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date: 16 June 2019

Abstract and Keywords

This essay tries to explain the curiously positive role played by adultery in Shakespearean comedy as an echo of, and a commentary on, its role in Christianity. Medieval dramatists had found in scripture everything necessary for a sacred comedy whose ‘matter and ground’ (to borrow the formulation of an early modern antitheatricalist) was ‘Love, Bawdrie, Cosonage, Flatterie, Whoredome, Adulterie’ and which, partly for that reason, came to be suppressed. In its place, Shakespearean comedy repeatedly shows marital vows forging precisely the sort of commitment on which Christians are most likely to default; and this default, rather than simply betraying their love, functions as its premise—an opportunity, if nothing else, for one believer to exercise over another the highest Christian ideal: that of forgiveness. As a consequence married love is not so much threatened as sustained by the fantasy of adultery and the subsequent mercy that this fantasy demands.

Keywords: adultery, marriage, medieval drama

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