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John Kerrigan, Shakespeare's Binding Language
by Willy Maley

Kerrigan, John. Shakespeare’s Binding Language. Oxford UP, 2016. xi + 622 pp. ISBN: 978-01987575801. $46.00 cloth.


Anyone picking up John Kerrigan’s book will be immediately struck by its literal weightiness before being bowled over by its intellectual weightiness. There has been a tendency in publishing for strict word lengths on monographs and book chapters that can at times prove something of a straitjacket for scholars with big ideas and archives that they have to constrain within far fewer words than they would like. This is especially pertinent in the context of institutional research assessment in the UK, where there are growing demands on individuals to produce work of real substance at a time when publishers are bearing down on authors and slimmed down books and articles are the order of the day. In the jargon of the UK Research Excellence Framework Shakespeare’s Binding Language is a 4-star double-weighted submission. Of course, substance is not necessarily tied to word-length, but the fact remains that an essay curtailed by editors or a monograph corseted—contracted in the literal sense—by a publisher can have the effect of truncating arguments and telescoping analyses. Kerrigan’s author agreement, his contract, has been a generous one. He can, as Hamlet urged the players, show “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure,” and with him say, “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” knowing that no editor will shrink his boards—or compress his kindle edition (3.2.24-5, 2.2.255-6).[1]

Always judge a book by its cover; the material object matters. Kerrigan notes of Protestants swearing on the Bible: “It was the truth of the Gospels on which you were swearing, not the paper and string of the book,” since the latter would verge on idolatry (19). Yet cloth and boards and proper binding are vital aspects of a book built to last. Shakespeare’s Binding Language is beautifully bound, but in other ways it is marvellously out of bounds. Kerrigan is a scholar of boundless critical energy who has been permitted to be expansive in his critical works and even if, as is the case, his work is always exact and exacting, assiduously edited with little sign of slackness or verbiage, it is nonetheless remarkable that he is able to enjoy the privilege of having such a large canvas at his disposal. This is to take nothing away from Kerrigan’s formidable scholarship, merely to note that it is rare these days for a critic to have such a free rein.[2] In his epilogue, Kerrigan deploys the phrase “a piecemeal output of essays” when discussing the ways in which studies of the kind he has produced might best be pursued (475). There has been a debate, at least in the UK context, about the merits or otherwise of the monograph as a means of transmitting knowledge.[3] Kerrigan’s work demonstrates the value of a critic, particularly one as gifted as he is, being allowed to roam freely over so many densely packed pages. Oxford University Press is to be commended for recognizing that big ideas need a big stage. Other publishers, especially in this digital age, should be more aware of the need for scholarship to breathe beyond the bounds of 8,000 or 80,000 words.

Ironically, it was with an oath that John Fell, Dean of Christ Church and later Bishop of Oxford, hailed in 1669 the University Press at Oxford, “which I hope by God’s blessing may not only prove usefull to us poor Scholars but reflect some reputation and advantage on the Publick” (51).[4] What are the ties that bind, the oaths that peg us in the knotty entrails of obligation? At the end of this spellbinding study of the dramatic binds, double binds, backgrounds and boundaries of Shakespeare’s speech acts Kerrigan remarks: “To excavate and map anything that is conceptually difficult and socially complex, it is desirable to get to its edges, to arrive at the parameters which delimit and animate practice” (476). There is no doubt that by the time the reader reaches the end of this exhaustive study they will be at the perimeter fence of what we know about Shakespeare’s language. And that’s both the great strength and strain of this book. “Extravagant austerity,” a term applied to the puritans by Macaulay, is a fitting phrase for Kerrigan’s latest contribution to Shakespeare scholarship. That half-familiar phrase came to mind before I checked the source. Macaulay had mixed feelings about the puritans, of course, but “extravagant austerity” chimes with the way in which Shakespeare’s Binding Language wears its vast learning as lightly as a cloak of invisibility. The writing is pared down through a supple style in which short sentences—sometimes just a handful of words—serve to suggest knotted handkerchiefs unravelled with a magician’s flourish. Tightly woven as it is, this is a book with big pockets and wide sleeves. The cover image of “a knot-garden in The Orchard, and the Garden (1594)” resembles an ornate window, and that’s appropriate, since the reader is offered glimpses of cultivated ground that shifts perspective with each viewing. The language of that anonymous text on husbandry contains several allusions to binding, including this: “All grafting and imping is done by putting one into another by a fast binding, that the little sprout may spread his boughes to the stumpe or tree, wherein it is graffed, that so it may become one tree” (8).[5] That is an apt metaphor for Kerrigan’s achievement.

The book’s 16 chapters, bound between a lengthy introduction and a brief epilogue, offer readings of nineteen plays and more by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. There is a latticework of linkage throughout, but chapters 14 and 15 in particular are presented as a sequence, “Reformation I” (367-94) and “Reformation II” (395-418). Focusing on three plays—King John, Sir Thomas More and Henry VIII—that throw up different challenges for the reader, this section also threatens to undo the hitherto secure bindings of Kerrigan’s close readings. This shows in his conclusions, which are less surefooted than those drawn elsewhere. This was certainly the section I found least persuasive, perhaps because the concept of history at work here was more conventional than in other chapters, or because the plays themselves are peculiar enough to call for a different kind of comparative contextualizing. The other pairings—most notably those of the preceding chapters, Macbeth and All’s Well That Ends Well in chapter 12 (313-35), or King Lear and Timon of Athens in chapter 13 (336-66)—have more energy and invention. Reformation and its sequel felt like the calm after the storm, which made the next two chapters, on Coriolanus, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, plays hyper-resistant to heavy-handed historicizing, a breath of fresh air. And speaking of storms, Kerrigan touches teasingly on The Tempest, but never makes landfall, and that is a play crying out for the treatment he gives here to the likes of The Merchant of Venice or King Lear.

Shakespeare’s Binding Language is bound to be the signature Shakespeare publication of 2016, setting the benchmark for future study. In his preface Kerrigan dates the origin of his topic to 2009, but if we track back through his work we find the seeds were sown much earlier. Archipelagic English contains a highly suggestive passage on oaths in Ireland.[6] There is a red thread of oaths and vows running through Revenge Tragedy.[7] And as far back as the influential edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets there is evidence of an awareness of the binding power of language.[8] Rich in meaning and rigorous in method, Kerrigan’s study exhibits some mean editing, the telegraphic style shorn of excess baggage. No book can be all kernels and no shell but the level of winnowing Kerrigan conducts is exemplary. Hefty as a doorstop, Shakespeare’s Binding Language is also edgy as a letter-opener. Size matters most when married with subtlety. No loose, baggy monster summoned from the vasty deep, this pioneering exploration of the language of commitment, contract and obligation—binding language—in the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, chiefly his non-creative, non-collaborative contemporaries, is a feast that feels like a fast.

Kerrigan holds the question of co-authorship at bay until his conclusion: “That several of the plays discussed are collaborations with Fletcher or Middleton, or contain additions or substitutions from Middleton, is sufficient reason to wish that we had close, comparative analyses” (475). Here Kerrigan opens the door to attribution studies and to future work on Shakespeare’s contemporaries: “The field is full of plays, from Marlowe to Massinger and Shirley … that would reward attention in their own right along the lines advanced by this book” (475). The focus on Shakespeare leaves the field open for others eager to test Kerrigan’s thesis on other writers of the period. The book’s drum-tight discourse is tuned to the binding language it sounds out. In a suggestive epilogue the sonnets are brought into the frame, and here as elsewhere there’s an impressive degree of delicacy. Kerrigan’s kind of criticism works best at the level of the line. A key insight stated at the outset is that oaths are bound up not just with authors and authorities but with actors and individual agency: “Across the Shakespeare canon, oaths are sworn and bonds dissolved at points of decision and uncertainty that produce what we now call ‘character’” (5). Vows are the motors of action, the trigger-points of plots: “Once fired off, like rockets, they cannot be recalled” (3). Or again, “Oaths can be offensive weapons—Petruccio uses them to browbeat Kate” (6).

It is as though there was a Great Vow Shift to match the Great Vowel Shift and Shakespeare was more finely attuned to this transformation than his contemporaries. The 1606 Act to Restrain Abuses of Players was a game-changer: “Reflecting on as well as reflecting the change in theatrical culture that was brought about by the Act, Shakespeare’s use of binding language was to some extent redirected” (8). “Reflecting on as well as reflecting” is a characteristically crafty formulation that establishes Shakespeare as an acutely responsive writer, ahead of his time and above his peers. The oaths that had their roots in the English Reformation were entangled with “everyday effing and blinding” (15). Such everydayness can blind us to the fact that binding language binds both ways, and profanity and profundity go hand in gage. There is, as Kerrigan comments, social bonding in binding language, “a social, lateral binding”: “You are bound to what you say, but also bound to those whose acceptance of your word might be thought to leave them with an obligation to trust that meshes with your responsibility to speak the truth” (10). There is a bond too—or rather a series of intimately overlapping, similar-but-different bonds—often unwritten or unspoken, between author and editor, actor and audience, critic and reader, writer and reviewer that is as fraught as any officially enforceable obligation.[9] Crammed with contextual awareness as these close readings are, their depth is rendered in a manner such that they never feel clotted or congested. These readings are also adventures in etymology as Kerrigan reactivates or reanimates a terminology that might otherwise be lost on modern readers. “Sometimes the keywords of this book carry a biblical charge,” he tells us (17). Reminding readers that religion is itself “derived from religio, ‘I bind,’” Kerrigan sets in motion the whole linguistic legacy of legates and ligatures, from suspensions of speech and disbelief to the hangman’s noose (11). To think etymologically is also to think ideologically. Like Raymond Williams, Kerrigan finds behind the Oxford English Dictionary’s “air of massive impersonality … the ideology of its editors” (xxx).[10] Kerrigan comments that the OED is “a work in progress, and slanted unrepresentatively towards Shakespeare” (x). His firm grasp of how language operated in the Early Modern period is never in doubt. This is a huge book, but I am not the first reviewer to point out how lean it is, its 622 pages (including 150 pages of notes and bibliography) notwithstanding—and the notes are not just referential, but often argumentative and discursive. At almost 300,000 words one would expect a little fat on the bone. There is none. Had Kerrigan been given a strict word length to adhere to some gems would have been lost, like the two pages devoted to the 1612 performance of the Latin play Thomas Morus (404-06). This would be an aside, an endnote, or more likely an excision in another work, but Oxford University Press knows from experience not to cut Kerrigan’s cloth or tamper with his tailor-made, tightly woven texts. Archipelagic English was equally expansive, again with 150 pages of notes and bibliography, but there too every word was made to measure. Yet even with the space for generous acknowledgement of influences he has at his disposal Kerrigan has room only for a “Select List of Secondary Sources” (583-96).[11]

Kerrigan delivers on his promises. Whether demonstrating the slippage between oaths and vows— “Shakespeare often uses the terms interchangeably, alert to the hooks and eyes that can link situations and plots” (16)—distinguishing between allegiance and obedience—“Across the field of political argument, the two words were in practice understood to have different histories and implications”  (373)—or riffing on gifts and gift-giving, hands and handfasting, Kerrigan anchors his analyses in the safe harbours of specific scenes, seldom straying into speculation. Especially sharp on resolutions, his insistence on “three parallel endings” (469) for The Winter’s Tale rather than the accepted two is typical of the drive to find yet more meaning in an author already richly left. One of the things that Shakespeare’s Binding Language does, most tellingly in the chapter on “Time and Money: The Comedy of Errors and The Merchant of Venice” (146-173) is to make every word count by showing that in binding language, as in the closest reading, every word counts. The discourses of debt and obligation structure the drama. Time is money, and is always bound up with law and contract, with a promise to pay the bearer on demand. In the pivotal chapter on “Binding Language in Measure for Measure” (290-312) we are told: “The Duke’s speech rhetorically weighs out and exemplifies measure” (309). Kerrigan’s language is tuned to the frequencies of the plays and also reminds us that they are intertwined in complex ways. Here we recall the words of Exeter on the reformed Hal who, leaving his misspent youth behind, now measures time in an hourglass: “Now he weighs time / Even to the utmost grain” (2.4.136-8).[12] Kerrigan too weighs time and text to the utmost grain, fusing deep historical knowledge with scrupulous accounts of how individual plays respond to the pressures, promises and pledges of the period, their laws and lore hardwired into dramatic texts perfectly placed to incorporate and display their knots and nuances. The granularity of his readings show that Kerrigan has a gift for passages of economy and impact that make short work of large labours, and for producing elegant new interpretations of familiar texts. He also has a way of combining close readings with broader claims about Early Modern culture based on the widest reading of historical, legal, philosophical and religious texts.

It is twenty years since Patricia Parker’s intertextual study Shakespeare from the Margins prompted us to think differently about how the plays responded to one another and to their various contexts.[13] What Kerrigan offers is Shakespeare from the marrow. He drills down into the texts, appearing to unlock a secret language within familiar passages, and then shows how this discourse inventively at play in Shakespeare is also hard at work in the culture at large. His opening gambit is to revisit a scene from Troilus and Cressida, that between Hector and Andromache around the precedence of competing pledges. Kerrigan observes that “as so often, the familiarity of the dialogue was hiding my ignorance from me” (1). Kerrigan traverses the Shakespeare corpus making connections and showing how each work is preoccupied with asseverations, curses, incantations, libels, pledges, profanities, promises, oaths, swearing and vows. Whether putting the oath into Othello (but never oafish enough to look for it in Ophelia) or detangling the financial ties and hard times of Timon of Athens—off-kilter in the index (submerged under The Tempest), the only typo I spotted—or, most audaciously, linking the bonds of Cordelia and Shylock, Kerrigan is alert to every etymon, always springing surprises, showing the reader how the familiarity of the dialogue hides our ignorance.[14] We can never know Shakespeare as well as we might think we do. Kerrigan’s claim in the introduction rings true by the time we get to the epilogue: “Once the topic is opened up, it will be seen to be important in most parts of Shakespeare’s output” (6). Yet despite a kind of chronology or arc from early histories to late romances, Kerrigan is at pains to point out that it is not a question of tracing Shakespeare’s trajectory as a writer: “The binding language in the playscripts owes more to genre than date: lovers’ vows in the comedies; oaths of Church and State—including a coronation oath—in King John; perjury in the problem plays; oaths turning into spells and curses in Lear, Macbeth, and Timon of Athens; faith and counsel in the late romances” (6). The 42-page introduction is a splendid piece of condensation, giving it the depth and detail of a monograph in its own right.

More than a survey or sampling of material, it sets the scene for what follows by preparing the reader for a demanding immersion in oaths. “Surprisingly little work has been done on Shakespeare’s binding language,” says Kerrigan (32). Everything there is has been sophisticatedly synthesized here. Kerrigan marks out his own terrain in relation to adjacent territory: “The growing body of scholarship about early modern drama and law is at one remove from this book but it sheds important side-lights” (33). One such sidelight would be Fiction in the Archives (1987), in which Natalie Zemon Davis showed, from a reverse angle as it were, how “a persuasive drama of words” could be at play in the supposed true stories found in remission letters seeking a royal pardon.[15] Law and drama have always been historically engaged in dialogue as powers of persuasion for public forums: classrooms, courtrooms, parliaments, and theatres.

The question of readership and audience is intimately bound up with Kerrigan’s arguments. Early on, he says of one scene that “a late Elizabethan audience would have taken a view of this situation rather different from that to be found in modern commentary,” and this lays down a marker for subsequent assumptions about contemporary audiences (5). With regard to the histories, Kerrigan suggests that these plays are “riven with revenge oaths that conflict with the oaths of fealty and allegiance that were sworn to medieval monarchs—as a section of Shakespeare’s audience would know from reading the legal texts of Britton and Henry de Bracton as well as the chronicles” (6). How big was the section reading Latin texts or heavy histories? And is it true to say that Shakespeare’s was “a society more face to face than our own, where … people would have been responsive to the histories, associations, and … institutions represented by each kind of speech act”? (24) According to Kerrigan:


The interest of early audiences in such language can be inferred not just from Shakespeare but from the drama of his contemporaries: Middleton, Jonson, Webster, Ford. The armature of oaths and vows in each case is different, reflecting choices of subject matter as well as authorial outlook. (25)


Kerrigan is more confident about authorial outlook, especially in the case of Shakespeare, whose “attraction to the oral” is a given, than he is about audience awareness: “The specific responsiveness of audiences is harder to calibrate, but not always impossible” (25). Kerrigan offers as evidence an example of a seventeenth-century reader’s underlinings and annotations, which leads into a fascinating section on “Gender, status, and cultural difference” (25-32).

But the issue of audience never goes away, so that “it is clearly worth knowing about legal contexts as we try to gauge the reaction of what was most likely an Inns of Court theatre audience” (33). The discussion of gender and class put me in mind of Harry Horner’s sexual-pun-come-social-comment in Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675) that “women … are like soldiers, made constant and loyal by good pay, rather than by oaths and covenants” (1.1.423-5).[16] Later, Kerrigan, in one of his bullet sentences, says: “Soldiers were notoriously given to swearing” (239). Why? Masculinity? Militancy? Male bonding? “Swearing like a trooper” is a cliché that deserves to be scrutinized. Kerrigan is keenly aware of the conflictual context of oaths and swearing, although for a critic who has championed archipelagic over Anglocentric perspectives he arguably underplays the “standard practice” of martial law in Ireland. Kerrigan cites the earl of Essex’s Lawes and orders of Warre, established for the good conduct of the service in Ireland and then adds that “Such rules were standard” (520, n6), citing as proof William Garrard’s posthumously published The Arte of Warre (1591), without adverting to Garrard’s status as a writer relentlessly critical, like Barnaby Rich before him, of the English military system.[17] Such rules were indeed standard, and the standards of “English” law, including military conduct, were being set in the non-English nations of the imperial monarchy. Elsewhere Kerrigan seems more attuned to the archipelagic impact on English law.[18] If there are numerous occasions on which Kerrigan chases a particular point through multiple passages then there are moments when he displays disproportionate attention to one detail but lets another trail go cold too quickly, as when he astutely refers to Portia in relation to “an ethos of entitlement” (13) without pushing the links between ethos, ethics and ethnicity further.

When in what for me is the most arresting chapter, “Oaths, Threats, and Henry V” (237-255), Kerrigan says that the question posed by MacMorris—“What ish my nation?”—“is more about picking a fight than an invitation to discuss national identity” (240), I wondered if some of the lessons of Archipelagic English were being forgotten. Colonialism appears absent from some of these deliberations around binding, and yet England unbound, from Reformation to Restoration, when it broke from one empire to forge another, is surely key to the proliferation of oaths as well as the profaneness and professionalization of soldiery. Oaths are about the face-off between authority and otherness. In this regard I found Kerrigan’s claim that “The average worn-out scholar would like nothing better than to be Prospero, bidding farewell to the reader as the magus / dramatist does to the theatre audience and his potent art” (470) slightly jarring, since I have never identified with that slavemaster-torturer.

In Henry V, the four captains scene contains “the heaviest concentration of swearing in all of Shakespeare” (238), a veritable volley of vows. Yet this is a paradox: “Profanity was out of order in the field” (238). Duty-bound not to swear, sworn to decency, to watch their words, soldiers were nonetheless out of bounds when it came to decorum in camp or at the front. And of course in this play the king himself is given to oaths (242). The language of engagement is both binding and boundless, as is Kerrigan’s wit: “The glove in William’s hat is half a handshake, which can move around the action,” a “forfeit, standing in for a ‘forefoot’” (247). Kerrigan concludes this chapter thus: “True safety comes … from military superiority. Oaths, agreements, and pacts are subject to the necessity of the state” (254). I thought here of all the articles of peace drawn up in the seventeenth century, and all the wars that inevitably ensued. I also thought of the notorious vow made by unionist British political leaders on the eve of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.[19] 

Some readers might feel that the sheer weight of examples, multiplied and amplified, has a hypnotic effect, and could create the impression of repetition, but most will appreciate the fact that Kerrigan’s task is precisely to illustrate the extent to which Shakespeare’s drama is not simply laced with the language of oaths but with the richest reserves of such language available in any single body of work. Kerrigan’s examples are varied and vibrant enough to keep the pages turning. While reading Shakespeare’s Binding Language, I was working on the literature of the late seventeenth century, and it seemed that there were oaths abounding there, in places I would have expected, most obviously in comedy and satire, but more subtly too as an undertow.[20] Another reviewer likened Kerrigan to William Empson, but there’s much more to Kerrigan than unrepeatable ingenuity and virtuoso readings. Kerrigan is more historical, more rooted in the texts rather than his own extrapolations, more likely to let the language of the works under examination speak their truths. His is a kind of hyper-humanism, although the astringent historicism does not always leave room for theoretical elaboration.

Shakespeare’s Binding Language is a big data project in print, and in that sense it reminds us that the book is still a vital resource. Shakespeare emerges from Kerrigan’s tangle of textual analyses as something of a solitary genius uniquely positioned to absorb and enact promissory oaths, a uniquely gifted writer who listened intently to the language of commitment and contract and captured its cases and cadences: “Shakespeare is always attuned to derivation and resonance” (17). After the first tetralogy “Shakespeare develops … the element of threat in promise” (7). Henceforth “binding language proposes a violence that is barely wrapped up in legality” (7). There are no loose ends by the time we reach Kerrigan’s conclusion, but the epilogue is suggestive of further possibilities. It is also mindful of the dialogue between digital and printed sources: “Systematic findings are valuable, but they are most useful when sifted and interpreted—especially when it comes to drama—by those who have an eye for the exception as well as the rule” (476). An exceptional writer requires an exceptional reader to liberate his or her language from the twin threats of tradition and trend. Kerrigan is just such a reader, and his eloquent expertise breathes life into the driest and dustiest corners of Early Modern thought. Electronic resources have their part to play, but the message this magnificent monograph transmits is that the book’s the thing, especially when its author is allowed to range as widely as he wishes.

Critics will be keen to see how far other writers of the period, such as Spenser and Milton, are similarly steeped in oaths and covenants. If Kerrigan’s blindingly good book was in his own too modest words “not written … to encourage others to look at oaths, vows, and profanities across the field of early modern drama” but more modestly “to highlight and bring into focus particular kinds of verbal and performative behaviour in Shakespeare” (476), then it remains the case that in its historical awareness, its sensitivity to speech acts, its understanding of the contexts in which they are produced, and its engagement with the dramatic effects of a certain kind of language in action, Shakespeare’s Binding Language throws down a gauntlet for future critics. The bar has been set. Kerrigan’s authority—or “oath-ority,” if you will—is incontestable. It is the gage and measure of where we are with Shakespeare’s verbal artistry, and critics will ponder its findings for years to come. Meanwhile, Kerrigan will have moved on to pastures new, to greener fields to plant young shoots in other orchards and gardens, where his grafting and imping will, I swear, give rise to another mighty oak.

Willy Maley
University of Glasgow

[1] Hamlet, in The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works, edited by Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thompson, and David Scott Kastan, Cengage, 2002.

[2] There is perhaps a point to be pursued elsewhere about the different levels of support for scholarship across different institutions.

[3] See for example Peter Williams, Iain Stevenson, David Nicholas, Anthony Watkinson, and Ian Rowlands, “The Role and Future of the Monograph in Arts and Humanities Research,” Aslib Proceedings, vol. 61, no. 1, 2009, pp. 67-82. See also Colin Steele, “Scholarly Monograph Publishing in the 21st Century: The Future More Than Ever Should Be An Open Book,” Journal of Electronic Publishing, Michigan Publishing, U of Michigan Library, vol.11, no. 2, 2008,, accessed 14 Sep. 2016. 

[4] Harry Graham Carter, A History of the Oxford University Press: To the year 1780, with an appendix listing the titles of books printed there, 1690-1780, Clarendon P, 1975.

[5] Anon, The Orchard, and the Garden, Adam Islip, 1594.

[6] John Kerrigan, Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603-1707, Oxford UP, 2008, pp. 183-4.

[7] John Kerrigan, Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon, Clarendon P, 1996, especially “Of Anger: Seneca, Milton, Shakespeare,” pp. 111-141.

[8] The Sonnets and a Lover’s Complaint, edited by John Kerrigan, Viking, 1986, Penguin Classics, 1999, p. 51.

[9] In this regard I am grateful to the editors of The Spenser Review for allowing me to ruminate at length. Reviewing this particular book was an endless work to have in hand, and by the end I felt like Archimago: “His scrip did hang, in which his needments he did bind” (The Faerie Queene

[10] Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Oxford UP, 1976, 2015.

[11] One little acorn excluded from the select list is Frank Kermode, “Zounds,” review of Alain Cabantous, Blasphemy: Impious Speech in the West from the 17th to the 19th Century, translated by Eric Rauth, Columbia UP, 2002, LRB vol. 24, no. 2, 14 Jan. 2002, pp. 19-20, which makes intriguing observations in passing on blasphemy in Othello and Measure for Measure.

[12] The Arden Shakespeare Henry V, edited by T. W. Craik, Routledge, 1995.

[13] Patricia Parker, Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context, The U of Chicago P, 1996.

 [14]Kerrigan concentrates on Hamlet’s vows and is more interested in Ophelia’s “By Cock” (4.5.61) than Hamlet’s “country matters” (3.2.118), p. 23. The only other “By cocks” in Shakespeare are Shallow’s and the Page’s “By cock and pie” combos in Henry IV Part 2 (5.1.1) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (1.3.285) respectively. For Ophelia’s oaths see James Black, “Hamlet’s Vows,” Renaissance and Reformation, vol. 2, no. 1, 1978, pp. 33-48, Alison A. Chapman, “‘Ophelia’s ‘Old Lauds’: Madness and Hagiography in Hamlet,” Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, vol. 20, 2007, pp. 111-135, Cameron Hunt, “Jephthah’s Daughter’s Daughter: Ophelia,” ANQ, vol. 22, no. 4, 2009, pp. 13-16, James G. McManaway, “Ophelia and Jephtha’s Daughter,” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 2, Spring 1970, pp. 198-200, and Reta A. Terry, “‘Vows to the Blackest Devil’: Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in Early Modern England,” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 4, 22 December 1999, pp. 1070-1086. See also Fiona Martin, “‘Mong’st the furies finde just recompence’: Suicide and the Supernatural in William Sampson’s The Vow Breaker (1636),” in Supernatural and Secular Power in Early Modern England, edited by Marcus Harmes and Victoria Bladen, Routledge, 2015, pp. 117-139.

[15] Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France, Stanford UP, 1987, p. 97. Davis’s study includes a suggestive passage on Romeo and Juliet, pp. 72-6.

[16] William Wycherley, The Country Wife and Other Plays, edited by Peter Dixon, Oxford UP, 1996, 1998.

[17] See Lawes and orders of Warre, established for the good conduct of the service in Ireland, London, 1599, and William Garrard, et al., The Arte of Warre, London, printed for Roger Warde, 1591.

[18] See for example Archipelagic English, pp. 341-44.

[19] See James Cook, “What Now for ‘the vow’?” BBC News, BBC, 1 Oct. 2014,, accessed 16 Sep. 2016.

[20] “So Cromwel with deep Oaths and Vows, / Swore all the Commons out o’ th’ House,” Samuel Butler, Hudibras in three parts, London, 1684, p. 285.


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Willy Maley, "John Kerrigan, Shakespeare's Binding Language," Spenser Review 46.2.10 (Fall 2016). Accessed October 23rd, 2021.
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