William Shakespeare Morality - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)


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.

Lawrence W. Hyman (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Alan C. Dessen (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Harvey Birenbaum (essay date 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8058 words.)

Carol Strongin Tufts (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Barbara Riebling (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5615 words.)

Catherine Brown Tkacz (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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....

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Alice Rayner (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5914 words.)

Gene Fendt (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Mathew Winston (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Lee A. Jacobus (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Michael H. Keefer (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 349 words.)