Forgiving Without Forgetting

Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale, is often considered a compression of his other plays and characters as he combines elements of tragedy, comedy, and romance and involves the classic types of the jealous husband, the falsely accused wife, the true friend, the loyal servant, the fool, the thief, and the young couple in love. But he artfully constructs the play to depict the virtue of forgiveness, accompanied with grace, which concludes the play.

In light of Nietzsche’s collection of essays, The Genealogy of Morals, The Winter’s Tale performs the impossible as Hermione treats Leontes with grace and compassion, offering him forgiveness without forgetting his false and visceral accusations of infidelity. In this essay I intend to first examine Nietzsche’s philosophical approach to forgiveness in light of Shakespeare’s literary exemplification of the virtue. In order to form a more sufficient argument, I will also briefly examine Nietzsche’s limited ideas regarding justice, grace, and love. Contrary to Nietzschean ideals of justice, grace, and love, Hermione forgives Leontes through which Leontes is freed from his guilt. 

In Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche mentions forgiveness by name only twice. The first time is during his argument that oppressed people who are “deprived… of their proper outlet of action” resent the oppressors (Nietzsche 35). The only way in which forgiveness is possible is because one “forgets” (38). Nietzsche eliminates forgiveness as a genuine virtue, perverting it to be only the result of weakness of the mind – forgetfulness. He suggests that the oppressed, who become the resentful, are “neither sincere… nor honest and candid with [themselves]” ( 37). By suggesting that they are stuck in the cycle of resentment and revenge, a cycle that will destroy any man, Nietzsche eliminates the hope of restoration.

The second time Nietzsche mentions forgiveness is in the middle of the invented conversations between Mr. Inquisitive and Foolhardy as they talk about the activity among the oppressed. In this conversation, the oppressed are depicted as followers of the Christian idea “love [your] enemies” and forgiveness is referred to as “not wishing to avenge one’s self” (48). Nietzsche interrupts this conversation as an aggravated bystander, concluding the conversations with exclamations of “Enough! Enough!” (50). This not only reveals his disagreement with the ideas of Christian love and forgiveness, but illuminates an intense frustration he has with how these virtues are so prevalently accepted. Thus, Nietzsche suggests that forgiveness without forgetting is impossible and to attempt forgiveness without forgetfulness is weak. 

To understand Nietzsche’s faithlessness in forgiveness we must first assess what he believes about justice. In the preface he introduces the origin of justice “as a balance between persons of approximately equal power” (7). This argument of equilibrium introduces a hierarchical view of justice as a product of established laws that can be transgressed. There must first be a society “where promises will be made” before there can be justice ( 71); society precedes justice. In light of this claim, Nietzsche suggests that the “sentiment of justice appeared on earth… exceedingly late, and even refined the form of human judgment and inference” (69). Nietzsche categorizes justice as a sentiment, driven by emotions. However, justice should not be a mere emotional response but a rationally motivated righting of wrong. He suggests the modern conception of justice is different from historical justice, which is a reaction to an injury or injustice. But if justice is a reaction to an injury or injustice, then the injured party’s reactive mode is kept in bounds by their belief that “somewhere or other its [the wrong’s] equivalent price… can really be paid off” (70).

Nietzsche lends this rationality to his idea of justice, introducing a subset to it: that the unjust man can right his wrongs by owing something to the injured man. In light of Nietzsche’s conceptualization of justice, the absurdity of forgiveness is illuminated. Forgiveness becomes the antithesis of fulfillment. Forgiveness leaves the wrongdoer with no consequences to suffer. Forgiveness throws off the equilibrium of equal power because no settlement is reached. Nietzsche accounts for the wrongdoer who fails to pay his debt (they are ultimately rejected from society), but he does not account for the wronged who forgives the wrongdoer and tells them that their debt is no more. Grace, Nietzsche concludes, is the “self-destruction of justice” (84).

Nietzsche reaches this conclusion because he does not account for an innate law within all persons, but rather refers only to an external law. His sense of justice is formed from rationalizing the reactive, reason that justifies emotions and demands equilibrium. Nietzsche’s idea of justice parallels his idea of love as his perversion of justice mirrors his perversion of love: if justice is the equilibrium between different people, love is the hierarchy within society. Love is birthed from his theory of slave morality, which “begins in the very principle of resentment becoming creative and giving birth to values” (Nietzsche, 35). Nietzsche’s search for the origin of values is traced back to Jesus of Nazareth. But Nietzsche believes that the establishment of values provides an arbitrary standard for morals. He does not believe in their validity and instead suggests that Jesus is an example of the perversion of power through love. He skews the sacrificial, selfless, and redemptive love of the cross by understanding it as a “love [that] grew out of hate” (32).

When Jesus brought “salvation and victory to the poor, the sick, the sinful” Nietzsche believes he was tempting his adversaries “to take the tortuous path to those very Jewish values and those very Jewish ideals” (these values being the Beatitudes) (Nietzsche, 32). The love which Jesus brought was a conniving trick to get those of more noble birth and higher standing to become as low as the lowest of the earth. Nietzsche’s argument views selfless values and morals as arbitrarily established in order to pervert power. 

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale provides an example of the power and the possibility of forgiveness despite the memory of the past. The play begins in Sicilia when the king of Bohemia, Polixenes, is visiting his close friend Leontes, the king of Sicilia. It is upon Hermione’s, the young and respected wife of Leontes, artfully posed invitation, at the request of Leontes, that Polixenes decides to prolong his stay. The pace of the play quickly changes when Leontes is suddenly overcome with the irrational emotion of jealousy and he accuses Hermione of having an affair with Polixenes. From the shock of the accusation and the strain of rejection, Hermione dies, as does their son Mamillius, and their newly born daughter is taken away from the angry king as a measure of safety. Leontes, in the face of these losses, undergoes recognition, despair, and suffering. He recognizes that he has “too much believed [his] own suspicion” (III.2, 149). He then feels “nothing but despair” (Shakespeare, III.2, 208). And finally enters into a period of suffering as he commits to “tears shed … / shall be [his] recreation” (III.2, 237-238).

The reader moves through the play and only returns to Leontes in Act V sixteen years after the tragedy of his wife’s death. His honest remorse becomes evident as all these years later he remains tormented by the loss of his wife. He has “performed / A saintlike sorrow” (V.1, 2). Leontes accepts a life of sorrow and penitence because he does not wish to live any other way; he commits himself to continually remembering Hermione.

Leontes undergoes a series of emotions when seeing the statue of Hermione, deepening his remorse and finalizing his judgment of self. The self-scrutiny with which Leontes judges himself shifts to joy and wonder. Throughout the duration of the play, Hermione has lived on only as a memory, her presence greatly missed; but, seeing her likeness for the first time has a strong effect over Leontes and he wonders at “[h]er natural posture” (V.3, 25). He undergoes an interior change as he questions: “Does not the stone rebuke me / For being more stone than it?” (V.3, 37-38). Leontes’ reaction to the stone from which Hermione’s likeness is carved further shows a repentant spirit. He judges himself by comparing his likeness as more stone-like, cold, harsh, and inhuman, than the stone itself. He contrasts himself with Hermione when she lived, “[e]ven with such life of majesty – warm life, / As now it coldly stands” (V.3, 36). In remembering her life he refers to her with royal importance and natural vivacity. Before bringing Hermione to life, Paulina demands that Leontes “awake [his] faith” (V.3, 95).

The words with which Paulina brings the statue of Hermione to life paints an image of redemption; through her resurrection (whether literal or figurative as critics debate whether the stone was brought to life or Hermione was brought out of hiding, having been alive for all sixteen years) she may “[b]equeath to death… numbness” (V.3, 102). Leontes is redeemed through resurrection. Hermione’s resurrection serves as a Christ-like depiction of salvation, which Leontes refers to as “[l]awful as eating” (V.3, 111). In this line Leontes refers to the Eucharist, a physical presence of Christ’s sacrifice. The unlawfulness of eating another man’s flesh, namely Christ’s, becomes lawful, just as the incomprehensible resurrection of Hermione is not through “wicked powers” (V.3, 90). In assuming a likeness to Christ, Hermione represents a purging of Leontes’ past transgressions.

Hermione, after her resurrection, also has a strong memory of the catastrophic events that opened the play; despite these, she forgives Leontes and restores unity in her family. When risen, Hermione embraces Leontes. She does not speak to him with language of forgiveness and grace, but her actions towards him carry more weight because they are done out of love. The grace Hermione shows to Leontes parallels the unmerited and divine regeneration which Christ gives to humans through his sacrifice on the cross. Grace in this sense requires a memory of the past in order to be genuine. Shakespeare makes it evident that Hermione does not forget the past actions of her husband, for when she addresses Perdita she displays memory of those events sixteen years prior through her questions. After her resurrection, the only words she speaks display a restorative inquiry: 

You gods, look down, 

And from your sacred vials pour your graces 

Upon my daughter’s head! Tell me, mine own, 

Where hast thou been preserved? where lived? how found 

Thy father’s court? For thou shalt hear that I, 

Knowing by Paulina that the oracle 

Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved 

Myself to see the issue (V.3, 121-127). 

In her speech, Hermione emphasizes that Perdita is her own, which suggests that she does not forget Leontes’ disowning of his own flesh and blood. It is important that Hermione remembers specifically this event that took place at the very beginning of the play, because Leontes’ rejection of Perdita is more grave for a mother than Leontes’ rejection of her. Even in remembering this, Hermione rectifies that which Leontes made asunder by referring to Perdita as her own and then referring to Leontes as her father. Hermione unites herself with Perdita, Perdita with Leontes, and by virtue of these declarations, herself with Leontes.

In reflecting on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in light of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, Hermione upends Nietzsche’s argument against forgiveness as only possible through forgetfulness. Shakespeare depicts this through Hermione’s treatment of Leontes as one of love as she embraces him and graciously reunites their family. Contrary to Nietzsche’s argument, Hermione forgives Leontes even though she remembers his mistreatment of herself and their daughter. She is not weak in this, but steadfast in her understanding of restorative grace. Although Nietzsche and Shakespeare’s definitions and examples of the virtue of friendship are both written works, they are intrinsically distinct as Nietzsche’s essay is mere musings, not tested by reality and Shakespeare’s play is a representative imitation of reality. Nietzsche’s musings of forgiveness suggest that it is impossible, while Shakespeare’s representative imitation of forgiveness, as depicted in the character of Hermione, reveals that grace is not the destruction of justice, as Nietzsche suggests, but the fulfillment of justice.

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