- Shakespeare and the Culture of Paradox
In his latest book, Peter G. Platt argues that a general Renaissance 'culture of paradox' spurred Shakespeare's tendency to use paradox to unsettle the assumptions of his characters, his audiences and his readers. Against those who believe that paradox merely bolsters hegemonic power by paralysing discussion, Platt argues that Shakespearean paradox encourages productive doubt, self-questioning and change. Platt draws on the work of Rosalie Colie, but employs poststructuralist theory, especially the work of Derrida [End Page 237] and Foucault, in order to develop futher our sense, not only of what paradox meant in the Renaissance, but also of what it means for us today.
Platt begins Chapter 1 by examining the roots of paradox in Renaissance culture, which he locates in the literary-rhetorical, logical and Christian traditions. He notes the popularity of paradoxes in the Early Modern period, showing how paradox could be used to challenge seemingly rigid truths and also entertain, as they were in jest books, for example. In this same chapter, Platt moves from his brief summary of Renaissance paradox to a convincingly argued statement on the efficacy of paradox for modern critical thinking. While critics such as Michael Bristol and Paul Stevens have argued that to emphasize paradox simply universalizes and de-historicizes writers such as Shakespeare, placing him out of reach of any politicized criticism, it is Platt's project to show that Shakespeare uses paradox 'paradoxically: sometimes as a passive means of hiding from an assertion, sometimes as an active assault on convention, the doxa, the norm' (p. 55). For Platt, while paradox can sometimes induce paralysis, it is much more likely to provoke an active engagement with important and potentially world-changing issues.
The last three chapters turn to the plays themselves. Chapter 2 focuses on Venice as a paradoxical place, both land and water, Catholic yet defiant of Rome, republican yet authoritarian. This paradoxical place appears in two plays in which paradox is key – The Merchant of Venice and Othello. The Merchant of Venice seems an especially apt example of Platt's thesis, offering as it does numerous paradoxes with no apparent resolution. For example, the binaries that the play invokes – justice/mercy, revenge/love, Jew/Gentile – are never stable and never truly resolved. This remains the case in Othello as well, in which the problems of the play also remain unresolved, teaching us, as Platt puts it, 'the methods of paradox' (p. 93).
Chapter 3 turns to the question of equity, which itself occupying a paradoxical position 'between strict justice and mercy' (p. 96), also creates new paradoxes. Platt discusses the place of equity in Renaissance England, paying special attention to James I's use of equity to bolster his claims to absolute rule. It is this absolutist potential in equity that Platt identifies as troubling in The Merchant of Venice and in Measure for Measure, especially the latter. Platt suggests that the Duke uses equity to bolster his power, creating the very problems he then seems to resolve in a way that only supports his absolute rule. However, although the Duke – and the play – arouses the desire for equity, equity itself remains elusive. In the end, Isabella's paradoxical silence [End Page 238] is what allows the open-endedness of paradox to suggest other possibilities.
In the final chapter, Platt argues that, while Shakespeare's conception of paradox was shaped by his culture, his use of paradox also helped shape the culture of paradox. Platt examines three specific paradoxes: the paradox of the actor, who dramatized the split between 'seems' and 'is'; the paradox of the boy player, who destabilized the meaning of sex, gender and perhaps even meaning itself; and the paradox of the audience-play dynamic, which blurs the line between audience and player. This last paradox brings Platt to his final point, which is that Shakespeare's paradoxes are, at the very least, transformative, and that this transformation runs both ways. That is, we – his...