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The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Modern Scholarship

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[These pages are under construction. Contributions are welcome and will be acknowledged. For details see here]


Bowen , B. C. The age of bluff: Paradox and Ambiguity in Rabelais and Montaigne Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972

Bowen's opening chapter provides an excellent summary of the various literary antecedents which provide Renaissance writers with models for paradox and ambiguity.


Colie, Rosalie Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox Princeton, 1966

Colie defines the traditional topoi of paradox, emphasizing the self-reflexive quality of the concept, the necessity for belief in the impossible as expressed through paradox, and its involvement in dialectic (paradox exploits "the fact of relative, or competing, value systems" [p.10]).


Crockett, Bryan The Play of Paradox: Stage and Sermon in Renaissance England Philadelphia: 1995

This book is concerned with the "interplay between drama and theology in . . . stage and pulpit performances of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries" (x) - a connection underexamined due to modern misperceptions about Reformation preaching. Seventeenth-century preachers were more theatrical than those who followed them, combining elements of magic, prophecy, and performance. To delight and instruct, to transform an audience through disguised human ingenuity - these were the goals of preachers and players of Reformation England. Subjected to censorship yet concerned with subverting assigned propaganda, preachers used irony and rhetorical slipperiness such as paradox. The "prevalence of paradox in various genres of Tudor and Stuart literature is symptomatic of a widespread concern . . . with the simultaneous experience of contrary states" (19).

The paradoxes that informed and inspired Reformation sermons were those inherent in Calvinism. Luther exploited the effect of many paradoxes: humans were simultaneously saints and sinners; Christ was divine and mortal; although predestined, the elect were vile; and any human striving, though necessary, was useless. The effect was that "performative presentation of such contradictions [held] out the possibility of an experiential resolution, however partial or fleeting" (28).

Part 1 examines how religious polemics served paradoxes of the pulpit. The metaphorical "two-edged sword" implies that the word of God drives a wedge between the elect and the reprobate, identifying the wicked and collecting the elect, reinforcing the paradox that the body of believers is both inclusive and exclusive, and that one must go on living and striving despite predestination. Another metaphor employed is that of "holy cozenage" which capitalizes on the Protestant "cult of the ear" - a reaction to Catholic visual enticement. Through ingenuity and rhetorical skill, the preacher's task was to resolve paradoxes in "communal experience" (59) for the edification of the congregation.

Crockett investigates this edification in drama. Commonalities between a congregation and a theatrical audience (both of whom crave, in a senseless world, understanding of chaos and contradiction) are convincing, but the explication of theatrical paradox is less satisfactory than in the section on Reformation sermons. Part 2 explores the comic edification of satire - a genre, the author writes, as divisive as polemical sermon attacks of the time. The connection between satirical divisiveness or irony and the redemptiveness of paradox is unclear and therefore unconvincing. However, Crockett's discussion of the balance between judgment and mercy is much stronger. The paradoxical, simultaneous condemnation and pardon of the Bible is separated in successful sermons and dramas, thus evoking a state of receptivity and frustrating exclusion. In Shakespeare's romances like The Tempest and The Winter's Tale, judgment is delayed for years (time unfolds error), ultimately allowing a state of forgiveness and mercy among the characters and their audience.

Using an allegorical religious dialogue and The Duchess of Malfi, Crockett in Part 3 addresses tragedy and Protestant paradoxes, namely the difficulties concomitant with loving a God who damns the human race and predestines that damnation, a conflict made especially tricky since adherence without doubt is a sign of such election. In. Gifford's debate, life-loving Atheos's doubt condemns him while Zelotes, a boorish believer, is an elect. Webster's Duchess proves her election because she is able to embrace paradox; she accepts herself as saint and sinner, and trusts in God who has given her no reason to do so.

The chapter's coda, compelling though scattershot, contains some points about John Donne's ability to nurture metaphysical paradox in both poetry and sermon, and Shakespeare's handling of free will and determinism in Richard III. Although occasionally repetitive or obscured, Crockett's reasoning about the ways Renaissance sermons and drama addressed religious paradox for the edification of the Reformation audience is edifying for modern readers as well.

Source: Solomon, Andrea Renaissance Quarterly Dec. 22, 1997


Dandrey Patrick L'Eolage Paradoxal: de Gorgias à Molière Paris: PUF, 1956

Another edition in 1997.

Figorilli , Maria Christina Meglio Ignorante che Dotto: L'Elogio Paradossale in Prosa nel Cinquecento Naples: uori Editore S.R.I., 2008Lig

Furcha, E. J. 280 Paradoxes or Wondrous sayings Lewistown, NY: 1986

Most accessible English translation of the work by Sebastian Franck, complete with scholarly notes and reading aids.

Kilpatrick, David P. Paradoxes of the German Small Engraving in the Reformation Dissertation at Yale, 2002

Jones-Davies, M.T. Le Paradoxe au Temps de la Renaissance Paris: J. Touzot, 1982


Malloch, A. E. The Technique and Function of the Renaissance Paradox in Studies in Philology 53, 1956 pp. 193-203

"The office of the paradoxes themselves is to not to deceive, but by a show of deceit to force the reader to uncover the truth. The true nature of the paradox is revealed when the reader overturns it, just as the true nature of the swaggerer appears only when he is resisted. And further, the paradoxes do not really have natures at all; they are nothings. They exist only within the antithetical action of the reader, and if he allows them (i.e., allows them an existence), he is making another paradox, viz., That Nothing Is." (p. 192) Malloch thus emphasizes the importance of the readers' response to the illogic of the paradox. His conclusion is ultimately that "Logic operates upon concepts, which are by definition abstracts from the world of existent things. Paradox controls and makes intelligible this multiple world much as two negative units in algebra, when multiplied, bring forth a positive answer" (p.203).

Miller, H. K. The Paradoxical Encomium with special reference to its Vogue in England 1600-1800 in Modern Philology 53, 3 , 1956 pp145-178

Muller, Jurgen Das Paradox als Bildform: Studien zur Ikonolgie Pieter Bruegels Munich: 1999

Peters, H. (ed.) Paradoxes and Problems Oxford: Clarendon, 1980

Pizzorno, Patricia Grimaldi The Ways of Paradox from Lando to Donne Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 2007

Platt, Peter Shakespeare and the culture of Paradox Ashgate Publishing, 2009

"...paradox does not so much mean 'contradiction' as a 'common reversal of common belief or convention...'"

van der Poel, Marc Le Paradoxe en Linguistique et en Littérature, R. Landheer and P.J. Smith, eds. Geneva: Droz, 1996

Rice, W.G. "The Paradossi of Ortensio Lando" in Essays and Studies in English and Comparative Literature Ann Arbor: U. Michigan Press, 1932

Tomarken,A.M. The Smile of Truth The French Satirical Eulogy and its Antecedents Princeton University Press, 1990

Vickers, Brian "King Lear" and Renaissance Paradoxes in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 63, No. 2, Apr., 1968, pp. 305-314

Wollgast , S., ed. Paradoxa Berlin: 1966

Reissue of Sebastian Franck's Paradoxa ducenta octoginta