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When Shakespeare bestows the name Michael Cassio on a character in Othello he would doubtless have been aware of some distinguised antecedents, including his friend Michael Drayton and two other authors whom he did not know personally but was fond of reading, Michel de Montaigne and Miguel Cervantes. Less immediately, several historical persons of the name, perhaps most notably the Emperor Michael Palaeologus, are mentioned in a number of early modern texts. Michael does not seem to have been a common name in England, and it was also a name not much found in plays, or at least not in extant ones. In this essay I focus on three plays in which characters called Michael appear, Arden of Faversham, Othello, and The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and I shall argue that each draws in one way or another on one or more of the inherently paradoxical associations held by the name Michael in the early modern period, which suggested simultaneously money and sanctity, corporeality and spirituality, and past and future. All three of these Michaels, whether unwillingly or unwittingly, have the same effect of either causing or participating in the disruption of domestic relationships and the pitting of family members against each other. In their own very different ways, each of these three characters could be seen as emblematising or underlining the effect of sin in the home, and also perhaps as drawing attention to the dual nature of humans as having both a mortal (social, familial, and material) life and an immortal soul, in something of the same way as Michael’s strange status as both saint and archangel makes him eligible to be simultaneously understood both as someone who was once alive and as an entity always wholly spiritual.
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