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'New, Straunge, Incredible, and

Repugnant to the Opinion
of the Hearer":
The Power of the Paradox in
Early Modern Culture

This is a riddling merchant for the nonce.

He will be here, and yet he is not here.
How can these contrarieties agree?


Hqtry VI

Gary Taylor, too, has in a series of articles recently tried to link paradox in
Shakespeare to political evasion. In a 1994 article, Taylor framed the debate over
Shakespearean doubleness as fellows:
Shakespeare's nationalism and royalism have consistently recommended him to the
English establishment, and his celebrations of obedience have been applauded by
conservatives everywhere. But at the same time it has always been possible for radicals

to emphasize instead Shakespeare's ambivalences about and oppositions to political

authority, his sympathy for the suppressed, the populist aesthetics ofthe theaters for
which he wrote. Moreoveq the very co-existence of these apparently contradictory
impulses in Shakespeare's work came to be seen (and continues to be seen) not as
evidence ofhis allegiance to a particular marginal ideology, but as proofthat he was an
artist beyond ideology, a slmthesizer of opposites. Shakespeare became a man without
aparty; which is to say, a man without an identity. "Others abide our question; thou art

"New, Straunge, Incredible, and Repugnant to the Opinion ofthe

fiee"-free of



the constrictions of an opinion or a personality. 'Negative capability":

because emptied of any positive content or form of its own.e7


Instead of explicating the implications of the political doubleness of these two

views ofShakespeare, Taylor decides for us: the paradoxical Shakespeare cannot
be a political Shakespeare because "he was an artist beyond ideology." Although
Taylor clearly does not sympathize with this view, he shuts down debate by alluding
to it and by suggesting there is no other way to talk about paradox and Shakespeare.
Indeed, Taylor himselfquickly resolves the problem ofthe "co-existence ofthese
apparently contradictory impulses in Shakespeare's work" by focusing on how
other critics have made Shakespeare "a synthesizer of opposites."
However, even Taylor's prime example of such a critic-John Keats-does not
sustain Taylor's thesis. For in his definition of "negative capability" (partly quoted
earlier) Keats praises Shakespeare precisely for not synthesizing opposites:
at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in
Literature & which Shakespeare posessed [sic] so enormously-I mean Negative
Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts,
without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go
by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery from being
incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.e8

For Keats, whereas Coleridge.would ignore an insight if he could not see where it
led, Shakespeare could juggle many uncertainties without worrying about where
they would land. Keats criticized rather than celebrated the author "incapable of
remaining content with half knowledge." so'
In his most recent article on the subject, Taylor tums to a Catholic Shakespeare
who used his theater to "mine" a "religion" that provided "one of many affective
sites and sources." Later Shakespearean plays especially "give us, not a Brechtian
emptying-out of Christian mythology, but the commodification of a specifically

e't Gary Tayloq "Eorms of Opposition,'312_13. See also, more recently,


"The Cultural Politics of Maybe," in which he again links "the systematic cultivation of
ambiguity and equivocation in Shakespeare's writing" both to the modemist celebration
ofthe "trans-historical complexity and objectivity ofhis art" (248) and to Shakespeare's
"masterful evasiveness" (253).
e8 Letter from John Keats to George and Tom Keats, 21, 27 (?) December 1817, in
The Letters of John Keats l:193-94. William Empson values a similar sort of interpretive
flexibility (see Seven Types ofAmbiguity,234-56, esp. 247-50).
ee In "Judgment," a paper published in 1998, Gary Taylor is even more condemning
of Shakespearean doubleness. Editor of both Shakespeare andThomas Middleton, Taylor
faults Shakespeare for his paradoxicality, which Taylor recasts as a kind ofmoral "fencesitting": unlike Middleton, "Shakespeare tells us stories in which we do not have to
choose ... . Shakespeare gives us.what we impossibly want, and the world loves him for it"
("Judgment," in New Ways of Lo,oking at Old Texts II,93-94).

Shakespeare and the Culture ofParadox


Catholic afIbct."ro0 Taylor cites several critics who have attempted to account
for this marvelous "affect" only to criticize them for being reductive: "But these
attempts at explanation themselves operate to disenchant, to explain and thereby
comfortably domesticate our experience of something which is, which wants to be,
alien" (29). One wonders how Taylor's article can avoid a similar domestication
by description.tor
When Taylor tums to paradox, he makes a familiar critique. Instead of sustaining
complexity, Taylor's paradoxes-like his explicators of the marvelous-resolve

An invisible voice, a visible but impalpable body, a touch when there is no


there to do the touching. The divine essence is ex-sense, outside the senses, beyond
understanding, non-sense; Erasmus, in praising folly, eventually equates it with Christ.
Wisdom is folly, the truest being is not being. But these familiar intellectual paradoxes
themselves reduce the complex weirdness of experience, the weird complexity of
tleatre, to a formulaic unanalysable marriage of binaries. (30)

For Taylor, paradoxes "reduce the complex weirdness of experience" because

they fuse binaries and therefore make the world's weirdness "unanalysable." But
Taylor himself shows how paradox might foreground rather than reduce weirdness
and complexity:

I have been describing, do not magically metaphysically

combine presence and absence, being and non-beirig; instead, they represent moments

the theatrical experiences

ofproximity to presence. Here as elsewhere, the concept ofproximity enables an escape

from dead-end binaries ... . That obscure divine object ofdesire is not simply absent,
or simply present, but almost present, or present in some ways and absent in others ... .
And because presence is associated with one affect (oy, or dread), arid absence with
another (grief, or relief), the unexpected uncaany coexistence ofpresence and absence
compounds clashing emotional impulses ... . The emotional energy of such moments
is a product of the degree of incompatibility multiplied by the degree of proximity: the
less compatible two states are, the farther apart they want to stay, and the more energy is
produced by bringing them together. In Shakespeare, in Middleton, the most powerful
representations ofdivine essence are representations ofthe almost absolute copresence
of almost absolute incompatibles: theos and theatre. (29)

This very powerful description of how religious affect and "emotional energy"
might work in Shakespeare-and Middleton, who has by 2001 become an ally
of Shakespeare for Taylor-sounds downright paradoxical. Perhaps one man's
paradox is another man's "unexpected uncanny coexistence of presence and

too Gury Taylor, "Divine

[ ]sences," 22 and 24; subsequent citations are annotated
within the text.
r0r Full disclosure: I am one of the critics singled out here. I thank Gary Taylor
for including me in the august company of Leonard Barkan, Thomas Bishop, and Keith


"New, Straunge, Incredible, and Repugnant to the Opinion of the



My point is that paradox does not have to resolve; imply quietism; be

reductive. Instead, I would argue with Luhmann, Bakhtin, and, yes, Taylor that
paradox can help an audience experience "representations ofthe almost absolute
copresence of almost absolute incompatibles."

of Maybe." In Theatre and Religion:

Lancastrian Shakespeare, edited by Richard Dutton etal.,242-58. Manchester:

Taylor, Gary. "The Cultural Politics

Manchester University Press, 2003.

"Divine [ ]sences."

Shakespeare Survey 5a

Q00l): 13-30.

"Forms of Opposition: Shakespeare and Middleton." English Literary

Renais s anc e 24 (l 99 4): 2831 | 4.
"Judgment." In Nau Woys of Looking at Old kxts II: Papers of the
Renaiss ance English Tbxt Society, I 99 2- I 9 96, edited by W Speed Hill, 9l-99.
Tempe,AZ: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies in Conjunction with
Renaissance English Text Society, 1998.