friend and then, rebuffed by Sylvia, attempts to rape her in the forest. The patterned protestations that open the play track the progress of the plot as it veers into slander, perjury, and sexual assault. Such oaths in Shakespeare are like tennis balls thrown from one speech partner to the other, with an invisible reach that lands, bounces, and bursts later in the play. The prettier the oath, the more shit will be broken: laws, promises, hearts, trust.

In this play, forgiveness is as shocking as what is forgiven. Not only does Valentine release his chagrined and humiliated friend from his “shame and guilt,” but he offers Sylvia to him: “All that was mine in Sylvia I give thee” (V.iv.78, 89). Sylvia is silent, her consent not considered, and directors like Beth Lopes must decide how to frame her response.

Watching our actors struggle with Two Gents made me realize that Shakespeare himself would come up with new scenarios and new solutions in his later visitations of the play. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, once-devoted couples (devoted = avowed or committed) come apart and then return to their original positions, their lovers’ oaths chastened by the rumbling of desire. In Merchant, women secure pledges from their husbands and then mercilessly test them, reminding us that oaths are always a “joint action” requiring cooperation from both parties. In Measure for Measure, a woman forgives her would-be sexual abuser, but only because his pardoning will benefit another woman who has assisted her in her projects. In The Winter’s Tale, a slandered wife offers forgiveness through and on behalf of the next generation, asserting the reach of oaths beyond the individuals who contract them.

In none of these plays do guys offer to give their girlfriends away. Shakespeare definitely learned something.

I happened to be reading Robert Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology (Harvard, 2019) the same weekend that we began rehearsing Two Gents. The basic rhythm of thought tracked by Brandom is this: commitment to an idea and to standards of reasoning; failure, confession, and judgment when fidelity to the idea is revealed to be compromised; forgiveness and the rebuilding of trust. This sequence of actions, Brandom argues, shapes the development of concepts in philosophy, the elaboration of precedents in common law jurisprudence, and the ethical stances (or “normative commitments”) implied by both. Brandom’s basic narrative also sounds a lot like a Shakespeare play.

The story of thought goes like this. A philosopher or judge arrives at an opinion, with regards, say, to rights. That opinion is then deemed inadequate, perhaps due to inherent bias in which women, or Catholics, or indigenous peoples count as less than fully rights-bearing. In Brandom’s colorful formulation, what the judge ate for breakfast has infected their judicial decision with “the aspect of individuality.” “Breakfast” goes far beyond green eggs and ham, to encompass a veritable kitchen sink filled with cultural presuppositions and attitudes of all kinds. The judge may be partly aware of their own prejudice and they come to confess their crime against truth, if not in their own lifetime then through a hermeneutic process that brings the limits and even violence of the original decision to light. This exposure is the moment of confession (“I got it wrong”), but also of judgment (“You broke your oath to be impartial”).

Confession and judgment are two sides of the same action in the drama of ideas; sometimes the confessor and the judge are the same person, though more often these elements are disclosed over time. But there is a final moment, forgiveness, when an interpreter of the tradition recognizes what the thinker was aiming to accomplish, what they in fact contributed to the unfolding shape of truth. Brandom calls this third moment “magnanimous forgiving recollection.” That basically means that the later interpreter gives the earlier thinker the benefit of the doubt, acknowledging what the forbearer’s initial formulation, however cringy, contributed to the development of an ethical truth or philosophical concept that remains in the process of formation today.

So what does this have to do with a silly little play like Two Gents?

  1. Proteus makes promises, breaks promises, confesses his crime, and is forgiven by Valentine.
  2. Valentine’s forgiveness of Proteus is a crime against Sylvia, whose consent is ignored in a second assault on her personhood.
  3. Valentine’s crime is also Shakespeare’s crime, and he is confessing and judging that crime every time he returns to forswearing and forgiveness in his later works.
  4. Directors like Beth Lopes are also practicing “magnanimous forgiving recollection” when they strive to recognize Sylvia as a moral agent, which means judging Shakespeare, while also offering the young men a way back into social life, which means forgiving Shakespeare.

Let’s take the case of Othello. Was the playwright ahead of his time in imagining an interracial romance between two characters endowed with extraordinary courage and dignity, or did Shakespeare betray Othello even more brutally than Sylvia, by setting his creation on a murderous path that pushes gullibility into barbarism?

Both perspectives are true, one from the vantage of judgment and the other from the vantage of forgiveness. Magnanimous forgiving recollection is not about apologizing for Shakespeare’s failures but rather about incorporating his works in both their failures and their achievements into a longer, ongoing search for truths—truths concerning human equality, the nature of social bonds, and the quality of mercy.

In Othello, Desdemona’s failure to produce the handkerchief eventually leads Othello to stalk off stage with a departing expletive:

Othello: The handkerchief.
Desdemona: I’faith, you are to blame.
Othello: ’Swounds! (III.iv.82-89)

’Swounds is a contraction of “God’s wounds,” one of many colorful expletives that peppered the English stage until they were banned in 1605. (My favorite: ‘Slids, God’s eyelids). ’Swounds appears in the mouth of Iago among others and is bandied without much thought about its meaning. But in this pungent exchange ’Swounds starts to gather significance. Critics have linked the handkerchief “spotted with strawberries” (III.iii.429) to the couple’s marriage sheets. ’Swounds evokes another image: the nailing of Jesus to the cross. Through the aperture of the oath, one can begin to picture the handkerchief as a memory of the Passion, like fifteenth-century woodcuts that mapped the body of Jesus as a network of wounds.

Othello is no Jesus, but he is certainly being persecuted by the play’s devil, Iago, and he draws dignity from a series of biblical types that link him to Pauline ideas about universal humanity and to the shared values of the people of the Book. The instruments that Iago has used to torture Othello include his blackness, his marked physical difference from the white Venetians. When Othello swears ’Swounds, his pierced and pricked personhood opens up onto a world of woundings. Contemporary productions are most powerful when they respond to Othello in the modes of both judgment and forgiveness. Iqbal Khan’s 2015 production, which cast actors of African descent in the roles of Othello (Hugh Quarshie) and Iago (Lucian Msumati), spread out the dimensions of racial hatred and self-hatred that Shakespeare was struggling with in this play.

Brandom does not quote Shakespeare in his 835-page tome. He does, however, supplement tragedy, which belongs to crime, confession, and judgment, with comedy, which belongs to forgiveness. What Brandom calls the “spirit of trust” is also “the spirit of Shakespeare.” Although Shakespeare wrote great tragedies, he also searched for a dramatic form—call it tragicomedy, romance, or simply drama—that forgives broken oaths in a manner that aims to recognize the interdependent personhoods of everyone present on the scene in a tremulous new community.

Brandom’s book diagnoses our contemporary crisis of recognition as a crisis in trust. The kitchen sinks of political and cultural division are making the search for shared truths and the possibility of social trust increasingly vexed. How can we affirm and defend our own commitments while managing to recognize what motivates those with whom we disagree? Whether we are addressing the woundings of sexual abuse or the woundings of racism, what are the most promising and responsible interfaces between judgment and forgiveness? The tender, serious work that Beth Lopes initiated at that rehearsal in June reflects the challenges that face all of us today: how to judge fairly, forgive appropriately, and recognize fully, in a manner that affirms the processual character of both truth and troth.