What was Shakespeare's view of human nature?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare often expresses a negative view of human nature through his characters. Hamlet, for instance, says:

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah, fie! 'tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.     (Act 1, Scene 2)

In an unweeded garden the things that are rank are short and choking each other like uncut grass. Those that are gross are tall plants that are remarkably ugly, like milkweed. Most people, in Hamlet's view, are probably rank because they are insignificant and common. We don't have to look very far to spot a few rank people in our cities today. Those that are gross are people like Claudius, who has become a king but is a vile human being. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are always together like Siamese twins, are rank.

And in his famous soliloquy beginning with "To be, or not to be," Hamlet describes specimens of humanity, many of whom are still with us today:

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes...   (Act 3, Scene 1)

Measure for Measure perhaps expresses the most jaundiced view of humanity, except for King Lear. In Measure for Measure, the disguised Duke Vicentio tells the condemned prisoner Claudio:

Friend hast thou none; 
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner.     (Act 3, Scene 1)

What he is saying is that your own children can hardly wait for you to die so that they can get their hands on your money. Shakespeare regards one's children as parts of one's own self.

In the beginning lines of his Sonnet 71, Shakespeare writes:

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:

King Lear, like Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, curses humanity. Shakespeare has created some striking specimens of wicked human beings, including Lear's two-faced daughters Goneril and Regan; Regan's husband Cornwall, who puts out both of Gloucester's eyes with his thumbs; Oswald the steward; and Edmund who betrays his brother and then his father. In other plays we have Caliban in The Tempest, who is hardly even a human being; Lady Macbeth, who encourages her husband to stop being so tender-hearted and become more treacherous and cruel like herself; Richard III, who murders everyone who stands in his way to achieving power; and, of course, Iago, who is perhaps Shakespeare's greatest villain. Do such people only exist in plays??? Or did Shakespeare get his ideas for his characters from his own observation and experience?


enotes | Student

Shakespeare lived in the Age of Humanism and shared its basic optimism and good will toward human nature. Here we note that the evil that takes place in Shakespeare's plays is usually the result of villains described as unnatural and who frequently acknowledge having an unnatural bent. There are, to be sure, "honorable" men like Brutus in Julius Caesar who go astray, but for the most part, the bad characters are portrayed as abnormally perverse. Outside of the tragedies, Shakespeare plainly takes humorous shots at misanthropic characters like Jaques in As You Like It and Malvolio in Twelfth Night. But of greatest importance, the tragedies aside, human nature in Shakespeare's plays is subject to reformation. Sometimes, as in the conversion of Oliver in As You Like It, the transformation is miraculous, in other cases, as in The Tempest, a lesson must first be taught, and, in at least one famous instance, that of the parents in Romeo and Juliet, the lesson comes too late. But the benevolent Shakespeare depicts normal human nature as being inherently good.