Critical interest in Shakespeare's dramatic representation of morality and amorality has touched upon a number of fundamental issues in his plays, including his literary sources, theological insights, critique of society, and depiction of evil. Many late twentieth-century critics have discerned the subject in the underlying thematic structure of Shakespeare's dramas—particularly in the histories and tragedies, which frequently feature elements of the medieval morality tradition. While scholars have noted that the didactic, allegorical figures—such as Virtue, Vice, and the Everyman—of earlier morality plays do not appear, as such, in Shakespeare's more subtle and complex works, elements of these and other “morality” types inform many characters in the dramas. In such works as Richard III, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Henry IV, Timon of Athens, and more, commentators Alan C. Dessen (1986), Mathew Winston (1981), and others have observed the steady influence of this stage tradition. Additionally, the majority of Shakespeare's plays are at least indirectly concerned with some abiding moral issue that affects its theme and outcome. All of his dramatic works, excepting perhaps some of the comedies, depict a significant moral choice or inversion/disruption of the moral order that results in tragedy or must be set right by the close of the play.
When considering the subject of moral corruption in the Shakespearean canon, many critics have focused on the tragedies, particularly Macbeth. Harvey Birenbaum (1982) studies Macbeth's violation of ethical norms in Shakespeare's bloodiest play, stressing the Scottish king's tragic consciousness of his wrongdoing and alienation from his actions. Similarly, Carol Strongin Tufts (1987) examines Macbeth's violent disturbance of the moral order with his murder of Duncan and considers Shakespeare's intricate representation of evil and its consequences in the play. In another vein, Barbara Riebling (1991) interprets Macbeth in the context of Niccolo Machiavelli's theoretical works The Prince and The Discourses, noting the contradiction between Christian morality and strong leadership as this theme pervades the tragedy. Exploring corrupted morality in regard to Hamlet, Catherine Brown Tkacz (1992) describes the relationship between Hamlet's moral choices and the play's imagery of turning wheels of fortune and the state—motifs that signal the ruin of the royal house of Denmark. The implications of unmitigated evil inform Lee A. Jacobus's (1992) analysis of the amoral figures Iago and Richard III of Othello and Richard III, respectively.
Shakespeare's view of morality in the comedies and romances departs strongly from that of the tragedies, displaying instead an interest in the moral component of social interaction—from politics to love and desire. R. A. D. Grant (1983) views The Tempest as Shakespeare's theodicy, a justification for God's benevolence in a world marred by suffering and evil. According to Grant, Shakespeare concentrates on the interaction of divine Providence, human authority, and moral action in The Tempest. Alice Rayner (1987) investigates the moral structure of Twelfth Night, finding in the work's depiction of moral oppositions—such as those of “virtue and appetite, sobriety and revelry, respectability and knavery, constancy and mutability”—the key to Shakespeare's comic vision. Gene Fendt (1995) interprets As You Like It as a play about desire (eros) that temporarily puts aside judgment of its characters in order to provide audiences with a cultural, moral, and religious catharsis.
Critics have also studied specific representations of religion in Shakespeare's plays, focusing on moral issues in theological contexts. Austin C. Dobbins and Roy W. Battenhouse (1976) probe the ethical problem of Jessica's dissimulation in The Merchant of Venice, finding her concealment of the truth from her father justified according to Hebraic and Christian tradition. Michael H. Keefer (1988) observes the moral strain in King Lear. According to Keefer, the play features a “synecdochic relation between Lear and Calvin's God,” and thus criticizes such theological concepts as predestination and grace.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “Morality and Literature—The Necessary Conflict,” in The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 149-55.
[In the following essay, Hyman explores the tension between morality and aesthetics in literature, using King Learas his focus.]
When Plato banished the poets and storytellers from his ideal society because their works make us ‘careless of justice and virtue’,1 he challenged those who love literature to prove that literature was not immoral. Critics have since taken up this challenge, not only in the famous theoretical defences and apologies for poetry but, more successfully perhaps, in the work of interpretation. For critics have been able to find, in almost every important literary work, moral truths that society approves of, or, in the opinion of the critic, ought to approve of. But while most critics have been finding such truths, other critics have been questioning Plato's basic premise, arguing that literature has its own function, its own purpose and, consequently, that literature has only a peripheral connection with ethics. This pleasure or quality has, since the eighteenth century, been called ‘aesthetic’, and the emphasis on this quality has come to dominate critical theory in our time and exert a strong influence on critical practice. If literature has this intrinsic quality, has its own function, what has come to be called...
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SOURCE: “Moral Play Components in Shakespeare's Scenes,” in Shakespeare and the Late Moral Plays, University of Nebraska Press, 1986, pp. 134-60.
[In the following excerpt, Dessen discusses Shakespeare's adaptation of allegorical figures to his “late moral plays,” particularly regarding Richard III, Antony and Cleopatra, and Troilus and Cressida.]
Close attention to the final movements of All's Well, Richard III, and 2 Henry IV demonstrates how a horizon of expectations linked to the late moral play figures … can shed light on problematic moments. Rather than pursuing other distant cousins of the public Vice and the two phased action (e.g., Pistol in Henry V, Lucio in Measure for Measure, Autolycus in The Winter's Tale), let me turn now to other features of the moral plays also of interest to interpreters of Shakespeare. First, in general terms, the moral drama provides an obvious example of how theme or thesis can take precedence over our sense of plot or character. Joanne Spencer Kantrowitz, for one, has argued forcefully for the special nature of allegorical characters and the primacy of theme over fable in such plays. The true action of a didactic work, she notes, “is not the surface events, but the action of the unfolding argument,” so that “anything can, and often does, happen,” not because the works are diffuse and undisciplined,...
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Criticism: Moral Corruption: Macbeth And Hamlet
SOURCE: “Consciousness and Responsibility in Macbeth,” in Mosaic, Vol. 15, No. 2, June, 1982, pp. 17-32.
[In the following essay, Birenbaum studies the tragic consciousness—“the prolonged agony of awareness”—apparent in the moral decline of Macbeth.]
Some central Shakespearean characters such as Cleopatra, Richard II and Macbeth all violate, emphatically, ethical suppositions usual in our culture. It therefore is easy enough for reader-spectators, when they think about the plays, to deplore the excesses of these wicked protagonists and to try to distinguish their greatness or their potentiality from their faults. Richard, for one, reveals at John of Gaunt's death a callous flippancy which repels and angers us. We are repelled properly, by dramatic strategy, but we need neither chastise Richard nor forgive him. We are being led, rather, a degree deeper into the tragic complex of emotion. We sense a grotesqueness in the way things are, as we come to feel ourselves appalled by what is also fascinating. We find it more natural, of course, to deplore Macbeth's ambitions and his homicides than Cleopatra's irresponsibility, Richard's vanity and self-pity, or Lear's “folly.” But to stress the negatives in all these characters, to relate to them essentially through moral judgment, is to undercut the affects and the import of tragedy. It is to take life primarily as behavior rather...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Conception of Moral Order in Macbeth,” in Renascence, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2, Winter, 1987, pp. 340-53.
[In the following essay, Tufts considers the disruption of moral order in Macbeth.]
For all the debate over the character of Macbeth—Is he truly a tragic figure, or little more than a criminal, a butcher?—and the nature and function of the witches—Are they agents of the Devil, of Fate, or the manifestations of Mecbeth's own mind?—most critics have agreed with G. Wilson Knight's assessment of Macbeth as “Shakespeare's most profound and mature vision of Evil …” (154). That “Evil” is viewed as opposed to nature itself, to the harmony and order of the universe, the “life images” of planting, procreation, feasting, fellowship, and the serenity and beauty that Duncan and Banquo so ironically see as they enter Macbeth's castle (Knights, 36-38; Brooks, 43-44; Speaight, 44-48). Such natural harmony, though disrupted by Macbeth's willed choice of evil, is, according to critical consensus, restored at the end of the play with the triumph of the forces of good, for the death of “this … butcher and his fiend-like queen” (V. ix. 35) and Malcolm's ascension to the throne will, “again,” in the words of the unnamed Lord of the third act, “Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights” (III. vi. 34).
Yet if Macbeth is...
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SOURCE: “Virtue's Sacrifice: A Machiavellian Reading of Macbeth,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 273-86.
[In the following essay, Riebling probes the Machiavellian conflict between politics and morality in Macbeth.]
“I love my city more than I love my soul,” Machiavelli wrote in a letter to a friend. If we take him at his word—including the belief that he has a soul—Machiavelli is describing the ultimate patriotic sacrifice. In both of his major theoretical works, The Prince and The Discourses, he presents this sacrifice as more likely the deeper one ventures into politics, and as virtually unavoidable for the prince. Machiavelli's works shocked sixteenth-century audiences, who were accustomed to seeing Christian and civic virtue as interchangeable; in his version of truth, “la verità effettuale,” political virtù is ineluctably at odds with religion and its rules. The English were particularly appalled by Machiavelli's ideas; hence the enormous popularity in the late sixteenth century of the villainous “stage Machiavel.” For centuries medieval and Renaissance citizens had been assured of an essential harmony between religious and political truths—any apparent conflicts were resolved either by a rejection of worldly values or their procrustean fit to the Decalogue. English audiences by Shakespeare's...
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SOURCE: “The Wheel of Fortune, the Wheel of State, and Moral Choice in Hamlet,” in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 57, No. 4, November, 1992, pp. 21-38.
[In the following essay, Tkacz interprets imagery of the wheel of fortune and the decaying state as these relate to the morality of Prince Hamlet's actions in Hamlet.]
In Shakespeare's Hamlet, not only the action of the play, but two fascinating wheel images turn on the point of the prayer scene, for the choices that Hamlet and Claudius make then subject the wheel of state (3.3.15-22) to the wheel of Fortune (2.2.464-68) and thus lead to the “boist’rous ruin” of the royal house of Denmark. Between the crowded and turbulent mousetrap scene and the verbally and physically violent closet scene—which, significantly, includes the play's first onstage death—is the deceptively quiet prayer scene. Not simply the calm before the storm, this is the calm that precipitates the tempest, that decisive moment which makes the rest of the play inevitable and its eight deaths unavoidable. For this play beautifully demonstrates Shakespeare's craft “as a Christian dramatist who wrote plays structured pyramidally in which the crucial ethical decisions occur in the climax” (Geckle 101).1 In 3.3 the wrongly crowned Claudius and the should-have-been-crowned Hamlet speak in monologues: one kinsman confirms a vicious choice and the...
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Criticism: Morality And Society: Comedies And Romances
SOURCE: “Providence, Authority, and the Moral Life in The Tempest,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XVI, 1983, pp. 235-63.
[In the following essay, Grant surveys the moral purpose of The Tempest as both a theodicy and a disputation on the political structure of society.]
Ad hoc enim homines congregantur, ut simul bene vivant, quod consequi non posset unusquisque singulariter vivens; bona autem vita est secundum virtutem; virtuosa igitur vita est congregationis humanae finis.
The interpretation of literature in terms of larger ideas has led to so many abuses that much contemporary criticism is threatening to retreat into aesthetic or exegetical detachment. But any such retreat is based on illusion. What has happened is merely that an entirely proper fastidiousness has mistaken its object. It is ideologies that are at fault not the disciplines (the custodians of these larger ideas) they have requisitioned.1 The latter are as much a part of life as their practical equivalents: ethics is no less “real” than morality. Literature, too, is a part of life. But it is not life itself, a fact in which, in some periods, it has found cause for self-congratulation. Try, however, as it occasionally may to dissociate itself, it cannot help but be “about” life, since the practical resonances of the...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Poesis: Use and Delight in Utopia,” in Comic Persuasion: Moral Structure in British Comedy from Shakespeare to Stoppard, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 24-40.
[In the following essay, Rayner examines the moral dimensions of appetite, virtue, and love in Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night.]
Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?
Virtue and appetite, sobriety and revelry, respectability and knavery, constancy and mutability: the opposition of moral conditions like these defines a fundamental moral tension in many comedies. Comedy often operates out of the collision of desires and restrictions. And appetite in its various manifestations (lust, hunger, greed) is the bodily version of the moral condition. It is the corporeal principle of desire, the irreducible human reality that comedy as a genre tends both to indulge and restrain. In the extreme and exaggerated form of comedy, we have farce, in which the potential of the body's appetites breaks the boundaries of realism to become the almost pure action of Appetite that consumes social or ethical restraints in the delight of excess. In a more reduced form, comedy brings the appetite into the drawing room with the tea and toast or cucumber sandwiches that signify the larger desires...
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SOURCE: “Resolution, Catharsis, Culture: As You Like It,” in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 19, No. 2, October, 1995, pp. 248-60.
[In the following essay, Fendt examines the comic catharsis in As You Like It, viewing the play's cultural and moral components.]
Happiness does not lie in amusement; indeed it would be strange … if one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one's life in order to amuse oneself. Relaxation, then, is not an end; for it is taken for the sake of activity.
Aristotle (NE 1176b30-35)
Comedy is a vision of dianoia, a significance which is ultimately social significance.
Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism
As with tragedy and music, it seems that there are several kinds of catharsis that are plausible in a comedy.1 Let us take the example of As You Like It, which would seem to be about as perfect an example of the art form as is possible. Indeed, one of the reasons to think it is so is that it allows, as we shall see, of every type of comic resolution and catharsis. In the last scene, Rosalind, whom we see through most of the play as both being in love (as a woman) and mocking romantic love's excesses (as a man), becomes a unified being, loving and sensible; so there is an...
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Criticism: Evil And Vice
SOURCE: ‘“Craft Against Vice’: Morality Play Elements in Measure for Measure,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XIV, 1981, pp. 229-48.
[In the following essay, Winston traces elements of the Tudor morality play in Measure for Measure, seeing the figure of Lucio as associated with allegorical “Vice.”]
One of the most rewarding areas of recent research in Renaissance drama has been the continuing development of a new methodology of theater history which relates Shakespeare's plays and those of his contemporaries to preexistent drama, but neither to trace their sources nor to reduce them to some predetermined, neat, allegorical meaning. Rather, this approach explores the overtones and undercurrents of which the playwright and his audience would have been aware because of their previous experience of drama, and it examines how these additional levels alter the significance of characters, plot, and theme. Such critics as Bernard Spivack, David Bevington, Robert Weimann, Alan Dessen, Richard Southern, and Edmund Creeth, to name only a few, have helped to develop a new sense of what I call the continuity of perceptual set, or how the dramatist's and audience's familiarity with earlier plays shaped their expectations and perceptions.1
Many critics have placed Shakespeare's works in the framework of the Tudor morality play. However, this enterprise has frequently...
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SOURCE: “The Certainty of Evil: Richard III and Othello,” in Shakespeare and the Dialectic of Certainty, St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 93-112.
[In the following essay, Jacobus analyzes two of Shakespeare's most thoroughly evil and manipulative characters, Richard III and Iago.]
A dozen years separate the writing of Richard III (1591-92) and Othello (1602-04).1 Shakespeare's consistency of vision over a decade establishes the essence of evil in two characters who both possess a high degree of certainty and misuse it. The manner in which Richard and Iago manipulate the surfaces of reality regarding themselves—establishing apparently trustworthy postures and personalities—is shared in both plays, but only up to a point.2 Richard is soon revealed for what he is, but his knowledge of Christian psychology is such that his capacity for achieving his ends is hardly affected for the worse. His ability to see and understand the qualities of mind of those around him enables him to use them for his own purposes despite his admission of guilt. Iago never reveals himself as Richard does, but he, too, perceives with remarkable clarity the psychologies of those he most wants to hurt. At the root of both plays, and at the root of the quality of evil that the plays reveal, is the possession of the knowledge of the true nature of things by the villains and the lack...
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Criticism: Morality And Theology
SOURCE: “Jessica's Morals: A Theological View,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. IX, 1976, pp. 107-20.
[In the following essay, Dobbins and Battenhouse evaluate the morality of Jessica's actions in The Merchant of Venice, seeing her dissimulation as theologically justified.]
Capping a century of romantic interpretation of Shylock, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1926 termed Jessica “bad and disloyal, unfilial, a thief; frivolous, greedy, without any more conscience than a cat.”1 Such an estimate, though it may appeal to readers swayed by Shylock's view of her as “damned,” clearly is not that of the play as a whole. The father's moral imagination is comically undercut by his absurd love of gold more than daughter, and Jessica's elopement not only secures Lorenzo's friends as sponsors but also a welcome by Portia at Belmont. Indeed, the play ends with Jessica as the prospective heiress of all of Shylock's property—an outcome which, unless we wish to quarrel with the justice of the whole play, implies a hearty approval of the marriage. Most theatregoers therefore feel no qualms about Jessica's morals; they accept her actions as wholesome and right.
Is this favorable judgment merely instinctive, or can it be justified also in terms of traditional theology? The question seems worth asking since some commentators would defend Jessica, as does J. Middleton Murry, by...
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SOURCE: “Accommodation and Synecdoche: Calvin's God in King Lear,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XX, 1988, pp. 147-68.
[In the following essay, Keefer describes the means by which God is represented in the human terms of King Lear,observing Lear's actions as “a synecdochic parody of Calvinist predestination and grace.”]
Deinde si maxime talis est deus ut nulla gratia, nulla hominum caritate teneatur, valeat. …
Cicero, De natura deorum, I.124
One striking feature of William Blake's Illustrations of the Book of Job (1825) consists in his having made both God and his servant Job after the same image. Blake's engravings assert the identity of the two: Job has the same face as does that figure placed above him who, in Blake's subversive understanding of the text, represents the constricting selfhood that Job has made his God.1 It may come as no surprise that the same pattern also appears in the polychrome print of God judging Adam which Blake made three decades earlier:2 Adam is commonly supposed, after all, to have borne his creator's image and likeness. However, the close similarity between another two of Blake's images of God and man may provide Shakespeareans with a small jolt—and with a motive (should one be required) for rereading yet again...
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Daley, A. Stuart. “To Moralize a Spectacle: As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 1.” Philological Quarterly 65, No. 2 (Spring 1986): 147-70.
Interprets the spectacle of the abandoned stag in Act 2 of As You Like It as a moral pronouncement on society.
Dessen, Alan C. “The Intemperate Knight and the Politic Prince: Late Morality Structure in 1 Henry IV.” Shakespeare Studies VII (1974): 147-71.
Explores the debt of 1 Henry IVto the morality play tradition in terms of its principal figures, Prince Hal and Falstaff.
Jones, Robert C. “Truth in King John.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 25, No. 2 (Spring 1985): 397-417.
Considers multiple and ironic forms of truth in King John.
Lepley, Jean. “Should Rome Burn? The Morality of Vengeance in Coriolanus (and Beyond).” Soundings LXVI, No. 4 (Winter 1993): 404-21.
Moral analysis of Coriolanus's passion for revenge against Rome.
Pollard, Carol W. “Immoral Morality: Combinations of Morality Types in All's Well That Ends Well and The Dutch Courtesan.” Cahiers Élisabéthains 25 (April 1984): 53-59.
Probes Shakespeare's juxtaposition of simple, medieval morality types in All's Well That Ends Wellto produce...
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