Study Guide

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Essay - Morality

Morality

Introduction

Morality

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

Lawrence W. Hyman (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 3513 words.)

Alan C. Dessen (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 9734 words.)