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Predestination and the Heresy of Merit in Othello Maurice Hunt 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 ofMalfi, 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 modern 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 sixteenthcentury 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. The somber Calvinistic God of Othello, the God of double predestination, materializes in the play in a remark of Cassio's, made during his drinking bout celebrating the nuptials of Othello and Desdemona and the removal of the Turkish armed threat. "Well, God's above all," Cassio philosophizes, "and there be souls that must be saved, and there be souls must not be saved" (II.iii.96-98).3 "It is true, good lieutenant" (II.iii.99), lago replies: Cas. For mine own part, no offence to the general, nor any man of quality, I hope to be saved. lago. And so do I, lieutenant. 346 Maurice Hunt347 Cas. Ay, but by your leave, not before me; the lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient. Let's ha' no more of this, let's to our affairs: God forgive us our sins! (Il.iii. 100-05) Concerning this dialogue and its context, Herbert Coursen, noticing the reference to the drinking of wine, has judged that The "celebration of [Othello's] nuptial" . . . becomes, for Cassio, a burlesque Communion. In his drunkenness, Cassio reminds the celebrants that "god's above all, and there be souls must be saved, and there be souls must not be saved." ... He expresses his "hope to be saved" and requests "God [to] forgive us our sins" . . . yet pulls rank on lago in the hierarchy of salvation: "the lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient" . . . thus suggesting that his anti-ritual is serious only to a point; it represents the kind of "error" or "excess" typical of comedy. Cassio falls before the "devil drunkenness," and, instead of achieving the purification promised in the Communion Service, is reduced to bestiality, to a shallower version of what Othello will become . . . . The "invisible spirit of wine" . . . does not confirm Cassio's soul to everlasting life. In an "unbless'd cup" ... it costs him—in Cassio's hyperbole—his immortality [his reputation, the immortal part of himself]. . . . But surely an audience would agree with lago that Cassio is "too severe a moraler." . . . And few spectators would equate "reputation" with "immortality," particularly in the context of the anti-mass that they have just witnessed.4 Absent in Coursen' s account of the ironic Christian overtones of Cassio's and lago's dialogue is mention of the Protestant doctrine to which Cassio alludes. "Predestination was a labyrinth into which one was well advised not to wander," Roland Mushat Frye concludes, "and only Cassio does wander into it, in his maudlin discussion with lago."5 Despite Coursen's and Frye's suggestions that playgoers not make too much of this dialogue, Shakespeare (as he often does) in a semicomic context focuses a serious dramatic motif. Cassio refers to the Calvinistic dogma of divine election and reprobation, to the Protestant article of faith that God in his mysterious Providence before time began had elected some souls to salvation and consigned others to damnation. Thus Cassio's verb "must" connotes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 346-376
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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