My title is a tribute to Rosalie Colie’s Paradoxia Epidemica, a title she in turn derived from Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646).[1] My aim in this essay is not just to acknowledge Colie’s idea but also to expand it. Her book does not include Shakespeare, though it easily could have. He wrote some of his best plays in the seventeenth century, Colie’s principal focus, and he uses verbal paradoxes in his writing, as his contemporaries did. My concern, however, is not simply the seventeenth-century fascination with verbal paradoxes. Rather, this essay addresses three paradoxes that describe Shakespeare’s writing itself. These are not paradoxes in his writing; they are paradoxes about his writing, and they all suggest broad cultural influences in his plays that exceed deliberate choice on his part.

The first pair of paradoxical terms that I want to address is “Christian” and “secular.” Though they are usually thought of as opposites, I want to urge that both terms apply equally to Shakespeare’s plays. “Christian,” of course, describes a particular kind of religion—a religion that permeated every aspect of Shakespeare’s culture. His plays make clear that he was very aware of two other religions: Judaism and Islam. Shylock the Jew in The Merchant of Venice is one of his best-known characters, and in a later play Othello may well be a convert from Islam to Christianity. Shylock is a caricature, of course, but compared to Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s contemporary play The Jew of Malta, Shylock is a model of humane characterization. Barabas never speaks in his own defense in a way that Shakespeare allows Shylock to do in his  most famous speech:

 

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?[2]

 

Shylock uses “Christian” ethnically in this passage to identify someone from the majority culture in Venice—or more precisely, in London, where the play was first staged. Nonetheless, the ethnic identity he refers to was based ultimately on religion, and the play distinguishes the two religions—Judaism and Christianity—in a thematic contrast between retributive justice and relative leniency based on Portia’s proffered mercy.[3] The fact that Portia’s mercy is so imperfect is further evidence of the broadly humane intelligence that underlies The Merchant of Venice.[4]

As for Othello, his difference from everyone else in Othello, the Moor of Venice has less to do with his Islamic background than with his physical appearance. He is a “Moor,” that is, he is from north Africa, where people looked more like those from the Arabian peninsula than like those who lived in sub-Saharan regions. To be sure, the play’s villain, Iago, caricatures Othello grotesquely in venomously racist stereotypes. But Iago is one of the most ingenious and cruel liars Shakespeare ever invented, and Iago’s epithets maliciously distort what they pretend to describe. Tellingly, Othello calls himself  “black”—not once but twice (Othello 3.3.279, 403). But it is hard to know how to interpret this self-description. Is he being literal, indicating extremely dark skin? Or is he exaggerating his difference from everyone else around him—as they do themselves—even though the difference might actually be slight? These questions could be endlessly debated, but of one point we can be fairly certain, and that is, that no matter what he looks like, Othello is the only person in his play who should probably be imagined as having grown up as a Muslim rather than a Christian.

The permeation of Shakespeare’s culture by Christianity gives a different meaning to the adjective “Christian” in his plays from what it might mean for us. Everyone born in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime was baptized as soon as possible after birth, and baptism was what made one a Christian. It therefore follows that everyone was a Christian, including Shakespeare, whose baptismal record is the earliest extant evidence of his existence and the basis for dating his birth to the year 1564. To be sure, from about fifty years previously, European Christians had been deeply divided against each other, because the Protestant Reformation had turned Protestants against Catholics—often murderously so. Protestantism prevailed in England throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime, because the only two English monarchs who reigned while he was alive were Protestant—Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. Since they were very nearly absolute monarchs, their religion was the dominant religion; it certainly determined the identity of the state church, to which everyone was compelled by law to belong. Shakespeare was never accused of violating this law, so if he was, as some claim, a Catholic, we have no external evidence to verify it. In any case, the opposite of “Christian” in officially Protestant England was not heathen but heretic.

The term I want to propose as the opposite of Christian is “secular.” Shylock’s plea for mercy is secular, in contrast to Portia’s admonition to Shylock to show mercy. She appeals to the central point of Christian affirmation:

 

Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy. (4.1.195-200)

 

Addressing a Christian magistrate, Portia alludes to two Christian ideas in succession: first, that Christ died to redeem sinners who were condemned by a just God, and second, that Christ taught his disciples a particular prayer: “And forgive to us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”[5] Why a Jew would listen to such an appeal is not clear, since he does not affirm the religious belief behind it—and of course Shylock doesn’t listen, thereby confirming that what is at stake is not justice but power.

The contrast between Christian and secular is apparent again in three plays that Shakespeare wrote at the end of his career: Cymbeline, The Winters Tale, and The Tempest. All three are “comedies of forgiveness,” to borrow the term that R.G. Hunter used many years ago.[6] That is, all three plays eventually resolve tensions and difficulties in the plot by having one of the principal characters offer to forgive one or more of the others at the end. These are not Shakespeare’s only comedies of forgiveness; in fact, he wrote a lot of them, from the beginning to the end of his career. But Cymbeline, The Winters Tale, and The Tempest conclude his career and therefore suggest that forgiveness held a particular interest for him as he wrote his last plays. Forgiveness is not exclusive to Christianity, of course, but it is necessary to Christianity. For Christians, forgiveness is an essential attribute of God, as Portia admonishes Shylock, and forgiveness is also required of fallible human beings, precisely because of their fallibility, as Portia acknowledges in alluding to the Lord’s prayer. For Shakespeare to emphasize forgiveness in his late plays is therefore for him strongly to affirm a central feature of Christian thought.

Yet his comedies of forgiveness remain secular comedies. They are not stories from the Bible; they are not allegories of Christian teaching; they do not even involve characters’ interactions between God and themselves. When Cymbeline declares, “Pardon’s the word to all!” (5.5.426); or when Hermione wordlessly embraces her once paranoid and murderous husband in The Winters Tale; or when Prospero forgives his still treacherous and destructive brother in The Tempest, the one who forgives does not pray or refer his or her action to divine sanction or admonition. The godlike gesture of forgiveness is offered as a distinctly human expression. Its design is to promote moral healing apparently for its own sake and to restore human relationships because they are worth restoring in and of themselves, not because they reflect or participate in divine relationships. Looked at this way, though Dante and Shakespeare are both incomparable writers, there is a huge gulf between them. Dante’s Divine Comedy is profoundly and distinctively Christian. Shakespeare was a baptized Christian, but his plays are secular.

The second contrast that I want to put forward as a Shakespearean paradox is very different from the first one. It involves the adjectives “English” and “universal.” “English” refers to people who have a distinct and specific national identity, whereas “universal” applies to everyone, without distinction or restriction. Shakespeare habitually makes his source material English in his plays, even when the sources concern Roman history long before the coming of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain. Examples are not hard to find. Shakespeare’s first play set in ancient Rome, Titus Andronicus, was written very early in his career. It is the bloodiest and most spectacular play he wrote. One of the cruelest characters in the play remembers the source of a Latin couplet that his brother recites: “Oh, ’tis a verse in Horace; I know it well. / I read it in the grammar long ago” (4.2.22-23). In reality, the one who had read the couplet is Shakespeare himself, who attended the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon. What he is alluding to as “the grammar” is a Latin primer, known as Lilly’s Latin Grammar, that Shakespeare was obliged to study when he was young.

We might excuse the Englishness of Titus Andronicus as youthful inexperience, were it not that Shakespeare persists in imagining his own time and place in later plays, including later Roman plays. In Julius Caesar, Brutus’s young servant, Lucius, describes the patrician conspirators as wearing hats, because aristocratic Englishmen wore hats in the sixteenth century. One of Shakespeare’s eighteenth-century editors, Alexander Pope, so strongly disapproved of Shakespeare’s inaccurate placing of hats on ancient Roman patricians that when he edited Julius Caesar Pope used a dash for patricians’ “hats” in the line, “their hats are plucked about their ears” (2.1.73). In a parallel gesture toward historical accuracy, Pope’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays routinely adds place identifications at the beginning of scenes, often drawing on Shakespeare’s sources to know where the scenes likely took place. Since the dialog of the scenes in question seldom identifies a location, Pope seems to have thought he could improve his edition’s intelligibility by adding place names at the beginning of each scene—an eighteenth-century innovation that has, of course, endured to the present day. By adding scene locations, however, Pope reduced the Englishness of the scenes and made them appear to be truer to location than they often are in fact.

Understated English nationalism comes through not only in Shakespeare’s way of imagining ancient Rome, but also in the way he imagined non-English locations in his own time. Because of the prestige of Italian culture in the sixteenth century, Shakespeare favored Italian locations for his early comedies, but for all practical purposes, each of Shakespeare’s Italian cities is really English, because Shakespeare imagined contemporary continental culture as if it were English. Loves Labors Lost is supposedly set in France, but the song of spring at the end of that play lovingly names flowers with distinctively English names: “daisies pied and violets blue, / And lady-smocks all silver white, / And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue” (5.2.884-886). Pope designates the location of a scene in another early play, A Midsummer Nights Dream, as “a wood near Athens,” but the playwright made no effort to find out what flowers are beloved in Greece; rather, the woods are full of native English flowers:

 

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows

Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet muskroses and with eglantine. (2.1.249-252)

 

The adjectives express unalloyed delight in the natural world, and the delight would appear to be that of the knowing poet who wrote these lines.[7]

The Englishness of Shakespeare’s imagination persisted to the very end of his writing career, when, for the first and only time, he imagined a setting in the New World for The Tempest. The specific location is an island, not identified by name, though Bermuda is mentioned once in general terms, as a poetic indicator that the action is not in England. And yet, of course, it is. “I hear / The strain of strutting chanticleer / Cry Cock-a-diddle-dow” sings Ariel at one point (2.2.388-390), recalling a fabulous medieval rooster, made famous for English audiences by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. A rural English memory is repeated later when Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo fall drunkenly into a puddle. “I do smell all horse piss,” complains Trinculo (4.1.198), despite the complete absence of horses on the island. Memories of the English countryside in The Tempest are not as lyrical as those in The Winters Tale, but they are no less distinctive. To adapt a common phrase, Shakespeare could take himself imaginatively out of England, but he could not take England out of himself.

Yet this most English of English poets is also by far the most widely recognized writer that England has produced, and in that sense, he is a universal poet. His blank verse and dramaturgy are justifiably admired, but his wide appeal has much to do with his compelling way of imagining individuals and relationships of many kinds. Romeo and Juliet are beloved and mourned everywhere, especially by young people, because their passion and fatal suffering are so compelling and so pitiable. Not only lovers but also married couples are imagined memorably by Shakespeare: Brutus and Portia, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Leontes and Hermione. True, he was inclined to see the trials of marriage more consistently than its comforts, but that is because drama is made of tension and resolution, not of the contented status quo.

Shakespeare’s intergenerational attachments are also appealing and memorable, and the restoration of children to parents is especially powerful. In The Comedy of Errors, when Emilia welcomes the adult twins she had lost as infants in a shipwreck, she uses a metaphor of giving birth, effectively expressing the powerful emotion that overwhelms her: “Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail / Of you, my sons, and till this present hour / My heavy burden ne’er deliverèd” (5.1.401-403). Several years later, in The Winters Tale, Shakespeare included two reunions, when a long-lost daughter, Perdita, separately meets her father Leontes and her mother Hermione for the first time since she had been taken from them as an infant. Both meetings are affecting but for different reasons. Leontes had initially disowned his daughter, claiming she was not his. Since recognizing his willful error, he has repented, but only after losing all three members of his family. His son, it turns out, has really died, but Perdita, who he thought was dead, has survived and returns to her father unexpectedly sixteen years after he ordered a servant to destroy her. An unnamed bystander is overwhelmed by his effort to describe the event: “I never heard of such another encounter, which lames report to follow it and undoes description to do it” (The Winters Tale, 5.2.44-59)

As if the reunion of father and daughter were not enough, the play concludes with the discovery of wife and mother as well. After fainting from her husband’s abuse and being thought dead, Leontes’ wife Hermione had secluded herself in the slim hope, based on an obscure prophecy, that her daughter might have survived Leontes’ attempt to destroy her. When her hope is fulfilled past all expectation, Hermione poses as a statue, while her repentant husband and her newly rediscovered daughter gaze at her astonished. At last Hermione discards her pose, embraces her husband, thanks the gods for preserving the child who was taken from her as an infant and murdered (or so Hermione had long believed), and then the mother greets her daughter:

 

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? (5.3.123-127)

 

The gods that Hermione appeals to do not appear in The Winter’s Tale, but their providential presence is undeniable, persuasive, and deeply appealing. Hermione’s lines are simple, sweet, and tender, surprisingly direct and untainted by sentimentality.

In the later tragedies, troubled relationships abound, including failed bonds between parents and children . In Hamlet, Ophelia is excessively submissive to her father and brother. She is so compliant to her father that she reports to him the love of the prince who courts her and wants to marry her, in striking contrast to Juliet in Shakespeare’s early romantic tragedy. Though Ophelia’s age is not stated in the play, she is clearly a young adult, but her behavior appears childishly dependent. Her death by drowning in a stream seems to symbolize the way she lived: unresisting, she just goes under.

Nor is childish submission in Shakespeare’s plays confined to daughters. In Shakespeare’s last Roman tragedy, Coriolanus, the title character is the son of an overbearing widow. His fierceness and unpredictability derive ironically from a patrician identity that he owes to emotional over-dependence on her. She alone can dissuade him from leading an attack on his native city, but her success is profoundly damaging, as he plainly tells her, referring to himself in the third person: “Most dangerously you have with him prevailed, / If not most mortal to him (5.3.188-89). He describes the scene as “unnatural” (184) and her dominance as “mortal” (189), summarizing precisely what Volumnia has always been to him—pressing the life out of him by her overwhelming emotional control.

Christian and secular, English and universal, Shakespeare’s plays are also very much of their time while being simultaneously fresh, vital, and compelling to each new generation. And that paradox is the last one I want to address: Shakespeare’s plays belong to the time when they were written, yet they are also, in Ben Jonson’s phrase, “for all time.”[8] Their origin around the turn of the seventeenth century presents a challenge to first-time readers and viewers, who sometimes struggle to understand what they are reading or seeing. Editors face a related challenge, because they must decide where and how to comment, or explain, or clarify what time has made difficult. What or where, for example, is the forest of Arden, where most of the action takes place in one of Shakespeare’s favorite comedies, As You Like It? In medieval England, Arden forest had been a massive wooded region in central England, covering much of several counties, including Warwickshire, where Shakespeare was born. By the late sixteenth century, Arden forest had been reduced to many smaller forests. Already for Shakespeare, then, the forest of Arden existed primarily in the imagination—and indeed, it exists there for anyone who has watched this play. For readers, an editor can briefly identify the great forest in a note, but it could not be reproduced on stage or even in film.

The limitations imposed by time on our imagining Arden Forest are equally challenging for more serious issues of cultural apologetics. Consider racism, for example. Not all racism is openly vicious, of course, but casual racism is no less devastating. “If thou wilt,” says the clownish Lance to his fellow servant Speed in Two Gentlemen of Verona, “go with me to the alehouse; if not, thou art an Hebrew, a Jew, and not worth the name of a Christian” (2.5.46-48). While simply issuing a friendly invitation to the tavern, Lance speaks from within a presumed cultural and racial superiority that defines what it means to be a friend and companion. Anyone outside the implied social group is ipso facto alien and inferior. Lance’s casual bigotry goes unchallenged, and it is not clear that the young Shakespeare thought twice about it when he wrote Two Gentlemen of Verona. A few years later, however, by the time he penned The Merchant of Venice, something had changed. This is evident not only in Shylock’s defense of himself that we noticed earlier but also in Portia’s comical but unpleasant stereotyping of her suitors behind their backs (1.2). Shylock’s defense and Portia’s caricatures make the play’s villain less villainous and its heroine less morally compelling than her speech on mercy might suggest. Perhaps Portia’s truest observation concerns the gap between action and intention: “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions” (1.2.12-16).

Even Shakespeare’s earliest plays make clear that he was aware of race prejudice, though his first attempt to imagine a north African on stage is well short of great tragedy. About ten years before Shakespeare wrote Othello, he wrote Titus Andronicus. This early tragedy features a villainous north African named Aaron, who boasts about his evil, as Iago does later (5.1.126-134). Planning murder, treachery, backbiting, and wanton destruction, Aaron himself makes the link between his skin color and his love of evil: “Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace; / Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (3.1.204-205).

It may be disappointing that the young Shakespeare presented blatant race prejudice as the stuff of comedy, but it is hardly surprising, given the prevalent racism of his culture. Still, the degree of humanity Shakespeare invested in Aaron is surprising, anticipating his later treatment of Shylock. Indeed, Shakespeare shows us that, although Aaron is a determined villain, he is a loving and devoted father. After his passionate liaison with a Roman queen, she gives birth to “blackamoor child” (4.2), in the phrasing of the stage direction. The queen orders a nurse to take the newly delivered bi-racial baby to Aaron, telling him to destroy what she calls the “joyless, dismal, black, and sorrowful issue” (4.2.67). But Aaron refuses. “Zounds, ye whore,” he rages at the nurse, “is black so base a hue?” and then he addresses the infant: “Sweet blowze, you are a beauteous blossom, sure” (72-73). In the end, Aaron’s love for his son is not enough to outweigh his villainy, but his parental devotion humanizes him, making him more than a monster or simply a personified vice.

My final example of how Shakespeare is both sixteenth-century and timeless concerns the way he imagined women. What is true of racism in Shakespeare is also true of patriarchal bias—an issue of cultural prejudice that was no less pervasive than racial prejudice during his lifetime. Yet even given a culturally-shaped male bias, Shakespeare imagined some of the strongest and most memorable women in literature, and gifted actresses compete to interpret these roles. The earliest one is probably the least well known. The French noblewoman, Margaret of Anjou, marries King Henry VI in the first of three early history plays based on Henry VI’s reign. Margaret immediately takes control, and by the third play she actively commands her husband’s army in a vicious civil war. True, she is depicted as a sort of monster, but she survives to appear in Richard III, the only character who is present in all four plays of the sequence, and she is the only character who intimidates the tyrant Richard. It is noteworthy that her powerful presence is depicted at all, since the history plays imagine a man’s world—a world where the primary object is acquiring and maintaining political power.

Margaret’s counterpart in early Shakespearean tragedy is Tamora in Titus Andronicus—the queen who has an affair with Aaron the Moor and orders him to destroy their child. The young Shakespeare seems willing to appease the popular prejudice that a strong woman is domineering and repugnant. But the situation changes decisively with Juliet in Shakespeare’s early romantic tragedy. She not only defies patriarchal authority but does so with overwhelming audience sympathy. Thereafter, many strong and fascinating women come to remarkable life in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies: Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, Rosalind in As You Like It, Viola in Twelfth Night. These women are as intelligent and witty as their male partners, and indeed, Rosalind so far exceeds her awkward Orlando that she actually teaches him—lovingly and in male disguise—how to court her. These compelling characters seem to have prepared Shakespeare for the tragic heroines of the later plays: Desdemona, Cordelia, Lady Macbeth, and Cleopatra. The fierce Lady Macbeth is the second woman Shakespeare imagined who is willing to destroy her child for the sake of her ambition. “I have given suck,” she admonishes Macbeth,

 

and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7.55-60)

 

Yet, unlike the earlier Tamora, Lady Macbeth is humanly vulnerable in the way she responds to the guilt of her crimes. In the end, she becomes distraught, unable to sleep and talking openly, in her guilty ravings, about the viciousness she has indulged. “More needs she the divine than the physician,” remarks an empathic doctor who watches her helplessly. “God, God forgive us all” (5.1.74-75).

One of Shakespeare’s most fascinating characters is Cleopatra, a north African queen. Like Juliet, Cleopatra shares the title of her play with her lover, Antony, and she is like Juliet as well in taking her own life. But whereas Juliet is a young adolescent, Cleopatra is very much an adult. In her own phrasing, she seduced Julius Caesar “in my salad days, / When I was green in judgment” (Antony and Cleopatra, 1.5.76-77), but she continues to be irresistible when Antony meets her, years later. “Age cannot wither her,” avers Enobarbus,

 

nor custom stale

Her infinite variety. Other women cloy

The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry

Where most she satisfies. (2.2.245-248)

 

Cleopatra is not only beautiful and sexually alluring but also an assertive, resourceful, and powerful queen. When a servant brings her news that Antony has married a Roman noblewoman, Cleopatra rages at the news and attacks the messenger. “She hales him up and down,” reads the original stage direction (2.5.65 SD). Since she has just threatened to “unhair” the messenger’s head, directors often work out a way for the actor playing Cleopatra to pull the messenger about by his hair—precisely what tyrannical husbands were rumored to do to their hapless wives. After Antony is defeated in battle and kills himself, one of his officers warns Cleopatra that Octavius Caesar plans to exhibit her during his triumphal entry into Rome. This prompts her resolution to follow Antony’s example, committing suicide in order to defeat Caesar’s humiliating intention.

 

Methinks I hear

Antony call; I see him rouse himself

To praise my noble act. I hear him mock

The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men

To excuse their after wrath. (5.2.283-287)

 

She paradoxically interprets her death as a victory and her suicide as a loving search for Antony.

The timeless appeal of Cleopatra is self-evident, both in the script Shakespeare wrote and in its realization by talented actresses. But of course in the early seventeenth century, when the play was first performed, no actress played Cleopatra at all. That is because women’s parts were played by boys. It seems incredible that Cleopatra was first performed by a male actor, and even more incredible that Shakespeare could write such a compelling female portrait for a boy to perform. Moreover, he might almost be heard to complain about it in the play. When Cleopatra learns that Caesar plans to take her to Rome as a captive, she imagines what will happen in terms that precisely describe the play in which she appears:

 

The quick comedians

Extemporally will stage us and present

Our Alexandrian revels; Antony

Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness

I’ th’ posture of a whore. (5.2.216-221)

 

These are some of Shakespeare’s most audacious lines, both describing what his theater is doing and simultaneously acknowledging that the great queen we are watching is being brought to life by a boy actor. This moment is one of the most striking examples in Shakespeare’s writing of the paradox of the timeless and the time-bound.

If Shakespeare had been born in 1464, rather than 1564, he might still have been an actor and a playwright, but we would not know who he was. Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born, is not far from Coventry, where one of the great cycles of biblical history plays was staged every year until 1580, the year Shakespeare turned sixteen. A dramatist with extraordinary skill wrote several of the pageants in a similar cycle of biblical plays, linked historically to Wakefield in the north of England. Because we know nothing about him, he is called simply “the Wakefield master.” Perhaps, if Shakespeare had been born a century earlier, we might well have recognized a “Coventry master.” We would not have known his name, we would not have known where he was from, and his extraordinary talent would have been poured into biblical characters. Judging from the plays Shakespeare in fact wrote, he might have written compelling pageants about the weakness of Eve or the doubt of Sarah, the courage of Rahab, or the faith of Hannah, mother of Samuel, and Mary the mother of Jesus. We might have marveled at these stories and their characters without knowing who wrote them. As it is, we do know who he was, and we marvel at the secular characters he created. His ability to imagine women was truly extraordinary, and part of his greatness is that he empathized powerfully with every major character he wrote about, even though he originated in a small English village, with all its limitations and prejudices, where he was known simply as William Shakespeare of Stratford.


[1] Rosalie Colie, Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966).

[2] The Merchant of Venice, 3.1.55-63. Quotations of Shakespeare are from The Complete Works, ed. David Bevington 7th edn. (New York: Pearson, 2014).

[3] Barbara K. Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962), 327-343.

[4] Many critics have commented on Portia’s inconsistency, but see especially James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[5] Matthew 6:12. Biblical quotations are from the Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1969). This is the translation used most frequently by Shakespeare, as Naseeb Shaheen has shown in Biblical References in Shakespeares Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999).

[6] Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965).

[7] An entirely new and loving list of native flowers appears in The Winters Tale, toward the end of Shakespeare’s career (4.4.118-127). Remembering the countryside of his youth seems to evoke some of the most celebratory poetry in Shakespeare’s plays, and he deifies his homely list of English flowers in The Winters Tale with the names of ancient classical gods.

[8] “To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare,” The Norton Facsimile The First Folio of Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), 10.

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