Martin Lehnert Award Prize Winner 2007

Björn Quiring
Björn Quiring

The Martin Lehnert Award 2007 went to Björn Quiring (Viadrina, Frankfurt O.) for his doctoral dissertation: "Shakespeares Fluch: Die Aporien ritueller Exklusion in drei Königsdramen der englischen Renaissance".


Influenced by the work of Walter Benjamin, the dissertation examines the changing relationship between literature and law in the course of early modern secularization processes. It focuses on the question how Shakespeare's histories quote and transform Christian malediction formulas. Beforehand, the curse is analyzed as representation of law-positing violence within language, a legitimating and culpabilizing supplement of jurisdiction. As a sacred speech act, the Christian malediction refers to the judgment of God as a transcendental constituent of the world, instituting an eternal order in which the cursed person is already doomed by the supreme and all-seeing authority. Yet on the other hand, the ritually enacted curse itself claims to effectuate this very condemnation, and its utterance consequently supposes that the perennial divine verdict and the perceptible world order in fact do not coincide, at least not in the moment of the maledictory articulation. Insofar as the curse simultaneously acknowledges and denies a primordial divergence between divine judgment and sublunary reality, it continually subverts itself. Associated speech acts are also entangled within this ambiguous, nearly paradoxical structure; particularly the blessing and the oath (as conditional self-cursing) are subject to the same double bind. Their sacramental performances are aporetic, both affirming and negating the course of the world, hence "acting out" its ambiguities. It is due to this unresolved ambivalence that the curse and its derivates can be considered as eminently theatrical speech acts.

In Shakespeare's lifetime, curse ceremonies still have a central role to play in society, first and foremost in the liturgical forms of eucharist and anathema that legitimate both secular and ecclesiastical sovereignty. Since the Reformation, these ceremonies are frequently criticized, ridiculed and restricted; but on the other hand, they're also employed in new, contested ways by diverse institutions and interest groups: the monarch, the Anglican church, the Puritans and clandestine Catholics all make use of curses and oaths in their political interventions. Surprisingly, even jurists and merchants tend to do the same, owing to the increasing practical and ideological importance of contractual obligations which relate to the oath as to their germ cell. The early modern playhouse presents itself as the ideal institution to deal with these unresolved discrepancies, since it also hovers indeterminately between the fronts, just like the curse. Detached from the church, closely controlled by the state and financed by way of the free market, theatre emerges as an unstable cultural compromise formation, particularly between the conventions of the developing capitalist economy and atrophying rituals of sovereignty. The commercial theatre is the perfect site for exhibiting marginalized state and church ceremonies as obsolete and empty performances, but on the other hand to give these rituals a new abode and to keep them functioning as unresolved symptoms of a persistent past. The curse operates as one of these lurking remainders, returning in Shakespeare's plays as a spectre.

This theatrical curse is ideally suited to unfold the aporetic structures of christologically legitimated kingship and theologically sanctioned jurisdiction. Shakespeare repeatedly employs it in this symptomal function: his political plays and histories tend to focus on problems of legitimacy which are dynamized by means of curses and oaths. This can be demonstrated particularly well by the plays "Richard III", "King John" and "King Lear". All three dramas represent ceremonies of divine kingship plagued by proliferating contradictions that finally reduce them to the form of commodities. In enacting this scheme, early modern theatre also stages an allegory of its own genesis. "Richard III" offers itself as a particularly propitious example in this context, since its main protagonist is presented as a point of convergence between the curse and the theatre: as a parodist of the feudal oath and of the eucharist, as ambiguous fatality incarnate and as a playwright of his own history play. By placing this protean master of ironic representation on the stage, Shakespeare's theatre appropriates the old structures of the curse and points out their unresolvable paradoxes. Those paradoxes make the identification with fixed symbolic mandates increasingly problematic: in Richard’s drama, only the ironic structure of representation itself transcends the dangerous imponderabilities of royal legitimacy. The stage consequently appears as the only truly sovereign institution; in the end, even Richard himself is no match for its withering sarcasms.

In "King John", this ironical attitude towards the violent permutations of divine law is mirrored into the theatrical proceedings themselves and comes undone on the spot. Not only the identification with fixed symbolic mandates is doomed to failure, but even the distancing policy of deidentification proves to be a quite precarious strategy in the face of the merciless, self-destructive violence of history-making legal battles. The theatre presents itself in "King John" as a mortal and endangered institution.

In "King Lear", this corrosive development reaches its terminal state. To the preceding demolition of divine, transcendent law, the play adds a deconstruction of the overdetermined, transitional figure of natural law as it was established in the time of James I. An unfolding of the logical aporias of the natural law doctrine entails a deconfinement of Lear's curses, and the fragmentation of socially obliging structures brings about the reification of maledictions in various "fatal stage props". By representing these transformations, Shakespeare’s play not only engages with past rites, but also prefigures more modern, e.g. Hobbesian forms of political self-assertion. In the process, it becomes apparent how the remaindered curse still haunts public life after secularization. All three plays demonstrate that the curse is a hidden heritage of European culture, a mortgage which still has to be accounted for. It’s precisely the deconstructive unfolding of its aporetic structure which allows Shakespeare to bring the curse up to date and to profit from its fallacies under early modern conditions. By this procedure, an undelimited, shattered curse has been adapted for the stage, resp. the stage has been adapted to the latent persistence of the curse.