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date: 25 February 2021

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the relationship between religious arguments for and against the mitigation of legal penalties for religious nonconformity, and the arguments in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice for and against the moderation of legal rigour. It argues that Elizabethan legal debates over epieikeia or equity were heavily inflected with the debate over conscientious nonconformity. Shakespeare’s play restages these debates, not only in the courtroom scene but in a variety of moral dilemmas or cases of conscience, repeatedly supporting the ideal of individual conscience against the claims of Church of England conformists such as Richard Hooker that law can only be mitigated when it serves the public good.

Keywords: Merchant of Venice, equity, epieikeia, William Perkins, Richard Hooker

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