Early modern English literary culture was thick with tales of divine judgment. Texts ranging from true-crime pamphlets to Thomas Beard's vast collection The Theatre of God's Judgements (1597) promised to disclose God's work in history, and they found signs of that work in stories of horrific come-uppance: usurers eaten by rats, adulterers mutilated, Sabbath-breakers struck dead. Because they were concerned with the consequences of human transgression, these tales drew heavily on the conventions of tragedy. And because they were concerned with vice and come-uppance, they also drew heavily on the conventions of comedy. They are therefore fraught with difficult questions. When is retribution hilarious, and when is it lamentable? On what imaginative and moral conditions do tragedy and comedy depend? These questions likewise haunted dramatists such as Shakespeare, who drew heavily on the literature of divine retribution for his own experiments in tragic and comic representation. His Othello, especially, is built from tales of vice and retribution, and in it Shakespeare tests the boundaries that separate justice from atrocity, comic satisfaction from tragic violence. By reading Othello alongside the literature of divine judgment, this essay makes several claims: that the hilarious come-uppances of comedy depend on certain cultural conditions; that those conditions have changed in the context of the Reformation, in ways that tales of retribution make graphically visible; and that Shakespeare responds to exactly these changes when, in his own comedy of judgment, he finds the mechanisms of comic justice collapsing.
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Research Article| September 01 2022
Jason Crawford; Shakespeare's Comedy of Judgment. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 1 September 2022; 52 (3): 503–531. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10829636-9966107
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