Introduction to the Theme of Love and Forgiveness
To talk about “love and forgiveness” in literature is to enter into unstudied territory. Unlike former “Let’s Talk About It” topics, such as “Latino Literature in the U.S.” or “Jewish Literature,” this theme has not given rise to a body of critical writing or to papers at literary conferences. It is not a subject of literary studies. If you wanted to read about it, you would go to theological or psychological literature, not to literary criticism. For love and forgiveness to be the windows through which we look at literature, we must move from a primary focus on seeing texts as created objects, with their ironies and unreliable narrators, to an old-fashioned emphasis on the stories themselves and on what characters do and say. Stories are driven by conflict—the agon, or struggle, that is at the heart of so many plots. If forgiveness comes at all, it comes only at the end of the story. The biblical narrative of Joseph and his brothers, for example, begins with betrayal (Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers) and ends with forgiveness, which is made possible only by Joseph’s great love for at least some of his brothers. But love and forgiveness are not the central themes of the story as a whole. If you functioned as a kind of “anthropologist of the text,” you might ask, “Where is the theme of love and forgiveness most likely to arise?” The answer to that question informs the three sub-themes of this project. Forgiveness arises in the presence of the wisdom of love; when there is love in the presence of the enemy; and when the nearness of death shines a light on what is important—love. Justice calls for punishment or requital of a wrong. Forgiveness gives up the claim for requital—and even the resentment that accompanies that claim. What creates the capacity for forgiveness? Often, wisdom traditions and, occasionally, works of literature suggest that love is the only force or state of being that allows forgiveness to be experienced.
Love, Forgiveness, and Wisdom
Sometimes time and experience lead to transformation and forgiveness (The Winter’s Tale); and sometimes redemption comes in the form of atonement (Atonement). Sometimes, when injustice seems to happen as a pattern of an individual’s life, a kind of transcendent grace or sudden movement of the universe seems to occur to knit the world together in a meaningful, loving whole (The History of Love). In time, what appear to be unforgivable personal wrongs, suffered at the hands of a loved one, can seem to work to a greater good (Sense and Sensibility).
The Winter’s Tale – William Shakespeare
Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, The Winter’s Tale has inspired many volumes of critical commentary. A number of readers have pointed out that the structure of the play mirrors the Christian “divine comedy” in moving from sin and loss to transformation and redemption. But while this structure may be felt behind the action, Shakespeare’s focus is on the psychology of the characters—and of the audience.
In each “movement” of the play, we see different aspects of love, forgiveness, and wisdom. In Part One (Acts I to III), we observe the “sickness” of the brain that leads to fatal errors of the heart. In Part Two (Act IV), we witness the transformations that make forgiveness and reconciliation possible. And in Part Three (Act V), the wisdom of love and forgiveness that redeems the past is dramatized in one of the most remarkable scenes in all of drama.
The sickness of the brain that is explored through the character of King Leontes is jealousy. Far from being a proof of love, as some believe, jealousy is a product of fear, constricting the heart and blinding the eyes to reality. Leontes sees his queen, Hermione, in friendly conversation with Polyxines, his best friend, and through the eyes of jealousy, uses even the most innocent of actions as “proof” in the construction of a case against...
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