illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

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Harvey Birenbaum (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8058

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 than as experience, alienating us further from our selves rather than breaking down our alienation as true tragedy will do. Through experience of the plays we soften toward experience per se, because we imagine a Macbeth as a function of our own consciousness. It is more important that we establish the appropriate relation with a character than that we learn to describe or account for him. We cannot fully imagine Macbeth without the Macbeth image becoming our own projection, and this is especially true of him because his character is a continual process of consciousness, of imagining.

Typically, one says of Macbeth, in a moderately generous spirit, I can go with him so far but no further; I acknowledge that even I can imagine myself an assassin; I can see that my hunger is stronger than my gratitude, since the future presses harder upon me than the past, but the murder of Banquo, or the slaughter of Macduff's family, or the indescribable terrorization of Scotland, or the blind persistence in bloodshed to the end—somewhere I draw the line at which Macbeth and I part company. The tragic spirit does not desert this particular tyrant, however, and we ourselves do so to our own loss.

Macbeth develops a more and more painful responsibility for his life as he goes along, and to the extent that we take in the tragic implications of what is going on, we develop responsibility for him, under increasingly trying circumstances—or, to put it more accurately, we develop through our personal consciousness a sense of responsibility for the symbolic consciousness of the play, as though it were our own projection. In Kenneth Burke's words: “A tragedy is not profound unless the poet imagines the crime—and in thus imagining it, he symbolically commits it. Similarly, in so far as the audience participates in the imaginings, it also participates in the offense.”1 The men of Scotland can know Macbeth only through his actions—after all, their friends and families are being slaughtered around them. But in the meantime, we, as tragic audience, become more aware of the tyrant's burden as we become involved in his turmoil. We are not simply excited by Shakespearean tragedy, stirred to tones of grandeur, warmed by goodness and indignant at outrage; we are...

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troubled, mystified, hurt and frustrated, embarrassed and sometimes repelled. At the same time, however, we recognize that what we are seeing unfolds with inevitable rigor, and we are content to be dealt with honestly. Macbeth is, in fact, one of Shakespeare's most severe challenges to our powers of integrating hard truths, for Macbeth allows himself to be challenged most devastatingly.

The challenge to Macbeth is issued directly by his wife in a familiar speech:

Was the hope drunk,
Wherein you dress’d yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour,
As thou art in desire? Would’st thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ th’adage?(2)

Analyzing the speech conventionally, one observes that Lady Macbeth is playing to her own advantage upon her husband's faltering sense of virility. She mocks his love, or threatens to mock it, holding out hope of renewed respect. She does not exactly call him a coward but predicts that he will consider himself a coward, out of his own good judgment, if he should happen to make the decision he says he already has made. She satirizes his hope as a passing intoxication that has now yielded to the remorse of hangover. Finally, of course, she leaves him a “poor cat”—a mysterious allusion but clearly a pathetic predicament. But one central sentence in the speech, I think, properly eludes such ironical analysis, although it usually gets it. Stark in its import, Jan Kott calls it “this Nietzschean question”3: “Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valour, / As thou art in desire?”

It is true that Lady Macbeth is being vicious. She is undermining her husband's self-respect. But the opposite truth is more important. She is issuing a fundamental tragic challenge to Macbeth's integrity which he himself recognizes as one of the serious problems of living. It is important that he is not merely tempted but challenged; he is obliged, that is, to take his own measurement. And the direct concern of the challenge is not his ambition. The challenge focuses him on the very basic relation between act and desire, behavior and experience, the inner, subjective reality by which we directly know ourselves and the deeds that issue from us and earn our images in others’ eyes. Which is the real man, the real self: what one feels privately or what one does publicly? All the ringing ironies in the first part of the play—the implied comparison (by prospect) between Macbeth and the rebels, Duncan's complete trust in his general, the inverted omen of the martlets, and so forth—all support the tragic sense of absolute discontinuity beneath a world of uneasy stability, and Duncan falls victim to a reality with which a mere king and a mere good man cannot cope.

Macbeth has said already that the thought of murder—the thought that he is capable of assassination—has shaken his “single state of man” (I, iii, 140). While he basks in the high regard of his fellows and of the very king he would kill, who indeed is he? Thus Lady Macbeth touches in him a level of integrity which is that mark of all Shakespeare's heroes: the insistence that life make sense feelingly, an insistence that there can be, in effect, actual intercourse with the world from within. When he yields to the challenge it is not with a lust for the kill but with a dreadful courage to be himself, to acknowledge his obsession come what may. Were the task to which he is called gratifying and noble, it would be no test. His king and his society have offered him enough such undertakings and the consequent rewards. This project will be telling because it is horrible. It requires the violation of all his sensibilities except his concern for this inner reality.

Macbeth's immediate reply to his wife is as ambiguous, or paradoxical, as the challenge: “Pr’ythee, peace, / I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more, is none” (I, vii, 45-47). The conventional gloss, of course, is the moral one, approving Macbeth's hesitation: when Macbeth abandons this saving qualm, he proceeds to dehumanize himself, becoming less and less a man the more unbecoming his deeds. But human beings are capable of murder, and worse. The most unassuming of us harbors the most horrible dreams, and the mechanisms that proliferate Macbeth's atrocities—even the fear, rage and impotence that slaughter Lady Macduff and her children in one fell swoop—are also (tragically) all too human. In the tragic definition, a man is more than what it “becomes” him to be; he is fully as much as he dare suspect; he is whatever he is capable of “becoming.” The agony of tragedy is exactly the effort to face responsibility for what we ordinarily dare not recognize.

Although we will feel how unnatural Macbeth's murder of his king, kinsman, guest and (even) admirer is—the sunless sky and the cannibal horses attest as much—yet what is tragic is how natural it is to be “unnatural.” The image of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking suggests the way the murder itself seems actually to have issued out of her and her husband, once the witches have awakened them to the possibility. Affirming that Macbeth is “the image of a normal mind,” A. P. Rossiter finds in his response to the witches no extraordinary criminal case but “the upthrust of the essentially guilty undertow of the human mind”; against the Nature which Banquo must fortify with prayer (II, i, 7-9), the witches “evoke the horror of that ‘underNature’ which is the compulsion in Macbeth.”4 It is a predicament of the psyche always potentially tragic that what is necessarily repressed will necessarily control us, whether in the daily minute choices of what we take to be our will or in the anguish we are left with when our defenses weaken. Horribly enough, we can easily add Macbeth to Clifford Leech's account of the tragic hero: “Orestes kills his mother, Oedipus marries his mother and kills his father, Medea kills her children: yet they are, in a sense, more fully themselves than men and women usually dare to be.”5 By becoming more themselves, by allowing themselves to be drawn each into his own abyss, by going all the way where angels fear to tread, they do become more clearly what we all are already, for as Leech later says, “The tragic hero … is ‘one of us.’ He is not necessarily virtuous, not necessarily free from profound guilt. What he is is a man who reminds us strongly of our own humanity, who can be accepted as standing for us” (p. 46).

Throughout Macbeth, a dramatic definition of man develops almost explicitly. Toward the end, in Rosse's account of the death of Young Siwarde, there is a moral counterpoint to the tragic definition:

Your son, my Lord, has paid a soldier's debt:
He only liv’d but till he was a man;
The which no sooner had his prowess confirm’d
In the unshrinking station where he fought,
But like a man he died.

(V, ix, 5-9)

Earlier, Macbeth had prodded the men who will murder Banquo with an echo of Lady Macbeth's challenge to him:

Do you find
Your patience so predominant in your nature,
That you can let this go? Are you so gospell’d,
To pray for this good man, and for his issue,
Whose heavy hand hath bow’d you to the grave,
And beggar’d yours for ever?

(III, i, 85-90)

One of them replies: “We are men, my Liege.” If in his challenge Macbeth soberly rejects New Testament values,6 he also stirs the men to an expression of self-respect as they soberly confirm their manhood. Chalenging them with the catalog of dogs, he takes the word “man” in his wife's vein, to mean “a man of mettle,” yet the generic meaning, which the murderers seem to intend, again remains more apt. They are men because they respond to hurt with feelings that seek issue. They are not saints or stoics but reactive creatures of flesh and blood, and the implications of that fact are as gruesome as heartening. The way Shakespeare dramatizes the two men, through the voices they present, gives them a degree of solemn dignity that makes us compromise any moral scruples we have about even a “justified” murder. In fact, they have a dignity in their desperation that Macbeth lacks in his at this moment, for theirs is the desperation of need and his of a monumental but obsessive fear. It is grotesque that they are drawn deliberately into an error, but there is a sincerity, for their part, in the error. Shakespeare gives us no indications that they should disbelieve what they hear from their king.

As his wife melts into the fears she cannot face, Macbeth proceeds to expand the limits of his dreadful manhood. Having killed one friend almost in a trance, he finds he can cause the murder of another by careful (if imperfect) planning. When the ghost of his new victim terrifies him before his guests and Lady Macbeth again asks, “Are you a man?” he insists that he does indeed know the extremity of human capacity: “What man dare, I dare … / Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves / Shall never tremble …” (III, iv, 98-102). The supernatural foe, surely, is more than a man can cope with—especially the ghost of one's own betrayed companion. But Macbeth, in his very fear, confronts the specter: “Hence, horrible shadow! / Unreal mock’ry hence!” And the ghost is gone: “Why, so;—being gone, / I am a man again” (ll. 105-07). The supernatural, benign or horrible, is only another measure of the human state. The ghosts that haunt us are all our own.

Having been sought out once by “supernatural solicitors,” Macbeth himself now seeks them out and claims their cooperation. Having seemed to receive it, he confirms his union of act and mind: “From this moment, / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand” (IV, i, 146-48). In spite of all he has done, he apparently still needs to steel himself against his own sense of horror. With this resolve, he proceeds immediately—“even now, / To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done” (ll. 148-49)—to what Shakespeare carefully dramatizes as his most appalling atrocity, the attack on Macduff's castle.

At almost every stage Macbeth feels that he has gone as far as a man can go, but always there is a new demand upon him. Each time, dreadfully, he meets the challenge. Having “supp’d full with horrors,” he cannot even be startled by news of his wife's death, but when he hears a moment later that the woods are able to move against him, there is new terror and rage, sound and fury. He cannot count now on the physical world remaining coherent. As the rage gives way—“I gin to be aweary of the sun, / And wish th’estate o’ th’ world were now undone”—the new impossibility is taken in stride: “Blow, wind! come, wrack! / At least we’ll die with harness on our back” (V, v, 49-52). Finally, Macbeth finds himself before the man “who is not of woman born,” and recoils once more: “Accursed be that tongue that tells me so, / For it hath cow’d my better part of man / … I’ll not fight with thee” (V, viii, 17-22). This unnerving symbolic danger is, in part, like the threat of incest in Oedipus: we feel we must know ourselves by the causal progressions of nature, with parents and children linked in coherent sequence. In the tragic disintegration, this clarity too dissolves.

When Macduff taunts him with the prospect of public humiliation, Macbeth preserves his integrity with a final dreadful step forward:

I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet,
And to be baited with the rabble's curse.
Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou oppos’d, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last: before my body
I throw my warlike shield: lay on, Macduff;
And damn’d be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!”

(ll. 27-34).

The tone tells all. It is poised and solid; though not by any means confident of victory, yet determined and strong. It is perhaps devoid of hope; it is perhaps beyond hope. Macbeth's only possibility is persistence in the course that he has undertaken as his own way, but it is a possibility, that, taken with the sound and fury and all, does make some kind of sense as his own truth. To the Christian moralist, Macbeth could take responsibility for his life only in contrition and atonement. As a tragic hero, however, Macbeth's sense of responsibility is of another order. It is an embracing of his own reality—even though he persists in his destructive efforts—and a clear-sighted acceptance of what may ensue.

I receive plenty of signals to indicate that a world actually exists—galaxies of worlds—independent of my preferences and passions. Therefore, I cannot but reflect: if this life outside does not conform with the world of my self, if it follows from other assumptions than my feelings and works by different rules, how can I myself relate to it with any honesty, with any confidence, with any sense of reality? My feelings, I realize, form a self-contained system, perpetuating their own fantasies. On the other hand, my powers of reason are suspect because they lead me into collusion with others, turning me against my own desires with a pride in abstraction and righteousness. But my hungers follow their own logic. They exist only to demand their own fulfillment, turning everything in the world into their objects. My rage and my yearning, my sense of tragedy itself, all the feelings through which I know the world, are only statements of my own vulnerability. When I fulfill one desire, I find myself with another that counts my world inadequate. My discontent requires enemies to feed upon in envy, heroes to venerate, lovers to adore. And yet the world exists outside my consciousness, eluding and tantalizing me, threatening me, destroying me, and I cannot get inside its million heads.

The split is tragic exactly at the point where total commitment to the richness of the self destroys the world the self must feed on. In Iago, a sense of self distorted by self-hate thrives upon defensive gratification. Like other “Machiavellian” villains, Iago protects himself from his own pain, his rankling jealousy, by transplanting it in others, then rejoicing in the illusion that it is no longer within while pleasantly destroying the other whom he has infected. In Othello, however, who lacks such clever defenses, the buoyant sensuousness of open feelings produces total vulnerability. In this sense, the tragedy of Othello rests more squarely upon the problem of dignity than that of jealousy, the dignity which is a pleasure in being oneself but which masks a capacity for rank humiliation. Othello is beautifully proud, and his pride is a rich human power to which he has an absolute right, yet it is mortal pride, pride in a conspicuously fallible creature. This dignity denotes even the flowering of a socially ideal personality, carrying authority with grace and character. Yet in this dignity, Othello stands totally vulnerable before an externalized manifestation of his own subterranean uncertainties. If he plays out Iago's unconscious, Iago plays out his. The inevitable result simply unfolds the implications of his situation, which is the normal (tragic) situation of man in society. Jealousy is hardly its cause or its essence but merely one dimension of it. Uneasy with our weakness, we will be jealous of the power others seem to have.

If jealousy is not the essential issue in Othello, so ambition is not the essential issue in Macbeth but only the vehicle to convey it. This play is primarily a devastating study of the split between the restless world within and the indifferent world without, for this is a tragedy of consciousness more clearly than any of the others—even more so than the obvious case of Hamlet. To experience the play is to be caught up not merely in a man's ambition but in the struggle between the spontaneous consciousness—the life that erupts of itself—and the reflective consciousness—the mind observing feelings, confounded by the eruptive energy driving against it, and aware finally how helpless it feels because it can see. Time and again through the play we are confronted violently not simply with acts or words but states of mind, and we are obliged not to observe but to taste them and to know their pungency thoroughly. From his first meeting with the witches, Macbeth's part is almost continual anagnorisis. Following him along, we are not expected to comment or to figure anything out but to know the feelings from within and realize their implications. From that point at which he finds “function … smother’d in surmise,” to the point at which he finds himself “tied to a stake” where he must “bearlike … fight the course,” he is man as victim of his nature (I, iii, 141; V, viii, 1-2). His nature, moreover, is to be the animal who finds himself to be, who is first of all driven and secondly aware of his drives, mocked by a consciousness that can see but not do, stricken with the grotesque pain of being his own victim. We find our attention fixed upon a discontinuity between awareness and will, that seems strange and natural at the same time.

From the start, the desire for power and supremacy is tangible to Macbeth and utterly persuasive in its reality. The prospect of overthrowing the King is possible in fantasy, though fantasy must overcome the resistance of guilt. But the actual activity of murder remains remote to Macbeth even while it is leading him on. We cannot say that he ever shows any lust for blood, only a passion to reach a state of fulfillment and a rage at the vulnerability that goes on and on—that worsens geometrically, in fact, in proportion to the rage against it. On the one hand, the ambition and the murder do have no relation to each other: one is a spontaneous feeling naturally there within oneself; the other is an activity one performs while seeing that it has various effects. On the other hand, of course, murder must be understood as one of the implications of ambition, whether it is literal murder or any other violence one does in seizing what one desires.

It is precisely in the discontinuity between these two senses of the situation, a terribly normal schizophrenia, that we feel the heart of Macbeth's tragedy. But the problem is still more subtle. We are forced to fathom the distinctions between the feeling and the fantasy, the fantasy and the act, the act and the consequences, the consequences for oneself and those for others: at every shift to a new level there is a chasm. Perhaps faith can bridge such splits. Certainly our daily needs require that we straddle them somehow or other. But tragedy insists first of all upon the integrity of despair:

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow(7)

Between the dreaded conception of murder and the mere act of forcing a knife into a body, between that act and the reality of another person's death (the reality of a consciousness entirely separate from one's own that one must now think of as extinct), between the nonexistence of someone else's life and the increased anguish of one's own, between the horror of blood and the simple factuality of it—all these chasms refer to the split between subjective and objective orders of reality and the variations on the theme: self and other, life and death, feeling and matter, present-time felt passing and other-time conceived.

Two haunting understatements in particular convey this feeling of a weird discovery in the familiar nature of reality. They are both peculiarly factual in a disorienting way. When Banquo's ghost has for a moment gone, Macbeth protests: “the time has been, / That, when the brains were out, the man would die, / And there an end …” (III, iv, 77-79). Time itself must be redefined.8 In the known world now utterly past, time was a succession of times, things were things, and the order of life was rational. Now the ordered world has dissolved because it was only wishful, and we must face what we cannot control: the timeless torrent of feelings that is released when we doubt the validity of control. Lady Macbeth sleepwalking—when what has been kept most private becomes, pathetically, completely open to strangers—utters a similar cry as she admits what a fact is: “What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to accompt? Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” (V, i, 36-39). Determined not to fear, she yields finally to an expression of anguish and terror more naked than mere outcry. The mind cannot have thought there would be so much horror about its own desires.

Out of the keen alertness to discontinuity underlined in these two passages, almost a hypersensitivity, comes the depth of pathos in reflections of more ordinary psychology.

I have liv’d long enough: my way of life
Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but in their stead,
Curses, not loud, but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

(V, iii, 22-28)

The isolation is not merely from other people but from an entire process of organic normality, which should lead along his “way of life.” He has lived long enough because of what has happened during the time he has lived, yet he is not living at all. Macbeth is confronting a qualitative conception of time, such as Edgar implies in the otherwise meaningless last phrase of Lear: “The oldest hath borne the most: we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”9 There is no logical reason that those now young will not live as long as Lear or Gloucester. “So long” must mean something like “so much” but with a sense of vast expanse. Though they were already old, those two lived lifetimes more before they died. Time lived so deeply is absolute; it cannot pass, it cannot be measured for comparison.

Hamlet also is trapped by the discontinuity between man's subjective state and his overt actions among others. Under the circumstances, he cannot act because, for one thing, action is irrelevant. Under the same circumstances, by contrast, Macbeth cannot but act. Claudius, discovering the predicament, cannot repent of the action he has taken, and this is true of Macbeth also. Oedipus, to make comparison outside Shakespeare, commits a pair of interdependent crimes that he did not desire nor intend but accepts responsibility for the whole sequence of action as a unitary process fully his.10 Macbeth feels a powerful motivation and clearly enough commits his crime, but it is only in facing death that he manages to grasp as one the desire and the deed, although he tries desperately all along to do so. He cannot fully manifest intention because it implies a seemingly impossible transition from the one level of reality to the other. The witches, in their existence between worlds, provide a mocking substitute for intention, and Lady Macbeth insists upon her own intentions too quickly without comprehending the nature of the deed to the extent that her husband does. To carry Kenneth Burke's notion of imaginative crime a step further, Macbeth commits his crime as a symbolic extension of imagining it. That is, imagining it, and knowing that he imagines it, he must enact it in order for his inner life to be real, to body forth. But this approach, which should be appropriate, cannot accommodate the practical reality of the deed in itself and the extraordinary range of its effects. His symbol is somebody else's life. It is the conjunction between these two perspectives that then comes to feel unnatural: that we must live subjectively and objectively at once. Because the reality which results is so ghastly, and because Macbeth must know that it is, life reveals itself to him, inevitably, as a tale told by an idiot. The given terms cannot work, not the way they are given, and it is the business of tragedy to carry them where they will lead simply as they are.

Whatever else Oedipus and Macbeth are “about,” they both focus centrally and firmly on the phenomenon of consequence: how events, feelings and predicaments relate to one another, how an experience is to be defined by implications that are not purely experiential. Both plays emphasize, however, not merely the phenomenon of consequence but the consciousness of consequence. Just as Othello is not essentially about jealousy or Macbeth about ambition, so Oedipus is not about committing parricide and incest but about discovering that one has committed them. In his more prolonged agony of awareness, Macbeth watches deeds flowing out of him and struggles to grasp the fact that they are his life and will be his death. What is clear to everyone logically, what he himself certainly has always known objectively—that what we do affects other people and what we do to others affects us too—is a new fact discovered for the first time with real meaning. And this is difficult to learn especially because it comes now hard upon the other subjective truth which has also been seen for the first time: there is no contact between crime and punishment (or, as Macbeth has discovered earlier, between achievement and reward) because crime is an action and punishment is meaningful only as a state of being. It is inevitable that the inner man resist the hostile order of external reality, which has nothing to do with his frustrations, achievements and fantasies. To this extent, we get the impression that Macbeth as well as Oedipus is appallingly innocent, a fact that helps to trap us into our tragic participation with both of them. They cannot really have done anything at all. Unlike Richard III and Iago, they are innocent most in the shock of confronting their guilt; the guilt does not seem to have anything, actually, to do with them. And of course, at the same time, they are utterly, hopelessly guilty and must know—as Jocasta and Lady Macbeth cannot bear to know—the full significance of the deeds they have performed.

Many factors contribute to the environment of consciousness in Macbeth. A rhetoric of question, exclamation and the subjunctive consolidates the sensation of a mind confronting its reality. Kenneth Muir has discussed a peculiar detachment in Macbeth's mentality: “Macbeth observes the functioning of his own organs with a strange objectivity: in particular, he speaks of his hand almost as though it had an independent existence of its own.”11 But what is most important about this quality is an anxious or a startled tone, and the degree of pain:

What hands are here? Ha! they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnidine,
Making the green one red.

(II, ii, 58-62)

There is a recurrent motif, which John Holloway has pointed out, that develops the image of Macbeth as the “bloody man” who himself creates “strange images of death” (I, iii, 97),12 so that a sense of imagistic reality proliferates in fantasies, apparitions and hallucinations of what is desired, dreaded, promised or doomed and of what has taken place beyond either expectation or the will. The mind must come to grips with what is beyond it through images of what is out there. Images of the world in the mind—how do they relate the mind to the world?—the daggers, the blood, the ghosts, the witches themselves, the dreams one must entertain, and even one's words spoken to others:

from this instant,
There's nothing serious in mortality;
All is but toys: renown, and grace, is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.

(II, iii, 92-96)

Does the horror belong to the thing or to the mind? Lady Macbeth's rational theory, that blood is as material as water, will not work. Macbeth wades heavily through the deepening blood, as it were, but worse, he wades through images of blood. When Richard II loses his title, he loses his name, his face, his identity and his life. When Macbeth pursues “the deed without a name,” he enters uncharted territories. But this world of the demonic unconscious has a plutonic store of its own symbols, with its own logic to their coherence. A dream that disintegrates is a nightmare.

The play's obsession with sleep thickens the texture of consciousness with particularly intense overtones. The doom of sleeplessness, the desperation for sleep and the terror of it, the merger of the two finally in the image of sleepwalking, and constant reminders of the sleep of death, a sleep which one cannot stop dreaming about awake or asleep and which itself promises the worst of dreams—all keep the mind churning in the turmoil of its own nature.

The nightmare quality of the play, the waking nightmare of sleeplessness, has been described forcefully by Jan Kott. It is an environment constructed of the most demanding kind of logic:

Macbeth has killed the king, because he could not accept a Macbeth who would be afraid to kill a king. But Macbeth, who has killed, cannot accept the Macbeth who has killed. Macbeth has killed in order to get rid of a nightmare. But it is the necessity of murder that makes the nightmare. A nightmare is terrifying just because it has no end. … In a bad dream we are, and are not, ourselves, at the same time. We cannot accept ourselves, for to accept oneself would mean accepting nightmare for reality, to admit that there is nothing but nightmare, that night is not followed by day.

(pp. 74-75)

After the bitter-sweetness of yielding to oneself comes the horror that one's self can betray one's own ultimate interests: “The most dreadful thing about ‘Necessity’ is that we seem after all to have co-operated in its working” (Leech, p. 42). The nightmare is the realization that one desires it, but also the realization of what it is that one desires. Macbeth is a meaningful nightmare, in a sense that a real nightmare cannot be, because it confronts the capacity for atrocity, for making life horrible, as a very human phenomenon. It is profoundly disturbing because the trap it projects is the trap of human nature, not the eccentricity of a criminal psychopath but our necessity, our fascination, our continual potentiality.

Appreciating the nightmare quality of this play leads to two different kinds of implication. The first concerns character ontology and stylization; the second, the relation of tragedy to morality. Within the play, first of all, we witness Macbeth's nightmare, but the play itself is ours. It is useful to think of Macbeth metaphorically, as a man who has caught himself in a nightmare of his own projection, but it is also useful to see him as an image in the dream that we are projecting. As such, he is an image extending and capturing our individuated sense of self, while the other characters are images of the world of men that we become trapped in: “It is … the audience which dreams, while the artist oversees the conditions which determine this dream.”13 Even Lady Macbeth serves primarily to express her husband's state of mind. She is, like the witches, a variation on the femme fatale (taking the term quite literally), externalizing his tragic anxiety. Her notorious “I have given suck …” does not have to be fully tenable in terms of character psychology. It is properly as monstrous as the witches’ recipe and almost as lurid, not quite as bizarre.

Yet to call the play a nightmare is not to assume—as an experimental producer might like to pretend—that Shakespeare is managing to portray the actual nightmare within a man's mind. Shakespeare's stylized dramaturgy leads him to cultivate techniques and effects that are related to those of a nightmare because they come partly from the same source and do so partly for the same reasons. We do not really believe, of course, that we are having a nightmare; we know that we are having a play. But the life of it all and its thrust of significance come in that climate of sickening terror and heartache constructed necessarily out of the situation's own impossible but life-like logic. It is important that we are having a nightmare-like experience.

The nightmarish quality of Macbeth intensifies one aspect of the usual tragic emotion, but this point can be appreciated only if the nightmare is treated with due respect as a valid experience in its own terms. In a nightmare, we sense we are caught because there is a rightness to our being there. At no point is Macbeth's consciousness, however, a moral one in any ordinary sense of the word; nor does the ultimate consciousness of the play maintain the righteousness of morality, although it contains many characters who do. Our kind of identification with Macbeth has no ethical or political implications for us more dangerous than those of a dream.

Our experience of Macbeth's reality which provides the dominant perspective of the play, is entirely psychological, and only because it is so is it tragic. In this process of symbolic participation, as we imagine Macbeth's consciousness, we are led finally to integrate the subjective and the objective realms of truth. We do so through the self's expanding consciousness of its own capacities for atrocity. What is done in blood is known in pain. What we are left with is not remorse, exactly, a fact that must and should disturb the moralists; it is a regret beyond repentance because it is a regret, we can say, for the way things are. We can call it guilt only if we grant it a kind of inevitability. The trap Macbeth is caught in, the predicament of Claudius also and Angelo (in Measure for Measure) reveals a certain integrity that Shakespeare understood with extraordinary fairness. All three of these characters see objectively that they have fallen into chaos out of their own desires, yet they cannot free themselves by self-knowledge. Being conscious of their actions, they are all the more aware that their desires were genuine and, moreover, that they genuinely still persist. They remain with a consciousness that consciousness itself is impotent, even though it is the ultimate and the fundamental level of experience.

Thus it is irrelevant to suggest that it all could have been otherwise. And without alternatives, what morality? The witches alone protect the tragedy against such a reading. They are not merely prophets or disinterested minor deities; nor are they merely instigators of action. They are a dramatic and symbolic mechanism which both triggers and intensifies the process of the play by eliciting what is potential and bringing it into play—in other words, by helping to dramatize it. There is an obvious sinister air about them because they are designed for a tragic drama, to provoke and mirror tragic reality. As overture, as leitmotif, as chorus, and as characters too, the witches project a world in which malignancy has an absolute part to play. Their Wyrd is weird with magnetic grotesquerie, for like the oracle of Oedipus, their prophecy is naturally self-fulfilling, with an irony that penetrates the darker mysteries.14

The drive of a tragedy beyond itself is not toward one kind of action or another but toward an understanding that has to be valued for its own sake. Action may seem, as a result, easier, harder or irrelevant, but it is not tragedy's function to make choices for us. As far as we can speak discursively about this play's implications, we can propose that they concern, in part, the validity of self-control, noting that self-control is the basis not just for ethics but for civilization in the broadest sense, as the possibility of two or more people having anything to do with each other. Is control, at any rate, virtuous or expedient? We have assumed the first, we come to suspect the second, but we must move on to a third position that can be stated, perhaps, only by negation, in the dramatic manner, raising the usual alternatives and opposing them to each other so that they both can be dispelled.

When the mind is accustomed to control, the awakened rejection of control promises chaos. The unconscious mind is dangerously enlivening. On the other hand, therefore, we are likely to insist that control is not merely expedient, for we must all wish devoutly that life be honestly livable, with value if not perhaps with meaning, in ways that we can choose to have it and try to make it. Yet control is not exactly noble; it deceives us grossly into illusions about who we are, and it makes us righteous. Tragic consciousness implies an all-important conception of responsibility, but this is a factual acknowledgment of causes and effects, and it derives from emotions and a sense of natural human vulnerability rather than from moral categories. The continuity that has been invisible is discovered finally in anguish and death. There is no reward: what has to be understood can be seen only after the point is reached where understanding may be useless. If we wish to call the position we have reached tragic morality, we can do so now, if we remember that, as far as tragedy needs to go, there is a bitterness, as well as a regret, for the way things are. The term “morality” itself may be too much of a reward.

There is, to be sure, morality of the best conventional sort within Macbeth. The full structure of the play includes a tension between moral and tragic values, similar to the tension between chorus and hero that is common in Greek drama. As different as Macduff's and Malcolm's values are from Octavius Caesar’s, in terms of tragic structure they are parallel, rejecting the dangerous hubris of the heroes. In both instances, we are offered values that make life more clearly livable. In Antony and Cleopatra, the values are pragmatic and political, while in Macbeth they are humane. The Romans’ decency is insincere, a disgust with organic life; the Scotsmen's is genuinely social and compassionate. In both plays, however, these values are subsumed by a tragic truth through psychological processes that, being dramatic, provide the real lifeblood of the play.

Cawdor's death and that of Young Siwarde clearly call for contrast with Macbeth's as models of honorable manhood at the utterance, but it is not relevant to say, from outside the play, that their deaths are “better” than his. It can be relevant to the tragic organism only that theirs are not tragic deaths. The images of shrinkage, toward the end of the play, are said to emphasize Macbeth's complete moral deterioration:15 “now does he feel his title / Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe / Upon a dwarfish thief” (V, iii, 20-22). But it is too easy to moralize imagery. Such figures do not provide objective description so much as a subjective sense of devastation. They contribute to the nightmare quality and their effect is, paradoxically, colossal. We should not confuse feeling small with being small in character. Every tragic hero comes to a sense of his absolute impotence, and his dramatic stature depends partly upon the horror with which he perceives it.

The many good people in this play provide obvious background for the two figures who are isolated amidst them and thrashing about in the nightmare. In Hamlet most of the characters are at best middling honest, but Macbeth is the contrary of Hamlet, being in a sense Claudius’ play. Here, in fact, “the world” of other people functions collectively as an idyllic milieu, or as a poetic nuance to the main ordeal. They all extend Banquo's image of the nesting martlets into the wistful tragic if: if only life were that clear and simple in all. But because life is not that clear and simple (the tragic but …, they make up dramatically, as a group of characters, the weakest society in the great tragedies.16 We are very glad that these good people are there and that they really are good, but we are often impatient to be done with them. Whether they are helpless or triumphant there is an uncomfortable feeling of smallness about them. It is they who are diminished by the power of the ravaging tragedy. The political alternative they provide to the reign of Macbeth is overwhelmingly preferable, but we may still feel a slight anticlimax in their success. Some such let-down occurs, to a lesser degree, at the end of the other major tragedies too, in the return to “normal order” that is usually said to be so reassuring. Perhaps, while we sense that the world is made more substantial and meaningful by the hero's ordeal, there is a part of us that resents any one else getting benefit from his destruction. In Lear, Edgar makes the effect explicit with that final short speech.

The moral perspective resists tragedy and would control it, but it enters into the tragic complex of awareness in spite of itself. It is tragic that direct passion does not solve the problem of identity but it is tragic also that morality cannot solve it either. The way of feelings, which enlivens us in the present within our own skins, makes us both frail and monstrous, even if it also enables us to be loving and robust. The effort to make life decent avoids the complexities of human nature as a phenomenon that has to be known in process and in self-contradiction, even if it also bestows a cogent semblance of meaning and a hopeful sense of community. In tragedy, the only solution—or rather, resolution—can come through tragedy, through the quality of realization which accepts what is unpleasant about life without presuppositions and judgments, without effort and without defense, allowing fears to be fearful and problems to be problematic so that the image of the human state achieves the fullest, most stable, and, if understood, the most incontrovertible clarity. Both hopes and fears are laid aside, as the objective and the subjective become one.


  1. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (New York, 1957), p. 41.

  2. Macbeth (The Arden Shakespeare) ed. Kenneth Muir (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), I, vii, 35-45.

  3. Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (London, 1967), p. 73.

  4. A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns (London, 1971), pp. 214, 215, 221.

  5. Clifford Leech, Tragedy (London, 1969), p. 33.

  6. See Rossiter, pp. 233ff.

  7. T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men,” in Collected Poems 1909-1935 (New York, 1952), p. 59.

  8. See M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London, 1965) pp. 131-36.

  9. King Lear (The Arden Shakespeare) ed. Kenneth Muir (Cambridge, Mass.,1959),I,iii, 323-26.

  10. A point made by Hegel, distinguishing between the actual “deed” and the total “action.” See Walter Kaufman, Tragedy and Philosophy (New York, 1968), pp. 245ff.

  11. Kenneth Muir, “Introduction” to the Arden Macbeth, p. xxxi.

  12. John Holloway, The Story of the Night (London, 1961), p. 58.

  13. Kenneth Burke, Counterstatement (Chicago, 1957), p. 36.

  14. Puck provides the same paradox in a comic vein, proclaiming “what fools these mortals be” after he himself has caused their confusion. He elicits thereby a comic awareness of the natural absurdity of humans, especially where love is concerned.

  15. See, for example, D.A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare (New York, 1956), pp. 180ff., and Cleanth Brooks, “The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness,” in The Well Wrought Urn (New York, 1947), especially p. 33.

  16. Banquo is more interestingly problematic than the others, since he experiences some temptation and is troubled by it. But, of course, he is easily disposed of, proving most powerful as a ghost.


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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.

Mathew Winston (essay date 1981)

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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 been based on an oversimplification of the drama which preceded Shakespeare, and morality concepts have too often been applied in a reductionist fashion. Finally, theater historians who take this approach tend to restrict the application of their own methodology to a very narrow range. For example, Edmund Creeth insists in Mankynde in Shakespeare that the parallels he finds with medieval drama are valid for only three of Shakespeare's plays, Othello, Lear, and Macbeth, and Bernard Spivack, who establishes at length in Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil that lago derives from the morality Vice, completely ignores Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure, the plays that immediately surround Othello.

Any attempt to trace remnants of early Tudor drama in Shakespeare's plays encounters three problems that ought to be acknowledged immediately. First, it is impossible to prove what overtones are actually present; all we can do is accumulate a mosaic of supportive, but never conclusive, evidence. Second, these conventions and expectations are fluid; they are used somewhat differently in every play, and they change considerably over a period of time. Third, this line of investigation is delicate and suggestive, and one must be careful not to schematize a play so treated into Christian allegory or crude didacticism. Indeed, one need not, and usually should not, claim that the entire play is dominated by this frame of reference, which may be used at intervals and ignored elsewhere.2

Measure for Measure is partly shaped by the dramatic conventions of the morality play. By this statement, I do not mean that the play is an allegory, or, as Roy Battenhouse would have it, that it is “a parable of the Atonement,” nor do I agree with G. Wilson Knight that it is “a parable, like the parables of Jesus.”3 I do contend that because Shakespeare's audience was demonstrably familiar with these conventions, which influenced their theatrical experience, they would have perceived in the relation between Lucio and Duke Vincentio elements of the struggle between the morality Vice and the beneficent force which oppose him; consequently, some of the “problematic” aspects of the play would have been less puzzling to them than they are to us.

Modern critics have long been troubled by the speech with which Duke Vincentio ends Act III of Measure for Measure:

He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe:
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand, and virtue, go:
More nor less to others paying
Than by self-offences weighing.
Shame to him whose cruel striking
Kills for faults of his own liking!
Twice treble shame on Angelo,
To weed my vice, and let his grow!
O, what may man within him hide,
Though angel on the outward side!
How may likeness made in crimes,
Making practice on the times
To draw with idle spiders’ strings
Most ponderous and substantial things!
Craft against vice I must apply.
With Angelo tonight shall lie
His old betrothed, but despised:
So disguise shall by th’disguised
Pay with falsehood false exacting,
And perform an old contracting.


William Empson calls this a “very obscure piece of doggerel,”5 and several critics have argued that it was not written by Shakespeare.6 Be that as it may, the speech is distinctly odd. It is anachronistic and out of keeping with the tone of the preceding acts. The Duke presumably steps to the front of the stage to address the audience directly and to announce his plans, as he continues to do later in the play: “By cold gradation and well-balanced form, / We shall proceed with Angelo” (IV.iii.99-100). It is not a normal soliloquy in that it does not reveal a developing process of thought. Last but not least, this is the only point in Measure for Measure where anyone speaks rhymed tetrameter or four-stress couplets.

For Shakespeare's audience, both the form and the content of this speech would relate it, the Duke, and his actions to the morality drama. The verse form is used again and again in morality plays. Even more telling is its occurrence in the play of Sir Thomas More, for which Shakespeare was partly responsible. In Sir Thomas More, the traveling actors who entertain More's household with a morality play called “The Mariage of Witt and Wisedome” speak such verse, which a playwright of the 1590s apparently considered typical of the crude drama at the beginning of the century.

In his speech, Duke Vincentio associates himself with the forces that are opposed to vice, with “grace” and “virtue,” and he announces, “Craft against vice I must apply.” The vice he is speaking about directly is that of Angelo, whose viciousness dominates the main plot. The Duke also refers to “my vice,” apparently the vice that is rampant in Vienna, but perhaps hinting as well at some correspondence between the disordered state and its ruler.

Ultimately, his words pertain to any and all vice. To understand this, it is necessary to turn to the seemingly self-contradictory character of Lucio. Lucio indulges in licentiousness and is a witty advocate of it, helps and betrays (himself among others), is a compassionate friend and a malicious slanderer, and is the only character besides the Duke to move through all segments of society. He gives pleasure to the audience, but he is also a figure of iniquity, ambivalence, and excessive liberty. Because of these traits, he functions in the play both as a comic embodiment of vice and as a remnant of the old character known as “the Vice.”

In this most clear-cut form, the Vice is a distinctive type in the Tudor morality play. Some twenty Tudor plays label a single character “the Vice,” either in the cast of characters or in the stage directions.7 His part is always a large one; in the cast divisions that accompany the texts of many early Tudor plays, only the actors playing the protagonist and the Vice do not take on multiple roles. The Vice is frequently a comic assistant of the devil. He tends to speak rhymed nonsense, and he takes pleasure in twisting people's words to other meanings, just as he delights in causing confusion and in leading fools and clowns to quarrel with one another. He is also a master of ceremonies who introduces the actors, who keeps the audience apprised of what is going on, who tells us exactly what he is doing, who jokes with the audience, and who is never disconcerted, even if, at the end of the play, he is hanged or is carried off to Hell on the devil's back. His stock property is a wooden dagger, which he waves about with great abandon.

The meaning and origins of the Vice are still much debated. His name suggests that he may be a coalescence of the allegorized vices of medieval drama, and he does often play the role of tempter. At the same time, the Vice may be a harmless prankster, as are the first two characters to be labeled “the Vice”: Merry Report in John Heywood's Play of the Weather and, in Heywood's Play of Love, the character “Neither Lover nor Loved.” Most theater historians believe that by Shakespeare's time the descendent of the Vice had become either a comic entertainer or a villainous tempter. The former is clearly the case with Dikkon the Bedlam in Gammer Gurton's Needle and with Matthew Merrygreek in Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister, or, to turn to Shakespeare, with Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Feste in Twelfth Night, both of whom are explicitly associated with the Vice. The Vice turned villain may be illustrated by Shakespeare's Richard III and by Iago.

It is misleading, however, to assume that the Vice must be either harmless or diabolically evil. “The Vice” appears to be an actor's term rather than a moralist’s, one more apt to appear as a label in the cast of characters than within the play itself. It is very likely derived from the Latin vicis, meaning a change or turn, as in the phrase vice versa.8 This derivation of the Vice's name helps us to see that his chief characteristic is his changeability. Indeed, I suggest that the Vice developed within an allegorical framework precisely as a way of presenting psychological or moral ambivalence in a dramatic form that had not yet learned to internalize complexities of character.9 We see these features in John Pikeryng's Interlude of Vice (Horestes), in which the Vice at different times calls himself “Patience.” “Courage,” and “Revenge,” qualities which may be used with good or ill intent.

The Vice's dual affinity is clearly maintained in Shakespeare's work by Falstaff. In 1 Henry IV, Prince Hal, playing the role of his father, calls Falstaff “that reverend Vice, that grey Iniquity” (II.iv.453-54). Readers and theatergoers today usually do not notice that Falstaff himself has already made the same identification some three hundred lines earlier when he threatens Hal to “beat thee out of thy kingdom with a dagger of lath” (II.iv.136-37), which is the traditional weapon and slapstick of the Vice. This casual reference reveals a good deal about Shakespeare's audience, for Shakespeare obviously expected his public to understand the allusion even before the word “Vice” was spoken.

Prince Hall calls the Vice “Iniquity.” Similarly, while picking up on a different trait of the old Vice, Gloucester in Richard III tells us in an aside, “Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity, / I moralize two meanings in one word” (III.i.82-83). The Vices in only two surviving plays of the Tudor period have the name Iniquity, in Nice Wanton and King Darius, but it appears to have been common. Iniquity is the name of the Vice in Ben Jonson's The Devil Is an Ass, and Jonson's Epigram 115, “On the Townes honest Man,” speaks of someone who, “Being no vitious person, but the vice / About the towne … Acts old Iniquitie.10 And in Thomas Dekker's Old Fortunatus, when one character insults another by calling him a “Vice,” he receives the retort, “Most true, my little leane Iniquitte” (I.ii.93).11 The words “iniquity” and “vice” were more or less synonymous, and it is often impossible to tell in Renaissance literature when they are abstract nouns and when allegorical or quasi-allegorical characterizations. We cannot be sure which is the case when the Prologue to the play within Sir Thomas More laments, “Vice dooth encrease, and vertue decayes, / Iniquitie having the upper hand” (ix or IV.i).12 Or, if we turn to a work which, like Measure for Measure, is concerned with a man trying to force a woman sexually, Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece, we find Lucrece making such pointed observations as “what virtue breeds iniquity devours” (l. 872) and “sparing justice feeds iniquity” (l. 1687).

Lucio is not Iniquity per se, but his character is related to a dramatic treatment of allegorized Iniquity that was flexible and continually changing. Usually, Iniquity was the Vice, the devil's henchman. At times, Old Iniquity was equated with the devil himself, who still bears the name Old Nick. The two figures could fuse: shortly after Hal calls Falstaff a “reverend Vice,” the prince dubs him a “white-bearded Sathan” (II.iv.463).13 And Iniquity could also be a separate companion of both devil and Vice, as he is in Histriomastix. All variants were possible. Ben Jonson was particularly aware of changes in the stage Vice when he resurrected that figure in 1616 in The Devil Is an Ass and had Satan explain that “fifty yeeres agone, and six” had been a time “when every great man had his Vice stand by him, / In his long coat, shaking his wooden dagger” (I.i.83-85); but now, according to Satan, what is needed is “a Vice of quality, / Or fashion” (I.i.111-12).14 And Jonson modernized the Vice still further in The Staple of News when Tattle complains that the play lacks a proper Vice and Mirth responds, “That was the old way, Gossip, when Iniquity came in like Hokos Pokos, in a Juglers jerkin, with false skirts, like the Knave of Clubs! but now they are attir’d like men and women o’ the time, the Vices, male and female!” (Intermean following Act II).15

Alan Dessen has skillfully used these reference points from Jonson in his book Jonson's Moral Comedy to show the continuity of the morality tradition into the plays of Jonson and especially to demonstrate how in what he calls the “estates morality” “the Vice emerges not as the tempter of Mankind … but rather as a dramatic symbol for the attitude or force within the kingdom which the dramatist wishes to single out as a basic cause of contemporary evils” (p. 16). This is precisely the function of Lucio in Measure for Measure.

Who or what is Lucio? The cast of characters (“names of all the Actors”) calls him “a fantastique,” which label has never been explained satisfactorily. Fantastic had the same meaning in Shakespeare's time as the word does today, but it also meant a “fop.” More precisely, fantastic could mean foolishly overdressed, as in Sir Thomas Overbury's character of “A Phantastique,” which is subheaded “An Improvident Young Gallant” and begins, “There is a confederacy betweene him and his Clothes, to be made a puppy.”16 The same sense is contained in the comments of the country folk in The Winter's Tale on Autolycus, who is dressed in Prince Florizel's clothing:

His garments are rich, but he wears them not handsomely.
He seems to be the more noble in being fantastical.


Nothing in the text of Measure for Measure directs us to Lucio's clothing, although his bawdy exchange with the First Gentleman in I.ii about “French velvet” does point in that direction. Certainly, gaudy clothing would be in keeping with the presentation of Lucio as “one of the dissipated young men … who were wasting their fortunes and ruining their health in the vices of the Bankside.”17 More to the point, however, a fantastically and foolishly overdressed Lucio would be associated with one of the most common dramatic manifestations of corruption by worldly temptation. Beginning with The Castle of Perseverance and Mankind (with its allegorical character of New-Guise, the Vice's assistant) and continuing into Shakespeare's time, the protagonist's yielding to temptation is repeatedly represented by his donning elaborate and costly clothing, which is often provided by a similarly-attired tempter. There can be no doubt that Shakespeare and his audience were familiar with plays such as Ulpian Fulwell's Like Will to Like, Quod the Devil to the Collier, of the 1560s, wherein the character labeled “Nichol Newfangle the Vice” is instructed by his godfather, Lucifer, “pride through new fashions in men's hearts to sow” (l. 105).18

A suggestive association of Lucio's appearance and behavior with that of the Vice is found in a text which Geoffrey Bullough calls an “analogue” of Measure for Measure but which may well be one of Shakespeare's sources. In Barnaby Riche's The Adventures of Brusanus, Prince of Hungary, Lucio has a counterpart in the vain and elaborately-clad courtier Gloriosus, who boasts of his intimacy with the king and then falsely accuses his disguised monarch; Gloriosus is described as having “his beard cut peecke a devaunt, turnde uppe a little, like the vice of a playe.”19

The name of Lucio recalls that of Lucifer, and the crime for which Lucio is punished at the play's conclusion, slander, may remind us that the devil is the prince of lies, or even that the word diabolos means “slanderer.”20 Again we may turn to Falstaff, this time to the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor, who is described as “one that is as slanderous as Sathan” (V.v.155). As a slanderer, Lucio finds himself in the company of such characters as Backbiter (or Detraccio) in The Castle of Perseverance, who is the messenger of the allegorical character of The World, and of the Vice in Thomas Garter's Comedy of the Most Virtuous and Godly Susanna, who is alternately named Ill Report and Evil Report. The horror with which slander was perceived at the time becomes clear when we think of Spenser's Blatant Beast or of how Imogen suffers in Cymbeline from what Pisanio calls “slander, / whose edge is sharper than the sword, whose tongue / Outvenoms all the worms of Nile” (III.iv.33-35). More immediately, we may note the rhymed soliloquy of Duke Vincentio which precedes his “craft against vice” speech:

No might nor greatness in mortality
Can censure ’scape. Back-wounding calumny
The whitest virtue strikes. What king so strong
Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?


Lucio slanders his Duke. He is always ready to make a bawdy joke about anyone, whether it be Mistress Overdone, Mariana, or the Duke. He has foresworn in court the paternity of an illegitimate child he begot on a whore. He casually abandons Pompey to imprisonment, not only refusing to bail him out but actually praying “to increase [his] bondage” (III.ii.72). And he apparently informs against Mistress Overdone.

His last negative action, if one may call it that, is his incessant interruption of Duke Vincentio and of Escalus as they attempt to dispense justice in Act V. However delightful we may find Lucio's interspersed comments, and however useful a corrective they may be to the Duke's ponderousness, they are typical of the Vice.21 Falstaff similarly interrupts King Henry IV with a bantering joke when Henry is interrogating the rebellious Worcester in the last act of 1 Henry IV, and Falstaff is silenced by Hal's “Peace, chewet, peace!” (V.i.29). And the morality play All for Money contains the stage direction: “Here the Vice shall turn the proclamation to some contrary sense every time All-for-Money hath read it” (following l. 908).22 As Robert Weimann has noted, it is characteristic of the Vice to be “impertinent (both in the derived sense of ‘cheeky’ and literally not pertinent to the matter at hand.)”23

When Lucio pulls the hood off the “Friar” and knows he has been found out, he attempts to sneak away, as does many a Vice in a tight spot.24 When the Duke accuses him of slander, Lucio replies that he “spoke it but according to the trick” (V.i.502-03), which is usually glossed as “fashion” or “custom.” Although the word “trick” is used in several senses in the play—sexually by Claudio (III.i.113) and, curiously, in the phrase “fantastic tricks” by Isabella (II.ii.122) and “fantastical trick” by Lucio (III.ii.89)—its appearance here fits in with Lucio's earlier remarks about “a game of tick-tack” and about the Duke's having “some feeling of the sport” (I.ii.180-81, III.ii.115-16, italics mine). Trick, game, and sport are the traditional pleasures of the vices; to cite but a few examples, those in Mankind announce “I am cumme hedyr to make yow game” and speak of “sporte” and “mery chere” (II. 69, 78, 81),25 and Sedicyon in John Bale's Kyng Johan says, “I cam hyther to be merye” (I.47) and asks, “Is not thys a sport?” (II.565).26

Through his trickery, Lucio gives pleasure to the audience. He is not entirely wicked or altogether mischievous. He does some good in the course of the play, but that is consistent with the morally ambiguous nature of even the more old-fashioned and clearly-labeled Vices, who, as I said, could be as much comic entertainers as villainous tempters and who could help as well as hinder. This bifurcation is found in the names of some of the Vices: Subtle Shift in Clyomon and Clamydes, Haphazard in Apius and Virginia, and, in Thomas Preston's Cambyses, the Vice who introduces himself: “My name is Ambidexter. I signify one / That with both hands finely can play” (ii.25-26).27 We see it in the Vice of G. Wapull's The Tide Tarrieth No Man, who announces, “Thus you may see Courage contagious / And eke contrarious—both in me do rest, / For I, of kind, am always various / And change as to my mind seemeth best” (ll. 640-43).28 Or we may look to the Vice who is the title character of Common Conditions and who tells us he is “Neere kinde to dame fortune to raise and to let fall” (l. 166).29 Duplicitous Fortune appears in person in a late morality play. The Contention between Liberality and Prodigality, which was performed before Queen Elizabeth in 1600 and in which the allegorical figure of Virtue remarks to a character named Equity, “Fortune's hold is tickle; / She bears a double face, disguised, false and fickle” (I.iii).30

Lucio also has a double face; for example, he denounces the Duke to the Friar and the Friar to the Duke. And duplicity of language or action is always associated with evil. Within English drama, one can find evidence as far back as Pilate in the Townley play of The Conspiracy:

For I am he that may make or mar a man;
Myself if I it say, as men of cowrte now can,
Supporte a man to day, to-morn agans hym than,
On both parties thus I play.


But Lucio's doubleness is of a rather unusual kind. It is not the overt disguise of the many morality vices who pretend to be virtues in order to entrap their victims, nor is it the duplicity of Gloucester in Richard III or of Iago in Othello, who ironically asks the audience:

How am I then a villain,
To counsel Cassio to this parallel course,
Directly to his good? Divinity of Hell!
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now.


In Macbeth, such duplicity takes the form that Macbeth finally recognizes as “th's equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth” (V.v.42-43), and he later cries out in dismay:

And be these juggling fiends no more believ’d,
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope.


As late as Shakespeare's Henry VIII, Queen Katherine comments about the dead Cardinal Wolsey: “I’ th’ presence / He would say untruths, and be ever double / Both in his words and meaning” (IV.ii.37-39). And the equation of doubleness with evil by no means ends with Shakespeare; in Milton's Paradise Regained, Jesus tells Satan: “That hath been thy craft, / By mixing somewhat true to vent more lies. / But what have been thy answers, what but dark, / Ambiguous and with double sense deluding?” (I.432-35).32

Lucio is not a conscious initiator of evil. Rather, he belongs with those who place their own pleasures above the well-being of others. In this respect, he resembles Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well, who is dubbed “a double-meaning prophesier” (IV.iii.99-100), a “damnable both-sides rogue” (IV.iii.222), and “an equivocal companion” (V.iii.250). He belongs to a type that Phillip Stubbes refers to in his Anatomie of Abuses as “doble dealing ambodexters,”33 like Cambyses’ Vice Ambidexter, who plays with both hands, or like the Vice Subtle Shift in Clyomon and Clamydes, who tells us, “Well, such shifting knaves as I am, the Ambodexter must play, / And for commoditie serve every man, whatsoever the world say” (ll. 633-34).34 The Vice and the Ambidexter are identified in The Tragedy of Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany when a bishop chooses to play the jester in a planned revelry, and Prince Edward of England remarks: “O excellent! Is your Holiness the Vice? / Fortune hath fitted you, i’ faith, my lord; / You’ll play the Ambidexter cunningly” (II.ii.48-50).35 Lucio has a distinct resemblance to the “lewd Servaunt Ambidexter” who is opposed to the faithful servant Fidus in George Gascoigne's The Glasse of Government (V.ii).36 He belongs in the class of those who, as Robert Burton says in The Anatomy of Melancholy:

… are good with good, bad with bad. When they are at Rome, they do there as they see done, Puritans with Puritans, Papists with Papists, all things to all men, Formalists, Ambidexters, lukewarm Laodiceans. All their study is to please, and their god is their commodity, their labour to satisfy their lusts, and their endeavours to their own ends.37

For Shakespeare's audience, Lucio would fit the pattern of just such an ambidexter. He helps and betrays, slanders the Duke to Friar Lodowick and then defames the Friar to the Duke. He is, in the words of the Porter in Macbeth which are singularly appropriate to Measure for Measure, “an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale” (II.iii.8-9). Such ambivalence is in keeping with Lucio's Vice-ancestry. It is also in keeping with the many moral ambiguities of Measure for Measure, where characters are continually forced to make difficult decisions, where Escalus observes that “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” (II.i.38), Elbow confuses male-factors with “benefactors” (II.i.50), Isabella finds herself “At war ’twist will and will not” (II.ii.33), and Angelo notes that “we would, and we would not” (IV.iv.32). The scope of this essay does not permit a full exploration of the multiple ambivalences of Measure for Measure, but they were already hinted at in an essay Walter Pater published in 1874:

… traces of the old “morality,” that early form of dramatic composition which had for its function the inculcating of some moral theme, survive in it also, and give it a peculiar ethical interest. … The old “moralities” exemplified most often some rough-and-ready lesson. Here the very intricacy and subtlety of the moral world itself, the difficulty of seizing the true relations of so complex a material, the difficulty of just judgment, of judgment that shall not be unjust, are the lessons conveyed.38

Whatever malice may lie in Lucio, he does have compassion for the hapless Claudio. Lucio's beneficial action in Measure for Measure is to bring Isabella to Angelo and urge her on to save her brother's life. But even in this episode (II.ii), his interspersed comments contain more than a suggestion of the sexual—“You are too cold”; “To him”; “Ay, touch him: there's the vein”—which is consistent with the Vice's love of bawdry, of obscene puns, and of verbal equivocation; these interruptions have the same rhythm as his interjections in the trial scene of Act V, where the bawdy double entendres are on the surface. Moreover, although Lucio is unaware of it, he is helping to inspire Angelo's lust for Isabel. The same action was performed consciously by a willing henchman of a corrupt judge in George Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra, which was one of Shakespeare's sources. Ambidexter acts similarly in Cambyses when he sets up an incestuous marriage between the king and the king's initially unwilling cousin. An even closer prototype is found in Apius and Virginia, where an appropriately ambivalent Vice named Haphazard, who tells us “Sometime I advaunce them, sometime I destroy” (l. 194)39 and who is given to speaking in four-stress rhymed couplets, encourages Judge Apius to detain Virginia under false pretenses and then to rape her.

Shakespeare may or may not have known Apius and Virginia and the other morality plays I cite. The “sources,” as we traditionally think of them, are irrelevant here. What is important is to establish the context in which Shakespeare and his audience viewed this play, which included earlier dramas—of which many are now doubtless lost—in which personified Iniquity, or a more humanized character who retains an association with his Vice-antecedent, corrupts a judge, sometimes via sexual temptation and sometimes not. Indeed, all the many Renaissance plays which use a trial scene to raise questions about just and unjust judgment are in the background of Measure for Measure.

One should not load too much opprobrium on Lucio, who does not knowingly participate in Angelo's sexual blackmail of Isabella.40 When the Duke talks about the vice against which he must apply his craft, he refers not to Lucio but to Angelo. Moreover, on the one occasion in Measure for Measure when the word “inquity” is used, it is not about Lucio but about Pompey, who has been brought before Escalus by the simple-minded and malapropistic constable Elbow; Escalus ironically allegorizes both and asks, “Which is the wiser here, Justice or Iniquity?” (II.i.169).

In other words, although Lucio is associated with the Vice Iniquity, he is not a personification of pure evil. If one were to allegorize him (as Shakespeare does not), it might be under the name of Liberty—in the sense in which the character of Lyberte describes himself in John Skelton's Magnyfycence:

Thus totum in toto groweth up, as ye may se,
By meanes of Madnesse and to moche Lyberte.
For I am a vertue yf I be well used,
And I am a vyce where I am abused.


To be sure, Liberty could be a positive force, as it is in the morality play Wealth and Health or, closer in time to Measure for Measure, in the triumphal arches for James I's entrance to London in 1603 described by Jonson, Dekker, and Stephen Harrison. And Lucio's vitality is a positive and welcome counterforce to the repressed sexuality of Angelo, the strict regulations of the convent, and the oppressively harsh justice of Angelo's Vienna. But Lucio's self-in-dulgent liberty comes dangerously close to anarchy.

The first words that Lucio hears from Claudio in the play (in response to his question “Whence comes this restraint?”) are “From too much liberty, my Lucio. Liberty” (I.ii.116-17). Lucio claims that Angelo's strict laws are designed “to give fear to use and liberty” (I.iv.62), and he calls for “a little more lenity to lechery” (III.ii.94). He is described by Escalus as “a fellow of much license” (III.ii.198). Lucio is a dramatic representative of the misrule which besets Vienna, and he concretizes for the audience the threat of disorder which the Duke, acknowledging the sorry results of his fourteen years of overly-lenient government, allegorically summarizes as “Liberty plucks Justice by the nose” (I.iii.29).

It is very doubtful that anyone in Shakespeare's audience would have exclaimed, “Aha, Lucio is a Vice!” However, consciously or not, they would have recognized these overtones in the presentation of Lucio because of their familiarity with earlier drama, and so it is necessary that Lucio be properly restricted by the end of the play. His begetting an illegitimate child and his slander of the Duke (especially within a play where Isabella, Mariana, and the Friar are slandered as well) are grounds enough for Lucio's punishment, which is not, after all, terribly harsh. But Lucio's associations with the Vice Iniquity, with ambidexterity, and with excessive liberty are additional reasons why Lucio must be disciplined if the play is to end with the semblance of a restoration of order to Vienna. Moreover, Lucio's wailing about his impending marriage to his whore reminds us that the Duke's mercy in Act V is not mere leniency.

It is the Duke who puts Lucio in his place. Looking at Measure for Measure in the light of its morality predecessors, one may be reminded of an anonymous play of the 1560s entitled King Darius in which the kingdom is rid of a Vice named Iniquity through the actions of another allegorical figure—who is labeled “Equity.” The concept of equity is absolutely central to Measure for Measure. It is the median point between retributive justice and absolute mercy which the Duke is trying to obtain by his somewhat devious methods.42 It is what enables a judge to see more than simplistic right and wrong or black and white, and to moderate his judgment according to the particular circumstances of the case.43

Equity as a legal principle had been established in England by the fourteenth century and became the specific charge of the chancery under the Lord High Chancellor, who could mitigate the rigor of justice as laid down in common law. English equity was described in 1594 by William West in his legal treatise The Second Part of Symboleography, which incorporates most earlier writings on the subject.44 The words West uses are directly applicable to the themes and language of Measure for Measure. According to West, equity is “a mitigation, or moderation of the law written.” “Equity is nothing else, but a sound or upright will or judgment of an honest man, nothing crafty or subtile, so measuring out to every man that that is his.” “Equity … is a reasonable measure, containing in it selfe a fit proportion and rigor, … a ruled kinde of Justice, allayed with the sweetnesse of mercy.” West very carefully makes the distinctions that are crucial to Measure for Measure and even titles two sections of his discussion “How Equity and Clemency differ” and “Of the difference between Equity and strict Law.” He explains that “Equity is a righteousnesse tempered with mercy, which considereth all the particular circumstances of the deed,” which he elsewhere glosses as “the persons, the matters, the places, and the times.” Finally, West notes “that the outward words of the law onely are not the law, but the inward sence and meaning thereof: For our Laws (as all other laws) have two parts, that is to say, the flesh & soule, The letter resembleth the flesh, the intent and reason, the soule.”

It is useful to have these words in mind when, in the opening scene of Measure for Measure, we hear Duke Vincentio say he has “Lent [Angelo] our terror, drest him with our love” (I.i.19) and then tell Angelo, “Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue, and heart,” “your scope is as mine own, / So to enforce or qualify the laws / As to your soul seems good” (I.i.44-45, 64-66, italics added).

At his best, the Duke is attentive to subtle distinctions among similar cases; when he visits the prisoners in his guise as friar, he wants to know “The nature of their crimes, that I may minister / To them accordingly” (II.iii.7-8). Moreover, the way he doles out justice at the end of the play is not that of common law but that of equity, which had been the prerogative of the king before it passed to the Lord High Chancellor. Maurice Taylor Van Hecke provides a helpful summary:

At a time when the parties in a law case were not permitted to testify because of their prejudicial interest, the court of chancery, on a subpoena borrowed from the heresy procedures of the church, interrogated the defendant in an equity case regarding every detail of the complaint. As compared with the tendency in the courts of law to leave most issues of fact to the verdict of a jury, the chancellor himself found the facts in equity cases, sitting alone as a professional trier of the facts, without a jury. Where the law court's judgment spoke only in terms of a successful plaintiff's right to have and to recover his damages or property, to be enforced if practicable by the sheriff's execution, the decree of the chancellor, in the name of the king, imposed a personal duty on the defendant to comply with specific orders, violations to be punished as contempt, not of the chancellor, but of the king.45

In the words of Spenser's Faerie Queene, “that part of justice which is equity” (V.vii.3) emphasizes the need “to weigh both right and wrong / In equall ballance with due recompence, / And Equitie to measure out along, / According to the line of conscience” (V.i.7.)46 Equity is a principle of balance that opposes the imbalance of iniquity. Moreover, such equitable balance is needed in the individual as well as in the state. As the character of Equity observes in the previously-cited Contention between Liberality and Prodigality: “We see it oft, we sorrow much, and heartily lament, / That of himself man should not have a better government /… / Where reason rules, there is the golden mean” (V.iii). Equity is the golden mean, the via media, moderation, or, in a word, measure. It is that Measure which is banished from England in John Skelton's Magnyfycence and whose absence leads to endless troubles, for:

Where Measure is mayster, Plenty dothe none offence;
Where Measure lackyth, all thynge dysorderyd is:
Where Measure is absent, Ryot kepeth resydence;
Where Measure is ruler, there is nothyng amysse.
Measure is treasure; howe say ye, is it not this?


Duke Vincentio applies his “craft against vice” in an attempt to bring about the measure of equity. His transitional speech at the end of the third act is in a verse form reminiscent of the old morality plays, and he addresses the audience directly, in the Vice's manner, in order to suggest the context in which he uses techniques associated with the Vice—deviousness, disguise, and even duplicity—for the purposes of virtue.47 He employs the tricks of Iniquity toward the goal of equity.48 He is most Vice-like in the last act, where he mischievously delights in changing costumes, encouraging others to take positions that will undo them, and stage-managing the scene for Shakespeare's audience, which knows all the secrets and so is free to watch him maneuver. His actions serve to correct injustice, to soften Isabella's rigidity, and to control liberty in Angelo and Lucio. Among other things, he works to avoid the kind of ruination that occurs to the title character of Skelton's Magnyfycence:

For yf Measure had ruled Lyberte as he began,
This lurden that here lyeth had been a noble man.
But he abused so his free Lyberte,
That nowe he hath loste all his Felycyte.


In order to restore measure to his dukedom and to correct the disorder that resulted from his governmental laxness, the Duke in Measure for Measure becomes a Counter-Vice, or Anti-Vice, or, to use his own term for this figure, a “Craft.”49

The Craft or Anti-Vice continues into Shakespeare's later plays. Northrop Frye has noted this in the opposition in King Lear between the vicious Edmund and his brother Edgar, who, “with his bewildering variety of disguises, his appearance to blind or mad people in different roles, and his tendency to appear on the third sound of the trumpet and to come pat like the catastrophe of the old comedy, seems to be an experiment in a new type, a kind of tragic ‘virtue,’ if I may coin this word by analogy.”50 Paulina in The Winter's Tale and Prospero in The Tempest are, in part, outgrowths of the same figure.

Perhaps it is because Duke Vincentio is so caught up in his role of Craft-against-Vice that he frequently errs in the course of Measure for Measure; he treats his subjects as though they were pawns in a game of chess and is repeatedly taken by surprise when they do not meet his expectations. But Shakespeare's use of dramatic conventions is never simple. At the same time that the Duke acts as a “Craft,” he is also in the role of the traditionally young man who undergoes a sometimes painful process of education through trial and error. It is hard enough for Mankind or Everyman to cope with the opposing claims of his good and evil angels; it is still more difficult for the Duke to find his balance between the Vice-like, Luciferian Lucio on one hand and, on the other, the misnamed Angelo, the “angel on the outward side” who is himself the protagonist of his own morality play, struggling between rectitude and lust and tempted to “write good angel on the devil's horn” (II.iv.16). This context may help us to understand why Shakespeare's Duke, who has no given name in the text, speech headings, or stage directions of the play, is given in the cast of characters the “conquering” name of Vincentio.

The Duke's conquest is relative. He makes numerous errors in the course of the play, and he may be making more at the end. But the Duke's imperfections are very much in keeping with the thematic concerns of Measure for Measure. Had Shakespeare placed him in absolute control, he would have implied a “solution” to the personal and political dilemmas raised by the play, which would be incompatible with the play's emphasis on complexity, flexibility, and the adjustment of all possible answers to the particular situation at hand. Measure for Measure is not a play that provides answers. Instead, its exploration of moral ambiguity and uncertainty presents us with interrelations which comment on one another, with a series of mirrors which reflect each other according to their own distortions, with a number of touchstones, none of which is completely reliable—not even, I might add, that of the morality tradition.


  1. Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958), David Bevington, From “Mankind” to Marlowe (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater (Berlin: Henschel, 1967; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), Alan C. Dessen, Johnson's Moral Comedy (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1971), Richard Southern, The Staging of Plays before Shakespeare (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1974), Edmund Creeth, Mankynde in Shakespeare (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1976). For a useful summary of recent research, see Alan C. Dessen, “Homilies and Anomalies: The Legacy of the Morality Play to the Age of Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Studies, 11 (1978), 243-58.

  2. It is advisable to keep in mind the “multiconsciousness” of the Renaissance audience as charted by S. L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1944).

  3. Roy W. Battenhouse, “Measure for Measure and the Christian Doctrine of the Atonement,” PMLA, 41 (1946), 1053; G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949), p. 96. For more recent theological readings of Measure for Measure, see Arthur C. Kirsch, “The Integrity of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey, 28 (1975), 89-105 and Darryl J. Gless, “Measure for Measure,the Law and the Convent (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979).

  4. Passages from Measure for Measure are quoted from the New Arden edition, ed. J. W. Lever (London: Methuen, 1965). Shakespeare's other works are cited from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. B. Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  5. “Sense in Measure for Measure,The Structure of Complex Words (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952), p. 281.

  6. See Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and J. Dover Wilson, New Shakespeare edition of Measure for Measure (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1922), pp. 110, 139, 141; and J. W. Lever's edition, p. 93n.

  7. The plays are listed in Francis Hugh Mares, “The Origin of the Figure Called ‘the Vice’ in Tudor Drama,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 22 (1958), 12. See also Peter Happé, “The Vice: A Checklist and an Annotated Bibliography,” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama, 22 (1979), 17-35.

  8. Edmund Creeth, “Introduction,” Tudor Plays: An Anthology of Early English Drama (1966; rpt. New York: Norton, 1972), p. xliv.

  9. See J. A. B. Somerset, “‘Fair is foul and foul is fair’: Vice-Comedy's Development and Theatrical Effects,” The Elizabethan Theatre, 5 (1975), pp. 54-75.

  10. Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, vol. VIII (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947).

  11. The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers, vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1953).

  12. In Tudor Interludes, ed. Peter Happé (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 373.

  13. Like other late versions of the Vice, Falstaff compounds that figure with several others. J. Dover Wilson brings some of these types neatly together in The Fortunes of Falstaff (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1944), p. 20: “Hal associates Falstaff in turn with the Devil of the miracle play, the Vice of the morality, and the Riot of the interlude. … And, as heir to the Vice, Falstaff inherits by reversion the functions and attributes of the Lord of Misrule, the Fool, the Buffoon, and the Jester. … Falstaff possesses a strain, and more than a strain, of the classical miles gloriosus as well.”

  14. Ben Jonson, ed. Herford and Simpson, vol. VI (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938).

  15. Ibid.

  16. The Overburian Characters, ed. W. J. Paylor (Oxford: Blackwell, 1936), p. 60. Note T. W. Craik in The Tudor Interlude: Stage, Costume, and Acting (London: Leicester Univ. Press, 1958) on the costume of the Vice: “a grotesque combination of the flashy and the shabby was evidently aimed at: the effect evoked by Hamlet's abuse of Claudius as a ‘vice of Kings’ and ‘a King of shreds and patches’” (p. 72).

  17. William W. Lawrence, “Measure for Measure and Lucio,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 9 (1958), 443.

  18. In Four Tudor Interludes, ed. J. A. B. Somerset (London: Athlone, 1974).

  19. Cited in Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, II (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958), 526.

  20. Meredith Skura, “New Interpretations for Interpretation in Measure for Measure,Boundary 2, 7 (Winter 1979), 57, n. 7.

  21. George Chapman's comedy The Widow's Tears, written one or two years after Measure for Measure, inverts the situation. In the last scene of Chapman's play, a foolish and corrupt Governor attempts to deal out what he considers justice. When the Governor appears, a captain associates him with the Vice: “O desert! Where wert thou when this wooden dagger was gilded over with the title of Governor?” And the Governor's foolish pronouncements are continually interrupted by Tharsalio, the protagonist, who comments about the Governor: “Nay, the Vice must snap his authority at all he meets; how shall’t else be known what part he plays?” I cite the Regents Renaissance Drama edition, ed. Ethel M. Smeak (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1966).

  22. In English Morality Plays and Moral Interludes, ed. Edgar T. Schell and J. D. Shuchter (New York: Holt, 1969).

  23. Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition, p. 119. See also pp. 120-33.

  24. Charlotte Spivack, The Comedy of Evil on Shakespeare's Stage (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1978), p. 153.

  25. In Joseph Quincy Adams, Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1924), cited in Weimann, pp. 152-54.

  26. In Tudor Plays, ed. Edmund Creeth.

  27. In Drama of the English Renaissance: Vol. I: The Tudor Period, ed. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin (New York: Macmillan, 1976).

  28. In English Morality Plays and Moral Interludes, ed. Schell and Shuchter.

  29. Ed. Tucker Brooke (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1915).

  30. In A Select Collection of Old English Plays: Originally Published by Robert Dodsley, 4th ed., ed. W. Carew Hazlitt (London: Reeves and Turner, 1874), vol. 8. Fortune's duplicity is, of course, an old motif; see Howard R. Patch, The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1927).

  31. In Ten Miracle Plays, ed. R. George Thomas (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1966).

  32. Paradise Regained, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey, 1937).

  33. Rpt. New York: Garland, 1973; Sig. L5.

  34. Ed. Betty J. Littleton (The Hague: Mouton, 1968).

  35. The Plays of George Chapman: The Tragedies, ed. T. M. Parrott (1910; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1961), vol. 2. George Peele is a likelier author than Chapman.

  36. The Complete Works of George Gascoigne, ed. John W. Cunliffe (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1910), vol. 2.

  37. The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith (New York: Tudor, 1927), p. 934; Part 3, Sect. 4, Memb. 2, Subs. 1. The threat posed by such moral indifference is shown by Dante's contemptuous treatment of the souls of men and angels who did not choose good or evil but were “per sè” (Inferno, III.39).

  38. Pater, Appreciations (New York: Macmillan, 1910), pp. 188-89.

  39. In Tudor Interludes, ed. Happé.

  40. Francis Fergusson envisages a more calculating Lucio, whose stratagems are at least implicitly recognized by Angelo: “It is Lucio who arranges the fight between Angelo and Isabella, and interprets it for us. … It was his inspiration to ‘bait the hook with a saint in order to catch a saint,’ as Angelo says, with terror, when he sees how he is caught. He suggests that Lucio is more than the devil's advocate, almost the devil himself”; The Human Image in Dramatic Literature (Garden City: Doubleday, 1957), p. 136.

  41. Ed. Robert Lee Ramsay (London: Oxford, 1908). Note Richard Greenham on the danger “of turning Christian libertie into unchristian licentiousness” in The Second Part of the Workes of the Reverend … Mr. Richard Greenham, 2nd ed. rev. (London, 1601), p. 278.

  42. Given the centrality of legal proceedings to Measure for Measure and the associations I have established between Lucio and the Ambidexter, it is noteworthy that “the earliest English sense of the word [ambidexter] restricts it to actions at law and describes the judge, lawyer, or juryman who takes bribes from either litigant, or from both together” (B. Spivack, p. 286). Note also the character of the lawyer Ambidexter Ignoramus in George Ruggle's play Ignoramus.

  43. Many studies of Measure for Measure treat the subject of equity, often connecting it with James I's Basilicon Doron. Especially helpful are John W. Dickinson, “Renaissance Equity and Measure for Measure,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 12 (1962), 287-97; Ernest Schanzer's chapter on Measure for Measure in his The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (New York: Schocken, 1963); and W. Nicholas Knight, Shakespeare's Hidden Life: Shakespeare at the Law: 1585-1595 (New York: Mason and Lipscomb, 1973). See also J. Wilson McCutchan, “Justice and Equity in the English Morality Play,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 19 (1958), 405-10; W. Nicholas Knight, “Equity and Mercy in English Law and Drama: 1405-1641,” Comparative Drama, 6 (1972), 51-67; and Frances A. Yates’ 1947 essay, “Queen Elizabeth I as Astraea,” reprinted in her Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975).

  44. Rpt. New York: Garland, 1979. The following quotations are from pp. 175-77.

  45. “Equity,” Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1966), VIII, 665. For a more extended discussion, see W. J. Jones, The Elizabethan Court of Chancery (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).

  46. The Complete Poetical Works of Spenser, ed. R. E. Neil Dodge (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1908).

  47. Howard Felperin argues in Shakespearean Representation (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977) that several of Shakespeare's plays which recall earlier kinds of drama reveal “the efforts of characters within the work to turn the action in which they are involved toward or even into a certain kind of older action” (p. 126). It is rewarding to think of Duke Vincentio consciously playing the role of the beneficent force in a morality play.

  48. “Iniquytie: What is thy name? / Equytie: Equytie, syr, is the same. / Iniquytie: Equytie, then nere kynsmen we bee” (Kyng Daryus, ll. 833-35, in Quellen des weltlichen Dramas in England vor Shakespeare, ed. Alois Brandl [Strassburg: Trübner, 1898]).

  49. The word craft is frequently associated with the Vice; a significant, if oblique, example is Hamlet's “O, ’tis most sweet / When in one line two crafts directly meet” (III.iv.209-10). Shift also recurs often, and Bernard Spivack lists many instances of Vices’ talking about their “gear” or stratagems, pp. 190-91.

  50. “Characterization in Shakespearean Comedy,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 4 (1953), 274.

R. A. D. Grant (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13839

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.

thomas aquinas

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 language on which it depends can never be entirely suppressed. It follows that, in varying measure, literature abuts or even encroaches on the territory of other reflective modes. It is, in fact, capable if it so chooses of initiating independent reflection in any idiom whatever. A work of art may, under certain circumstances, be also a contribution to theology, political philosophy, or ethics. When it offers itself as such, the critic is entitled—indeed invited—to respond by developing the discussion along extraliterary lines. In the present case I have accepted what seems to me such an invitation.

Literature is also about value. It is hard to see how a work of literature could avoid having at least some ethical bearing or moral significance, since language, except when doctored for scientific purposes, is as instinct with value as it is with representational elements. For what it projects is a world not of neutral “objects,” but of human facts or experiences, of which the cognitive and evaluative components are rarely separable. (To separate them is in some academic instances a virtue, but in the moral life it is generally a vice.) Purely descriptive or purely aesthetic criticism is therefore a chimera.

It is, however, not for this reason alone that it is impossible to treat The Tempest as a purely aesthetic achievement. It is, of course, a work of incomparably exquisite artifice. But it is also, in another of its aspects (the one on which I shall be concentrating), a quite deliberate apologue, as it seems to me, upon the themes indicated in my title. It addresses itself with unusual directness, and in the case of the providential theme quite explicitly, to the grander issues of life. And, for all the subtlety with which these are dramatized, in this play Shakespeare also takes sides. Anyone can express a preference for virtue in the abstract (indeed, it would be eccentric not to), but this play ultimately sees it as more or less uniquely embodied in a particular social and moral order. The play's pervasive ironies are rhetorical rather than exploratory: their purpose is to consolidate rather than to qualify. The sly ambiguity that made Shakespeare a byword for “impersonality” to Romantic critics is here virtually absent. The Tempest, in short, not only celebrates sincerity but is itself “sincere,” a quality reflected in the limpid simplicity of its verbal texture. Yet it is this latter feature which also gives it an air more of demonstration than of dogmatism. In its way, the play is no less “impersonal” than those which specialize in equivocation.

The effect is to offer value in the guise of fact: to affirm that value lies at the heart of things and in a particular conception of the world. The latter is seen not as a so-called cultural option but as obligatory and “natural.” Rather as moral actions are sometimes said to be “beautiful,” in one's response to the author's affirmation it is hard to distinguish aesthetic enjoyment from moral approbation and intellectual assent or to say where one ends and the other begins. (Conversely, a person who disapproved of The Tempest’s implicit propositions might well consider it a bad play or, at least, not as good as a person who approved of them thought it.) As a consequence, much of what I shall have to say about the issues raised by the play (that is, where I depart from straightforward literary criticism) will very likely appear partisan. I have not, for example, concealed my impatience with many current moral and political assumptions. But the play itself calls recognizable versions of more than a few of them into question. A sympathetic reading and an awareness of the profound intellectual tradition to which the play belongs reinforce each other. And they are bound to reveal some of the brightest of our contemporary ideas, singularly adapted (as they are thought to be) to an age of change, as at once parochial novelties and ancient errors. It is my aim in the following essay to provide such a reading, to map out that tradition, and to explore and develop it in a manner relevant, I hope, to more than the limitedly topical controversies of the present time.

I should add that a good many of the ensuing reflections were prompted some years ago by the appearance of Michael Oakeshott's On Human Conduct (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).

The three themes of my title are, as I shall argue later, necessarily interrelated, even in the abstract. Though, in the interests of clarity, I shall attempt as far as possible to deal with them separately, this is to do them something of an injustice. Moreover, what may seem to us to be readily pigeonholed categories (Providence belonging to theology, Authority to politics or sociology, and so on) are, in the play itself, a manifold of interlocking significances. And this is so not merely because it is characteristic of all fiction to realise in concrete form the potential interrelatedness of its material, but also because for Shakespeare, as for his age, the inseparability of these particular themes was a matter of moral faith.

That Providence occupies an important place in The Tempest will need no arguing, since it is repeatedly and explicitly invoked. Yet the play is not obviously a disquisition on Providence as it may be said to be on the other themes I have undertaken to examine. Providence seems to be more of a backdrop, a habitual assumption against which the more clearly secular themes are developed. In itself it is very likely incapable of development, for the classic literature of Providence is both sparse and remarkably samely, in a manner suggesting that a logical dead end was reached almost as soon as the concept emerged as a conscious formulation. The pre-Shakespearean canon consists of a mere handful of works by Seneca, Plutarch, Plotinus, and Boethius.2 Of these, the Plutarch and the Boethius were both translated into English (the latter for the third time) in the decade previous to The Tempest, in 1603 and 1609 respectively; it may be that the Bermuda pamphlets merely quickened into dramatic life philosophical considerations, and their poetical expressions, that were still fairly fresh in Shakespeare's mind. The few providential works that come after do little more than anthologize, conflate, or rewrite the original expositions in the light of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century natural science.3 The reason, no doubt, is that theodicy, or providential philosophy, sets itself a near-impossible task. It relies heavily, though in a purely analogical manner, on natural theology, and attempts to do for the moral world what natural theology, with greater plausibility, does for the physical, namely, to argue for the existence of design. It tries to show, from internal evidence, that the visible universe is not merely physically organized but also morally organized, in other words, that it is a just place. The evidence for its justice, however, is much weaker than the evidence for its physical organization. Accordingly, theodicy is perpetually driven to supplement the empirical observation in which, like natural theology, it begins, by drafting in precisely the transcendental conclusions it is intended to establish.4

Earthly life everywhere exhibits a manifest disproportion between virtue and happiness, a disproportion susceptible only of limited rationalization. Beyond that point the case for a moral universe can only be saved by the premature introduction of an additional, invisible world in which outstanding accounts are finally squared. It is small wonder, then, that few philosophers have accepted such an unpromising brief, or that those who have may more fitly be said to have produced imaginative literature than philosophy proper.

But imaginative literature, of course, is precisely our present concern, and in this connection some interesting points arise. The first is that most works of theodicy possess considerable literary merit, as though rhetorical force carried a conviction denied to logic. All the pre-Shakespearean ones draw on cosmology and borrow its traditional poetical resources to stage set-piece accounts of the Creation which rival in imaginative power their ultimate original in the Timaeus (a reference of some relevance to The Tempest, as we shall see). Secondly, the bridge between natural theology and providential thought may be no more than analogy, but from the literary viewpoint this is actually an advantage. For analogy is a conceptual mode highly amenable to imaginative exploitation and embellishment. It is the basic building material not only of the Renaissance mental universe but of poetry itself. Thirdly, Providence as an idea has a natural affinity with narrative in general. Narrative, like Providence, finds meaning in experience—or a plausible equivalent of experience—through the imposition, or discovery, of design. Comedy in particular shares with Providence the notion of “poetic” or commutative justice. The universe, says Plotinus, is alethesteron poima, a “truer fiction.”5 When Prospero likens human life to the masque of Ceres it may be something other than an expression of senile resignation. We may be meant to feel, as Anne Righter has argued in discussing the Epilogue, that “the play goes on beyond the formal limits of its fifth act, that it runs into and shares the reality of its audience.”6

But The Tempest, as I have said, bears a closer relation to theodicy than that involved simply in being a dramatic fiction. It is one of the very few substantial works of fiction in which the notion of Providence is central and more or less explicit, and shares many of their main features. (Such works are so few, though, that they can hardly be said to constitute a literary genre; their similarities derive less from any tradition than from a single, urgent, and perennial impulse to rationalize human suffering.) Other than The Tempest, I can think only of Robinson Crusoe, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” and (with reservations) the Philoctetes. If we rule out expository works such as Greville's Treatie of Warres, Herbert's “Providence,” and the Essay on Man, we are left with narratives which, like Boethius’ Consolation, dramatize a situation seen as the type of all misfortune, namely exile from the only condition proper to man (the zoon politikon), the social world of common understandings and reciprocal self-enactments, about which I shall say more later. And, if this isolation is actually specified in the setting—a desert island, for example—the setting becomes the means to a symbolic concentration, a kind of laboratory in which the human essence can be distilled uncontaminated by historical circumstance.

One might be tempted, perhaps, to class the epic (War and Peace?) as providential, particularly since the nation which gave us the Old Testament has conceived its own history of suffering and exile in both providential and epic terms. But in the traditional epic at least, because the gods are dramatically visible, the effect is to naturalize divinity and hence to burke the real difficulty in providential thinking, which is whether a transcendental direction in human affairs can be detected simply on the level of actuality. For Providence is not God himself (one would not pray to it), but God's purpose in the world. It is—to use Adam Smith's expression—an invisible hand that, even in miracles, never emerges from behind the veil of appearances. And this leads to another observation about providential fiction: though it may exhibit allegorical features, it is not allegory. Appearances, whatever they may suggest beyond themselves, are still to be taken at face value. However fantastic the setting, the characteristic texture of providential fiction is realistic, even minutely so; consider Robinson Crusoe, or compare The Winter's Tale with The Tempest.

What I have loosely called “providential fiction,” then, does appear to have common features in which The Tempest shares. And The Tempest also echoes, though in ways that are far from simple, many of the notions found in providential philosophy. It is not my purpose to discuss these for their own sake, and I have indicated above why they might be philosophically sterile. Nevertheless, the more important are worth setting out here, especially in view of the historical reasons given earlier why Shakespeare may have been particularly aware of them at the time of The Tempest’s composition. I shall add, where appropriate, the most tentative of Shakespearean glosses, though everybody will be able to compete in devising his own. I shall then go on to discuss the more problematic points of contact with the play. Here then are the central articles of classic theodicy. Each is to be found in most of the philosophers I have instanced, and some in all.

1. The universe is organized and was created by God.

2. The minuter tasks of Creation were delegated to subordinate ministers (cf. Ariel).

3. The universe was created either out of nothing or out of Chaos. Chaos is imagined as either

a. an amorphous, undifferentiated mass awaiting the stamp of individuation (cf. pre-social man? Caliban before Prospero's arrival?) or

b. frustrated potentialities locked in mutual strife (“warring seeds” is a common, Lucretian trope, of particular interest for being a social metaphor: compare Hobbes).

4. God does not generally order the temporal affairs of his Creation by promiscuous intervention. This would be clumsy and unaesthetic. Instead he has instituted Necessity for this purpose. It operates through stellar influence and natural laws, and appears as causality in the inanimate world and as instinct in animals.

5. Man is subject to Necessity, but free will enables him at once to master and to fulfil it.

6. The world is the best of all possible worlds, and enjoins a response of acceptance and gratitude on God's creatures. (This need not lead to fatalism: remediable evils are there to be remedied.)

7. Nevertheless, evil and suffering are necessary, and God permits them to exist, because

a. evil provokes the virtuous to exemplary action (Gonzalo?)

b. without it good would be unrecognizable as such

c. suffering is an arbitrary discipline upon the virtuous, and teaches them to rise superior to it (Ferdinand's ordeal?)

d. deserved suffering exemplifies the workings of natural law (Ariel's harpy speech)…

e. and conduces to amendment of life in the errant (Alonso)…

f. and torments the obstinately wicked more than others, because they are more selfish (Antonio and Sebastian in II.i?)

g. some evil propensities, though morally reprehensible, are materially useful (Caliban's servitude?).

One's immediate impulse, on scanning the above schedule, is to equate Prospero with God, as has frequently been done in the past. Here, however, one must be cautious. It is clear that many of the attributes of divinity on which providential thought concentrates are recapitulated in human form by Prospero. But I say in human form because I see no reason to treat The Tempest as allegory: Prospero is not a symbol of God.7 Indeed, his most obviously Godlike attribute (his magical powers, complete with subordinate ministers) is largely to be read as a symbol of earthly authority, as I shall argue later. And though God may restrain, he does not, as Prospero does, renounce, his faculty of miraculous interposition. To partake of divinity as, according to the philosophers,8 the virtuous man does by freeing himself from crude necessity, is not to be any less human. It is only in aspiring to God's omnipotence—that is, in forgetting that unlike God he himself is always a subject—that man is guilty of hubris. For the rest, man as man, as a creature uniquely endowed with reason, is actually obliged to imitate, within the limited circuit of human existence,9 the powers and virtues of God that his reason discloses to him and thereby himself to become their instrument. As a ruler, however, absolute, he must practice both justice and mercy; as a master and father, both love and discipline. He must treat his fellows with both equity and charity. And his rational self must impose discipline on his animal nature (which is internal to him, although external to God). And the result is to introduce into the social order and one's own character (the spheres of authority and the moral life) precisely the aesthetic harmony to be found in the macrocosm.10

The state (as Burckhardt noted) becomes a work of art; morality becomes a style. The fiat of Authority reiterates the act of Creation. It rescues man from presocial Chaos. Civil society, which it inaugurates and guarantees, puts an end to the self-cancelling “freedom” of the bellum omnium contra omnes, and enables the individual to emerge from the anonymity of savagery. In establishing peace, it nourishes communication and establishes that world of common meanings of which the emblem is language (without which Caliban did not “know his own meaning”). And the moral values it fosters deliver the individual from slavery to his own discordant passions, thereby rendering him capable of rational, decisive action, giving him, in fact, authority over himself.

In all these repetitions of the divine activity man himself becomes a minister of Providence. In this play, conceived under these assumptions, Prospero becomes a reflection in the human world of divine rulership, paternity, and artistry. But it must be emphasized that these, like his magical powers and his benevolence, are symbols not of divinity proper but rather of the divine potential in man. We are not allowed to forget that Prospero is a man. Divine benevolence cannot be the product of God's victory over his own irascibility; God does not, as Prospero does, take part with his nobler reason against his fury, since in God there can be no conflict. Prospero's residual and quite understandable resentment and tetchiness prior to the great forgiveness scene do not qualify or diminish his goodness, but are rather a constant reminder of what must be conquered or sublimated in order to achieve it.11 They represent, in fact, like the sullen obduracy of Antonio and Sebastian at the end, a further gesture toward the realism that, except in point of merely physical probability, has been sustained throughout. The human condition gives cause only for optimism, not for complacency.

As for Prospero's magical powers, essentially the same point can be made. It is true that Ariel's account of the tempest and Prospero's apostrophe of his spiritual ministers resemble a great many accounts of the Creation to be found in providential writing, but the connection is oblique. As everyone knows, the immediate source of Prospero's speech is to be found in Book VII of Golding's Ovid. Medea's celebration of black magic is an inversion of the Platonic Creation myth with which the work opens, in that it reduces the divine order to chaos again. It is as though Shakespeare wished to retain the imaginative power of Medea's speech while playing down its antinatural or destructive aspects (Prospero, for example, does not make streams run backward). Other feats, such as raising the dead or rifting Jove's stout oak with his own bolt, certainly carry suggestions of Promethean hubris.12

But I take the point to be this, that it is characteristic of the virtuous man, unlike the black magician (Medea or Sycorax), that he does not abuse or divert to selfish ends such powers as he may possess (compare the classical distinction between monarchy and tyranny). The intimations of hubris are there, that is, to remind us as before of temptations that in Prospero's case are resisted. From a historical point of view it would hardly be extravagant to see Prospero's magical powers as at least partially signifying, not God's omnipotence, but the rapidly concentrating power, justified in theory and enjoyed in practice, of the Renaissance prince and late Renaissance man's dizzily increasing mastery of nature, together with a built-in warning to use such dangerous privileges responsibly. (And I mean responsibly: classically, the absolute ruler is still responsible to God.) Nor am I tempted to feel that God's miraculous powers are compromised by Prospero's ability to mimic them, as one might in considering that, in the vanishing banquet scene, Ariel, in the speech written for him by Prospero, attributes the raising of the tempest not to his master but to Destiny and the cosmic powers themselves. Though still problematic (it could be a version of Plato's “noble lie”), this seems to me primarily an intelligible dramatization of the idea that in collaborating with Providence, in using the materials it has put in his way, the good man himself (without actually being it) becomes its agent. (Of course, in a roundabout way, this is also true of the wicked man, since in the long run evil is a necessary part of the providential design. But to pursue this point would be to involve oneself in paradoxes that have taxed the greatest philosophers.) In other words, Ariel is telling no more than the truth.

To dispose finally of the supposition that Prospero's magic powers symbolise anything other than human faculties, the following additional points may be made. They are limited, unlike God's powers, by geographical space and astrological time, which reminds us also that they operate only in that part of the cosmos influenced by the stars, the world of natural phenomena (to which minor spirits such as Ariel belong). It is study to acquire them that has cost Prospero his dukedom in the first place, though (a characteristic providential twist) it is also they very largely that have enabled Prospero and Miranda to survive once on the island and they, with providential help, that restore him to Milan. But, once they have served their purposes, it is seen as proper that Prospero should renounce them.13 They give him power over others, and one of their uses is to discipline those in their physical or moral nonage (the young or the not incorrigibly wicked) and thereby to make full maturity available to them. But, once that end is accomplished, they are otiose; and there is a feeling also, I think, that they are incompatible with Prospero's own full maturity. He himself always refers to them slightingly, as incipiently vain, crude, or vulgar—the sort of thing, in fact, to impress only the susceptible. It should be noted, furthermore, for reasons to be given later, that they would be out of place in the civilized society to which the castaways finally return: one in which the errant have been reformed, the young inducted into independence, and the criminal rendered powerless.

Finally, there is a kind of magnanimity or moral artistry in living a life of authority unaided by them. Authority supersedes mere power as forgiveness supersedes revenge. Power over oneself supersedes the brute power over others that easily degenerates into tyranny, or the use of power for personal ends.14 Prospero's renunciation is akin to God's aesthetic “impersonality” (his refusal to be always meddling): it is as appropriate to the government of ideally mature individuals as God's self-restraint is to rule of a race endowed by himself with free will. In sum, Prospero's magical powers (like everything else in the play) are understandable, not in terms of divine symbolism or allegory, but in terms rather of analogy.15 Prospero is not a symbol of God, but the equivalent of God within his own subordinate sphere. Within each of our spheres of discourse—providence, authority, and the moral life—the same structure obtains (and not only in respect of government, though government is of the essence). These connections are nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the De Regimine Principum of Aquinas. Chapter 12 of this work is headed, “The duties of a king: the similarity between the royal power and the power of the soul over the body and of God over the universe.” It contains these words:

Since art is but an imitation of nature, from which we come to learn to act according to reason, it would seem best to deduce the duties of a king from the examples of government in nature. Now in nature there is to be found both a universal and a particular form of government. The universal is that by which all things find their place under the direction of God, who, by his providence, governs the universe. The particular is very similar to this divine control, and is found within man himself; who, for this reason, is called a microcosm, because he provides an example of universal government. … In a certain sense, reason is to man what God is to the universe … a king has assumed the duty of being to his kingdom what the soul is to the body and what God is to the universe. … If he thinks attentively on this point he will … be fired with zeal for justice, seeing himself appointed to administer justice throughout his realm in the name of God, and … will grow in mildness and clemency, looking upon the persons subject to his government as the members of his own body.16

With these reflections I come to the question of authority proper. And no one bearing them in mind will misunderstand the assertions first, that The Tempest is a political play (“in a way,” says one critic cautiously, “the play is all about politics”),17 and secondly that, notwithstanding, the political aspect cannot be detached from the moral and metaphysical aspects, nor these even from such apparent trivialities as manners or civility (la petite morale). The Tempest, that is, is not a Machiavellian essay in the dynamics of pure power (though it anticipates much in Hobbes). It also lacks—and is the profounder for lacking—the unique intellectual dispassionateness of Coriolanus. Again, the dependency it implies between the political and the transcendental, or between the political and the moral, is not of the kind to secure the approval of so-called liberation theology or of the guardians of our contemporary political conscience. No doubt we stand in need of a political conscience, properly understood, but it is not to be found in the current fad for the moralization of politics. The latter generally amounts simply to a politicization of morals, to desire which is merely to show ignorance of the true nature of either. For, according to a profounder conception of politics, which can count both Aristotle and Shakespeare among its supporters, the end of political life—so far as it has an end—is the production of virtue. Virtue is not to be defined, topsy-turvy, as the factional solidarity that redeems its adherents from the hardships of moral autonomy. Neither is the moral autonomy on which it depends to be confused with the essentially economic travesty of it celebrated by liberals under the banner of “freedom of choice.”18 On the contrary, virtue consists not in not knowing, but precisely in knowing how to behave, and moral autonomy in the faculty, acquired by education, of rational intelligent beings of participating spontaneously in a common culture or polis which it is the business of politics, properly conceived, to foster. There is, in fact, both an analogy and a necessary connection with language, which in the opinion of Aristotle and Aquinas after him distinguished human society from the mere organized mechanical gregariousness of the social animals such as bees.19

The good man and the good citizen are identical; they are morally literate. But the good man is not the political conformist. What he has learned is not a set of gestures and responses, but rather the ability to make relevant ones. He has not been trained like an animal or programmed like a computer for the performance of specific tasks; he has not been indoctrinated; he has been educated in the ways of his society. In fact, under this conception, the current notion of political conformity is as unintelligible as the politics of either power, “conscience,” or the so-called minimal state (that is, the various politics of individualism). For conformity of this kind can only be enjoined in relation to a specified extrinsic purpose (the achievement of, say, “racial purity,” “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” “economic growth,” “maximization of choice,” “a multi-racial society,” or “the kingdom of God on earth”). The life of the polis, by contrast, is, like friendship, an end in itself.20 The only conceivable “purpose” it could have, therefore, is intrinsic, namely, self-preservation, which entails both the exercise of the coercive power necessary for the establishment and maintenance of any society, and sufficient additional authority to perpetuate the culture of the particular society, through the education and moral initiation of the next generation. Such authority, therefore, could not without self-contradiction—indeed, without self-extinction—infringe the autonomy of its citizens or moral graduates (being designed to produce it); nor could it impose any extrinsic “social purpose” upon them, since any “social purpose” there might be would already be comprised and implied in their pursuit of their private ends, which, a fortiori, would not be “selfish” or antisocial.

The current conception of politics, in sum, is too narrow for our purposes; the belief that there is a realm of the specifically political (consequent to which one has actually arisen) is common both to individualists (who wish to minimize it, seeing any social claims as a threat to moral “choice”) and to totalitarians (who, seeing it as the sole ground of value, seek to subordinate everything to it). And, correspondingly, we have very largely lost the conception of character, and the moral vocabulary in which it is expressed, appropriate to an understanding of The Tempest.21 But that will follow from an examination of the political aspects of the play.

In view of what I have just said it may seem paradoxical to claim that Shakespeare singles out the political aspect for particularly explicit treatment. By this, however, I mean merely that the values dramatized in the various political models offered by the play are not, unlike the moral and metaphysical assumptions, simply taken for granted, something that might in itself be deduced from the fact of variety. Of course, in the moral sphere, there are bad and good men, but it would be ridiculous to suppose that the variety we are offered there is offered as a necessary precondition of rational preference. People are not good and bad in such divergent ways that the varieties of each demand separate illustration. On the other hand, they exercise power, legitimately or otherwise, in very different ways, and the play goes to considerable lengths to illustrate each in what, as far as possible, is a pure form, an undertaking to which the technical device of geographical isolation contributes. The immediate reason for this I take to be historical, a version of what may be called the Richard/Bolingbroke problem. Some people, relying on habitual obedience, on rational assent, or on brute force, have power over others. On what moral basis, if on any, does this power rest? Skepticism has not gone so far (except perhaps in Machiavelli)22 as to doubt that a moral basis is necessary, but the question is, of what kind?

The moral basis of power, where it has one, is called authority. My contention will be that there are adumbrated in The Tempest two main kinds of authority; that each has degenerate derivatives; that each is dealt with in comparative isolation; that both are necessary to the life of the polis; and that the isolation of ideal types and their derivatives is, though familiar (as in Aristotle and Aquinas), particularly prompted by the need to clarify the ambiguities of a historical situation bounded on the one side by the traditionalism of a Hooker and on the other by the rationalism of a Hobbes.

The Tempest embodies several models of human association, each clearly intended as a gloss on the others. They are as follows: first, the situation on board ship. Secondly, the traditional polity of Milan under Prospero, which we only hear about, but which is largely recapitulated, conspiracy and all, in the marooned Neapolitan court. Thirdly, the polity of the island, with Prospero as supreme authority over all, both the original inhabitants and the castaways. Fourthly, the comic polity of Stephano, the nominal sovereign over Trinculo and Caliban. Lastly—and least—the Saturnian commonwealth (an alternative version of the state of nature) borrowed by Gonzalo from Montaigne and by Montaigne largely from Ovid. I say least, because it is plainly intended merely as a focus for the exhibition of various moral attitudes (important as these are) rather than as a serious intellectual proposition in itself. It is perhaps just worth noting in passing that such a dream of idyllic anarchism could only be entertained by a man so thoroughly and harmoniously civilized as to have forgotten that human society is built in the first instance upon constraint, and furthermore by one who is a conspicuous representative of the providential power which is so central a reference point in the Bermuda pamphlets and the Elizabethan literature of discovery in general.

First, let us deal with the “polity” (if we may so call it) on board ship. The ship, of course, is a traditional type of the State (Quintilian uses it as his example of allegoria).23 But it does not, in this instance, signify the polis proper. The ground of the officers’ authority, over the royal party as over the seamen, is purely functional, being based not on any superior moral qualities they might possess but simply on superior skill. The contract whereby the king delegates all authority on board to the sailors derives on each side from self-interest; if this authority is not observed all alike will be drowned. The contemptible rebellion against it by Antonio and Sebastian is a piece of outrageous criminal folly rather than metaphysical wickedness.

It is tempting perhaps to see an analogy with Prospero's authority on the island, for he too appears to rule in virtue of superior skill and knowledge, and his magical powers obtain as exclusively on the island as the authority of the officers does on board. But although there is something in this, the analogy is defective. For Prospero's superior knowledge is not, in this context, the ground of his authority—it actually constitutes his authority and is the force with which he backs it. Furthermore, Prospero's relationship with his habitual subjects on the island contains many nonutilitarian elements such as sentiment, duty and loyalty; Prospero's authority has a moral and even aesthetic dimension not found in the purely practical or rational authority of the Boatswain. Gonzalo actually reminds the Boatswain of this distinction when, having been ordered below with the observation that the sea cares nothing for the King's authority, he asks the Boatswain, while obeying him, nevertheless to “remember whom thou hast on board.” Finally, the Boatswain's authority is appropriate only to the conduct of a common and specified enterprise.24 It is not the sort appropriate to the enjoyment of a settled and permanent condition. Even in the polis as I have sketched it there is, of course, a purposive element, but this is merely the enterprise of securing sufficient order to stay alive and to defend one's interests, as Prospero is forced to do in enslaving Caliban. Once security has been established, the authority necessary for this becomes overlaid with the moral or aesthetic elements I mentioned. The enterprise, that is, is at an end, qua enterprise, and is transmuted from a purposive undertaking into a state of affairs to be accepted, enjoyed, and explored.

The second major type of association in the play is represented by the traditional civilization of Milan and Naples, and most of what needs to be said about it has already been given in my outline of the ideal character of the polis. It is, in fact, the polis with the functional or purposive elements left out. The Neapolitan court will serve as an example. The only functional element lies, not within the polis itself, but in the private contract made between Alonso and Antonio, who is not a subject proper but a foreign tributary. Alonso's “authority” over Antonio is simply a commercial quid pro quo, Antonio's part of the bargain for help in deposing Prospero. It's fitting, therefore, that it should be Antonio rather than Sebastian who is going to kill Alonso; bargains made out of pure self-interest, without any real power to enforce them (and not being, as on board ship, virtually self-enforcing) may be, and are likely to be, broken from the same motives (a fact, of course, which is a major obstacle to the acceptance of Hobbes's theory of obligation).25

There is no necessary bond of sentiment between Alonso and Antonio, and not merely because of Antonio's personal incapacity for it. (It will be recalled that in Hobbes sovereigns exist in a state of nature toward each other.) But Alonso's relation to Sebastian and Gonzalo is different. To Sebastian he is not only a sovereign but also a brother, and the two conditions are analogous in that both are moral and metaphysical, even aesthetic, rather than “rational” in the sense of being reducible to an expression of “purpose.” Fraternity is a “transcendent” bond.26 The importance of the moral element in it is pointed up by the existence of the two “unnatural” brothers. Gonzalo, on the other hand, has been to Alonso all that a brother ought to be: sovereignty is ideally an extension of kinship.27 Furthermore, he is part of the original Prospero-Antonio-Alonso scheme: without any rational or contractual obligation he has, out of pure humanity, virtually saved the lives of Prospero and Miranda. Over and above fulfilling his obligation to Alonso, he has given Prospero his household supplies and (most important) his magic books. It should be noted that this humanity is also a product of civilization, though in this case it extends, as it should ideally do, beyond the bounds of the particular polis. This is reflected in the pre- and anti-Hobbesian insistence, to which Hobbes himself only genuflects, that the sovereign and the polis should be subject to the “law of nature” (not the “state of nature”) in their conduct of external affairs.

A skeptic might well object here that it was fortunate that Gonzalo, though right, as Prospero recognizes, to have carried out the orders of his legitimate sovereign (in spite of their being against the law of nature or nations), was not ordered to kill Prospero and Miranda. I see no way out of this crux, though it may be shelved by the paradoxical observation that it is precisely because Gonzalo's charity has cost him nothing that it is above suspicion, that is, could not be part of any conceivable bargain. But be that as it may, it is in token of the purely gratuitous, spontaneous, and disinterested character of Gonzalo's charity that Prospero calls him “holy Gonzalo”; it is worth pondering the etymological relationship between the words gratis, gratuitous, gratitude, and grace. Gonzalo, as I have said earlier, is in his limited way a direct human representative of the Providential power that lies behind the play; it is in him that the moral, metaphysical, and political aspects of The Tempest have first begun to mesh with each other. In his “grace” and free giving, over and above the terms of his obligation, he has at once imitated and actually embodied the action of Providence.

Before coming to Prospero's authority it will be convenient to look at the sovereignty of “King” Stephano. It will be recalled that Lytton Strachey found the jokes in the comic subplot tired; while agreeing with him I should say that he had missed a serious point. The sardonic humor of these episodes may depend precisely on the jokes's being none too funny. Stephano, not having the same critical function, is no Falstaff. The comedy is not one of Saturnalian liberation from the traditional pieties but a reinforcement of them. In Shakespeare's conception there is an unmistakable contempt, if not for the lower orders per se, at any rate for the kind of society they would create if left to themselves.

Stephano's authority is the type called by Weber “charismatic.” It is self-evidently not moral, and being so ludicrously inefficient, can hardly be called rational, though in so far as Stephano makes a show of protecting the timid Trinculo and of helping Caliban dispose of Prospero it may be said to constitute a debased version of rational sovereignty. At the same time it is a lunatic travesty of traditional authority—Caliban takes Stephano not merely for a king but for a God (Shakespeare may well also be recalling accounts particularly of Spanish conquests in the New World). The “grace”—charisma—dispensed by his new sovereign comes out of a bottle, mysteriously replenished from a hidden butt of sack. The charismatic Fuehrer—for he is a “leader,” not a ruler—is under one obligation only to his subjects, to perform the same miracle again and again, and his authority lapses only when the drink runs out, that is, when the bottle is lost in the pool. In return, they surrender such personal autonomy as they have absolutely, thereby perpetuating the moral infancy from which their sovereign has neither the ability nor the inclination to rescue them.

Weber, it may be noted, thought of traditional authority as the institutionalization of charisma, rather than of charisma as the debasement of traditional authority. But there is no real conflict here, for, from the point of view of the mature polis, the institutionalization of charisma may be regarded as its dilution, the sovereign's “farewell” to the cruder aspects of his “art.” And this may be thought to proceed pari passu and reciprocally with the emergence to maturity of its members. In this connection we may note that Caliban gets tired of Stephano as soon as Stephano shows himself incapable of concentrating on the plot against Prospero—that is, of fulfilling the rational aspect of his sovereignty, for which Caliban has partly submitted, as Antonio did to Alonso—and that only Caliban shows the slightest resolution in trying to carry it through. To revert, though, it is hard not to find in Stephano's kingdom a suspicion of bread and circuses, of which history would have furnished Shakespeare with plenty of examples. And as for the supposed “freedom” that Caliban enjoys under Stephano, it amounts, of course, to the most servile obsequiousness, to which even slavery under Prospero, where all that is required of him is obedience, seems aesthetically preferable. The episode somewhat resembles the fable of King Log and King Stork. It might have been devised as a wry cautionary motto for the prewar totalitarian decade, a reminder, perhaps, to

Always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

Finally, I come to Prospero's authority. His authority over the castaways has already been implicitly accounted for. Although it involves securing “natural” justice for his personal wrongs (in other words, restitution), the purely self-interested element has been waived along with revenge. What remains has a Providential impersonality by no means incompatible with altruism: the correction of the errant, the restraint of the criminal, and the education of the immature. In other words, it belongs to the ethos of the polis. And, in the case of the blameless Gonzalo, whose innocence in another sense is of precisely the kind that is no shame in the mature, we should note that in true Stoic fashion (though without the smugness of Seneca) his acceptance of and ability to see the best in misfortune, right from the start, is just what renders it no real injury, though I think here the inconveniences he has suffered at Prospero's hands have to be read as having a directly providential rather than a political interpretation. The other important aspect of Prospero's sovereignty on the island are found in his relations with his regular subjects (Miranda's case may be considered self-explanatory).

Originally, we are told, Prospero accorded Caliban virtual equality in rights. He gave him house room and an education. I disagree with Robert Langbaum's contention that to do so was an error and a breach of “degree.”28 It has certainly turned out to be impolitic, and it also echoes Prospero's decided negligence, for which he has paid, in having previously trusted Antonio. But the two situations are not strictly comparable. Not all humanity and trustfulness is negligence; and any “degree” involved will not be the sort contingent upon a preexisting social artifice. In the Hobbesian state of nature that in essentials is dramatized on the island, there can be no “degree,” only force, and because it was always open to Prospero to do as he did, namely, to readopt when necessary the force he had renounced, he can hardly be accused of rashness. Nor, since he was ignorant of Caliban's propensities, can he be said to have been wrong in not treating him originally as an Aristotelian “natural slave.” Prospero does, of course, flirt with the idea of racial or natural superiority in order to justify his power (and authority) over Caliban, and in this Shakespeare is no doubt echoing a familiar rationalization of colonial conquest. But the argument is not borne out by the play. Caliban is redeemed, curiously enough, more through the intelligence and natural reason Prospero has developed in him than by internalizing the restraints he has suffered. It is “freedom” under Stephano that has cured him. He refers to himself at the end not as consumed by guilt but as a “thrice-double ass.” He is, in fact, the unique focus of a rational rather than moral demonstration of the legitimacy of traditional authority. And we should note the anticipation of Hobbes's fundamentally rationalist position in the fact that Caliban's assent antedates the moral and metaphysical considerations that would, to a pious traditionalist, seem to claim precedence. He is an ass now, and “hereafter,” in his own words, he is going to “seek for grace.”

But from Prospero's side, the relationship has not always been as exclusively “rational” as it has finally become. Not only has he treated Caliban as a potential equal, he has treated him with kindness and educated him; in other words, he has tried to initiate him into the polis. But Caliban's attempt on Miranda, and his lack of remorse, puts him beyond the pale of civil association. He has shown himself incapable of understanding the reciprocal character, in both its moral and its rational aspects, of life in the polis. Prospero's reduction of him to slavery is thus doubly justified: rationally, on Hobbesian grounds of self-defense, and morally, from breach of trust and ingratitude. And although Prospero's authority is perfectly legitimate, it is unilateral. There is no actual or imputed consent on Caliban's part; his slavery is not legitimated by any benefits he himself may be supposed to receive from it. On the other hand, as a slave, he is exempt from the duties as well as excluded from the liberties of the civil condition. He is not expected to show deference; rather the reverse, in fact: he is allowed the slave's traditional comic license to relieve his feelings by abuse and grumbling29 in a way that would be, and is, condemned in Ariel. Nor is he expected to regret the plot against Prospero's life (Hobbes, incidentally, considered it lawful for a slave to kill his master).

Although all three comic conspirators are appropriately punished by Prospero, I think (as I have already suggested) that Caliban's “freedom” under Stephano (at which Prospero has connived), in which he is denied even the residual self-respect Prospero allows him, is supposed to be far worse than that or than any of the normal hardships Prospero has previously imposed. We should note also that after his initial grumbles Caliban does not persist in accusing Prospero of injustice; Prospero's authority as master is restrained, if not by any law (for none is required), then at least by his own will (which in the virtuous man is identical with the law of nature). Prospero is severe—Caliban says he is tormented “for every trifle”—but he is not unjust. His dominium is never exercised for amusement. And finally, that Caliban is said by Prospero to be indispensable is not a utilitarian justification of his slavery; it is merely a happy consequence of it, entirely in accord with the providential spirit of the play.

Prospero's authority over Ariel is different. Ariel is both a servant and a subject, at worst, a mere bondman. Prospero notes sarcastically that Ariel affects to represent himself as a slave. His right over Ariel is in the first instance analogous, though not identical, to Hobbes's “sovereignty by institution”; that is, it is the right of a liberator, like Robinson Crusoe's over his man Friday. It rests, we might say, on imputed contract; it has the appearance of a rational justification, but since no actual contract was made when Prospero released Ariel from the pine tree, the ground of his authority is in fact moral rather than rational. Ariel's rebelliousness convicts him not of dishonesty but of an ingratitude in some ways worse than Caliban’s. His enforced civilization was perhaps Caliban's cruelest month, since he was originally his own king, for what that was worth (not a lot, in the poet Browning's view). But Prospero has released Ariel from quite literal imprisonment, not merely from superstitious hebetude. He is thus entitled to treat the relationship from his side as at least partially one of contract. Although, as in Caliban's case, he voluntarily limits his demands (in this instance by setting a term to Ariel's service), he is actually entitled to call the tune unconditionally, as Ariel acknowledges in giving up grumbling as soon as Prospero threatens him with imprisonment again; he could, after all, opt for it if he really preferred it.

It is presumably for these reasons that Prospero, on his side, insists on minute and exact performance of Ariel's duties, and why, as if in a mirror image of his own claim, he treats his own freely given promises to Ariel as being absolutely binding on himself. That is to say, he imputes a claim to Ariel which in reality it would be presumptuous for Ariel to press. When Ariel, trading on his faithful performance of Prospero's errands, actually does press it, and more, in demanding an early release, Prospero dismisses it angrily, changing the tack of the argument in what might seem an irrelevant direction, by reminding Ariel of his debt of gratitude. But it is not at all irrelevant. Ariel's duties do not entitle him to any reward; on the contrary, it is Prospero who is entitled to them as his reward for setting Ariel free. Ariel is the debtor, Prospero the creditor; Ariel has already had his share of the imaginary bargain and has no legitimate bargaining power left, but it is entirely appropriate that Prospero, who has yet to receive his share, should insist on its being paid in full, particularly since it was open to him to demand much more. Ariel is attempting to extort favors under the guise of justice. An early release, of course, is Ariel's to ask and Prospero's to grant, but it is not Ariel's to demand. In attempting to turn what, from his side, is a moral obligation into an equal and bilateral contract Ariel is guilty both of falsification and an ugly self-delusion. It should be noted that he never doubts that Prospero will keep his original promise to the letter.

So far, the relationship between Prospero and Ariel represents a remarkably profound inquiry, in dramatic terms, into the nature of sovereignty and civil obligation. In particular, it throws some much needed light on the subtle allocation of rights and duties that lie at the root of political life and on their various distribution, relative to the parties concerned, between the moral and rational spheres. But a tree is more than its roots; indeed, its roots are generally invisible, though it could not live without them. Thus the prevailing idiom of the relationship is not that of the bargain, contractual or otherwise. Its characteristic note is one of chivalry. It realizes itself not in the exchange of quantifiable payments, but in the bountiful free exchange of ever greater endearments and gifts, in which parity of contribution is irrelevant. It is a traffic not of goods but of gestures: a kind of potlatch contest in which the competitive element has been appropriated for aesthetic purposes or sublimated into pure play. Prospero is hailed as a Caesar and teased as a lover; the relationship embodies not only Hobbesian sovereignty (for “pine tree” read “state of nature”) but feudal lordship as well. And the primary insistence, over and above the element of obligation, on bounty and free giving links it also with Providence and the Gospels. But it is Christianity with a difference: the humility is left out, or rather, transformed into a lordly self-respect.

If Prospero is deferential, as he is toward the repentant Alonso, it is from a position of strength, self-mastery, and courage—what Aristotle called magnanimity or great-souledness—rather than from the weakness or fear that many (including Hobbes) have alleged as the basis of deference and humility. And that it is moral strength, not a moral whim indulged by Prospero under the protection of his magical powers, is given in the reflection that he would hardly renounce them later if it were. As for the deference which his subjects owe him, they seem to pay it in surplus, and without thereby abating any of their own self-respect (this is true even of Caliban's grudging recognition of Prospero's authority).30

I have already suggested in my account of the polis the basis of Prospero's authority over Ferdinand. Its real meaning is almost entirely aesthetic. It consists, that is, in pure discipline. It is not a punishment for anything—indeed, it is quite “unjust”—but is entirely educational. It is, of course, partly an ordeal imposed to test the strength of Ferdinand's affection; but over and above that, it may be said to symbolize the value of otherwise gratuitous suffering both as a moral gymnastic and as an induction to full adulthood and self-responsibility; in fact, to be a combination of a rite de passage with the sort of moral and aesthetic education described in Castiglione. The only work of art known to me that at all resembles The Tempest in this respect (and which also bears an uncanny resemblance to it in others) is The Magic Flute. It is no surprise to learn that Mozart had in fact taken sketches for an operatic version of The Tempest before he died.31

The Tempest, then, is a fable about human association. And the principle of human association (even when, as between equals, it has apparently been transcended) is authority. As a political fable alone it is a matchless achievement. To have implicitly theorized human association in all its varieties—citizenship, contract, service, servitude, and tyranny—is not perhaps new, though it had hardly ever been done with such insight and copiousness of dramatic illustration; but to have done so in terms of its internal character is at that date virtually unique, Shakespeare's sole forbears being Aristotle and, in what seems comparatively accidental fashion, Marsilius of Padua.32The Tempest in this respect anticipates much of Hobbes. But, miraculously, it includes what Hobbes, either by temperament or for the purposes of abstraction, had to omit. It places human association, that is, in a fully articulated context of cosmic purposiveness and moral value. But it is not seen as being in a relation of essentially external dependence upon them; it is not ultimately reduced to either, as it is by Plato, Aquinas, Bodin, and Hooker. Nor, on the other hand, are they, and the political realm itself, reducible to ideological projections of supposedly more fundamental power struggles or economic conflicts.33

The Tempest, in other words, dramatizes a complex of mutually sustaining meanings, a tissue of analogy in which the realms of human society and moral character owe their very autonomy to the providential pattern which both embraces and informs them. For this reason, the feats of abstraction performed by the dramatist and called forth in the critic in the one case do, and in the other should, involve no loss. To call The Tempest a play about “politics” in the sense intended is precisely not to ignore the metaphysical and moral worlds. For human association and its various languages of words, gestures, and actions is their only medium. Without the polis, both God and the self are, for all practical purposes, dumb. Yet it is perhaps primarily for this reason that neither The Tempest nor providential fiction as I have characterized it can be read as religious allegory or as contributing to pure theology in any immediate way, if, indeed, the latter should happen to be anything more than imaginative exercises. The Tempest tells us much about human life, but it has nothing to say about divinity in itself. For, whereof one cannot speak directly, thereof one must, in a manner, be silent.

I come finally to Shakespeare's conception of the moral life. For reasons just given, much of it has already been implied in the course of the argument, but a few of its more salient features are worth separate summary. Providence by definition cannot be conceived as the mere arbitrariness of omnipotence, both on account of God's conformity to his own essential nature and on account of the natural laws, physical and moral, to which he has subjected his Creation. Authority too ceases to be authority if it is neither benevolent nor reasonable. The appropriate moral response, then, invited by both is one of acceptance, an acceptance experienced by the virtuous man as neither servility nor external restraint. Self-restraint is necessary, of course, and both authority and Providence offer the disciplines by which it may be acquired, but once it is acquired natural suffering becomes tolerable and social constraint superfluous. Authority is internalized as reason, but the relation in which reason stands to passion is not the repressive, puritanical one of brute force (such as is illustrated in Angelo in Measure for Measure). It is one of genuine authority; passion, in “consenting,” makes itself available for aesthetic sublimation.

Caliban's sensitivity to nature and his capacity for wonder are, it may be supposed, simply the raw material of “nobility,” for both are also found in Gonzalo (neither, of course, is found in the real villains). Self-restraint, thus understood, rescues man from self-division—he becomes a single will. The harmony of the universe is recapitulated in the character; morality becomes, as Huizinga observed of the chivalric code, an aesthetic achievement. Furthermore, the acceptance of limitation, the willing performance of duty, and the abolition of self-division all conduce to the establishment of a determinate personality. It is precisely in accepting that he is not everything that a man delimits or stakes out his individuality; he distinguishes himself from what he is not, and in this lies his “distinction.” In the spontaneous identification and performance of his duties he becomes, as Hegel observed of the “noble” mind,34 one with his actions: they are “graceful.” He at once interprets, fulfills, and develops the potentialities of the available social language; in expressing them, he expresses himself. The “freedom” of a Caliban or even of an Ariel is meaningless to him; it is the freedom to have either nothing to say or no means of saying it.

“Restraint” means quite literally “pulling oneself together”; the man who has done so successfully is “collected.” In the language of The Tempest, such a man has found his “proper self”; in Boethian phrase, he “knows what he is”; in William James's words, he is “at home in the Universe.”35 He has no need of the cruder defenses against existential insecurity; his powers over others subserve only an ideally evanescent tutelage; they are not needed to extort recognition or (in the manner of Shelley's Ozymandias) to impress a spurious permanence and continuity upon each miserable passing caprice. And it should be noted that such a man restrains his desires not because, as Blake alleged, they are weak enough to be restrained. The injunction of chastity in The Tempest, for example, does not half commend, in a not uncommon Jacobean fashion, the sexual debility of Rousard in The Atheist's Tragedy, of Camillo in The White Devil, or of Albany in King Lear. The good man is not recognizable by indifference or incapacity. On the contrary, the very potency of the sexual instinct is what makes it worth moralizing. Hymen recruits Priapus; Juno supplants Venus and joins hands with Ceres. Within social forms the sexual instinct is truly naturalized; it is not distorted but straightened out.36 Nor is it dammed up to produce a tense ascetic hubris. For pride also is moralized into magnanimity and calm self-respect; life overflows, in Yeats's words, without ambitious pains.

Such a life, then, since it involves acceptance, is static and modest in aspiration. It asks only for Ferdinand's affectingly simple catalog of enjoyments: quiet days, fair issue, long life, and such love as ’tis now. Change should be endured, since we are mortal, but only a man at odds with himself would pursue it; maturity, the coming into one's civilized inheritance, signals the superfluity of all further change. One could perhaps sum up by saying that (to borrow a metaphor from Michael Oakeshott) The Tempest is one of those miraculous performances in which the conflicting tendencies of a vanishing era are momentarily and finally compressed into a significant and harmonious image before being, in the natural course of things, flung off again into the future. For what we have here is pretty well the unique solution to the habitual Renaissance problem of the incompatibility between the great man and the good man. The good man, as he appears in the poetry of Herbert twenty years later, is certainly both virtuous and impressive (as well as being, in The Church Porch, a curious anticipation of Dr. Arnold); but the extraordinary vitality and athletic grandeur of the moral ideal realized in The Tempest have gone. Virtue becomes an essentially individualistic sideshow, in closer intimacy with a correlatively more “personal” God. It comes to stand, like the Puritan “conscience,” in potentially subversive relation to the polis. It would be no wonder if the naked Emperor, faced with such competition, employed his tailors to array him all the more gorgeously in the gilded straitjackets of ius divinum or of secular absolutism.

It would be pleasing to end on the same note of unequivocal affirmation as the play. But a few reflections on the language of The Tempest afford us only a guarded optimism. To take a very ordinary example, the Boatswain's description of the miraculously refitted ship as “royal, good and gallant” moves us today, if it moves us at all, mostly through the poignant memories it evokes of an irrecoverable moral innocence: of a childhood world in which values were few and simple.37 Nowadays only the shallow, the ignorant, or the ambitious are likely to entertain us to visions of a brave new world. For most of us (abetted, no doubt, by Aldous Huxley) Miranda's phrase is almost indelibly tinged with irony. There is, of course, some dramatic irony. But, says David William, “for a moment, the audience will do right to see the world through Miranda's eyes.” “It seldom happens like this, however,” he adds, “as the speech invariably raises a laugh in the theatre, a depressing reflection on the chances of a reasonable hearing for idealism.”38

Now The Tempest clearly projects an ideal. It may be that such ideals bore scant relation to historical circumstance. But, on the other hand, the play's language remains even today a kind of archaeological deposit containing the fossils of living moral concepts. Probably people did not in general behave in the manner idealized in The Tempest (though there is reason to suppose that such people as Sir Philip Sidney, Richard Lovelace, and Sidney Godolphin actually did). Nevertheless, the play would have been unintelligible to them if they had not occasionally caught a fleeting glimpse of the ideal in the texture of a mundane actuality, an ideal, in other words, which everyday life might be held to imply.39 We cannot suppose that a contemporary audience would have been embarrassed by Miranda's outburst. And it should be noted that what William calls Prospero's “gentle aside” (“’Tis new to thee”) does not stain the moral transparency of her words with the ambiguity otherwise so habitual to the Jacobeans in their contemplation of the human scene. The corruption of human nature, in The Tempest, is (if intrinsic) largely curable, and it does not automatically infect the ideals equally intrinsic to a civilized humanity with the murkiness that more recent centuries have made it a point of sophistication to detect in them.

It may be doubted, though, whether the confused and self-contradictory nature of current ideals gives us any right to skepticism. In concluding, since what I have to say requires a measure of tact, let me invoke some words of Coleridge's on the politics of The Tempest. “In his treatment of this subject,” Coleridge observes, “Shakespeare is quite peculiar.” Although he shows “a profound veneration for the established institutions of society,” “delighting in those … which have a tendency to bind one age to another,” “he never promulgates any party tenets”; “he is always the philosopher and the moralist.”40

Now, there are contemporary versions of Providence, authority, and the moral life; and they are as closely interdependent as those I have tried to chart. Modern civilization, whatever its local forms of social and economic organization, has chosen, comparatively recently, to identify its ends in terms of “welfare.” (This has little to do with the so-called welfare state and still less to do with the bene vivere of Aquinas.)41 Seduced by a mirage of endless technological advance, it has engaged itself to provide for its subjects (or rather, its electorate) not only less erratically than divine providence, but inexhaustibly; and not out of benevolence, but in satisfaction of the “rights” it has bestowed in exchange (it is hoped) for their allegiance. Its success in insuring man against some of the more remediable misfortunes, furthermore, breeds the demand that it guarantee him immunity from the rest, including those of a nonmaterial nature. Even to begin to satisfy its customers, it must acquire formal powers undreamed of by any Renaissance prince. But its promises are inevitably unfulfillable. Moreover, both in origin and execution, they are not only seen but vaunted to consist in specifically human agency, against which claims may be made and blame laid, and from which redress may supposedly be exacted. These factors together conspire to strip such a civilization of all authority and to leave merely an amorphous, cumbersome residue of power in hands too nerveless and demoralized to exercise any of it, even those elements essential to the maintenance of any society whatever.

And, with the demise of authority and the “transcendent” social bonds which both nourish and are nourished by it, comes the demise not only of moral literacy but of the moral life altogether—ultimately, the death of the self. Personal identity ekes out a pseudoexistence either in fatuous eccentricity or in random and pathetically incompetent improvisations upon isolated, half-remembered themes which, whatever meaning they may once have possessed in a live moral context, have long been reduced to cliché. And a self so vacuous is ripe for invasion by spurious transitory authorities, in whose tawdry luster it slavishly seeks a reflection of the power and autonomy it might once itself have enjoyed: peer groups, prophets, political ideologies, pop stars, or presidents. If The Tempest does indeed embarrass a modern audience, it is no wonder; but the very fact that it can still make us uncomfortable, whether from nostalgia or the effort of repressing it, may after all be a sign of hope. It may be that we can share the optimism, truly astonishing for 1935, of these words from Hardin Craig:

The Elizabethans seem to have known and thought more about conduct than than we do. … They were able to think, and did habitually think, with clarity and fruitfulness, in regions of the mental and emotional life into which the modern man more rarely enters, such as filial piety and the nature of true love. The wisdom of Shakespeare is a wisdom of family and state, of peace and war, of love and friendship, of death, and of a good life. In these fields he is still pre-eminent, and so stable are certain of the ways of men from age to age that he has a fair chance of preserving this pre-eminence.42


  1. I have written about this elsewhere, and will not repeat myself. See “Art versus Ideology: the Case of L. H. Myers,” Cambridge Quarterly, 6 (1975), esp. 215-16.

  2. Viz. Seneca, De Providentia; Plutarch, De Sera Numinis Vindicta (tr. Philemon Holland, 1603); Plotinus, Enneads III, ii and iii; Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy (tr. by “I. T.,” 1609). G. L. Kittredge noted the possible relevance of the Plutarch to The Tempest (see New Arden Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode, p. 190). There is so much in Boethius of relevance that it is barely worth enumerating similarities of theme and treatment; nevertheless, the following may be noted: the vanity of art (I, ii, prose); the cosmic powers (ibid., verse); self-mastery (I, iv, verse); self-knowledge (I, vi, prose); philosophy and music (II, i, prose); reason, passion, and divinity (III, x, verse); forgiveness (IV, iv, prose); wonder (IV, vi, verse); virtue is blessedness and hence partakes of divinity (III, xii, prose—compare Pericles, III.ii. 26 ff.). The 1609 version (Loeb, 1918) is a work of some literary merit, unlike its successor in the Loeb series.

  3. For example, Ralph Cudworth, The Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), Bk. v; John Ray, F.R.S., The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691). Ray's book is full of Shakespearean echoes; in particular his account of the state of nature recalls both Caliban and “poor Tom.” It may be appropriate also, given our theme, to recall that the author of the Evidences of Christianity, William Paley, was also the author of Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), which has been commended by F. A. Hayek for its championship of liberal principles. On the whole, though, it seems to me that the implications of the providential outlook are conservative. The propensity to take risks characteristic of economic liberalism may connote a trust in the beneficent ordering of the universe, but it also smacks of presumption. Against this, however, we may set the similarity between Adam Smith's “invisible hand” (The Wealth of Nations, IV, ii, 9) and Plotinus’ subtle account of the providential order (III, ii, 14). And Robinson Crusoe, also, has frequently been read as a work of “bourgeois” ideology.

  4. Compare the second paragraph of Dr. Johnson's famous review of Soame Jenyns's Free Enquiry (1757), where the same point is made. The Free Enquiry, in this respect as in many others, seems true to type.

  5. Enneads, III, ii, 16.

  6. New Penguin Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Anne Righter, Introduction, p. 51.

  7. See, in general, A. D. Nuttall, Two Concepts of Allegory: a Study of Shakespeare's “The Tempest” and the Logic of Allegorical Expression (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967).

  8. For example, Plato, Timaeus, 90; Seneca, i, 5; Boethius, III, xii, prose. Compare the magus Cerimon's speech (see note 2, above).

  9. There is an aesthetic parallel here. “Providential fiction”—which is as much as to say comedy in this context—enacts the final moral reckoning on earth, within the world of appearance, and not in the afterlife. Hence The Divine Comedy, as the distinguishing epithet in its title indicates, is a comedy only by a figure of speech.

  10. See, for example, Plato, Timaeus, 47-48.

  11. “Shakspere has shown us his [Prospero’s] quick sense of injury, his intellectual impatience, his occasional moment of keen irritability, in order that we may be more deeply aware of his abiding strength and self-possession, and that we may perceive how these have been grafted upon a temperament not impassive or unexcitable” (Edward Dowden, Shakspere—His Mind and Art [London, 1897], p. 418).

  12. Compare the myth of Salmoneus: “Salmoneus was hated by his subjects, and went so far in his royal insolence as to transfer Zeus's sacrifices to his own altars, and announce that he was Zeus. He even drove through the streets of Salmonia, dragging brazen cauldrons, bound with hide, behind his chariot to simulate Zeus's thunder, and hurling oaken torches into the air; some of these, as they fell, scorched his unfortunate subjects, who were expected to mistake them for lightning. One fine day Zeus punished Salmoneus by hurling a real thunderbolt, which not only destroyed him, chariot and all, but burned down the entire city” (Robert Graves, The Greek Myths [Baltimore: Penguin, 1955], 68.a). See also James I on the punishment of monarchs, who are accountable only to God: “Jove's thunderclaps light oftener and sorer upon the high and stately oaks, than upon the low and supple willow trees” (The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, 1598, in Political Works of James I, ed. McIlwain [New York: 1965]). Compare Pericles, II.iv. (Antiochus’ death).

  13. Kermode, locating Prospero's renunciation in a Renaissance tradition of ethical or white magic, has some pertinent words: “When Prospero achieves this necessary control over himself and nature he achieves his ends (reflected in the restoration of harmony at the human and political levels) and has no more need of the instrument, ‘rough magic’” (New Arden Tempest, Introduction, p. xlviii).

  14. “Tyranny” so defined: Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, VIII, x, and Politics (Barker) IV, x; Aquinas, De Regimine Principum, I, 3; Bodin, Six Books of the Commonwealth, ed. M. J. Tooley (Oxford: Blackwell Press, 1955), p. 62 (II, 4); James I, Trew Law, p. 55.

  15. See Nuttall, and Reuben Arthur Brower, The Fields of Light ch. 6 (“The Mirror of Analogy: The Tempest”).

  16. A. P. d’Entrèves, ed., J. G. Dawson, trans., Aquinas: Selected Political Writings (Oxford: Blackwell, 1948), pp. 66-67. Some of these notions are also found, of course, in the Trew Law, which is a dogmatic mishmash of classical theories. It is marginally worth noting that James also draws an analogy between the monarch and a schoolmaster (Prospero has been a “schoolmaster” to Miranda, and I shall argue later that authority has a certain “educational” function in The Tempest). The Courtly circumstances of the play's production are well known.

  17. Nuttall, p. 151. See also note 40, below.

  18. See, for example, Samuel Brittan, Capitalism and the Permissive Society (London: Macmillan, 1973). The fallacy (one of the many in which “pluralism” is enmeshed) lies in confusing the essential faculty of moral choice (that is, free will, without which no action can be called “moral”) with a sought-after multiplicity of behavioral options or manifest “choices,” all thought of as equally “valid.” The quasieconomic “maximization of choice” in morals in fact evacuates morality of any meaning whatever.

  19. Politics (Barker), I, ii, 10; Aquinas, I, 2. Compare Cicero, De Officiis, I, 50 (horses and lions cannot be “just”), and Hobbes, Leviathan, I, 4 (“Of Speech”).

  20. See, for example, Nichomachean Ethics, I vii, 7 (autarkeia defined), and VIII, viii (and friendship); Politics, I, ii, 8 (and the polis).

  21. The moral and political idiom required needs to be able to accommodate a conception of human character that is neither individualist anarchy nor mechanical, collectivist slavery (both of these, in fact, belong to the same rival conception and jointly exclude the possibility of moral conduct: see Shirley Robin Letwin, “On Conservative Individualism,” in Conservative Essays, ed. Maurice Cowling [London: Cassell, 1978]). Dowden had a characteristically old-fashioned way of putting it: “A thought which seems to run through the whole of The Tempest … is the thought that the true freedom of man consists in service.” But he is wrong to upbraid Caliban for being “impatient of service.” Caliban is a slave (see below).

  22. But see, however, K. R. Minogue, “Theatricality and Politics: Machiavelli's Concept of Fantasia”: “Paradoxically, might makes right—not in the sense that the mighty have a right to do what they do, but in the sense that until some might has established a state, there is no soil in which the plant of morality, as it may locally be conceived, may grow” (in The Morality of Politics, ed. B. Parekh and R. N. Berki [New York: Crane, Russak, 1972]). Compare Leviathan, I, xiii, 8-9.

  23. His text is Horace, Odes, I, xiv, in which “navem pro re publica, fluctus et tempestates pro bellis civilibus, portum pro pace atque concordia dicit” (Institutio Oratoria, VIII, vi, 44).

  24. The distinction is essentially that made by Tönnies between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (“community” and “association” are the usual makeshift translations): “First, in communities individuals are involved as complete persons who can satisfy all or most of a wide range of purposes in the group, while in associations individuals are not wholly involved but look to the satisfaction of specific and partial ends. Secondly, a community is united by an accord of feeling and sentiment between individuals, whereas an association is united by a rational agreement of interest” (T.B. Bottomore, Sociology [London: Allen & Unwin, 1962]).

  25. Friendship, statecraft, utility: Nichomachean Ethics, Viii, iv, 4; self-enforcing “authority”: Cicero, De Re Publica, I, 63 (“ut in navi … cum subito mare coepit horrescere … valet salus plus quam libido”); obligation in Hobbes self-destructive: Cudworth, V, v, 30 ff., and cf. Cicero, De Legibus, I, 43: “Ita fit, ut nulla sit omnino iustitia, si neque natura est, eaque quae propter utilitatem constituitur, utilitate illa convellitur.”

  26. See Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1980). This difficult expression is Kantian in flavor (cf. Metaphysics of Morals, Ch. II, para. 10; Critique of Pure Reason, Introduction, VII, para. 1), and defines more or less what Dowden means by the “bonds of affection, bonds of duty, in which they find their truest freedom” (p. 421). It seems to signify relationships based on obligations which are a priori, “natural,” not the outcome of choice, not to be discharged in material terms (though material benefits might be their vehicle), unconditional, and subject to no agreed limits (for example, of time or “purpose”). No doubt “elective affinities” such as friendship also qualify as “transcendent,” since although “choice” is involved, it is not “rational” in the sense of “self-interested.” A mark of the “transcendent” bond could be that its interruption or dissolution (for instance, absence, death, deceit in a friend, civil war, national disgrace) was attended primarily by grief rather than by (self-centered) emotions such as disappointment, frustration, or resentment.

  27. The assimilation of kingship to, for example, paternity is, of course, a commonplace (see the Trew Law). But philosophers are more cautious. Aristotle assimilates paternity to kingship (Politics, I, xii), Aquinas notes merely “a certain similarity,” whereas for Bodin the father's is the only “natural” authority. None can be called “paternalist”—i.e. none assimilates citizenship to childhood.

  28. See Robert Langbaum, Introduction to Signet Tempest (New York: Signet, 1964), xxvi.

  29. See Bernard Knox, “The Tempest and the Ancient Comic Tradition,” in English Institute Essays (1954), reprinted in Signet Tempest.

  30. Compare Burke's paradox: “That generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom” (Reflections on the Revolution in France, III).

  31. There is a powerful modern version (1956) by the late Swiss composer Frank Martin. Martin's characteristic musical idiom (see, for example, his Everyman), a sonorous combination of rigor and generosity, austerity and tenderness, is perfectly adapted to The Tempest.

  32. On Marsilius, see A. P. d’Entrèves, The Medieval Contribution to Political Thought (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1939), Lectures II and III.

  33. See, for example, Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals; Marx, Preface to The Critique of Political Economy, etc.

  34. See Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, ed. J. N. Findlay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 500 ff. There are some illuminating pages on Hegel in Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), Lecture II, where he refers also to The Tempest (p. 39). Caliban's potential nobility does not, however, lie in his “resistance to servitude” (p. 42n.), a view Trilling attributes to modern audiences.

  35. Tempest, III.iii.59 (Ariel); V.i.32 (Prospero); V.i.212-13 (Gonzalo). Boethius: “‘Iam scio,’ inquit, ‘morbi tui aliam vel maximam causam; quid ipse sis, nosse desisti’” (I, vi). James: compare Cicero on the virtuous man: “civis totius mundi quasi unius urbis” (De Legibus, I, 61).

  36. Compare Cicero, De Legibus, I, 25: “Est autem virtus nihil aliud quam perfecta et ad summum perducta natura”; Quintilian, IX, iv, 3 (on style): “id est maxime naturale, quod fieri natura optime patitur”; the association of Nature and “gentilesse” in Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, esp. ll. 372-78; Winter's Tale, IV.iii.88 ff (Polixenes on “Nature”). Chaucer, in fact, begins with Cicero's Somnium Scipionis. The rest of the De Re Publica was not discovered until 1820, so it would not have been directly available to Shakespeare. But the ideas in it would have been familiar enough.

  37. No one, I suppose, has used the word gallant unironically since Scott of the Antarctic used it of Captain Oates.

  38. David William, “The Tempest on the Stage,” in Jacobean Theatre, reprinted in Signet Tempest.

  39. That is to say, it would be not only a moral ideal but also something like a Weberian “ideal type”: “a utopia which has been arrived at by the analytical accentuation of certain elements of reality” (Max Weber, “Objectivity in Social Science”).

  40. S. T. Coleridge, “The Moved and Sympathetic Imagination” (1836) in Shakespeare: The Tempest: a Casebook, ed. D. J. Palmer (London: Macmillan, 1968), pp. 65-66. Compare Dowden: “It must be admitted that Shakspere, if not, as Hartley Coleridge asserted, ‘a Tory and a gentleman’, had within him some of the elements of English conservatism” (p. 421).

  41. “Welfare,” in the sense I intend, appertains to the notional satisfactions of individuals conceived solely as consumers of goods or claimants of “rights.” Such a conception obviously makes no connection with Shakespeare's moral universe, based as that is primarily on obligations. It is both amusing and typical that “welfare economics” should have coined the expression “psychic income” to denote nonmaterial satisfactions.

  42. Hardin Craig, The Enchanted Glass (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1936), p. 82.

Lawrence W. Hyman (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3513

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 its ‘autonomy’, then it follows, according to some critics, that our responses to literature are independent of the moral and ethical attitudes that we would have towards similar events in actual life. If Shakespeare, according to Keats, took ‘as much delight in an Iago as an Imogen’, and could take ‘delight’ in what ‘shocks the virtuous philosopher’,2 perhaps his readers should also. As one of the leading Shakespearean critics in the first half of our century has said, we can best appreciate Shakespeare if we divorce the feelings that arise from the incidents in his plays from the theoretical judgements we would make if these same incidents were seen in actual life:

We shall gain nothing by applying to the delicate symbols of the poet's imagination the rough machinery of an ethical philosophy created to control the turbulences of actual life. Thus, when a critic adopts the ethical attitude, we shall generally find that he is unconsciously lifting the object of his attention from his setting and regarding him as actually alive.3

And many critics have since attempted, both in theory and in practice, to direct our responses to the experience created by the writer's words rather than to what, in T. S. Eliot's words, ‘was not in existence before the poem was completed’.4 More recent critical theory, particularly deconstruction, by emphasizing the poem's resistance to meaning, its aporias and negative moments that contradict its apparent meaning, has made it even more difficult to bring our moral attitudes into the literary experience. If Iago and Imogen stand for the opposite of what they affirm, (as well as for what they affirm), how can we judge them at all? How can we judge any character or any action if we cannot confine these characters and actions to any fixed meaning?

But, and this is a less obvious but more important point, if we find it more difficult than ever to make our moral values an intrinsic part of the literary experience, it is also more difficult not to do so. For, if contemporary criticism has made it impossible to arrive at fixed, unambiguous and objective meanings, the same critical probing has also prevented us from regarding the text as an autonomous object, independent of our own needs as individuals and as members of interpretative communities. If the words in a poem or in a novel create their own world and do not serve as mirrors of one already in existence, the world that is being created on the page makes sense to us only by means of the conventions and habits that are present before the work was ever begun. One can write, obviously enough, ‘only within the context of a system of enabling conventions … conventions which the author may work against … but which are the possibility of his discourse’.5 Much as Iago is meant to disturb and challenge the ethical attitudes we bring to the play from ordinary life, we would not understand him at all unless Shakespeare's words were also part of our ordinary language, suggesting feelings and values that existed before Othello was created. We cannot get inside the poem without bringing the outside world with us, any more than the poet can.

What we can do, as I hope to show here, is to accept our moral attitudes and judgements as part of the literary response, even as we allow this literary response to resist these judgements. This conflict between our ethical and literary attitudes should not be resolved but, instead, seen as necessary to a full appreciation of the literary work. What such a solution to the problem would mean in practice can best be seen by a discussion of King Lear, in which I want to show how the literary power of this play depends on the fact that neither our aesthetic nor our ethical feelings are subordinated to the other.

I start with a brief passage from Lear's long tirade on the impossibility of judging human conduct:

I pardon that man's life. What was thy cause?
Thou shalt not die, die for adultery? No:
The wren goes to’t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight

(IV, 6, 109-113).

There is undoubtedly a moral significance in these lines, just as there is in the entire speech; although these lines deny that we can make moral judgements, the basis for such a conclusion is itself a moral judgement, namely, that human sexuality is animal-like. But even if we were to come to some agreement as to the moral message, we would still have to decide just how this moral, whatever it is, is related to the poetic power of the passage. Does the passage gain its literary effectiveness because Lear is telling us some deep truth about moral judgement or about human sexuality? And if not, must we ignore the moral to get at the poetry?

Formalist criticism often does so, as when George Barker argues that Shakespeare is not so much concerned with the truth of these remarks as with a ‘delight’ in his ability to create these images of ‘evil, ugliness and despair’, that ‘Beneath the surface disgust of these lines a sort of gibbering delight burns at having put the monstrous idea down on paper’.6 Barker is right, I believe, in emphasizing the delight that most readers do and should experience, even if the equating of human and animal sexuality shocks our moral philosophy. But by placing the ‘disgust’ on the ‘surface’, Barker is also implying that the ‘ugliness’ and ‘disgust’ normally associated with the copulation of wrens and flies is somehow transformed by Shakespeare's poetic power into something rich and strange.

And here, I believe, we arrive at a serious difficulty, since we would not have the ‘poetry’ if the ugliness and disgust that are attached to the images were not there to be transfigured. The ugliness and disgust associated with the images, as well as any disagreement that we may very well have with Lear's amoral attitude, resist being transfigured. And there can be no poetic power without this resistance. To forget the ugliness and disgust that we associate with the images in actual life, as well as to ignore our own belief that human sexuality must be judged differently from the sexuality of animals, would result in the loss of that very resistance that is necessary to create the poetic current. As Nelson Goodman has said, ‘metaphor is an affair between a predicate with a past and an object that yields while protesting’.7 The success of the metaphor depends as much on the force of the protest as on its willingness to yield. The poetic experience depends on our recognizing the subject-matter and our attitudes towards it before it becomes a part of the poem, as well as on its transformation by the poem.

Furthermore, and this is my main point, this subverting of our ethical judgements by the poem or the play, and their resistance to such subversion—the reassertion of their autonomy, even as they are being transfigured into poetry, must take place simultaneously. And it is here that deconstruction can help us. For one of the chief values of recent deconstructionist theories is their ability to capture the indeterminate and contradictory feelings that pervade our responses to literature. As J. Hillis Miller has said, deconstruction

encounters always, if it is carried far enough, some mode of oscillation. In this oscillation two genuine insights into literature in general and into a given text in particular, inhibit, subvert, and undercut one another. This inhibition makes it impossible for either insight to function as a firm resting place, the end point of analysis.8

In the context of this paper, the moralist's emphasis on holding on to our moral values while responding to literature and the formalist's emphasis on the transformative power of literature, what Keats called ‘the excellence of every Art’ in ‘its intensity’ of ‘making all disagreeables evaporate’,9 are both genuine insights. But we must also accept their mutual subversion, if we are to do justice to the relationship between them. To follow one path and then another, to refuse to accept their inherent conflict results, paradoxically enough, in a weakening of both the moral and the aesthetic dimensions.

Even as thoughtful a critic as Northrop Frye, who is determined to uphold both values, the moral as well as the aesthetic, who wants to hold on to the autonomy of literature while seeing it as part of a moral universe, cannot do so; and he cannot do so because he is unwilling to recognize that the two values are constantly subverting each other. Tragedy, Frye argues

cannot be moralized or contained within any conceptual world view. A tragic hero is a tragic hero whether he is a good or bad man; a tragic action is a tragic action whether it seems to us admirable or villainous, inevitable or arbitrary. And while a religious or philosophic system … may find a place for tragedy, and so make it part of a larger and less tragic whole, it can never absorb the kind of experience that tragedy represents.10

But Frye seems to sense that we cannot simply push aside our ethical feelings while responding to tragedy, and midway in his essay he shifts his argument. If we cannot impose our ethical judgements on tragic heroes, perhaps we can see the ethics of the heroes as somehow being ours also, at some unconscious level. ‘Every man lives, or would like to live, by the self-destroying passions that are most clearly revealed in the archaic settings of Shakespeare's tragedies’ (p. 33). This approach is ingenious, in so far as it seems to enable us to have our cake and eat it, that is, to enter fully into the feelings of a Lear even in his most extravagant violations of ethical behaviour, while maintaining a connection with our own feelings. But there are at least two serious weaknesses in such an approach: One is the assumption that we can translate the complexity of all of Lear's speeches to some category, such as ‘self-destroying’ without impoverishing the literary experience. Secondly, Frye would deny the reader the exercise of his or her own moral feelings. Suppose we are conscious only of our disapproval of Lear's conduct when, let us say, he curses his daughters so as to reveal not only his sense of betrayal but his hatred of life itself, particularly sexuality. Must we assume that our moral shock is only on the surface, and that we all, deep down in our unconscious, have the same death drive, ‘the self-destroying passions’ of Lear (or Coriolanus or Richard III)? Such an assertion about all readers is surely beyond the scope of literary criticism.

A more recent attempt to do justice to both the ethical and aesthetic dimensions in a literary work is that of a philosopher, Stephen David Ross, who also argues, as I do, that ethical and ‘aesthetic considerations stand in permanent tension in art’.11 But Ross is still so concerned with preserving the autonomy of the work of art, what he calls its ‘sovereignty’, that although he grants that the terrible events involving Lear and Gloucester ‘are made more powerful and vivid’ by the ‘artist's unique style’, he claims that the events are ‘transmuted from a moral to an artistic function, where the sovereignty of the work and not our actions and experiences is made predominant’ (150). But if the terror that belongs to these events in the real world are made ‘more powerful and vivid’ by the dramatic and poetic power of the writer, how can their moral function—the horror we feel at the blinding of Gloucester—be transmuted into an ‘artistic function’? Only, I believe, if we regard the artistic function, the dramatic experience, as including and encompassing, even while it is transmuting, this moral sense of outrage. Or, as Miller has explained this activity, deconstruction ‘inevitably constructs again in a different form what it deconstructs. … Rather than surveying the text with sovereign command from outside, it remains caught within the activity of the text it retraces’ (p. 251).12 In the present context, this oscillation between the destructive and constructive aspects of deconstruction should allow the transfiguring power of the lines to subvert and undermine the moral values that we bring to the play, while allowing these values to resist such transfiguration. A recent comment on deconstruction by Douglas Atkins is particularly appropriate here: ‘Mutually dependent on language, critic and text question each other, read each other. They are thus caught in an inevitable and ceaseless oscillation in which neither text nor critic dominates. …’13

And it is precisely this desire to put a stop to this ‘ceaseless oscillation’, to escape from rather than be ‘caught within the activity of the text’, that causes even some of the most thoughtful critics of King Lear to sacrifice either our own moral values or the power of Shakespeare's language to undermine these values. We have already seen how a desire to come to rest in the formal design or the transformative power of the play has forced Barker, Frye and Ross to neglect the moral values that are, or at least should be, part of our literary response. The moralist critics, as might be expected, must neglect or subordinate the fact that the poetic and dramatic power of King Lear is continually subverting any moral judgements. Rosalie Colie has tried to escape this dilemma by granting that the morality of the play is continually subverted by irony and paradox. But she still believes that we can find harmony rather than opposition between the dramatic power of the play and the moral truth that we hold apart from the play. Her argument is ingenious. Because paradox ‘questions received opinions’, it is bound by its own logic to question ‘its own questioning of received opinions’.14 Thus the very injustice of experience forces—once more by paradox—a reassertion of the values of life with all of its limitations, even in the teeth of adverse experience’ (p. 141).

Such an argument seems to embody a kind of deconstruction, to the extent that the denial or deconstruction of one concept results, eventually, in the reassertion of that very concept. But what we really have is something quite different, since the ‘reassertion of the values of life’ does not ‘return’ in a different form, ‘nor does this reassertion’ remain ‘caught within the activities of the text’. On the contrary, the ‘values of life’, the values we bring to the play remain what they were before reading the play, and instead of being subverted by the drama are permitted to ‘survey the text with sovereign command from the outside’. The deconstruction, or reconstruction, that is being advanced here does not force us to step out of the play, but by remaining ‘caught within the activities of the text’, to respond to the moral values that pervade the play only as they are being transfigured.

As a consequence, we cannot use these moral affirmations, or whatever moral insights we find in the play to, in Miller's words, ‘come to some sense of mastery over the work’ (p. 251). What we can do, however, is much more valuable. By accepting the continuous and dynamic interaction between our moral values and our sense of their being subverted by the literary experience, we can do justice to both the formalist and the moralist positions and, in so doing, extend and deepen our appreciation of the play. Another example will, I hope, strengthen this conclusion. The following passage is Lear's reply to Gloucester, when the blind Gloucester asks the mad Lear, ‘Dost thou know me?’ Lear answers:

I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squiny at me?
No, do thy worst, blind Cupid, I’ll not love

(IV, 6, 133-5).

In his classic essay, ‘King Lear and the Grotesque’, G. Wilson Knight argues that the comic and ridiculous elements are so intertwined with what is painful and heroic that we experience attitudes and feelings that have no counterpart in actual life. Our morality would not (and should not) allow us to enjoy the ‘cruelty of humour’ and the ‘humour of cruelty’ that we do enjoy in these grotesque scenes. We cannot, in real life, expect or allow Gloucester's blindness to provoke ‘not only horror but something satanically comic embedded deep in it’.15 Thus, when we come to Lear's reply to Gloucester's question, our normal, ethical judgement is suspended, since ‘our vision has been uniquely focused to understand that vision of the grotesque’ (p. 172). Consequently, we do not condemn Lear for his cruelty or look for excuses for his conduct.

This is true, and useful in counteracting the moralist critics who either weaken the dramatic impact by voicing their moral reservations or weaken their own moral sympathies by excusing Lear's actions. But to suspend our moral sensitivities, to concentrate on what is unique in this scene, that is, what is created by this particular structure of words and what did not exist before this scene was created, is not only to violate our moral sense but to weaken the dramatic effect. For the dramatic effect requires our moral disapproval. We are supposed to be shocked at Lear's callous treatment of Gloucester's blindness; for how else can the drama overcome this shock unless it is present? And the stronger the presence, the stronger is the need for the power of the dramatist to transfigure that moral shock into aesthetic pleasure. Few readers doubt that Shakespeare has that power. What has to be shown, however, and what has been attempted here, is that this power to take and to give delight in what shocks the virtuous philosopher requires the presence, and not the suspension, of our moral attitudes. We need the conflict between our ethical and our aesthetic feelings to create the poetry; we need the resistance as well as the voltage to create the current. It is Coleridge, of course, who first made us aware of the ‘discordant’ qualities in poetry, including ‘the sense of novelty and freshness with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order. …’16 But it is the recent critics of deconstruction who have both explained and exemplified just how we can come to terms with these discordant qualities without either the ‘balance or the reconciliation’ that Coleridge wanted to find. We agree with Coleridge, when he claims that the poet ‘brings the whole soul of man into activity’, but if this activity is to do justice to the range as well as the intensity of our response, we should see it as emphasizing conflict rather than reconciliation between our ethical and aesthetic feelings.


  1. The Republic of Plato, trans. F. M. Cornford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945, 1960), p. 340.

  2. Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818, Criticism: The Major Texts, ed. Walter J. Bate (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952), p. 349.

  3. G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (London, 1930, 1974), p. 11.

  4. T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism (New York, 1933), p. 138.

  5. Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics (Ithaca, New York, 1975), p. 30.

  6. George Barker, ‘William Shakespeare and the Horse With Wings’, Partisan Review XX (1953) 413-41.

  7. Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art (Indianapolis, 1968), p. 77.

  8. J. Hillis Miller, ‘The Critic as Host’, Deconstruction and Criticism (New York, 1979), p. 251.

  9. Letter to George and Thomas Keats, 21 December 1817.

  10. Northrop Frye, Fools of Time: A Study in Shakespearian Tragedy (Toronto, 1967), p. 4.

  11. Steven David Ross, ‘The Sovereignty and Utility of the Work of Art’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XL (Winter 1981) 151.

  12. Miller. See Reference 8.

  13. G. Douglas Atkins, ‘The Story of Error’,Structuralist Review II (Winter 1981) 45.

  14. Rosalie Colie, Some Facets of King Lear, ed. Rosalie Colie and F. T. Flahiff (Toronto, 1974), p. 119.

  15. G. Wilson Knight, Wheel of Fire (London, 1930, 1974), p. 168.

  16. Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIV.

Austin C. Dobbins and Roy W. Battenhouse (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5749

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 arguing that characters in a fairy tale “cannot be judged by realistic moral standards.”2 Jessica, says Murry, if “taken out of the play and exposed to the cold light of moral analysis, may be a wicked little thing; but in the play, wherein alone she has her being, she is nothing of the kind—she is charming.” Can we be satisfied with Murry's suggested dichotomy between what the play-world reveals and what moral analysis might reveal? Granted that The Merchant of Venice has a fairy-tale quality, must we say with Murry that the drama's coherence is “not intellectual or psychological” but only that of an unrealistic story in which Jessica wins our approval because she is portrayed as “a princess held captive by an ogre”? Why disown intellectual coherence in arguing for artistic integrity? It may be well to recall a remark of S. L. Bethell about Shakespeare in general, that his world is that of “folk legend more profoundly understood—a development, in fact, of Medieval Christianity.”3 Moral sanction for Jessica's behavior can in fact be found within that tradition.

Jessica's sense of values is not unrealistic. It has roots, rather, in those aspects of ancient Hebrew tradition which foreshadow Christian ethics. Her very name, as has been noted by Israel Gollancz and by Barbara Lewalski, is a form of Hebrew Iscah (Gen. 11:29), which Elizabethan commentators glossed as meaning “she that looketh out”; and this meaning is reflected in her looking “out at window” for Lorenzo's coming. In doing so, Jessica disobeys the repressive decree of Shylock (whose name probably derives from shalach, translated “cormorant” in Deut. 14:17), but her action may be likened to that of Daniel, who prayed at his window (Dan. 6:10) despite a decree forbidding such piety. Jessica's readiness to venture by faith in a “promise” is an attitude characteristic of the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets. Her departure with Lorenzo the Christian, therefore, as Professor Lewalski suggests, can be attributed to an Israelite righteousness of faith, which by obeying spirit over letter anticipates the New Law's superseding of Old Law.4

Strictly speaking, Old Law is represented by Shylock only distortedly and out of context. When he cries out for “Justice” and interprets Jessica's act of taking treasure as stealing, he is ignoring a paradigm of justice set by Moses which Shakespeare very likely had in mind. In Exodus 3:21-22 (a text which Shylock as a Jew ought to know and respect), God instructed Moses that “when ye go [out of Egypt], ye shall not go empty: But every woman shall borrow of her neighbour, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians.” Shylock seems to have forgotten Israel's own practice in leaving Pharaoh's house. For if this charter event in the history of Judaism justified a spoiling of Egyptian wealth, how can Shylock logically object to Jessica's taking ducats and jewels in fleeing his own house, which has become, as Jessica says, a hell? The irony of course is that Shylock has no logic except that of greed since he is, as Lorenzo rightly remarks, a “faithless” Jew. He is no true son of the Jewish worthies he invokes—Jacob, Abraham, and Daniel. On the contrary, when Shylock raises his knife in the courtyard scene, Shakespeare is emblematizing a parody of Abraham's “sacrifice”; and earlier, when Shylock terms Antonio a “fawning publican,” audiences could be expected to recognize that Shylock unwittingly is describing himself since usury is an extortionist taxing like that for which biblical Jews ostracized publicans.

Exodus 3:21-22 (along with 11:2 and 12:35) was a text well known in Christian commentary. Augustine had applied it, in a broad sense, to the general problem of how Christians should treat pagan arts and letters. These Egyptian treasures, he said, are to be taken from idolators who misuse them: “When the Christian separates himself in spirit from their miserable society,” he should take, hold, and “convert” their treasure to Christian uses (De Doctrina, II.40). This interpretation was quoted with approval by Elizabethan moralists such as William Baldwin and Thomas Bowes.5 The text, moreover, furnished a standard instance for illustrating the difference between seeming theft and real theft. Tertullian, for example, justified the Israelites by explaining that their depriving the Egyptians of gold and silver was no fraudulent act but rather “compensation for their hire, which they were unable in any other way to exact from their masters.”6 And Aquinas, similarly, declared the Israelite taking of the spoils of the Egyptians to be “no theft,” because God ordered it “on account of the ill-treatment accorded [the Israelites] by the Egyptians without any cause” (Summa Theologica, II-II.66.5). According to Aquinas,

when a man's property is taken from him, if it be due that he should lose it, this is not theft or robbery as forbidden by the decalogue. Consequently, when the children of Israel, by God's command, took away the spoils of the Egyptians, this was not theft, since it was due to them by the sentence of God.

(S.T. II-I.100.8)

Echoing the medieval view, Reformation theologians also commended the action of the Israelites. They tended to make its ethics somewhat more baffling, however, by retaining the word “theft” in their descriptions. Thus the Lutheran Wolfgang Musculus, stretching paradox to the point of apparent contradiction, commented on the spoiling of the Egyptians:

What was that other than theft? And yet it is not onely excused by Gods commaundemente, whereof we reade Exod. xi. But it deserueth also cõmendation of obedience. For they did (sayeth Moyses) as the Lord commaunded, and to do that which the Lord commaundeth, is the praise of true obedience.7

A similar view appears in the note added by Tyndale to the conclusion of Genesis in his translation of the Pentateuch (1530):

Jacob robbed Laban his uncle: Moses robbed the Egyptians: And Abraham is about to slay and burn his own son: And all are holy works, because they are wrought in faith at God's commandment. To steal, rob and murder are no holy works before worldly people: but unto them that have their trust in God: they are holy when God commandeth them.

Commentary of this kind tends to reduce the moral issue to the single extenuating circumstance of God's commanding without explaining why God might so command. Commentators who followed Aquinas were more reasonable in that they sought to explain God's command on the grounds of natural law and justice. Auditors of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, therefore, might have been more ready to approve Jessica's so-called “theft” if their orientation was to the Old Faith than if their orientation was of Protestant vintage.

Yet the paradigm itself, to any Elizabethan who remembered it, would suggest justification for Jessica's action. Moreover, as the quotation from Tyndale suggests, justification for Jessica's “theft” also might be found in Genesis 31, in the episode of Jacob's spoiling Laban of his sheep and other possessions (an incident which immediately follows the rod-peeling incident with which Shylock was familiar). Did Jacob commit theft? The Anglican Andrew Willet thought not. Jacob (Israel) did no more than recover what was rightly his. Willet's commentary reads:

who knoweth not, that God beeing Lord of all, may transferre the right of things from one to another, where no other inferior title or propertie is challenged: as God gave the land of the Canaanites the auncient possessors thereof, to the Israelites [Ex. 3:8]. … Iacob by this meanes doeth recouer but his owne, which was due vnto him in a double right both in respect of his 20. yeares seruice, all which time he serued without wages.

[Gen. 29-31]8

This paradigm, as well as the one from Exodus, ought to have given Shylock pause before denoucing Jessica as a thief, for, again ironically, it is he who is behaving like a Laban or a Pharaoh. In this context Shylock's outcry over “my Christian ducats” doubles the irony since in fact the ducats have been wrongfully extorted from Christians (through usury) and now are being rightfully “used” by Christians.

Unlike her father, Jessica remains faithful to the paradigms of historic sudaism. Like the Israelites of old, she seeks to escape from Shylock's all-too-Egyptian house of bondage to a land of promise. Like Jacob, she takes with her property to which she has a natural right.9 And like Rachel (of whom Ambrose remarked “Happy was Rachel who concealed the false idols”10), Jessica carries off, concealed under her clothes, her father's household gods, his barren metal. Although she has no more intention than her forebears had of returning “borrowed” property, only to worldly eyes will her action seem theft (the employment of an evil means). Instead, leaving her father to cleave to her husband, Jessica uses worldly wealth for nature's increase, that of happiness through marriage. Shylock, misapplying Jacob's example, uses his wealth for unnatural increase, that of making money breed money.

Like the Egyptians, Shylock is an extortioner—a usurer. In terms of traditional theology he is a thief. Indeed, he is more than a thief. According to Anglican Bishop Robert Sanderson, a usurer

sinneth against the sixt Commandement [that against killing], by distempering his body; he sinneth against the seventh [that against adultery], by enflaming his lust; he sinneth against the eighth [that against stealing], by making waste of the good Creatures of God.11

Properly classified, maintained Phillip Caesar, usurers are “wasters, pollers, stealers of holie thynges, Theeues, Murtherers, Idolaters. …”12 Similarly, wrote Leonard Wright, a usurer is “worse than Judas. … There is no more mean in this vice, than is in thefte, adulterie, and murther.”13 As a usurer Shylock has no moral right to his stolen riches. It is a property which, as a gloss on Proverbs 28:6 in the Geneva Bible states, “God will take awaye … & giue … to him that shal bestowe them wel.”

But if Jessica is not a thief, can she be guilty of the other charges Quiller-Couch would lay on her—for instance, that of “unfilial” behavior? Renaissance canon law (Church of England) forbade clandestine marriages.14 But whether this canon would apply to a “convert” situation is uncertain. Jessica, we need to recall, eloped not only because she was “ashamed to be my father's child” but because she had determined to become a Christian. These are extenuating circumstances which even Desdemona in Othello does not have; yet in Othello the Venetian Senate accepts Desdemona's marriage after hearing her testify that she acted of her own free will. Would Elizabethan moralists have judged more severely?

There is some ground for guessing that Protestants in Shakespeare's audience may have been more hesitant than Catholics to approve Jessica's elopement. It was customary among the Reformers to interpret the marriage contract as a matter restricted by the commandment to honor one's father and mother. Peter Martyr, for instance, writes:

Paule saith to the Ephesians; Children obeie your parents in all things. He excepteth nothing, when he writeth so: but saith, In all things: Namelie, which they command not against the word of God. And in his first epistle to the Corinthians, the seuenth chapter, is most manifestlie declared, that it belongeth to the parents to giue their daughters in marriage to husbands.

… So then it seemeth maruellous, that christians at this daie determine, that marriages are lawfull, without consent of the parents.15

Henry Bullinger and Edwin Sandys echo this Protestant view.16 If children cast aside their parents, says Bullinger, the parents may refuse and disannul the children's promise. Citing Colossians 3:20 as his proof text, Sandys calls marriage without parental consent a fault not only “most heinous in the sight of God” but condemned also by “the law of nature, the law civil, the law canon, and the opinion of the best writers.”

But Bullinger indicates an awareness (as does Martyr in his final sentence cited above) that some Christians (Catholics) hold a view differing from his own:

I wonder what the papisticall bokes & learned men dyd meane, whan they taught that the consent only of both the parties doth faste[n] the matter, & coupleth the[m] togither in marriage: the cõsent of ye pare[n]tes also, say they [the papists] is good with all, but whan two [the lovers] haue cõsented, and one hath taken the other, ye knot can not be vnknyt, neyther maye the parentes seperate the[m] from a sunder.17

The opinion which Bullinger questions is well expounded by Aquinas. St. Thomas gives the Colossians text a somewhat different interpretation. He explains (S.T. II-II.104.5) that when the Apostle says (Col. 3:20), “Children, obey your parents in all things,” he is referring to matters within the sphere of a father's or master's authority but not to matters in which a person is subject immediately under God, by whose higher authority each person is taught “either by the natural or by the written law.” And on the specific matter of contracting marriage, Aquinas says:

The maid is in her father's power, not as a female slave without power over her own body, but as a daughter, for the purpose of education. Hence, in so far as she is free, she can give herself into another's power without her father's consent, even as a son or daughter, since they are free, may enter religion without their parents’ consent.

(S.T. Suppl. 45.5)

Note how, for Aquinas, freedom to marry is a right parallel to that of taking a religious vow. This is quite evident in his discussion elsewhere (S.T. III.68.10) of “Whether Children of Jews or Other Unbelievers Should be Baptized Against the Will of their Parents.” He replies:

The children of unbelievers either have the use of reason or they have not. If they have, then they already begin to control their own actions, in things that are of Divine or natural law. And therefore of their own accord, and against the will of their parents, they can receive Baptism, just as they can contract marriage.

Aquinas allows a validity even to secret marriage since all that is essentially necessary to a true marriage are “words of the present expressive of consent” by the two contracting parties (S.T. Suppl. 45.5). All else, he explains, belongs to the “fittingness” of the sacrament rather than to its essence. Yes, he says, the Church's canon law does forbid clandestine marriages, but simply as a safeguard because secret marriages are often liable to fraud by one of the parties, or to hasty unions later repented of, and because also there is something “disgraceful” about them. Secret marriage is therefore a sin unless the lovers have a lawful motive for being excused.

Aquinas’ view upholds a concept which Protestant commentators questioned. Yet, so far as Jessica is concerned, the disagreement is more apparent than real. For in eloping with Lorenzo, Jessica, a Jew, agreed to become a Christian. To Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, this was a commendable action. Jessica's motive was the lawful one of becoming a Christian and a true wife. Rightly then she answers Launcelot Gobbo's teasing, in a comic scene, that she is damned by her heredity to Shylock and without hope unless not “got” of her father. “I shall be sav’d by my husband,” she replies (cf. Eph. 5:23), “he hath made me a Christian.” Fleshly fatherhood cannot determine Jessica's moral choice. True, the Fifth Commandment requires children to honor their parents (Deut. 5:16). But the New Testament adds a stipulation: “… in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1-2). Rightly speaking, then, only by disobeying Shylock could Jessica obey the Lord. The logic of this statement may sound harsh. But it is fundamentally both Christian and Hebraic. “Children ought not to obey their parents,” wrote Henry Bullinger,

if they command any thing contrary to God, or preiudicall to his law. Jonathan obeyed not his father Sauls commandem˜et who charged him to persecute Dauid: and therefore is he worthily cõmended in ye holy Scriptures. The 3. companions of Daniel obeyed Nabuchodnozor in al that he said, they loued him, & reuerenced him as a most mightie, puissant, & bountifull king, but so soone once as he charged them to fall to idolatrie, they set not a button by his commaundement. And S. Peter, who taught vs the honor & obedie[n]ce yt wee owe to our parents & magistrates, whe[n] he was commãded by ye princes & fathers of ye people, not to preach Christ crucified to ye people any more, did answere them, that we ought to obey God more thã men.18

Obeying God rather than man, Jessica marries Lorenzo. At the same time she takes precaution against fraud and rashness. A seeming disgracefulness, it is true, is present and acknowledged by Jessica—in her reference, for example, to the “shame” of her boy's clothing (a matter which Puritan theory judged sinful but which Aquinas would have excused);19 and a guise of impropriety is acknowledged by Lorenzo likewise, in his saying that he is playing thief. But of genuine disgracefulness there is none. Jessica's exchange of vows with Lorenzo is, in fact, not wholly secret, since it is spoken in the presence of Lorenzo's friends as witnesses, while Lorenzo calls on “Heaven and thy thoughts” as witness. To mere “seeming” can be attributed whatever aura of scandal the elopement involves; unfilialness and disloyalty are not its moral substance.

But if we can thus clear Jessica of unfilialness as well as thievishness, what shall we say to a third and related charge that she is guilty of deceit and dissimulation? She does of course dissimulate her sex when she dresses as a boy, an action to which surely no auditor who approves Portia's similar disguising can morally object. But what of Jessica's verbal deception when asked by Shylock regarding what Launcelot Gobbo has been whispering in her ear? Is she telling a lie when she replies: “His words were ‘Farewell mistress,’ nothing else”? In her defense let us note that “Farewell” can have a double meaning: there is no lie in her reporting that the substance was that she fare well. One can also note that no lie is involved in simply holding back the amplifying details of what was said. An audience familiar with moral theology would have no difficulty in approving Jessica's reply.

Both Catholic and Protestant theologians distinguished between lying and dissimulating. Liars, said William Perkins, are guilty of three things: first, of saying what is false indeed; second, of doing so willingly, knowing it to be false; and third, of doing so with a motive of malice.20 Dissimulation, on the other hand, is of two kinds, according to Peter Martyr:

One, which hath respect onelie to deceiue; the which, seeing it differeth not much from a lie, vndoubtedlie it is sin. If one, being wicked, doo faine himselfe to be honest and godlie, the same is an hypocrite; & in that he dissembleth, he sinneth greeuouslie. … But there is an other kind of dissimulation, which tendeth not to the deceiuing of anie man; but serueth onlie to keepe counsell secret, least they should be hindered: and this dissimulation is not to be refused, or condemned as sinne, seeing (as we haue alreadie declared) it is not alwaies required that we should open whatsoeuer truth we doo knowe.21

Similarly, wrote Andrew Willett, dissimulation is commendable

I. When it is done for deliuerance out of daunger, without the hurt of an other, as Dauid by faining himselfe madde, escaped, …

II. When one dissembleth to profit his brother, as … [when] our Sauiour made shewe, as though he would haue gone further [Lk. 24:28], to trie the humanitie of the two disciples.22

In Shakespeare's play, do we not recognize the first of these kinds of dissimulation (wicked hypocrisy) in Shylock's bargain with Antonio but the second kind (permissible deception) in Jessica? Jessica dissimulates; that is, she conceals the truth, yet her dissimulation is not evil. Indeed, for her action she is more to be praised than blamed.

Discussions of lying and dissimulation by medieval theologians present much the same point of view. “To pretend is not always a lie,” said Aquinas, “but only when the pretense has no signification” (S.T. II-II.111.1, quoting Augustine). It is necessary to get at the sense. Abraham, when he said Sara was his sister, wished to hide the truth, not to tell a lie, for she was in fact his half-sister (Gen. 20:12); and Jacob's assertion that he was Esau was spoken in a mystical sense, because Esau's birthright was due Jacob by right, and Jacob spoke moved by a spirit of prophecy to signify a mystery, namely, that the younger should supplant the firstborn. Sometimes, Aquinas insisted, words contain truth in a figurative or prophetic sense; and sometimes truth may be kept prudently hidden. No lie is involved in such cases. Moreover, although lying in itself is always a sin, its gravity is diminished when it is intended to help another person, or to save him from being injured; and the greater the good intended, the more the sin of lying is diminished. No mortal sin is involved in an “officious” lie or a “jocose” lie where its end is not contrary to charity (S.T. II-II.110-11). In the light of such analysis, surely Jessica's deception of her father should be judged as at most no more than a venial fault, and probably not even that.

Indeed, the more Jessica's dissimulation is examined, the more it seems prophetic and a prefiguring of later events in the play. Jessica's masking as a page and torchbearer foreshadows, as Theodore Weiss has noted, the later action of Portia, when as a masked lawyer-page she is a torchbearer to Bassanio, by bringing light to bear against Shylock (“So shines a good deed in a naughty world”23). Shakespeare links Jessica and Portia by involving both in a secret departure from home—in the one case, with resulting dismay by a father; in the other, with resulting bafflement (in Act V) by a husband. Both of these plotted surprises have as their lesson the theme that a duty-to-save transcends conventional submissiveness. Also, in the play's structure, Jessica's bringing news to Portia of Shylock's villainy provides Portia the impetus for her own decision to undertake a pilgrimage—whose benefits, mysteriously, redound to everyone, including Jessica and Lorenzo. Portia, acting as Balthazar-Daniel, in a sense completes the exodus from pharaonic Judaism begun by Jessica. For Portia's Daniel role, figuratively, effects and fulfills the promise to Abraham that by his “seed” all families of the earth would be blessed.

“If e’er the Jew her father come to Heaven,” Lorenzo had remarked in Act II, “It will be for his gentle daughter's sake.” The gentle daughter's sake, in the trial scene in Act IV, is no doubt chiefly what inspires Antonio's proposal for Shylock's baptism and his deeding of property as an inheritance for Jessica. Note how this “deed” makes the Lorenzo marriage fully legal by imputing parental consent and also how it opens up a hope of rebinding father to daughter by providing both the conditions and the means. Are you contented? Portia asks Shylock, and he replies: “I am content.” Within the context of the play there is now for him a meaningful future—a future which would not have been possible had he succeeded in his earlier wish to have Jessica married to a Barabbas. Thus Jessica's dissimulation, far from injuring her father, actually has forwarded his only hope of faring well—in this respect like the benefit which young Jacob bestowed on the dim-sighted Isaac of biblical story.

Considering all the ways in which traditional theology would sanction Jessica's actions, what flaw in Jessica can critics allege? We have answered Quiller-Couch's catalogue of accusations—except perhaps for the charge of frivolity. Conceivably Sir Arthur might cite as evidence Jessica's honeymoon lark of trading off for a monkey the turquoise ring Shylock was given by Leah, or Jessica's spending fourscore ducats during a night of festivity in Genoa. But is frivolity a sin on festive occasions? If so, we would have to fault equally the frivolity of Portia in Act V, including her “monkey-business” jesting about her ring. Surely, however, mockery is appropriate to festival. And as for extraordinary spending, this was deemed unthrifty only by a Shylock who despised parties. Moreover, Shylock's anguish over the Leah-ring is suspect. Why had he ceased wearing the ring if he still valued Leah? If we consider that on the night of his daughter's flight his dreams were not of Leah but of money bags (an ironic contrast to Jacob's dream of a ladder-to-heaven), we may infer that Shylock's sentiment for Leah was no more than afterthought to justify self-pity and indignation. And if, nevertheless, we yet wonder why Jessica could treat the Leah-ring so cavalierly, perhaps the answer is that both in Scripture and in tradition Leah (the “blear-eyed” wife who symbolizes mere practicality) is less valued than Rachel, symbol of the contemplative life and of Israel's and mankind's higher hope. St. Ambrose, in the treatise we cited earlier, associates Leah with the letter-of-the-law and Rachel with grace, a spirit which supersedes the weak vision of the synagogue. Such a Rachel is Jessica.

A conjoining of playfulness and insight wraps up the play's action. Act V begins and ends on this note. In the finale a harmonizing of jest and deeper truth sounds its music from the moment Lorenzo and Jessica come on stage pretending in themselves a likeness to Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Aeneas and Dido, or Jason and Medea. The jest depends on the fact that the love story of Lorenzo and Jessica has only a surface likeness to these instances of pagan dotage. Jessica's “stealing” from home has not been like Thisbe’s, benightedly rash and accompanied by the solitary music of fearful sighs and weeping moans; nor has Lorenzo “stolen” Jessica's soul with Troilus-like sighs. Their love has been neither willowy nor unthrift nor dismayed by shadows. All such comparisons “slander” their love, as Lorenzo wittily concludes, and can easily be “outnighted,” as Jessica says. For their own venture in love has not been one of tragic miscarriage; it has brought them, rather, to Belmont and the care of its beautiful mountain. And as they await the return of Belmont's pilgrim-mistress, there creeps into their ears, as Lorenzo says, the melody of the music of the spheres:

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patents of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-ey’d cherubins.


Here the word patens suggests, as scholars such as Malone and others long ago noted, an allusion by Shakespeare to the metal plates upon which the bread of the sacrament customarily was placed in Catholic Eucharists.24 If we follow this suggestion, the orbs are both singing and offering themselves up to God, thus celebrating a cosmic Eucharist. It is the grandest liturgical image in all of Shakespeare. Lorenzo pauses over it long enough to regret that our “muddy vesture of decay” hampers our hearing the music.

The observation is apt. For although the lovers have transcended Shylock's dislike of music, they can be granted only a momentary sense of heaven's music before returning to their earthly duty of striking up a Belmont music to welcome Portia's homecoming. She then, as a little candle come home, will reveal through jesting riddle a human and more-than-human mystery of wedlock's ring: it is a double bond in which doctor or physician is the hidden meaning behind and within that of wife. “By this ring,” says Portia, “the Doctor lay with me.” This paradox of a love secretly remedial while also wifely is the truth of the play as a whole. Human duty is most truly moral when grace and gratitude overarch obedience to mere literal code. In the subplot, Jessica's escaping from legalism into the freedom of a true but seemingly disgraceful marriage has paralleled, anticipatively, this same theme. Jessica, like Portia, transcends run-of-the-mill codes for the sake of what is most fundamentally moral, a pilgrimage of salvation. Shakespeare intends auditors of his play to be enlightened by this paradox and to receive its “increase” as Lorenzo and Jessica do the comforting manna of Shylock's deed at the play's end. Manna, in John 6 and in medieval interpretation, is a figure for the Eucharist. Toward that symbol the play and its world of comedy have been moving.


  1. Introduction to the New Cambridge Merchant of Venice (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1926), p. xx.

  2. Shakespeare (London: J. Cape, 1936), pp. 192-94.

  3. Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (Westminster: P. S. King and Staples, 1944), p. 82.

  4. “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly, 13 (1962), 327-43.

  5. See Baldwin's “Prologue to the Reader,” in his A Treatise of Morall Phylosophye (London, 1547), and the Bowes “Epistle Dedicatorie” to a translation of The French Academie (London, 1586).

  6. “Against Marcion,” IV.24, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, trans. Roberts and Donaldson (Buffalo, 1885), III, 387. Long before Tertullian, the Jewish philosopher Philo had advanced this interpretation. The action of the Hebrews was right, he explained, because in the spoil they took “they were but receiving a bare wage for all their time of service,” a payment long held back. See “On the Life of Moses, ” in Philo, trans. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press. 1961), I.xxv.

  7. Common Places of Christian Religion, trans. John Man (London, 1578), p. 219. The Reformers tended to argue, however, that the special privileges of the patriarchs were not in the present day to be normally revived; see Bainton's essay in The Cambridge History Of The Bible, ed. S. L. Greenslade (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1963), III, 14. England's King James reflects this Protestant view when, in his Trewe Law (1598), p. 60 in McIlwain edition (New York: Russell and Russell, 1965), he questions whether Israelite “theft” on coming out of Egypt and Jacob's “lying” to his parent are not “extraordinary examples” inapplicable under modern conditions.

  8. Hexapla in Genesin (London, 1608), p. 194. Similarly, Calvin writes in Commentaries on … Genesis, trans. John King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), II, 156, that God “purposed to connect his grace with the labour and diligence of Jacob, that he might openly repay to him those wages of which he had been so long defrauded.”

  9. Among today's commentators on Jessica, several have defended her taking of Shylock's ducats as being a marriage portion rightfully owed her by Shylock. See, e.g., Bernard Grebanier, The Truth About Shylock (New York: Random House, 1962), pp. 201-02, and Warren Smith, “Shakespeare's Shylock,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 15 (1964), 197. This view, in fact, was the fifteenth-century Masuccio's in the tale Shakespeare probably used as his source (see Bullough, Sources, I, 497-505); Masuccio sees the miser-father as getting his due.

  10. “Jacob and the Happy Life,” 5.25, trans. M. P. McHugh, Fathers of the Church (Washington: McGrath, 1972), pp. 160-61.

  11. XXXIV Sermons, 5th ed. (London, 1671), p. 203.

  12. A general Discovrse Against … Vsurers (London, 1578), sig. 3v.

  13. A Summons For Sleepers (London, 1589), p. 9. See also John Jewell, An Exposition Vpon … Thessalonians (1583), Works, ed. John Ayre, Parker Society (Cambridge, 1867) pp. 853-54; and C. T. Wright, “The Usurer's Sin in Elizabethan Literature,” Studies in Philology, 35 (1938), 178-94.

  14. Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiasticall, 1604, ed. H. A. Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), Canon C; also (in Canon LXII) a publication of marriage banns was required unless dispensed for special reason (as of course was done in the case of Shakespeare's own marriage).

  15. The Common Places … trans. Anthonie Marten (London, 1583), II, 432.

  16. Bullinger, The golde[n] boke of cristen matrimonye, trans. Theodore Basille (London, 1543), fols. x-xii; Sandys, Sermons (1585), ed. John Ayre, Parker Society (Cambridge, 1842), p. 281. See also Louis B. Wright, Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1935), pp. 205-11.

  17. The golde[n] boke, fol. x.

  18. Godly and learned Sermons, trans. H. I. (London, 1584), I, 146.

  19. Citing Deut. 22:5, Puritan treatises are full of objections to women who “unsex” themselves. Phillip Stubbes, in his Anatomy of Abuses (1583), ed. F. J. Furnival, New Shakespeare Society, Series VI (London, 1879), I, 73, insisted that women who wear men's clothes “may not improperly be called Hermaphroditi, that is, Monsters of bothe kindes, half women, half men.” Aquinas, on the other hand, judged that although it is in itself sinful for a woman to wear men's clothes, “Nevertheless this may be done sometimes without sin on account of some necessity, either in order to hide oneself from enemies, or through lack of other clothes, or for some similar motive (S.T. II-II.169.2). Shakespeare obviously shared this view, as his whole theater-practice makes evident.

  20. Workes, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, 1631), III, 266.

  21. The Common Places, II, 541. Nurses and physicians, Martyr has explained, use good guile and a profitable feigning toward the sick.

  22. Hexapla, p. 291. See also John Marbeck, A Booke Of Notes and Common places (London, 1581), p. 628; and John Downame, A Treatise Against Lying (London: 1636), pp. 15-16, 41-45, 69-74.

  23. The Breath of Clowns and Kings (New York: Atheneum, 1971), p. 130.

  24. See the Furness Variorum Merchant of Venice (1888), pp. 246-47; and J. H. De Groot, The Shakespeares and the Old Faith (New York: King's Crown Press, 1946), p. 176. Quotations from Shakespeare follow Russell Brown's text in the Arden edition (1964).

Michael H. Keefer (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9655

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 Shakespeare's darkest tragedy, that “fierce dispute,” as Keats called it, “Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay.”3 The Blakean images in question are that of the weeping Urizen, the Ancient of Days, who in one of the plates from Europe: A Prophecy (1794) is represented setting a compass upon the face of the deep, and the painting, which now hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, of King Lear grasping a downturned sword.4 These two figures are recognizably close in inspiration: the brows of both are furrowed by the same lines, and their flowing hair and beards are blown across their right shoulders by what might be the same wind.

Blake was I think right in intuiting such a resemblance. The central argument of this paper is that the relationship between Shakespeare's Lear and the powers which preside over King Lear is (though with obvious differences) alarmingly like what Blake saw in the book of Job. I wish to show that Calvin's God—who was for most purposes also the God of the Elizabethan Anglican Church,5 and whose similarity to Blake's tyrannical Urizen need hardly be demonstrated—is a pervasive presence in this play. I will argue that by a species of synecdoche it is Lear himself who makes us aware of this presence, and that the play incorporates a sustained dramatic meditation upon what Calvin called “accommodation,” the process by which a wholly unintelligible and incomprehensible deity represents himself, in human terms, to mankind.6

To take this line of approach is not, I hope, to reduce the play to a theological allegory. For while this paper is indebted to previous attempts to understand the religious overtones of the play in their relation to the massive discords which compose King Lear as a whole,7 it differs from most such attempts in one important respect. King Lear has tempted many of its interpreters into allegory; L. C. Knights went so far as to describe it as “a universal allegory.”8 But the dominant mode by which King Lear incorporates Christian allusions is not, I think, allegorical—at least in the sense in which critics of the play have usually understood allegory. I would propose that although this latter mode may be persistently implied by the homiletic and emblematic features of the play, the continuities which it would suggest are shattered by the competing presence of other more disturbing modes of allusive figuration.

I am concerned with synecdoche primarily as a figure of thought through which an individual recapitulates or incorporates the attributes of a higher order of being that, in a sense, encloses him. This figure might be seen as linked in various ways to allegorical figuration, to that form of metonymy which substitutes effect for cause, and to the metaphysical doctrine of correspondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm (a doctrine which, as Kenneth Burke observed, is synecdochic in nature).9 But the kind of synecdoche in which I am interested differs from all of these, in that the relationships which it establishes between the individual, the transferred attributes which he incorporates, and the order of being to which these properly belong are not natural or integral ones;10 on the contrary, these relationships are recognizably discordant and ironic. The emphasis falls, not upon the likeness of the two terms linked by this figure, but on their incommensurability.

Accommodation, the other form of allusive figuration which concerns me, must be approached in a different manner. I have already suggested that it is present in King Lear in a displaced form, as the object of a sustained dramatic meditation, rather than directly. This could hardly be otherwise, since “accommodation,” as used here, is a theological term which arose in the first place out of the interpretive need of theologians to reconcile the human attributes ascribed to God in various scriptural passages with indications elsewhere in the Bible of his unchanging nature and transcendent otherness. Origen, for example, wrote in the third century that “the Logos of God seems to have arranged the scriptures, using the method of address which fitted the ability and benefit of the hearers. … The Logos speaks like this because he assumes, as it were, human characteristics for the advantage of men. There was no need for the multitude that the words put into God's mouth, which were intended to be addressed to them, should correspond to His real character.”11

In a scriptural context, the notion of accommodation confers authority upon the practice of allegorical exegesis; Origen is one of the great allegorizers in the Christian tradition. But once the notion is displaced into a secular text, it can only undercut allegorical allusiveness in the most radical manner. Accommodation as a scriptural mode of figuration is, in effect, allegory through the looking-glass—a form of “dark conceit” whose tenor and whose author are one and the same. What is figured by accommodation is also the agent of figuration and its inventor. A divinely authored discourse thus serves to bridge the chasm of incomprehensibility which separates the divine from the human. But in bridging this chasm, in making the unknowable known in terms appropriate to the forms of human understanding, the discourse of accommodation is unavoidably duplicitous. The knowledge which it offers rests upon natural analogies—yet since the object of this knowledge transcends any possible analogy, the whole process must be in some sense fictive. The discourse of accommodation is thus, if you like, a kind of metafiction; although it signifies the transcendent being of whom it is a self-representation, its insistent subtext is the chasm which necessitates this bridging discourse, and which makes it fictive.12 Lacking the divine authority which empowers scriptural accommodations, a secular displacement of this discourse becomes overtly fictive.

This structure may inspire subversive reflections as to the actual origins of theological accommodations. Two millennia before the birth of Jean Calvin, the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes proclaimed the existence of “One god, greatest among gods and men, in no way similar to mortals either in body or in thought.”13 But unlike Calvin, whose emphasis upon divine transcendence is supported by an unusually heavy and systematic reliance upon the idea of accommodation,14 he also dismissed anthropomorphic notions of divinity as the creations of mortals after their own varying likenesses—remarking, for example, that if horses and cattle had hands, “horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, and cattle like cattle. …”15 It would be helpful to be able to say that this “learned Theban” also speculated about “the cause of thunder” (III.iv.152,154). But alas, it was Anaximander rather than Xenophanes who could have helped the mad Lear (their approximate contemporary, according to Holinshed's dating) in his meteorological inquiries—and Xenophanes was born in the city of Colophon, not Thebes.16 Nevertheless, certain aspects of King Lear—most obviously Lear's and Edgar's shared concern to “show the Heavens more just” (III.iv.36)—form part of a similar structure of thought, one in which accommodation, displaced from a scriptural to a secular and supposedly pagan context, no longer serves allegory but subverts it. After considering this structure, I will turn in the concluding section of this paper to an analysis of the manner in which, through a form of synecdoche, Calvin's God is made an active presence in this play.


A pivotal moment in the dramatic unfolding of King Lear is Lear's recognition of poor Tom as “the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art” (III.iv.104-06). The word “unaccommodated” in this speech comes to us as part of an already immensely complex movement of words, events, and stage-images, which might be crudely summarized by referring to Lear's loss of authority, possessions, social and familial function, followers, shelter, and, in this passage, of reason itself. But what, more precisely, does this word mean, and what overtones does it carry?

One might do worse than to begin such an inquiry by turning to Act III, scene ii of King Henry IV, Part Two. This scene contains what could be thought of as a teasingly proleptic commentary on the notion of accommodation as it later appears in King Lear. Justice Shallow ought by right to be an authority on the subject, since Falstaff's memory of the young Shallow at Clement's Inn is, in its own way, a vision of unaccommodated man: “When a was naked, he was for all the world like a forked radish, with a head fantastically carved upon it with a knife. A was so forlorn, that his dimensions to any thick sight were invisible; a was the very genius of famine, yet”—Falstaff adds, as though in comic anticipation of poor Tom's injunction to “keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets” (III.iv.94-95), and Lear's devolution into sexual disgust—“yet lecherous as a monkey, and the whores called him mandrake” (III.ii.304-09).17 Unfortunately, though, even if one could believe that the word which so pleases Shallow earlier in this scene has any connection with Lear and poor Tom, Shallow's venture onto the wide seas of semantic disputation is a brief one: “‘Accommodated’—it comes of ‘accommodo’; very good, a good phrase” (III.ii.70-71). And it seems characteristic of his fellow inquirer, “honest Bardolph, whose zeal burns in his nose” (II.iv.326-27), that his words shed less light than does his face: “Accommodated: that is, when a man is, as they say, accommodated, or when a man is being whereby a may be thought to be accommodated; which is an excellent thing” (III.ii.76-79).

At the beginning of King Lear, the king (as Falstaff would be the first to say) is grossly thick-sighted. “See better, Lear,” cries Kent (I.i.157), but thanks to Lear's furious rashness, Kent is replaced as the “true blank of [his] eye” (158)—first by the Fool, and subsequently by poor Tom. When on the heath the thing itself, unaccommodated man, becomes visible to Lear in the form of Edgar disguised by near-nakedness, his recognition of this shape as an example of a universal (parallel to Falstaff's description of Shallow as “the very genius of famine”) has already been prepared for by his “prayer” outside the hovel—a meditation is addressed, not to the gods, but rather to the “Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are, / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm …” (III.iv.28-29). Similarly, Lear's response to this recognition—“Off, off, you lendings!” (III.iv.106-07)—is conditioned by the last lines of that meditation:

O! I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, Pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the Heavens more just.


The concluding half-line of this speech is at once magnificent and slightly odd. Lear has moved from the apocalyptic tone of his great outcries in Act III, scene ii, to what might be called the bare outline of a kind of interventionist theodicy. Theodicy, the technical term for the vindication of divine justice, involves the reconciliation through argument of two apparently incompatible things, the manifest imperfections of the world and the goodness of the powers that rule it. Lear, however, is concerned here with action rather than argument, and the implications of this passage are thus thoroughly paradoxical. Humans cannot make the heavens more just than they are. But the human habit of deducing from the observed particular the nature of its presumed universal cause—a habit which in this instance is powerfully reinforced by Lear's synecdochic sense of the macrocosm as reproducing the structures of the microcosm—means that attempts to make human society more just are likely to entail fictive consequences. Like the arguments of a theodicy (which are liable to be perceived as fictive in a less honorable sense), they serve to show the heavens more just—but at the same time constitute an admission that they are not adequately so.

Unaccommodated man is an affront to any possible theodicy. Yet Lear's desire, when confronted with poor Tom, to expose himself to the same wretchedness—to shed even the accommodations of clothing and of reason—merely compounds the problem. For poor Tom is himself a fiction. His naked madness, which is Edgar's strategy of self-preservation, has, in Howard Felperin's words, “the status of a sign emptied of its significance and divorced from the realities of nakedness and madness to which it refers, the absent referent in both cases being supplied by Lear.”18 Since Lear no longer has any “superflux” to distribute, his descent to Tom's level is more than a redoubling of the affront; it is a supplementing of strategic, quasi-fictive disaccommodation with the thing itself.

Appropriately enough, it is Edgar who, in two subsequent scenes of encounter and partial recognition, provides a kind of commentary on this situation. In Act IV, scene i, the blinded Gloucester's apostrophe to his “dear son Edgar” (of whose presence he is unaware) is preceded by the reflection:

I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen,
Our means secure us, and our mere defects
Prove our commodities.


As the cognate word implies, we have reentered with this gnomic paradox the semantic field of “unaccommodated.” Edgar replies with an aside:

O Gods! Who is’t can say “I am at the worst”?
I am worse than e’er I was. … 
And worse I may be yet; the worst is not
So long as we can say “This is the worst.”


The suggestion of these words that even a rock-bottom self-recognition is in a sense fictive—from which we may perhaps draw out the further implication that this fiction constitutes the most basic layer of those accommodations which make man's life worth more than beasts’—seems to reflect upon Lear's act of identifying himself with the wretched of the earth. For this was also, of course, an act of self-recognition. Lear saw poor Tom as, like himself, a discarded father: “… nothing could have subdu’d nature / To such a lowness but his unkind daughters” (III.iv.69-70).

More significant, however, is Edgar's encounter in Act IV, scene vi, with Lear in the full flower of his madness, an encounter which begins with this exchange:

But who comes here?
The safer sense will ne’er accommodate
His master thus.
No, they cannot touch me for coining; I am the king himself.
O thou side-piercing sight!


Edgar's second sentence alludes to Lear's fantastic get-up; he has already been described, two scenes earlier, as “Crown’d with … all the idle weeds that grow / In our sustaining corn” (IV.iv.3-6). More precisely, “accommodate” refers to the process by which he has come to display himself in this form—and at the same time implies a distinction between the image and that which generates it as a representation. Lear's mad response seems to take up and to challenge this implication; he cannot be accused of counterfeiting, because as king he has sole authority over the dissemination of his image. Which is to say that his garb, his chosen self-accommodation, does not misrepresent him. He is authentically mad—and he manages to say as much in one of the few ways which would not be automatically self-refuting.

This encounter provides in several respects a distorted echo of the first meeting between Lear and Edgar on the heath. These are both meetings at the frontier between sanity and madness—but the role of madman is now reversed. And whereas on that first occasion Lear was already approaching the boundary which with poor Tom's help he crossed, Edgar has been moving in the opposite direction; having some forty lines earlier discarded the last pretense of insanity, he is on the way to resuming his proper identity. More importantly, though, both encounters follow immediately an expressed concern with showing the heavens more just. In this instance, Edgar has just stage-managed the extravagant episode of Gloucester's miraculous fall from an imagined cliff—the lesson of which is an overtly fictive theodicy:

… therefore, thou happy father,
Think that the clearest Gods, who make them honours
Of men's impossibilities, have preserved thee.


It is Edgar, if anyone, who could be touched for counterfeiting in this scene. And it is he himself who provides us with the appropriate word to describe this curative trifling with despair. What he has been doing, before Lear's entrance, has been to present his father with an accommodated image—or rather, an accommodated experience—of divinity.

Calvin, who gives repeated emphasis to the “ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and—what is more—depravity and corruption” of mankind, explains the accommodations of scripture as being necessitated by the feebleness of our understanding: “For because our weakness does not attain to [God’s] exalted state, the description of him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand it.”20 Of Edgar's accommodation of the powers that preside over the action of this play, one might say the opposite, that it is Gloucester's enfeebled condition, his willingness to believe that his “other senses grow imperfect / By [his] eyes’ anguish” (, which makes it possible.

From the preceding analysis it would appear that two distinct senses of “accommodation” are active in King Lear. The first belongs to the semantic field surrounding the notion of natural law. Accommodation in this sense is a matter of the humanly necessary creature comforts (psychological as well as material) that rise out of a coherent system of bonds of mutal love and obligation; “unaccommodated man” is at the zero degree of human existence which corresponds to total exclusion from such a system. Accommodation in the second sense is a matter of self-presentation, whether divine or human. The statements of identity which it implies are insistently fictive, either because the attributes which define the self are taken by catachresis from some alien domain and thus constitute a species of metaphor, or else (which is to say the same thing in different words) because the self which is presented is a fictive construct.

These two meanings of accommodation, while distinct, are closely related in the play. Both are simultaneously present in Edgar's words, “The safer sense will ne’er accommodate / His master thus.” They are linked in other ways as well—and in each case by the same character. Edgar's version of unaccommodated man, who inhabits a world of physical revulsion, sexual disgust, and demonic persecution, might be said to convey an unaccommodated perception of the gods—and the psychological state which corresponds to the fullest form of this perception is madness. Subsequently, though, his linking of the two meanings has a therapeutic end. The astonishing coup de théâtre by which he imposes on his father an accommodated understanding of “the clearest Gods” also serves to accommodate Gloucester himself, in a very limited way, by alleviating his despair. But if a persuasion that the gods care for human lives is thus one of the more basic of human accommodations, so, conversely, the degree to which the gods take on accommodated form depends upon the degree to which human perceivers are themselves accommodated, either by the safety net of natural law or, failing that, by providential interventions, real or faked.


Natural law and divine providence are both burning issues in King Lear—the former in the opening acts especially, while the latter becomes openly problematic only in the last scene of the play. One of the more subtle links between the two is provided by the second mode of allusive figuration with which I am concerned. The species of synecdoche by which Lear himself, in the first scene of Act I, signals the presence in this play of Calvin's God, has everything to do with the question of natural law; and it is in the closing minutes of the play, when the grotesque pietà21 of the dead Cordelia in Lear's dying arms revives echoes of this disjunctive synecdoche, that the notion of divine providence becomes a source rather of horror than of comfort.

But what distinguishes Calvin's God from that of any other Christian theologian? Two things, above all—Calvin's insistence on the complete and uncompromised sovereignty of God's will, and his absolute distinction between grace and nature.22 The autonomy of created beings, the possibility of free will, the very notion of contingency—all these are rejected by Calvin as derogations from the majesty of the Creator. The same emphasis on the divine will permits Calvin to sever at one stroke the tangled knot of scholastic speculations on the relation between free will and God's omniscience; God fore-knows who will be damned and saved, he argues, for the very good reason that he has already willed it.23 If the ethical implications of this notorious doctrine of double predestination are disturbing—the reprobate “have been given over to [their] depravity because they have been raised up by the just but inscrutable judgment of God to show forth his glory in their condemnation”24—so also are the consequences of risking an ethical judgment of it. For, in Calvin's view, to question predestination amounts to “penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit.”25

One need only remember what Theseus found at the heart of another labyrinth in order to see why the issue of accommodation is a crucial one in Calvin's thought. From a human perspective, he admits, events are fortuitous;26 this perception, however, is accommodated by the claim that all things, down to the minutest detail, are determined by providence. Yet Calvin insistently presses beyond this level to one on which his readers are confronted with the difference between the accommodation and the unknowable reality; the attributes of God are hedged about and finally rendered virtually meaningless by repeated assertions of his utter incomprehensibility.27 Contingency, one might say, has been displaced from the phenomenal to a transcendental realm—where it assumes the alarming form of a divine will which the faithful may term inscrutable, but which others (at their own risk) may prefer to call arbitrary and capricious. The supposed source of intelligibility, then, is itself unintelligible.

These problems are compounded by Calvin's theology of grace. By maintaining a rigorous distinction between grace and nature, he condemns out of hand any principle that is natural rather than divine, but at the same time makes it hard to resist the conclusion that God's action in nature is itself perverse. Since this action is all-embracing, it eliminates any real autonomy of secondary causes. For while acknowledging the ordered rhythms of nature, Calvin does not want us to take them for granted, lest our sense of the absoluteness of God's monarchy be impaired. Nature thus becomes a sustained succession of miracles; the sun rises every day by God's command alone, and “not even an abundance of bread would benefit us in the slightest unless it were divinely turned into nourishment.”28 God, then, is omnipresent both in nature and in what we take to be its laws—but to what end?

The Law of Moses, Calvin says, was instituted by God to deprive mankind of any excuse for their inevitable sins; it is “like a mirror. In it we contemplate our weakness, then the iniquity arising from this, and finally the curse coming from both. …”29 And the Law reflects God as well as man; in it “there is a perfect mirror of righteousness.”30 Calvin's understanding of natural law is identical. Nature is a reflection of our fallen state, for both within and around us it is wholly “contaminated by great immorality.”31 At the same time, though, nature shows forth the glory of God: “this skillful ordering of the universe is for us a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible.”32 The true perversity of Calvin's view of nature lies in the fact that these two reflections are closely, perhaps causally, related. For although Calvin plays endless descants on the theme of the Fall, his insistence that God's will is the active cause of every event—including Adam's first disobedience—deprives the Fall of its explanatory force.33 And natural law exists for precisely the same reason as does the Law of Moses. “The purpose of natural law,” Calvin writes, “… is to render man inexcusable.”34

We are thus by nature (which is also to say by the will of God) capable of recognizing what is good and of understanding our own wickedness, but utterly incapable of stemming our evil impulses, or even of wanting to. Any positive sense of natural law has evaporated, leaving a universe that, since its incomprehensible governing will admits no rule of law, is “virtually lawless.”35 All that saves human nature from total wickedness is the constraining and converting action of an external force, God's denaturing grace.36

Certain analogies may by now have begun to suggest themselves between Calvin's universe and “the Lear world”37—between, for example, Calvin's nature and the goddess Edmund serves, or between the Calvinist recoil from nature and the anguished visions of perversity which fill Lear's mind once the bonds of natural law that he initially refused to recognize have collapsed around him. I turn therefore to what Stephen Booth has identified as a “dimness of distinction between Lear and God” at certain points in the play38—which may be a more systematic feature of King Lear than his words imply.

One need not have seen Paul Scofield in the role to recognize Lear, in the first two acts of the play, as in some sense an archaic presence. He does not make the same distinctions between himself and what surrounds him as do the self-contained Cordelia and Kent, the apostles of the plain style, or the utterly selfish Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. If the self is an isolated monad whose skin is its frontier, then it is true, as Regan observes, that Lear “hath ever but slenderly known himself” (I.i.292-93). For he evidently sees his identity as constituted by the whole network of his possessions and social inferiors—and as his words to Goneril in Act II make clear, his daughters are part of this extended self:

But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter,
Or rather a disease that's in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine: thou art a boil,
A plague-sore, or embossed carbuncle,
In my corrupted blood.


A similar meaning may be conveyed by his warning to Kent in the opening scene: “Come not between the Dragon and his wrath” (I.i.121). Almost automatically, one understands by this “the object of his wrath.” But Lear's words make no distinction between the Dragon's wrath and Cordelia, its object. And what this conflation of object and emotion seems to imply is that both are understood by Lear as his attributes—or rather, for the moment, as a single one. Where we would separate subject from object, self from other, he does not. Yet the possibility that Kent could intervene between the Dragon and his attribute, his draconitas, suggests the insecurity of this extended self.39

Other more radical problems with this regal self-extension are already apparent in the broken ritual of Lear's abdication and division of his kingdom. This ritual takes the outer form of a test. Yet as the first lines of his speech reveal, Lear has already decided on his daughters’ dowries:

Meantime, we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom. …


Since the love-test is intended as no more than a ceremonial revelation of this predetermined purpose, Lear has also effectively decided on his daughter's responses. Cordelia, however, challenges his right to do so. When pressed, she replies with a stilted, perhaps spiteful, yet courageous exposition of natural law—of the bonds of love, honor, obedience, care, and duty that mutually tie children to parents and husbands to wives. But her father is interested only in obedience to his will, and the public shame of his daughter's independence, her thwarting of his “darker purpose,” brings out a violent capriciousness.

I am not concerned here with the intriguing question of why, as Alfred Harbage put it, the only daughter who honestly loves her father can respond to him “only with declarations of her love of honesty.”40 What interests me rather is the fact that Cordelia's assertion of natural law is made in the face of a royal power which, in its final gestures as such, is approximating itself to a form of divine rule incompatible with any positive notion of natural law. In effect, Lear's ritual is a displacement into dramatic action of the relation between Calvin's God and the universe he rules; it is a synecdoche of the kind that I have described.

I have commented on Lear's sense of himself as extended into the lives of his offspring and subordinates. Cordelia's talk about her bond is meaningless to him in part because he cannot conceive of his daughters as being separate from his own commanding will to the degree that any form of moral linkage could be required. The curiously proleptic quality of his test of their love—in earlier versions of the story it is a real test, with none of the explicit predetermination that Shakespeare adds to it—corresponds to the vocabulary of Lear's opening speech. This “darker purpose,” “fast intent,” and “constant will” (I.i.35,37,42) is of course properly regal—but similar terms were also currently applied in Elizabethan England to the hidden, fixed, and inscrutable determinations of the Calvinist God.41 As with Calvin's God, who could be opposed only by human or demonic wills whose very motion he himself determined, Lear's language seems scarcely to concede the independent existence of other wills, much less the possibility of any real dissent.

The question of hypocrisy, in this context, acquires real bite. Lear is satisfied with the declarations of Goneril and Regan because their words conform to his will and to his apparent view of his daughters as extensions of himself; their professions of love are a fitting reflection of his regal and paternal beneficence. He is offering his kingdom; they must in return; focus all their love on him. Cordelia's plain words make a radical challenge to this structure. If Goneril and Regan are not what they seem to be, then Lear is not what he thinks he is. Cordelia's love is an expression of the reciprocal ties of natural law, not a response to the manipulations of a single controlling will; it is relation, not reflection, and promises independently willed action, not ceremonial professions. As she says in her own defence, “what I well intend, / I’ll do’t before I speak” (I.i.224-25). By implication, her father should recognize his own will as bound by the same ties, and he should be looking not for those reflections of his generosity which his ritual demands, but for acts of love proceeding out of his real familial relations with his daughters.

Although he speaks of “nature” and of “merit” (I.i.52), Lear is constructing a secular analogue to divine grace. Cordelia's response, because it is autonomous and assumes, moreover, that Lear's will should be governed as much as hers by natural law, amounts for him to a rejection of his “grace”; and it deprives her, in secular terms, of his “grace and favour” (I.i.228). But Lear is no God. Not even a tyrannical king has such power, and his words “Nothing will come of nothing” (I.i.89) alert us to a parallel failing in knowledge. This simple fact of Lear's humanity is the basis of the most thoroughly disjunctive ironies generated by his synecdochic relation to Calvin's God. If the gracious offer of his kingdom could be a continuous one, the hypocrisy of Goneril and Regan would be meaningless; they would necessarily continue to reflect his commanding will that they love him. (In Calvin's Institutes, it is above all those who fail to persevere in grace—who have not, that is, been given the grace to persevere—who are qualified as hypocrites.)42 But as an earthly, not a heavenly king, Lear can only give his kingdom once, and with it he gives his power; a monarch who has abdicated can no longer dispense grace and favor. Released from the constraining need to reflect their father's will, and unhampered by the bonds of natural law, Goneril and Regan at once assert their perversity. And their urgent assessments of Lear's “unruly waywardness” (I.i.297)—which are correct, of course, but what stands out is the coolness, the contempt—are immediately followed by Edmund's exuberant celebration of Nature, the goddess to whose “law”—a law of dog-eat-dog, of usurpation and betrayal—his “services are bound” (I.ii. 1-2).

Once it has been identified, this strange disjunctive synecdoche can be seen to resonate throughout the play. Cordelia's echo of Luke 2:49 in Act IV, scene iv—“O dear father! / It is thy business that I go about” (IV.iv.23-24)—is one instance of this. A clearer echo, and a powerfully ironic one, is evident in Lear's response, two scenes later, to the blind Gloucester's recognition of him: “I know that voice.” The mad king plays an associative game with “I know” that shows him, once again, to be not altogether a pagan:

Ha! Goneril, with a white beard! They flattered me like a dog, and told me I had the white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there. To say “ay” and “no” to everything that I said! “Ay” and “no” too was no good divinity. When the rain came to wet me once and the wind to make me chatter, when the thunder would not peace at my bidding, there I found’em, there I smelt’em out. Go to, they are not men o’their words: they told me I was every thing; ’tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.


In his inability to rule the thunder, in his subjection to ague and to the elements which bring it, Lear has wry evidence that he is not omnipotent, and his repeated “‘ay’ and ‘no’” makes a sliding allusion to at least two New Testament passages. The white and black hairs of Lear's beard evoke, it would seem, the words of the sermon on the mount: “Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay …” (Matthew 5:36-37)—an injunction which is repeated in James 5:12.43 But Lear's recognition that what his elder daughters fed him was precisely a subservient “ay” and “no” seems to summon up, through a kind of lateral drift, the words of St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:18-20: “But as God is true, our word toward you was not yea and nay. … For all the promises of God in [Jesus Christ] are yea. …” The hypocrisy of Goneril and Regan was indeed “no good divinity.”

These shifting allusions are an anachronism; let us then be wholeheartedly anachronistic and say that in the words to which Lear alludes St. Paul is attempting to distinguish his own message from that of Jean Calvin. Through his Word, Calvin's God promises salvation to all who will have faith, yet his hidden will withdraws this promise from all but the elect. This God presents himself as just and merciful, but through his Genevan prophet makes it known that to take these words in any human sense is to mistake the accommodation for the reality. In a very disturbing sense, his word toward us is both “ay” and “no.”

In the last scene of King Lear, the audience is confronted with a related, but infinitely more terrible, conjunction of “ay” and “no”—one in which synecdoche and accommodation, and the related issues of providence and natural law, figure together, with devastating results.

Providential justice is at work in the play; there is evidence of the fact in Edgar's discovery of the plot on Albany's life—which, had it succeeded, would have made Edmund king of England. But what is the quality of this justice; what kind of divine order does it reflect? The most darkly ironic and the best-remembered answer to these questions is offered by the blinded Gloucester when he encounters “poor mad Tom”:

I’th’last night's storm I such a fellow saw,
Which made me think a man a worm. My son
Came then into my mind; and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him. I have heard more since:
As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’Gods:
They kill us for their sport.


But this is quickly countered by Albany's comment on the death of Cornwall: “This shows you are above, / You justicers, that these our nether crimes / So speedily can venge!” (IV.ii.78-80). Albany's reaction to the deaths of Goneril and Regan is a similar one: “This judgment of the heavens, that makes us tremble, / Touches us not with pity” (V.iii.230-31). But “most striking of all” (in Clifford Leech's words)44 are the lines addressed by Edgar to his dying half-brother:

The Gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us;
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.


It is into this context, in which an unaccommodated view of chaos has been more than balanced by the defeat of evil and ensuing perceptions of a strict, though savage, order of providential justice, that Lear bursts with the dead Cordelia in his arms. Stephen Booth has admirably analyzed the agonies of anticipation the audience has been subjected to during this scene by Albany's failure, and later Edgar's as well, to press the essential question of the whereabouts of Lear and Cordelia.45 I shall not repeat that analysis; for my purposes it will suffice to quote Albany's response to the news of Edmund's writ of execution: “The Gods defend her!” (V.iii.254). They have not done so.

Lear's final speeches enact the relation between a horrible and inscrutable reality and the saving illusion of belief in an intelligible order of divine justice. If at the play's end Cordelia were still alive, as Nahum Tate and Samuel Johnson would have her,46 then the problems of providence and natural law would be resolved at once in a great ecstasy of rejoicing. But the response to Lear's entrance with her body is one of apocalyptic horror:

Is this the promis’d end?
Or image of that horror?
Fall and cease.


This spectacle is too appalling for steady contemplation; as I have already suggested, it revives echoes of the synecdochic relation between Lear and Calvin's God—displacing at the same time the traditional image of the pietà, that icon which uniquely mingles human and divine suffering and grief, and supplying in its stead a cancellation of redemptive hopes. Lear's attempts to persuade himself, against his terrible knowledge of the truth, that some faint breath of life remains in his daughter, are more than just grapplings with an inadmissible fact; they are, in addition, attempts to reconstitute the broken image of a redeeming sense of order:

This feather stirs; she lives! if it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.


There is a repeated alternation, which wholly excludes despair, between the recognition of reality and an illusory perception that Cordelia still lives—a perception which implies the existence of an order of justice and redemption, but which at the same time envelops Lear again in madness:

I might have sav’d her; now she's gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is’t thou say’st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.


Lear drifts away from his surroundings. But he is called back to the dead Cordelia by the speech in which Albany proceeds to administer justice and lays down its principles:

All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings.


This seems a greatly reduced form of justice; it makes no appeal to objective criteria or to universal agents. However, Albany's use of the words “wages” and “cup” may produce in some listeners an odd awareness of distortion—for they can be heard, in this context especially, as an altered echo of relevant and important biblical passages. Behind “the wages of their virtue” one may hear St. Paul: “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23)—or even the voice of Christ himself in the parable of the workers in the vineyard who all received equal wages, even though some had worked all day and some only a fraction of that time. God's free gift of redemption to the elect becomes, in Albany's mouth, a statement of a purely human justice—or at least of one that does not dare, with Lear and Cordelia before it, to make larger claims for its authority. And the cup from which the foes of Albany's state will taste their deservings may remind one either of David's covenant with God (“thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over” [Psalm 23:5]) or of Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane (“Father … take away this cup from me” [Mark 14:36, also Luke 22:42, Matt. 26:42]). These biblical undertones, whether they imply undeserved suffering or unmerited reward, pull against Albany's use of the words; one might say that they contest the appropriation of these words by a merely human justice, even though the forms of divine justice which they evoke have been discredited. There is thus, within Albany's plain words, a complex hidden dialogue, a tug-of-war between radically different conceptions of the relations of merit to reward, and of suffering to evil.

Whether or not the ear catches such overtones, Lear's last words spring from Albany's speech as an overwhelming response to its inadequate overt simplicities:

And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, Sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!


I read “Do you see this?” as a titanic denunciation. But out of the gesture which it invites, “Look on her,” the broken illusion rises once again. Emerging as it does from under the hammer-blows of the repeated “never,” it is all the more terrible an affirmation of the persistence of human needs.

To recapitulate: I have argued that the last ritual of Lear's reign was a dark reflection of the rule of Calvin's God. His dispensation of grace and favor was a synecdochic parody of Calvinist predestination and grace; he responded to the alien notion of natural law with violent capriciousness; and his abdication released a Nature of truly Calvinist perversity. The true horror of the last scene lies not only in the anguish which it induces, but also in its intimation that while Lear has acquired a humbling knowledge of the shared humanity of kings and madmen and has subsequently experienced a redeeming love, the power that presides over the action remains fixed in the position that Lear occupied in the first scene. An audience that has begged to think of Cordelia's love as the true image of heavenly power, and not just an illusory accommodation, is left with the image of the dead king collapsed across his daughter's body. Lear has called for a looking glass: “If that her breath will mist or stain the stone, / Why, then she lives” (V.iii.261-62). The imagined mirror remains empty, unstained by the breath of life.


  1. See The Book of Job Illustrated by William Blake, ed. Michael Marqusee (London: Paddington Press, 1976), pl. 2, 5, 9, 11, 13-17, and 20; and the “Introduction,” pp. 13-14.

  2. Reproduced by Kathleen Raine in William Blake (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970), pl. 66, p. 89.

  3. “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” Keats: Poetical Works, ed. H. W. Garrod (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1956), p. 380.

  4. The first of these is reproduced in Raine, pl. 54, p. 77; the most accessible reproduction of the Lear painting is perhaps that on the cover of the 1977 reprint of Shakespeare's Tragedies: An Anthology of Modern Criticism, ed. Laurence Lerner (1968; rpt. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1977).

  5. For evidence that Calvinism constituted the theological orthodoxy of Elizabethan England, see A. D. Nuttall, Overhead by God: Fiction and Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante and St John (London: Methuen, 1980), pp. 21-31; and Alan Sinfield, Literature in Protestant England 1560-1660 (London: Croom Helm, 1983), pp. 1-14.

  6. This argument bypasses much of the recent critical work on King Lear, which has been largely concerned with distinguishing between the Quarto and Folio texts as separately conceived versions of the play; the fact that it is equally applicable to both verions may suggest the unwisdom of overemphasizing the differences. This is also the reason why I have felt free to use a conflated text. My quotations are from the New Arden King Lear, ed. Kenneth Muir (1952; rpt. London: Methuen, 1978), and are identified by act, scene, and line numbers.

  7. See, in particular, Roland M. Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1963); William R. Elton, “King Learand the Gods (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1966); Rosalie L. Colie, “The Energies of Endurance: Biblical Echo in King Lear,” in R. L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff, ed., Some Facets of “King Lear”: Essays in Prismatic Criticism (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1974), pp. 117-44; Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1976), pp. 183ff.; Howard Felperin, Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 86-106; G. R. Hibbard, “King Lear: A Retrospect, 1939-79,” Shakespeare Survey, 33 (1980), 1-12; and Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), pp. 189-203.

  8. L. C. Knights, Some Shakespearean Themes and an Approach to Hamlet (1959; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 79.

  9. Kenneth Burke, “Four Master Tropes,” in A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1969).

  10. In insisting on the discordant rather than integral or natural relationships involved in this form of synecdoche, I intend a contrast with that kind of synecdoche (a trope, rather than a figure of thought) which Angus Fletcher describes as “teleologically controlled.” As he writes in Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1964), p. 85: “Synecdoche is described by Quintillian as ‘letting us understand the plural from the singular, the whole from a part, a genus from the species, something following from something preceding; and vice versa’ [Institutes,, sec. 19]. A synecdoche could then easily fit the logical criterion of an element of an allegory, since in itself it would always call to the reader's mind some larger organization of symbols to which system it bore an integral relationship.”

  11. Origen, Contra Celsum, tr. Henry Chadwick (1953; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), IV.71, p. 240. Compare St. Augustine, De civitate Dei, XV.25; also X.13, and De doctrina christiana, I.6.

  12. For a different, but perhaps related, use of the metaphors of bridge and chasm, see Jacques Derrida, “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eye of Its Pupils,” Diacritics, 13 (Fall 1983), pp. 3-20, especially 6-11.

  13. Xenophanes, frag. 23, in G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, ed., The Presocratic Philosophers (1957; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977), p. 169.

  14. See, for example, Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), I.x.2, I.xi.3, I.xiv.3, I.xvii.12-13, II.xi.13, II.xvi.2. The idea of accommodation is also implicit in I.xvi.9 and III.xviii.9.

  15. Xenophanes, frag. 15, Kirk and Raven, p. 169. Fragments 11, 14, and 16 (p. 168) are denunciations of anthropomorphism.

  16. For Anaximander's explanation of the cause of thunder, see Kirk and Raven, p. 138: “Anaximandrus omnia ad spiritum rettulit: tonitrua, inquit, sunt nubis ictae sonus …” (Seneca, Qu. Nat. II, 18). According to Holinshed (quoted in Muir, p. 222), the reign of King Leir ended “in the yeere of the world 3155, before the bylding of Rome 54”—which (with due allowances made for the wholly fantastic nature of Holinshed's chronology) brings him within hailing distance of these Greek thinkers.

  17. Quotations are from the New Arden The Second Part of King Henry IV, ed. A. R. Humphreys (1966; rpt. London: Methuen, 1971).

  18. Felperin, Shakespearean Representation, p. 102.

  19. In the Folio (which omits the Quarto's scene iii), this is Act IV, scene v. The Folio reading of “crying” for “coining” is presumably corrupt.

  20. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.i.1, vol. 1, p. 36; I.xvii.13, vol. 1, p. 227.

  21. The identification of this stage image as a pietà is Robert G. Hunter’s, in Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments, p. 185.

  22. As Jean-Daniel Benoît has observed, double predestination is not “comme on l’a parfois soutenu, le centre du calvinisme, mais plutôt la dernière conséquence de la foi en la souveraineté absolue de Dieu et en la grâce du Christ; elle constitue non pas un point de départ, mais un aboutissement.” Benoît, ed., Calvin, Institution de la religion chrestienne (Paris: Vrin, 1957-1963), vol. 4, p. 406 n. 1.

  23. Calvin's view of divine sovereignty and of its consequences with respect to contingency, free will, and human autonomy is clearly set forth in his Institutes, I.xvi.1-9, I.xvii.1-5, vol. 1, pp. 197-217. On free will, see further II.ii.1-11, II.ii.26-27, II.iii.5, II.v.1-19. On the primacy of the divine will, see III.xxiii.6, vol. 2, p. 954: “… [God] foresees future events only by reason of the fact that he decreed that they take place. …”

  24. Institutes, III.xxiv.14, vol. 2, p. 981.

  25. Institutes, III.xxi.1, vol. 2, pp. 922-23.

  26. See Institutes, I.xvi.9, vol. 1, pp. 208-09.

  27. Bishop Berkeley identified the denial of God's attributes “in every intelligible sense” with atheism, arguing that “he who comes to God … must first believe that there is a God in some intelligible sense; and not only that there is something in general, without any proper notion, though never so inadequate, of any of its qualities or attributes: for this may be fate, or chaos, or plastic nature, or anything else as well as God.” Alciphron or The Minute Philosopher, Fourth Dialogue, 18, in The Works of George Berkeley Bishop of Cloyne, ed. A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop (London: Nelson, 1948-1957), vol. 3, pp. 164-65. David Hume subsequently wrote, to similar effect: “The Deity, I can readily allow, possesses many powers and attributes, of which we can have no comprehension: But if our ideas, so far as they go, be not just and adequate, and correspondent to his real nature, I know not what there is in this subject worth insisting on. Is the name, without any meaning, of such mighty importance?” Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith (1947; rpt. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, n.d.), p. 158. I am indebted for these references to A. D. Nuttall, of New College, Oxford.

  28. Institutes, I.xvi.2, and III.xx.44, vol. 2, p. 909.

  29. Institutes, II.vii.7, vol. 1, p. 355.

  30. Institutes, III.xviii.9, vol. 1, p. 831.

  31. Institutes, I.i.2, vol. 1, p. 38.

  32. Institutes, I.v.1, vol. 1, pp. 52-53.

  33. Institutes, III.xxiii.7, vol. 2, p. 955: “… no one can deny that God foreknew what end man was to have before he created him, and consequently foreknew because he so ordained by his decree.” See also Calvin's “Articles Concerning Predestination,” in J. K. S. Reid, ed. and tr., Calvin: Theological Treatises (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), p. 179.

  34. Institutes, II.ii.22, vol. 1, p. 282.

  35. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, ed. Christopher Morris (London: Dent, 1954), Morris's “Introduction,” p. ix: “… most Protestant philosophers had conceived the universe as being virtually lawless. For them there was only one law, the Law of God; and, since men are incapable of understanding this, God's operations must seem purely arbitrary or capricious acts of will.” Hooker differed from Calvin in regarding God's will as being itself governed by law—by “the Counsel of his own will” (Ecc. Pol., I.ii, p. 153). “Nor is the freedom of the will of God any whit abated, let, or hindered, by means of this; because the imposition of this law upon himself is his own free and voluntary act” (p. 154). Although this law is hidden from men, Hooker's assurance of its existence provides a sanction for a quasi-Aquinian hierarchy of lower structures of law.

  36. See Institutes, III.iii.8, vol. 1, p. 600: “… when [the prophets] recall man from evil, they demand the destruction of the whole flesh, which is full of evil and perversity. … Nor can we think of the flesh as completely destroyed unless we have wiped out whatever we have from ourselves. But since all emotions of the flesh are hostility against God [cf. Rom. 8:7], the first step toward obeying his law is to deny our own nature.” As the context makes clear, this denial and destruction can only be achieved by God's grace working in us.

  37. I allude to John Reibetanz, The “Lear” World: A Study of “King Lear” in Its Dramatic Context (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1977); this book contains not a single reference to Calvin.

  38. Stephen Booth, “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1983), p. 161 n. 5.

  39. Muir quotes a similar interpretation of this line, supplied to him by J. C. Maxwell, on p. 11 of his edition.

  40. Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage et al. (Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 1060.

  41. Thus in Hooker's writings one finds—but only in passages where he is engaged in controversy with Calvinist opponents—references to God's “more private occasioned will,” “his secret determination” (Ecc. Pol., V.xlix.3, 5, vol. 2, pp. 197, 199), and to “God's unsearchable purpose,” the “concealed causes of his secret intents,” “his secret purposes,” “God's fore-appointed and determining will,” “eternal decree,” and “irrevocable sentence” (“Fragments of an Answer to the Letter of certain English Protestants,” Ecc. Pol., vol. 2, pp. 507, 513, 516, 521, 524, 531). Such expressions were of course not restricted either to a Calvinist context or to the discourse of theologians: Montaigne writes of “Gods secret desseignes … the secrets of Gods divine will, the incomprehensible motives of his works.” The Essayes of Michael Lord of Montaigne, tr. John Florio (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1904-1906), I.xxxi, vol. 1, p. 257. But they occur with particular frequency in Calvin's writings: see, for example, Institutes, I.xvii.1-2, vol. 1, pp. 211-12: “secret plan … secret judgments … hidden judgments … secret plans … incomprehensible plans. …” This same passage may contain an analogue to Lear's “darker purpose”: “For since Moses proclaims that the will of God is to be sought not far off in the clouds or in abysses, because it has been set forth familiarly in the law [Deut. 30:11-14], it follows that he has another hidden will which may be compared to a deep abyss …” (I.xvii.2, pp. 212-13). Compare I.xviii.3, vol. 1, p. 234: “… the light in which God dwells is not without reason called unapproachable [I Tim. 6:16], because it is overspread with darkness.”

  42. See Institutes, III.ii.10-11.

  43. The context of this latter injunction is ironically appropriate: “Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy. But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation. Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (James 5: 11-13). I have quoted here, and throughout this passage, from the Authorized Version.

  44. Leech, “The Implications of Tragedy,” in Lerner, ed., Shakespeare's Tragedies, p. 293. (This is an excerpt from Leech's Shakespeare's Tragedies [1950].)

  45. Booth, pp. 5-17.

  46. Johnson wrote, in his notes on King Lear: “In the present case the publick has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could add any thing to the general suffrage, I might relate, that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play until I undertook to revise them as an editor.” Samuel Johnson, Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose, ed. Bertrand H. Bronson (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1958), p. 297.

Carol Strongin Tufts (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5893

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 indeed Shakespear's “most profound and mature vision of Evil,” that vision may be far more paradoxical and complex than has been suggested by most critical accounts, for in writing a drama in which the end is very much a mirror image of the beginning Shakespeare may be throwing into question the very nature of Nature and the kind of Moral Order which his contemporaries believed to be inherent in it; he may, in fact, be giving concrete, dramatic life to the metaphysical conception of good and evil that was part of his inheritance from the medieval scholastic philosophers. As Jan Kott has written, “Macbeth begins and ends with slaughter. There is more and more blood, everyone walks in it; it floods the stage” (87). But even more to the point, the events of the beginning and the end of the play are, in essence, the same events seen through opposite perspectives: in the beginning, through the perspective of the rightful king threatened by rebel forces; at the end, through the perspective of the usurper threatened by the forces of the rightful king. And what is most ironic is that despite the repetition of events, despite the circle of treachery and slaughter, the concluding victory of the forces on the side of moral order is seen by the victors, as it was mistakenly seen by the victors at the beginning, as the end of all slaughter since the usurpation of the rightful king with its inversion of all things good and wholesome and “natural” has been put down.

The disruption of moral order is, of course, a major element of all Shakespearean tragedy. The actual inversion of that order, however, together with its metaphysical implications, is perhaps best approached through a brief consideration of the similar inversion of order which takes place in King Lear, the play that precedes Macbeth chronologically. There is a parallel between Macbeth's act of regicide and Lear's division of his kingdom, the act by which natural order is turned upside down as Lear, in the words of the Fool, makes his “daughters” his “mothers” (I. iv. 172). In both plays it is through the unnatural replacement of the rightful king, whether by Lear's own abdication of power and responsibility or by Macbeth's murder of Duncan, that Shakespeare sets up his exploration of the problem of moral order and the human potential both for destruction and for creation, for evil and for good.

Lear's tragedy begins when he divides his kingdom—when he, in fact, undoes it and mistakes his older daughters’ professions of love, words without content, in reality nothing, for something. At the same time he is unable to hear the something implicit in Cordelia's “Nothing.” “Nothing will come of nothing” is Lear's answer to Cordelia (I. i. 90), but he speaks more truly than he knows, as does Macbeth in his speech after the discovery of Duncan's murder. For Macbeth, too, is in essence describing how nothing will come of nothing, how only nothing can proceed from the act of negation that is the murder of Duncan:

… for from this instant
There's nothing serious in mortality
All is but toys. Renown and grace is dead,
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.

(II. iii. 92-96)

Both Lear and Macbeth are delivering public speeches—Lear for the audience which he had hoped to impress by his daughters’ declarations of love for him and Macbeth for the audience whose suspicions of his own guilt he must allay. Yet by giving up his power and “retain[ing]” no more than “[t]he name and all th’ additions to a king” (I. i. 135-136) Lear has, in fact, exchanged something for nothing, substance for shadow, while Macbeth, by murdering Duncan to gain the crown, is attempting to create something—a kingship which is whole and secure—out of an act which will plunge him further and further into nothingness.

Macbeth and Lear are, then, essentially faced with the same dilemma: they both struggle to make something out of nothing. Yet the irony for Lear is that although he painfully comes to see the hollowness at the core of Goneril and Regan's professed love for him as he discovers the fullness of Cordelia's love, and although he also comes to see the emptiness of his own notion of kingship as he is able to say, “they told me I was every thing. ’Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof” (IV. vi. 104-105), he ends in a leveled world in which, as he bends over the dead Cordelia and believes she lives, he is still trying to make something out of nothing, to see life in a corpse. Macbeth, however, begins in one sense where Lear has ended, for he already possesses the knowledge toward which Lear has had to struggle. As Robert B. Heilman has stated, “Lear explodes into injustice in the first scene, so that more than four acts are left for the drama of self-understanding. Macbeth, in turn, knows from the very beginning what is what, and his utterly different problem is to escape what he knows” (91). Macbeth, though he knows before the murder is committed what consequences will follow, once the decision to kill is made he tries to believe that he really can make something out of nothing—that “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (III. ii. 55), that safety and security for himself as king and unity for his kingdom can be created through acts of negation which themselves impose the necessity for further negation as he undoes the world around him and finally, in the most complete and profound way, undoes himself.

The problem in Macbeth, therefore, is not only the problem of defining the nature of the evil which Knight called “inhuman and supernatural, and … thus most difficult of location in any philosophical scheme” (154), but also the problem of accounting for the vulnerability of moral order in the face of that evil. And in terms of that vulnerability Shakespeare is again setting up a situation similar to that in King Lear. In both plays the initial act of disruption of order has taken place even before the first scene since, as is evidenced by the conversation between Gloucester and Kent which opens King Lear, the decision to divide the kindgom has already been made, while in Macbeth the rebellion of Macdonwald and the first Thane of Cawdor is already in progress.

Although it may be argued that in a play like Hamlet, for example, the disruption of moral order, the murder of the rightful king, has also occurred before the beginning of the play, Shakespeare takes great pains, both in the first scene and in Hamlet's speeches about his father, to emphasize King Hamlet's virtues as a ruler and the moral order that formerly prevailed in Denmark. In King Lear, however, as in Macbeth, the notion of a prior order existing before the beginning of the play becomes more problematic, though for different reasons. In King Lear, as D.G. James has pointed out, the first scene “cuts away from our imaginations any sense of the preceding life of Lear and his family; it makes the beginning of the play as absolute as may be; and Shakespeare gives us very little which helps to make the scene we see continuous with what had gone before” (101). Even more important, there is no indication in the play of the kind of ruler Lear has been. In light of what we have witnessed in the first scene Goneril seems not to be exaggerating when she says of her father, “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash …” (I. i. 295-296). Yet in Macbeth the nature of the order that has existed prior to the rebellion of Macdonwald and Cawdor becomes imbued with paradox; for Duncan has not merely been a good and “gracious” king (III. i. 65), he has been a “most sainted” one as well (IV. iii. 109). Nevertheless, it is the “most sainted” Duncan who says of the man who has attempted to usurp him—

There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face.
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust … 

(I. iv. 12-15)—

and then proceeds to award that traitor's title to the very man who is already harboring thoughts of regicide.

Thus the problem of moral order in Macbeth, as in King Lear, begins with the king himself, though, paradoxically, with a king whose goodness seems almost beyond human measure. As Macbeth himself says,

… this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off. …

(I. vii. 16-20)

Yet “clear” as Duncan has been “in his great office” the fact is that there has already been a rebellion carried out against him, and though that rebellion has ended in the defeat of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor it has only prepared the way for the murder of the “unguarded Duncan” (I. vii. 70) by the very man he himself will name as the new Thane. Moreover, the world on which Macbeth opens is a world in which the moral order which has Duncan at its center seems already to be unraveling; for the rebellion against the rightful king would have been viewed by Shakespeare's contemporaries as a rebellion against God and Nature. And what becomes an intriguing possibility is that this assault on moral order is not so much the result of forces challenging it from without as it is the result of a paradox within, a paradox inherent in the scholastic conception of evil as the absence of good.

In the ontological scheme of Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastic philosophers who were his disciples evil comes logically to be seen as the absence of good through the distinction made between actuality—being, or that which exists—and potentiality—the capacity for being. For Aquinas and the scholastics everything which exists is seen as part of a hierarchy of potentiality and actuality, each act possesses a potentiality for a higher actuality, ultimately ascending to God who is pure actuality, or Being itself. In this scheme certain properties, which Aquinas called “modes,” are ascribed to being: these are unity, truth, and goodness, with God embodying absolute unity, absolute truth, and absolute goodness. Thus the opposite of these three modes becomes a movement away from Being itself, for as anything which exists becomes more in actuality and less in potentiality as it approaches absolute unity, truth, and goodness, so evil becomes simply the failure of potentiality (the capacity for being) to realize actuality (being itself), the failure to realize unity, truth, and goodness. Or, in Aquinas's words, it is only possible to understand evil in terms of good since

Every agent acts insofar as it is in actuality and thus perfect in some way. Now insofar as anything is evil it is not in actuality, since we call evil what is in a state of potentiality, without its proper and due act. But insofar as anything is in actuality, it is good, because this gives it perfection and entity as well as essential goodness. Hence nothing acts insofar as it is evil but everything acts insofar as it is good …[which is to say] only by the power of good does evil act. …

(Reader, 85)

To view the problem of evil in Macbeth as Shakespeare's exploration of this paradoxical conception of good and evil is, in a sense, to see the witches who open the play as the embodiment of Aquinas's concept of potentiality. What they prophesy is linked to the kind of choice made by the human actors who hear them, the choice either to realize, or to fail to realize actuality, being itself, as in Banquo's decision to “stand” within “the great hand of God” (II. iii. 130), and Macbeth's decision to murder Duncan. Thus seeming almost to be part of the battle raging around them, these witches arise from an earth soaked with blood, an earth which now has “bubbles as the water has” (I. iii. 79). And it is blood in this play which becomes the ever-present symbol of human potentiality, the “wine of life” for Scotland when it flowed through Duncan's veins, and “this filthy witness” (II. ii. 43) when it stains the hands of Macbeth and his Lady, plunging them and Scotland into a fall away from the unity, truth, and goodness which are the modes of being itself.

In this world where “fair” becomes “foul, and foul is fair,” so that, for Macbeth, “… nothing is / But what is not” (I. iii. 141-142), the first human beings we see are themselves in the process of encountering a man covered with blood and the first line spoken is the King's question: “What bloody man is that?” (I. ii. 1). For this is the question that will resonate throughout the play as all human beings, even the King himself, come to be covered with blood, the physical manifestation of potentiality, the embodiment of the capacity for being which pours from wounds and gashes, literally undoing men and women and children, turning them from something to nothing. As Shakespeare dramatizes the scholastic conception of good and evil all the bloodletting that is at the metaphoric center of the play causes the world to collapse in on itself as Macbeth's center becomes a representation of Augustine's statement in The Confessions—and it was Augustine's Neoplatonic thought which Aquinas brought into harmony with the philosophy of Aristotle—that evil, being “nothing but a privation of good … can continue to the point where a thing ceases to exist altogether” (Confessions, 60)—to become, in effect, nothing.

The energy with which Macbeth commits his acts of negation is, then, ironically the energy which arises out of the fact of his existence itself, his capacity for being, and it is significant that Shakespeare has him die soon after he acknowledges his own emptiness in the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy. If evil in Macbeth is seen as the “privation” of good, Macbeth's murder of Duncan—the act of negation by which he tries to believe that he can make something out of nothing—together with all the bloodletting that follows, ironically employs the capacity for being to undo being itself. Yet the obvious question that must be raised here, given Duncan's perfect goodness and the moral order dependent upon it, is the same question which exists in Christian theology—that is, how the perfect goodness, whether of Duncan, the king who rules by divine right, or of God Himself, can come to be undone at all.

The traditional answer offered by Christian theology is, of course, the concept of free will, for as Walter Clyde Curry has described it, “the Christian conception of evil combines the negative element of departure from God, the absence of good, with a positive element involving the rebellion of the perverted finite will against the mandates of the infinite will” (112). Yet as Shakespeare explores the nature of good and evil in Macbeth, though he grants human responsibility in the choices made by a free will—the witche's prophecy, after all, is subject to interpretation; it only tells Macbeth that he will be king, not that he must murder Duncan—he also presents the deeper paradox inherent in the scholastic conception of good. And that paradox rests on an implicit irony: Duncan, the embodiment of Aquinas's three modes of being—unity, truth, and goodness—is able to see only good in others; he so fully is that he cannot conceive of what is not. Thus, to use Aquinas's words, in this play it is indeed “only by the power of good” that “evil act[s],” for it is Duncan himself who creates the circumstances and the opportunity that permit Macbeth to carry out the murder.

Duncan has failed to see what Macbeth's predecessor as Thane of Cawdor literally was not—“a gentleman on whom” to build “[a]n absolute trust”—and in this failure of vision, it is Duncan who, even before the opening of the play, has empowered evil to act. The irony here is a complex one, since it is not so much a matter of Duncan's being innocent, particularly if innocence is itself seen as implying a lack of either the knowledge or experience that enables one to distinguish good from evil; rather, it is a matter of Duncan's goodness making its own undoing possible, for it is in the inability of such complete goodness to recognize the “privation of good” in others, to see, paradoxically, “what is not,” that foul can seem to be fair and nothing can seem to be something.

Thus the “brave Macbeth” (I. ii. 16) who with his smoking sword “unseams” the enemies of the King (I. ii. 22), who wages war as if he “meant to bathe in reeking wounds, / Or memorize another Golgotha” (I. ii. 39-40), is applauded for his bloody deeds by that very King who, though momentarily saved by those deeds, is himself about to be “unseamed” by this same Macbeth. Linked through Shakespeare's imagery to Christ, Duncan, who is “gracious” (III. i. 65) and “meek” (I. vii. 17), “most sainted” (IV. iii. 109), the “Lord's anointed temple” (II. iii. 68), ends as one of the skulls piled on the Golgotha that Macbeth will make of Scotland. And the unguardedness of which Lady Macbeth speaks as she plots Duncan's murder goes beyond the literal drugged sleep of the grooms who should be attending him, for it is “[t]h’ unguarded Duncan” (I. vii. 70) who approaches Macbeth's castle and breathes air that “Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses” (I. vi. 1-3) and who, together with Banquo, looks up at the battlements and sees the “procreant cradle” of the “temple-haunting martlet” (i. vi. 8 and 4). His unguardedness prevents him from seeing that all that is good here is even now coming undone—that the castle's sweet air is streaming out, leaving the “dunnest smoke of hell” (I. v. 51), that it is the raven which now haunts the battlements (I. v. 38), as the martlet's “procreant cradle” is emptied of all fertility and all life in a world in which a woman has called upon the “… spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex” her, to “Come to” her “woman's breasts / And take” her “milk for gall” (I. v. 40-41, 47-48). In seeing only that which is good, which at the very moment that it is beheld is already in the process of pouring out, Duncan, who sees in Macbeth and his Lady a “worthy gentleman” (I. ii. 24) and a “[f]air and noble hostess” (I. vi. 23), (as he has done with the first traitorous Thane of Cawdor) “[p]lants” and unwittingly “labor[s] / To make … full of growing” (I. iv. 28-29) not that which is good, but that which is the “privation of good”—not something, but nothing; not, again to use Aquinas's terms, actuality, but potentiality “without its proper and due act.”

The problem of moral order in this play, then, may be viewed as stemming from the twofold paradox inherent in the scholastic conception of good and evil and in Aquinas's distinction between potentiality and actuality. While potentiality, the capacity for being, can generate acts which move the actor away from the unity, truth, and goodness that are actuality, or being itself, so unity, truth, and goodness, if they are perfect, seem unable to recognize their own privation in others. Duncan, as Macbeth will do after him, has seen nothing as something, though Duncan's failure of vision is due to the complete goodness of his nature, while Macbeth's failure of vision in an act of willed self-deception. If Duncan's failure to see “what is not” has already opened the abyss into which Macbeth tumbles both himself and the world, Macbeth's vision of “what is not” and his attempts to blind himself to that vision are possible because, unlike Duncan, he is not “most sainted,” not perfectly good, but, rather, like most human beings, he is good insofar as he exists, insofar as he possesses the potentiality, the capacity for being, which enables him to act at all. And, ironically, it is that potentiality which is the source of the energy which makes it possible for him to drain the unity, truth, and goodness—being itself—both from himself and from the world, causing

… the treasure
Of Nature's germains to tumble all together
Even till destruction sicken. … 

(IV. i. 58-60)

Because in choosing to murder Duncan, Macbeth is, in Aquinas's terms, failing in potentiality to realize actuality, which is to say, failing in his capacity for being to realize being itself, it is significant that his choice is made in a scene which plays on the nature of potentiality itself (I. vii.). For Macbeth and his wife that potentiality is viewed most simply as Macbeth's ability to perform the murder of Duncan, but, on a deeper level, it is also equated with Macbeth's manhood, his sexual potency. What Shakespeare has done in this scene is to stage a metaphorical inversion of the act of sexual union and procreation as Lady Macbeth links the issue of Duncan's murder to Macbeth's ability to become “so much more the man” (I. vii. 51), a concept defined for them both as much in terms of sexual potency as it is courage and daring. Given the sexual implications of her argument, what is ironic here is that Lady Macbeth has herself just demanded to be unsexed by those “spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts” (I. v. 40-41). Although she does not realize it, what she has, in fact, asked for is not so much to be made free of the tenderness and compassion of her female nature so that she may take on the ruthlessness and cruelty which she seems to regard as the province of the male, but, rather, to be made neither female, nor male, to be made, in effect, nothing. And she ends, therefore, with the perversion both of her own and her husband's sexual energy, energy which is itself a potentiality for a higher actuality—the creation of life—as she gives birth not to new life, but to death.

Failing to realize the fallacy implicit in her demand, Lady Macbeth is able to believe that by an act of negation she and her husband can obtain that which they esteem “the ornament of life” (I. vii. 42). And she proceeds through the use of language that is implicitly sexual to taunt her husband into committing the murder, for her goal is Macbeth's arousal to a state in which he will “bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (I. vii. 80). Thus when Macbeth expresses reluctance to proceed with the murder, Lady Macbeth's response is:

… From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire? … 

(I. vii. 38-41)

And when Macbeth, who has no reason to doubt his manly courage in battle answers, “I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none” (I. vii. 47-48), it is apparent that Lady Macbeth means to imply a more specifically sexual concept of manhood as she jeers:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both.
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. … 

(I. vii. 49-54)

Although the stress here in Lady Macbeth's seduction of her husband is on love and desire, manhood and the unmaking of manhood, the eroticism of the scene underlines two great ironies: first, that sexual energy is being employed in the service of an act of murder, and, second, that in spite of the intensity of the sexual bond between them, Macbeth and his wife have no living children. Thus Lady Macbeth's seduction of her husband culminates in the most powerful image of all, the image which contemptuously reminds them both of what Kott has called their “great erotic defeat” (90), their childlessness, as she says,

… I have given such and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

(I. vii. 54-59)

To this Macbeth can only respond by asking, “If we should fail?” (I. vii. 60), to which his now victorious wife replies, in words that still link Macbeth's sexual potency with his ability to perform Duncan's murder:

We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking place
And we’ll not fail. … 

(I. vii. 61-62)

Aroused now beyond all hesitation, Macbeth's awed response, itself operating on a sexual level, is the confirmation of how successful his wife's seduction of him has been, of how he, too, has come to view the murder as the seed which will enable them both to create new life, for he tells her:

Bring forth men-children only;
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.

(I. vii. 72-74)

And as the murder of Duncan becomes the climax of the love-making of Lady Macbeth and her husband, what they end by “bring[ing] forth,” what they, in fact, give birth to, is not the “ornament of life” after which they have lusted, but a world of death.

In murdering Duncan, Macbeth, as Irving Ribner has pointed out, “cuts off the source of his own being, and this idea is echoed in Lady Macbeth's ‘Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done it’ (II. ii. 13-14), for this line is largely choral commentary to emphasize the father symbolism with which Duncan is endowed” (150). And having cut off the source of their own being as the climax to what is, ironically, an act of love, the lovers can only find themselves more and more isolated from each other as they more and more cease to be.

Even before he kills Duncan, however, Macbeth knows that such an act must be his own undoing, since

… in these cases
We still have judgment here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught, return
To plague th’ inventor. … 

(I. vii. 7-10)

And Macbeth has proceeded with that murder only to find himself compelled to perform more and more murders, to carry out further acts of negation in the belief that just one more will finally make him

… perfect;
Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
As broad and general as the casing air.

(III. iv. 21-23)

Yet the irony is that once Macbeth has murdered Duncan he can achieve neither perfection nor wholeness, for Macbeth can now only drain himself and the world of their very capacity for being, pouring the blood from human bodies until both he and the world begin to collapse in on themselves. Thus “nothing” is the final word of Macbeth's “Tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, for whatever capacity for being is left in him must cause him to recognize how he has undone himself and the world, how he has unmade his life, reducing it to no more than

… a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more … a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

(V. v. 24-28)

What finally raises Macbeth to the level of a tragic figure is his recognition not so much of what he has done, but of what he has undone: “honor, love, obedience, troops of friends” (V. iii. 25). In his recognition that, as he says, “I ’gin to be aweary of the sun, / And wish th’ estate o’ th’ world were not undone” (V. v. 49-50), he accepts that all that is now left for him is to complete his undoing.

As opposed to Duncan whose extraordinary goodness blinded him to the “privation of good” in others, Macbeth, whose goodness was neither as whole, nor as complete, has known from the start that it is possible to drain all goodness from oneself. “To know my deed, ‘twere best not know myself” (II. ii. 72), Macbeth has said after he has murdered Duncan, for the self he must finally come to know is that “walking shadow” glimpsed at the moment when, to refer again to Augustine, it is about to cease “to exist altogether.”

The problem of moral order that Shakespeare has been considering in the play is not resolved, however, with the defeat of Macbeth, for that defeat is only a mirror image of the rebellion with which the play has begun. Through the action of Macbeth Shakespeare has been exploring the experience of rebellion from the rebel's point of view and has shown how Macbeth, like his predecessor as Thane of Cawdor, has come to “throw away the dearest thing he owned”—his capacity for being—“As ’twere a careless trifle” (I. iv. 8-11). Like the “merciless Macdonwald” before him, Macbeth, defeated by the forces of moral order, ends as a severed head fixed upon a pole; but though Malcolm, the new king, seems, as demonstrated by his testing of Macduff (Iv. iii.), not to possess the perfect goodness manifested by the absolute trust that was his father's undoing, his words to the new earls of Scotland are something of an echo of Duncan's words at the beginning of the play. For as Duncan had said to Macbeth, “I have begun to plant thee and will labor / To make thee full of growing” (I. iv. 28-29), so Malcolm tells his victorious forces:

… What's more to do
What would be planted newly with the time … 
… by the grace of Grace
We will perform in measure, time, and place.
So thanks all at once and to each one
Whom we invite to see us crowned at Scone.

(V. viii. 64-65, 72-75)

Yet Malcolm's echo of Duncan's images of planting and of his heartfelt thanks to those who have fought for him, because it recalls the beginning of the play, must also recall the witches’ prophecy that Banquo's heirs will be kings and the fact that Fleance still lives. And if Macbeth, too, had once listened to similar words spoken by a gracious king and thought of regicide, equally unsettling here must be the absence of Donalbain, the next in line for the throne (In his version of Macbeth Roman Polanski picked up this implication and ended his film with Donalbain's visit to the witches). Thus Malcolm's echo of his father's graciousness, together with the absent Donalbain and the implications inherent in the witches’ prophecy to Banquo, points toward the possibility that Malcolm's restoration of moral order may be only a temporary one. If in King Lear the fragility of that order has centered on the egoism and rashness of a king who himself tears it apart, in Macbeth the vulnerability of moral order resides in the ontological paradox of the scholastics: potentiality, the capaicty for being, may, through human choice, undo being itself.

In Macbeth, as G.R. Elliott has stated, “Shakespeare is true to human history … in his conviction that we can realize the strangeness of evil only in proportion as we realize its terrific might in the world: the very fact that a thing so essentially thin and misty as evil, so air-like … can be so powerful is highly fantastical” (12). But what is equally “fantastical” is that perfect goodness, particularly as it is portrayed in terms of Duncan, is by its very nature so vulnerable to its own undoing. This, too, is “true to human history,” and in Macbeth, once the goodness has begun to be undone, history, as Kott has written, becomes “reduced to its simplest form, to one image and one division: those who kill and those who are killed” (87). The way in which Banquo's heirs will come to be kings is not taken up by Shakespeare in Macbeth; it is, like all the witches’ prophecies, a matter subject to interpretation, as is the reason for Donalbain's absence at the end of the play. Yet what Shakespeare has shown us in Macbeth is the tendency of all history to repeat itself, and in the face of that tendency the only kind of affirmation that can finally be made is one which acknowledges both sides of the scholastics’ paradox, as in Malcolm's words to Macduff:

Angels are bright still though the brighest fell;
Though all things foul would wear the brow of grace,
Yet grace must still look so.

(IV. iii. 22-24)

Works Cited

An Aquinas Reader. Ed. Mary T. Clark. Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1972.

Brooks, Cleanth, “The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness,” in The Well-Wrought Urn. New York: Reynall & Hitchcock, 1947.

The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Trans. Rex Warner. New York: New American Library, 1963.

Curry, Walter Clyde. Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1937.

Elliott, G.R. Dramatic Providence in Macbeth: A Study of Shakespeare's Tragic Themes of Humanity and Grace, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Heilman, Robert B. “’Twere Best Not Know Myself’: Othello, Lear, Macbeth,” in Shakespeare 400: Essays by American Scholars on the Anniversary of the Poet's Birth. Ed. James G. McManaway. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

James, D.G. The Dream of Learning: An Essay on the Advancement of Learning in Hamlet and King Lear. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1951.

Knight G. Wilson. The Wheel of Fire. London; Methuen, 1930.

Knights, L.C. “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” Explorations. New York: G.W. Stewart, 1947.

Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Trans. Boleslaw Taborski. Garden City: New York, 1966.

Ribner, Irving. “Macbeth: The Pattern of Idea and Action.” Shakespeare Quarterly X Spring 1959.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

———Macbeth. The Riverside Shakespeare.

Speaight, Robert. Nature in Shakespearian Tragedy. London: Hollis & Carter, 1955.

Lee A. Jacobus (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10047

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 of knowledge, generally, of the true nature of things on the part of the worthy characters. In no other plays of Shakespeare does the possession of certainty seem so complete and have such dire consequences.

The opening of Richard III establishes that Richard's crookedness and deformation are not only of the body but of the mind and heart. Surface and substance are joined in him. His first visible crime is the world's oldest: fratricide, although it is committed with diabolic cunning. Having spread the rumor that “G of Edward's heirs the murtherer shall be” (1.1.40), he has his brother, Clarence (whose name is George) put under suspicion, imprisoned, and ultimately murdered. The utter frankness with which he reveals himself to the audience prepares us for the frankness that he sometimes uses in regard to others in the play. Wolfgang Clemens points out, “Never again after Richard III did Shakespeare choose to open a play in so direct a manner.”3 Shakespeare also never again had a character so dominant and so evil controlling the action of a play—unless, that is, we include Iago and the opening of Othello, with its equally bald statement of causes and intentions. The difference dramatically is that Richard begins in soliloquy, while Iago needs Roderigo to hear him out. Richard needs no confederate to achieve his will. He speaks from a position of authority and knows his quarry better than they do themselves. However, if we consider the rhetorical relationship of Iago and Roderigo, it is not impossible (although perhaps uncomfortable) to think of the audience itself as Richard's rhetorical confederate. Iago, unlike Richard, relies on agents of many sorts because he must reach upward for his victims.

Richard's opening statements begin a pattern of doublespeak characteristic of his manner of dealing with his victims. He relies on the fallacy of amphiboly (using words in two ways). Amphiboly in Shakespeare can have several purposes, resulting in comic irony in some of the comedies but in tragic irony in Richard III. Of the ironies in the play, A. P. Rossiter says, “Its cumulative effect is to present the personages as existing in a state of total and terrible uncertainty.”4 Richard maintains a cautious balance between what he really means and what his hearer wants him to mean. Even his constant swearing by St. Paul in act 1, scenes 1 and 2, seems more to mean that he is swearing next to the physical edifice of St. Paul's rather than that he might be swearing by, at, or according to the Apostle Paul. (Stephen Greenblatt's reminder of the Pauline language in the marriage vows strikes a particularly ironic note here.5) The St. Paul epithet is powerful in scene 2 because it provides a resounding ironic counterpoint to Anne's constant identification of Richard with the devil, as in their first interchange:

What black magician conjures up this fiend
To stop devoted charitable deeds?
Villains, set down the corse, or, by Saint Paul,
I’ll make a corse of him that disobeys.


Anne's identification of Richard with the devil is underscored several times in the scene: “mortal eyes cannot endure the devil.— / Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell!” (45, 46); “Foul devil, for God's sake hence, and trouble us not” (50); “O wonderful, when devils tell the [troth]” (73). The interchange between Anne and Richard has some of the wit of The Taming of the Shrew, including an insistent and subtle wordplay, but it also has some of the logical analysis that characterizes many moments in earlier and later plays. It particularly features a progression of causal analysis favored by Ramist logic. For instance, the purpose of the interview is all Richard’s: he sees his way through Anne, as he has told us, and demands audience even though she refuses and even though she is in cortege behind a dead and murdered husband. The fact that she speaks with him, recognizing, as she does, that he is diabolical, is her undoing. Anyone in the audience of the earliest productions would have realized that there is no way to outwit the devil; the only sure course is to avoid contesting with him. The lady in Milton's A Mask maintains as much silence as she does for this very reason. Once the progress of false logic and wit-play is begun, Anne's fate is no longer in doubt. Their discourse proceeds from acts to causes in an inexorable fashion:

He is in heaven, where thou shalt never come.
Let him thank me that holp to send him thither;
For he was fitter for that place than earth.
And thou unfit for any place, but hell.
Glou.Yes, one place else, if you
will hear me name it.
Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.
Some dungeon.
Your bedchamber.
Ill rest betide the chamber where thou liest!
So will it, madam, till I lie with you.
I hope so.
I know so. But, gentle Lady Anne,
To leave this keen encounter of our wits
And fall something into a slower method:
Is not the causer of the timeless deaths
Of these Plantagenets, Henry and Edward,
As blameful as the executioner?
Thou was the cause, and most accurs’d effect.
Your beauty was the cause of that effect …


This entire conversation, which continues another hundred lines, becomes a confession. Anne had asked him whether it was not he who had murdered this Edward, her husband, and after a moment of lying indirection, Gloucester “grants” her that, indeed, it was he. Then the causal analysis that they both perform draws them to what he reveals as a secondary cause: himself as instrument and doer. He undertakes to reveal what he represents as the primary efficient cause: her beauty, which urged him on. Obviously, since we have a privileged view of the action, we realize that neither of these causes is primary; neither reveals the true motive of his action. Anne, on the other hand, trusting to her own judgment since she posseses the certainty of his having murdered her husband, assures herself that she understands her situation. She interprets Richard's approach as a confession and a petition for forgiveness.

He offers her his life in recompense for his deeds—knowing obviously that she would not and could not hurt him. In an argument whose rhetorical power resembles that of Antony's after Caesar's death,6 he bares his chest to her, having given her his sword:

Nay, do not pause: for I did kill King Henry—
But ’twas thy beauty that provoked me.
Nay, now dispatch: ’twas I that stabb’d young Edward—
But ’twas thy heavenly face that set me on.


When she drops the sword he levels a command at her that presents a logical dilemma, a choice in this case between two almost equal evils: “Take up the sword again, or take up me” (183). Apparently unable to see that the horned syllogism of his dilemma need not be accepted at all, she resolves to choose. Since she cannot choose to kill him, she chooses to take him, complaining that “I would I knew thy heart” (192), and taking confidence in seeing that he is “become soe penitent” (220), she accedes to his will, surprising even him. As she tells us later in act 4, scene 2, she let her “woman's heart” become victim to his “honey words,” and thus grew equally a victim to the curse she had placed on him earlier. His own exultation is mixed with pride, amusement, advancing self-regard:

Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
And I no friends to back my suit [at all]
But the plain devil and dissembling looks?
And yet to win her! All the world to nothing!


Queen Margaret, distraught, frantic, begins a new theme of conscience and extends the current theme of the curse in the next scene. Lily B. Campbell and others have emphasized the power of the curse in the play, just as critics have observed that the individual curses that redound on those who pronounce them are a metaphor for England itself being under a curse at the time.7 Such is perhaps to be expected.

The suggestion of Richard's being the devil—maintained by Margaret—gives A. P. Rossiter the theme of Richard as a scourge that brings ultimate justice in the Christian sense.8 He is, however, a scourge who not only brings justice to those whose own crimes make them appropriate victims, but also one who brings pain and death to innocents. What seems to make all this possible is the temporary absence of conscience in Richard. As long as he can hold his conscience at bay, he can operate with the willfulness that characterizes him as devilish. But as his crimes mount, the weight of conscience mounts, showing Richard more and more the foul inward nature he has created. When he wishes for the sun to shine so that he may see his shadow in a mirror (262-63), he hardly realizes that the sun can shine inward as well and light up that equally insubstantial quality, the conscience. The second murderer in scene 4 observes himself how dangerous a thing conscience is: “I’ll not meddle with it, it makes a man a coward. A man cannot steal, but it accuseth him; a man cannot swear, but it checks him; a man cannot lie with his neighbor's wife, but it detects him” (1.4.134-37).

Margaret's curse returns to haunt those who stood by and did nothing. Grey recalled it when he was being led to his death: “Now Margaret's curse is fall’n upon our heads, / When she exclaim’d on Hastings, you, and I, / For standing by when Richard stabb’d her son” (3.3.15-17). Hastings is next to die, beginning a pattern of Richard's manipulation of the truth. When Richard condemns Elizabeth and Jane Shore for practicing witchcraft upon him—holding up his withered arm as visible proof—Hastings is slow in understanding. What he does not realize is that Richard has decided what those who are faithful to him must believe. When Hastings says, “If they have done this deed” (3.4.73), Richard bridles at “if” almost the way Hamlet bridled at “seems.” There is no “if” in this case. Richard's version of the truth, accepted as it has been by more than a few of those around him, has become certainty. When Hastings hesitates in accepting it, he loses his head. Buckingham's turn comes next. He is commanded to spread the rumor that Edward's children are bastards and that Edward's own legitimacy is seriously in question. The enormity of Richard's accusation of his own mother's infidelity is hardly softened by his “Yet touch this sparingly, as ’twere far off, / Because, my lord, you know my mother lives” (3.5.93-94). Richard's overreach is revealed instantly by the fact that a mere scrivener sees through the lie: “Who is so gross / That cannot see this palpable device?” (3.6.10-11). The citizens, as Buckingham reports back to Richard, “are mum.” They cannot believe the lie and they have no hope to gain, so there is no question of their appearing to believe it. As always, Richard is most effective against characters who are themselves not wholly innocent.9 But Richard has deceived so many who have vested interests in his actions and hopes of gain from them that he has deceived himself into thinking his powers of deceit are universally effective.

Wolfgang Clemens cites Richard's conversation with Buckingham as signaling not only their growing dissension, but also “the first time Richard has lost control of a conversation.”10 Buckingham has lied about Richard's piety and about his reluctance to consider the crown, but his deceit ends with lies. He cannot murder children to satisfy either himself or Richard. As Clemens points out, the murder of the princes is hardly necessary to Richard, yet he seems to demand it simply to underscore the significance of his opening soliloquy's assurance that he is “determined to prove a villain.” Motives of personal gain may have prodded him at first, but there can be little question that now Richard is merely malignant. He has made himself so. There may be a sense in which one can assume that Richard has lost control of himself and his villainy here, but if so, it is only temporary.

Once he has done away with the princes and then with his wife Anne, he gives us a first sign of possible weakness and uncertainty. Richmond is in the field, and Richard must find a way to shore up his crown. He behaves like a desperate man, even in soliloquy:

I must be married to my brother's daughter,
Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.
Murther her brothers and then marry her—
Uncertain way of gain! But I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.


But his weakness and temporary uncertainty fall from him once he is engaged in his maneuvering toward Elizabeth. What makes Richard strikingly different from Iago is his capacity to confront Queen Elizabeth abruptly in the full face of his previous crimes and soften her. That he reviles her after she has given in to him is typical. In a sense, scene 4 is like a da capo aria, recapitulating Richard's triumph over women in general. If Anne thought that she could have a positive effect on Richard—that she could, through charity (and a good confession), bring him to penitent forgiveness—then Elizabeth is led to believe even in the face of the horrors Richard has committed that he is now repentant and can be entrusted with her daughter. Naturally, she is led by her own desires for gain: Richard says, “If I did take the kingdom from your sons, / To make amends I’ll give it to your daughter” (4.4.294-95). But this can only be part of it, and, at that, a small part. The metaphor of the bottled spider as applied to Richard implies that he devours even his own, and her understanding must extend to such an obvious fact. If Richard is not repentant, Elizabeth will not be long for the world, and she understands as much.

The important subtheme in this scene is that of self-understanding. While Elizabeth jousts with Richard, she asks him to swear by something sacred, then disqualifies all his oaths. When he swears by himself, she simply says, “Thyself is self-misus’d” (373). This line is placed later in Q1-6 11 so that the order of oaths would be: by the world; by my father's death; by myself; by God—each of which Elizabeth refutes. The Riverside edition prefers “myself” coming first, thus rendering it a less powerful rhetorical effect. The question of self-understanding is picked up again by Elizabeth when she fears herself about to relent:

Shall I be tempted of the devil thus?
K. Rich.
Ay, if the devil tempt you to do good.
Q. Eliz.
Shall I forget myself to be myself?
K. Rich.
Ay, if yourself's remembrance wrong yourself


The advice may not be of high quality—particularly if we examine it in light of Paradise Regained—but its quality is of less interest than Queen Elizabeth's admitting that, in respect to Richard, her own self-knowledge, her own self-awareness is wanting. He, on the other hand, has as much control of himself as he had in act 1. His certainty here of his own villainy is such that this scene acts as a coda for the rest of the play.

However, upon Queen Elizabeth's removal, Richard gives evidence of the kind of uncertainty that eventually undoes him. He has given no commands to counter Richmond and Buckingham, but demonstrates his absentmindedness when he bids Catesby to rush to the Duke of Norfolk but neglects to give him a message. He then contradicts his previous order to Ratcliffe, saying, “My mind is chang’d” (456). He suspects Stanley will flee from him and demands a hostage to keep him honest, despite Stanley's protestations that he has never been unfaithful and that “You have no cause to hold my friendship doubtful” (492). But Richard is doubtful. Buckingham's desertion has given him cause; his own behavior has given him cause, since even the people see him for what he is. After Buckingham's execution on All Soul's Day—and after Queen Margaret's curse continues in its force—Herbert and Oxford put it plainly: “[Herb.] I doubt not but his friends will turn to us. / [Blunt.] He hath no friends but what are friends for fear” (5.2.19-20). And before that, Oxford points out, “Every man's conscience is a thousand men, / To fight against this guilty homicide” (17-18).

The question of conscience afflicts Richard after the splendid dream sequence in which all his murdered victims pass blessings to Richmond and curses to Richard. His conscience is not a thousand men, but a “thousand several tongues” (5.3.193) and every one informs him of his villainy. He sees it as “coward conscience,” but the traditions of the late 16th and 17th centuries show us that what Richard experiences in this scene is conscience catching up with him. He could keep it at bay only so long. Immanuel Bourne identifies numerous kinds of consciences: “de mortua, desperata, spatiosa, superstitiosa, scrupulosa,” among others. And of conscience he says:

Conscience is said to bee knowledge with another; and well it may, because God and conscience beare witnesse together. Or, Conscience is Cordis Scientia, the science or knowledge of the heart, because the heart knoweth both it selfe and other things. When it knoweth other things, it is called science; and when it knoweth itselfe, it is called conscience.12

Bourne also sees conscience as a kind of looking glass in which the “soule beholds her selfe, and sees her owne beauty or deformity.”13 And moving even more metaphorically, he sees it as

a kinde of practicall syllogisme; The Maior is the Law seated in the vnderstanding: The Minor brought by the memory; I remember I haue done or not done according to that Law of God: the conclusion followeth by a second act of the vnderstanding; therefore I am guilty or not guilty and shewed in the heart or will, by fears or ioy, or such kind of affections.14

Bourne is only one of dozens of commentators of the period. William Perkins, in A Discourse of Conscience, agrees with Bourne's syllogistic metaphor and also sees conscience's mode of reasoning as syllogistic. Moreover, he is remarkable in saying, “To be certen what another man hath said or done; it is commonly called knowledge; but for a man to be certen what hee himselfe hath done or said, that is conscience.”15 Ephraim Huit reminds us that St. Paul calls conscience “an impartiall discerner of the truth” and considers it the “faculty to discerne of good and euil.”16

The speech that evidences the awakening of Richard's conscience strengthens the tradition in which early-17th-century commentators worked, since much of what they observe is revealed in Richard's fears and observations. It is clear that he is no longer in possession of the certainty that characterized him in the beginning of the play. Even his echo of “I am that I am,” which is reechoed in Iago's final speeches, is a shaky moment—not so much a statement as a wishful hope. As we would expect, conscience returns at the darkest hour—midnight:

O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
The light burns blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard, that is, I [am] I.
Is there a murtherer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly. What, for myself. Great reason why—
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deed committed by myself.
I am a villain; yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, or thyself speak well; fool, do not flatter:
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale.
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree;
Murther, stern murther, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all us’d in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, “Guilty! guilty!”
And if I die no soul will pity me.
And wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?


Like Immanuel Bourne, Richard is moving almost syllogistically toward an inevitable conclusion: that of his own guilt.

Clemens finds this scene singular in several senses. The soliloquy, he feels “comes as a surprise” because until this moment Richard had been defined in terms of action—although, we recall, his opening soliloquy had defined him in terms of his shaping of his own character even prior to action. Until this point, Clemens asserts, Richard had assumed disguises with each of his victims; in this final soliloquy, Richard's evasion of his own guilt, of the truth of his own character, may be seen as a form of disguise, as well. But disguise does not serve him when he faces himself, nor does witty dialectic serve him. Conscience is inexorable and condemns him totally. The fact that dialectic can be sustained by one character is news, Clemens feels. He says:

The very possibility of such a split within a person is a new and important phenomenon in sixteenth-century portrayal of character. Richard's shrewd logical arguments with himself (both here and later) are a reflection of that delight and skill in argumentation so obvious from the outset, as well as a manifestation of his characteristic attitude towards himself: he has more than once talked to himself as if to someone else, cynically described and encouraged himself.17

Richard's moment of crisis is a breakdown, but it is not a psychological breakdown in modern terms. Rather, it is a breakdown of the certainty of knowledge and the power it confers. Richard opens the play “determined to prove a villain,” but he can function perfectly well only as long as he keeps his conscience in abeyance. When conscience returns—as it must—it searches out the truth, bringing a remorse that even Richard cannot completely control. Conscience is a central theme in Richard III because it is central to the question of self-knowledge. In order for evil to function as competently as it does, Richard must always know himself, but in a special way: without the intervention of conscience. He can function as he does only as long as conscience is inactive because what it reveals is so overwhelming that it produces—even in Richard—an overwhelming and debilitating guilt.

The play ends with Richard fighting as desperately as Macbeth fights.18 He can do nothing more than to continue in the path he has set for himself, but once he is revealed to himself as conscience reveals him, he loses certainty and cannot work the evil that he manages so effortlessly earlier in the play. That he still has power and resolution is clear from the force of his oration to his troops. Yet his words now are empty rhetoric: he cannot even command a horse in the field, as he says in the play's most memorable line. That he should die fighting is clearly the best that he can do. In a scene reminiscent of the ending of 2 Henry IV, he realizes he can no longer be certain even of Richmond: “I think there be six Richmonds in the field” (5.4.11). With the loss of his certainty follows the loss of his direction. Certainty has given way to the Christian's anathema: mere chance. “I have set my life upon a cast, / And I will stand the hazard of the die” (5.4.8-9).

The criticism agrees that Shakespeare produced no villain more subtle than Iago. Coleridge's famous observation that Iago seems possessed by a “motiveless malignity” gives us the sense that Iago, like Richard, purposes himself a villain. Even as Richard's position seems secure, he continues to order murder; Iago's demonic needs seem as excessive and as complete. But Shakespeare opens Othello with some interesting clues that urge us to look closely at the question of certainty. For one thing, the first words of Othello (as quoted by Iago)—“Certes, … / I have already chose my officer” (1.1.16-17)—are painfully ironic. “Certes” is a variant of “certainly,” meaning “based on certain grounds,” and we know all too well that certainty is what Othello is robbed of point by point while Iago supplies a counterfeit to put in its place. Iago succeeds because he always knows the truth and because he is the master craftsman of the counterfeit.

The officer Othello has chosen is a theoretician, an untested soldier who stands in strong contrast to Iago, whose knowledge is practical and tested. Iago tells Roderigo that he knows Cassio's soldiership is “mere prattle,” whereas, Iago is one “of whom his eyes had seen the proof” (28). Iago has no cause for doubt: “It is as sure as you are Roderigo, / Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago” (56-57).19 Such a statement needs none of the authority of logic to give it value; it establishes, as Richard did, the fact of clear self-knowledge and self-possession. And, quite opposite from Hamlet, he openly embraces “seeming so, for my peculiar end,” explaining that because of his seeming, “I am not what I am” (65). And again like Richard, the hints begin to fall that suggest Iago is—after his blasphemous parody of Jehovah—himself the devil. The allusions and suggestions, beginning with his own curse, “Plague him with flies” (71), suggesting Beelzebub, end ultimately with Othello wondering if he should not examine his feet to see if they are cloven. The irony is that the devil is such a counterfeiter that no simple ocular examination could give Othello the truth. Many such ironies permeate the play, suggesting more strongly in Othello than in other plays that ocular proof—the evidence of the senses themselves—cannot be relied upon in moral circumstances. Iago trusts the evidence of his senses only when he has controlled it.

The model for trusting the senses and for arriving at certainty in questionable affairs is provided for us in act 1, scene 3. We have seen how Iago determined his worth in relation to Cassio: by his own witness. What we do not realize as Iago first explains the difference is that in the most important sense Othello has chosen the best man. Cassio is “plain soldier” and honest. Iago at no time qualifies to be Othello's next in command, and Othello's apparently intuitive perception of their relative worth is accurate.

But scene 3 shows us how soldiers arrive at the truth. The duke and the senators are sorting through the news that has come to them: conflicting information that suggests on one hand that the Turks bear down on Cyprus and on the other that they bear down on Rhodes. With a limited force, it is essential that the duke decide which is the case. Ultimately a messenger reveals that the doubling back of part of the fleet proves clearly that the move toward Rhodes is a counterfeit and that the real attack is “certain then for Cyprus” (1.3.43). Here, the careful and thorough witness of events, correlated by several figures, yields, when balanced and considered against probabilities, the certainty necessary for reasonable action. The irony for which we are being prepared is that the same circumspection of events in matters of soldiership is practiced by Othello in matters of husbandship with none of the same results. If the wily Turks can be discovered by comparisons of perceptions, then it follows that infidelity can be also discovered.20 Yet, we know that the method works only when all parties to the observations are equally honest. And to know honesty requires quite a different mode of operation.21

Actually, Brabantio is setting the stage for a much more subtle approach to certainty. In both scenes 2 and 3, he bewails the events that have led his daughter into the arms of the Moor. For Brabantio, the situation is baffling because his own senses told him that his daughter gave up the “wealthy curled [darlings] of our nation” to adhere to a “sooty bosom” (1.2.68-70). He accuses Othello of having bleared her senses with magic, since, for Brabantio, it is “gross in sense”—absolutely obvious from the sensory evidence—that such must be the case. Were Desdemona “not deficient, blind, or lame of sense” (1.3.63), she could not choose as she has done. Just as the duke verifies the wily motions of the Turks by comparative sensory report, Brabantio claims the inadequacy of sensory evidence—or the deranging of senses—by wiles more subtle than the Turks’.

In response to Brabantio's claim, the duke convenes a hasty hearing in which forensics are to establish with certainty whether magic has been used to win Desdemona. He assures Brabantio of justice no matter who the villain: in “the bloody book of law / You shall yourself read in the bitter letter / After your own sense” (67-69). The duke is a stern judge who listens patiently as Othello explains equally patiently how it was he came to woo and win his wife. Othello's reasonable speech, forthrightness, and basic innocence so compel the duke that he admonishes Brabantio in a way that has a bearing on Othello's own behavior later. His response to Brabantio's continued claim is a bit of ironic foreshadowing: “To vouch this is no proof, / Without more wider and more [overt] test / Than these thin habits and poor likelihoods / Of modern seeming do prefer against him” (106-109). The hearing itself, with both Othello and Desdemona in open witness, apparently convinces not only the duke, but Brabantio himself. Brabantio abandons both his theory and his daughter. The irony of the scene is that, despite its being a hearing, Desdemona cannot be excused: either she is possessed or she is guilty of deceiving her father. Her own excuse is that her allegiance is owed to her husband now, but it is clear that she has no excuse for her behavior before she had a husband. She has done what many a woman has done and takes comfort in the fact that having a husband makes her an honest woman.22 Brabantio, foreshadowing Iago, warns only that a woman who can deceive her father can deceive her husband: an observation that makes Desdemona neither less nor more human.

Once the marriage has been validated,23 Roderigo is revealed a disappointed suitor who, like a puppy or a cat, is on the verge (or says he is) of drowning. Iago's celebrated speech—including his ten commandments to “put money in thy purse”—is carefully designed to accomplish two things. The first is the expedient of getting access to Roderigo's ready money.24 The second is giving Roderigo heart to continue pursuing Desdemona so that Iago can make use of him as a tool of his own interests. As he gives Roderigo heart, Iago builds his certainty that Desdemona cannot be long satisfied and that there will be time enough for Roderigo. When Iago explains that Desdemona will soon enough tire of her Moor, his casual “put money in thy purse” becomes a measure of complete certainty, as if he were saying, “You can put money on it.”

Act 2 sustains several kinds of imagery present in Richard III and associated closely with Richard's character. One, the suggestion of an alliance with hell, has already been alluded to in Iago's closing words of act 1. Iago plays widely with the idea of the devil in act 2, particularly when considering how he will ensnare both Cassio and Desdemona: “Her eye must be fed; and what delight shall she have to look on the devil?” (2.1.225-26); and yet Cassio is “a devilish knave” (244-45). Iago's connections with the devil and devilishness link him to Richard; they have been well treated by the critics and suggest to us the absoluteness of the devil.25 Up almost to the moment Othello wishes to see Iago's feet, Iago maintains a devilish power—one that virtually tempts an audience to see him as the devil rather than what he is: a creature given over to the devil.

The imagery dominating the play is, as Caroline Spurgeon and others have pointed out, animal imagery, and particularly animals of a devilish sort: flies, toads, dogs, asses, goats, monkeys. J. Dover Wilson reminds us that “more than half of these animal images belong to Iago.”26 One of those images again links Iago with Richard: that of the spider. Robert Heilman makes the most of this imagery, although it has been repeatedly observed. In the case of Richard, the imagery serves to give us a measure of his brutality and evil. In the case of Iago, it serves to remind us that he is a spinner of webs in which others, through their own natural motions, become hopelessly entangled. Iago, who is no less possessed of a soldierly reputation than Richard, performs no soldiership in the play. Instead, he practises generalship, moving his troops as if by their own volition to manifest his will. His is a more passive evil role, yet it is more ghastly and more cunning for the very fact that he works at the same long distance we associate with orb weavers.

Iago, the essence of Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance improviser,27 takes advantage of all unexpected prizes. After deciding that Cassio must be the way to Desdemona and thus to Othello, he takes advantage of a curiously unsoldierly defect: Cassio's inability to hold his liquor. It is a simple thing to get him drunk enough to rouse the neighborhood and startle Othello. But when Desdemona makes an unexpected appearance—at what the herald has told us is the celebration of her nuptial—Othello's ire rises to the point of casting Cassio aside entirely, leaving the way clear for Iago's own accession to the spot he coveted. Cassio blames that devil, “the invisible spirit of wine” (2.3.281). As he says, “It hath pleas’d the devil drunkenness to give place to the devil wrath: one unperfectness shows me another, to make me frankly despise myself” (296-98).

Iago's last comments in act 2 are filled with references to sin, honesty, and virtue. Behind much of his reflection lie the deeper issues of counterfeit—which he has just practiced so effectively in giving solace to the soul-destroyed Cassio. Iago actually congratulates himself when he says,

How am I then a villain,
To counsel Cassio to this parallel course,
Directly to his good? Divinity of hell!
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now. … 


The direct course of Cassio's good is through Desdemona, and out of that motion, Iago expects to “make the net / That shall enmesh them all” (361-62). Even here, Iago counterfeits more than an angelic disposition. With Cassio's preferment out of the way, he has decided to assume an injury that he has already admitted is unlikely: “I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leap’d into my seat … And nothing can or shall content my soul / Till I am even’d with him, wife for wife” (2.1.295-99). Iago serves himself up a “diet of revenge,” and any excuse is as good as another—including an excuse that has no substance whatsoever to it.

The process of Iago's undermining Othello's peace in act 3 has been amply discussed by A. C. Bradley (especially in lecture VI) and others. The pestilence Iago pours in Othello's ear is all the more awful for the fact that Iago peppers his talk with aphorisms that have lived on independently of the play itself. Madeleine Doran says that “Iago often assumes the style of the homely moralist.”28 When Iago declares, “Men should be what they seem” (3.3.126), or when he tells Othello that “Good name in man and women, dear my lord, / Is the immediate jewel of their souls” (155-56), we are reminded that the devil quotes Scripture. When he warns Othello: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!” (165), we begin to understand that Iago's genius lies in the fact that he can manipulate the truth as well as others manipulate false fronts. Richard himself discovered that the truth was his friend, although his ability to manipulate it was primitive in comparison with Iago’s. The truisms Iago dispenses represent a kind of certainty that is not in dispute. In good rhetorical form, he moves from such certainty to more questionable issues, hoping those issues will draw strength from that which is obviously certain.

As Othello is moved toward doubting his wife's fidelity, he proves a soldier in the manner of the Duke and his messengers. He does not content himself with words; his eyes must be served. He speaks like a careful Ramist logician when he says, “I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove; / And on the proof, there is not more but this— / Away at once with love or jealousy!” (190-93).29 Upon which, Iago sensibly cautions Othello to “wear his eyes” without prejudice: a counterfeit that supports Othello's prejudgment. As Madeleine Doran says, “The first stage is to awaken an uncertainty Othello cannot stand,” and Iago is very quick to awaken it.30

The handkerchief that Othello inadvertently—through his essentially unreasonable demands of his wife—causes Desdemona to drop is one element in the intrigue that is not counterfeit, although Emilia, once she gets possession of it, tells us that it, too, could be counterfeited. But Iago gets it from her before she can “have the work ta’en out.” He sees immediately its usefulness, given the state Othello is already in. Knowing that what he has is genuine, that it can be made to seem a grave thing, he can suffer Othello's rage when the Moor demands: “Give me the ocular proof, / Or by the worth of mine eternal soul, / Thou hadst been better have been born a dog / Then answer my wak’d wrath!” (360-63).

Ironically, Othello protests too loudly. He demands ocular proof, but Iago has poisoned him so that he has already accepted the substance of his suspicions regarding Desdemona. Greenblatt questions this point carefully: “We still must ask how Iago manages to persuade Othello that Desdemona has committed adultery, for all of the cheap tricks Iago plays seem somehow inadequate to produce the unshakable conviction of his wife's defilement that seizes Othello's soul and drives him mad.”31 Greenblatt answers his question through an analysis of patristic attitudes toward sex in marriage. However, what we witness in this scene is the overwhelming growth of uncertainty: the more Othello says he wants proof, the more we know he speaks in a despairing fashion. When Othello again points toward his uncertainty: “I think my wife be honest, and think she is not” (384), Iago protests with a not unreasonable solution: “Would you, the [supervisor], grossly gape on? / Behold her topp’d?” (395-96). Othello never says no, but the very thought stings him so deeply that any reply is out of the question, and Iago knows it. The imagery conjured by the suggestion works almost as powerfully as the witness of the act itself—perhaps even more powerfully.

Iago continues by relating the supposed dream of Cassio, which he promotes as a serious source of doubt while at the same time disclaiming it as a mere dream. “’Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream, / And this may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly” (429-31). Iago's casual finesse of “thicken other proofs” has no logical authority and at best is a rhetorical flourish. At this point, however, even a rhetorical flourish can push Othello further. This entire passage is developmental, proceeding from weaker arguments to stronger, resting finally on what seems palpable, demanding, and of great substance: the visible, identifiable handkerchief, which in and of itself, had seemed weak enough. But what is alarming to us, and disturbing to the elegance of Iago's plan, is that Othello is virtually convinced before he ever sees the handkerchief. The poison Iago has poured into his ears has removed the need for ocular proof. Othello's emotions have conquered him already, just as Anne's emotions conquer her in the face of Richard's evil. Iago's counterfeiting is so remarkable that he hardly needs the final touch. Othello has been like a soil in which the seed, once planted, grew untended. Yet Iago is a careful tender and must proceed.

He brings Othello to the point of observation in act 4. On the way, Othello himself has questioned the whereabouts of the handkerchief with Desdemona, who fails to admit its loss. Giorgio Melchiori comments, “Her moment of weakness comes when she pretends not to have lost her handkerchief, but even that is justified by the scepticism of a person with a different cultural background toward the magic lore attributed by Othello to the handkerchief—a scepticism that prompts a fearful evasion of his irrational request.”32

Othello exercises himself to such an extent that he falls into a trance thinking about the possibility of another man lying with Desdemona. Robert Heilman sees this as a symbolic failure of sight or perception. “His physical ‘blacking out’ is symbolically a darkening of vision; indeed, the ‘shadowing passion’ carries many steps further a process that began when Othello, disturbed by the Cassio-Montano brawl, acknowledged that ‘passion’ had ‘collied’—made black like coal—his ‘judgment.’”33 It would seem that his trance (“his second fit”) is a punctuation mark telling us that an action is complete. That which follows, significant though it may be, is in many ways redundant.

The “scene” Iago sets up for Othello is a counterfeit of a sort, reminiscent of the play Hamlet stages to test Claudius. Iago wishes merely to let Othello think Cassio's coarse language regarding Bianca is spoken of Desdemona. That would be enough corroboration—of the sort that identified the Turks’ destination—to convince Othello, listening at a distance. Opportunity—Iago's friend—brings not only Bianca, but the handkerchief as well. The ocular proof Othello has ceased asking for has arrived. Othello had not been prepared for this, but when Bianca refuses the handkerchief and gives it back to Cassio, Othello says suddenly, “By heaven, that should be my handkerchief!” (4.1.156). But the irony is that Othello, as the scene's only witness and auditor, is almost out of earshot and at such a distance that he cannot be certain of what he sees. When Iago says, “And did you see the handkerchief?” he replies astonishingly, “Was that mine?” indicating only that he was not really certain until Iago corroborated the fact for him.34 Upon this, Iago can speak freely and go so far as to advise a means of death for Desdemona.

It is ironic enough that Othello, having pronounced his decision to stand on ocular proof, should really have no need of it by the time chance puts the opportunity before Iago. But even more remarkably ironic is the fact that once it is delivered, Othello is too distant for it to possess the power of certainty that it could provide. And that brings us to the final overpowering irony. Even though Othello cannot see or hear clearly, and although the handkerchief's presence is taken on a perverse faith in Iago's witness, a closer examination would have proven that the handkerchief was, indeed, his own, and that indeed Cassio had given it to Bianca (even if only to have it copied). That much is real; that much represents ocular proof and absolute certainty. But it also leads us to a further question: Of what does it makes Othello certain? The model for such certainty—establishing the destination of the Turkish fleet—is itself in question when we realize how questionable the “proof” is in this scene. Just as the Turks are capable of deceit, so are the Venetians. In the first case, only the Turks know certainly which way their fleet tends, and in the second case, the Venetian, Iago, is the only one (besides Emilia, who will testify later) who knows how the handkerchief left Desdemona's side and what it means. One can only ask whether or not the Venetians’ technique of corroboration is really different from or superior to Othello’s. The point is treated in Heilman's discussion of the question of appearance and reality.35 It is also treated by Winifred Nowottny, whom Heilman cites, when she asserts that Othello's search for evidence of fidelity is basically futile since infidelity does not necessarily leave ocular proof or tangible evidence that Othello could behold.36 However, the question of whether any manifest difference exists between the method employed by the Venetians regarding the Turks and the method that Othello says (and thinks) he is using is not clear. An important point raised by several commentators is that matters of love are beyond reason and rationalizing and that therefore Othello is doomed from the start in his inquiry: passion dominates an inquiry into passionate matters. The question of whether the heart sees deeper than the eye, the subject of my third chapter, is pertinent here. Yet the circumstances are so different even from those in Troilus and Cressida that only some of that theme is relevant to Othello. As Nowottny points out, Desdemona is the one with penetrating insight. Her love depends upon a deeper witness than Othello’s, since she is able to know the nature of his heart even until the last. In choosing him as husband, she sees beneath his visage to the quality that resides in his bosom, and as she forgives him his murder, blaming herself in a kind of lie that draws Othello's rebuke, she still maintains that his behavior is not evidence of his true nature.

Troilus demands ocular proof of his beloved's betrayal, and he gets it. Othello demands similar proof, but only thinks he gets it. Nowottny's concern for love and justice helps us understand the complication implied by the nature of Othello's limited inquiry. Whereas the Venetians received numerous reports of the movement of the Turkish fleet, Othello depends on a more strictly limited number of sources—with Iago's witness his principal secondary source. He is content with this limitation because he believes his own observations are completely reliable and represent another source of certainty. He does not carefully listen to the accused—to permit, in other words, a defense. In terms of rhetoric, this is an elementary error; even Brabantio had done so. Contrary elenchi, reasons against one's position, could constitute an entire inquiry of the sort that Othello does not conduct. But then Othello is no lawyer, and neither is he a logician. He is a man of passion being manipulated by one who is greater at these skills than he. We are struck by the terrifying fact that the certainty Othello originally possessed, that which gave him the peace and contentment he later lost, was based on an uninquiring faith and trust paralleling that of the audience. He never inquired into the sources of his certainty but simply acted as if his knowledge of things were as intuitive as Desdemona’s. When it comes time to demand certainty in order to decide a course of moral action, he thinks he knows how to do so, but he does not. He knows ocular proof is necessary, but he does not realize what ocular proof is, nor how insufficient some forms of it may be. He does what most men would do in demanding proof; but because he is unpracticed, he understands neither the nature of proof nor how to obtain it.

As so many critics have pointed out, there is a terrible moment of irony when Othello, before killing Desdemona, and afterward, while interrogating Emilia, insists that he saw the handkerchief. He convinces himself that Cassio had confessed. The handkerchief has a fixed meaning for him, albeit one carefully fixed by Iago. In Othello, seeing is not enough. Interpreting what is seen, as in the manner of the duke regarding the Turks, is essential, although it, too, may not be enough. Intuitive knowledge of the sort Desdemona uses is also not enough. Just as Othello intuited the worth of Cassio, he did not intuit the evil of Iago. As Winifred Nowottny points out, two kinds of belief exist in Othello: belief in evidence and belief in people.37 Neither is adequate for the circumstances in the play. A play like Othello, in which no kind of evidence or belief is adequate for a character contemplating a mortal action, suggests that a strong argument for scepticism could be made. Had Othello been a Pyrrhonian rather than an Epicurean, he would have avoided Iago's traps.38 His confidence in thinking he can possess certainty is Othello's undoing. Had he sought the sceptic's ataraxia, what Sextus Empiricus and others identify as the state of undisturbance resulting from the thought that nothing can be known with certainty, he could not have been used by Iago.39 Othello seems to be acting like a zetetic, constantly demanding proof and appearing to hold judgment, but, in fact, he behaves like a dogmatist, one who thoroughly trusts Epicurus's canons of the senses. In this regard, the play foreshadows the controversy of the sceptics and the dogmatists in the 1650s, about which Joseph Glanvill wrote impassionedly in the early 1660s and 1670s, lecturing us carefully on the deceit of our senses and the nature of passion in his The Vanity of Dogmatizing.40

Yet the fact seems to be that just as Iago and Richard are very much alike in their ability to manipulate the people around them, Othello and Hamlet are very much alike in their desire to root out the truth of their circumstances. Both have a kind of revenge in mind; both risk their souls; and both contemplate the death of those who wronged them. They offer interesting contrasts and comparisons for the question of scepticism. To suggest that the plays differ mainly because of the personality of the respective hero is to miss an important point. Each hero had a best friend, so to speak. Had Hamlet's friend been Iago, and had Othello's been Horatio, the plays would have been unspeakably different in outcome. As it is, Iago and Richard are the controlling forces in their plays, manipulating people who depend upon all too common sense when it comes to questioning human knowledge.

The irony, a tragic irony, is that the villains possess the certainty that their victims seek. And while their victims are not what we can call innocents, nor so naive as to be completely gullible, they never suspect the enormity of the villainy being prepared for them. Richard and Iago are both dogmatists. And until they are found out for what they are—as happens in very different ways—their power is virtually complete. Evil in possession of certainty is terrifying and overwhelming.


  1. Anthony Hammond (King Richard III [London: Methuen, 1981]), editor of the Arden edition, discusses the dating problems (54-61) and concludes that 1591 is the most likely date of composition of Richard III. Norman Sanders (Othello, [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984]) says, “We may conclude, then, that Othello must have been written after 1601 and before autumn 1604, with late 1603 to early 1604 being the most likely time of its completion” (2). The Riverside edition proposes 1592-3 for Richard III and 1604 for Othello.

  2. The question of power and self-fashioning in Stephen Greenblatt's terms are involved here. See “The Improvisation of Power,” in Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

  3. Wolfgang Clemens, A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard III, tr. Jean Bonheim (London: Methuen, 1968 [in German, 1957]), 8.

  4. A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns (New York: Theatre Arts, 1961), 8. Before this, Rossiter says: “The same irony plays all over Richard III. It lurks like a shadow behind the naively self-confident Hastings; it hovers a moment over Buckingham when Margaret warns him against ‘yonder dog’ (Richard), and, on Richard's asking what she said, he replies, ‘Nothing that I respect my gracious lord.…’” Wolfgang Clemens also discusses irony, with special emphasis on the ironies developing in the opening scenes of the play.

  5. See Greenblatt's discussion in “The Improvisation of Power,” 241.

  6. Rossiter calls the play a “rhetorical symphony”; Angel with Horns, 7.

  7. See Lily B. Campbell's Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, California: Huntington Library Press, 1947). Hammond tacitly disapproves of Campbell's emphasis on Shakespeare as “political scientist”; King Richard III, 119.

  8. See Rossiter, Angel With Horns, 20-21.

  9. “It has often been remarked that all the characters in the play (except for the Princes and Richmond) are at least partly guilty. This is so: we saw that Anne succumbs to Richard's wooing partly because he is attractive, but she would not have fallen so readily into such a terrible mistake if she too had not been corrupt. The scene opens with her dreadful curses: Richard is right when he twits her that she knows no charity. Yet Anne, like Elizabeth, is characterized in a more realistic manner than Margaret or the Duchess. She and Edward's Queen, for all their rhetoric, are believable as women. The others are mere monotones of complaint. … it is worth remembering that the motives for their behaviour, when examined, are no more rational than Richard’s” (Hammond, King Richard III, 110).

  10. Clemens, A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard III, 166.

  11. The first 6 quartos, beginning in 1597 and ending in 1622, differ from the first folio of 1623. See the Riverside edition's “Note on the Text,” 754.

  12. Immanuel Bourne, The Anatomie of Conscience (London, 1623), 8.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid., 9.

  15. William Perkins, Works, 3 vols. (London, 1612), vol. 1, 517.

  16. Ephraim Huit, The Anatomy of Conscience (London, 1626), 80-81. The connection with St. Paul gives further richness to Richard's swearing by St. Paul's in his dialogue with Anne.

  17. Clemens, A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard III, 218. Clemens mentions despair in connection with Richard's condition, arguing that his attempts to justify himself have failed.

  18. Guy Hamel sees the “conclusion of Richard III [a]s emphatically comic” (“Time in Richard III,Shakespeare Survey 40 [1988], 48). Although I find his confidence difficult to share, he does point out, “In Richard's soliloquy when he wakes on the eve of Bosworth, he assumes a tragic dimension from which Shakespeare has until then excluded him. The facile declaration he makes at the beginning of the play that he is ‘determined to prove a villain’ (1.1.30) becomes the fearful realization that ‘I am a villain’ (5.3.191)” (48).

  19. Martin Elliot reminds us in Shakespeare's Invention of Othello (London: Macmillan, 1988) that this expression is much more lexically complex than it at first seems. It may not guarantee the certainty that Iago wishes.

  20. Jane Adamson says, “Of course it is because the Venetians are themselves so adept at such calculations that they are not taken in by the Turks’ deceptive tactics. They see at once that the Rhodes expedition is a mere front, ‘a pageant / To keep us in false gaze’” (Othello as Tragedy: Some Problems of Judgment and Feeling [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980], 84).

  21. The ramifications of honesty have been established by William Empson in “Honest in Othello,” in The Structure of Complex Words (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, n.d.), 218-249.

  22. Greenblatt talks about Desdemona's “traditional right to transfer her duty” (“The Improvisation of Power,” 239) from her father to her husband. But despite the fact that the essence of improvisation is “displacement and absorption” as well as “concealment,” he does not mention that in this scene Desdemona is as much an improviser as Iago is later. The discreet question of paternal permission is displaced entirely by the fait accompli of marriage and absorbed by the fact that her duty now lies with her lawful husband.

  23. The question of whether the marriage is valid is studied by Martin Elliot, who discusses marriage customs in England (Shakespeare's Invention of Othello, 57-8). “Marriages without parental consent, and secret marriages, were matters of public debate in England c. 1604. Indeed, a canon law of that year condemned both practices” (58). Elliot also discusses Moorish marriage customs (250, n. 17) and links the handkerchief with the marital sheets and the staining of virginal blood, which the Moors displayed after the wedding.

  24. Iago advises Roderigo ten times in this scene to “put money in thy purse.” Robert B. Heilman, in Magic in the Web (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1956), discusses this in considering Iago's economics: “He directly tells Roderigo to produce the cash” (75). See also 42ff. of G. R. Elliott's The Flaming Minister: A Study of Othello as a Tragedy of Love and Hate (New York: AMS Press, 1965; orig. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1953).

  25. For a curious twist on this idea, see G. R. Elliott, The Flaming Minister, xxxi, who says about Othello, “The more he dissembles the more he is sure that she is doing likewise: his refusal to tell the truth prevents him from learning the truth. His diabolic pride far surpasses Iago’s: the hero of the play becomes the chief officer and exponent of ‘hell’ (3.3.447, 4.2.64, 92).”

  26. J. Dover Wilson, introduction to Othello, ed. Alice Walker and John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), xlvi.

  27. “I have called improvisation a central Renaissance mode of behavior …”; Greenblatt, “The Improvisation of Power,” 229.

  28. Madeleine Doran, “Iago's If—Conditional and Subjunctive in Othello,” in Shakespeare's Dramatic Language (Madison: Wisconsin University Press, 1976), 67. Doran's point in her essay is relevant to my discussion, although since I do not treat the “if” clauses as she does, I do not call attention to her observations. However, she does discuss Othello's use of the false enthymeme (83), false logic (70), and logic generally (68).

  29. James Calderwood reminds us that there has been perhaps too much “privileging of the eye in Western epistemology. … because it is keyed to surfaces, sight is Othello's enemy in Venice, where the color virtue is not black but white” (The Properties of Othello [Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989], 46).

  30. Doran, Shakespeare's Dramatic Language, 80.

  31. Greenblatt, “The Improvisation of Power,” 247.

  32. Giorgio Melchiori, “The Rhetoric of Character Construction: ‘Othello’,” Shakespeare Survey 34 (1981), 67. Melchiori also comments that “Desdemona's is the rhetoric of the natural aristocrat.”

  33. Heilman, Magic in the Web, 86.

  34. Sanders says, “Even his props are not what they seem to be: the handkerchief, so emotionally loaded by Othello, is simultaneously the precious gift to Desdemona and yet a trifle light as air (3.3.323), which Cassio's possession transforms into what it is not. … that which Othello does not even see clearly in Cassio's hand—‘Was that mine?’ (4.1.166)—becomes the ocular proof of adultery”; Othello, 33.

  35. Heilman, “Seeming and Seeing: Ocular Proof,” in Magic in the Web, 50-64.

  36. Winifred Nowottny, “Justice and Love in Othello,” University of Toronto Quarterly 21 (1952): 332, 35.

  37. Ibid., 330.

  38. Interestingly, Greenblatt refers to “Iago, the Renaissance skeptic”; “The Improvisation of Power,” 246.

  39. See Thomas Stanley's translation of Sextus in The History of Philosophy (London, 1660), 10, in the chapter on Sextus. Diogenes identified ataraxia in his entry on Pyrrho, and Raleigh's translation also identifies it. See my chapter 1 for further discussion.

  40. Joseph Glanvill, The Vanity of Dogmatizing (London, 1661), ch. 8.

Alice Rayner (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5914

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?

Twelfth Night

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 of human nature within the genteel domain of social intercourse and the “higher love.”

As a general statement about the action of comedy, we might say that it customarily indulges human appetites—revels in them, so to speak—as it tries simultaneously to socialize them. Corporeality and society are not mutually exclusive spheres: from one perspective comedy is especially suited to bringing the body into society. It aligns the isolated and isolating attributes common to animals and humans (the body's needs, its appetitive nature) in a functional social pattern. Sometimes the realignment requires a modification of the appetites themselves, so that a character, either by reform or retribution, is brought “out of his humor” into a moral equilibrium. Ben Jonson's comedies usually punish the human appetites with ridicule. Other comedies incorporate appetite into their societies, which are then revitalized and rejuvenated by its vigor, as when the youthful lovers finally overcome all obstacles to their desires. The moral theme of appetite and virtue is an attenuation of a deeper tension between chaos and order, between the potentially limitless hunger of the biological being and the limitations imposed by the group on the individual.

In comedy, this moral theme is at the heart of the contradiction in the form itself between indulgence and restriction. The contradiction recalls an old comic dilemma: is comedy good because it rewards virtue and punishes vice or because it releases the individualized delight that is necessarily repressed by society? One defense of comedy suggests that it teaches us not what to imitate but what to avoid: we learn through the example of ridicule. Another defense suggests that comedy is a social cathartic: we celebrate our appetitive nature vicariously, in a context without consequence, and delight in the structure of revelry.1 Comic misrule cleanses the society of personal passions by indulging them in a controlled structure.

Toby Belch's rhetorical question to Malvolio in the epigraph of this chapter suggests that puritanical virtue will never socialize appetite (cakes and ale).2 The mere presence of virtue does not guarantee any transformation or modification of appetite. The ethical structure represented by Malvolio's presence cannot restrain the revelry of Sir Toby and his friends. In fact, that ethical structure invites the retribution of the revelers on its representative, and that retribution is the focus of much of our delight. It is too simple, really, to say that Twelfth Night offers a straightforward dialectic between virtue and revelry or sobriety and appetite, or that Shakespeare leads us to some “moral” sense of revelry.3 The play is certainly like a revel. It celebrates in song, in dance, and sometimes in drunkenness. Malvolio is an obvious moral foil. But does the potential sympathy for Malvolio at the end of the play overtake the previous censure? The resolution of this kind of ethical question will inevitably rest in ethical taste: one can almost always make a play conform to one's own ethical attitudes, sympathies, and ideas of justice and retribution and fairness. Characters like Malvolio and Shylock are subject to constant revision, a revision that depends not so much on their function in the play as on an external perception of equity, fairness, or sympathy. Likewise, Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew is subject to currents of ethical taste that can shift and color her function in the comedy or at least turn the play toward specific commentary. Part of the problem in examining the moral structure of Shakespeare's comedy is that the moral themes are both obvious and transparent, as though we could see through them to the specific images and actions of the play or, conversely, as though we could see through the images and actions to the moral themes. Shakespeare makes his images moral and his morals imagistic, so that we do not know precisely what we are seeing or hearing; we know only that image and moral quality are both present.

The source of this phenomenon in Shakespeare can be defined by what I have called poesis. I include in this term the sense that language as a made thing, a fashioned object, is, at least in the Renaissance, a form of knowledge. It is the ground of what Michael Foucault has called the preclassical episteme. Language is still joined to its objects; there is no separation of words and things, because the world is knowable by the relations of things, by analogy, by “convenience” or proximity, by the conjunction of visible signs and invisible objects. In this field of episteme, words belong to things as part of their nature; they are not only signs. Nature is whole; it rounds back on itself and can therefore be known by a system of correspondence. Foucault says that the idea of the microcosm is fundamental to this form of knowledge.

As a category of thought, it applies the interplay of duplicated resemblances to all the realms of nature; it provides all investigation with an assurance that everything will find its mirror and its macrocosmic justification on another and larger scale; it affirms, inversely, that the visible order of the highest spheres will be found reflected in the darkest depths of the earth.4

This epistemological ground necessarily includes a mixture of “magic and erudition” because the knowledge of an object consists of a compilation of all that is seen, heard, or written of it.5Poesis, as I define it, is thus not only a signifier of a world but also an interpreter/creator of a world. Poetic language gives a location to the “natural” correspondence between words and things, images and moral qualities. If the cosmos can be understood on the basis of analogy, resemblances, and correspondence, poesis can ground an analogue in a single word, illuminating the whole by the part. It is through poesis that a moral theme can be traced by images.

In Twelfth Night, for example, the moral/imagistic ground is established immediately, beginning with Orsino's opening speech that equates music, food, and love. The equation develops through the play; it proliferates. From the beginning we collect references to food and drink, appetite, music, love, and sea. The images and references become repetitious, like a musical motif. To put it another way, they become encyclopedic, as though the play were compiling all the possible variations on the equation. Orsino's appetite for love is ready to surfeit, but it is insatiable; his love is as capacious and inconstant as the sea; he is drunk and ready to sicken and so die with love. Sir Toby makes the oceanic theme physical: he has an unquenchable thirst for ale and will drink toasts to Olivia “as long as there's passage in my throat and drink in Illyria” (1.3.39-40). Malvolio, too, is “sick of self-love”; he “tastes with a distemper’d appetite” (1.5.90-91). The repeated references to appetite, sickness, drink, delirium have little to do with the action or structure of the play but a great deal to do with the moral world of the play. Language centers the action and interprets it through a specific set of images and qualities. Moreover, the play compiles an encyclopedia or natural history of the connection between appetite, sickness, drunkenness, and love through its characters and its language. The moral anatomy of this world is not in the structure of the action as much as in the collection of analogies.

Illyria is a watery world. Within that world, the court of Orsino and the household of Olivia are two self-enclosed monuments of self-deception. As many people have already noticed, the dominant images in Twelfth Night are of fluidity: the sea, drink, tears, water, ale, urine, rain.6 In addition to Toby's drink, there are Olivia's tears; there is Feste's remark, “I’m for all waters” (4.2.63); there is Orsino's love, “all as hungry as the sea” 2.4.100); and the play ends with the song whose refrain is “the rain it raineth every day.” To this fluid environment are opposed images of constancy and confinement. “I would have men of such constancy put to sea” (2.4.76), says Feste of Orsino. When Feste is called a “dry fool,” he replies that “drink and good counsel will amend; for give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry” (1.5.43-44). Malvolio's physical imprisonment corresponds to the rigid nature of his virtue. Similarly, Olivia lives in a self-imposed confinement of grief, and Orsino is bound by the chains of love. Viola's image of “Patience on a monument” is one of the most striking examples of constancy in the play. Shakespeare's images define the moral scope of his plays by defining the physical characteristics of an image or set of images. In the reiterated references to both water and confinement he defines a moral system without resorting to sermons. The images are emblematic, much like the medieval or Renaissance illustrations that both teach the unschooled and delight the scholar. The advantage of the emblem is that it functions both as a sign for a moral problem and as a concrete instance of that problem. It is at once a specific image and an abstruse puzzle.

T. S. Eliot called such images the “suggestive” or “evocative” aspects of Shakespeare's language,7 but they are also self-evident images. They bear content that is subject to interpretation, but they do not “interpret themselves.” The images are significative, but they are also instances of knowing. An image of “fluidity” is an instance of “fluidity,” not as an object specifically but as a quality. Because Shakespeare's images pervade his plays and fill them not with objects but with qualities, he creates a “rhetorical” world in qualitative terms.

The metaphoric potential of an image leads us, as audiences, to build bridges from the qualities of the images to the qualities of a “world” and hence begin to attach moral qualities to the actions of characters. In Illyria, for example, we see Orsino's love “all as hungry as the sea” and begin to attach moral qualities to a human situation, arriving at both a “character” for Orsino and a moral “problem” for the play. Through similes, images, or analogies, we begin to locate the problem indicated by the poesis as a problem of character or situation. Orsino's problem thus seems to be a languishing love and an appetite for melancholy. In his first speech, he seems to be asking for an end to his appetite for love, hoping that if he feeds it, it might die. But like all lovers who enjoy the exquisite torture of being denied, he is also in love with denial, or at least with the agitation and excitement that denial creates.

For such as I am, all true lovers are,
Unstaid and skittish in all motions else,
Save in the constant image of the creature
That is belov’d.


From such speeches we begin to create a “being.” We begin to say that Orsino “is” such and such a kind of person. He “is” a romantic, lugubrious lover, transfixed by the image of perfection, a self-contained monument to romantic love.

When Viola tells Orsino her image of someone in love, we see different qualities:

she pin’d in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sate like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.


The speech not only describes an abstract virtue but also adds that virtue to our sense of Viola's complexity as “character”; furthermore it comments on the static quality of Orsino's love. In the play—above and beyond what the characters say about themselves—Viola is all activity, moving between court and household. Orsino is a passive lover for all his agitation. His love is an agitation in a static state; Viola's love is a constant, a monument of patience in action. We sense here, then, a Viola who has an “inside” and an “outside”: constancy or patience “within,” action and deeds “without.” Orsino's condition causes him to mistake the appropriate object of love. Viola's condition enables her to function in the realm of actuality. The qualitative contrast between Viola's love and Orsino's is thus generated by language and transferred to character and situation. In moral or psychological terms, we could say that agitated stasis and transfixed activity form the paradox of love in this play. The insatiable, self-consuming love of Orsino's appetite immobilizes him; the antidote for his immobility is the constancy and patience of Viola's active love. We extrapolate moral and emotional value as well as psychological complexity from the capacity of language to design without designating. From the total pattern or design that the language creates, we derive a value-laden world of characters and actions.

Characters locate contrasting values for us, but some difficulties arise when we try to judge the moral meaning of the play on the basis of the characters’ values. The “problems” of Twelfth Night are not solved by right ethical decisions or by the punishment of malefactors. The opposition either of Orsino's languishing love and Viola's active love, for example, or of virtue and appetite as a moral theme is not subjected to judgment. In neither opposition is one element really preferable to the other, for both are realities of the larger condition of the play. Sir Toby's question to Malvolio does not deny virtue, nor does it mean that the play speaks only for cakes and ale and the virtue of revelry. Such a simplistic ethical dialectic belongs to an analytic vision of society and value. Shakespeare has a synthetic vision: he does not necessarily deny the possibility of ethical choice or rightness but finds ways to implicate various possibilities in the unity of the whole.

If we try to choose between the value of appetite and the value of virtue, for example, we impose a judgment on the play that the play does not call for, one that in fact diminishes the inclusiveness of possibilities. Suppose we try to divide the play between virtuous characters and actions and appetitive ones. We will find not a division but a range of virtues with various characteristics. Olivia, to be sure, is a “virtuous maid, daughter of a count,” but her hunger blinds her to the “reality” of Cesario's identity. Malvolio is virtuous in his way; he is in fact virtuous to the point of self-righteousness, and the extreme makes him ridiculous. Orsino is “appetitive” yet is clearly one of the romantic centers of the play. Sir Toby is insatiable yet affirms the value, if not the virtue, of the revel. We discover not an ethical dialectic between virtue and appetite but a catalogue of the kinds and degrees of each. The very inclusiveness of this “world” makes certain ethical questions inappropriate.

The moral questions that arise over the gulling of Malvolio, for instance, indicate the extent to which we presume both the presence of an ethical question and the “corrective” nature of comedy. We often seek a moral justification for that mean treatment of Malvolio at the hands of the clowns. He is, of course, too puritanical, too full of pride and self-deception, too much a spoilsport, and too rigidly virtuous. He deserves his comeuppance. On the other hand, he is merely doing his duty to Olivia; the rogues of the household are out of control and morally decadent. Their game suggests a deep cruelty. From either perspective we are passing a sympathetic and ethical judgment: and either our sympathy creates an ethical system or our ethical system creates our sympathy.

The “dramatic” answer, of course, is that Malvolio “works.” His punishment is an aspect of the play's comedy, and we can maintain the possibility of an ethical attitude (he receives his just deserts or is cruelly treated) but must take into account the aesthetic perspective, or the purely “formal” aspect, of comic punishment. Such punishment is part of the performance pleasure in the tradition of comedy, an attenuation of the old “lampooning mode.” The source of that pleasure may be our own latent aggressiveness, which we would rather not acknowledge, but at the very least we are asked to momentarily suspend judgment in favor of comic pleasure.

I do not mean to suggest that there is no moral residue in Malvolio. He deserves his punishment, but at the same time that punishment is malicious. Although we would hate to see him revenged, his final cry for revenge is justified. His departure threatens to spoil the spirit of the final moment. Like Shylock, he is a problem character. Like Jaques and Shylock, he leaves a trace element of moral ambiguity. Yet that, too, is an aspect of inclusiveness in Shakespeare's moral scheme. The corrective or analytic comedy leaves no moral residue. It is far more efficient in its clarification of virtue and vice. The comic world of Shakespeare is less efficient in its retribution than a Jonsonian world but perhaps more completely satisfying.

The illusion of a complete world in Twelfth Night is created by thematic pattern. We feel that Illyria is homogeneous in spite of its diversity because its inhabitants and their actions all revolve around a structural theme. Because the actions of Sir Toby and his friends have no direct effect on the actions or events of the romantic couples, some people feel that in strictly narrative terms this is a divided play. But Olivia and Viola are no less exempt from appetite as love than Toby is exempt from appetite as drink. Indeed, Olivia's love for Cesario is a version of the delirium that Viola feels for Orsino and that Toby exhibits in his perpetual drunkenness: they are all at least “one draught above heat.” The sameness in their conditions is distinguished only by degree and proportion, with the result that degree and proportion constitute the normative order of the world of the play, above and beyond the specific ethical content of characters or action.

One of the distinguishing elements of the “utopian” comedy is the sense of place that it creates, the sense of a space in which actions are qualitatively coherent though logically or ethically inconsistent. The thematic space encloses characters and maintains some autonomy from them. We know, for example, as soon as Viola's brother Sebastian enters Illyrian space that a symmetry is complete and the conclusion is inevitable, just as we know that when Oliver enters the forest of Arden, his conversion is necessary and probable. Probability, however, depends on the convention of the artifice, not on its verisimilitude. The traditional form that celebrates the capacities for transformation through artifice is the pastoral, and Shakespeare's comedies are rarely far from the pastoral scheme. Illyria is not exactly Arcadia, yet as a locale it has the pastoral attributes that stop time, confuse identities, allow for the indulgence of love and celebration, and remind us that there is death, even in utopia.

The sense that place can be distinguishable from character identifies Shakespeare's utopian perspective. The fictional “world” effects “character” more than characters create the world. Choice and action in Shakespeare's characters are not the agents of development and change. Orsino does not learn the nature of true love any more than Sir Toby learns moderation. It is not, finally, left to Viola to resolve the confusions of identity. Resolution comes quite specifically through the agent of time, which is another way of saying through the impersonal action of the narrative.

O time, thou must untangle this, not I,
It is too hard a knot for me t’untie.


The invocation to Time addresses the impersonal elements in the structure of the artifice. Time changes the situations of the characters, but it does not alter their ethical status. A Jonsonian play, by way of contrast, does not ask time to untangle the knots of complication; it asks only that the character conform to a projected moral order or be punished for lack of conformity. In Jonson, an ethical logic determines the “quality” of the world. This determination may be entirely appropriate for an ethical diagnosis of human nature, but it binds Jonson's world to the logical unities of time and place.

In Shakespeare the causality of action is not bound to temporal logic and sequence but to the thematic logic of the fictional space. That space has a magic quality because it is free of temporal causality in the same way that poetry is free of the temporal logic of discourse. Illyria is an ideal world not because characters are morally perfect or because wishes are fulfilled but because it coheres as a fiction. If we transfer our habit of making ethical judgments about characters (appropriate in a Jonsonian world) to Shakespeare’s, we tend to say Olivia “learns” the limits of grief, or Orsino “learns” the true value of love, or Malvolio “learns” through punishment about excess. But because the play is not structured on the logic of ethical choices, Shakespeare appears to have no moral program for the appetitive nature of humans in love. As a result, we “learn” more about love and appetite in humans than about humans in love.

The distinction is important because it keeps us from looking too closely for either psychological or moral consistency in Shakespeare's comic characters. Shakespeare is able to objectify elements of human experience as an almost autonomous arena in which characters operate. The fictional world of theme and artifice, not a standard of ethical probity, creates the comic norm. And that norm is a matter of proportion and decorum, which are the province of the artist.

Twelfth Night designates artifice as a norm through the character of Feste. In her reprimand to Malvolio, Olivia implicitly links morality to artistry, suggesting that generosity and a free disposition give one a right sense of proportion.

O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distemper’d appetite. To be generous, guiltless, and of a free disposition, is to take those things for bird-bolts that you deem cannon bullets. There is no slander in an allow’d fool, though he do nothing but rail; nor no railing in a known discreet man, though he do nothing but reprove.


With a strictly ethical norm, we judge Malvolio as a “bad” character, who comes straight from a Jonsonian comedy for punishment, and Feste as a “good” character, generous and guiltless. But as Olivia suggests in her speech, ethical order is less a matter of content than of proportion. Malvolio's lack is as much aesthetic as it is moral. The allowed fool, like the allowed fiction, is exempt from the charge of slander. The artful fool, unlike the discreet man, knows that the difference between bird-bolts and cannon bullets, between fiction and reality, is a matter of proportion and taste.

Both Olivia and Viola are “normative” characters in an ethical sense: they “are” virtuous, deserving, honorable, and reasonably sensible. But the play does not rest on the trials or proofs of their virtues any more than on the proofs of Toby's drunken antics. The ethical constitution of the romantic figures may satisfy us, but those characters are simply part of the narrative “generator,” so to speak. They move us along to a fitting narrative conclusion, but that conclusion is no more than we expect. In addition, some of our interest in the lovers as characters comes from the differences between them and the pattern they create as varying instances of the appetite/virtue/love theme. That theme creates an ethical space, a qualitative location for the action of the play. But Feste is at the center of this ethical space, in the eye of the storm, not because he is an “ethical” character but because he is the one figure who perceives the totality of the action.

In strict ethical terms, Feste is an anomalous presence. If this were a morality play with a morality structure, he might well be seen as a Vice figure. But Twelfth Night reaches beyond a simple moral dialectic, and Feste has none of the perverse antic disposition of a character like Mosca in Volpone. He has, however, some of the same freedom. Moreover, in Feste we can see how vestiges of a morality structure or corrective comedy can open out on the larger vistas of Shakespeare's comedy. Feste has no “character” per se, no project, no apparent needs, no attachments, yet he is a crucial spokesman for the play. I do not mean he is a spokesman for Shakespeare's intent, any more than the other characters are. They all take their place in the scheme of the whole. But Feste is an oddity. He is a dramatis persona without any desires. He moves freely between Olivia's household and Orsino's court but is always, somehow, in his own place. His commentary is specific but also impersonal. His humor is light and playful, but he carries with him the reminder of death. Moving unattached through the play, he sings songs that honor both the carpe diem aspect of love (“Come and kiss me sweet and twenty”) and its deathly aspect (“Sad true lover never find my grave to weep there”). Feste embodies the moral themes of the pastoral: the interpenetration of time and timelessness, love and death, life and art. Like the gravestone in Arcadia, he recalls “Et in Arcadia Ego,” but he does not diminish the momentary pleasures of the art form that celebrates desire, passion, appetite, love. His presence rather heightens that momentary celebration and makes it more valuable because of its fragility. He combines the pleasure and pain of finity that is the particular domain of the clown/comedian/performer.

There's for thy pains.
No pains, sir, I take pleasure in singing, sir.
I’ll pay thy pleasure then.
Truly, sir, and pleasure will be paid, one time or another.


Feste is an emblematic character for this comedy. Twelfth Night oscillates precariously between what we commonly call the two phases of Shakespeare's canon. Even as it is comic and celebratory and directed toward the happy alignment of couples, it also foreshadows the disintegration of innocence in The Merchant of Venice, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida. Feste foreshadows the darker ironies of these comedies, but the action of Twelfth Night leads to the happy and uncomplicated alignment of couples. Pleasure will be paid, but in the meantime there is song and celebration. Feste is both a reveler and an ironic commentator. More than that, however, he demonstrates in an extreme way how Shakespeare keeps characters in proportion to his themes. Lacking either a specific motive or a personal drive in the action of the play, Feste is the internal ironic voice of the play speaking directly to us. His distance from the other characters coincides with their full acceptance of him in their midst: he functions both inside and outside the play. He is the singer, the performer, the poet who keeps revelry and irony in the proper degree. He is the emblem of comic pleasure always aware of the limitations and cost of that pleasure. As the singer-poet represents poesis, so Feste locates the analogic proportion between the transitory/permanent nature of love and appetite in performance and the transitory/permanent nature of life. Moreover, Feste signals us that language itself both creates and disintegrates. “A sentence is but a chev’ril glove to a good wit” (3.1.12). Feste, as he tells Viola, is not Lady Olivia's fool but her “corrupter of words.”

Poesis lies midway between the usefulness of language as fixed and cognitive and the delight of language as transient and suggestive. Words both bind meaning and loose it on the world, but the bonds are not absolute, and as Viola says, “They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton” (3.1.14-15). The bonds of words and things, such as “my sister's name” and “my sister,” have been “disgrac’d,” so Feste “would therefore my sister had no name” since “to dally with that word might make my sister wanton.” We are amused to think that the imaginary bond between the word and the thing (such as sister) might be so effective. It is less amusing to consider that the “thing” might have no effect, that is, effective meaning, on the word; but if the bond does not truly exist, then the loss is mutual.

The words of the play create a cognitive world of qualities: love and appetite, as hungry as the sea. Language brings into being what never existed, yet we still feel “loss” at the end of the play with Feste's “But that's all one, our play is done.” Our pleasure in language is only partially derived from the illusion of a world as an “object” created by words. That pleasure, in Shakespeare's poesis, comes from language that is not identical to reality and that allows us respite from actuality. We pay for that pleasure with a sense of loss, but that very cost makes the experience acute. Moreover, Feste as fool and clown embodies that experience, for he is the emblem of revelry and death conjoined. It is Feste who, in celebration, continually reminds us that death is still a reality, that pleasure will be paid, that youth's a stuff will not endure. In the revels scene at Olivia's house, Sir Toby sings, “But I will never die”; Feste answers, singing, “Sir Toby there you lie”; Malvolio adds, speaking, “This is much credit to you” (2.3.106-8), either as a sarcastic comment on all their tomfoolery or as an acknowledgment of the truth in Feste's statement. Shakespeare's perspective is inclusive and ironic because it recognizes the place and function of death and finity in the idealized ethical structure of love and marriage. The development of the narrative toward an ethical structure is countered by the loss and disintegration inherent in performative transience: but loss as much as structure is a source of delight.

The comic structure gives a particular direction to the thematic consistency. As a theme, that is, love and time are most purely developed in the lyric voice and the emotional experience of the single poet. Taken out of the singular and personal voice and brought into the social context of comedy, the theme is modified and qualified. Comedy socializes the singularity and isolation of a personal emotion, but it thereby threatens to alter the experience. The individual can no longer dwell alone with his feeling. In many ways, Orsino is not a member of the comic community in Twelfth Night. He remains an isolated, melancholy lover until the very end of the play. If the pressure of isolation becomes too great, love can lead to tragedy, as it does for Othello. One can easily imagine, however, that were Othello to bring his jealous passion into the community, to share it with his society, not just with Iago, it would quickly appear to be a comic passion. Because he holds it in, his passion consumes him. The dark side of love in Twelfth Night, its deathly aspect, threatens to turn to irony. But because it is activated by the social world of Illyria, it remains comic. If only consuming and appetitive love were found there, Illyria might become the horrific and ironic world of Troilus and Cressida. But the passion of love's appetite is social and belongs to the community at large in Illyria. The paradoxes of love's change and love's permanence are set in motion there and cannot come to rest in either the carpe diem of celebration or the irony of death. Appetite and virtue, change and permanence are the moral and thematic boundaries of a social world.

In Shakespeare's utopian perspective, appetite is not restricted or restrained by society. Rather, it is found to have its own natural cycle of ebb and flow, desire and surfeit. It is a permanent fixture in constant flux. Sir Toby's appetite for cakes and ale is the corporeal manifestation of appetite that no amount of virtue will eliminate. In this Renaissance world of correspondences, resemblances, and analogies, that corporeal appetite is a likeness of the universal paradox of permanence and change and the continual progress toward the death of desire in the acquisition of its object. One can revel in an appetite because the appetite will die a natural death. Twelfth Night can celebrate delight not to escape from the reality of death and change but to acknowledge the presence of death and change in delight. The play exhibits the potential purity of comic delight in the context of an impure reality. Only Feste is aware of the impurity, perhaps, but his presence reveals the importance of revelry even in a world where death is inevitable. Because he tells us that pleasure will be paid, that “the rain it raineth every day,” and that “youth's a stuff will not endure,” we experience more poignantly the delight in the outcome of the comic structure and still witness the universal principles that belong to that structure, principles of time and timelessness, motion and stasis. Feste presents the context in which revelry and delight are useful. He helps the play to signal both that all human experience is transitory and subject to change and decay and that sometimes in imaginary structures we can experience the satisfaction of an appetite.


  1. The idea of the festive comedy as a structure for a social cathartic “through release to clarification” is, of course, the basis for C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959).

  2. All quotations from Twelfth Night are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). Subsequent citations will be given parenthetically in the text.

  3. See, for example, John Hollander, “Twelfth Night and the Morality of Indulgence,” in Discussions of Shakespeare's Romantic Comedy, ed. Herbert Weil, Jr. (Boston: Heath, 1966), p. 120. Hollander usefully points out that Shakespeare “seems at any rate to have analyzed the dramatic and moral nature of feasting. … His analysis is schematized in Orsino's opening speech. The essential action of a revel is: To so surfeit the Appetite upon excess that it ‘may sicken and so die.’”

  4. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1970), p. 31.

  5. Ibid., pp. 32-40.

  6. Hollander, “Morality of Indulgence,” p. 131.

  7. T. S. Eliot, Elizabethan Essays (New York: Haskell House, 1964), p. 66.

Alan C. Dessen (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9734

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, but because “episodes are invented and ordered for the sake of the thesis.”1 Similarly, John Weld argues that “the audiences for which Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote had been trained to expect a unifying theme”; he notes that “unity of action is almost non-existent” in plays like All for Money and The Three Ladies of London, “but unity of theme is rigorously observed.” For Weld, “the point is not that all scenes in all morality plays were tightly bound in thematic unity, but that whatever unity the plays possessed was thematic.”2 Both Kantrowitz and Weld therefore single out the presence in the moral drama of a different logic of presentation or organization, a logic geared to thesis, theme, or homiletic intent rather than to our notions of psychological realism or narrative credibility.

Such an allegorical or thematic logic is familiar to readers of The Faerie Queene or Book II of Paradise Lost. What has not been addressed, however, is the interpretative problems and anomalies that result from the presentation of allegorical figures, theses, and action on a stage as opposed to on a page. Thus, most scholars have accepted Bernard Spivack's formulation that, except for an occasional throwback, the period after 1590 “marks the dead end and dissolution of the allegorical drama, at least on the popular stage.”3 Such a conclusion, however, is based primarily upon reading rather than seeing the plays, a process that gives undue prominence to the speech prefixes in the printed texts. In contrast, Arnold Williams has noted that an audience watching a performance of Mankind would see not a parade of abstractions but “four small-time hoodlums, a priest, a real, live devil, who, however, is invisible to the actors on stage, and a good hearted but weak and somewhat dim-witted English peasant. We would hear a good bit of sermonizing by the priest and a good bit of underworld jargon from the vices.” According to Williams, the critic can easily be misled by “the names of the characters and the fact that the play has been labelled a morality.”4 Similarly, John Weld emphasizes that “the speech headings that loom so large in the italics of print are non-existent on the stage” (p. 38). For Weld, the failure to “see” the moral plays “accounts both for a serious misunderstanding of the way they work and for the critical disregard of the morality as genre ever since antiquarians began to reprint them.” Rather, “what the audience sees is not so many abstractions, but people—red-faced, tall, short, fat, greasy, grotesque, and sly; and they are not involved in interabstractional relationships; they hit each other, brawl, kiss, ring bells, and chase each other around the stage” (p. 14). Both Williams and Weld remind us that, in performance, the moral plays may have seemed less blatantly allegorical, a reminder that could narrow the gap that seems to separate them from the later “realistic” plays.

Consider, for example, some earlier and later figures that perform comparable functions. For a spectator as opposed to a reader, how much actually would separate Fellowship (Everyman) or Riot (The Interlude of Youth) from later good fellows or riotous companions with names like Pistol and Bardolph? How different are the unnamed murderers of Clarence in Richard III or Banquo in Macbeth from the villains who kill Smirdis in Cambises, even though the latter figures are called Murder and Cruelty? How large is the gap, again from the perspective of an audience in the theatre, between the Good Counsel figure of the moral plays, usually dressed as a clergyman, and the many friars or moral spokesmen in later plays, figures like the Old Man in Doctor Faustus or Friar Francis in Much Ado about Nothing? In The Castle of Perseverance Greed is dramatized in the person of Avaricia, one of the seven deadly sins, but in the 1570s Wapull displays this sin in The Tide Tarrieth No Man by means of a grasping usurer named Greediness who acts out the pernicious influence of the Vice. How different, then, would be a viewer's experience of an actor playing a merchant or usurer named Greediness, whose behavior is linked to the central thesis of the play, from that viewer's experience of an actor playing Corvino, the covetous merchant in Volpone, whose behavior is also linked to Jonson's satiric thesis about gold and human values? Especially in the late moral plays (as opposed to The Castle of Perseverance, Everyman, or Wit and Science), the names of various personae in the printed texts may cloak a similarity in kind between nominally allegorical figures and later characters like Corvino (or Parolles or Kent), a similarity easily missed by the reader when dealing with playscripts designed for a spectator.

My purpose here is not to allegorize Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare but rather to suggest how moral abstractions that leap out at us from printed speech prefixes can become considerably less abstract when conditioned by the realities of stage performance. When a human actor takes on an allegorical role, something immediately happens that distinguishes the event from The Romance of the Rose or The Faerie Queene, a distance that becomes even greater when the actor is playing not the concept itself (as with figures such as Goods or Good Deeds in Everyman) but a social type that acts out that concept (a greedy merchant, a pious clergyman, a conscienceless murderer, a riotous tavern companion). Consider too the corollary: that not only may the late moral plays have seemed less “allegorical” in the theatre but also that many supposedly “literal” or “real” dramatic characters and actions in the age of Shakespeare may have had more in common with Wager, Wapull, Lupton, and Wilson than with Ibsen and Henry James. The absence of clear allegorical signposts may not, in fact, denote “the triumph of realism,” especially in an age when Shakespeare could introduce such figures as Rumor (2 Henry IV) and Time (The Winter's Tale) and allegorical personae could appear in plays from the 1590s such as A Knack to Know a Knave, Old Fortunatus, A Warning for Fair Women, and Two Lamentable Tragedies.

For some seventeenth-century evidence that suggests such similarity or continuity, consider two allusions cited earlier. First, in his collection of epigrams published in 1610, John Heath describes a foolish playgoer: “Now at the Globe with a judicious eye, / Into the Vice's action doth he pry.”5 Standing alone, this reference to a Vice at the Globe in the first decade of the seventeenth century sounds anomalous to our ears (and could be interpreted as a thrust at the satirized Momus, whose “judicious eye” sees not what is in front of him but instead conjures up a figure a generation out of date). But consider as well a passage some fifteen years later, the comments of Jonson's choric gossips in the second intermean of The Staple of News (1626):


How like you the Vice i’ the Play?


Which is he?


Three or four: Old Covetousness, the sordid Pennyboy, the Money-bawd, who is a flesh-bawd too, they say.


But here is never a Fiend to carry him away. Besides, he has never a wooden dagger! I’ld not give a rush for a Vice, that has not a wooden dagger to snap at everybody he meets.


That was the old way, Gossip, when Iniquity came in like Hokos Pokos, in a Juggler's jerkin, with false skirts, like the Knave of Clubs! but now they are attir’d like men and women o’ the time, the Vices, male and female! Prodigality like a young heir, and his Mistress Money (whose favors he scatters like counters) prank’t up like a prime Lady, the Infanta of the Mines.

(ll. 5-20)

Here Jonson is glossing his own play to explain how moral play personae are being clothed in “modern” (1626) dress. The old-style Vice, who had snapped his wooden dagger at his victims until carried off by the Devil, now is “attir’d like men and women o’ the time.” In this formulation, “the old way” associated with figures like Covetousness, Iniquity, and Prodigality has been replaced by a new way that metamorphoses the old-style allegorical figure into a contemporary social type (a young heir, a usurer) whose function in society in some way is analogous. Such a formulation may or may not be relevant to Jonson's best-known comedies6 that lack either allegorical personae or choric exegesis and may, moreover, be distant from Shakespeare's practice. Nonetheless, one of the major writers of the period both remembers the distinctive features of the late moral plays and, even more revealing, finds a way to incorporate some of those features into his own satiric strategy (as he also incorporated the Vice's exit to Hell on the Devil's back as noted in chapter two).

Two isolated passages do not justify a total reassessment of all the potential Vice-like figures in Jacobean drama. Nonetheless, these allusions do indicate a continuing awareness of the Vice and late moral play practice in the context of ongoing dramatic activity in the seventeenth century, just as the allusions to the morall cited in chapter one also suggest some kind of generic continuity. Our notions about “character” or realism therefore may not be fully in tune with the horizon of expectations assumed by Shakespeare, his actors, and his audience. Remember, for roughly two hundred years the moral drama, in one form or another, ruled the English stage. Although neglected or scorned by subsequent devotees of “the triumph of realism” (many of them readers rather than spectators of plays), that drama clearly had developed considerable expertise or knowhow, especially for putting ideas into action on a stage. Many features of this moral drama were then superseded or rejected in the age of Shakespeare (and no one laments the passing of fourteener couplets as the poetic norm), but, as argued throughout this book, some features or paradigms were still available as models to be adapted for later use by Shakespeare and his contemporaries (e.g, Humanum Genus, dual protagonists, the public Vice and the two phased action). Particularly in the late moral drama of Shakespeare's boyhood, other resources also were available for solving various problems in theatrical presentation, problems that did not disappear in the 1590s. Admittedly, Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists could have found some of these devices in nondramatic poems like The Faerie Queene, but the less sophisticated moral plays had the advantage of offering allegorical techniques geared to the exigencies of the stage rather than the province of the page.7

My purpose in introducing such possibilities is not to mount a full-scale assault upon all modern interpretation of Shakespeare's characters but rather to expand the options available to the reader or theatrical professional. As noted elsewhere twentieth-century treatments of the Vice have been influenced by a preference for that figure's comedy over the homilies provided by the virtues and by a keener interest in the temptation of Man than in the allegorical display of the health of a kingdom. Similarly, when reading Shakespeare's plays we give privileged status to those features that do make sense in our terms, even when they are obvious nonrealistic conventions like the soliloquy, but inevitably we play down or screen out other devices that do not conform to our horizon of expectations. Here is where an awareness of the knowhow of the moral drama, particularly the late moral drama, can be useful.

Consider in particular one of the major assets of this kind of drama—its ability to break down a subject or entity into component parts. Thus, one of the earliest scholars to write at length about the moral drama notes that in The Castle of Perseverance “the subjective forces that in reality belong to man himself in the most personal sense were transformed by the poet into visible, external forces” so that, in effect, “the motives and impulses of man's own heart were taken from him, and, clothed in flesh and blood, given him again for companions.”8 In A. C. Bradley's terms, the moral dramatists deployed their stage figures “to decompose human nature into its constituent factors,”9 a process that gives external stage life to internal forces and thereby uses the special advantages of the theatre to provide psychological insights, moral lessons, and entertainment.

Unlike the soliloquy, this approach to the on-stage display of the workings of the mind is not readily compatible with the expectations of many modern readers or playgoers. Nonetheless, such a technique does have various assets, especially if the emphasis is upon the moral geography of the soul. Thus, in his discussion of the Good and Evil Angels in Doctor Faustus Wilbur Sanders argues that such a stage psychomachia is not “clumsily primitive” but rather “an immensely dramatic procedure.” As he describes a representative scene: “The first effect of the interruption is to arrest all action on the stage, and to focus attention on the protagonist, suspended in the act of choice. Not until he speks do we know to which voice he has been attending. It is the act of choice in slow motion, a dramatisation of his strained attention to the faint voices of unconscious judgment.”10 To some modern readers such an effect may seem a blemish in a complex psychological tragedy, but in the theatre such a suspension or slowing down of the process of choice can serve as a meaningful equivalent to a soliloquy or to a novelist's presentation of interior states of consciousness, especially for an audience attuned to such a technique.

In the earlier and more familiar moral dramas, this breaking down of the entity Man served as a strategy to organize an entire play. When the later moral dramatists turned to other strategies or paradigms, they still found use for such a device to display at length a significant decision in an individual scene. Perhaps the most revealing example is to be found in R. B.'s Apius and Virginia where after Apius agrees to the Vice's plan (that will wrest Virginia from her family), the stage direction reads: “Here let him make as though he went out and let Conscience and Justice come out of him, and let Conscience hold in his hand a lamp burning and let Justice have a sword and hold it before Apius’ breast” (l. 500). Although Conscience and Justice have no lines while Apius is onstage, the judge himself supplies their half of the argument:

But out I am wounded, how am I divided?
Two states of my life, from me are now glided,
For Conscience he pricketh me contemned,
And Justice saith, judgment would have me condemned:
Conscience saith cruelty sure will detest me:
And Justice saith, death in the end will molest me,
And both in one sudden me thinks they do cry,
That fire eternal, my soul shall destroy.

(ll. 501-8)

Haphazard the Vice, however, mocks Conscience and Justice (“these are but thoughts”—l. 510) and argues instead: “Then care not for Conscience the worth of a fable, / Justice is no man, nor nought to do able” (ll. 521-22). After Apius agrees to forgo his scruples (“let Conscience grope, and judgment crave …”), Conscience and Justice are left alone on-stage to lament his decision in psychological terms (e.g., Conscience complains: “I spotted am by willful will, / By lawless love and lust / By dreadful danger of the life. / By faith that is unjust”—ll. 538-41).

To act out the central decision in his play, R. B. has not resorted to a soliloquy or even to straightforward temptation by the Vice but has chosen to break down Apius's choice into its component parts. Somehow, at the moment when the judge is leaving the stage under the influence of the Vice and his own lust, Conscience and Justice are to “come out of” Apius (or “glide” from him, according to the dialogue), whether from behind his cloak or through some stage device (as in the genealogy of sin sequence in All for Money). The theatrically emphatic presence of these two figures (with their striking entrance, their emblems, and their gestures) is then linked verbally to Apius's own conscience and sense of justice. Apius's subsequent exit with the Vice acts out his choice and spells out how he has abandoned his conscience and sense of justice in favor of his lust. Both the stage direction that indicates that Conscience and Justice are to “come out of” Apius and the Vice's insistence that “these are but thoughts” underscore how the inner workings of the protagonist's mind have been orchestrated in a fashion particularly suited to on-stage presentation.

As I have argued elsewhere,11 the late moral dramatists regularly used such stage psychomachias to display at length pivotal decisions, whether the choice of Faith over Despair (The Tide Tarrieth No Man) or the effect of Knowledge of Sin upon Infidelity (The Life and Repentance of Mary Magdalene) or the choice of Covetous over Enough (Enough Is as Good as a Feast). The technique survives in the 1590s, as witnessed by the Good and Evil Angels of Doctor Faustus and one or more angels who flank a despairing figure in A Looking Glass for London and England. Consider in particular A Warning for Fair Women (1599), where a pivotal event, the seduction of Mistress Sanders, is presented not through dialogue among the characters but by means of a dumb-show:

next comes Lust before Brown, leading Mistress Sanders covered with a black veil: Chastity all in white, pulling her back softly by the arm: then Drury, thrusting away Chastity, Roger following: they march about, and then sit to the table: the Furies fill wine, Lust drinks to Brown, he to Mistress Sanders, she pledgeth him: Lust embraceth her, she thrusteth Chastity from her, Chastity wrings her hands, and departs: Drury and Roger embrace one another: the Furies leap and embrace one another. (dir)

To underscore the effect, Tragedy as presenter explicates this dumb-show for the spectator (e.g., “Now blood and Lust, doth conquer and subdue, / And Chastity is quite abandoned”). Clearly, the anonymous dramatist has not opted for the temptation scene expected by a modern reader but instead has provided a breaking down of the event into components that include both “real” figures (wife, seducer, bawds) and allegorical forces (Chastity, Lust, the Furies). In place of a soliloquy or a speech of acquiescence for the protagonist, the dramatist provides as major signals the thrusting away of Chastity and the embracing of Lust. Like R. B., Wapull, and Wager (or Marlowe with his two angels), this dramatist felt that such an orchestration of component parts was a workable method of putting on theatrical display at an important moment the mind of his protagonist.

Such a breaking down into component parts could be used for other entities as well. For example, some moral plays that scholars have criticized as shapeless seem so because they present not a Humanum Genus protagonist but rather a wide range of figures that, especially for a spectator, add up to a cross section of society. In such plays the entity being broken down for theatrical analysis is not Mankind but England or the kingdom, often by means of a cross section of “estates” figures who, taken together (often as victims of the Vice), represent a larger whole (the title page describes The Three Ladies of London as “A Perfect Pattern for All Estates to look into”—p. 246). Several of the plays cited in chapter two (e.g., Like Will to Like, The Tide Tarrieth No Man, The Three Ladies of London) employ such a thesis-and-demonstration structure in which the thesis is linked to the Vice (and often to the proverbial title as well) and the demonstration is provided by some set of components of the kingdom, whether “estates” figures (e.g., a farmer, a clergyman, a courtier, a scholar, a soldier) or some other configuration (Wealth, Health, and Liberty; the three ladies—Love, Conscience, and Lucre).

As with the psychomachia, such a breaking down of the kingdom into component parts for exploration on-stage could be adapted to an individual scene as well as to an entire play (although here the limited personnel available to perform many of these scripts provided obvious constraints). The best example is to be seen in one of the major scenes in Thomas Lupton's All for Money (1577) where a series of petitioners (presumably played by only two actors) parade before the magistrate, All for Money, who has instructions to grant only those suits approved by Money. The audience watches as this corrupt magistrate favors an admitted thief and ruffian, a woman who has murdered her child, a bigamist who seeks to replace his legal wife with a younger one, a foolish priest, a litigious landowner who exploits his poor neighbor, and an old crone who buys false witnesses to spare a young husband. The only figure refused by All for Money (who is flanked by Sin the Vice) is Moneyless-and-Friendless, a hapless figure too poor to provide a bribe. In a play with the announced goal of “plainly representing the manners of men and fashion of the world nowadays” (p. 145), Lupton has used a corrupt magistrate, a Vice, and a group of social types or “estates” to act out in one extensive scene how venality in various parts of society can undermine justice. As with Apius's decision, the key to the technique lies in the breaking down of an entity into component parts suitable for a theatrical presentation that can fully develop the dramatist's thesis or point of view.

Shakespeare, however, does not incorporate into his plays anything as obvious as the Conscience and Justice who come out of Apius or the Good and Evil Angels who flank Doctor Faustus, nor does he resort to a clear “estates” formulation, although a moment such as 3 Henry VI, II.v (in which Henry VI laments the horrors of civil war along with a son who has killed his father and a father who has killed his son) comes close. Still, the principle of breaking down an entity or a decision into component parts for fuller display in the theatre was certainly not unknown to him, as witnessed by Launcelot Gobbo's parody of the stage psychomachia where the decision whether or not to leave Shylock is orchestrated in terms of the voices of Conscience and the Devil (The Merchant of Venice, II.ii.1-29). Let me turn then to a few representative scenes to demonstrate … how an expanded horizon of expectations in tune with late moral play practice can aid the modern interpreter.

First, consider … Richard III where Shakespeare repeatedly calls to our attention both the workings of the protagonist's mind and the health of the kingdom. Thus, at the climax of the play Richard's reaction to the eleven ghosts (“O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!”—V.iii.180) sets up a sense of internal division (in which self is pitted against self) in a fashion much more amenable to the modern interpreter than R. B.'s presentation of Apius's internal strife (“But out I am wounded, how am I divided? / Two states of my life, from me are now glided”):

What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why—
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

(ll. 183-96)

Although the sense of internal division and even some of the specific terms (especially the emphasis upon Conscience) are similar to R. B.'s formulation, clearly Shakespeare's soliloquy sets forth Richard's state of mind without recourse to on-stage personae equivalent to Haphazard, Conscience, and Justice. The moral dramatist's breakdown of a major decision into visible component parts therefore seems distant from this climactic speech couched in terms in tune with our sense of psychological realism.

But this orchestration of a division within Richard linked to the voice of conscience is the culmination of a series of choices made by a wide range of figures who are not realized this fully (or granted introspective soliloquies). Of particular interest is the interchange between the two murderers of Clarence both before and after the murder. In his brief interview with these two figures, Richard had praised the absence of pity in their faces (“Your eyes drop millstones when fools’ eyes fall tears”), while the first murderer had assured his employer that “we will not stand to prate” with Clarence, for “talkers are no good doers.” Rather, he assures Richard: “We go to use our hands, and not our tongues” (I.iii. 349-52). The reader or spectator may then be surprised at the amount of talking provided by these two figures in the next scene (roughly two hundred lines) along with the actual “doing,” with a substantial part of that talking not linked to Clarence's plea for his life. By modern standards, the length of the discussion between the two murderers before Clarence awakes may seem out of proportion to the scene or the play as a whole, for few interpreters today value highly this display of qualms of conscience by minor figures who will not reappear. But if that interpreter has in mind the options available in the moral plays, this sequence makes excellent sense and, like R. B.'s configuration, spells out (albeit without overt allegory) the forces at work behind other more significant but less fully orchestrated decisions to follow.

First, before the murderers even begin their debate, Brackenbury accepts their commission and announces: “I will not reason what is meant hereby, / Because I will be guiltless from the meaning” (I.iv.93-94). Like many figures to follow (e.g., the Mayor, the scrivener, various figures of religion, Stanley in III.iv), this chooser opts for willful blindness over dangerous knowledge, so that conscience or principle is superseded by profit or self-preservation. The fifty lines that follow then orchestrate at length the forces at work behind such decisions (forces much in evidence thereafter, building to Richard's soliloquy in V.iii). Initially, it is “the urging of that word ‘judgment’” that breeds “a kind of remorse” in the second murderer, not a fear of killing Clarence (“having a warrant” to do so) but a fear of being “damned for killing him, from the which no warrant can defend me” (ll. 106-11). The earthly sense of “warrant” linked to Richard's power and plotting is here played off against a higher sense of “warrant” or Justice (an opposition that prefigures the superseding of Richard by Richmond in Act V). When the first murderer threatens to inform their employer of such backsliding, the second murderer holds him back in the hope that “this passionate humor of mine will change,” for “it was wont to hold me but while one tells twenty.” Any “dregs of conscience” that remain “yet within” are then expelled when this wavering figure is reminded of the payment awaiting him (“Zounds, he dies! I had forgot the reward”—ll. 112-23).

The subsequent lines more than any other passage in the play italicize the role of Conscience (and prepare us for Richard's “coward conscience” soliloquy in V.iii as well as the dilemmas faced by Hastings, Buckingham, Stanley, and others):

1 Murderer.

Where's thy conscience now?

2 Murderer.

O, in the Duke of Gloucester's purse.

1 Murderer.

When he opens his purse to give us our reward, thy conscience flies out.

2 Murderer.

’Tis no matter; let it go. There's few or none will entertain it.

1 Murderer.

What if it come to thee again?

2 Murderer.

I’ll not meddle with it; it makes a man a coward. A man cannot steal, but it accuseth him; a man cannot swear, but it checks him; a man cannot lie with his neighbor's wife, but it detects him. ’Tis a blushing shame-faced spirit that mutinies in a man's bosom. It fills a man full of obstacles. It made me once restore a purse of gold that (by chance) I found. It beggars any man that keeps it. It is turned out of towns and cities for a dangerous thing, and every man that means to live well endeavors to trust to himself and live without it.

1 Murderer.

Zounds, ’tis even now at my elbow, persuading me not to kill the duke.

2 Murderer.

Take the devil in thy mind, and believe him not. He would insinuate with thee but to make thee sigh.

1 Murderer.

I am strong-framed; he cannot prevail with me.

(ll. 124-46)

This extended acting out of a decision (to murder or not to murder Clarence) may seem far removed from Apius's choice or even Launcelot Gobbo's comic version of the psychomachia (where the two voices also were labeled Conscience and the Devil). Readers today, moreover, impatient to get back to scenes involving Richard, may encounter here more than they want to know about such negligible “characters” (e.g., that one of them once restored a purse of gold found by chance). But if we remember how in the moral plays thesis regularly supersedes “character” or “realism,” this extended debate makes excellent sense, not as an investigation of these two figures (or even of Clarence) but rather as an orchestration of a debate or conflict at work within a sequence of major and minor figures (Lady Anne, Clarence, Hastings, the Mayor, the Cardinal, Buckingham) building to Richard's soliloquy in V.iii that clearly echoes this passage. Particularly through the qualms of the second murderer, Shakespeare is adapting the breakdown technique of the late moral plays in order to spell out in some detail the moral coordinates behind a series of choices central to this play.

The brief coda to this scene again underscores the two voices or alternatives. Apparently (as Richard had predicted), Clarence's pleas have had some effect, for he says to the second murderer: “My friend, I spy some pity in thy looks” (l. 258). The resolute first murderer, however, kills Clarence and exits with the body (“I’ll drown you in the malmsey butt within”), leaving his cohort on-stage to lament this “bloody deed” so “desperately dispatched” and to wish that he, Pilate-like, could “wash my hands / Of this most grievous murder!” (ll. 265-68). Upon his return, the first murderer berates the second, who, in turn, renounces his “fee,” adding: “For I repent me that the duke is slain” (l. 273). “So do I not,” concludes the murderer, who labels his colleague (who has just exited) a “coward” (a clear prefiguration of Richard's “coward conscience” in V.iii). The exit with the body by the first murderer (who has chosen Profit, as epitomized by Richard's purse, over Conscience) leaves the second figure, identified with Conscience, alone on-stage to lament what has happened. In this instance, the appetite for the gold in Richard's purse overrides Conscience, which then is left behind, powerless. With the return of the first murderer, the spokesman for Conscience or Repentance (“For I repent me …”) has one more speech, but his choice to forgo the fee comes too late to avert the murder, so that the scene's final speech is given to the figure who has chosen “meed” (l. 277) or profit over Conscience or principle. These two figures may not stand out as memorable “characters” in this rich and densely populated play, but the alternatives they body forth are central to the entire action. The subject here is no one figure but a way of thinking, a set of moral coordinates, for Shakespeare is adapting the resources of his theatre, including his legacy from the moral plays, to exhibit and develop the internal voices at work within more significant figures, including eventually Richard himself.

A subtler yet analogous effect is to be found in another preparatory moment, the galley scene of Antony and Cleopatra. Modern productions often provide a party so raucous that the dialogue is buried under sounds of bacchanalian revelry, but Shakespeare has gone to some lengths to set up a series of options or voices that, like the interchange between the two murderers, orchestrates issues central to what is to follow, especially key decisions by Mark Antony. As with Richard III, I.iv, moreover, the reader or spectator anxious to move forward to Antony's return to Cleopatra, the battle of Actium, and the tragic events that follow may grow impatient at the amount of dramatic time here devoted to apparently negligible figures soon to be eclipsed (Lepidus, Pompey, Menas). But, again, our sense of dramatic economy or mainstream event may block us off from Shakespear's use of such figures, in a manner in keeping with his legacy from the moral plays, to explore more fully Antony's situation, especially the reasons for his vulnerability to Octavius Caesar and Cleopatra. Close attention to the choices and values of Lepidus and Pompey reveals (at least for the reader or spectator in tune with such a technique) how Shakespeare is displaying essential elements in Antony's “character” without recourse to overt allegory (or even to the kind of quasi-allegorical speeches about Conscience provided by the murderers of Clarence).

The scene starts with comments from two servants that sum up the plight of Lepidus, who has been tricked into drinking more than his share (“They have made him drink alms-drink”) to the extent that a “greater war” has been raised “between him and his discretion” (II.vii.5, 9-10). As the Pelican editor notes, the two speakers view the drunken and out of control Lepidus as “a little man in a part too big for him” (p. 1187). With the entrance of the revelers, the focus remains upon Lepidus, who continues to respond to toasts until he passes out, while various observers provide shrewd comments (Antony remarks: “These quicksands, Lepidus, / Keep off them, for you sink”—ll. 58-59). While Menas tries to pull Pompey aside, the bulk of the dialogue is devoted to Antony's account of Egypt for the benefit of the increasingly drunken Lepidus, an account that climaxes with a witty tautological description of the crocodile:


What manner o’ thing is your crocodile?


It is shaped, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth; it is just so high as it is, and moves with it own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.


What color is it of?


Of it own color too.


’Tis a strange serpent.


’Tis so, and the tears of it are wet.


Will this description satisfy him?


With the health that Pompey gives him; else he is a very epicure.

(ll. 40-51)

“’Tis a strange serpent” is Lepidus's last line in this scene and his next-to-last speech in the play (see III.ii.65-66), for when Pompey pledges this hapless figure once again, Antony responds: “Bear him ashore. I’ll pledge it for him, Pompey” (ll. 83-84). The disposition of this drunken triumvir is spelled out by Enobarbus's quip to Menas that the servant who bears off Lepidus is “a strong fellow” because he “bears the third part of the world” (ll. 87-90). Lepidus's abject position is then described at length at the beginning of III.ii by Enobarbus and Agrippa, who emphasize his fulsome expressions of love and praise for both Antony and Octavius. A few scenes later, the downfalls of both Lepidus and Pompey are quickly summed up by Eros (III.v.4-18).

Few interpreters of this tragedy have troubled to focus upon the fall of Lepidus. But note that the dominant image of the galley scene as a whole and of Lepidus's part in it is drinking and revelry, an image associated throughout the play not with Lepidus but with Antony (and it is Antony in line 84 who assumes the burden of the last toast directed at Lepidus and thereby takes on the role of this fallen figure). Similarly, except for the toasting calculated to get him drunk, the dialogue involving Lepidus is devoted to Egypt, the Nile (ll. 17-23), “strange serpents” (l. 24), the pyramids, and, in the lines cited above, the crocodile—again, features linked not to Lepidus but to Antony (soon to return to his “serpent of the Nile,” Cleopatra—an epithet hovering around the edges of Antony's description of Egypt).

Consider then, with the moral play breakdown into component parts as an analogue, how Lepidus functions here as one window into the more important figure, Antony. Thus, the first ninety lines of this scene present in effect two plays-within-the larger play (with the Pompey-Menas interchange in counterpoint to the Lepidus story). The prologue with the servants establishes Lepidus as vulnerable to drink and to the machinations of his comrades and so, as a result, ill-equipped to function in the “huge sphere” (l. 14) of world politics. An increasingly drunken and thereby vulnerable figure is then entranced by things Egyptian, as epitomized by his credulous acceptance of the nonsensical description of the crocodile, while summary comments are provided by Antony's “these quicksands, Lepidus, / Keep off them, for you sink” and Caesar's incredulous “will this description satisfy him?” The scene has displayed the literal and metaphoric fall of a figure who has failed to recognize the quicksands on which he stands, here associated both with drink and with manipulation by those around him. Indeed, Lepidus-Antony is vulnerable both to things Egyptian (the accounts of the Nile, serpents, pyramids, and crocodiles) and things Roman (alms-drink, the code implicit in the toasts), and therefore can be manipulated in a variety of ways. For Antony in scenes to come, the equivalent to the toasting and alms-drink is the “dare” to fight at sea rather than on land at Actium, as opposed to Caesar's refusal of the challenge to single combat, a refusal Antony can never understand (see IV.ii. 1-2). The later and far more significant equivalent to a drunken Lepidus's being “satisfied” with the description of the crocodile is Antony's accepting Cleopatra's various defenses of her actions. In particular, after his long tirade based upon her reception of Thidias, Antony acquiesces yet again to the protestations of his serpent of the Nile with the response: “I am satisfied” (III.xiii. 167) and ends the scene with a call for “one other gaudy night” in which he and his followers will “fill our bowls once more” and make “the wine peep through their scars” (ll. 183-84, 191). This Lepidus-like moment, moreover, tips the scales for the wavering Enobarbus, who concludes this scene with the announcement: “I will seek / Some way to leave him.” Eventually, the Antony who has made these Lepidus choices about wine, Egypt, and being “satisfied” is also carried off the stage, not drunk but mortally wounded.

The fall of Lepidus, however, is only one facet of the galley scene, for Shakespeare presents in counterpoint the equally telling choices made by Pompey (an episode, unlike the drunken collapse of Lepidus, drawn from North's Plutarch). While Pompey plays host (and, more specifically, the pledger of toasts to Lepidus), Menas seeks (at first unsuccessfully) to draw his master aside. Menas's repeated question (“Wilt thou be lord of all the world?”) immediately follows Antony's reference to “these quicksands” and finally gets Pompey's attention (“How should that be?”—ll. 60-62). In keeping with the predominant image of the scene, Pompey's initial reaction is that Menas must be drunk (“Hast thou drunk well?”), but the latter's response reveals that at least one figure has avoided those quicksands (“No, Pompey, I have kept me from the cup”—l. 65). The promise to make Pompey “the earthly Jove” who will control “whate’er the ocean pales, or sky inclips” arouses more interest (“Show me which way”) and sets up another revealing exchange:

These three world-sharers, these competitors,
Are in thy vessel. Let me cut the cable;
And when we are put off, fall to their throats.
All there is thine.
Ah, this thou shouldst have done,
And not have spoke on’t. In me ’tis villainy,
In thee’t had been good service. Thou must know,
’Tis not my profit that does lead mine honor;
Mine honor, it. Repent that e’er thy tongue
Hath so betrayed thine act. Being done unknown,
I should have found it afterwards well done,
But must condemn it now. Desist, and drink.
[aside] For this,
I’ll never follow thy palled fortunes more.
Who seeks, and will not take when once ’tis offered,
Shall never find it more.
This health to Lepidus!

(ll. 69-83)

Here the final collapse of Lepidus is juxtaposed with Pompey's failure to take the offered opportunity (and Menas's verdict on Pompey clearly anticipates Enobarbus's conclusions about Antony late in Act III). This potential Jove figure, it should be noted, does not totally reject the proposition, for “being done unknown, / I should have found it afterwards well done,” but since Menas has “spoke on’t” rather than done the deed without advance consultation, this chooser “must condemn it now.” The reasoning here may strike us as suspect, but for this figure Honor (however murkily defined) takes precedence over Profit (one thinks of Hotspur or Hector). Menas's summary can then serve as Pompey's epitaph: “Who seeks, and will not take when once ’tis offered, / Shall never find it more” (and one need only conjecture how Octavius would have reacted given the same choice). “Desist, and drink” brings us back to the quicksands of Lepidus, the world of the senses and immediate gratification, the world so much enjoyed by Antony.

Like Lepidus, Pompey is a figure of some significance in Act II and negligible thereafter, but, also like Lepidus, he functions in this scene as a window into a far more important chooser, Antony. However muddled his reasoning may be, Pompey, like Antony, does operate by a code of Honor that takes precedence over personal profit or advantage. Like Lepidus with the toasts or alms-drink, such a figure is vulnerable to others who do not share that code but can recognize and manipulate it. Like Antony, moreover, Pompey inspires strong loyalties based upon personal appeal and military prowess, but that appeal can be lost or undercut (with a Menas or an Enobarbus) when the leader fails (or seems to fail) to grasp a golden opportunity.

Both Lepidus and Pompey thus act out significant facets of Antony's tragic situation. No Haphazard, Conscience, and Justice (or Despair and Faith) are needed here, for, even more than the anonymous murderers of Clarence, these two “historical” Romans are “characters” in their own right who earn their part in the story. Nonetheless, the interpreter aware of the moral play technique of breaking down entities into components can appreciate how these two subordinate actions are not ends in themselves (or material Shakespeare was obliged to include) but rather function as his way of exploring in depth key values or ways of thinking to be displayed in subsequent scenes by the tragic hero. Individually, Lepidus and Pompey provide various revealing analogies to Antony. Taken together they act out his key weaknesses or vulnerabilities in a fashion not possible in a soliloquy or choric commentary. Like Pompey, Antony is not ruthless enough to counter Caesar; like Lepidus, he is vulnerable to the serpent of the Nile, to drink and the life of the senses, and to manipulation by a shrewd opponent who understands his weaknesses and can exploit them. Antony too is easily “satisfied” by Egyptian stories and is therefore vulnerable to quicksands and to the loss of his equivalents to Menas (especially after Actium). And, by way of coda to this sequence, we discover that Caesar, although he grudgingly complies with the drinking code and “the conquering wine” (l. 106), still maintains his distance and composure (“our graver business / Frowns at this levity”—ll. 119-20), in the process setting himself off from Antony and the other revelers, just as later he stands aloof from Antony's code and choices. If Lepidus and Pompey give us facets of Antony, Caesar (and, for a time, Menas) give us an alternative.

For a third example of Shakespeare's skillful adaptation of the moral play approach to component parts, consider the Trojan council scene of Troilus and Cressida. Unlike my previous two examples, this scene has received its fair share of commentary, for most interpreters would agree that Shakespeare here sets forth the values that characterize this society and eventually lead to its deterioration and ultimate demise (as signaled in Act V by the death of Hector and the disillusionment of Troilus). Less attention has been paid, however, to the way in which the individual contributions of Priam, Cassandra, and the four debaters (Hector, Helenus, Troilus, and Paris) add up to the display of a larger entity—this time not a single figure like Antony but rather a composite view of Troy or the kingdom as embodied in the Trojan mind or way of thinking.

As a point of departure, consider the on-stage configuration presented to the spectator for most of this scene. Priam, who introduces the topic for discussion (II.ii. 1-7), is presumably either on his throne or in some centrally located position—an old, revered king (in modern productions, often physically decrepit) who as king-father-aged figure should be the symbol of order and control in Troy. But with the exception of a brief comment to Paris later in the scene (ll. 142-45), Priam says nothing thereafter but leaves the fate of Helen (and Troy) to his sons. He could be listening intently, following the alternating speakers with his head; he could be frozen in place; he could even nap (as does Revenge during Act III of The Spanish Tragedy). Regardless, as king-order-reason figure he remains on-stage (as does Helenus the priest) not as an active force but as a representative of qualities or faculties that carry little weight in this society.

In contrast to Priam's passivity, the spectator sees, on one side, two young men, Troilus and Paris, who argue vigorously for keeping Helen and, on the other side, Hector and, briefly, Helenus, who counter such arguments. The positions espoused by these four figures cannot be labeled as neatly as those articulated by the two murderers of Clarence. Nonetheless, Paris (for obvious reasons) is closely linked to Appetite; Helenus as priest (presumably in some distinctive costume) introduces through his brief remarks and his continuing presence larger considerations that, for the most part, are ignored; Troilus serves as spokesman for Will and for the siren call of Honor; and Hector, for much of the scene, speaks for Reason. The first movement (before the entrance of Cassandra) pits the “fears and reasons” (l. 32) of first Helenus and then Hector against Troilus's emphasis upon “the worth and honor of a king” and “the past proportion of his infinite,” a conflict that climaxes in the disagreement between Hector and Troilus over the source of Value. For Hector, “value dwells not in particular will”; rather, Helen or any object holds its “estimate and dignity” to the degree “’tis precious of itself.” In contrast, Troilus invests Helen with value, emphasizes “the conduct of my will,” and, in a long speech, uses various analogies to stress the Honor that will be lost if Helen is returned under coercion (“O theft most base, / That we have stol’n what we do fear to keep!”). Clearly, Troilus is the spokesman not only for Trojan Honor but also for the Trojan Will, that drive for the Infinite that will not be bounded by Reason, limit, or sordid reality. As he later tells Cressida: “the will is infinite and the execution confined; … the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit” (III.ii. 75-77).

Cassandra's startling appearance breaks the scene in half. Her “prophetic tears” and vision of the future climax in her dire warning: “Troy burns, or else let Helen go” (l. 112). But, as in V.iii, the prophetess is doomed not to be believed, for what Hector describes as “these high strains / Of divination in our sister” that should appeal to “discourse of reason” are instead seen by Troilus only as “brainsick raptures” that cannot “deject the courage of our minds” or “distaste the goodness of a quarrel / Which hath our several honors all engaged / To make it gracious.” For the spectator who knows the outcome of the Trojan story, Cassandra's appearance has a special poignancy, for it calls to mind the momentous nature of the decision being made here and therefore should make us particularly attentive to the forces at work.

After Cassandra's departure and Paris's defense of himself and Helen, this elaborate display of the Trojan mind at work reaches its climax in Hector's long speech (ll. 163-93). In keeping with his posture throughout the scene, this voice of Reason and reasonableness links his two youthful adversaries “to the hot passion of distemp’red blood” and invokes in opposition “this law / Of nature,” “a law in each well-ordered nation / To curb those raging appetites that are / Most disobedient and refractory,” and “these moral laws / Of nature and of nations.” In answer to the argument advanced by Troilus and Paris about the “disgrace” in returning Helen “on terms of base compulsion” (ll. 150-53), Hector notes: “Thus to persist / In doing wrong extenuates not wrong, / But makes it much more heavy.” Here, more than any other place in the scene (or the play), the voice of Reason and Law appears to prevail.

What then follows (to the surprise of many interpreters) is the pivotal moment in the scene (and perhaps in the play):

Hector's opinion
Is this in way of truth; yet ne’ertheless,
My spritely brethren, I propend to you
In resolution to keep Helen still;
For ’tis a cause that hath no mean dependence
Upon our joint and several dignities.

Regardless of what has gone before, here and in his speech that ends the scene (ll. 206-13) Hector's values cannot be distinguished from those of his “spritely brethren” (a category that, presumably, does not include Helenus). If the focus of the scene were solely upon Hector's train of thought as a pivotal “character,” this moment would indeed be puzzling, for Shakespeare provides little or no evidence for the switch from the “way of truth” to the way of Honor (what Troilus describes a moment later as the “rich advantage of a promised glory”—l. 204). But the interpreter aware of late moral play technique can recognize that the focus here is not upon the mind of Hector but upon the mind of Troy. Like Priam's passivity or the quick putdown of Helenus, this figure's about-face is not an end in itself, a display of “character” in twentieth-century terms, but rather a means to a larger end—in particular, a demonstration of the vulnerability of Reason, Law, and Truth to the siren call of Honor in Troy and Trojan thinking. In my imagined staging, during one of his final speeches Hector would cross the stage to join Troilus and Paris, thereby breaking the configuration of Reason standing off Will and Appetite. Similarly, the Exeunt that ends the scene cloaks many potentially striking effects. For example, Troilus, Paris, and Hector could stride off-stage, arm in arm, while an aged, decrepit Priam is slowly helped off by an ashen-faced, tight-lipped Helenus. As with the two murderers in Richard III (or with Apius, Conscience, and Justice), figures who exit and figures who remain behind can, for an audience in the theatre, act out the relative power of competing forces or principles.

With or without my conjectured staging, the reader or spectator should recognize that the protagonist in this rich scene has been no one character but Troy itself. For more than two hundred lines the most fateful decision in the play has been slowed down and physically acted out so that a viewer can witness and fully grasp the larger mind at work (with Cassandra's prophecy italicizing the implications). The behavior of the individual participants, especially Hector and Troilus, is not inconsistent with their “characters” in the rest of the play, but, at least for this sequence, such individual personae are in the service of a larger design or rationale. If Hector's about-face surprises us, that impression is central to Shakespeare's strategy, for, whether in this scene or elsewhere in the play, the stance of Reason within Troy or individual Trojans is shaky and can easily be undermined by Will, Appetite, or the call to Honor. Hector's sudden shift may appear inconsistent (or “unreasonable”) by the yardstick of psychological realism, but the interpreter aware of the moral play approach to components can recognize how the collapse of Reason (or the failure of the way of Truth) climaxes a meaningful display of a larger entity that supersedes any single figure.

In a suggestive passage, Bernard Beckerman notes that once we recognize a device as a dramatic convention (his example is Shakespeare's eavesdropping or concealed observation scene), we become conscious how a dramatist could “select dramatic activity from artistic tradition, thereby gaining readily accepted dramatic tools.” Such a convention, he goes on to argue, builds upon “theatrical practice not life activity,” for “the observation scene is an artificial formulation, obeying its own rules, following its own forms, and judged according to its own context.”12 Not all such conventions, however, are as easily recognized today as the observation scene, the soliloquy, and the aside, especially those conventions at odds with twentieth-century assumptions about psychological realism and dramatic economy (as with the function of seemingly peripheral figures such as the two murderers, Lepidus, and Pompey). The modern interpreter therefore has little difficulty grasping the meaning and function of a soliloquy by Richard III, Antony, or Troilus or commentary by choric spokesmen (e.g., the three citizens in Richard III, II. iii; the two lords in All's Well, IV. iii). But, as noted throughout this book, those conventions or techniques linked (in Beckerman's terms) to the “theatrical practice” of another age and divorced from “life activity” as we understand it today can easily be ignored or missed completely.

My purpose in this essay has been to expand our horizon of expectations so to encompass techniques available to an Elizabethan or Jacobean dramatist but easily missed by the modern reader. Even though the critic who prizes irony, subtlety, and realism finds little merit in the late moral drama, these plays did bequeath to the age of Shakespeare solutions to various presentational problems, solutions geared to the practical assets and liabilities of Elizabethan stages and staging. In particular, what a modern interpreter expects to infer about “character” (e.g., in a novel, a film, or a naturalistic play) could be spelled out or orchestrated, both in the moral plays and in Shakespeare, in a manner that interpreter may not recognize. Indeed, where is it written down that the on-stage display of the workings of the mind must be limited to the soliloquy and the aside? Few readers today expect Shakespeare to body forth on his stage the interaction of Ego, Superego, and Id (to cite but one set of modern coordinates), but why should we not expect him to display, by whatever method, the interaction of Conscience, Will, Appetite, and Reason—terms well developed in his dialogue and familiar to his audience through many avenues outside of his plays? To recognize available tools or conventions in the late moral plays is not to pluck out the heart of Hamlet's mystery but nonetheless to move a step closer to a sense of what was shared among dramatists, actors, and spectators in the age that gave birth to this impressive body of drama.


  1. “Dramatic Allegory; or, Exploring the Moral Play,” Comparative Drama, 7 (1973), 71-73. See also Kantrowitz's Dramatic Allegory: Lindsay's “Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis” (Lincoln, Neb., 1975), pp. 134-35.

  2. Meaning in Comedy: Studies in Elizabethan Romantic Comedy (Albany, 1975), pp. 22-24. Weld's first three chapters on the “dramatic tradition” contain many astute comments on form, technique, and meaning in the moral plays.

  3. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York and London, 1958), p. 252.

  4. “The English Moral Play Before 1500,” Annuale Mediaevale, 4 (1963), 18.

  5. Two Centuries of Epigrammes (London, 1610), E3v.

  6. For an argument linking this passage to Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair, see Alan C. Dessen, Jonson's Moral Comedy (Evanston, 1971).

  7. For a very useful account of late moral play dramaturgy, with an emphasis upon the techniques necessitated by the limited personnel and facilities, see David Bevington, From “Mankind” to Marlowe (Cambridge, Mass., 1962). See also T. W. Craik, The Tudor Interlude: Stage, Costume, and Acting (Leicester, 1962).

  8. E. N. S. Thompson, “The English Moral Plays,” Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 14 (1910), 315.

  9. Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1904), p. 264.

  10. The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge, 1968), p. 217.

  11. For a fuller discussion of the stage psychomachia, see chapter six of my Elizabethan Drama and the Viewer's Eye (Chapel Hill, 1977).

  12. Dynamics of Drama (New York, 1970), p. 26.

Barbara Riebling (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5615

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 time would have been familiar with a number of traditional religio-political models: the de casibus theme carried forward from Boccaccio through writers like Lydgate, that valorizes the contemplative life and presents earthly power and glory as transitory vanities; the providential view of political history in works like Mirror for Magistrates or the play Cambises, that sees divine justice acted out in the political realm; the picture of virtuous statecraft drawn by Christian humanists like Thomas Elyot and Erasmus, who equate effective rule with upright behavior and advise the prince to be nothing more nor less than a good Christian. In sharp contrast, Machiavelli boldly states that any prince who would take such advice and let go of what is done for what should be done studies his own ruin (The Prince, 15). In The Discourses he even goes so far as to blame Christianity for the triumph of evil in contemporary politics.1 Clearly, Machiavelli's views are not in harmony with the religious beliefs of his time. After his advent, Renaissance audiences are confronted by two antipathetic philosophies of state. Political life is played out either in a world bound to Christian rules of conduct or a delegitimized world cut loose from any rule but survival. The question I would like to raise is: which world does Macbeth inhabit?

For many years Macbeth was read as one of Shakespere's most unambiguous works and analyzed as if it were a political-moral fable.2 More recent scholarship has attempted to place Macbeth within the context of conflicting ideologies of early seventeenth-century England and Scotland—as a response, for instance, to the clash of absolutism and resistance theory.3 would like to suggest another context for the politics of te play, the discourse of civic humanism. In this context, Macbeth can be read specifically as a response to Machiavelli's most controversial models for effective rule. By the beginning of the seventeenth century in England, the real Machiavelli started to replace the “Machiavel,” opening the way for both the republicanism of The Discourses and the “ragione di stato” arguments in The Prince.4 An analysis of the portraits of kingship in Macebeth suggests that the play participates in this shift in political consciousness, reflecting standards of conduct that are far more Machiavellian than Christian.

Political tragedy studies the consequences of misrule, and Macbeth is no exception, censuring two extremes in civic malpractice. Although the majority of the play is taken up with Macbeth's criminal reign—a regime at odds with both Machiavellian and Christian precepts—Macbeth begins its exploration of tragic politics in Duncan's chaotic realm, presenting a brief but succinct portrait of the conseuences of political innocence. Measured by tgraditional Christian values, Duncan's behavior is impeccable. By Machiavellian standards, it is a menace to himself and his people. Because Duncan's kingship can be admired from one perspective and condemned from the other, it serves as a locus for uncovering the play's ideological sympathies, particularly since Macbeth provides an alternative model of political virtue in Malcolm. At the beginning of the play, Duncan “rules” by the rules; later his son will “rule” by breaking them. These opposing images of the good king frame the portriat of Macbeth and his criminal regime, and it is Malcolm's politic practice that emerges as the normative standard against which both Duncan and Machiavelli, however, argues that although a private individual can afford to hold the world in contempt, a prince has aggressively to impose his will upon it. He inverts the standard virtue-fortune model, stating that a man with sufficient virtù can violently conquer Fortuna (The Prince, 25). In the first act of Macbeth, the goddess Fortune is a battle prize tossed back and forth among virile warriors. Initially, Fortune is the “rebel's whore” who aids the traitorous Thanes (I.ii.15).5 But she is finally conquered by Macbeth, who “Disdaining” her, prefers instead to be “Valor's minion,” “Bellona's bridegroom” (I.ii.17, 54). Significantly, Duncan is left on the sidelines; in the delegitimized world of power struggle, his Christian virtue cannot come into play. In order to conquer Fortune he needs the virtù of men like Macbeth. However, according to Machiavelli, a prince cannot maintain his power by relying on the virtù of another; like the goddess, the state belongs to the man who wins her by force. It is for this reason Machiavelli advises that every prince should be his own best general and “never lift his thoughts from the exercise of war” (The Prince, 14). In Machiavelli's view, Duncan's delegation of the violent arts of war would be consistent with both Christian values and the eventual loss of his kingdom.

Machiavelli does not dismiss Christian virtues; he understands their appeal and acknowledges their prestige. In The Prince he instructs the ruler in the proper “use” of traditional virtues. If the times are peaceful and all men trustworthy, the prince can afford the luxury of moral practice. If however, his state is insecure, he must cultivate an appearance of virtue while being wiling to practice its opposite. In chapter 18 Machiavelli explains why it is dangerous for the prince to possess in actuality the virtues that he must always project.

Nay, I dare say this, that by having them [virtues] and always observing them, they are harmful; and by appearing to have them, they are useful, as it is to appear merciful, fiathful, humane, honest, and religious, and to be so; but to remain with a spirit built so that, if you need not to be those things, you are able to know how to change to the contrary. This has to be understood: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things for which men are held good, since he is often under the necessity, to maintain his state, of acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion.

As this passage makes clear, Duncan, however admirable a man, is by Machiavellian standards a dangerous king—a ruler whose gentle and trusting character has invited treason, civil war, and foreign invasion. By being a perfect Christian, Duncan succeeds in becoming a perfect lamb—a sacrificial offering on the altar of realworld politics.

Given the potentially deadly environment a prince must inhabit, Machiavelli recommends that his nature should combine two less endearing animals, the lion and the fox: “Thus, since a prince is compelled of necesity how to use the beast, he should pick the fox and the lion. … one needs to be a fox to recognize snares and a lion to frighten wolves” (The Prince, 18). Because he sees survival as a prince's first duty, Machiavelli selects for emulation animals known for their survival skills rather than their service to others. Although this advice may seem to be nothing more than the glorification of self-interest,6 it can be argued that altruistic virtues will be of little value to the prince or his kingdom if they open the wya to his destruction and die with him, along with countless subjects. At the beginning of Macbeth Duncan displays the kind of fatal näiveté characteristic of a prince who possesses virtue rather than virtù. Mystified by Cawdor's treason, he states,

There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.


Duncan admits that he cannot penetrate appearances, yet he tries to build his kindom on relationships of “absolute trust.” The Machiavellian prince, on the other hand, has mastered the art of seeing into others while remaining a mystery himself, and he is utterly self-reliant. In chapter 17 of The Prince, Machiavelli warns against depending on the love and loyalty of one's followers. He calls the generality of men “ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers,” and urges the prince to build his kingdom on fear rather than love since love is “held by a chain of obligation, which, because men are wicked, is broken at every opportunity for their own utility, but fear is held by a dread of punishment that never forsakes you” (The Prince, 17).7

Duncan's faith and trust cost him his life. But it is through his death that his son Malcolm learns the art of survival. Machiavelli considered the prince fortunate to found his state in adversity since the struggle instructs him in the ways of maintaining power (The Prince, 20). Indeed, by the end of the play, Malcolm's fortunes seem to have transformed him into a total Machiavellian. Immediately following his father's murder, Malcolm wishes to speak his heart, but his brother stops him, considering it more prudent to run than to stay and protest against a hidden and deadly enemy (II.iii.118-25). By Act IV, scene iii, Malcolm has acquired virtù, which is above all else the art of prudence.8 He tells Mcduff, who has come from Scotland to offer his services to the prince in exile, that he cannot depend on a mere verbal assurance of Macduff's virtuous intent. After all, as Malcolm points out, “This tyrant whose sole name blisters our tongue / Was once thought honest” (IV.ii.11-12). He suspects that Macduff may be trying to ingratiate himself with Macbeth by offering him up “a weak, poor, innocent lamb / T’appease an angry god’ (IV.iii.16-17). However, unlike his father, Malcolm is more fox than lamb, and although he maintains that he cannot know what is in a man's heart, he has learned to attain some measure of control over a world of deception by turning dissimulation itself into a tool.9 In other words, he has learned to “rule” by breaking the rules of Christian conduct. He tests Macduff's virtue by pretending to every vice a tyrant proverbially possessed.10 In this Machiavellian test, a virtuous man dissimulates (a non-virtuous act) that he is not virtuous in order to prove that the object of his test is virtuous. And it is not until Macduff violently rejects him (“Fit to govern? / No, not to live”) that he can accept Macduff. Malcolm has put into practice what Machiavelli recommends in chapter 18 of The Prince: “How laudable it is for a prince to keep his faith, and live with honesty and not by astuteness, everyone understands. Nonetheless one sees by experience in our times that the princes who have done great things are thosw who have taken little account of faith and have known how to get around men's brains with their astuteness; and in the end they have overcome those who have founded themselves on loyaloty.”

The exchange between Malcolm and Macduff is not only interesting as a Machiavellian demonstration of “how to get around men's brains,” it also reveals the extent to which conventional rule-bound notions of ethical conduct have yielded to moral concepts that are prudential or ends-oriented. In the area of religious practice. late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century England is witness to a growing adiaphorism which relegates to the realm of things indifferent all matters that do not directly affect salvation. At the same time, James I asserts a political adiaphora which contains any royal vice that does not directly affect the strate.11 These developments in English religious and political ideology harmonize with Machiavelian notions of civic virtue that subordinate personal morality to considerations of political consequence. Thus during the testing scene, Macduff can promise that Scotland will accommodate a series of personal vice—deceit, lust, avarice—but he rejects Malcolm as a king when his vices turn political:12

Nay, had I pow’r, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth.


The scene between Malcolm and Macduff not only illustrates concepts of virtue that subordinate traditional rules of Christian conduct to the pressing needs of troubled times; it also succeeds in cloaking Malcolm's true nature in an impenetrable veil. When Malcolm “unspeaks” the crimes he has just laid upon himself, claiming that he is a virgin who has never before lied or broken faith, Macduff is struck dumb with confusion. Malcolm's claims of perfect innocence and honesty are incredible under any circumstances but particularly since they are belied by the speech that asserts them. After this virtùoso display of politic dissimulation, it becomes impossible for Macduff, or the audience, to get a precise fix on Malcolm. He has successfully cultivated the “mystery of state” that is characteristic of both Machiavellian theory and absolutist practice.13

Before Malcolm tests Macduff's honesty by lying, the breakdown of an easy equivalence between being “true” literally and politically has been introduced in a conversation where the subject is also Macduff's loyalty—the exchange between Lady Macduff and her son moments before their murder. The boy asks if his father is really a traitor, and when his mother replies that he is, he wants a definition of treason:

What is a traitor?
L. Macd.
Why, one that swears and lies.
And be all traitors that do so?
L. Macd. 
Every one that does so is a traitor, and must be hang’d.
And must they all be hang’d that swear and lie?
L. Macd.
Every one.
Who must hang them?
L. Macd.
Why, the honest men.
Then the liars and swearers are fools; for there are
liars and swearers enow to beat the honest men and
hang up them.


Lady Macduff's definition of treason is never meant to be taken seriously, quickly collapsing in the face of her son's simple “reality test.” However, her explanation of the supreme crime against the state echoes the political writings of Christian humanists, who insist that political evil is identical to religious sin. Lady Macduff's equating treason with breaking the second and ninth commandments has serious philosophical precedent, and the ease with which that equation is dismissed by her son is a reflection of the erosion these views have undergone by the early seventeenth century. Thus Shakespeare's domestic exchange illustrates that by this time even a child knows what political writers from Cicero to Suarez vigorously deny—lying is not treason; as the world goes, it is a ubiquitous tool of survival.

Given his strength, courage, and willingness to commit evil, Macbeth might seem to be Machiavelli's ideal prince. Actually, he manages to fall short in several regards, not the least of which is his inability to dissimulate. From the moment he hears the witches’ prediction, his ambition becomes transparent. He attracts Banquo's suspicion early on, and he has to be instructed by Lady Macbeth to hide his feelings from the first moment she sees him:

Your face, my thane, is as a book, where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like th’ innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t.


His acting abilities hardly improve once he becomes king. The play is filled with references to Macbeth's ill-fitting costumes (I.iii.144-46; V.ii.20-23), references which are usually read as symbols of Macbeth's inability to “fill Duncan's shoes.” I would like to suggest that these costumes which never seem to fit may also refer to Macbeth's incompetence at maintaining illusion. The mask of the “mystery of state” keeps slipping, revealing Macbeth's naked face—filled with ambition, fear, hatred—for anyone to read. He reveals fear and guilt in the banquet scene in front of the assembled lords of Scotland, and Macduff senses danger in time to escape his grasp. The sarcastic exchange between Lennox and another lord in Act III, scene vi, reveals that not one of his attempts to shift the blame for his crimes has succeeded. One tactic for which Machiavelli praises Borgia is his use of Rimirro de Orca; Rimirro commits all of the crimes necessary to pacify the Romagna, and once the people begin to hate him for his cruelty, he is killed, leaving Borgia both secure and popular. Unlike Borgia, Macbeth carries the personal stigma of every crime in his realm.

However, by Machiavellian standards Macbeth's greatest sin would probably be not his inability to dissimulate but his initial reluctance to commit totally to the course of wrongdoing that his position as usurping prince has made essential. In The Discourses Machiavelli praises the wisdom of those who prefer to live as private citizens rather than suffer the guilt all kings must incur. He goes on to warn against the greatest danger, the desire to have it all—the clean conscience of a private man and the power of a prince. Having just described the means by which Philip of Macedon made himself prince of Greece, Machiavelli states:

Such methods are exceedingly cruel, and are repugnant to any community, not only a Christian one, but to any composed of men. It behoves, therefore, every man to shun them, and to prefer rather to live as a private citizen than as a king with such ruination of men to his score. None the less, for the sort of man who is unwilling to take up this first course of well doing, it is expedient, should he wish to hold what he has, to enter on the path of wrong doing. Actually, however, most men prefer to steer a middle course, which is very harmful; for they know not how to be wholly good nor yet wholly bad.

(Bk. 1, chap. 26)

Machiavelli's complaint about men's longing to attain power without sacrificing personal virtue sounds very much like Lady Macbeth's fears concerning her husband's double desire:

Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win.


One can see Macbeth's deep desire to be “holy” and yet “wrongly win” in Act II, scene ii, where, incredibly, he seeks a blessing by trying to join his own “Amen” to the prayer of two sleeping innocents seconds after he has murdered Duncan; it seems genuinely to surprise him that the “Amen” sticks in his throat (II.ii.24-31). Macbeth is like the Porter's “equivocator,” a man who wants it all and “could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven” (II.iii.8-11).

It is a delicate issue to argue that Scotland would have been better off had Macbeth been more thoroughly evil—especially since Macbeth becomes evil incarnate by the end of the play. What Machiavelli would argue is that Macbeth's conversion comes too late for himself and for the kingdom. In Act I Macbeth wants his murder of Duncan to be a single, limited crime, and he alternates between fantasizing an assassination that “Could trammel up the consequences,” and the realization that he may not be able to control what will follow.14 By murdering Duncan, and Duncan alone, Macbeth's worst fears come true. He unleashes a flood of events that so outrace his efforts at containment that he finally resorts to a reign of terror. In what must be the most troubling passages in The Prince, chapters 7 and 8 on Borgia and Agathocles, Machiavelli distinguishes between cruelties that are well or badly used:

Someone could question how it happened that Agathocles and anyone like him, after infinite betrayals and cruelties, could live for a long time secure in his fatherland, defend himself against external enemies, and never be conspired against by his citizens, inasmuch as many others have not been able to maintain their states through cruelty even in peaceful times, not to mention uncertain times of war. I believe that this comes from cruelties badly used or well used. Those can be called well used (if it is permissible to speak well of evil) that are done at a stroke, out of the necessity to secure oneself, and then are not persisted in but are turned to as much utility for the subjects as one can. Those cruelties are badly used which, though few in the beginning, rather grow with time than are eliminated. Those who observe the first mode can have some remedy for their state with God and with men, as had Agathocles.

Machiavelli's condemnation of “cruelties badly used” could easily serve as a gloss to Macbeth, where the crimes are few in the beginning but do indeed grow with time. It is particularly interesting to note that Machiavelli brings in the judgment of God as well as men; both distinguish between these two cruelties and both find only the latter beyond remedy. Machiavelli can praise Borgia and Agathocles, and even offer them a kind of divine dispensation, because his perspective is “of the people” (The Prince, dedicatory letter). He is not interested in the personal virtue of the prince, only in the effect of his actions on the kingdom. Since the civil chaos and terror that follow innocent blunders and half-hearted crimes are more deadly to the people than the quick and ruthless pacification of a kingdom, Machiavelli saves his condemnation for those princes whose actions cost the most lives.

Machiavelli warns against the dangers of traveling the “middle course” throughout his works. He states in The Prince that men should either be “caressed or eliminated” (3). In both The Prince and The Discourses, he particularly emphasizes the importance of eliminating the blood line of the former ruler when founding a new kingdom (The Prince, 3; The Discourses, Bk. 3, chap. 4). Macbeth's failures in this regard are obvious. He lets Malcolm and Donalbain escape after having done them the gravest injuries. And because he feels insecure from the moment he seizes power, he continues to murder in order to feel safe: “to be thus is nothing / But to be safely thus” (III.i.48-49). When he speaks to Lady Macbeth about his fears, he illustrates the escalation of violence that follows from half-hearted measures:

We have scorch’d the snake, not kill’d it;
She’ll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.
But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer,
Ere we will eat our meal in fear.


He ends the scene with a reiteration of the same concept—increased evil to secure their shaky position: “Thou marvel’st at my words, but hold thee still: / Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (III.ii.54-55). But after his initial crime, no matter how willingly or quickly he kills, it never seems to be enough. Having begun his crimes by killing Duncan while allowing his heirs to escape, he will crown them by killing all of Macduff's heirs after allowing Macduff to escape. The violence increases exponentially, but its efficacy decreases at an even higher rate.

Machiavelli never praises brutality for its own sake; he advocates its politic use as a necessary evil, a prophylactic against widespread and indiscriminate violence. He is particularly critical of the kinds of cruel actions that breed mayhem; and more than any other political writer, he understands the destructive power of vengeance. When in chapter 17 of The Prince he advises that it is better to be feared than to be loved, he adds an important caveat—one should be feared but never hated. In chapter 20 he discusses fortifications and concludes, “the best fortress there is, is not to be hated by the people, because although you may have fortresses, if the people hold you in hatred fortresses do not save you; for to people who have taken up arms foreigners will never be lacking to come to their aid.” By committing acts like the massacre of Macduff's family, Macbeth has become universally hated. He faces an avenging army, aided by a foreign king, with nothing at his back but a fortress, soldiers in revolt, and “Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath / Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not” (V.iii.27-28). Shortly after this speech, Macbeth will be defeated and decapitated. Machiavelli would have predicted his violent end, but not on providential grounds. He would have seen Macbeth's destruction as no more or less inevitable than Duncan’s—both of Shakespeare's portraits in political disaster could have found a place among his vast collection of object lessons in virtù and the art of survival.


  1. In The Discourses Niccoló Machiavelli rails against Christianity's effect on political life. Unlike the state religion of the Romans, Christianity holds the world and its glories in contempt:

    Our religion has glorified humble and contemplative men, rather than men of action. It has assigned as man's highest good humility, abnegation, and contempt for mundane things [cosi umane], whereas the other identified it with magnanimity, bodily strength, and everything else that conduces to make men very bold. And, if our religion demands that in you there be strength, what it asks for is the strength to suffer rather than the strength to do bold things.

    This pattern of life, therefore, appears to have made the world weak, and to have handed it over as prey to the wicked, who run it successfully and securely since they are well aware that the generality of men, with paradise for their goal, consider how best to bear, rather than how best to avenge, their injuries.

    (Bk. 2, chap. 2)

    (All citations from The Discourses are from Leslie J. Walker's translation, New York: Penguin, 1970; all citations from The Prince are from Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr.'s translation, cited by chapter. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985).

  2. See among others L.C. Knights, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth,” in Explorations: Essays in Criticism Mainly on the Literature of the Seventeenth Century (London: Chatto and Windus, 1963), pp. 1-39, and Maynard Mack, Jr., Killing the King: Three Studies in Shakespeare's Tragic Structure (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1973).

  3. See David Norbrook's “Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography,” in Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), pp. 78-116.

  4. The reception of Machiavelli in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a welter of contradictions; however, it is clear that by the seventeenth century his philosophy was beginning to gain respectability. For detailed accounts of the extent and levels of Machiavellianism, open and covert, see Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli (London: Routledge, 1964), and the recent study by Peter S. Donaldson, Machiavelli and the Mystery of State (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988). As Donaldson's investigations have confirmed, there were a number of avid followers of Machiavelli in the early Tudor courts—among others, William Thomas, who wrote a secret work of royal pedagogy based on Machiavelli's works for the young prince Edward VI, and Bishop Stephen Gardiner, who wrote a Machiavellian treatise for Mary's consort, Philip of Spain.

    By the late sixteenth century many of Machiavelli's most controversial ideas were also gaining ground in public political discourse, although authors often avoided defending him by name. For instance, in an English translation of The Six Bookes of Politickes or Civil Doctrine (trans. William Jones, London, 1594), Justus Lipsius, a writer noted for his piety, praises the politic use of deception and actively defends Machiavelli (identified in a marginal note):

    Surely when one is not strong enough to debate in the matter, it is not amisse secretly to intrappe. And as the King of Sparta teacheth us, where we cannot prevaile by the Lions skinne, we must put on the Foxes. … Of such a person we shall easily obtaine this; neither will he so strictly condemne the Italian fault-writer, (who poore soule is layde at of all hands) and as a holy person sayth, that there is a certaine honest and laudable deceipt. (p. 114)

    For seventeenth-century adoption of Machiavelli's republican theories, see Zera S. Fink, The Classical Republicans: An Essay in the Recovery of a Pattern of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1945).

  5. All quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  6. Machiavelli's attitude towards self-interest is clearly expressed in one of his poems, “Tercets on Ambition” in Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, 3 vols., trans. Allan Gilbert (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1965), 2: 735-39. He sees personal ambition as a great evil unless it is harnessed by the state and its energies turned against her enemies. If it is allowed to rage unchecked within a kingdom the results are reminiscent of Macbeth's Scotland: “Wherever you turn your eyes, you see the earth wet with tears / and blood, and the air full of screams, sobs, and sighs” (lines 157-58).

  7. It has long been noted that Machiavelli has a very “Protestant” conception of human nature. See for example, Hiram Haydn's The Counter-Renaissance (New York: Scribner’s, 1950) for a discussion of Calvin and the Florentine school. One can also see an affinity with Luther, whose bleak view of humanity is the basis on which he justifies the need for coercive government: without rule by force, “seeing that the whole world is evil and that among thousands there is scarcely one true Christian, men would devour one another, and no one could preserve wife and child, support himself and serve God; and thus the world would be reduced to chaos.” Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Doubleday, 1961), p. 370. These views of man's nature, along with the antinomianism inherent in the doctrine of election (which does not contain a rule-bound view of virtue), contribute to a world-view receptive to both absolutism and civic humanism. Thus as England became more Protestant and more absolutist, it became more hospitable to Machiavelli.

  8. For a detailed discussion of the relationship between Machiavellian virtù and prudence see Eugene Garver's Machiavelli and the History of Prudence (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1987). Garver states: “Machiavelli ‘empties’ virtù of its conventional semantic, moral, and intellectual associations in order to substitute a prudential structure for understanding it” (p. 31).

  9. See Victoria Kahn's article, “Virtù and the Example of Agathocles in Machiavelli's Prince,Representations 13 (Winter 1986): 63-83, for a discussion of the breakdown of the Ciceronian equation of honestas and utilitas (if a statement is true it will be effective) subscribed to by Christian humanists. Kahn points out Machiavelli's adoption of an ironic mode of discourse that achieves its ends by seeming to speak against them.

  10. See Rebecca W. Bushnell's Tragedies of Tyrants: Political Thought and Theater in the English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990) for a detailed discussion of the character of the tyrant in classical and Renaissance political theory and theater. He was conventionally conceived as a slave to desire and therefore subject to any number of appetitive vices.

  11. In Basilikon Doron, James I separates the King's personal conduct from the rest of the work in a book labeled, “Of a King's Behaviour in Indifferent Things.” Earlier in the work he admits every king has his faults, but insists that they are to be kept between him and God and “should not be a matter of discourse to others whatsoever.” The Political Works of James I, 1616, intro. Charles Howard McIlwain (New York: Russell and Russell, 1965), p. 21.

  12. Bushnell notes the relationship between absolutist notions that relegate personal sins to the adiaphora and this turn in Macduff's attitude (pp. 140-42).

  13. See especially Donaldson's Machiavelli and the Mystery of State for an exhaustive study of the role of mystery in both Machiavelli's political theory and his reception and use in England. See also the treatment of the arcana imperii in Jonathan Goldberg's James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), and Stephen Orgel's connection of Machiavellian illusion with the celebration of power in the Jacobean masque in The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1975).

  14. In The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1975), J.G.A. Pocock notes the mixed nature of virtù; its cardinal characteristic, innovation, can easily turn against its practitioner:

    On the one hand virtù is that by which we innovate, and so let loose sequences of contingency beyond our prediction or control so that we become prey to fortuna; on the other hand, virtù is that internal to ourselves by which we resist fortuna and impose upon her patterns of order, which may even become patterns of moral order. This seems to be at the heart of Machiavellian ambiguities. It explains why innovation is supremely difficult, being formally self-destructive; and it explains why there is incompatibility between action—and so between politics defined in terms of action rather than tradition—and moral order.

    (p. 167)

Gene Fendt (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5792

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 intrapersonal integration or resolution which follows from what she experiences and recognizes about love. There is, as well, an interpersonal integration—each member of the pairs of country copulatives is united with what it really desires; and further, there is a larger social redintigratio in statuum pristinum—the duke is returned to his lands, Oliver to his, and the whole green world society which has turned around Rosalind and Orlando is set to take its place in the normal world outside of the forest of Arden. So, due to the recognitions made in Arden there are three axes of resolution within the play. Similarly the audience members, who have gone into the golden world of the theatre, and who may have come to some recognitions of their own, are about to go out into the normal world, which is their true inheritance. If the play has worked, they have suffered at least one kind of catharsis. This essay explores those recognitions, their accompanying resolutions and their plausible resulting catharses, and then turns to some cultural implications.

We have mentioned a parallelism between the audience and the characters of the play; that parallelism no doubt includes a similarity in emotional effect, on the one due to being in Arden (where the effect on the characters is the play's resolution), on the other due to being in the theatre (where the effect on the audience is the comic catharsis). Something like this parallelism probably underlies Aristotle's statement that the final cause of tragedy is a catharsis of the emotions of fear and pity raised by the fearful events in the tragedy, as his comments on those emotions in the Rhetoric make clear. Hecuba, for example, not only has fears, what happens to her is fearful, and what she does is fearful too. Those things that we would fear if they threatened us, arouse pity when we see them happen to others (Rhetoric 1386a25): the object of pity and fear is the same, the subject's relation to that object (direct in fear, and indirect, or distant, in pity) seems to make up the largest part of the difference between the two emotions. The fearfulness of the tragic events evokes the pity of the spectators, the resolution of the plot provides the catharsis of those emotions. Catharsis is not the same as resolution, but the resolution of the plot helps cause the catharsis in the audience.

To return to As You Like It. The characters in the play are embued with eros, desire. I suppose it is not unusual for some members of the audience to become directly embued with that same passion for Rosalind or Orlando, or perhaps Touchstone or Audrey. Less directly—but more obviously and more powerfully—the audience will have sympathy for those erotic characters, for we all know what it is to desire and to be separated from what we desire. It is, of course, most likely that audience members will feel something of both emotions (as we feel both fear and pity in tragedy)—an immediate attraction for the hero and heroine, and the more mediated feeling, sympathy, for their plight. If the main characters were not attractive at all we would be less likely to feel sympathy. The task of the comedy, then—its final cause—is to bring about a catharsis of the emotions of desire and sympathy. How does it accomplish this?

One kind of story goes like this: like the characters in the play, the audience takes part in and identifies with the green world, the world closer to the heart's desire, which the characters enter in the course of the play and within which their humorous excesses are purged so that the personal, interpersonal and social reintegrations can occur in the last scene. The green world is the world of desire; it is, as Northrop Frye says, not a world that judges moral worth, but one that wants to see the unity of desire with desired. “Its opposite is not the villainous but the absurd”2 and the absurd is (in the world of desire) whatever blocks desire. What happens in the audience in this case, if parallel, might seem to be of questionable worth, perhaps just because of the freedom from moral judgment that the comic play generally creates for itself. The comic world, on this view, aims at satisfaction of Id. That, at least, would go far in explaining the negative view of comedy attributed to Plato and Augustine, among others.

That Platonic view of comedy is a little too simplistically moralizing.3 Generally moral questions are put off, our moral judgment is, as it were, set aside in comedy by making the “normal” society of the play's beginning highly questionable. The green world, then, is not just Id's playground. In As You Like It we see a brother plot against his brother's life and limb, and hear that the new Duke has just driven his brother off the throne and out to Arden. In other plays the stupidity of one or another law, usually about marriage, disables our moral judgment from taking the side of the “normal society.” And while that may not be enough to make desire's world the world of moral virtue, the ridiculous law or obvious injustice of the normal society is enough to give the green world freedom under a presumption of charity: it cannot be as stupid as the court of that original world.

What goes on in the audience, then, can be much more complex than morally questionable fantasizing about a world operating on laws invented by Id. Comic catharses fall into a range of possibilities, only the first of which seems entirely questionable. First, it is possible that an audience member could go into the green world of the theatre as into a fantasy. And when he comes out, eyes blinking, the real world with all its moral claims and political difficulties slaps him like sunlight across the face. To take up the case of the original audience of As You Like It, there is still the law of primogeniture, I am still a younger brother with few property rights, and no hope of fulfilling my desire for a Duke's only daughter; or, I am still an older brother with all these young ones eating up my estate, nickeling and diming me to death with their requests for schooling and funds, etc.4 Comedy, under this dispensation, has a cathartic effect just as circling a track for an hour does—it's hypnotic, we forget our problems; but then the hypnotic or incantatory effect ends and we wake to the world going on apace. This is the explanation of comic catharsis of all those who think of art as mere entertainment. It may be true; but if it is, there is no reason to study the humanities rather than watch football. Further, far from providing a “vicarious benefit,” or “facilitat[ing] pacification and escape” (Montrose, p. 53), it would seem to face the audience of such younger brothers of less than lordly families with the complete inadequacy of their own daylight world, and such comedy is likely to be as socially upsetting as Plato is said to have feared. We might call this version of catharsis the merely physiological catharsis, though whether it discharges itself in the theater (as Freud thinks), or on the body of the older brother (as Plato fears and Marx hopes) is left open.

An advance upon this line is marked by the idea that fantasy is not mere fantasy for human beings, that just as we expect the new world that will form outside the forest will be one in which the characters act in accord with what their hearts have learned within it, so too the audience of the comedy can go forth into its world, carrying the green world's heart within them. And so younger and older brothers, knowing their legal rights, and without abrogating such law as society has, will treat each other more in accord with the happy spirit of Arden than the murderous spirit of the original dukedom. The enactment of the personal, interpersonal, and social integration on stage will be imitated so far as possible in the world outside the theatre. This is, I assume, the more usual view of comic catharsis, and it is sufficient, if true, to defend comedy against its cultured despisers, for according to it comedy has a quite beneficent social and moral effect. It begins the practice of charity by its work on the community's moral imagination. Comedy is a vision of dianoia, the significance of which is social. We all experience it together.

What both of these first two views have in common is that in them the world that answers desire, the world of Arden, is seen and felt as absolute, as that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-conceived, that which is to be loved with all one's heart and soul and mind. In the first version, that world is mere, or dangerous, fantasy; in the other view, it is a source of “social conciliation.”5

But there is at least one character in As You Like It, who, seeing that world's perfection, leaves it. And so, yet another type of comic catharsis must be possible, one in line with the character of Jaques. It may be, of course, that Jaques, preferring solitude and his melancholy, really never enters the green world (not seeing it as green), or if he does, does not change. Early on he claims that the green society “more usurps” (II.1.27) from the natural good than the normal society from which his Duke is but recently banished. In this he would be even more humorous than Touchstone, who at least takes part in the festive couplings of the country, though he is not much pleased with Arden. Under this reading Jaques is simply an irrecoverable surd in the comic movement, and has to be got off stage before the ritual concluding komos can begin.6

But it is possible to see and to play Jaques as a character who comes to his own kind of recognition, and changes because of it.7 If he does so change he will also mark a different kind of catharsis that is possible for an audience member as well. Jaques, at the end, loves the green world and sees its goodness, its happiness, but he loves it not in the way we ordinarily think of that word—as a synonym for eros, desire—he loves the world of the heart's desire without desiring it, and so he leaves it, and leaving it, he blesses it:

You to your former honor I bequeath;
your patience and your virtue well deserve it.
You to a love that your true faith doth merit;
You to your land and love and great allies;
You to a long and well-deserved bed;
and you to wrangling, for thy loving voyage
is but for two months victualed. So, to your pleasures;
I am for other than dancing measures.


There is none of his usual melancholic bile in this speech; and of Touchstone, the one person who is not so highly blessed, he seems to be merely speaking the plain truth, one that Touchstone himself would be unlikely to deny or find fault with. Touchstone had, in fact, predicted a similar result before his marriage (III.3.77-83).

So then, in the audience of the comedy, may there not be one or two who, leaving the play, admit that all the heart's desires are satisfied in the green world, and bless that world, but are cured of desiring it? They must have an inkling, as Jaques does, that desire's world is not absolute, even when it is fulfilled. I suppose Schopenhauer would like to say this: we learn, in comedy, and the comic catharsis makes us feel the good of, the resignation of desire. But I think that last speech of Jaques’ bespeaks something other than Schopenhauerian resignation, for Schopenhauer could not bless the happy couples of the green world, as Jaques, heartfeltly, does.

The kind of comic catharsis I have in mind does not work just by showing us, and letting us identify with, the satisfaction of desire, or showing it to us and denying our feeling for it. It shows the world of eros as a whole, and, as every whole which we can see as a whole, the world of eros is a limited whole, and all its perfected satisfactions are but the figure of something greater than that whole world, to which Jaques goes, at the edge of the forest of Arden. What that is he has yet to discover, but that it is he must already believe. This we should call a religious or sublime comic catharsis, for it raises us entirely above thralldom to desire since it raises us above even the world of desire satisfied. So, of course, does Schopenhauer, in his fashion.

The first two, worldly, versions of catharsis are the ones most commonly attributed to comedy. Each subtype of that catharsis has its figure in As You Like It. The purely physiological catharsis is figured in Touchstone, the “material fool” (III.3.28) who, crowding in amongst all the other country copulatives, gives away the fact that he really thinks all the other marriages are as simply physiological as his. For a taste:

As the ox hath his bow, sir, the horse his
curb, and the falcon her bells, so man hath
his desires; and as pigeons bill, so wedlock
would be nibbling



If a hart do lack a hind
Let him seek out Rosalind


and similar false gallop of verses.

Touchstone takes his satisfaction as some audience members come to a play—for entertainment or titillation; he comes to his resolution in the last scene—or shortly thereafter. He accomplishes his satisfaction upon the body of Audrey, as a younger brother in the audience might achieve some substitutive satisfaction for his real desires by seeing the play. It is “a poor virgin” (ergo, unfruitful), “an ill favored thing” (because fruitless), but his own (V.4.53-56). No doubt such plays as this will titillate and satisfy such a one for two months or so, but then the wrangling will begin, and Audrey—fantasy fulfillment—will be put away for more suitable meat. Or the usual, now galloping, poverty. So, too, the merely physiological catharsis of art wears thin; one needs more opium, more flowers to hide the chains, or else the very thing that hid the chains makes one become more aware of the chains.8 In short, it would seem, contra Freud,9 that art is less likely than religion to provide substitutive satisfaction to the demands of a raging Id, for the satisfactions presented to fantasy in dramatic art are manufactured out of things that some people accomplish in the real world; religion's are not. Id is, in this one regard, a realist: it doesn’t want the picture of a cigar, it wants the real cigar. Touchstone becomes an incendiary.10

The second subtype of worldly catharsis—which we might call the moral catharsis—is figured variously in the other lovers, who undergo the trials of desire, the recognitions those trials lead to, and the personal, interpersonal and social redintigratio which the forest offers, and we, the audience, cheer, happily recognizing ourselves.

The second kind of catharsis, which we should perhaps call the religious comic catharsis, also has two forms. They both are recognitions that there is an ideal realm which checks or overcomes the world of desire even when that realm is fulfilled. That ideal realm bounds the world of desire and does not allow Arden to take itself as absolute, even when everyone in that green world may be satisfied. Only one of its two subtypes can be instantiated in this play, however, for both can only be instantiated on stage by Jaques. He may be understood (and played) as a prototype of Schopenhauerian denial of the world of desire—one who begins in melancholy and ends in resignation of action and desire. A Hindu might call such a Jaques a religious hero, and the play might bring such an audience member to a religious catharsis. Or, more likely for Shakespeare, and as I think Jaques's last speech makes clear, Jaques may be understood and played as someone who comes to recognize desire's goodness in Arden, who blesses the green world, but lets it be. He goes out to the edge of the green world of the heart to look for something which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor did it enter the mind of Bard to represent. Such a Jaques transfigures the play's beautiful comic resolution into a sublime one, and his recognition may be echoed, and engender its catharsis, in the audience.

This paper could end here, and for a while, it did. But it seems to me that the four kinds of catharsis accomplishable by the play, and the kinds of resolution reached in the play, figure different kinds of culture outside the play. The easiest to see is the society of the material fools, symbolized by T and A,11 for whom everything is merely physiology. Students of physical education come to mind, for whom work is lifting weights, running laps, lines, patterns, plays, and who build a day around these activities, others (philosophy or literature classes) falling in as they may—or not. What kind of thing can be cathartic for them? Things that relax their bodies from the efforts of the day: sex, drugs, rock and roll, or lounging at a play. The more such a one dedicates himself to the work, the stronger the catharsis needed to achieve a kind of normal state. In such a culture art is not only not a necessity, but probably an impossibility: sex, drugs, and rock and roll are more likely candidates for providing the necessary release than Shakespearean comedy, or a flash of T and A. Soon one will begin to demand New Year's Day games in sunny locales. Sic transit gloria mundi—the body culture, the materialism of atoms and the void.

A second culture is more genuinely social, and may be called moral culture; it exceeds physical culture as the soul, in medieval philosophy, exceeds the body,12 or as the marriage of true minds surpasses country copulation. This kind of culture may spend its days just as competitively as the first, though the competitions are for intangibles like love, honor, and perhaps money—which are, after all, bound up with signs. As their competitions and their desires, so must their catharses be, and the catharsis provided by a play may serve feelingly to recall the unity underlying and making possible the single-minded pursuits of the daylight world. For neither love, nor honor, nor even money is possible except that we live among others who recognize and support the reality of such “things,” for such are not merely things, but signs, and signs are a social reality. In this culture, art is a useful catharsis with socially important results. As Aristotle would say, such music conduces to moral and political virtue, whatever we may consider that to be (Politics 1339a21). That is to say, its results will be judged differently depending on how the moralist wishes the society to turn: liberals fancy Marx and expect artistic catharses to motivate social revolution (these days watered down to “change”), while conservatives are on the side of Freud, who expects art to work as a substitutive satisfaction for civilization's endemic discontents. But to judge art according to either standard is to make a political judgment on art, not an artistic or even a moral judgment. It transforms the free and reflective judgment of the beautiful into a determination according to concepts of reason.13

The other kind of culture14 let us call it religious, for it posits the world of desire as a completed whole, and thereby transcends it. Its vision is of a noncompetitive, infinitely sharable, but intimate and personal good: wisdom, beatific vision, communion of saints, Nirvana. The version of this culture corresponding to Schopenhauer's resigning catharsis is the unarmed society of Lamaism.15 The culture corresponding to the more sublime resolution, which does not seek to evaporate the principle of individuation—as Schopenhauer, nor curse the world as mere humorous illusion—as Schopenhauer, is the more traditional religious spirit of the west.16 For such a person a play itself is the mimesis of just that religious ideal, for without dissolving the principle of individuation, each person comes to his or her catharsis along with everyone else in the theatre. A play is an infinitely sharable, but intimate and personal good thing. Such a comedy is far from mere amusement; it is not only a vision, but a mimesis of ultimate social significance. A comedy not only figures, it enacts the good it figures: at a play the audience mimes the communal good we seek to instantiate in life. It is no wonder that drama was a religious ritual for the Greeks, that species of human being which is a permanent embarrassment to every lower type.

Further, and to the point of this particular culture. It is probably about as accidental as the fact that 3 - 2 = 1 that after the dark political ages of the Pax Romana, and the tiring out of rival football clubs of Vandals, Goths, and Visigoths, schools and universities were refounded not by states, but by monks and religious communities. The idea of a university is not an idea that a state would have: it does not need them. A state, particularly one with a highly mechanized economy, will find it much more useful to keep its citizens under the physiological or directly social understandings of culture and catharsis. Football—I mean physiological catharses—and fantasy fulfillment are its major tools.17 But the pursuit of wisdom exceeds the pursuit of socially constructed, or socially constructible, desires, for besides being an activity engaged in for its own sake and without a return to practical use, it is one which a finite being can never be finished with, or even imagine being finished with: in contrast to desire it is recognized as not having a termination. The pursuit of wisdom is an infinite task, and someone engaged in such a task needs play, for it brings him down to something accomplishable, before he goes back to the task which can never be finished, and into which even his play is taken up. For such a one art is a necessity, since only it can grant the catharsis, and the resolution, the spirit requires.

For a time, persons from all three cultures—physical, moral, religious—can meet at a play like As You Like It. It is, of course, unlikely that they are meeting in any other sense than that which any material fool could describe and understand. In judging a work of art such as As You Like It, then, an audience necessarily judges itself; in what members of the audience cheer for, they show their taste, confess their culture, perhaps even their religion. A material fool judges merely the pleasantness of the sensations of the play, and about this there can be no disputing: some prefer Audrey, some prefer sheep. Their pleasures are incommunicable each to each, though the source may be bought, sold, or, in turn, enjoyed by all. Further, like Touchstone, they cannot help what they feel, and they think no one else can either—as pigeons bill, marriage is nibbling.

The more noble lovers, and their correlative audience, have an ontological commitment to freedom, understood as freedom from determination by a material humor; that freedom allows them to make commitments to each other which we can expect to last longer than the two-month, or two-hour, cure of a humor. For them, judgments of taste are not merely personal caprice, but are tied to something more constant: they are not merely judgments of physiological taste. The third figure, Jaques, has, under either reading of him, an ontological commitment to freedom understood positively: a transcendental reality is the condition for the happy possibilities of lovers in the forest of Arden. Of that reality, on the outer and binding edge of our happiness, he would learn more. He goes to seek it.

One of my dyed-in-the-wool Platonist students, Ryan Nelson, has suggested that since each person has an element which aims at each type of catharsis, all three kinds of catharsis work on each member of the audience. That idea is more charitable than mine; therefore, no doubt, truer. Further, if art is capable of improving culture, Ryan's idea must be the basis of the how. Someone whose desires run to T and A goes to the play and, seeing his Touchstone desire run to its conclusion in Audrey, is “feelingly persuaded” that he wants more than that—or something other: something more like Rosalind and Orlando, or Celia and Oliver. His passions have begun their education. So, like the forest of Arden, the play does not just flatter our desires, but feelingly persuades us of what we are (II.1.10). What we are is something more than the humorous Touchstone will admit, though his marriage's failure in two month's time will exhibit it—in case the marriage itself hasn’t made it plain.18

The culture of Touchstone can be reduced to culture embodied in particular unique empirical artifacts, to which the only valid question is “isn’t that interesting?” and the only politically correct answer is “yes.” If you don’t say yes, your preference for one artifact rather than another is merely humorous, a different physiological taste. Touchstone makes Audrey; isn’t that interesting? Corin makes sheep; isn’t that interesting?19 You now know everything you need to know about multiculturalism except what each culture finds interesting; isn’t that interesting? This is culture as a historicist, like Herder, understood it. There are still Herders among us. Isn’t that interesting?

The culture of the lovers is one of normative commitments open to moral development. It is a culture which by its very existence asks us “isn’t this good?” And in order to answer that question you would have to live in that culture of normative commitments, you would have to put yourself into such commitments; and the quality of those commitments would be your answer. The play achieves a brief version of this state in the catharsis it produces in the average audience; but insofar as it is but a two-hour version of moral culture, it is not moral culture, and we must advance from the aesthetic to the actual. That is, like the people in Arden, we must now go back to the real world, taking the green world with us. We have noted in the earlier part of this essay that the play is not merely a symbol of morality, but also begins the construction of a world closer to the moral heart, for it constructs in the audience that unity of feeling and reason which is the comic catharsis. This is culture as Kant understood it. There are still Kantians among us. Perhaps this investigation is a Kantian version of play.

Jaques goes to the very edge of culture, and wonders, “What is it that allows these cultures to be?” That is, he asks, “What are the conditions for the possibility of culture?” And the only proper response is continual wonder. Jaques is nothing if not wondering. This culture, if there were one, would be the culture of philosophy, if there was any.


  1. Aristotle, for example, argues that the catharsis resulting from sacred songs is different depending on the character of the worshipper, but that some kind of catharsis occurs in all hearers (Politics 1342a5-16). Just above that he mentioned three kinds of benefit available from music (the kinds of benefit depending on the capacity of the audience) at 1341b33-40. He leaves the question of tragedy's effect “in the theatre” as “another discourse” in Poetics 1449a8. In an article from Renaissance Drama (New Series) 2 (1969): 3-22, O. B. Hardison outlined “Three Types of Renaissance Catharsis” as “moral, religious, and literal.” He does not mention their differences as relative to the character of the audience.

  2. Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton Univesity Press, 1957), p. 167.

  3. This is probably too simplistic even for Plato, who died, so they say, with a copy of Aristophanes under his pillow.

  4. For many more details on the social import of the enmities played out in As You Like It, see Louis A Montrose, “The Place of a Brother in As You Like It: Social process and comic form,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981): 40-54.

  5. Montrose uses this phrase (p. 54), but seems to have in mind a rather sanguine physiological account (facilitating pacification and escape), or a bootstrapping economic one “fostering strength and perseverance” in one's effort to achieve, as Orlando does, what birth denies (p. 53). But those younger brothers (and Montrose mentions some) who can bootstrap out of their oppressed condition in Elizabethan society (or any other) are few, and far between, and very, very lucky.

  6. Which komos is “the sensible rendering of the moral idea” of the community of mankind (Critique of Judgement, translated by James Creed Meredith, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), to foreshadow a point I will pick up later.

  7. See Robert B. Bennet, “Reform of a Malcontent: Jaques and the meaning of As You Like It,Shakespeare Studies (1976): 201f.

  8. Even 276 channels might not be enough. The culminating point of this type of culture, “where devotion to what is superfluous begins to be prejudicial to what is indispensable, is called luxury” (Kant, p. 432).

  9. See Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, translated by W. D. Robson-Scott (Garden City: Doubleday, 1964). Chapter two defines art as a substitutive satisfaction.

  10. I should add that I do not mean to suggest by this that the catharsis signified by Touchstone is not a catharsis, nor would I deny that the other kinds of catharsis—those symbolized by the lovers and Jaques—are also physiological. As that poor mild virgin, Emily Dickinson, said, “When I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know this is poetry” (quoted by Frye, Anatomy, p. 27).

  11. Lest some ill-humored reader embed me in a context I do not wish to be bedded in, let me say that what I mean by T and A is just Touchstone and Audrey.

  12. See, for example Augustine's little treatise, De quantitate animae, J. P. Migne (Patroligia Latina, vol. 32, Paris: 1845) cols. 1035-1049.

  13. That one can make such judgments on art is as old as political philosophy, though neither Plato nor Aristotle would say that political judgments are the only ones that can be made of art. Of music Aristotle remarks that there are three plausible purposes for having it in a state: “for the sake of amusement and relaxation, like sleep or drinking, [or]… music conduces to virtue on the ground that it can form our minds and habituate us to true pleasures, … or … it contributes to the enjoyment of leisure and mental cultivation, which is a third alternative” (Politics 1339a16-26).

  14. If any readers begin to feel that they have been climbing up and down a ladder built after a familiar pattern, there is probably something to the thought. For those who are not natural Platonists there is also Aristotle's remark in the Ethics that the three main kinds of life are the life of pleasure, the practical, social life aiming at moral virtue, and the contemplative life (NE 1095b14-1096a5).

  15. See Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1988).

  16. Here we see (despite himself) Nietzsche's cultural debt to Schopenhauer, for he evaporates the principle of individuation. In The Birth of Tragedy (trans. Francis Golffing [New York: Doubleday, 1956]), Nietzsche seems to claim that the principle of individuation is dissolved: “the transport of the Dionysiac state … carries with it a Lethean element in which everything that has been experienced by the individual is drowned” (§7). See also §18 and §21 where he calls the Apollonian charm of art “illusory,” “mere appearance” cast upon the darkness, and “the work of Maya.”

  17. Aristotle speaks of this culture when he says the bodily pleasures “are pursued because of their violence by those who cannot enjoy other pleasures, … for they have nothing else to enjoy, and, besides, a neutral state is painful to many people because of their nature. … Similarly, the youthful, … or people of an excitable nature always need relief” (NE 1154b3-12). In Politics he calls this culture the culture of natural slaves, as in Ethics he had said that a constitution that does not aim at virtue is a failure.

  18. In less liberated days a critic would say that “spectators are of two kinds—the one free and educated, and the other a vulgar crowd …[and] their music will correspond to their minds; for as their minds are perverted from their natural state, so there are perverted modes and highly strung and unnaturally colored melodies” etc. (Politics 1342a18-25). These days we know that the difference between cultures is mere difference, and no judgments about whole cultures being vulgar are allowed.

  19. Lest some lamb think I am here straying from the folds of Shakespeare's play, recall the interesting discussion between Corin and Touchstone on the differences between the hand-kissing court and the more rural rubbing of sheep (III.2.11-79).

Catherine Brown Tkacz (essay date 1992)

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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 other, fatally, makes one. Each abuses his understanding: Claudius knows his sin yet does not repent, while Hamlet scorns the mere justice of a death for a death in a vicious desire to damn his uncle.

Shakespeare has prepared us for the intense and fatal ironies of the so-called prayer scene (in which no one prays) from the start of the play, through his exploration of kingship and duty. Richer preparation lies in dramatic and verbal parallels that could be effectively exploited in production through delivery and staging: the overlooked parallels between, and later echoes of, speeches on the wheel of Fortune and the wheel of state. Similarly, the Player's “passionate” speech, which Hamlet “chiefly loved,” hideously adumbrates the Prince's role in the deaths of father, mother, daughter, son (cf. 2.2.427-29).2 The description of Pyrrhus in that speech unexpectedly prepares for the fatal “standing in pause” of both Hamlet and Claudius in the prayer scene and marks the hesitation of all three—Pyrrhus, Hamlet, and Claudius—as the prelude to slaughter. The first of the important wheel images, in the wheel of state speech, warns of the dire outcome of a “cess of majesty”; the last surviving members of Denmark's royal house—Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude—variously exhibit such a “cess of majesty,” and this failure in the royal house allows all that is rotten in Denmark. Shakespeare's emphasis is on the usurping and wronged kings, Claudius and Hamlet, and accordingly he makes the clearest evidence of their “cess of majesty,” the prayer scene, the moral center of the drama.

The decisive moment of the prayer scene follows extensive treatment of kingship and duty, beginning in act 1 and including Laertes's advice to Ophelia. The play's opening scene introduces a focus “on the throne, not on the kings as individuals,” as Nancy M. Lee-Riff has shown (103-04). Claudius is referred to as “the King” and “the Dane”; only once is the late king named, after five other references to him as king. Similarly, “young Hamlet” is named only at the scene's close (1.1.170). Thus the notion of majesty is stressed. At the same time, the idea of duty is introduced. Clearly the guards and Horatio act from a sense of duty; the first scene concludes with Horatio explicitly saying that to inform Hamlet is proper, “fitting our duty” (1.1.173; see also 1.2.222). Six times in the following scene the term “duty” recurs, always in lines referring to a subject's duty to his king or prince. In contrast, throughout the entire tragedy, no member of Denmark's royal family ever speaks of his duty to the state. This omission is symptomatic of their abdication of that responsibility. Shakespeare leaves it to Polonius to link “majesty” and “duty,” and Laertes alone speaks clearly of that responsibility.

Polonius vapidly alludes to “what majesty should be, what duty is” when he confers with Claudius and Gertrude about Hamlet's “madness” (2.2.87). The counselor's words are empty ornament, as far as their overt context is concerned. But Polonius functions in part as the unwitting fool of the play. Like all of Shakespeare's fools, he speaks many lines that carry unsuspected meaning. (Unlike other, perceptive fools, Polonius does not recognize this meaning.) There is vivid irony in his mentioning the subject of majesty and duty to the incestuous royal couple and especially to the murderer-king Claudius. Moreover, the difference in predicates (“what majesty should be, what duty is”) points to the possibility that royal persons may fail to honor their obligations to the state.

And, indeed, what is rotten in Denmark is that those in the royal family, who ought to act according to both the ordinary duties of all Christians and also the duties specific to their majesty, do not. Claudius's betrayal of duty is deadly to those who do their duty to him: Laertes (1.2.53-54), Polonius (2.2.44), and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (2.2.29,3.2.322). Further, it is poignant and ironic that those subjects who do understand kingly duty—Laertes, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—die because their ruler fails them.

After the first scene's quiet stress on kingship, and the recurrence of “duty” in the second scene, the third scene brings a clear statement of a king's duty, in Laertes's advice to his sister concerning the prince:

His greatness weighed, his will is not his own,
For he himself is subject to his birth.
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state,
And therefore must his choice be circumscribed
Unto the voice and yielding of that body
Whereof he is the head.


Here is a clear indication of “what majesty should be,” directly linked to the prince's choosing to act to secure and maintain the welfare of Denmark (see also Lee-Riff 108). The themes of kingship and duty are continued throughout the play, with an additional statement of the importance of majesty delivered by Rosencrantz just before the prayer scene to ensure that the audience can have this firmly in mind during the crucial scene in the chapel. Rosencrantz's words present the image of the wheel of state, itself a detailed echo of the earlier image of the wheel of Fortune.

Shakespeare has carefully constructed the scenes in which the wheel images occur so that they are themselves richly parallel: in each, a speaker uses a wheel image when speaking to an audience composed of one of two royal Danes, each of whom is planning a stratagem to rid himself of the other and each of whom intends to use the current speaker in that stratagem. Significantly, both king and prince alike are violating the duties that belong to their majesty, and from this violation comes the identity of the wheel of state with the wheel of Fortune.

The first wheel image is in the Player's “passionate” speech, recited at Hamlet's request:

Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod take away her power,
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven
As low as to the fiends.


Later, immediately before the prayer scene, Rosencrantz addresses Claudius and speaks of the wheel of state, unwittingly echoing the terms of the image of the wheel of Fortune.

The cess of majesty
Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw
What's near it with it. It is a massy wheel
Fixed on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortised and adjoined, which when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boist’rous ruin.


Clearly the image is the same: a “wheel” on “the summit of the highest mount” in one case, on “the hill of heaven” in the other, from which the “spokes” are broken so that the “round nave” alone “falls” or is “bowl[ed] … down” to a “boist’rous ruin,” or “as low as to the fiends.”3

The direct referents of Rosencrantz's speech are clear: the audience knows that the murder of King Hamlet has rocked the still-uncertain security of Denmark; Claudius has taught Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to fear that the “mad” prince may kill the current king, himself (3.3.1-15). While “cess of majesty” can mean “death of a king,” it can also refer to the end of behaving royally, the cessation of majesty in character in those of the royal house. And, indeed, Prince Hamlet is ceasing to act as he knows a man of bounty, honor, and dignity should (2.2.498-501), with the sad result that many “lesser things,” including that “small annexment” Ophelia, are also soon to be destroyed. King Claudius, who was brother to a king, has declined from duty to murder and incest and will murder again. Gertrude is also “a criminal,” for she “has committed incest” (Wilson 39; cf. Campbell 145-46). That is, two of the three surviving members of the royal house of Denmark have already experienced a “cess of majesty,” and Hamlet, too, in the prayer scene, will cease to be majestic in character. Their dereliction results in the subjoining of the wheel of state to the wheel of Fortune. Ultimately this cess of majesty in character leads to cess of majesty through physical death, the sense Rosencrantz spoke of, when the last members of the royal house of Denmark all die in the play's final scene.

While the falling wheel is the key image here, downward movement in general functions as a minor motif in the play. The first such movement is in Horatio's warning to Hamlet about the Ghost, lest it tempt the prince “to the dreadful summit of the cliff / That beetles o’er his base into the sea” (1.4.70-71).4 The wheel of Fortune bowling down to the fiends comes next, in 2.2, followed shortly by Ophelia's lament, “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! … quite, quite down!” (3.1.146, 150). The “boist’rous ruin” of the wheel of state is described in 3.3. Next, as will be shown, downward movement is emphasized in the crucial prayer scene. In the closet scene there are two more references to downward movement. The first recalls the wheel's descent, for Hamlet storms against his mother for descending from that “heaven-kissing hill,” the “fair mountain” of his father, to the “moor” of Claudius (3.4.60, 3.4.67-68). (As the Ghost tells Hamlet, “O Hamlet, what a falling off was there, / From me … and to decline / Upon a wretch” [1.5.47-51]. This is precisely the Queen's descent, her personal “cess of majesty.”) Again, even in Hamlet's inverted advice to his stunned mother at the end of the closet scene, he uses a story of “the famous ape” who leaps from a housetop “down” (3.4.197-200). After this series of fatal descents, the lines of the grief-distracted Ophelia resonate poignantly: “You must sing ‘A-down, a-down, and you call him a-down-a.’ O, how the wheel becomes it!” (4.5.168-69).5

Having seen Shakespeare's elaboration of the wheel imagery, let us return to the passage in which he introduces it, the Player's speech. For, in addition to the powerful image of the wheel of Fortune, that passage contains the evocative description of Pyrrhus, and it too is relevant to the prayer scene. The Player's speech has been much discussed by scholars, including Arthur Johnston, Harry Levin, and Joseph Westlund; Eric Rasmussen has recently treated the parallels between Hamlet and Pyrrhus. In ways that have not been discussed before, the circumstances and actions of Pyrrhus foreshadow the behavior of both Hamlet and Claudius in the prayer scene. Furthermore, Pyrrhus's actions forecast Hamlet's actions in two additional ways: in detail they forecast the rest of act 3, and, broadly, the rest of the play.

As scholars have noted, Hamlet and Pyrrhus both appear black and are bent on avenging the deaths of their fathers. Presumably Hamlet, who speaks of Pyrrhus, whose “sable arms” “did the night resemble” (2.2.423-24), is in his habitual “nighted color” (1.2.68), one of his “customary suits of solemn black” (1.2.78; cf. 3.2.117-18), so that the audience quite literally sees the first parallel between the two. Hamlet strengthens the association of himself with Pyrrhus by movingly reciting the appalling description of “hellish Pyrrhus” (2.2.423-35).

The account of Pyrrhus begins with a recollection of his concealment in the Trojan horse (2.2.423-25). Seeking the king he desires to kill for vengeance, he slaughters “fathers, mothers, daughters, sons” along the way (2.2.429) so that he is “o’ersizéd with coagulate gore” (2.2.433). At last he finds his desired victim, the father of the killer of his father: too passionate, Pyrrhus “in rage strikes wide” and misses the old man, but the wind of his sword knocks the king down (2.2.442-45). Pyrrhus's sword then “seemed i’ th’ air to stick” (2.2.450) and the avenger “stood / And like a neutral to his will and matter, / Did nothing” (2.2.451-53; the last is a truncated line). A five-line image of a gathering storm follows, building tension for what ensues: Pyrrhus's frenzied hacking of Priam. The five-line reference to Fortune's wheel concludes this section of the speech.

An overlooked similarity between Pyrrhus and Hamlet involves action just before the prayer scene. The two characters are alike in that each uses a deceptive, disarming strategy to bring him toward revenge of a father's murder, a murder associated with a lust that devastates a nation. Specifically, the mousetrap is a stratagem like the Trojan horse: it allows the avenger to get inside his opponent's guard. For Pyrrhus, this is true literally, for in “th’ ominous horse” (2.2.425) he passes the walls of Troy unharmed. For Hamlet, it is true psychologically, for the “Mouse-trap” (3.2.220) lets the prince observe Claudius when his guard is down and his appalled response to seeing his own crime enacted before him convinces Hamlet and Horatio of the king's guilt.

The striking parallels between Pyrrhus and both Hamlet and Claudius begin in the prayer scene itself. Just as Pyrrhus stands, sword drawn, over the king associated with his father's murder, so too Hamlet stands over the kneeling Claudius. Both avengers hesitate; the emphasis on Pyrrhus's hesitation and the butchery that follows is mirrored in the focus on Hamlet's hesitation in the prayer scene, which allows all the deaths that ensue. Taken differently, the Player's speech also adumbrates the events of acts 3 and 4 as a whole. Only after Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius do the deaths of the prince's mother, the father of Ophelia and Laertes, and the daughter and son of Polonius—as well as those of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—follow. When at last Hamlet does kill Claudius, the prince's vengeance is thus retained with superfluous death. This double adumbration of action points to the importance of Hamlet's hesitation in the prayer scene.

But Hamlet is not the only one who hesitates in the prayer scene: Claudius delays repentance, in terms strikingly reminiscent of the hesitation of Pyrrhus. The false king painfully realizes:

My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first
And both neglect.

(3.3.40-43; italics mine)

Here we see an unexpected parallel to Pyrrhus, who also “stood” in “pause” (2.2.451, 458). In addition, the truncated line from the Player's speech, “Did nothing,” is here matched by the short “And both neglect.” The short line stresses both Claudius's hesitation and also the seriousness of this neglect. Another vivid parallel follows. Pyrrhus was “o’ersizéd” with the blood of victims identified by their family relationships; Claudius asks himself, “What if this curséd hand / Were thicker than itself with brother's blood?” (3.3.43-44). Shakespeare sets up Pyrrhus as a foil to both Hamlet and Claudius, and, in order to heighten the irony of the prayer scene and to demonstrate the failings of both characters, echoes the imagery of the Player's speech in Claudius's fruitless meditation.

Unexpectedly, and most ironically, these two kinsmen who will at last kill each other are here fatally alike. Both neglect duty and the possibility of prayer for a vicious hope. Claudius fails to pray and repent because he wrongly loves power and his incestuous union with Gertrude; Hamlet fails to be satisfied by justice because he wrongly hopes to insure his uncle's damnation. The similarities between the two are pointed up by the verbal and descriptive parallels linking each of the two royal characters with Pyrrhus as described in the Player's speech.

Significantly, although Hamlet considers only two possible courses of action in this scene, he is not limited to them. He considers killing the king at once, apparently without warning, or else killing him when he is engaged in a sinful act or asleep so that he might be damned (cf. Phillips, who believes Hamlet sees and takes a different, “subtle” revenge). Waldock considers the first “a repulsive chance [for revenge]. … We shrink from his accepting it. We could not help thinking less of him if he did accept it” (42). Hamlet, however, could make different use of his present chance: for instance, he could call Claudius from the chapel, declare why he is going to slay him, and then kill him face to face—no sneaking up behind a praying man, no stabbing in the back.6 This article cannot explore all of Hamlet's possible courses of action, but it is clear that Hamlet's speech presents a false dichotomy.

Hamlet's decision in this key scene to seek the king's damnation repels many scholars, and scholarship has been divided on whether to accept or rationalize it. Waldock examines the speech thoroughly and convincingly, concluding that Hamlet means simply what he says, horrible as it is (37-49). Other critics find it repugnant to take literally the prince's decision to kill Claudius

When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed,
At game a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t—
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damned and black
As hell, whereto it goes.


Peter Alexander manages to praise Hamlet for refraining “from stabbing a villain in the back,” but only by ignoring all that Hamlet says (144-45). Wilson is among those scholars who decide that Hamlet is unconsciously cloaking his natural mercy in hideous terms (244). As Bernice W. Kliman has shown, Sir Laurence Olivier, in his famous film of the play, prominently displays an image of Christ in the chapel to associate Hamlet's refraining with God's will (159-64). In contrast, Geoffrey Hughes, analyzing the play as “The Tragedy of a Revenger's Loss of Conscience,” rightly construes Hamlet's words in the prayer scene as showing “blasphemous arrogance” as he takes God's role as avenger (400). This is not passive inaction, but a vicious decision to try to damn Claudius (see also Claderwood 88-90).7

It is primarily the new viciousness of Hamlet here that makes this scene the moral center of the play. Hitherto he has shown himself passionate, but still concerned with bounty. Now he chooses vice: as Campbell has asserted, “More than all others did the passion of revenge lead to tragedy” (24; see also 144-45). In act 1, Hamlet knows merely that something is rotten in Denmark; in that act's concluding scene and all of act 2, he is largely convinced of Claudius's guilt while Claudius suspects that Hamlet is dangerous; but by the end of 3.2, Hamlet knows his uncle is guilty and Claudius knows his nephew has discovered the crime. Now both the actions and inward responses of Claudius and Hamlet to this knowledge are crucial to the fate of Denmark.

Accordingly Shakespeare shows us both the chosen courses of action and the thoughts of each man. In the case of Claudius, only the prayer scene provides a full and developed exposition of his inward state, as the fratricide-king considers in agony the possibility of repentance but does not repent (3.3.36-72). In short, Claudius does not change: guilty of serious sin from before the start of the play, he now neglects to repent and continues to suffer the guilt of his murder while yet clinging to “my crown, mine own ambition, and my queen” (3.3.55; see also Ashley 86-87). The mousetrap has shaken him deeply, but he derives no good from the experience and refuses to amend. We have not expected Claudius to repent, and when he leaves the chapel, we know he will not. The cess of majesty is now complete in him, and also completely demonstrated.

Hamlet, however, changes: even as Claudius, kneeling, speaks of prayer's ability to forestall us before we sin, Hamlet falls into serious sin. Immediately following Claudius's failure to pray and to repent, Shakespeare shows us Hamlet's failure to pray and to behave as a king should, in accordance with his own bounty. This scene, carefully prepared for, stirs many chords: as both men “stand in pause,” we know the aftermath will be dire. Aptly, the imagery of descent recurs in Claudius's lines: “And what's in prayer but this twofold force, / To be forestalléd ere we come to fall, / Or pardoned being down?” (3.3.48-50). Ironically, he points to the two uses of prayer that prince and king should then be using, for Hamlet should avoid falling and Claudius is already down. One is to become, the other is, the killer of a kinsman and a king. Yet neither character repents, seeks or shows mercy, or even honestly prays. The one who is already fallen remains down, and now the other, his descent not forestalled by prayer, falls. There is a “cess of majesty” in both men, a dereliction of “what majesty should be.” Because of their political responsibilities, the king and the prince, by their falling, inevitably subject the wheel of state to the wheel of Fortune, so that Denmark will fall with them.

Put another way, the prayer scene is that fatal, stressed hesitation which precedes all the violent deaths of the play. We expect action after the mousetrap, but the play is like Pyrrhus's first swing of the sword at Priam: without touching the king, its wind knocks him down. So, too, Claudius is knocked to his knees in the chapel by his turbulent feelings in response to Hamlet's masterstroke, the mousetrap. Shakespeare focuses here on the two surviving men of the royal house, juxtaposing them in self-revealing soliloquy. Because of the choice each makes at this crucial point, seven unnecessary deaths will follow. And this tragedy's many deaths are indeed important. Fascination with Hamlet's psychological state has sometimes obscured the significance of the deaths in the play, but dramatically they loom large. Their importance to the popular audience is shown in, for instance, the play's most terse and light-hearted synopsis, blithely sung in the MGM musical The Bandwagon when Fred Astaire and company cite, as an example of entertainment, the play in which “the Ghost and the Prince meet, / and everyone ends up mincemeat.” Characters do not start dying in 2.1, though, right after the Ghost and Hamlet first meet. Rather, the deaths begin in the last scene of act 3, immediately after the play's central ironic moment, the prayer scene.

The first human “lesser thing” to be destroyed as the wheel of state falls is Polonius. Gertrude calls his killing “a rash and bloody deed” (3.4.28). Some would excuse the killing, as Coleridge does: “Polonius's volunteer intrusion of himself into this business, while it is appropriate to his character, still letching after former importance, removes all likelihood that Hamlet should suspect his presence, and prevents us from making his death injure Hamlet in our opinion” (161). Nonetheless, though Gertrude tells Claudius that Hamlet weeps over Polonius's death (4.1.27), the prince shows scant remorse and roundly insults his corpse, calling it “the guts” (4.1.216) and referring to it as safely “stowed” (4.2.1). As Hamlet delivers these insults to his mother and when he is alone, they cannot be part of his assumed antic disposition. This is Hamlet speaking as Hamlet, and he is callous. Although Hamlet says to his mother, “For this same lord / I do repent” (3.4.176-77), he rushes on into rationalization, the import of which is to deny his responsibility in the killing of an innocent man. For Polonius is innocent: his spying on the prince is officious, yes, and shows fatuous self-importance, but is after all undertaken for the security of the realm.

Rosencrantz and Guidenstern are next, although the audience learns only later of Hamlet's conniving at their deaths (5.2.31-56). What excuse can Hamlet have for condemning his “excellent good friends” (2.2.220) to death, with no opportunity for confession first? They have been “brought up with him” (2.2.11) and remain friends, as Gertrude verifies (2.2.19-21) and as Hamlet himself indicates (2.2.274-76). Shakespeare never shows them as other than concerned for the health of their apparently mad friend and prince, Hamlet, and justly obedient to the king, Claudius (cf. Sahel 104). Though Hamlet believes they are in league with his traitorous uncle, he is tragically and culpably mistaken. He tests the Ghost's testimony by the mousetrap but never doubts his own hasty condemnation of his longtime friends. Further, the prince's request that the two be slain without a chance to make their peace with God is “horrible! most horrible!” (cf. 1.5.76-80). Far from repenting of his rash and cruel sentencing of them and the vicious manner in which he ordered it to be carried out, he declares to the amazed Horatio, “They are not near my conscience” (5.2.58) and delights in what Hughes properly deems their “gratuitous murder” (402).

So, too, his reaction to Ophelia's death shows him wanting. Never in the play has he shown sympathy for the woman he claims to love. Moreover, when Hamlet discovers that she is dead, he offends and attacks her mourning brother, who has returned to Denmark to bury his father, dead at Hamlet's hands. The prince's puerile excuse for fighting Laertes is that “the bravery of his grief did put me / Into a tow’ring passion” (5.2.79-80). In this same conversation Hamlet shocks his friend by bragging of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. So far, Hamlet is responsible for four deaths. He strikes the blow that kills Polonius, he orders the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and his cruelty to Ophelia, orphaned at his hands, leads at least indirectly to her drowning (see also Belsey 148).

More deaths, of course, close the play. Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, Hamlet—all die. The royal house of Denmark and the entire family of Polonius are obliterated. Had Claudius been imprisoned after the mousetrap scene, slain in the prayer scene, or in some other way apprehended, every tragic event that occurs during the course of the play would have been avoided: with Claudius imprisoned or dead, Gertrude would have learned forcefully how wrong her remarriage had been and could have been pricked and stung into repentance; Hamlet could not have mistaken Polonius for his uncle, so the old counselor would not have been killed; the occasion for rewriting the dispatch to order the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would not have occurred because Claudius would have written no dispatch; Ophelia would have kept her father, her senses, her life, and quite probably her beloved Hamlet; Laertes would have had no murdered father and no drowned sister to avenge and thus could not have died in seeking vengeance; no chalice would have been poisoned, so the queen would not have died; and, as no foil would have been envenomed, the prince would still live. Seven lives would have continued and Denmark would have once again enjoyed the rule of a King Hamlet.

And yet, despite the prince's tragic failing, Horatio bids him adieu nobly, and this ideal man also exonerates Hamlet of much of the guilt for his rash deeds by calling them “accidental judgments, casual slaughters … and forced cause” (5.2.367-68). In part, this is Horatio's using his dead friend and prince according to Horatio's own bounty. And we welcome this, for the poignancy of Hamlet's own death by treachery rouses our sympathy.8 Horatio's tribute is also, however, the playwright's reminder of how good Hamlet could have been and of the prince's partial return to majestic character in act 5, for in the final act we hear Hamlet frankly express to Horatio sorrow “that to Laertes I forgot myself” (5.2.75-76), and the prince graciously addresses Laertes before their fencing match, “Give me your pardon, sir, I have done you wrong” (5.2.205). Moreover, when dying, Hamlet and Laertes forgive each other, and the prince prays, “Heaven make thee free of [my death]” (5.2.314-17).9 Also in act 5, Hamlet acknowledges (albeit with imperfect understanding) “a divinity that shapes our ends” (5.2.10),10 and with dignity he reminds Horatio, “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (5.2.199-200). From these words and from his dying actions—executing Claudius, preventing Horatio's suicide, and giving his “dying voice” to Fortinbras, thus acting in accord with his duty to restore stability to Denmark—we see that Hamlet's cess of majesty has partly abated, and that, “had he been put on,” he might indeed have proved most royal (5.2.383-84).

The relationship between the prince's cruel deeds, which are the passionate sequel to the wicked choice made in the chapel, and his otherwise noble nature is provided by Hamlet's own, well-known words to Horatio in act 1 while they await the coming of the Ghost. Extrapolating from the damage done to Denmark's reputation by the gun and drum salute to the king's drinking, Hamlet continues:

So oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty
(Since nature cannot choose his origin),
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o’er-leavens
The form of plausive manners—that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature's livery or fortune's star,
His virtues else, be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo,
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. The dram of evil
Doth all the noble substance often doubt
To his own scandal.


This passage, of course, is often cited in discussions of Hamlet's fault. Campbell argues convincingly that, in it, Hamlet “moralize[s] the reputation which his countrymen have for being drunkards into the statement of the theory [of venial and mortal sin] that is, I believe, at the basis of Shakespearean tragedy” (120). Similarly, Wilson asserts that this speech comes as close as possible to “Shakespeare's own judgment upon Hamlet” (207). Sir Laurence Olivier, drawing upon Wilson, used the speech in its proper place and also as the play's prologue (Kliman 161). On the other hand, Andrews, following Alexander, holds that Hamlet's sole intention in this speech is to express concern with reputation and that therefore deriving any more general or serious meaning from the passage is inappropriate (“Stamp” 217). Yet this view neglects the need to distinguish between the character and the playwright, who is certainly free to let his characters speak lines that have a broader meaning than the character can apprehend.

The details and structure of the “defect” speech cue the audience to its aptness for Hamlet, and the content of the speech is distinctly moral. Wilson shows that “noble substance” is a reference to gold (208; cf. Grubb 188-203), clearly a princely substance. When Gertrude later likens Hamlet's madness to a pure mineral (4.1.24-27), Shakespeare lightly recapitulates the association of Hamlet with “noble substances.” In the shift from the plural (1.4.23-30) to singular (1.4.31-38), Wilson continues, we see that “Hamlet is thinking of himself, or rather Shakespeare is asking us to think of him; and though at this stage of the play we do not see the point, the magician is plying us with suggestion” (207). Further, the magician shortly afterwards deftly recalls that suggestion in the rhetorical meanderings of Polonius about the cause of the “effect defective” in Hamlet's behavior (2.2.100-03).

One modern critical tendency is to deem a character's flaws justified if they are understandable. Such is evident in, for instance, Arthur Kirsch's defense of Hamlet on modern psychological grounds. Similarly, Andrews seems to move from the observation that the play's climax is dramatically satisfying to the notion that the audience must therefore approve of Hamlet's conduct (“Satisfactions”). Walley has shown, however, that “both Elizabethan tragedy and tragical theory are essentially moral” (797), and certainly it would be patronizing to think that the Elizabethan audience, because it had been stirred to sympathize with the dying prince, could neither then nor later assess his failings as well (see also Prosser 35).

The very structure of the “stamp of one defect” speech argues for the importance to the play of its general meaning, regardless of whether Hamlet is aware of that meaning (although I think he is). Andrews would limit the meaning of the speech to a concern about the judgment, often ill-founded, that others make of us. Shakespeare's trio of examples here, however, progress from the morally neutral to the clearly wrong. First, men may be flawed by an aspect of “nature,” such as “their birth, wherein they are not guilty” (italics mine); next Hamlet mentions the “o’ergrowth of some complexion,” a condition produced by the interaction of nature and behavior; he concludes with “some habit,” that is a pattern of behavior for which one is morally responsible. By noting that one is not guilty in one's birth, Shakespeare subtly reminds us that one is culpable for bad habits, because they are subject to the will. He has Hamlet return to this topic in the closet scene. The prince urges his mother, “Assume a virtue, if you have it not” (3.4.164). He then describes the psychology of developing a habit: the new choice, once made, lends “a kind of easiness” to repeating it the first time (3.4.170) and makes “the next more easy; / For use can almost change the stamp of nature” (3.4.171-72). Hamlet's understanding here is entirely consonant with his “stamp of one defect” speech and shows patently that he takes these ideas seriously.

Whether we assume that the complexion of melancholy occasioned by Hamlet's mourning breaks “down the pales and forts of [his] reason” and causes him to become too passionate and therefore subject to Fortune, as for instance Campbell argues (109-14), or, with Walley (797), view the prince's melancholy as itself an excess of passion caused by “some habit” of indulging his emotions too freely (which seems indicated by the nature of the speech he “chiefly love[s]” and has memorized), we are guided by Shakespeare in this passage to attribute Hamlet's vicious choice in the chapel and his wrongdoings to “the stamp of one defect.” We are free, therefore, to condemn those actions of Hamlet that put him in apposition to “the hellish Pyrrhus,” and also to view the prince's decline as a tragic lesson that even “nature's livery or fortune's star” may be undone by subjection to Fortune, when the wheel turns (see also Feibleman 150). What we are not free to do is to overlook the strength of the concluding image in this speech and thus deny that Hamlet has imbibed, to his own scandal, a tainting “dram” (cf. Wilson 224).

For the focus of the play is of course on the tragic prince. Claudius's role is, as this study has indicated, more important than is often recognized, and the juxtaposition of the two kinsmen in the quiet chapel reveals Claudius's wrongs most fully and shows Hamlet's as they become full blown. Here each of the two kinsmen unwittingly mimics Pyrrhus's fateful pause, for Claudius “stand[s] in pause” and fails to pray, and Hamlet stays his blow, deciding to seek his uncle's damnation. Here, at the center of the play, Hamlet's subjection to Fortune shows itself most crucially; by being passion's slave, he subjects the wheel of state to the wheel of Fortune. How ironic that the sight of a kneeling man, apparently at prayer and repenting, does not rouse Hamlet's noble heart to use the traitor after Hamlet's own worth; after all, “The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty” (2.2.500-01). Instead, passionately cruel now, the prince determines to damn his uncle if he can, and from that “specific dereliction of duty” (Stoll 22), that one vicious choice, come all the tragic deaths of the play. On that decision, that focal point of moral choice, the broken wheel of state turns irrevocably from its mount and falls down and down until all the royal house of Denmark die.


  1. Different scenes in act 3 of Hamlet have been interpreted as the crux of the play. Some critics see the decisive dramatic moment as the instant when the prince achieves necessary knowledge about his father's murder; J. Dover Wilson has argued that the mousetrap scene in 3.2 has proven to Hamlet that his uncle is guilty and revealed to Claudius that Hamlet suspects him. Now Hamlet “must act, or Claudius will act first” (201). Focusing again on knowledge, Pearl Hogrefe argues that the closet scene of 3.4 convinces Hamlet of his mother's innocence in his father's murder and thus frees him to concentrate on revenge against Claudius (192; cf. Walley 797). More important to the subsequent action of the play than the gaining of knowledge, however, are the moral choices made on the basis of that knowledge. (All quotations from the play in this article are from the Norton critical edition of Hamlet edited by Cyrus Hoy.)

  2. Vocal delivery and staging could readily serve to link, tonally and visually, speeches Shakespeare composed with parallels. For instance, descending pitch and similarities in the speaker's stance and gesture and in his staged relationship to the other actor in the scene could subtly reinforce similarities among speeches using the imagery of descent. Thus the Player might dramatically sweep his arm and voice downward while calling for the destruction of Fortune's wheel, and later Rosencrantz might woodenly sketch the same gesture; Ophelia's “quite, quite down” might descend in thirds, and so on, the actors thus appropriately dramatizing Shakespeare's verbal parallels by tone and gesture. Similarly, the Player's speech describing rugged Pyrrhus and Fortune's wheel (2.2.423-68) might be amply echoed in the prayer scene: for example, a splay-fingered gesture indicating Pyrrhus's being “o’ersizéd with coagulate gore” (2.2.433) might be recalled by Claudius when he contemplates his hand as if it were “thicker than itself with brother's blood” (3.3.44); the Player might mimic the freezing of Pyrrhus's sword, which “seemed i’ th’ air to stick” (2.2.450), and later Hamlet might use the same gesture when he moves to strike Claudius, but stops (3.3.74).

  3. An additional nuance to the parallelism of these wheel images lies in the source for the first one. The distinctive vocabulary of the image in the Player's speech is drawn, A. B. Taylor argues, from Arthur Golding's translation of Metamorphoses (1567). The pertinent passage in Ovid's work describes Phaeton's fall in his father's chariot. Hamlet, in taking upon himself the divine prerogative of vengeance, is like Phaeton in presuming to drive the god Apollo's car; the prince, by his actions, subjects the wheel of state to the wheel of Fortune, and, in the resulting ruin, he, like Phaeton, is also destroyed.

  4. Prosser (esp. part 2) and Russell (66-73) have independently adduced creditable evidence for interpreting the Ghost as demonic; they argue that the “Ghost” uses the truth of Claudius's guilt to deceive the prince into accepting the demon as his father's spirit and therefore obeying it; Ashley (88), however, differs from Prosser and Russell in ascribing to Shakespeare a pessimistic world view (91). If the Ghost is a demon, then Shakespeare has most fittingly introduced the imagery of descent in Horatio's warning, for the Ghost will tempt Hamlet to a fatal fall—not the merely physical one his friend fears, but a moral one.

  5. Andrews (“Shakespeare's Hamlet”) finds Ophelia's words here “wonderfully apposite” in their blending of references to love and death. Through Shakespeare's punning use of “wheel” and “down” to continue the theme of the descent of the wheel of Fortune / state, he makes them startlingly apposite to the larger action of the play as well.

  6. In addition to recognizing that Hamlet could take such direct action during the prayer scene itself, we may also ask why the prince does not use more effectively the loyalty of the guards Marcellus and Bernardo, of Horatio, and of the “multitude” who love him so much that Claudius will fear to “put the strong law on [Hamlet]” even after the prince slays Polonius (4.3.3-4). Why does Hamlet not have some of these loyal men at or near the mousetrap so that he might regally and openly accuse Claudius of his guilt when Claudius is “marvellous distempered” (3.2.279) and might speak unguardedly, demonstrating his guilt to others?

  7. A recent analysis praising Hamlet in the prayer scene requires a separate response because it seems to follow a new approach. Actually, like Alexander's treatment of the scene, it requires the writer to ignore Hamlet's own words. Gene Edward Veith, Jr., compares Hamlet's refusal to kill Claudius in the prayer scene to the biblical David's decision not to kill the sleeping Saul. Veith asserts that each young man rightly abstains from killing “the Lord's anointed,” preferring to leave just retribution to God. Certainly this is true of the biblical figure, but Hamlet is quite a different case. First, the play offers no evidence that the Danish prince ever considers his uncle “the Lord's anointed”; quite the contrary, he calls him “Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” (2.2.546-47), and in the prayer scene itself, he flatly terms him “villain” (76). More important, Hamlet does not decide not to kill the king; he explicitly decides to kill him when he can be sure of damning him. This is no scruple against king-killing, but a vicious desire to go beyond human justice and to seek eternal as well as temporal punishment. In short, Hughes is precisely correct. Pursuing Veith's comparison, one should note that in the biblical account, when later a servant reports having killed Saul, David has the king-killer executed (2 Sam. 1:1-16). In contrast, Hamlet himself does kill Claudius, exclaiming, “Here, thou incestuous, murd’rous, damned Dane” (5.2.310). Completely opposite to Veith's thesis is that of Ashley, who holds that Hamlet becomes “devilish” (88) in the prayer scene.

  8. Some also see his end as a death in return for deaths. Bowers, for instance, finds the prince to be like Samson, “never wholly cast off for his tragic fault and in the end … honored by fulfilling divine plan in expiatory death” (749).

  9. Note, though, that Laertes, not Hamlet, initiated this exchange of forgiveness; indeed, Calderwood views the dying prince more severly than I and credits him with making only a “gesture of apology to Laertes” (43). Even taken as a true apology, however, this dying generosity is followed by a reminder, via the words of an ambassador from England, that Hamlet has arranged the deaths of his school fellows, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Horatio at once clears Claudius of their deaths, and the audience is thus reminded that Hamlet condemned the two.

  10. Because Hamlet, who arrogantly presumes to damn his uncle in 3.3, acknowledges “a divinity that shapes our ends” in 5.2.10, many scholars, including Bowers and Calderwood (90), see him as significantly restored in character. Yet the prince's view of divinity is skewed and self-serving: though he justly ascribes to providence his discovery of the mandate ordering his death (5.2.13-24), he also declares “heaven ordinant” in his substituting a mandate ordering the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (5.2.29-55), a substitution that appalls Horatio. And when Hamlet asks his friend to approve his actions, past and intended, note well that Horatio instead changes the subject (5.2.63-72).

Works Cited

Alexander, Peter. Hamlet: Father and Son. Oxford: Clarendon, 1955.

Andrews, Michael Cameron. “Hamlet and the Satisfactions of Revenge.” Hamlet Studies 3 (1981): 83-102.

———. “Shakespeare's Hamlet.Explicator 49 (1991): 208-09.

———. “The Stamp of One Defect.” Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 217-18.

Ashley, Leonard R. N. “‘Now Might I Doe It Pat’: Hamlet and the Despicable Non-Act in the Third Act.” Hamlet Studies 13 (1991): 85-91.

Belsey, Catherine. “The Case of Hamlet's Conscience.” Studies in Philology 76 (1979): 127-48.

Bowers, Fredson T. “Hamlet as Minister and Scourge.” PMLA 70 (1955): 740-49. Rpt. in Bowers, Hamlet as Minister and Scourge and Other Studies in Shakespeare and Milton. Charlotteville: UP of Virginia, 1989.

Calderwood, James L. To Be and Not To Be: Negation and Metadrama in Hamlet. New York: Columbia UP, 1983.

Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion. Cambridge 1930. Rpt. New York: Barnes, 1967.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Notes on the Tragedies. Hamlet.” Rpt. in Shakespeare 156-63.

Feibleman, James. “The Theory of Hamlet.Journal of the History of Ideas 7 (1946): 131-50.

Geckle, George L. Rev. of Hamlet as Minister and Scourge, by Fredson Bowers. South Atlantic Review 56.1 (1991): 100-03.

Grubb, Shirley Carr. “The Scandalous Dream of Eale.” Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985): 188-203.

Hogrefe, Pearl. “Artistic Unity in Hamlet.Studies in Philology 46 (1949): 184-95.

Hughes, Geoffrey. “The Tragedy of a Revenger's Loss of Conscience: A Study of Hamlet.English Studies 57 (1976): 395-409.

Johnston, Arthur. “The Player's Speech in Hamlet.Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 21-30.

Kirsch, Arthur. “Hamlet's Grief.” ELH 48 (1981): 17-36.

Kliman, Bernice W. “The Spiral of Influence: ‘One Defect’ in Hamlet.Literature/Film Quarterly 11 (1983): 159-66.

Lee-Riff, Nancy M. “What Fortinbras and Laertes Tell Us about Hamlet.” Hamlet Studies 3 (1981): 103-09.

Levin, Harry. “An Explication of the Player's Speech.” The Kenyon Review 12 (1950): 273-96.

Phillips, John A. S. “Why Does Hamlet Delay? Hamlet's Subtle Revenge.” Anglia 98 (1980): 34-50.

Prosser, Eleanor. Hamlet and Revenge. 2nd ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1971.

Rasmussen, Eric. “Fathers and Sons in Hamlet.Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 463.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1986.

Sahel, Pierre. “The Cease of Majesty in Hamlet.” Hamlet Studies 1 (1979): 109-16.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. New York: Norton, 1963.

Stoll, Elmer Edgar. Hamlet: An Historical and Comparative Study. 1919. New York: Gordian, 1968.

Taylor, A. B. “The Fellies, Spokes, and Nave of Fortune's Wheel: A Debt to Arthur Golding in Hamlet.” English Language Notes 25 (1987): 18-20.

Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. “‘Wait upon the Lord’: David, Hamlet, and the Problem of Revenge.” The David Myth in Western Literature. Ed. Raymond-Jean Frontain and Jan Wojcik. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue UP, 1980. 70-83.

Waldock, A. J. A. Hamlet: A Study in Critical Method. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1931. New York: AMS, 1973.

Walley, Harold R. “Shakespeare's Conception of Hamlet.” PMLA 48 (1933): 777-98.

Westlund, Joseph. “Ambivalence in The Player's Speech in Hamlet.” SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 18 (1978): 245-56.

Wilson, J. Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. New York: Macmillan, 1935.

Further Reading

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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 a provocative theme on the nature of romance rather than a work of didacticism.

Reibetanz, John. “The Cause of Thunder.” Modern Language Quarterly 46, No. 2 (June 1985): 181-90.

Includes commentary on moral culpability and evil in King Lear.

Rose, Mary Beth. “Moral Conceptions of Sexual Love in Elizabethan Comedy.” Renaissance Drama XV, New Series (1984): 1-29.

Mentions several Shakespearean romantic comedies as part of a wider examination of changing social mores related to marriage and erotic love in Elizabethan England.

Scott, William O. “Macbeth’s—And Our—Self-Equivocations.” Shakespeare Quarterly 37, No. 2 (Summer 1986): 160-74.

Evaluates the stability of truth and falsehood in Macbeth.

Stachniewski, John. “Calvinist Psychology in Macbeth.” Shakespeare Studies XX (1988): 169-89.

Discussess Calvinist overtones in the conception of evil in Macbeth, concluding that whereas Shakespeare's “other tragedies are skeptical of religion; Macbeth's religion is a vehicle of its skepticism.”

Wilks, John S. “The Discourse of Reason: Justice and the Erroneous Conscience in Hamlet.” Shakespeare Studies XVIII (1986): 117-44.

Studies the moral design of Hamlet,placing Hamlet's “conflict of conscience” within the morality play tradition of human virtue confronted by the presence of evil.


Mixing Memory and Desire: Notes for a Psychodynamic Exploration of Shakespeare