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Competing Views on Human Nature

In the time of Shakespeare’s England, there were several different views of human nature—Catholic, Protestant, the doctrine of passive obedience, Machiavellian ideas, the Ptolemaic view, the Copernican view, etc. All of these views boil down to two main competing views on the nature of humankind—the old medieval Christian point of view, and a very different and heterodox way of thinking provided by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Michel de Montaigne.

In medieval Christian thought, humans were the epitome of God’s creations. Shakespearean scholar David Bevington writes, “Human reason, though subject to error because of sinfulness, enabled humans to aspire towards divinity.” As demonstrated in the morality plays, “the human soul was a battleground of good and evil.” On the other hand, Michel de Montaigne put forth a contrasting view of human imperfection. He “questioned the assumption of humanity’s superiority to the animal kingdom.” He argued that human race was on the same moral level as all animals, undermining the hierarchy in which humans were the undisputed masters of the earth.

In Measure for Measure, the character of Claudio suggests a view that speaks more towards Montaigne’s skepticism. Claudio has been imprisoned for impregnating his beloved, Juliet. His view of human nature is emphasized by his predicament. He says, “Our natures do pursue,/Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,/A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die” (Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 128-30). He likens human to rats, in that we cannot resist our baser natures. Just like rats cannot keep from devouring what is poisonous to them in greed, humans cannot keep from “sins” like premarital sex, even with great consequences. The parallel between humans and rats fits with Montaigne’s theory that humans are just like animals. They are no higher in the hierarchy of morality. That is the reason we cannot help but make such low mistakes.

Clearly, Shakespeare delights in playing competing ideas against each other in his brilliant plays, inviting the audience to wonder about things as fascinating and inscrutable as human nature.