Predestination and the Heresy of Merit in Othello


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

According to John King, "the Italianate settings of Jacobean plays inherit a polemical Protestant edge; thus Shakespeare and his successors recreate the Reformation image of Italy in such plays as Othello, Volpone, and The Duchess of Malfi, which convey a steamy atmosphere of sexual corruption, jealousy, and revenge."1 In the case of Othello, a Reformation Protestant image becomes historically sharp-not simply atmospherically general. Early modem doctrines of Protestant predestination clarify more fully than other ideologies do the contemporary nature of personal tragedy in Shakespeare's Othello. This is particularly true in Desdemona's case. The year 1604, the date favored for the writing of Othello, proved climactic for godly Protestants' efforts to persuade officials to make Calvinistic double predestination more explicitly part of the creed of the Church of England.2 The religious debate surrounding the puritanical campaign constitutes a context for my argument about the relevance of sixteenth-century doctrines of predestination for understanding tragedy in Othello. Since my claims run counter to established theological readings of Shakespeare's play, a brief summary and a critique of these interpretations at the end of my essay serve to define the revisionary nature of my argument.

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