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Bristol ed - Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Bristol ed - Shakespeare and Moral Agency

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Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Continuum Shakespeare Studies Shakespeare’s Cues and Prompts Murray J. Levith Shakespeare in the Spanish Theatre Keith Gregor

Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Edited by Michael D. Bristol

including photocopying. electronic or mechanical.com © Michael D. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Suite 704 11 York Road New York London SE1 7NX NY 10038 www. Bristol and contributors 2010 All rights reserved. Chennai. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means.The Continuum International Publishing Group Continuum London Continuum New York The Tower Building 80 Maiden Lane.continuumbooks. or any information storage or retrieval system. India Printed and bound in Great Britain by the MPG Books Group . without prior permission in writing from the publishers. Typeset by Newgen Imaging Systems Pvt Ltd. ISBN: 978-0-8264-4676-3 (hardback) Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress. recording.

Knapp 3 Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception in Shakespeare’s Tragedies Keira Travis 4 Excuses. Self-Interpretation. Finin 8 “The oldest hath borne most”: the Burdens of Aging and the Morality of Uselessness in King Lear Naomi Conn Liebler Part III Moral Characters Quoting the Enemy: Character. and History Hugh Grady 2 A Shakespearean Phenomenology of Moral Conviction James A. and Non-being: Shakespearean Puzzles about Agency Richard Strier 1 Part II Social Norms Conduct (Un)becoming or.Contents Notes on Contributors Acknowledgments Introduction: Is Shakespeare a Moral Philosopher? Michael Bristol Part I The Agency of Agents Moral Agency and Its Problems in Julius Caesar : Political Power. Bepissing. Playing the Warrior in Macbeth Sharon O’Dair 6 To “Tempt the Rheumy and Unpurged Air”: Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar Jennifer Feather 7 Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals in Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice Kathryn R. and the Question of Perspective in Shakespeare Mustapha Fahmi vii x 1 15 29 42 55 5 71 86 99 111 9 129 . Choice.

the Blind. and the Jew Tzachi Zamir 11 “Unlucky Deeds” and the Shame of Othello Andrew Escobedo 12 Agency and Repentance in The Winter’s Tale Gregory Currie 13 What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It? Shakespearean Character as Moral Character Sara Coodin Works Cited Index 184 200 211 .vi Contents 142 159 171 10 The Fool.

Dr. and the emotions. Dee. For several years he taught a graduate seminar on Shakespeare and Moral Agency. The Last of the Nightingales (Casablanca. with limited success. Ohio. entitled “Philosophizing Shakespeare” on Shakespeare. His publications include Carnival and Theatre (1986). Her next project will be a study of The Merchant of Venice and the Jewish hermeneutic tradition. both in Arabic. .D. Québec. Spenser. Sara Coodin is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at McGill University. is due to be published by Oxford in 2010. She received her PhD from Brown University in 2006. 1993).Notes on Contributors Michael Bristol is Greenshields Professor Emeritus at McGill University in Montréal. When he has the time. Her work focuses on depictions of violence and understanding of selfhood in early modern literature. 1987) and Poems from the North (Montreal. as well as two poetry collections. before that he taught in Australia and New Zealand. dissertation. he rings the bells at his local church. He is the author of several publications on Shakespeare in English and in French. to become a flâneur. Fahmi is a fanatic of English football with a particular fondness for Manchester United. Andrew Escobedo is Associate Professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies at Ohio University in Athens. He is currently working on the relationship between literature and the environment. Gregory Currie teaches philosophy at the University of Nottingham. Since his retirement he has tried. Shakespeare’s America/America’s Shakespeare (1990). Mustapha Fahmi is Professor of English Literature at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. virtue ethics. Narratives and Narrators: A Philosophy of Stories. Jennifer Feather is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of Nationalism and Historical Loss in Renaissance England: Foxe. His latest book. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics and a past fellow of St John’s College Oxford. and Big-Time Shakespeare (1996). She is completing her Ph. He is currently working on a project about personification as an expression of Renaissance ideas about the will. Milton (2004). articulating an ecocritical reading of Shakespearean comedy based on Heidegger’s later philosophy.

Fascinated with classical and medieval labyrinths since childhood. and Shakespeare: Bottom Lines on the Culture Wars (Michigan 2000). He edited a double special issue of Poetics Today with Jeffrey Pence. Renaissance Forum. or The Reflective Turn. 1995). co-edited with John Drakakis). Her work has been published in various journals. Machiavelli and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet. Critics. Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification. Her current research focuses on “Shakespeare’s Geezers. Finin is Assistant professor of English at the State University of New York at Oneonta where she specializes in Shakespeare and Early Modern English literature. He is the author of Illustrating the Past in Early Modern England: The Representation of History in Printed Books (2003) and articles in the Shakespeare Quarterly. and Criticism. She co-edited The Production of English Renaissance Culture (Cornell 1994) and is author of Class.viii Notes on Contributors Kathryn R. 2002) and Early Modern Prose Fiction: the Cultural Politics of Reading (Routledge. Professor Finin regularly offers various labyrinth walks on campus and in the local community.” his negotiations of old age throughout his dramatic and poetic genres. as well as in a variety of book collections. He is the author of The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in a Material World. Hugh Grady is Professor of English at Arcadia University in Glenside Pennsylvania. . Sharon O’Dair is Professor of English and Director of the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies at the University of Alabama. and two edited essay collections: The Female Tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama (Palgrave. 1998. She received the Distinguished Research Award for her work on English Renaissance Drama from Binghamton University where she earned her doctorate in 1997. Naomi Conn Liebler is Professor of English and University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Her publications include Shakespeare’s Festive Tragedy: the Ritual Foundations of Genre (Routledge. including Renaissance Drama. He is currently completing a book on the relationship between ethics and vision in Shakespeare and Spenser. James A. and Shakespeare. She has also received numerous research grants and a Distinguished Teaching Award from SUNY-Oneonta. entitled: “Between Thing and Theory. She has served as Trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America and as co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Shakespeare. She attended The Woodstock Festival (“Three Days of Peace and Music”) in 1969. He has edited Shakespeare and Modernity for the Accents on Shakespeare series. Tragedy (Longmans Critical Readers Series. ELH.” and served as editor of JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory from 1999 to 2004. and Cahiers Élisabéthains. and is currently working on a book on the connections between Shakespeare’s plays and aesthetic theory. 2007). Knapp is Associate Professor of English and Director of the University Honors College at Eastern Michigan University.

and Shakespeare. He has published Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry. and Ethics and the Beast (2007). and Resistant Structures: Particularity. and has studied acting primarily in the Tel-Aviv based branch of the Jacques Lecoq school of theatre. She holds a PhD from McGill University. His main publications include Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama (2006). Milton.” Keira Travis is currently teaching Shakespeare and seventeenth century literature at St. various essays on Luther. “The Eco-Bard: The Greening of Shakespeare in Contemporary Film. where he’s been his whole career. . which had a top speed of 150 mph. He is currently completing “The Unrepentant Renaissance: from Petrarch to Shakespeare to Milton. and has co-edited a number of volumes on writing and political engagement in the seventeenth century. Her research studies the language of gesture and movement in Shakespeare’s work as the expression of character’s ethical orientation. He has been an active member of acting companies since 2004. and in the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.” She recently sold her Porsche 144. and recently held a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University. He is Chair of the Department of English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Radicalism. He holds teaching positions in the department of Comparative Literature and the Faculty of Law (Hebrew University). Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. Tzachi Zamir is a philosopher and a literary critic. Sulzberger Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. and Renaissance Texts.Notes on Contributors ix She has published many essays on Shakespeare. and currently is working on a manuscript entitled. Canada. literary theory. His current research project is about the philosophical dimensions of dramatic acting. Richard Strier is Frank L. Nova Scotia. and the profession of English studies.

I was surprised at the high level of interest shown in this topic. Although it has not been possible to include all of the papers presented over two days of meetings. Our work has received generous support from the Fonds Québecois de la Recheche sur la société et la culture. . beginning in 1993.Acknowledgments The idea for this volume of essays emerged from a graduate seminar on “Shakespeare and Moral Agency. Some of my own ideas have also been developed through work with the Making Publics project. The intelligence of these non-specialists in their engagement with Shakespeare’s plays has given me a strong sense of the importance of vernacular criticism in teaching as well as in scholarship. with support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada. I also want to acknowledge the support of my colleagues on the Shakespeare in Performance Research Team at McGill University. but most are not. I would like to thank all of the participants for their contributions to a thoroughly enjoyable discussion of the issues. By approaching Shakespeare from the perspective of moral philosophy rather than from the more usual framework of his historical context my graduate students were empowered to recognize their own critical authority. Many of the essays assembled here were initially drafted for a seminar on Shakespeare and Moral Agency convened at the 2008 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America. but the list is really too long to be included here. If it were possible I would mention everyone by name. they have also been patient with my stories. I have learned a great deal from reading their seminar papers and I would like to thank them for their remarkable creativity in developing the research agenda represented here. Some of those students are now working in the field of Shakespeare studies.” which I taught for roughly ten years. some of which I am sure they have heard more than once. They have listened to my arguments about Shakespeare and Moral Agency over the course of many years.

or. It is this which fills the plays of Shakespeare with practical axioms and domestick wisdom. It means that it can be rewarding to engage with Shakespeare’s characters using the same means that one would use to engage in familiar conversation with actual people. from the first act to the last. . an informal fallacy in proceeding this way. . that every verse was a precept. though the fallacy is often productive.”3 Samuel Johnson lent his considerable authority as a critic to these opinions. and obligations. in The Morality of Shakespeare’s Drama Illustrated describes Shakespeare’s philosophy as a concern with “those moral duties which are the truest sources of mortal bliss— domestic ties. of course. not wrongly . . and that the . that from his works may be collected a system of civil and oeconomical prudence. It’s an interesting equivocation. .5 But there is no confusion in Johnson’s mind about this. was ever credited. . the “dramatis personae” of Shakespeare’s plays. first published in 1769. offices. that any dramatick fable in its materiality was ever credible. for a single moment. “It is false. she might say “. As a matter of fact it is as old as Shakespeare criticism itself. The first book to be devoted entirely to Shakespeare criticism is Elizabeth Montagu’s Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare. There is. and it may be said of Shakespeare. In it she declares that Shakespeare is “one of the greatest moral philosophers that ever lived. pointing out that Shakespeare’s “. . . that any representation is mistaken for reality. .”2 Elizabeth Griffith. and know.”4 The “persons” Johnson is talking about are fictional characters. that the stage is only a stage. The truth is that the spectators are always in their senses.”1 Thinking about the interpretation of Shakespearean drama and the practice of moral inquiry as mutually illuminating traditions is not a new idea. . persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated. and the whole system of life is continued in motion .Introduction: Is Shakespeare a Moral Philosopher? Michael Bristol If you ask a philosophy professor if Shakespeare is a moral philosopher there’s a good chance she will say “No!” but then. on second thought. . philosophers see profound thought in Shakespeare. . It was said of Euripides.

but we also know that a competent grasp of fiction entails understanding that the wrath of Achilles or the story of Eeyore’s tail are intended to be taken up as real situations involving real persons in a possible world.2 Shakespeare and Moral Agency players are only players. I have taken the time at the beginning of this project to pay my respect to critics of the mid-eighteenth century because. And in fact. myself. But they did not take this to mean that the characters in a Shakespeare play are thereby rendered opaque or that there could be no value in reflecting on their ethical disposition.8 We know that Achilles and Hamlet and Winnie the Pooh don’t exist in the actual world. Everyone does it. Our knowledge that stuffed donkeys don’t actually care about what happens to their tails is not relevant to the situation. and continues to be an indispensable feature of all subsequent interpretation. among contemporary Shakespeare scholars. “oops!” Frankly. . what else would one do. no one was actually confused about what they were doing. thinking about dramatic characters as if they were real people is something of an open secret. I don’t see what there is to be embarrassed about.” though. even among those recent critics who most strenuously deny its existence. eighteenth century critics had a firm grasp on the principles of make believe. Another aspect of that contract is openness to an emotional engagement with fictional characters.6 The genius of these intuitions is that they acknowledge that Shakespeare’s characters invite readers or spectators to relate to them in a self-reflexive way. it is by way of emotion that the philosophical interest of a fiction is initially sensed.9 Oddly then. Fictional characters can be described as possible persons carrying out possible actions in a possible world. but it can be explained in reference to deeply held normative beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong.” And if we’re paying attention we may even feel sad about what happened to Eeyore and try to understand what exactly the characters did to make their situation better or make it worse.7 What they discovered has been described as “confusing characters with real people. Both Johnson and Montagu were fully aware of the historical situatedness both of Shakespeare and of the figures who populate his fictional universe. more accurately—make-beliefs about Achilles and the strange loss of Eeyore’s tail. I believe they deserve credit for the discovery of character as the salient feature of Shakespeare’s work. And if you begin talking about characters as if they were actual people in the pub after the conference session you are expected to look sheepish and say. This kind of understanding is called “getting the story. This has been. in all honesty. exactly? At the same time there is a general understanding that it would not be comme il faut to admit doing it. What strikes these critics is that the complexity of Shakespearean drama is only fully revealed through sustained reflection on the moral disposition of its characters. As well as the average four-year old child. An emotional response to a fiction is in some ways a puzzling phenomenon. as I suggested earlier. Part of the contract we make with a fiction has to do with beliefs—or.

When I contemplate my Martin Guitar. Raising questions about moral agency.12 I do not think. Conditions that prevail in the actual world are also basic features of the fictional universe unless we are specifically told otherwise. but this is logically distinct from the guitar “itself. Sometimes we really need to consult historical research if we are to understand how things were assumed to work in the world from which the author is writing. Serial # 179705. It is even possible to show that our current notions of “inwardness” are not directly relevant to the way early modern subjects thought about themselves. and to show how beliefs derived from these systems are reflected in the self-understanding of people who live in particular places at particular times. but also on background knowledge of how the world actually works. however. A more genuinely philosophical approach to this material really begins with a consideration of what is called “story meaning—figuring out what’s true in the fiction. some of which are historical and some of which are not. Stories are.” It’s possible. “Self” is the term that refers to what is “singled out” from “other” objects and that has the property of persisting in its own being.Is Shakespeare a Moral Philosopher? 3 The project of reading Shakespeare’s works as the reflection of philosophical interests isn’t about trying to figure out his “world picture. incompletely determined and so understanding what happens in a fiction involves speculating about what isn’t explicitly stated. model 0–16 New Yorker. Otherwise the notion of the agent becomes unintelligible. The fact that certain ideas about the self became prevalent in the seventeenth century is not a reason to conclude that the concept of self cannot be applied in other. . to be sure.10 Analysis of story meaning is just figuring out exactly what happened in the story. Such inferences really do strike me as confusing two different kinds of inquiry. I’m looking at an object that can be singled out from every other Martin Guitar that has ever existed. easily seen in the random pattern of dings and scratches.” To historicize the concept of self involves a kind of equivocation with the term. fictional or otherwise. but this is not always such an easy thing to do. that it follows logically from any of this that “the self” didn’t exist in ancient times or that it “emerged” in the seventeenth century in connection with the philosophy of René Descartes. But what assumptions can be made about the nature or even the existence of self? Is there a “history” of the self that needs to be acknowledged when we consider the problem of agency? My own view is that “self” is a basic concept that cannot be usefully historicized. to identify a framework of ideas that can plausibly be discovered in the plays.11 Our ability to understand stories depends not only on what a literary text explicitly tells us. by means of historical research. for the most part. but in reality our ability to understand stories relies on mixed assumptions. It is entirely possible to do historical research about the renaissance philosophy of mind. clearly presupposes the existence of a self. The guitar has had its own history. quite different historical contexts. though this is not always that satisfying.

Ginet’s stipulation is overly broad. She has a goal. but their acts are performed in relation to larger considerations in the form of moral evaluations. improvisatory competences. What makes Shakespeare’s dramatis personae interesting in relations to questions of moral agency is not that a set of robust character traits determines behavior in any sort of predictable way. People act with purpose. . Carl Ginet suggests that “. Agents also have to possess flexibility. making the squirrel indistinguishable from a person according to Ginet. Nothing can count as a person unless rational agency. If we ask “why did Macbeth kill Duncan?” it seems obvious that the answer must be because he wanted to be king. her aptitude for complex analysis looks like acting for reasons. and an ability to shift priorities when threatened by an exasperated home-owner or a Cooper’s Hawk. Self-preservation is still the over-riding purpose. however. distinguished from mindless activity like the erosion of beaches or the heat death of the universe. and even the skills of dissembling in order to sustain a preferred interpretation of who they are and of where they stand. arguably the most basic form of moral agency. Macbeth is. But a strong character may not in fact be adequate for all situations. They are not simply aware of themselves.4 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Agency refers to a capacity for action. incontinence. This interpretation seems feasible because the text of Shakespeare’s Macbeth wouldn’t really make any sense otherwise. and other modes of subjective irrationality even within such apparently robust personalities as Macbeth and Othello. He knows that the murder will . self-deception. and that’s why Shakespeare is a very great writer.”13 Stated in this form. Shakespeare’s characters exhibit internal conflict in the form of faulty self-knowledge. The squirrel on this description is an agent whose behavior is guided by the imperative of self-preservation. It is not easy to do justice to these manifold demands and at the same time maintain a coherent rapport à soi. When that red squirrel keeps getting into your bird feeder no matter how many obstacles you set up. But it is clearly incomplete. but they also act with strong second-order selfconsciousness. is characteristic of it. but the self that seeks its own continuance is concerned with much more than biological survival. a repertoire of strategies for achieving this goal. . acting for reasons.” We can actually see him work out his all-things-considered best judgment that leads to the conclusion that he should not kill Duncan. in the current philosophical literature the term can be used for any goal-oriented behavior. among other things. but vividly aware of that awareness and capable of expressing that awareness to others. creative problem-solving skills. Human action is often less a matter of accomplishing instrumental goals than it is about maintaining the preferred narrative account of the self. “full of the milk of human kindness. Human agents consider what things matter to them and why they are important. It is purposeful action. but precisely that it doesn’t. People who are able to do this are said to have a strong character. Agents in this sense are singular and self-determining.

From a philosophical perspective very close scrutiny of Shakespearean wordplay. It is far from certain that he knows what he really wants or even if he wants to be king. Shakespeare’s plays have a particular salience as the object of philosophical inquiry because of the hermeneutic density of the literary material. whose problem-solving ability is hard-wired to the aim of survival. Many readers are horrified by Isabel’s self-assurance in deciding “more than our brother is our chastity. worth even more than the life of a loved one. And in the very next scene he carries out the murder. Shakespeare’s characters inhabit a contingent world where they are faced with novel. The interest for us in these characters has a quite different basis. even though this leads her into consenting to the morally questionable device of the bed-trick. which have generated illuminating commentary and exegesis for thousands of years. It is more that the plays make us care about such decision-making in a way that engages our own concern.” But the story only makes sense if those same readers have sufficient imaginative creativity to believe that the preservation of sexual purity can really be a matter of such compelling importance. The situational profile often entails a conflict between family attachments and other. But the complexity of Macbeth’s state of mind is not primarily of interest to us as a faulty model of moral problem-solving. It is not so much the specific maxims used in deciding moral questions or the resolution of moral conflicts that makes Shakespeare’s characters philosophically interesting. but because she is engaged with the complexity of moral evaluation in ways that would appear impossible to resolve. Macbeth is capable of acting in a way that he knows will lead to his own destruction. and unprecedented situations that require evaluation and judgment. . rhetorical figures. and patterns of internal cross-reference are very rewarding. This means that the basic intuitions people use to understand their friends and relatives are also appropriate tools for getting at fictional characters. more abstract or self-interested considerations. What makes Isabella important then is her persistence in seeking a more creative way to acknowledge her own claims as well as the claims of her brother. The only things remotely comparable are some of the stories in Scripture. which is itself best accounted for by the artistic quality of Shakespeare’s language and his narrative composition.Is Shakespeare a Moral Philosopher? 5 “but teach bloody instruction” and he respects his obligations to the King as kinsman and a host. Equally rewarding are the styles of interpretation associated with vernacular criticism. Isabel. But the sheer grotesque power of Shakespearean narrative requires something more than complacent. Unlike the red squirrel. in Measure for Measure. its ability to relate to fictional characters as if they were real people. But the density is not just a matter of the sheer quantity of accumulated interpretation. is interesting for us as a moral agent not because she acts in obviously the right way. I don’t think anyone needs to see a production of Macbeth to realize that we should not kill people whom we have invited to be guests in our own homes. unpredictable.

in “A Shakespearean Phenomenology of Moral Conviction”. Choice.” The resources of philosophical inquiry can deepen such a preliminary insight and bring out its full complexity without diminishing the immediacy of the initial response. presented in a way that absolutely refuses the complacencies of ideology and the distractions of wishful thinking. fundamentally. It is abundantly clear in all the essays that compose this volume that no one works from a concept of the agent as untrammeled. with its focus on the subject as the product of historical forces. in effect “the devil made me do it. as Machiavelli understood.6 Shakespeare and Moral Agency pre-theoretical judgments that see Romeo and Juliet as “a story about two teenagers who fall in love. Keira Travis finds a different pathway into the unconscious sources that shape a character’s action.” Grady then relates his account of agency to the current state of Shakespeare criticism. or even a basketball game. like “the noble Brutus. even if you meant well. Hugh Grady’s essay. about people doing things. Othello learns too late that his judgment of Desdemona’s infidelity was founded in error and deception. The crucial intuition here is that moral agency is represented in Shakespeare by means of a character’s “bearing” or “position” in an absolutely literal sense. let’s say. science doesn’t solve the problem of moral judgment. What we see in Shakespeare’s plays is not a set of instructions on how to live the good life. Recognition of . it’s important to remember that the other side is trying to win.” end up destroying the very things they hold most dear. James A. and agents who ignore this reality. His discussion focuses in detail on Julius Caesar to show how political reality directs and interferes with the agent’s capacity to act freely. In “Wordplay and the Ethics of SelfDeception in Shakespeare’s Tragedies”. A crucial implication of Grady’s essay is that whenever there is conflict—in an election.” The first section of four essays is concerned with the agency of agents. Knapp. At the same time. or a war. and History”. is concerned with the “strong evaluations” that guide agents to adopt plans that aim at achieving some good. pointing out that “Drama is. acknowledges the importance of agency for understanding drama. “Moral Agency and Its Problems in Julius Caesar: Political Power. but rather a salutary imagining of the pathos of our moral existence. But not even the most insightful philosophy will be able to console us for the sense of loss we feel over the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. no one is satisfied with arguments that say. each raises questions about the possibility of self-reflexivity and freedom of action. lucid. however. since universal intuitions are difficult to apply outside the specific situations in which agents must act. It’s not clear that he ever considers that the moral conviction that motivated such an act is itself a larger kind of error. However. Agency in Shakespeare presupposes a field of strategic interaction. He re-introduces the work of Kenneth Burke. One way or another there’s a good chance that you won’t get it right. or fully self-aware. rather than on the self-reflexive agent capable of self-determination.14 Knapp’s essay reflects on advances in the fields of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology which suggest a “moral sense” may be innate.

on this view. The problem is generally taken to be either faulty knowledge or faulty selfknowledge or some regrettable combination of the two. but rather as his doomed attempt to “perform” the role of the warrior as if he were able to achieve his purpose without reference to the social norms that truly define who he is. argues that it is impossible to conceive of “self” as somehow existing over against a person’s social being. But if you’ve been ignoring something you should have known when you acted. the prescribed behavior that belong to one’s social roles. customary habits.16 The actions of Macbeth. as in many historical accounts of the play. The essay is particularly notable for encouraging a renewed interest in philological research. Bepissing. Playing the Warrior in Macbeth”. Agents don’t just act.” referring to all those things that come from outside the self that are necessary for its completion—language. conceived as acting in . The discussion of agency as primarily first-personal experience is followed by a consideration of social norms in establishing conditions of possibility for purposeful action. absence. reminding us that most of the time we think “less rigorously and less playfully than Shakespeare. like Hamlet or Macbeth.Is Shakespeare a Moral Philosopher? 7 self and of others is revealed in a vocabulary of gestures hidden in Shakespeare’s wordplay. they must perforce engage in social interaction. Jennifer Feather’s essay. any genuine rapport à soi. in Julius Caesar. but who also seem to lack. they seem to embody only vacancy. All of these essays adopt the view that Shakespeare’s characters act intentionally and purposefully even when they end up making a mess out of things. the result is your responsibility.” by introducing Aristotle’s distinction between actions that go wrong “due to ignorance” and actions done “in ignorance. or the will to annihilation that is in theological terms identical with the meaning of evil. but Shakespeare’s characters are only partially aware of how they move in relation to others. His language activates the dead metaphors buried in the words people use to understand who they are or what they think about other people. and Non-being: Shakespearean puzzels above agency. for Strier. Consideration of “moral agency” here leads into a more radical questioning of agency and of motive in the broader sense. both of whom lack not only anything that we recognize as a motive. On this view agency is identified with Judith Butler’s notion of performativity as the “reiteration of [social] norms. in “Conduct (Un)becoming or. “To ‘Tempt the Rheumy and Unpurged Air’: Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar” points out that one of those traditional ideals is rational agency. “Excuses. Sharon O’Dair. The crucial examples are Shylock and Iago. seems intent on fulfilling the traditional ideals of Republican Rome. They don’t just ignore who they really are. Agents are by definition objects in motion.” If you act wrongly because you didn’t know something about the situation it’s not your fault. The character of Brutus.” Richard Strier begins his essay. should be seen not as the violation of the social norms of hierarchical order.”15 Her claim here is a version of what Mikhail Bakhtin has called “exotopy.

which refers both to a particular kind of an object and a property of that same object. and. conversely. Morality. by extension.” Finin develops the distinction between morality and ethics proposed by the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit. This requires a clear recognition of an important equivocation in the usage of character.” acting against one’s best judgment in a way that paradoxically leads to morally praiseworthy results.” The final group of essays in this collection takes up the question of the moral character of fictional characters. Following Aristotle. countrymen or followers of a religious tradition.17 This is possible because social norms are themselves irrational. is grounded in “thin relations” that prevail between strangers. or akrasia. In these terms Brutus presents the reader with an instance of “inverse akrasia. As Finin argues. The pathos that attaches to moral agency is expressed even more strongly in Naomi Liebler’s essay “‘The oldest hath borne most’: the Burdens of Aging and the Morality of Uselessness in King Lear.18 The pathos of conflicting social norms is more fully brought out by Kathryn Finin. a betrayal of the self. Weakness of the will. failure to “reiterate” one social imperative may lead directly to the fulfillment of another.8 Shakespeare and Moral Agency accordance with one’s own all-things-considered best judgment. she argues that virtue is a type of masculine excellence that requires voluntary action. presenting instead only a nervous dance of respect and contempt.” In both plays characters have to respond to the demands of thick relationships even when this may entail the suffering of the stranger or. In King Lear this state of affairs comes about. would be acting contrary to a person’s “strong evaluations” or to what the self holds to be most dear. The crucial feature of ethics is that it is grounded in “thick relations”—family. friendship. and on the audience who must attend to what Iris Murdoch has called “a death without a consolation. the imperatives of trust and care for loved ones may come into conflict with basic respect for the humanity of others who can advance no claim on our loyalty or even our sympathy. in “Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals in Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice. Liebler’s essay focuses attention on the play’s enigmatic final scene. by contrast.19 Fictional characters are interesting because they often exhibit attributes or traits that appear as the source—or maybe the explanation—of their actions. Both Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice express in different ways the difficulties of moral actions “when everyone’s suffering matters.” The immediate question raised by this play is the paradox of the respect owed to aging parents when the burdens their care imposes begin to exceed the children’s capacity to meet their obligations. The play envisions no resolution to the paradox. where even the elderly figures themselves waver in their opinions of themselves. and on the question of bearing witness it imposes on the characters who survive. again paradoxically. When eighteenth century critics spoke of Shakespeare’s characters they were using the term in the sense . as the result of Lear’s lavish expenditure in favor of his daughters.

What a person does. is done primarily in the framework of self-interpretation. Fahmi’s essay privileges the notion of self-reflexivity. Butler’s formulation is presented in the subjunctive. Characters act in conformity with their beliefs about themselves and also in accordance with their beliefs about the beliefs of others about themselves. in “‘Unlucky Deeds’ and the Shame of Othello” is concerned with . seeing agents primarily as deliberating with themselves in their relations with the world. they perform in scenes with others. but to compel his audience to acknowledge the complacency of their own moral simplifications. malicious deception. The complexity of Shakespearean dramatic character provides for an emancipation from “melancholia. and the Jew. entrapment in the views of others. we call his character. . if occasions and circumstance gave them power. and the Question of Perspective in Shakespeare” two crucial arguments are developed at the same time. A stable orientation to some kind of “strong evaluation” is one of the important meanings for the notion of an “ethos” as a person’s general disposition. a story that depends crucially on how one is oriented to others and to some more or less articulate idea of goods pursued. then. in “The Fool. And it frequently happens then that they can be induced to believe falsely. Tzachi Zamir. those principles from which men would act. and blindness to the existence of others. when fixed and habitual in any person. Persons don’t act in isolation. In Mustapha Fahmi’s essay “Quoting the Enemy: Character.Is Shakespeare a Moral Philosopher? 9 defined by Joseph Butler as “. but even more fundamentally their moral personality. and the avoidance of mutual recognition. so that viewers assume a self-reflexive agency of their own in responding to fictional events and fictional deeds.”20 A person’s “character” is not only of their psychological and social traits.”21 Zamir focuses on the scene between Launcelot Gobbo and Old Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice to illustrate how Shakespeare deploys the role of the fool first to indulge attitudes of malicious pleasure and then to exhibit the moral costs of such attitudes. the Blind. But truly creative performance can also be a moral act in which the other is offered a position which enables them to discover their own deeper aspirations or to liberate them from beliefs held too strongly. but may instead be highly situation dependent. however. Self-conscious theatricality is often related in Shakespearean drama to artificiality. Shylock performs the role of the Jew not to flatter prejudice. The second point here. . The first is that a person’s character is best understood against a background of personal narrative. is that there is no privileged point of view given from within the drama that would provide a reliable standard of value for an evaluative response. Andrew Escobedo.” emphasizes theatricality in the genesis of action. acting in a way that allows for the preferred idea of the self to be conserved. and which. Self-Interpretation. leaving open the possibility that agency may not in fact line up with character. The multiple perspectives of dramatic action require an active engagement with the text. idolatry.

There are a lot of smart. And in the end Othello seeks no extenuation for his action even though what he did was not freely or rationally chosen. unlike Othello’s is fundamentally incomprehensible both to other characters in the drama and to readers or viewers of Shakespeare’s play.” The connection is more fully elaborated in the final essay in this volume. Othello takes responsibility for his deed because he sees that he is responsible for his character. however. An even more baffling situation is one in which false beliefs are generated in the imagination of the false believer. Currie is willing to concede that something like grace is suggested in the ending. Like Othello. In “Agency and Repentance in The Winter’s Tale” Gregory Currie argues that Leontes’ jealousy. In the case of Othello the character has clearly been deceived. well-educated people who are interested in Shakespeare. But Shakespearean philosophy is not a derivative phenomenon.” Coodin does show that Shakespeare would very likely have been aware of a tradition of “vernacular Aristotelianism” widely circulated in early modern society. It’s really true here that “the devil made me do it. If there is one philosopher whose thought seems to predominate throughout these essays it is unquestionably the Aristotle of Nichomachean Ethics. They go to performances and to movies and they even read books. focusing on human variety in its pursuit of the good life and on the manifold ways real people and their fictional counterparts fail to achieve it. But what is truly strange in the play is Leontes’ repentance for the destruction he has caused. Sara Coodin’s “What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It: Shakespearean Character as Moral Character. his infatuation with the role of the betrayed husband. but Escobedo argues that it is also true that in an important sense he has “no choice” in killing Desdemona. it is not easy to believe that a man of Othello’s character would countenance such an affront to the honor of a wife he clearly loves. the death of his child Mamilius is the brute encounter with reality that abruptly snaps him out of it. . No one. has made the claim that Shakespeare is “an Aristotelian. for his irascibility. But there is no evidence in the play of moral growth on Leontes’ part or any real willingness to assume responsibility for the immense sorrow his actions have caused. and his failure to trust the one person who really loved him. It would make roughly as good sense to claim that Aristotle is “a Shakesperean.” Additionally. Leontes seems to have no knowledge of who his wife is or what the two of them have been to each other. Even so. But if Leontes’ jealousy seems in some sense a purely psychotic episode.” Coodin rejects the idea that Shakespeare’s plays are a collection of exemplary tales that dramatize an Aristotlean program of vices and virtues. Shakespeare as a philosopher shares with Aristotle a “panoramic” view of ethics. In Leontes’ case the jealousy seems even more deranged since they have lived together over a period of years. everyone unwittingly conspires with Iago in creating plausible evidence to support his insinuations.10 Shakespeare and Moral Agency the puzzling situation of agent-regret where a character bears responsibility for unintended consequences that follow closely upon that agent’s action.

Is Shakespeare a Moral Philosopher?


Some of them have passed through our classrooms on the way to becoming attorneys or software designers or schoolteachers. Some of them are colleagues in academic departments other than English. When I’ve engaged in conversations with these people, I find that they have intuitions about Shakespeare’s characters, about his genius as an author, about the universality of his insights. If I respond to their remarks by telling them there are no characters in Shakespeare’s plays, that the self doesn’t exist, that Shakespeare wasn’t an author, or that universality is a perverse and dishonest ideological construct I can generally expect them to politely change the subject. They feel put down, but they also think that I’m doing it on purpose to make myself feel more important. I know. I’ve tried it. My sister’s feelings were hurt. The truth is that it’s disrespectful to dismiss vernacular intuitions as wrong-headed and uninformed. It is invidious and condescending in the way it excludes people. But what’s even worse is that it prevents us from seeing that another person may actually be on to something when they want to talk about how they have been impressed by Shakespeare. The essays in this volume are all open to the possibility of an engagement with the way people most enjoy their interactions with Shakespeare’s dramatic artistry. Emanuel Levinas, thinking out loud about the possibility of meaning over against the certainty of death, wants to talk about Shakespeare in this way. “. . . . it sometimes seems to me that the whole of philosophy is only a meditation of Shakespeare.”22 This seems to suggest that philosophy is a meditation about Shakespeare and the fictional universe he has created. But it works in another way as well. It is Shakespeare who meditates and from this meditation characters are created. You have to be willing to take these creations seriously. But if you are, you will be able to see that Shakespeare is not only philosophical in himself, but the cause that philosophy is in others.

1 2




6 7

Martha C. Nussbaum, “Stages of Thought,” The New Republic, May 07, 2008. Elizabeth Montagu, An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare . . . (London: Harding and Wright, 1810), p. 37. Originally published anonymously, 1769 Elizabeth Griffith, The Morality of Shakespeare’s Drama Illustrated (London: T. Cadell, 1775), p. 4. Samuel Johnson, “Preface” and “Notes” to Measure for Measure, ed. Arthur Sherbo, in The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale University Press) 16 vols. Vol. 7, 62. David Lewis, “Truth in Fiction,” in Philosophical Papers, Vol. I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 268. Johnson, “Preface,” pp. 76–77. Michael Bristol, ‘A System of Oeconomical Prudence’: Shakespearean Character and the Practice of Moral Inquiry”, Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century, ed. Peter Sabor and Paul Yachnin (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2008), pp. 13–28).


Shakespeare and Moral Agency
David Davies, “Reading Fiction (1): Truth in a Story,” Aesthetics and Literature (London: Continuum Books, 2007), pp. 49–70. Dadlez, E.M., “Introduction,” What’s Hecuba to Him? Fictional Events and Actual Emotions (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987). Davies, p. 70. Lewis, p. 265. Paul Cefalu, “Damnéd Custom . . . Habit’s Devil: Hamlet’s Part-Whole Fallacy and the Early Modern Philosophy of Mind,” in Revisionist Shakespeare: Transitional Ideologies in Texts and Context (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Carl Ginet, On Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 4. For more on strong evaluations see Taylor, Sources of the Self, pp. 25–52. Judith Butler: Bodies That Matter (New York, Routledge, 1993), pp. 94–95. Tzetvan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: the Dialogical Principle. Trans. Wlad Godzich (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1984), p. 109ff. Nomy Arpaly, Unprincipled Virtue: An Inquiry into Moral Agency (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 4. Jon Elster, “Social Norms,” in Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 113–23. Gregory Currie, “Narrative and the Psychology of Character,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol 67 (2009), pp. 61–71. Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1874), 2 vols. I, p. 330. Stanley Cavell, “Skepticism as Iconoclasm: The Saturation of the Shakespearean Text,” Shakespeare and the Twentieth Century, ed. Jonathan Bate (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996), p. 241. Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other. Trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987), p. 72.


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Part I

The Agency of Agents

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Chapter 1 Moral Agency and Its Problems in Julius Caesar: Political Power. His work is finding new readers in our own time. But while Burke’s approach and others like it had little influence in the preceding period of poststructuralist influence in Shakespeare studies. with a unique emphasis on motivation. Certainly. In Kenneth Burke’s celebrated Pentad. it has been several years now. and History Hugh Grady It is difficult to think about drama without pre-supposing “agency” of some kind or other. scene. Choice.1 Burke (1897–1993) was an American original who created over his fifty-year career a unique approach to issues of agency in literature and rhetoric by synthesizing elements of Marxism. along with action. Jean-François Lyotard and others. Michel Foucault. it is time to investigate different critical possibilities. And yet one knows why at this point in critical history there might be the renewed interest in matters of agency that the essays in this anthology exemplify. in a reaction to some of the less cautious theoretical claims of followers of the poststructuralist theory of Jacques Derrida. Jean Baudrillard. instruments (or “agency”). and purpose or aim. and New Criticism. fundamentally. psychoanalysis.2 It has become a familiar argument in many fields of . one-time poststructuralist allies like Christopher Norris and Terry Eagleton sought to distance themselves from the radical uncertainties that were adopted by many poststructuralist theorists. We seem to be at a turning point in the development of the field when one can feel a collective decision in process that after twenty-five years of leading work in the field being shaped by New Historical or cultural materialist premises. Drama is. and he is certainly a potential source for revived thinking about agency—although here I am using him only to help introduce the topic. about people doing things. the overt connection between drama and agency that he defined has been self-evident enough that it is difficult to find a direct frontal assault on the idea of agency (moral or otherwise) in recent Shakespearean criticism—I cannot recall one. since. for example—modeled on an abstracted dramatic structure—he makes “agents” a central category.

many critics have concluded that it is time to look in other directions. agency for major Shakespearean characters is “mixed” or mediated. Shakespeare’s treatment of agency was seen as an instance of an ideology beginning to emerge. choice. or other aspects of agency that had been the great strengths of such major figures of the philosophical tradition as. These “anti-humanist” ideas impacted within Shakespeare studies most influentially in such works as Catherine Belsey’s The Subject of Tragedy and Jonathan Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy. language. Kant. brought about because of epistemic shifts in process. “subjects” seen primarily as the outcomes of fields of power. While for some this development has been seen as a return to traditional formalist and positivist critical methodology. Hegel. as it were. Aristotle. for others it has meant an . Agency in Shakespeare is always complicated.” defined by “interiority” seen as “author and origin of meaning and choice. this approach has revealed its limitations.”5 soon to culminate in Enlightenment notions of a rational subject who makes rational choices based on self-interest. And in addition. They were to be understood solely in their relation to ideology. Typically. seldom an instance of an actualization of “inner meaning” of the sort posited by Belsey (as she herself recognized. not from within a transparent self. the approach saw positive value in the literature it analyzed only in terms of the work’s ability to distance itself from the ideology of the culture that it sprang from. in Foucault’s vivid description of the subjection of individuals in a disciplinary society. and Sartre.” In the early Derrida’s focus on language as the subject of discourse. for example. While both of these works were provocative interventions in critical writing that offered fresh new perspectives and bracing political agendas to the field. there seemed to be no room for the traditional categories of freedom. and whatever agency they were able to establish was thanks only to the existence of what Alan Sinfield subsequently called “faultlines”—fissures in the ideological walls. but incompletely represented in his works: “liberal humanism. they each treated dramatic characters as “subjects” in the Foucauldian rather than the Kantian sense—that is. and in Althusser’s highly influential re-definitions of subjectivity and ideology to describe how individuals are “interpellated” as subjects by ideology.and structuralist. two classic Marxist. and ideology. However. in situating Shakespeare somewhere between a decentered medieval episteme and a yet-to-fully-emerge liberal humanism). I believe.4 This offered precious little space for agency. its great weakness was precisely a neglect of the category of the “agent.influenced works of the 1980s. After twenty years of experience.3 They seemed to be the products of deterministic processes rather than agents who defined themselves through their action.16 Shakespeare and Moral Agency literary studies—I have certainly made it myself on more than one occasion— that for all the power of poststructuralist methodology. we will find few unequivocal examples among Shakespeare’s characters of this type of agency. The characters’ will and even sense of self turn out on examination to come from elsewhere. discourse.

agency. Specifically I will analyze his 1599 Julius Caesar in the light of the critical framework that I developed in Shakespeare. But it is a “return” that has retained something from the recent poststructuralist past—its skepticism towards a direct connection between our concepts and the phenomena they attempt to represent. and Montaigne.8 Here I want to look closely at the relationship between subjectivity and power in the fictional space of Shakespeare’s Rome. were crucial to discussion. Julius Caesar emerges in this analysis as a play whose depiction of the impact of individual moral agency on the large sweep of historical events is highly qualified.” not just in Hamlet. but it also shows how agency is never exercised in a vacuum—in this case by delineating how it is affected by the autonomy of reified political power.7 The negative.6 For example. but it is one of Shakespeare’s most explicit investigations of the idea of historical change and the role of individuals within it. The play demonstrates moral agency. critical phase of his early work in effect moved to a positive moment without repudiating the earlier phase. a permanent . but throughout the histories. in dialogue with French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Machiavelli. is always “out of joint. its rejection of assumptions of an available single interpretation of a work and of a single interpretation of the documents of the past. the influence of interior psychological structures. one that combines attention to Machiavelli’s power politics along with moments of Montaigne’s subjectivity. and indeed I have written on this issue under the heading “subjectivity” several times before. and “aesthetics”—and. implicitly. This is the context. Our task then would entail a new look at what the methods before poststructuralism gave us that got lost in the newer ones without surrendering the intellectual and political gains of the recent era of literary criticism. the work of the late Derrida itself reflects this changing emphasis in what has been described as his “ethical” turn.Moral Agency in Julius Caesar 17 opportunity to take the theoretical work of the previous generation ahead in new directions. The related terms “agency” and “subjectivity” strike me as obvious candidates for such re-thinking. in my view. despite their sharing in the incompleteness of meaning of all language. and despite their otherness from the real. building on it rather than discarding it. Such a world is the outcome of a severance between the subject and a sense of meaning. its vigilance for the effects of power on the ways we represent the world. in which a discussion of moral agency in Shakespeare’s works is most interesting. tragedies. “spirituality”. and it always takes place in a world which. precisely for ethical reasons. Shakespeare’s 1599 Julius Caesar was classified as a tragedy rather than a history by the First Folio editors. Moral choice in Shakespeare is always situated and contextual. and the possibility of Providential intervention. Derrida undertook a “return” to a series of concepts that. as Agnes Heller has argued. Derrida himself described this as a “return” to “religion”—encompassing as well a return to such previously deconstructed key words as “presence”. and many of the comedies.

18 Shakespeare and Moral Agency perception that things are not as they should be. Bolingbroke of Richard II and Cassius of Julius Caesar are masterful intriguers. but Shakespeare closes off their interiority to us. Brutus.”10 This was an era dominated by political plays which took a distinctly different approach to politics and history than the one he had developed in earlier works such as the first historical tetralogy and in the first Roman play. As we read Julius Caesar in the twenty-first century. unsuccessful in the Machiavellian world they inhabit. producing a second historical tetralogy and another Roman play. striking most audiences as cold at best. or even in Christian terms as the world after the Fall. a brief but important era in Shakespeare’s prolific career I elsewhere called his “Machiavellian moment. with a glance at Christian resonances where appropriate. Julius Caesar is a play that dates from the period 1595–1600. Titus Andronicus. most relevant here. Antony and Cleopatra. like Titus Andronicus’s Aaron or Richard III.11 In the newer plays the political intriguers are much more morally ambiguous. and they lack emotional appeal.9 It is a perception that can be seen in Hegelian terms as the alienation of the subject from the objective world. the technique of the soliloquy allows us access to Brutus’s interior life. they are silent on how they see themselves morally. he gives us . As in these other cases. this last group seems to have sparked in Shakespeare a model to build on for the tragic heroes of some of his most celebrated works: Hamlet. his self-control. Macbeth. and perhaps even Coriolanus. all of these interpretive frameworks are relevant. but they are self-declared evil-doers. Othello. And there is an entirely new kind of character in these later plays—impolitic but soulful heroes. his moral scruples and practice of introspection as well as his political ineptitude—clearly belongs in this group. All of these are politically unsuccessful heroes with complex interior lives who have strong audience and readerly appeal. and. but I concentrate here on the theme of reified power in the play. In these mid-career plays the earlier villainous Machiavels. Falstaff. are replaced by characters of much “grayer” moral qualities. in Marxist terms as arising from a society dominated by the abstract values of fetishized commodities and/or reified power. One of the highlights of the play is scene 2.1—a parallel to Richard II in his prison and to Macbeth in his meditations on the justice of killing King Duncan. But the approach to history in 1595–1600 displays a new kind of thinking. so that while they are highly successful in achieving their political aims.12 And a bit later. In this period he revisits those earlier genres in an almost mirror-like fashion. Brutus—with his admirably Stoic sense of ethics. and we listen empathetically as he concludes that he must sacrifice his personal friendship with Caesar to the needs of the greater good. also in soliloquy. As numerous critics have pointed out. but who revel in displaying their interiority and make a strong appeal to the audience’s allegiance in their defeats—Richard II. Aaron and Richard are immensely entertaining and psychologically interesting. And all of them are the agents of moral decisions which they make in historical circumstances not of their own choosing.

To the extent that Brutus is a tragic hero. If we are to speak of “moral agency. At the same time. conscious decision-making is at best a delimited part of a larger array of social and psychological forces at work in shaping our actions in the world. like these others. he never seems to realize that he is being skillfully manipulated by Cassius. that action will be demanded of the just man if he is to honor his civic responsibility. “This was a man. a figure of good intentions gone tragically wrong. There is even a suggestion that the political turmoil he has instigated is a betrayal of the inner balance which Antony evokes in the play’s final. And as the case of Brutus suggests.63–69) The metaphoric reference to political division is Brutus’s recognition that the times are out of joint.” as the title of this anthology suggests. heroic characterization of him as “the noblest Roman of them all”: His life was gentle and the elements So mixed in him that Nature might stand up And say to all the world.72–74) For all that is admirable about Brutus and his Stoic self-possession. that a split between the ideal and the actual has widened.Moral Agency in Julius Caesar 19 one of Shakespeare’s most striking images of a mind wrestling with a moral decision: Brutus: Between the acting of a dreadful thing And the first motion. Hamlet. And it signals to us that the political struggle to which Brutus is committing will have its destructive effects on his inner life as well. however. It glances at the Age’s (now waning) pre-modern vision of an integrated.1. suffers then The nature of an insurrection. the analogy has a more disturbing implication. The genius and the mortal instruments Are then in a council. unified cosmos in which humanity is intimately linked with the larger structures of state and the natural world. Lear thinks he is avoiding future strife in dividing his kingdom. while Othello thinks he is justly punishing a miscreant wife. but it is an important issue in many Shakespeare plays. notably Hamlet. and the state of man.” (5. Othello. (2. on the other hand. as well as that of conscious intentionality. . Not only is this the case for Brutus. and King Lear—all featuring heroes whose good intentions turn out to be highly problematic. he is. Like to a little kingdom. all the interim is Like a phantasma or a hideous dream. has to be taken into account. he carries out an action whose purposes are far less idealistic than his own. What we really accomplish in our interventions in the world is certainly as relevant to assessing the morality of our actions as our intentions. finds himself unable to carry out what he claims are his intentions.5. the issue of unintended consequences.

Richard II. Cassius emphasizes Caesar’s mere humanity. Cassius takes on something of the role of Iago in the later play.1. Shakespeare here seems to be leading the audience to make the kinds of distinctions we make in Richard II and in Othello.2.96–101) Although Cassius tells Brutus that “honor is the subject of my story” (1. 5. Othello’s noble friendship and trust are the very qualities which allow the envious Iago to bring about his downfall. We both have fed as well. Some characters are beautiful in what they are rather than what they do.(1. distinctions need to be made. I was born free as Caesar. In the climax of his exhortation to Brutus. then. his equality with the other aristocrats like himself and Brutus. and we can both Endure the winter’s cold as well as he. it should be noted that it is precisely the issue of intention that Antony highlights in his tribute to his fallen enemy: Antony: All the conspirators save only he Did that they did in envy of great Caesar. disastrous in his political judgments. motivations and intentions must be taken into account as we judge others’ (and our own) morality.13 Rather than speak of the evils of monarchy or the danger to republican liberty in Caesar’s ascent to power. In Julius Caesar. He only. indeed. and he makes no secret of his envy of Caesar even in trying to appeal to Brutus’s republican idealism. their very interior beauty leads them to make errors that lead to tragic outcomes.19). envy of greatness is made the central republican virtue: Cassius: Now in the names of all the gods at once. is a man driven to violence through his envy.2. in a general honest thought And common good to all. too.94). that the play puts under scrutiny the sufficiency of good intentions alone in a gray world of complex political forces. made one of them.20 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Granting. He. “He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly” (Othello. envy is its clear driving motor. as has so often been noted. is the poet-king beautiful in his speech and in his soul. (5.5.68–71) As both Antony and Octavius agree. So were you. And Iago notoriously tells us of his seemingly innocent victim Michael Cassio. Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed . as he feels out Brutus’s attitudes towards Caesar: Casisus: I had as lief not be as live to be In awe of such a thing as I myself.

as impersonal negotiation and record-keeping with fatal consequences are pointedly enacted for us. “These many. Cassius is absolutely right. with a spot I damn him. in Julius Caesar the enemies are themselves skillful Machiavellian politicians with the same willingness to use power. But what makes this play distinctly different from Othello is its moral economy.2. This is an early modern instance of Foucauldian power at work. is the general Machiavellian tenor of the world in which Cassius operates. Let Antony and Caesar fall together. and what makes Cassius so different in his emotional impact on the audience from Iago. as events demonstrate. That the members of Caesar’s party are themselves men of deceit and murder is emphasized in the shocking switch of points of view in scene 4. This group of Caesar’s supporters is as accepting of killing as a tool for political power as the conspirators are—and without the latter’s “cover” of political idealism. adding Antony to the list of the conspirators’ targets: We shall find of him A shrewd contriver. Their names are pricked. and violence as their foes to achieve their ends. He of course urges a double assassination.3). While in Othello Desdemona is a saintly victim of Iago’s homosocial and homosexual passions and Cassio is at worst a well-intended gentleman with a weakness for alcohol. and Cassius is clearly prescient in sensing a political opponent whose skill is not unlike his own. by forging letters of support from the populace urging Brutus to act against Caesar. and . traded in exchange for the death of Lepidus’ brother (4. shall die.” Antony says of his nephew Publius. may well stretch so far As to annoy us all—which to prevent. like Iago. (1. thou has lost the breed of noble bloods. which opens with Antony’s declaration. (2.Moral Agency in Julius Caesar That he is grown so great? Age.1).1. deception. Cassius ruthlessly exploits the weaknesses of his object of persuasion. Caesar himself is never presented directly in such a light in this play. thou art shamed! Rome. In this. Cassius uses Brutus’ pride in his ancestry. then. in the quarrel scene between Brutus and Cassius (4. and you know his means. Mark Antony is the most flagrant example of this.157–61). “Look. his desire for love and approval.1.” (4. something of Iago’s homoerotic attraction to the object of his deceiving rhetoric.2–6).1. and Brutus’s prevailing counter-arguments that such a course would appear too bloody and that Antony is helpless without Caesar are politically foolish and naïve in the extreme. If he improve them. And of course.149–52) 21 There is even. but we know of his great skill in the institutionalized violence of war and conquest. In this play.1.

he is a disappointment. given as a casual detail in Casca’s account of Caesar at the festival of Lupercal (1. (3. as is the case for Cassius.286–88). . And we see nothing to contest Cassius’ account of the man’s flesh and blood weakness.2. . as was shown in how easily they persuaded him to put aside Calpurnia’s forebodings and come to the Capitol. and everything that he says and does in the play is in service to his image of unshakeable self-confidence and self-sufficiency: Caesar: These couchings and these lowly courtesies Might fire the blood or ordinary men And turn preordinance and first decree Into the law of children. He represents the larger organization of power that has developed independently of any individual’s will out of the political crisis of the Roman republic. Antony. his motivation. and even the impersonal Octavius. the tribunes Flavius and Murellus. The news of their silencing. Instead. almost a caricature. We learn nothing of his interior life. The conspirators were well aware of this quality. is a clear sign of dangers to the republican constitution of Rome. we learn of his physical weaknesses.36–43) He speaks of himself in the third person habitually. The figure of Julius Caesar in this play is a puzzling one. Be not fond To think that Caesar bears such rebel blood That will be thawed from the true quality With that which melteth fools—I mean. the political structure out of which his image has emerged. . and they note that his role is. Caesar is merely amplifying in his words the observation about him made by the conspirator Decius Brutus the night before: Decius: . represented to us pointedly in the reference to his deafness in one ear and in Cassius’s famous narrative of Caesar’s near drowning after vaunting of his courage to Cassius. a relatively secondary one. his sense of self. he loves to hear That unicorns may be betrayed with trees.22 Shakespeare and Moral Agency we know that at least some devotees of republican ideals. and he emphasizes how any decision that he makes might impact on his political image. But what justifies the use of his name in the title is his metonymic function: he stands as a figure for the system with which he is so closely associated and of which he forms a crucial part. As a conventional Shakespearean character. Many critics have thought that the play is mis-named.1. as we do of Brutus. sweet words. that Caesar is nothing like a traditional tragic hero. Nor do we see him displaying character traits through his actions and words. Low-crooked curtsies. and base spaniel fawning. He is hyperconscious of his appearance as a political actor. see something very dubious in his civil war victory against Pompey. What is noticeable about Julius Caesar is one overwhelming trait. in fact.

but he is one in service to one of the play’s fundamental insights: politics is a contest of manufactured images working to draw the shifting allegiances of large political factions. King John and The Merchant of Venice—all plays written in the period 1595–1600—the play has a double focus. more or less. The Prince: Fortune is the arbiter of half of our actions. being then most flatterèd.218–24) Here is articulated the play’s central insight about the interaction of larger events and contingent choice. (2. The play never takes sides in the conflict. But when I tell him he hates flatterers. 1 and 2 Henry IV. destroy trees and . We understand how Caesar reached the point he has reached. elephants with holes. and men with flatterers. and self-consciousness about them is displayed by virtually all the characters. Rather. they can be incorporated into political action and success.3. and we see how Caesar’s followers become impassioned revengers and empowered political actors in response to the assassination. rhetorical skill operates independently of any absolute conceptions of right and wrong. He says he does.1. all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. And we see as well the weaknesses. and critics have never been able to agree on how to resolve it into any single moral vision. In short. Omitted. in this play politics and history in themselves are crucially important issues. It is an idea that can be traced back to Greek and Roman historians and was famously expressed in a different metaphor near the climax of Machiavelli’s great treatise on power and history.Moral Agency in Julius Caesar And bears with glasses. the famous claims of Brutus’s declaration: Brutus: There is a tide in the affairs of men Which. On such a full sea are we now afloat. we see why aristocrats fear him as a threat to their interests and Rome’s republican liberties. and the moral misdeeds of all of these actors. Historical events have their own logic. like Richard II. for example. And I compare her to one of these destructive rivers that. And we must take the current when it serves Or lose our ventures. But if such currents are understood and taken advantage of. flood the plains. leads on to fortune. Lions with toils. independent of our wills.14 And as Antony shows us in his famous oration that turns the political tide against the conspirators. but that she still leaves the other half of them. taken at the flood. to be governed by us. but it does represent the events in a way that allows us to understand the political dynamics involved. the foibles. when they are raging. Consider.203–08) 23 Caesar is a cardboard figure in the play. (4.

You said the enemy would not come down. Here as elsewhere.1–6) And this irony leads us to another highly relevant point in the play’s implied philosophy of the role of choice in history and morality—its pointed insistence on the fallibility of human judgments and knowledge. take up earth from this side and place it on the other. and subjects Brutus’s admirable qualities to searching inquiry. And in Julius Caesar. in its bracketing of issues of moral right and wrong and in its concentration on the analysis of actual. cannot make provision against them with dikes and embankments. everyone yields to their onslaught without being able to oppose them in any way. Antony. just as he and Cassius will prove wrong in their interpretation of the outcome of the final battle.” if we are to believe his arch-enemy Mark Antony at the plays’ conclusion. for the party of Caesar: Octavius: Now. They mean to warn us at Philippi here.15 But Brutus’s sonorous observation is delivered in a context of great irony.16 Brutus is wrong in his judgment here. that men. so that. (5. It is welcome news. We watch as the killing unfolds within .1. Answering before we do demand of them. when times are quiet. But keep the hills and upper regions. it does not follow. Knowledge is imperfect. And although this is how they are. the play is Machiavellian in the sense implied by the many commentators who have credited Machiavelli as the first to employ scientific objectivity in the analysis of history. indeed. Their battles are at hand. either they would go into a canal. these themes play out in the character of Brutus.24 Shakespeare and Moral Agency buildings. when. for it is the rationale given in support of his disastrous argument that he and Cassius should give up their advantage of location in the highlands and attack the armies of Octavius and Mark Antony on their own grounds. therefore. But Brutus is a character whose noble intentions are continuously misdirected through the unintended consequences of his moral choices. the battle is still to be decided. in fact. Thus. or their impetus would not be so wild or so destructive. Shakespeare’s skepticism greatly colors his understanding of the limits of intention in moral choice and political activity. judgment is open to errors. everyone flies before them. when they rise again. when each in turn makes an incorrect interpretation of what they see and prematurely accepts defeat and suicide. It proves not so. and intentions always encounter the resistance of an opaque world of uncontrollable contingencies. the assassination scene. our hopes are answerèd. the “noblest Roman of them all. non-ideal political behavior.17 It is the play’s larger implied framework of Machiavellian analysis that gives such power to its riveting climax.

And then we watch as Antony skillfully dismantles that interpretive framework and substitutes one of his own. and one that offers us Machiavellian/Foucauldian insights into the objective nature of power. In other words. portraying the killing as the murder of a great man and public benefactor unjustly cut down by butchers. is not arbitrarily chosen. a taking in of an external philosophy which becomes part of the psychological armature which Cassius and the others manipulate. we almost want to say. and it is one of Shakespeare’s hallmarks as a playwright to seek always to explain the actions of his plays’ agents in plausible psychological terms (not. psychology too plays its role in the political manipulations charted in the play. Viewed in these systemic terms. His name itself—and Julius Caesar is another of the several Shakespearean plays that emphasize the arbitrariness of names—makes him an almost essential member of the conspiracy. Like the other political plays of the Shakespearean Machiavellian moment. Julius Caesar is deeply interested in psychology. This particular event. when the whole European future seems to be at stake. its status as a system with autonomous rules which strongly limit the freedom of activity of its agents. when the political system of which Elizabethan England was itself one of the historical outcomes teeters on the brink of self-destruction. invented as an assassin in Cassius’s artful manipulations. Julius Caesar is a study in the dynamics of political power. in the case of the Christian connection amplified. The assassination of Caesar is clearly one of those moments when history seems to turn around the fate of a single individual. through the tradition that the coming of the Savior could only occur in the moment of universal peace established by Augustus in the aftermath of all the civil discord whose origin the play depicts. The Stoic inner life Brutus values so highly appears in this light to be another interpellation. of course. that played into the salvation narratives of Christianity. in a way. Cassius and the forged notes he sends to Brutus personify the force of ideology in the formation of Brutus’s identity. it would have been necessary to invent him. always with success). But they are implicitly present in the cultural context for this play as well and give it resonances that ripple to our present. The analysis of this level of the plays in fact was the subject matter of the great . It was a moment too. to create a fictional inner life for the characters. and he was. If he did not exist. Brutus seems considerably less autonomous and in control of events than he thinks he is. in this play’s sequel. given the potent republican associations of his name. a tribute to his illustrious ancestor Brutus. Like other Shakespearean plays. of course. a renewal of the primal founding of the Roman republic in the overthrow of the Tarquin kings by the first Brutus. In this play we see a contest of rival political narratives or interpretive frames work itself out to a violent conclusion—which we know is only a prelude to further bloodshed. These are all themes repeated and.Moral Agency in Julius Caesar 25 the religious and sacrificial language of Brutus as a kind of sacred act. the 1606–07 Antony and Cleopatra.

We are told of “a tempest dropping fire” (1. a lion outside the Capitol indifferent to surrounding humans. and Brutus to be noble. unsuspecting. Calpurnia’s dream and the famous warning of the sooth-sayer to “Beware the ides of March. Thus. it was often said. Julius Caesar seems to raise the issue of fatality in the prominence it gives to the many portents which precede the day of the assassination. If the characters’ personalities are congruent with the actions they perform. But an additional phase of Shakespeare studies has taught us that in Julius Caesar.26 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Romantic phase of Shakespearean criticism from Johann von Goethe to Sigmund Freud.3. Hamlet—the avenging Prince who seems unable to be what he thinks he should become and can’t understand why—is the consummate example. we could say that in Julius Caesar Shakespeare’s strategy seems to be simultaneously one of convergence. and politically inept. character is fate. as elsewhere in the tragedies and histories. doubly inscribed. Antony to be passionate and action-oriented. we could expect them to “choose” exactly what they chose and so exemplify the kind of “fatality of character” which the Shakespeare criticism of previous generations often claimed for them. and this may have something to do with why so many critics see this play as skilled and well crafted. Interestingly. At one level. but not one of the greatest works. It was one of Shakespeare’s most characteristic strokes of genius to recognize. In Shakespeare. but we see this strategy as well in figures like Shylock. one in which the psychologies of the characters matches adequately and without much “surplus” the roles the plot requires them to play.” as rational. In this play the characters do what they were born (dramatically speaking) to do—Caesar to be hubristically imperious. who swore they saw/Men all in fire walk up and down the streets” . Falstaff. Cassius to be manipulative. the main characters are. Macbeth. We might construe the unread warning letter written by Artemidorus. but also patrician and loyal to his friends. Julius Caesar is a play that reveals the power of reified politics to absorb subjectivity and call into question the autonomy of moral agency and choice. a group of women “transformed with fear. as it were. even while they present themselves with psychological traits which explain their motives. But looked at another way. envious. They occupy slots within the system of contestatory politics in the fictional Rome of the play. Brutus belongs in this group.16–18). Iago.10). Machiavellian predictions based on either a prudential assessment of the situation or on over-heard intelligence. But we cannot say the same of the natural—or rather unnatural—wonders that are so vividly described in the interim between Cassius’s approaching Brutus and Brutus agreeing to the plan.3. and Antony. how much dramatic interest could be created by emphasizing a tension between these two character-functions. a slave’s hand on fire “like twenty torches” but unharmed (1. as he is clearly a character who has made the self-cultivation of his inner life a moral priority far beyond what his social station required of him. and the romantic heroines Rosalind and Viola. as I argued above. and something of that compatibility between psychology and historical choice seems to be implied here.

A Grammar of Motives (1945.Moral Agency in Julius Caesar 27 (1. Berkeley: University of California Press. of course.3.. To be sure. these natural signs are soon inscribed into the political contest of interpretations that is central to all the play’s debate. and Jonathan Dollimore. at another level they form part of a sequence of crucial events in salvation history—the prelude to universal peace. After Theory (New York: Basic Books. The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen. Christopher Norris. Radical Tragedy: Religion. 1993). we cannot rely on it too much either. and we recognize a similar list in Macbeth. In this way the play throws into question the apparently free moral choices made by Brutus and his fellow conspirators and opens itself up to a Christian-Providential interpretation. Catherine Belsey.44–45). We can only consider them and hold them together as different and conflicting interpretive frames in a complex allegory. It is given to Cicero to point out to Casca that “men may construe things after their fashion/Clean from the purpose of the things themselves” (1. The Truth about Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell. As this discussion of Julius Caesar suggests. 60–64. . however. 1985). skeptics about such a link in Shakespeare’s time—the modernist Edmund is one in King Lear—and Epicureans were skeptics on the same issues in Roman times. Here as elsewhere in the play.3.1. and none of the characters is in charge of their destiny here or in any other Shakespearean tragedy. then.19 What I argue. we cannot really choose between these interpretive possibilities. is that while we cannot do without a category of moral agency when we read Shakespeare. NC: Duke University Press. that there is a direct link between the events of the human world and the natural world around it. In this play there seems to be as well a philosophical implication—there is some foreknowledge of a political catastrophe about to unfold in Rome.23–25). and whizzing meteors or comets so numerous Brutus is able to read by them (2. 2004). pp.34–35). especially pp. Notes 1 2 3 Kenneth Burke. 3–20. For all the uncertainty of their ultimate meaning. and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (1984. Durham. While the events of the play are at one level nothing more than an empty if deadly political game. Ideology. regardless of which way the opposing sides interpret it. in turn inherited from the ancient world. 1969). repr. As a dramatist Shakespeare was drawn to the idea of this connection and uses it repeatedly to telling poetic effect. 2003). And we soon see the conspirators make a convincing counter-argument about their meaning to Caesar to entice him to travel to the Capitol. both agency and morality are ambiguous. xv–xxiii.18 There were. These are the portents referred to by Polonius in Hamlet. the signs testify to a medieval and early modern assumption. uncertain issues in this and other plays. and such foreknowledge implies fatality at work. Terry Eagleton. 3rd ed.

Cf. the Blind. Wayne Rebhorn.. 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 . Hugh Grady. Belsey.” Renaissance Quarterly. “Collective Violence and Sacrifice in Julius Caesar. 25–28. Max Lerner. Tillyard. Grady. 103–25. The Prince and The Discourses (New York: Modern Library. pp. pp. in his The Prince and Other Writings. and Montaigne. Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism (London: Routledge. For example. 1977). Acts of Religion. 43 (1990). pp. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. From the large number of recent critical works attempting this development of critical theory. The Prince. Herman Rapaport. Grady. The Subject of Tragedy. Wayne Rebhorn (New York: Barnes and Noble. And see also his comments on the complex relation to the audience of these villains in his article for this collection. Brown. forthcoming). 2. Grady. pp. xxvi. and Montaigne. Tzachi Zamir. 2007). Shakespeare. Jacques Derrida. The New Aestheticism (Manchester University Press. Agnes Heller. John Joughin and Simon Malpas. and Peter Holbrook. 36 (2008): pp. pp. Andrew David Hadfield (New York: Barnes and Noble. trans.1. and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from ‘Richard II’ to ‘Hamlet’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 35. Walter Benjamin. M. trans. Gabriel Egan.” William Shakespeare. Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Studies. 399–419. “On the Need for a Differentiated Theory of Subjectivity. and the Jew. MD: Little. Wisdom. Gil Anidjar (London: Routledge. ed. 2002). eds. 2003).. 2007). Philosophical Shakespeares (London: Routledge. scene.. Machiavelli. ed. “Introduction” Niccolò Machiavelli.” in John J. 1–11. 109–25. 1950). see particularly the essays in Ewan Fernie. 22–25. ed. is E. Shakespeare’s Individualism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Machiavelli. Re-Humanising Shakespeare: Literary Humanism. Machiavelli. 65–92. John Osborne (London: New Left Books. Later Derrida: Reading the Recent Work (New York: Routledge. “Hamlet as Mourning-Play: A Benjaminesque Interpretation. 2002). and Montaigne. pp. 1992). The best known discussion of this linkage. The Time Is Out of Joint: Shakespeare as Philosopher of History (Lanham. as most Shakespeare scholars will recognize. 2003). “The Crisis of the Aristocracy in Julius Caesar.” Salmagundi. and Modernity (Edinburgh University Press. 105. “The Fool. 1943). 2005). Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Berkeley: University of California Press. Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli.28 4 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Alan Sinfield. 2000). ed. René Girard. Shakespeare. Shakespeare. and line numbers. Andrew Mousley. 2002). 180–242. pp. pp. Hugh Grady. W. p. Hugh Grady. 2007). 88 (1991). 2006).10–15. The Elizabethan World Picture (London: Chatto and Windus. 34–50. p. pp. Joughin. 26–57. Double Vision (Princeton University Press. ed. Julius Caesar. 75–111. Subsequent references to this play are from this edition and are given in the text as act. 135–65. 2003). Spiritual Shakespeares (London: Routledge.

In other words. the scientific approach yields a theory of human morality in which broad categories of universal morality allow for adaptation to particular cultural and historical circumstances. natural. While touting new research that suggests the brain is hard-wired for a “moral sense” (one in which an appeal to a moral belief-instinct—rather than a reasoned argument—governs action). the article’s primary contribution to the discussion of morality is ultimately more modest: to provide “a theory of how the moral sense is both universal and variable at the same time. fairness. community. the concept of a universal moral sense remains intact: an honor killing is a moral act for the brother who is moved by the category of purity. and purity.”2 Rather than take a side on the age-old question of whether morality is universal (innate.Chapter 2 A Shakespearean Phenomenology of Moral Conviction James A. Recent advances in psychological and cognitive research into the genetic proclivity for moral judgment provide the ostensible context for Pinker’s discussion. while it is immoral for the outside observer moved by an appeal to protect from harm. entitled “The Moral Instinct. I was especially interested in the suggestion that “evolutionary psychology and neurobiology are changing our understanding of what morality is.” Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker extols the promise of new research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience to settle long debates over moral universalism and cultural relativism.” In the article. The use of categories is helpful in . the cover naturally caught my eye. 2008 the cover of The New York Times Magazine announced its feature article with the question: “What makes us want to be good?”1 As I was working on a book about early modern ethics at the time.3 Haidt accounts for cultural variability in moral judgment by looking at which category is invoked or prioritized in a given cultural setting. Knapp On January 13. though the moral categories invoked to judge a particular action are different in different cultural settings. Pinker draws on psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s argument that hard-wired moral impulses fall roughly into the categories of harm. and so on) or local (culturally learned and thus malleable). authority.

it also limits the examination of moral agency by virtue of its initial assumptions: that we do in fact want to be good and that there is something that makes us this way. in this account. Of course. Iago. or if neither by teaching nor practice. it would follow that the attentive critic could identify the moral precepts contained therein. But science gets us no closer to understanding a fundamental difficulty with moral judgments: that while every appeal to morality feels like an appeal to a universal precept. or in what other way?”5 The same question seems to guide Shakespeare’s meditation on moral agency. But the treatment of moral situations in Shakespeare does not necessarily imply an interest in moral prescription. For centuries. I will argue below that in order to learn from studying moral agency in Shakespeare’s plays we must abandon the traditional questions that drive discussions on morality and human action.30 Shakespeare and Moral Agency explaining how both judgments can be justified on moral grounds—the moral sense. Before any answer can be given. as they seem to learn (often too late) moral truths that could have enabled them to avert tragedy. Haidt suggests that contradictions about morality “are dissolving. then whether it comes to man by nature. whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice. as we watch such evil characters as Don John. yet morally motivated” and that “morality is universal. For the debate at the heart of what Haidt calls the “new synthesis in moral psychology” is the same debate that has driven discussions of morality at least since Plato posed the question at the beginning of the Meno: “Can you tell me. If Shakespeare often represents moral situations and his plays somehow embody universal human values. yet culturally variable. Nevertheless. And it is appealing to argue that the reason for Shakespeare’s trans-historical and trans-cultural popularity is a result of his genius in representing universal human values.” including that “people are selfish. the question assumes both a static cause for . for example. critical commentary on Shakespeare and morality has been fueled by such seeming contradictions in the playwright’s representation of morally relevant human actions. Shakespeare’s characters also display moral growth. Socrates.”4 I begin with these recent developments in cognitive psychology because they provide a useful starting point for a discussion of what might seem a tired (or irresolvable) subject: the role of morality in Shakespearean drama. and Edmund fulfill the role dictated by their iniquitous natures and moral heroes such as Hal/Henry and Cordelia embody moral virtue according to their natural disposition. is the impulse that governs actions when they involve one of the identified universal moral categories. While the question on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. sets up the suggestion that science is close to unlocking the enduring human puzzle of moral judgment. Cognitive psychology’s explanation that the brother prioritizes purity while the western observer prioritizes the prohibition against causing harm will convince neither person that his or her judgment is a matter of anything but universal moral truth. such precepts are difficult to define outside of the particular situations in which they are invoked.

Haidt. 1 Henry IV). loyalty to authority (King Lear. . Just as those who attempt to identify Shakespeare’s religious affiliations cite passages with biases which make out a case for one tradition or another. inaction (Hamlet). and other cognitive psychologists are just as interested in the way people arrive at negative moral judgments as they are in determining why some strive to be virtuous. I will suggest that the debate summed up in Meno’s question is essentially tangential to Shakespeare’s representation of moral agency. A more appropriate question would be: “Why do people think some actions are wrong?” The Times’ question is optimistic and future directed—What drives us to want to be good in our future actions?—while the latter question is a matter of retrospective judgment. theologians. and psychologists who came before them. and that mercifulness (The Merchant of Venice.”6 The history of moral philosophy in the West is largely a (sometimes surprising) continuation of the conversation initiated by Plato and Aristotle. It is not surprising that like the moral philosophers. Measure for Measure). But in most discussions the initial questions are shorthand for Meno’s question to Socrates. Arguments that derive these principles from the plays can be convincing. and they have the added appeal of providing a rationale for Shakespeare’s ongoing popularity because his plays demonstrate universal human values. .Phenomenology of Moral Conviction 31 moral behavior and a universal moral disposition. overwrought ambition (Macbeth. There is nothing inherently inappropriate about asking either question. attempts to identify the moral relevance of Shakespeare’s plays often identify moral imperatives in the plays to put forward conclusions about Shakespeare’s guiding moral principles. these principles . the virtues are implanted in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature: we are by nature equipped with the ability to receive them. both are central to the concepts of morality and moral agency. Coriolanus). In addition. Pinker.7 Taking this approach suggests that situations in Shakespeare’s plays invite characters and audiences alike to draw on certain principles that govern appropriate moral judgment. or because they have learned a set of moral rules that are culturally constructed?” At the opening of Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle provides an answer to Meno’s question: “. forgiveness (The Tempest). but there is also more to gain from cultivating a preference for virtue over iniquity. We learn from Shakespeare that tyranny (The Winter’s Tale). and so on are wrong. and habit brings this ability to completion and fulfillment. which could be modernized into something like this: “Do people think some actions are wrong because they are naturally inclined to follow a moral law. There is less at stake in deeming an action good than in condemning it as morally wrong. and so on are right. Enter Shakespeare In the following pages.

At the same time though. rather than being an experience in which values and voices [are] interlaced with responses that are not limited to analysis. while downplaying the notion that we can clearly identify the moral lessons that experience might yield. Do we thereby “learn” the value of parental love? This could seem too crude. the approach still rests on the conventional debate over the adjudication of right and wrong and the quest to determine if these judgments are learned or innate. by allowing readers to follow the details of the process in others. Of course for those of us who study Shakespeare. such readings invariably move away from the particularity of the plays in order to highlight the clarity of moral condemnation or praise. Nevertheless the focus of this kind of moral criticism still concentrates on our ability to make reasoned judgments about Shakespeare’s moral agents. As a result. Though Zamir takes great care to honor the fictive experiences of Shakespeare’s moral agents as analogs for our own experiences. in other words. but the playwright’s reflection on ethical problems in the play far exceeds any didactic moral concerning the value of mercifulness. . more nuanced accounts of Shakespeare’s relevance to moral philosophy begin from the assumption that the moral relevance of the plays resides less in their representation of moral precepts and more in Shakespeare’s dramatic representation of moral situations. community.8 Such a reading redirects critical attention to our experience with Shakespeare’s moral agents. Hal’s ultimate rejection of Falstaff in favor of his responsibility to the state may support the idea that community must come before the individual (as Mr. The focus of this approach. authority. Spock would say. and purity. no doubt because learning is associated with managing some skill. it is impossible to accept the suggestion that the value of the plays corresponds to their ability to convey the kinds of uncomplicated moral precepts listed earlier. fairness. or grasping some pedantic message. We watch as .32 Shakespeare and Moral Agency would seem to fit relatively well into the moral categories identified by Haidt: harm. But do we return to 1 & 2 Henry IV to reconfirm our understanding of this moral precept or to witness the manner in which Falstaff complicates any straightforward attempt at moralizing? Shakespeare’s masterful use of dramatic irony routinely ensures that the audience is a party to a consensus moral judgment that has been made explicit almost as soon as the actors take the stage. is on Shakespeare’s dramatization of moral reasoning as well as the purported invitation that his plays offer his audiences to partake in the same. digesting some piece of knowledge. . Certainly a case can be made that Measure for Measure champions mercy over retribution. “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one”). Literature constitutes a (limited) middle way . the power of Shakespearean drama lies less in its ability to confirm moral truths and more in what Samuel Johnson called “the progress of the fable.” Recognizing this.

” for one of the more interesting insights of the cognitive revolution in moral psychology is the claim that moral reasoning plays a fairly minor role in guiding human action and judgment concerning moral issues and situations. When we think about sticking a pin into a child’s hand. Only in reflecting on moral situations with the aid of reasoned argument can the more complex moral questions be considered. independent of rational deliberation.9 The point is not that moral reasoning has no place in our actual experience with moral situations. is usually a post-hoc process in which we search for evidence to support our initial intuitive reaction. when it occurs. most of us have an automatic intuitive reaction that includes a flash of negative affect. We often engage in conscious verbal reasoning too. Sidestepping the nature/culture debate in this way I hope to turn attention to the process by which Shakespeare’s characters arrive at their moral convictions. and as their reason falters ours is exercised and strengthened. With that in mind. a process that . The approach produces original and important insight into the plays. or we hear a story about a person slapping her father. it is worth returning to what Haidt describes as the “the new synthesis in moral psychology. and it is often influenced by the initial moral intuition. The approach suggests that there is a human universal truth at stake in Shakespeare’s staging of moral situations. but that his drama gains power from his engagement with the phenomenal experience of moral conviction. and that one way to do so is to use moral reasoning to consider the situation. and Shakespeare’s characters would seem to be no exceptions. and (from the perspective of moral philosophy) a strong argument for the power of the literary text to contribute to philosophical discussions of morality. Moral reasoning. But I want to suggest the opposite—that Shakespeare’s representation of moral agency focuses on the way moral conviction wells up in his characters against established moral principles and in tension with the calm domain of moral reasoning.Phenomenology of Moral Conviction 33 Othello or Leontes use reason to make decisions that will have moral consequences. but this controlled process can occur only after the first automatic process has run. a fact that would seem to suggest that Shakespeare’s interest was with his characters’ facility with moral reasoning rather than their innate moral sense. It is not surprising that moral reasoning has been the focus of moral philosophy and moral psychology for so long. Haidt is clear that we have the ability to override the initial intuition. but that we do not as a rule employ moral reasoning prior to acting in situations where the nature of the situation has aroused a valueladen emotional response. Literary characters are notorious for their moral reasoning prior to action. To attribute this interest to the playwright does not suggest that he sides with those in favor of an innate as opposed to cultivated moral nature. and that it is our capacity—however flawed and malleable—for moral reasoning.

for example. Now the only way to stop the trolley is to throw a heavy object in its path. As Zamir demonstrates. saving the five men. Moral Conviction I agree with Zamir that the value of examining Shakespeare and moral agency lies less in the evaluations we can make about the actions of his characters and more in the particularity of the ethical situations with which Shakespeare presents both characters and audience alike. is a result of the misogyny of the early modern culture in which his paranoia has been cultivated. But beyond this. without consensus. He turns to an important thought experiment from neuroethics. Leontes’ tragic judgment . oblivious to the danger. And the only heavy object within reach is a fat man standing next to you. most people would not push the man. the moral failures of Shakespeare’s characters are particularly catastrophic because they are often supported by misguided moral conviction—Othello feels that it is not simply morally justified that he kill Desdemona. the trolley would then run over a single worker who is laboring on the spur. the conductor slumped over the controls. known as the Trolley Problem: You see a trolley car hurtling down the track. In the path of the trolley are five men working on the track. A variation. because the action benefits the greater number of people. . Unfortunately. You are standing at a fork in the track and can pull a lever that will divert the trolley onto a spur. but that it is morally imperative. Is it permissible to throw the switch. Should you throw the man off the bridge?11 Here. killing one man to save five?10 It turns out that almost everyone says yes. This returns me to what I see as a curious moment in Pinker’s explication of the scientific theory of categorical moral universals. The power of this conviction has led critics to look for the cultural underpinnings of such judgments and view the tragic heroes as victims of ideology or of cultural mechanisms of social control. Shakespeare represents ethical situations with such vividness that it is possible to contemplate the weight of his characters’ experiences as we reflect on the moral dilemmas we face in our own lives. The respondents cannot articulate why they would not and the psychologists have speculated.34 Shakespeare and Moral Agency involves moral reasoning as well as moral intuition but which ultimately highlights the experience of the phenomenal world in time. developed by Judith Jarvis Thompson in the same essay goes like this: You are on a bridge overlooking the tracks and have spotted the runaway trolley bearing down on the five workers.

ethics applies to particular human situations in which moral judgments might be invoked: for example. Hal’s rejection of Falstaff is a straightforward example of placing the commonwealth above individual interests. the things that we might say about the build-up to the moment of rejection are much more interesting than any debates over the impact of Hal’s rejection of Falstaff on his own moral character. yearn for more of the jovial knight. On the other hand. and harshly so. For the present discussion. In other words. Is Shakespeare creating a delightful vehicle through which to deliver a message about virtue? After all.Phenomenology of Moral Conviction 35 about what the relevant difference might be.” is a moral precept. In one way. apart from the accidents of a particular situation. The heart of my argument about Shakespeare’s engagement with ethics and morality is . and for this reason those who invoke it do so with alarming confidence (even when they look the other way when the circumstances arise—for example. underscored by his pronouncement: “Presume not that I am the thing I was” (5.12 In a sense the answer is “Yes”: in representing the gestation of England’s hero king.5. At the same time. Hal does reject Falstaff. I would suggest that it is exactly the opposite: the man’s particularity alters the ethical situation (thus blocking an appeal to universal moral law). we. Put in slightly different terms. it is true regardless of the particulars. in situations where it makes sense to evaluate human action in terms of right and wrong. The power of the scene is heightened by the spectacle of Henry’s moral conviction. however. He is not simply a man. For example. but a “fat man. By now. This brings me to my central thesis: Shakespeare particularizes images and thus creates ethical situations that cannot be distilled into moral precepts. But this particular fat man is much more compelling than that moral lesson could ever be.” Unlike the abstract man who will die in the first example—an example that welcomes the kind of calculus that allows action to favor the benefit of the many over the one—the second example is more particular than abstract. Ethics cannot be thought outside an actual particularized situation. the thought experiment allows us to glimpse a universal category of moral instinct (don’t kill people with your bare hands). making its variability infinite. To make the point clear. though. I need to put some pressure on the conventional distinction between morals and ethics: I use the term morals (morality) to refer to the precepts that can be considered in isolation. like Queen Elizabeth. “murder is wrong. I hope you will also see the connection to one of my examples above: Hal’s sacrifice of Falstaff for the good of England. Shakespeare is dramatizing the virtues with which Henry was associated. I would argue that the plays raise a more interesting question for a discussion of Shakespearean ethics and morality: why is it that we are unwilling to throw Falstaff off the bridge? Rather than nod in agreement with the newly prudent King Henry. in wartime).57). Pinker sides with those who suggest that it is the active role in killing the man that makes the difference. whereas morality can produce stable precepts that are often useless or unmanageable in actual situations.

Which. Thy due from me Is tears and heavy sorrows of the blood. as immediate as thy place and blood. as do other characters in the plays. O dear father. rather than the process of moral reasoning helps explain the power of Shakespeare’s representation of moral agency. We as readers and viewers make judgments after the fact.5. (4. the outcome is positive (for Hal). Which God shall guard: and put the world’s whole strength Into one giant arm. In The Winter’s Tale. Here. Shakespeare foregrounds his characters’ experience with images that congeal around ethical situations. Shall. as ’tis left to me. providing visualized thought emblems through which characters and audience alike may contemplate the moment of the ethical decision. the scene encapsulates the way lived experience impacts the development of moral conviction in Shakespeare’s characters. that which he does. What appears to be an indifference to moral precepts at times in the plays can be seen as a result of the playwright’s interest in the way his characters are continually forced to confront this tension. As he contorts . here it sits. it shall not force This lineal honour from me: this from thee Will I to mine leave. Shakespeare provides a vivid image: Prince Harry: My gracious lord! my father! This sleep is sound indeed. Derives itself to me. [puts on the crown] Lo. we are presented with the image of the Prince as King forced to do what his place demands. Shakespeare dramatically extends the moment in which Leontes decides to accuse his wife of adultery with his best friend. but Shakespeare engages directly with the problematic heart of ethical action. but the power of the scene is not dependent on the moral outcome. frozen for a moment when neither reality has come to pass. Which nature. And again in part two when Hal recognizes the significance of the impending succession.457). this is a sleep That from this golden rigol hath divorced So many English kings.36 Shakespeare and Moral Agency that his plays demonstrate a keen understanding of the tension between ethics and morals (so defined). Like his earlier willingness to banish Falstaff (while at play). First at the height of the role playing in 1 Henry IV. and will do (2.33–46) Hal is faced with the dual image of his dead father and his future majesty. love. and filial tenderness.4. Hal’s confrontation of this tension is made manifest in two highly charged images Shakespeare provides prior to the ultimate rejection of Falstaff. Focusing on the phenomenology of the encounter with an ethical demand. pay thee plenteously: My due from thee is this imperial crown. For it is the moment of decision that constitutes moral agents in Shakespeare.

and I find it.13 The consequences are significant. And that beyond commission. women say so. we can judge Leontes with impunity. Come. How do we get to the point where we deem our actions moral imperatives? In Measure for Measure we are not tempted to debate whether it is a good thing for an authority figure to coerce a would-be nun to exchange sex for her brother’s life. imagining his descent into delusion as the consequences of a madness that could never touch us. And fellow’st nothing: then ’tis very credent Thou mayst co-join with something. sir page. There are quite a few more interesting moments for ethics in Measure for Measure.128–46).2. false As dice are to be wish’d by one that fixes No bourn ’twixt his and mine. and thou dost. Considering his moral failure. yet were it true To say this boy were like me.—how can this be?— With what’s unreal thou coactive art. Look on me with your welkin eye: sweet villain! Most dear’st! my collop! Can thy dam?—may’t be?— Affection! thy intention stabs the centre: Thou dost make possible things not so held. and the immediate result is the apparent death of another human being. But the care with which Shakespeare presents the internal workings of Leontes’ path to moral conviction suggests that the playwright was less concerned with the question of whether an action is right or wrong and more focused on the experience of becoming a moral agent (good or ill). As he describes the proposed bed-trick with Marianna.Phenomenology of Moral Conviction 37 reason to justify his suspicion and rationalize his impending action as a matter of his duty to moral law. One comes when the Duke offers Isabel a way out of the jam that Angelo has created for her. as wind. And that to the infection of my brains And hardening of my brows. To be full like me: yet they say we are Almost as like as eggs. the moral precept—don’t proposition nuns for sex—is unscathed by the play’s action. Despite periodic objections to the play’s moral value. Isabel warms to the prospect. The image takes him out of the reality of his own lived experience so powerfully that he can begin to question his previously accepted resemblance to his own son. he conjures the image of himself as a cuckold: Leontes: Thou want’st a rough pash and the shoots that I have. In making his decision to accuse Hermione he is acting as a moral agent (albeit a negative one). eventually exclaiming: “The image of . as waters. Communicat’st with dreams. (1. That will say anything but were they false As o’er-dyed blacks.

there is no more but this— Away at once with love or jealousy! (3. Isabel.38 Shakespeare and Moral Agency it gives me content already” (3. it would seem that it is not the preservation of her chastity that is operative when Isabel makes the decision to go along with the Duke’s plan.260).” Surely she is not taking pleasure in the image of the foul Angelo having his way with the wronged Mariana in the dark.190–92) Prior to the actual ethical situation—the moment. What makes the scene interesting for ethics. As we soon find out. a strong believer in the moral precept. though perhaps not technically) in order to save your brother and right a wrong done against another woman? Though she has two options for saving her brother. Othello’s wonderful catechism on moral reasoning early in the play provides a grim prologue to the play’s representation of the moment of moral decision making: Othello: I’ll see before I doubt. prove. The situation Isabel faces goes something like this: Would you acquiesce to a raft of morally suspect behaviors (lying to Angelo. aiding sex outside of marriage. But. And on the proof.1. it is what Othello sees (or thinks he sees) that will be the problem. For how else could the image of the Duke’s plan make Isabel “content. In the end there is no doubt that moral . His journey to the moral conviction required to enable him to commit murder is the intense focus of Act 3 scene 3. but because she is engaged with the ethical in all its phenomenal complexity. with all of its attendant particularity.3. in which Othello will have to make a decision about his course of action—Othello has no trouble engaging in reasoned discourse about the proper application of moral law. has no trouble with the initial decision on the question: Would you sacrifice your virginity for your brother’s life? But in the case of the proposed bed-trick. the scenario is complicated to such a degree that even the morally rigorous Isabel must abandon the precept. The Duke has presented her with a choice that is much more situational than that provided by Angelo. rather it is the image of Mariana restored that confirms her moral conviction. Measure for Measure will take several more turns after this point. While all of Iago’s rhetorical manipulations combine to create the context for Othello. confirming that the play’s concern is less with adjudicating human action according to a set moral code and more with examining the lived experience of moral agents. when I doubt. Isabel is a moral agent here. brokering a sex act. is the particularization of the various factors involved at the moment of decision. it is the image of the handkerchief in Cassio’s hand that provides the ocular proof Othello demands. why is Isabel willing to be a party to the latter but not the former? One could argue that the latter doesn’t involve the violation of her own body (though it clearly involves the violation of similar moral precepts). Othello provides us with perhaps the most harrowing example of the gestation of moral conviction gone wrong. not because she acts in the right way. then.

Claudio is willing to ignore everything he knows about his beloved Hero when he is presented with the false image of her infidelity. for he justifies the murder in the final act on moral grounds (5. The image of Cassio wiping his beard with the handkerchief ensures that abstract reason will lose out to embodied experience.297–305) In describing his current condition to Don Pedro. in their rooms Come thronging soft and delicate desires.Phenomenology of Moral Conviction 39 conviction guides his hand.” later noting to Don Pedro that love had grown as war had turned to peace: Claudio: When you went onward on this ended action. with an air of moral superiority we exclaim that we would never allow such circumstantial evidence to lead us to commit an obvious moral wrong. (1. A young lover. A final example can be found in Much Ado About Nothing.2. the sequence of events. That lik’d but had a rougher task at hand Than to drive liking to the name of love. The account sets up his later encounter with Don John and the visual deception that will lead him to publicly disgrace Hero. and that war-thoughts Have left their places vacant. the texture of the phenomenal world of objects like the handkerchief. Shakespeare’s plays allow us to reflect on the way particular experiences arouse passion. If. generate moral conviction and complicate moral agency. confess not that you know” (3. In response to Claudio and Don Pedro’s doubt about the accusation against Hero. Claudio’s confident response resembles Othello’s reasoning . Saying I lik’d her ere I went to wars. But now I am return’d. Each detail. And while we have no trouble condemning his murderous jealousy.1–22). The emphasis on the visual is continued as Don John lays his trap. Don John replies: “If you dare not trust that you see.119–20). Claudio describes Hero to Benedick as the “sweetest lady that [he] ever look’d on. to contemplate the experience of the ethical in all its phenomenal complexity. I look’d upon her with a soldier’s eye.1. There is also no debate within the play or without over how to judge the moral character of his action once committed (it’s bad). That he knows how he should proceed— with reason and hard evidence—is no comfort for an agent pulled by the power of phenomenal experience. I would suggest that our fascination lies with his transformation. All prompting me how fair young Hero is. we are less willing to consider how we might act when faced with the situation Shakespeare provided for Othello. Claudio carefully identifies the stages of intensity through which his desire grew to the point that he knew he was in love.2. Prior to the deception. all come together to provide a dense ethical situation in which our moral agent is called to act.

3. In this particular example we might argue that the moral precept on which Claudio bases his rage is the problem: from our perspective. Behold how like a maid she blushes here! O. For Shakespeare’s moral agents no amount of moral reasoning prior to or after the fact can account for what happens at the moment of ethical . one cannot help but feel that the final scene is haunted by Claudio’s morally righteous invective at the alter. This judgment is possible even though Claudio’s invective at the wedding springs from his misguided but nonetheless experientially “authentic” moral conviction. before the whole congregation. to-morrow in the congregation. shame her with what he saw o’er night” (3. Having witnessed the deception contrived by Borachio with the unwitting Margaret: “away went Claudio enrag’d. Borachio relates the scene in which Claudio arrives at the decision to disgrace Hero. with the virtuous Hero judged aright.1. swore he would meet her as he was appointed next morning at the temple.33–42) His decision to disgrace her in the most public way never fails to provoke moral outrage from my students. By these exterior shows? But she is none: She knows the heat of a luxurious bed. But if we bracket that consideration (a move supported by the fact that Hero apparently buys into the same value system) it becomes clear that Shakespeare’s ethical meditation highlights the susceptibility of Claudioas-moral-agent to the circumstances of phenomenal experience. where I should wed.123–25). upon the discovery of Borachio’s deception. The comfort that moral reasoning and moral principles offer Shakespeare’s characters when they are not actually faced with the moment of ethical decision making serves to emphasize the danger of what Haidt calls post-hoc moral reasoning. Convinced of her guilt by the illusion on the balcony.159–63). The point is emphasized when. And though the play will end happily.251–52).40 Shakespeare and Moral Agency about ocular proof: “If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her. All you that see her. Claudio is nothing if not true to his word on this count. the misogynistic version of female virtue Claudio invokes would make his action morally corrupt regardless of Hero’s guilt or innocence. Claudio is able to restore the original image: “Sweet Hero.2. that she were a maid. (4. what authority and show of truth Can cunning sin cover itself withal! Comes not that blood as modest evidence To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear. Her blush is guiltiness. now thy image doth appear/In the rare semblance that I lov’d it first” (5.1. and there. there will I shame her” (3. at the altar Claudio chooses to focus on the true image of Hero standing before him as proof of her sexual corruption: Claudio: She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour. not modesty.

Tzachi Zamir. and David Ward. Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 37. 2007). Spiritual Shakespeares (London and New York: Routledge. Aristotle. Intention. 2003–04. Haidt. Martin Ostwald (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.3 (2004). 35. Jonathan Haidt. 32–37. “The Moral Instinct. For a detailed reading of this passage see my essay “Visual and Ethical Truth in The Winter’s Tale. vol. 1962).” Shakespeare Quarterly 55. III. Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Steven Pinker. the moment of action is the moment that we see Shakespeare’s moral agents appear in all of their ethical complexity. 6. January 13. 2008. Haidt. The Nicomachean Ethics. “Affection.. 2005).48–73). 2004). p. and Dreams in The Winter’s Tale. Ibid. 52. ed. 2007). Secret Shakespeare: Studies in Theater. p. 11. 998–1002. sec.Phenomenology of Moral Conviction 41 engagement. 2004). Pinker. 1103a 22–26.5827 (May 18. pp. 1914). pp. trans. . 998. 58.5. Richard Wilson. Ewan Fernie. 55–56. 545–54. and Resistance (Manchester: Manchester University Press. Brown. Religion. Pinker. Dialogues of Plato. Moral Identity in Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Plato. p.” Modern Language Review 82 (1987): pp.” The New York Times Magazine. 998. See also. and Co. pp. 253–78. Paul Cefalu. p. See 2 Henry IV (5.” Science 316. “The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology. p. Benjamin Jowett (New York: Bigelow.

The same goes for “standing” in “understanding”: Most people rarely think about it. use language of position and movement when we talk about discovering. The notions of uncovering or opening implicit in words like “discover” and “disclose” are relatively easy to recognize. and Coriolanus. A special feature of at least certain focal postures and gestures in Shakespeare’s mature tragedies is . and the senses of the word that stay closest to its origins—“to smooth out. In Shakespeare’s drama.3 This kind of wordplay not only seems to escape what an audience could imagine as the conscious control of the characters. the roots of crucial words that characters use when they talk about knowing and being known. in the case of “explain. however.” “to open out. include subtler homonymic play that escapes the bounds of single characters. King Lear. Focusing on examples from Hamlet. the dead metaphor in the root of the word (the Latin planus. the language of knowing and being known works in special ways. I want to show here that one of the distinctive features of the “mature tragedies” is a kind of wordplay that involves subtle but rigorous engagement with. and so on. as Simon Palfrey has noted. this fact does not make the characters particularly strange or interesting: We all.” on the other hand. but also implicitly comments on the characters’ blind spots. explaining. make smooth. unfold. particularly in the tragedies written between approximately 1601 and 1608. once it occurs to us to think about them. understanding. whether we know it or not. and reactivation of. Consider the roots of some of these words. flat). While the plays of the period in question contain some instances of what we might call overt punning2—that is. In and of itself. punning that gives the impression of being understood and deliberately performed by its speaker (as when Hamlet makes his obscene comment to Ophelia about “country matters”). spread out”1—are not consciously in play for most current English speakers most of the time. disclosing. these plays also.Chapter 3 Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception in Shakespeare’s Tragedies Keira Travis The words that characters in Shakespeare’s plays use when they talk about knowing and being known tend to be position-and-movement words.

what interests me most is a pedagogical project—a project of adapting for classroom use a type of criticism aimed at developing simultaneously rigorous and flexible engagement with language.”5 Paying attention to the wordplay networks in the tragedies allows us to respect Shakespeare’s contrapuntal method. we can become more aware of the position-and-movement words that we use when we talk about knowing and being known. Accordingly. think both less rigorously and less playfully than Shakespeare. One problem with many attempts to formulate a response to this question is that they tend not to respect the extent to which Shakespeare. Most of us. and semantic links between words. consistent awareness of the dead and dying metaphors implicit in the roots of the words that people tend to use when they talk about knowing and being known. “presents both his ideas and his character types contrapuntally. in the plays of this period. when it comes down to it. can matter. and performance critics. as Marjorie Garber puts it. because the networks in question tend to extend well beyond particular characters—and tend. and. where? And: Do the characters avoid recognizing such contradictions? If so. Further. The plays of this period 1601–08 reward careful consideration of questions such as: When characters talk about knowing themselves.” when it comes to roots of words and how they work. I don’t think that last statement is a paradox. I submit that “knowing it or not. how? When I follow through on such questions. directors. subtly to undermine . and with the mental re-dramatization of non-literal position-and-movement words. careful study of the enacted positions and movements of the characters should be of interest not only to actors. b) thematize characters’ particular ways of knowing and being known. Such an approach to Shakespeare also allows me to address the question “What makes Shakespeare’s tragedies philosophical art?” without.”4 It is my contention that. I think that part of what makes Shakespeare’s mature tragedies particularly valuable in this context is the extent to which they reflect exceptionally good. but also to people interested in philosophy and philology. I hope. Matter for what? Well. He achieves this mental dramatization by means of wordplay networks that “bring dead metaphors back to life. by studying the workings of these networks of wordplay and their relation to enacted and described positions and movements in these plays. has to do both with the bodily positions and movements that he will have his actors perform and describe on stage. Engaging with Shakespeare’s subtle wordplay can both help us sharpen our thinking and keep us laughing at ourselves. too. partly because we lack such awareness. by the way.Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception 43 their involvement in intricate networks of wordplay that simultaneously: a) activate etymological. do they use the same language they use when they talk about knowing someone else? And: What sorts of words do they use when they talk about knowing people? Does their language involve them in contradictions? If so. homonymic. getting Shakespeare specialists rolling their eyes or falling asleep. I find that Shakespeare’s dramatic imagination.

611) of him to “unpack [his] heart with words” (2.44 Shakespeare and Moral Agency characters’ avowed positions. a fear of losing this becomes a major implicit issue in the soliloquy at the end of Act 2. if he articulates his feelings. Thus. Hamlet speaks the word in an important soliloquy. in his first extended speech in the play. accordingly. empty (“unpregnant” (2. Hamlet is self-deceptive. at one point saying with bitter sarcasm that it is “most brave” (2. the play also implicitly develops a criticism of the character that is different from his criticism of himself. and 1608 respectively. While Hamlet is obviously speaking with a great deal of selfdisgust here. my approach would allow me to deal with Shakespeare philosophically without ever making the philosophy of a single speech stand on its own. While Hamlet’s determined attempts to know the contents of others’ hearts imply that he believes that inner states can be exposed.595)) if he keeps his feelings inside. but this one instance is in Hamlet. however. King Lear.577). This wordplay network is very . it appears only once. what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” (2. and it is involved in a wordplay network of the kind I have been describing. This is the soliloquy beginning “O. but already in the process of emptying himself out (“unpack[ing]”).6 He berates himself repeatedly in this speech. And yet. he is full. Now.” He sees himself as being in a no-win situation: He is. and control the contents of the self. 1605. This “unpacking” problem is connected to postures and gestures in this play by means of a wordplay network that connects “pack” words to “foil” and “fence” words and to Hamlet’s climactic fencing match. including Hamlet himself. having put forth my thesis and suggested some of its implications. Most people will recall his assertion.2. even when he is being self-critical. My treatment of the examples here is necessarily brief. are depicted as imagining their own and others’ selves as containers with contents—containers that can be opened and unpacked. the less he has “within. the more Hamlet unpacks his heart with words. and Coriolanus. he nevertheless insists (at least some of the time) on the undiscoverability of his own interiority. in fact. and the play points to that self-deception. In this play there is a kind of emptying out of subjectivity associated with the attempt to discover. The specific word “unpack” is unusual in Shakespeare. I will turn to examples from Hamlet.2. In other words.2. grasp.2. that he has “that within which passes show” (1.2.614). paradoxically.80). The approximate dates of composition for these plays are 1601. Hamlet In Hamlet several characters. the one that ends Act 2. these examples are all susceptible to more extended treatment. His tendency to think of himself as a container with contents ends up making his desire to give appropriate expression to his feelings conflict with his desire to preserve his interiority.

It is also worth noting that Hamlet discovers Claudius’s scheme to have the king of England execute him when.2. to have.18) entrusted to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”7 and. While we still sometimes speak of foiling plots or villains. many options are available to actors and directors. poisoned sword. The more familiar versions of the play have Hamlet tell this story to Horatio. though. to contrive or plan in an underhand way. Importantly. The Q1 passage in which we learn about Hamlet’s discovery of the “packet. The exchange of weapons—which exchange leaves Laertes holding the blunt foil and Hamlet holding the sharp. but the language of Q1 does the most to emphasize the parallels between Hamlet’s “packing” and Claudius’s. “Pack” in early modern English could. the Q1 queen’s loyalties are much less ambiguous than are the loyalties of the Gertrude of Q2/ F. indeed. the actors playing Hamlet and Laertes will both take the foil. on the other hand. but. the early modern idiom “to take (or give. the word is used in this sense elsewhere in Hamlet (for example. defeat in an onset or enterprise. “unseale” in F) the “packet” (5.8 sets up a parallel between. Hamlet’s plotting with the queen and Horatio. figuratively and literally.2. or have) the foil” seems to have fallen out of use. mean “[t]o plot (something).” the contents of which reveal the “subtle treason that the king had plotted” (TLN 1812). There is an analogous swapping during the fencing match at the end of the play.234)—a multivalent line that has do with carrying something. In Q1. she actively conspires with Hamlet and Horatio against her husband. according to the Oxford English Dictionary. in Hamlet’s “[t]this man shall set me packing” (3. . Q1 handles this part of the story differently than Q2 and F. on board the ship. Horatio relates to the queen the events that took place aboard the ship bound for England. take a (the. Claudius’s plotting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and. clearly. the “treacherous instrument . he dares to open (the word is “unfold” in Q2. or of being foiled. The plotting/packing Hamlet unpacks Claudius’s packet/ plot. receive.4. This is the case in all versions of the play.”9 When the exchange in the final scene of Hamlet is to be performed. TLN 1837): one “packet” is Claudius’s. if anything. arch. . if a performance of the fencing match is going to follow the text(s) at all closely. the) foil. assembling belongings for a journey. In early use often in phrases: to give a or the foil. though. The word “packet” appears twice in Q1 (TLN 1814. and also plotting). one’s foil). to put to (a. receive. in fact. . on the one hand. nobody has in this connection drawn attention to a relevant difference between current idioms involving the word “foil” and early modern idioms involving the same word. and replaces it with a packet of his own. a baffling check. The relevant definition given by the OED for “foil” as a noun reads as follows: “A repulse. one “packet” is Hamlet’s. that text does more than the others to play up the implicit wordplay around packet/packing/unpacking.347–48)—has been discussed a great deal. to my knowledge. Unbated and envenomed” (5.Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception 45 much involved in Hamlet’s exploration of the implications of certain problematic ways of thinking about what it is to know a person.

1. and he asks Marcellus to try to force it to stay. links to “strike. “to strike. The play tends to develop this theme in terms of figurative language of striking and offending. But the ghost responds to literal striking the same way it responded to the verbal offence: it disappears.” The fendere words repay close examination. but rather because of where they appear and what they do. Horatio again demands that it “Stay and speak!” (1. That he defends himself against the possibility that other characters might. Especially between the “mighty opposites” (5. In addition. so to speak.1. one could add that Hamlet seems to . Marcellus: It is offended. Both Hamlet and his adversaries attempt at various points to know other characters without being known. (1. and relating to people.1. it stalks away. this play depicts a symmetry of approaches and attitudes when it comes to ways of thinking about. not so much because of the number of times they come up in Hamlet.” “strokes. What is especially interesting about the fendere / striking words in Hamlet is that.” The words “defend” and “defence” also appear. The fact that the fencing match is set up so that one player has a sharp sword and the other has a blunt one can be connected to this pattern.54–60) Then note that. Characters are represented as.” by which the character would seem actually to mean “in self-defence. Words semantically connected to the fendere group are also important. Recall the watchmen’s first attempt to interrogate the ghost: Horatio: What art thou that usurp’st this time of night Together with that fair and warlike form In which the majesty of buried Denmark Did sometimes march? By heaven. I charge thee.154). when the ghost comes again a bit later.155). one thing that the exchange of rapiers and the mutual foiling can do is to make us think about whether or to what extent Hamlet’s ways of standing and moving in relation to his adversaries are symmetrical with his adversaries’ ways of standing and moving in relation to him. knowing. And. speak.69) (that is.46 Shakespeare and Moral Agency It is also notable that “fencing” is one of a number of important words in this play that share the Latin root fendere. Hamlet and Claudius).” Such words include “offend. there is the pseudo-legalese phrase. “unpack” his heart is something of a commonplace. Indeed. Barnardo: See.153).” “offender’s.” and “strucken” are activated. asks Marcellus. so to speak. answers Horatio. “Shall I strike it with my partisan?” (1. In a number of instances.1. if it will not stand” (1. in the gravediggers’ hilarious routine in Act 5. the play links words in the “offend” group to characters’ attempts to know and to characters’ attempts to strike.” and “offence.2.”10 “in self-offense. right from the very beginning. “se offendendo. “Do.” “offended. trying to strike or to offend in situations in which they cannot be struck or offended.

” and suggests that it is not just about mood or temperament. I do. chiastic) relation to “authority” (“carry authority” . say. bearing. repays close consideration of the ways in which “disposition” may have to do with characters’ orientation to discovery (that is. “dispositions…bears”). “have”? It may be tempting simply to take Goneril’s comment as a complaint about her father’s moodiness and not look too closely at her specific words. as a container with contents) and what it is to know a self (that is. Indeed. and a desire not to think of oneself (or have others think of oneself) as such an object. “Carry” and “bears” are easily recognizable as synonyms.293–95). And I want to suggest that one of the results of this defence is that he blinds himself to the fact that what he is afraid of is exactly what he tries to do to others. on account of. as a matter of unpacking the container).Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception 47 barricade himself against the possibility that he could look into his heart and really know what is there. King Lear In King Lear “disposition” is a particularly interesting word. rather. however. But why exactly would Goneril speak of “dispositions” as things one would “bear”? Why “bear” rather than. “disposition” in As You Like It is not re-dramatized by means of connection to enacted or described postures or gestures. The play explores the possibility that one of the problems which this way of thinking can give rise to is the highlighting of the conflict between a tendency to make the logical inference that one’s self is the same type of object that one has imagined the other to be. and inflicting suffering. . carriage. of others) and self-discovery. And. I would suggest that this play rigorously explores questions about especially the main character’s “disposition. among other things.12 This syntax of the sentence in question sets “dispositions” in an analogous (strictly speaking. a stronger. while it is a thematically important word in that earlier play. I have sketched out only briefly here the outlines of the wordplay network in Hamlet that points toward the main character’s self-deception. King Lear. . quasi-literalized sense having to do with characters’ ways of orienting themselves in relation to other characters. on the other hand. One notable instance of the word “disposition” in King Lear comes in Goneril’s comment to Regan at the end of the play’s first scene: “If our father carry authority with such dispositions11 as he bears. think that it is worthwhile to take seriously the extent to which examination of the pack/foil/fence wordplay complex would seem to suggest that Hamlet is a character who is depicted as enduring tremendous and unresolved psychological suffering. nevertheless. and disposition can be close synonyms in . a certain way of imagining both a topography of the self (that is. this last surrender of his will but offend us” (1. “Disposition” in this play has. The only play by Shakespeare to contain more instances of this word is As You Like It.

While Goneril. but “madam”—Regan or Goneril— cannot glare back. they have also forbidden Gloucester to take him in. not always—enhances the play’s theatrical effectiveness. in a more extreme form.” “bears. And here. As the trial gets underway. by the time we get to the trial scene. I would like here to argue for the importance of the “mock trial. perhaps more clearly than anywhere else. This reading is reinforced by the way its sense is reversed and . scene 6 usually—though. He stands and glares. and Cordelia are present in that earlier scene. In the case of Lear.”14 But while this gloss may capture part of the sense. an important aspect of the ceremony that Lear tries to stage in the play’s first scene. he concedes.” The Riverside Shakespeare glosses “eyes at trial” as “spectators at your trial. In his madness here Lear displays some of the same habits of mind that he has displayed since the beginning of the play. however. madam. “Want’st thou eyes at troll-madam?” (13. it misses an important contrast: “He”—the king. Modern editors usually emend “troll-madam” to “trial. Regan. and Roger Warren has argued that the omission of this section of Act 3. that is—“stands and glares at her. their father counts on them to play roles that are effectively dictated by him. his attempts to overcome his doubts by discovering and neutralizing the daughters become ever more extreme. it is best that they not be present.48 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Shakespeare’s mature tragedies. So if he wants their trial to go according to plan. His eyes are there. Goneril and Regan have not only shut their father out. thou want’st eyes. This is scene 13 of the Quarto text. and Edgar and the fool play along with him. of course. his obsession with discovering his daughters is matched by his obsession with preventing their discovery of him. All three words are susceptible to what I call literalization or re-dramatization. The ceremony is not supposed to leave room for surprise: It is clear from the first lines of the play that the king has already decided how he is going to divide his territory. scene 6. This “mock trial” is absent from the First Folio text of this play. Nowhere in the play is Lear’s way of disposing himself in relation to his daughters more apparent than in what is sometimes called the “mock trial scene” of Act 3. her eyes are not. But. As Lear’s doubts about his daughters become inescapable. Lear has come to doubt his ability to predict and control his daughters’ behaviour. his way of wielding authority does have to do with what to his daughters are his moods.19–20). but his moods are best understood as a function of his habitual way of disposing himself in relation to other people.”13 In this scene Gloucester and Kent have just brought Lear in from the storm. it is interesting that Goneril’s comment at the end of the first scene includes “carry.” and “dispositions” all heaped into a single clause. Edgar’s first comment begins to bring out Lear’s double strategy of discovery and evasion: “Look where he stands and glares!” he says of the king. he then adds. The arraignment of the absent daughters repeats. Lear stages the arraignment of the absent Goneril and Regan in this scene.

the anxiety about the possibility that they may escape overwhelms him. corruption in the place! / False justice. The minute the fox-daughter disappears. bearing” emerges as an important theme. “Porting” in the sense of “carrying.49–51). With Lear’s next lines.18). Lear is of course also imagining his destruction of her. We see how Lear seems to feel the daughter’s imagined evasion of him as if it were her exposure of him: immediately after calling for arms. / Arms. But in imagining his knowledge of her in these terms. in the sense in which the tribune Sicinius uses it. And the idea of hunting the daughters conveys both Lear’s desire to catch them and his fear that they will evade him. it shows up only one other time (in Othello). and visits her revenge on Gloucester. Trey. Thinking of his daughter’s insides as the location of her secrets gives Lear somewhere to look (so to speak) if he wants total knowledge of this person.56–57).210)15—one of the tribunes uses that word—the focus of attention. At one point he addresses them as “you she-foxes” (13. The king responds to the shame of being barked at by his imaginary dogs by retaliating with an even more aggressive move to expose one of his daughters. he suddenly calls out: “Stop her there. Coriolanus In Coriolanus the “custom of request” of Act 2. carriage. Regan will stand and glare. In Act 3. arms. he will be evaded and discovered: To him this apparently feels logical. fire. bearing.3. and he refuses to narrate his military deeds. “porting” in the sense of “gate-keeping” also . Another of Lear’s strategies for exposing and evading his daughters involves his dehumanization of them. If Lear fails to evade and discover. and fire. and Sweetheart—see. Here another dimension of the symbolic structure that Lear develops begins to emerge: The imagined court proceeding is also something of a hunt. Contrary to the custom. he refuses to uncover his war wounds.70–71). Coriolanus’s “portance” during the “custom of request” is insulting to the plebeians. at Gloucester’s interrogation. see what breeds about her heart” (13. scene 3 makes the main character’s bearing or “portance” (2. because it signals his refusal to let them know him. sword. Regan literalizes her father’s exclusion of eyes. they bark at me” (13. with their attention fixed on the king. we are subjected to the imagined dissection of Regan: “Then let them anatomize Regan. sword. It means. the king begins to whine: “The little dogs and all. “Portance” is an unusual word in Shakespeare. three other canines appear.Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception 49 replayed in the very next scene. his double. interesting possibilities start to appear. Indeed. while he will lose his eyes. Blanch. Once we start noticing other words with the root “port” in the play. This gets increasingly aggressive in the trial scene. why hast thou let her scape?” (13. scene 7 of the conflated text (scene 14 of Q).

The play uses the word “carry. The porter / gate-keeper. Having read it. In Act 5. He is explicitly called the defender of Rome’s gates: “you have pushed out your gates the very defender of them” (5. In Act 4. is about to return to port/carry Rome.5. analogously. toward “porting” in these other senses. of course. or as a transgressor of them. the play’s final scene begins with Aufidius speaking the following lines to his attendants: Aufidius: Go. Aufidius’s lieutenant asks his commander whether he thinks that the exiled Coriolanus will successfully conquer Rome: “think you he’ll carry Rome?” (4. One definition the OED gives for “porter” is: “One who has charge of a door or gate. not for being from there. and so on. The irony here may be connected to the irony of the name Coriolanus: Caius Martius gets his additional name for conquering Corioles. things are complicated by the fact that his allegiances change during the course of the play—as a defender of boundaries. The sense of “porter” that is most common in current usage is the one that has to do with carrying. he is Rome’s porter in one sense before his banishment. he asks.” in connection with a political candidate’s winning of an election. after Coriolanus has called off the invasion of Rome. for new reasons. in another sense after he changes his allegiances. janitor . and in connection with a military leader’s expected conquering of a city. In order to understand why porters matter. Deliver them this paper. a gate-keeper. in other parts of the play.”17 This and other related senses are in play in Coriolanus.1). for us a porter is usually a “person whose employment is to carry burdens. who include the people of Corioles. says one of the Volscian guards when Menenius asks to be allowed to plead with Coriolanus to spare his city. .50 Shakespeare and Moral Agency comes into play. having been deported (pushed out the city’s ports/gates).” which of course is semantically linked to “portance. after he changes sides. a public institution. Titus Lartius refers to the gates as “the ports” (1.7. Coriolanus can be used by the people he serves—and.193–94). The constellation of interrelated port. Coriolanus’s “portance” during the “custom of request” has a lot to do with the attitudes he has shown. .27). Another fact which suggests the importance of ports in Coriolanus is this: In both the first and last acts the gates of Corioles are called “ports.words works in Coriolanus to crystallize certain crucial qualities of the main character. . we need to think more about what the play does with the language of gates and carrying. the part of the play that includes the Roman soldiers’ crucial refusal to follow Martius through the gates of Corioles.2. not gates. ”16 The word “porter” is explicitly used in this sense when one of Aufidius’s servingmen reports to another that Coriolanus plans to “sowl the porter of Rome gates by th’ ears” (4. especially at the entrance of a fortified town or a castle or other large building. tell the lords o’ th’ city I am here.7. So the same name ends up being apt. but then he comes back to conquer Rome on behalf of the Volscians. door keeper.” In Act 1.41).

though in this case the marketplace is in Corioles. / They would not thread the gates” (3. (5. his refusal to show his wounds or narrate his deeds. / More worthier than their voices” (3./ Even when the navel of the state was touched. Recall that in Act 2.1. of them during the “custom of request” with his withholding posture. scene 1 he shows himself quite willing to narrate the plebeians’ misdeeds and to give his reasons for his conduct toward them. Coriolanus complains that the plebeians. we could say that he is accusing them of bad portance. In the speech beginning “I’ll give my reasons. the approach attempted here depends on. among other things.3. “Being pressed to th’ war. As Lee Bliss points out. at least in current usage. come. We find out from Aufidius’s speech that. scene 3 Coriolanus refuses to narrate his own deeds or to give reasons for which the plebeians should give him their voices.120–21). that in Act 3.1. hoping To purge himself with words.150))—is a reflection of his banishment. it can refer to something at once . We should recall as well. He sees his portance (we might say “attitude”) as a reflection of theirs. I particularly find the word “attitude” to be well adapted to my purposes because. let’s see him out at gates!” (3. He is also saying that his behaviour during the “custom of request” is justified on the basis of their bad portance. . not Rome.6.” Coriolanus is again expected to appear in a marketplace and speak to the public. scene 3—that is.”18 When the main character blames the plebeians for their refusal to thread the gates/ports. Him I accuse The city ports by this hath entered and Intends t’ appear before the people. the phrasing here evokes memories of the soldiers who refused to follow Martius through the gates of Corioles. to re-emphasize.Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception Bid them repair to th’ market place . . having proven himself doubly a traitor—a traitor first to the Romans. they could retort that their portance in Act 3. a habit of thinking about attitude and approach in a range of literal and figurative terms. it is also interesting that this mention of ports appears in the context of an instance of ironic mirroring. although the parallel passage in Plutarch “is general and condemns the conscripted commoners for often refusing to go to the wars (that is. that this time he is much more willing to go through with the public appearance.1–8) 51 Not only is it notable that the play’s final scene begins with a mention of city ports. So. however. he is just trying to save his own life. Of course. We soon find out. as in the “custom of request. too. And this time the character is not running for political office. and now to the Volscians. their banishment of him (“Come. he flatters the Volscians. and gives a rather dishonest account of his truce with the Romans—an account designed to put himself in a good light. ‘thread’ the gates of Rome). so to speak.123–25). rather.

there may be wordplay on custom/ costume in Menenius’s “fit you to the custom” admonition). rather. . to comment explicitly on the fact that I have focused here on three of Shakespeare’s so-called “mature tragedies. and his country. traditionally been considered the most glorious part of Shakespeare’s career. we can think of something Menenius says in Act 2.138–40) These are important lines. Understood as the constitution of the self’s relation to the self. finally. “port” can mean both “bearing” and. disastrous consequences for himself.2. of course. The root of the word “attitude” comes from the Latin aptus. This period has. for example.” “to wear”). of fitting. however. or Two Gentlemen of Verona) are coming to be more fully appreciated as distinctive achievements in their own right. of attitude. as your predecessors have. In recent years. scene 2 of Coriolanus. Conclusion Now. via a bilingual pun. (2.19 I am. I am simply trying to develop one of many possible pedagogically generative ways of reading the tragedies.” I have gone so far as to say that the language of knowing and being known works in special ways in the plays of this period. I will mention that “standing” and “fitting” come together in this play’s “porting” wordplay. of course. While I am at it. Your honour with your form. go fit you to the custom and Take to you. In this connection. The main character’s refusal to fit himself to the custom has. his family. indeed. I would like to suggest that if you think. Menenius responds: Menenius: Pray you. he goes so far as to insist that he “cannot / Put on the gown” (2. Coriolanus never does the kind of fitting. I do not want to contest the de-marginalization of the early plays. for a minute. in the sense that interests me. the kind of adjustment of his relation to his self and others. I would suggest that it is worth thinking about this play’s major themes in terms of “fitting”.2.131–32)). “wearing” (French “porter. Even though he does end up bowing to pressure and putting on the candidate’s costume (yes. not entirely comfortable with the phrase “mature tragedies” because it implies an invidious comparison. When Coriolanus lets the senators know that he wants to be allowed to become consul without having to appear in the traditional candidate’s gown (indeed.” you may be able to get a clearer sense of what ethics. ethics is a matter of positioning. I need. has to do with positionand-movement words in Shakespeare.52 Shakespeare and Moral Agency affective and more or less literally positional. fit”. of attitude in terms of “fitting. plays by Shakespeare that had in the past had relatively little attention (early plays such as Comedy of Errors. “fitted.

“The Folio Omission of the Mock Trial. s. Q2. see Margreta de Grazia. Bristol. s. I find this edition convenient because. the application of “pun” (which word dates from the late seventeenth century) may be problematic. Shakespeare After All (New York: Pantheon. “Explain. however. The History of King Lear.Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception 53 Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Oxford English Dictionary Online. Simon Palfrey. on the other hand. In F. wherever I specify that I am quoting from Q1. 43–56. Except where otherwise noted. 2003). It is. the gravedigger’s phrase “It must se offendendo” refers to Ophelia’s mode of death: she killed herself in self-defence/self-offence. it cannot bee else. Oxford English Dictionary Online. pp. 1992). See Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor.” I use the word “pun” at this early point in this essay for the sake of ease of comprehension for non-specialist readers. The Quarto text’s “dispositions” (plural) appears as “disposition” (singular) in the Folio text.” “Se offendendo” is found in F only. in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press. Except where otherwise noted. important to note that in connection with Shakespeare’s wordplay. 1986). quotations from King Lear are from Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Mowat and Paul Werstine.” TLN stands for “through line number. it cannot be els” (TLN 3198). For a cogent discussion of the problems involved. thus. 2005). pp. Marjorie Garber. in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press. the gravedigger may be understood as saying that there would be only one way to defend/offend the coroner’s decision: “it” in the Q2 phrase “It must be so offended” would then refer to the coroner’s decision. Modern editors usually follow F here.v. Throughout this essay. 7. The Tragedy of Hamlet. Roger Warren. Doing Shakespeare (London: Arden Shakespeare. or F (as opposed to a modernized Hamlet). Kliman use Hinman’s line numbering for their ThreeText “Hamlet” (New York: AMS.” Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft West Jarbuch (1990): pp. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (Oxford: Clarendon Press. while it is based on Q2. “Pack. 1986). Note that it contains no “Act” numbers. however. Prince of Denmark (New York: Washington Square Press. “Foil. in-text references are to scene and line. The First Folio of Shakespeare. p. eds.1068. Q2’s reading is. 45–57. quotations from Hamlet are from Barbara A. This text is based on Q1 King Lear. Where F has “It must be Se offendendo. 1025–61. eds. 2004). I got the phrase “bringing a dead metaphor back to life” from Michael D.v. it clearly marks all Q2-only passages and all F-only words and passages. “Homonyms before and after Lexical Standardization. p. pp. . intelligible.v. ed.” Q2 has “It must be so offended. s. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 134–67.” Charlton Hinman established this line numbering system for The Norton Facsimile. in-text references are to Bertram and Kliman. In Q2. 1983).” in The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of King Lear. Paul Bertram and Bernice W. The Tragedy of King Lear. eds. The gravedigger is talking about the coroner’s ruling on Ophelia’s death.

for example. 186n. ed. TX: Houghton Mifflin. Patricia Parker. 1996). Coriolanus (New York: Cambridge University Press. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Quotations from Coriolanus are from Lee Bliss. Culture. s. 15 16 17 18 19 . 1278n. Shakespeare from the Margins: Language.v.54 14 Shakespeare and Moral Agency G. See. 1974). It is also worth noting that there is a workshop on “The Return of the Early Comedies in Shakespearean Scholarship” planned for the 2009 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America. Context (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2000). ed. King Lear. “Porter. Coriolanus.” Ibid. in The Riverside Shakespeare (Dallas. Blakemore Evans. Bliss.

Bepissing. and are therefore morally condemnable. but rather due to drunkenness or wrath. one buys something in a situation that one could not possibly have known (or reasonably be supposed to have known) that the object in question had been stolen. After that. I The question that I wish to raise about moral agency in Shakespeare is whether he accepts the Aristotelian distinction between acting “in ignorance” and acting “due to” ignorance. means acting in a way that one cannot be blamed for.1 Acting “due to ignorance. This seems to me more interesting than his conception of “moral agency. For instance. However. for Aristotle. It is going to point to a peculiar feature in Shakespeare’s conception of agency. Aristotle holds that the actions performed in this state are not properly thought of as due to ignorance. Aristotle holds that one is not acting “due to ignorance. I will turn to what I take to be the deeper puzzle. and do not properly generate regret on the other.Chapter 4 Excuses. acting in a situation where one simply did not know a morally relevant particular of the situation that one was in (not knowing a morally relevant general truth is wicked [NE 1110b330–33]). Insofar as moral agency involves the issue of moral responsibility—that is.” Such acts. one is truly acting “due to ignorance. and generative . and Non-being: Shakespearean Puzzles about Agency Richard Strier This little sketch must begin with a disclaimer: it is going to be in some ways more interested in agency in general in Shakespeare rather than about “moral agency” in Shakespeare. though one knows that buying stolen property is wrong.” though I will begin with a puzzle about that.” even though one is acting “in ignorance. The key examples are when a person is drunk or angry (NE 1110b16–1111a1–2).” for Aristotle.” in a situation where one is responsible for the state that has put one into ignorance. on the one hand. are pardonable. In this case. the relevance to an action of (moral) praise and blame—there is one question that I wish to raise.

I here proclaim was madness. Let’s look at the case of Hamlet. and therefore he is among the wronged parties. Aristotle holds that one is responsible for letting oneself become that kind of person (1114a1–21). or not. He asks Laertes. in some deep sense. Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d— His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy. an action clearly done “in ignorance”—he did not know who was behind the arras—as due to ignorance. Q1. It does seem morally relevant that Hamlet did not intend to kill Polonius—he did it. I am not sure whether Shakespeare grasped this distinction or not. I am genuinely unsure whether Shakespeare wants us to see Hamlet as being disingenuous and consciously sophistical here. to use . moreover. on the other hand. such that only chosen (“purpos’d”) actions are to be thought of as voluntary.2. to “pardon” him (presumably for killing Polonius). Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet. is: Hamlet: What I have done That might your nature. honour. makes it quite clear that the category of the voluntary must be much larger than the category of the chosen. but [it is] not the result of choice” [1111b7–10]).” he tells Laertes. in very formal terms. And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes. Here again. He seems. one is not acting “due to” ignorance. Then Hamlet does it not.208–20) Hamlet presents his rash and excited action in killing Polonius.56 Shakespeare and Moral Agency of (moral) regret. If’t be so. But Aristotle also thinks that this holds in the case of anger. If one says that one is simply the kind of person who is unable to control her anger. but due to one’s character—for which Aristotle holds that one is also. his “madness” made him do it. to accept a very simple version of the voluntary. Let my disclaiming from a purpos’d evil Free me so far in your most generous thoughts That I have shot my arrow o’er the house And hurt my brother [Q2. responsible (1114b20–1115a1–3). (Aristotle. Hamlet denies it. Who does it then? His madness. He does not take any responsibility for allowing himself to get into the state in question (“madness” or whatever). That is perfectly straightforward. and he gives as an explanation of this distinction a case immediately relevant to Hamlet: “an act done on the spur of the moment [is] a voluntary act. and exception Roughly awake. He was “not himself” at the time. If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away. The reason he should be “pardoned. mother F). The person did not have to get drunk (“had the power not to” get into such a state).2 (5.

after all. until the time of such ratification.” Yet Laertes recognizes that that is the term relevant to Hamlet’s verbal gesture. But that still begs the question. his poisoned and unbated foil. used the word “love. that he doesn’t accept the apology. even disingenuously. even enhances.185. Shakespeare would not have given them to him—if the character did not think that they were a fully plausible reply to what Hamlet has said.133). a “brother”—a fellow “gentleman” (“pardon’t as you are a gentleman” [5. or to what extent. This word has been powerfully associated with Hamlet’s own character by the shrewdest observer of character in the play (Claudius). let’s duel.230). Hamlet has not.” after all. given that he is just about to pick out. “Free me . the word or concept to which Hamlet most strongly appeals—even beyond the understanding between “gentlemen”—is the idea of generosity. since the whole issue is whether. / And will not wrong it.” and in the Q2-only speech about the power of “habit” in the discussion of the “custom / More honour’d in the breach” in Act 1. Bepissing. after all. Austin’s very Aristotelian distinctions—by mistake.2. even more directly.2.Excuses. Laertes claims to be “satisfied in nature”—which “in this case should stir me most / To my revenge”—though not in honour. The puzzle only seems to me deepened by Laertes’ response.6 The fact that he says these particular words—even if they are disingenuous —means that he feels the force of what Hamlet has said. L. and perhaps to think of him as.” He tells Hamlet that.” I think it too easy simply to say that Laertes is lying here. 230). after all.2. quite carefully.” or he could say. Hamlet continues the thought in speaking of the duel as “this brothers’ wager” (5. He does seem to bear no ill will to Laertes. . Moreover. and with whom he is now indulging in innocent aristocratic “play” (5. .5 Yet Hamlet seems sincere. he makes a speech that fully recognizes. .205]) whom he has known since childhood. Laertes would not say these particular words—or rather. Instead. “I do receive your offer’d love like love.” he says. he is condescending to explain himself—something that great aristocrats didn’t often feel obliged to do. a fully Aristotelian account of how character is developed and changed in his speech to his mother about “habits. say something to the effect of.3 But the disclaimer seems too strong (“Hamlet does it not”). and Non-being 57 one of J. which he presents as requiring some sort of public ratification by “elder masters of known honour. surely Hamlet is enough of an Aristotelian to know the argument for responsibility for one’s character. He could. and free from all contriving” turns out to be correct (4.7. Perhaps the speech-act itself is more important than what it actually says. “that’s all so much fancy talk. scene 4). though not by accident (he meant to stab somebody). he is being (or we are asked by Shakespeare to see him as being) disingenuous—in however grand a mode. in some sense. and also the argument that one’s character is most fully revealed in “spur of the moment” actions4 (he gives. in your most generous thoughts. and has been proven true of Hamlet. Claudius’s claim that Hamlet will not examine the foils because he is “Most generous. So we are supposed to think that Hamlet indeed knows about “generous thoughts.

I think that it cannot be taken either as a straightforward. or can offer bad arguments to support good intentions (which we are to value above the arguments).3.106) and he is outrageous verbally and then physically aggressive toward the gentleman (Montano) who attempts to stop him from brawling in the street.209–13). Cassio certainly feels regret/remorse.273–75). Laertes says in an aside that “it is almost against my conscience. parallel case. The puzzle is that Cassio so readily accepts Iago’s suggestion that Cassio appeal to Desdemona to help him get his position back even though he seems to recognize. And as Laertes is dying. the existence of regret or remorse is crucial for defining the nature of the act in question [NE 1111a20]. The other case where I am not sure how Shakespeare means for us to evaluate a character’s response to a bad action on his part responds directly to Aristotle’s first case of an action done “in ignorance” but not “due to” ignorance—an action done when drunk. “I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking” (2.” Laertes assures Claudius that he will “hit” Hamlet now.3.7 Let me say a bit about another. and seriously wounds the intervener. “in a town of war. after Hamlet’s second “palpable hit. and then move on to what seems to me the greater Shakespearean puzzle. or that disingenuousness is a complex business. he “pulls rank” in a disgusting and obviously ungospel-like way in insisting that “The lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient” (2. but also frees him from responsibility for Polonius’s death (“Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee”). Cassio behaves in a truly vile and murderous way when drunk. and seems to accept moral responsibility (for Aristotle. in the course of the duel. So. Perhaps we are to see it as part of a general perception on Shakespeare’s part that persons (characters) often don’t know whether they are being sincere or not. He understands the full extent of what he has done—as Othello says. that he is not worthy of getting his position back. to sum up this discussion. he denies that he is drunk. so drunken. than to deceive so good a commander with so slight.” There would be no reason for him to say this if he were not.8 Meanwhile. when. Laertes frees Hamlet from responsibility not only for Laertes’ own death (Hamlet was truly acting “due to ignorance” with regard to killing Laertes). Iago tells Cassio that he is. Whatever we are to conclude about the moment in question. in some sense. Shakespeare has made it perfectly clear that Cassio is fully aware of his inability to hold his alcohol (he tells Iago. and so indiscreet an officer” (2. Cassio says: “I will rather sue to be despised.3. Certainly Cassio could—and should—have resisted the pressure to drink.58 Shakespeare and Moral Agency the affective and social meaning of what Hamlet has said. I am genuinely not sure what Shakespeare means us to think of Hamlet’s apology.30–31). genuinely moved by Hamlet’s apology. and asks Hamlet to “exchange forgiveness” with him.” and so on (2. in the lines just quoted. with regard to . morally responsible account or as a straightforward piece of self-justifying and self-conscious sophistry. Verbally.3. Moreover. and the character of the agent [NE 1150b31]).

Shylock would recount his excellent reasons for hating Antonio on the basis of Antonio’s public and . one of the most important—speeches in the whole Shakespearean corpus.1. Is it a flaw in Cassio’s character to ask Desdemona to accept this commission. of course. This puzzle may be related to the possibility raised above that Shakespeare thought that persons have an oblique and complex relationship even to their own sincere utterances. So. So Shylock has perfectly good—meaning thoroughly intelligible (not necessarily admirable)—reasons for hating Antonio. And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur. One of the key bits of proof for this claim occurs in a completely unexpected and weird speech in The Merchant of Venice. or is this another case where Shakespeare seems to let someone too lightly off the moral hook. he is not drunk or angry. / And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine . And. perhaps giving some kind of credence to Cassio’s talk of devils? Cassio is. Shylock is given the opportunity to “disclaim” publicly his “strange apparent cruelty” in seeking to extract the pound of flesh penalty from Antonio. At the beginning of the great trial scene in Merchant. Shylock has reminded Antonio “You call me misbeliever.3. he has already given a great speech justifying hatred of one’s enemies as a completely normal human reaction (“and if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” [3. We have heard before of Antonio’s treatment of him. and Non-being 59 drunkenness. .” 9 And Antonio has fully accepted this account of his behavior: “I am as like to call thee so again. Bepissing. I want to make the general claim that this is true of Shakespeare. in his conception of agency in general. and that it is this view—that stated motives are generally inadequate as explanations of a person’s (character’s) behavior—that leads to the perception that Shakespeare is a Freudian avant la lettre. it seems more than reasonable that here. perhaps. as I have already suggested. that is. to spurn thee too” (1. The issue that I am interested in is Shakespeare’s lack of interest in (or belief in) motives. and a flaw in Desdemona’s to accept it? Is Cassio “too severe a moraler” with regard to his own behavior when drunk.3. Shylock takes this as an opportunity to explain why he will not “disclaim” the pound of flesh forfeiture.Excuses. .294). / To spet on thee again. seems to accept that it is reasonable for Cassio to want his position back.107–126). and that it is reasonable for Desdemona to wish to help him get it back. an admirable fellow—when. in a public and judicial setting.60]). Surely we know what he is going to say. after all. a speech that might be my candidate for the weirdest—and therefore. cut-throat dog. Does Shakespeare grasp Aristotle’s point about such states? II Let me hasten now to what I take to be a deeper puzzle in Shakespeare’s conception of moral agency—or rather. “too severe a moraler” (2. and the play seems to accept this.

Humours—here meaning something like wishes or whims. serve as an answer to the why question.11 After this example of a (to most people) “strange” piece of behavior that is consciously chosen.10 So far. non-voluntary (where the involuntary includes things chosen under duress [NE 1110b): Shylock: Some men there are love not a gaping pig! Some men are mad when they behold a cat! And others when the bagpipe sings i’ th’ nose. And I be pleas’d to give ten thousand ducats To have it ban’d? what? are you answer’d yet? (44–46) Shylock here seems to speak for absolute freedom of choice (within the realm of legality) with regard to personal expenditures. and that he has given at length elsewhere. No account of his preferences need be given by the consumer who is willing to pay for what he wishes. in a sense. The scene is set for him to reiterate. He goes on. his rationale for hatred. they need not have a rational basis. as Aristotle would say.—is it answer’d? (43) He knows that this would not normally be considered an “answer” to the why question. but he shifts the whole topic from the realm of reasons to an entirely different one: Shylock: say it is my humour. however. we seem to be in a world of wishes and preferences and choices. Cannot contain their urine—for affection . not chemicals in the blood—are not to be questioned.60 Shakespeare and Moral Agency avowed treatment of him.40–42) He refuses to answer the “why” question just at the point when it seems his answer would be most à propos. But Shylock’s “account” of his behavior is weirder than that. But instead of giving another speech about how thoroughly and regularly he has been wronged and injured by Antonio. to give an account of human behavior that does. but a refusal to answer it. Not only does he refuse to give the answer that would seem to be so readily to hand. if not a world of rational bases for such. or elaborate upon. Shylock then gives a picture of human behavior that has nothing to do with choice.1. this is what Shylock says: Shylock: You’ll ask me why I rather choose to have A weight of carrion flesh. than to receive Three thousand ducats: I’ll not answer that! (4. but are absolute in themselves as explanatory factors: Shylock: What if my house be troubled with a rat. that is truly.

in the sense of recognizing them.47–61) 61 Shylock now substitutes “affection” for “humour” as his master explanatory term. “a lodg’d hate”. and shamefully “laugh like parrots at a bagpiper” (1.” Shylock. The examples move from the understandable (one needn’t be a Jew or Muslim to find something slightly disturbing about the pig “gaping” either from its mouth or its cut neck) to the bizarrely trivial (“a harmless necessary cat”). with its oddly produced sound (“sings i’ th’ nose”) and its strangely biological appearance (“a woolen bagpipe”) seems somewhat more suited to producing phobias. Positive cases of “affection” are mentioned in the speech—” what it likes and loathes”—but. More than a lodg’d hate. “Affection” seems to mean. As to offend being himself offended: So can I give no reason.13 to the somewhat uncanny. presents his own motives as such. he can only try to give the passion a quality of viscerality. The bagpipe. astonishingly. inappropriately. Shylock sees himself. something like “general psychophysiological disposition” (it’s a term that seems to serve Shakespeare as a pointer to psychological opacity—compare the contorted speech on the mysteriously powerful “intention” of “affection” that Shakespeare gives to Leontes in the first scene of The Winter’s Tale). in its odd. of persons doing things over which they have absolutely no control. We may think that Freudian psychology could answer the “why” question in individual cases. but these “answers” are certainly opaque at the time to the agent who is offending and “himself being offended. Bepissing. all the examples are of revulsion.1. and when he re-characterizes the “hate” as “a certain loathing.12 The picture is of persons helplessly under the “sway” of compulsions. When he returns from the account of the master power of “affection” to a named passion.51–3). as is appropriate for the context. but of force Must yield to such inevitable shame.1.(4. in Shylock’s use of reactions to the bagpipe.Excuses. Why he a woolen bagpipe. Early in the play—in a speech that Shylock could not have heard— Solanio had mentioned “strange fellows” who mechanically. but they hardly count as reasons for action. and all of us.” But.” the phrase. nor I will not.14 We “understand” such phobias. and Non-being (Master of passion) sways it to the mood Of what it likes or loathes. as such “strange fellows. the body obtrudes itself not merely mechanically but in a way that returns to the infantile. and utterly subverts the social—with regard to both self and others. almost fussy detachment . The unstable grammar of “to offend himself being offended” exactly captures the point.—now for your answer: As there is no firm reason to be rend’red Why he cannot abide a gaping pig. here. and a certain loathing I bear Antonio. Why he a harmless necessary cat.

weirdly. There is a strong sense in this passage that reason and choice never entered into the picture at all—not at an early or a later stage in some process (compare NE 1114a19–21). that of Iago.62 Shakespeare and Moral Agency and vagueness. I would argue that Shakespeare is here giving his Jew a speech that expresses. but in the kind of motive that he has— a normative case for Shakespeare’s conception of character and agency. of accepting responsibility because of irrational internal forces—that is who. Shakespeare takes a case where the motives seem obvious and then has the possessor of them emphatically deny their relevance to his behavior. Maybe there is a critique here of classical ethics. verbally bepissing—himself as well as others. and to deny the relevance of “reasons. interestingly. In the first of these speeches we hear of his resentment at not getting the job of Othello’s lieutenant. has just the quality of unwilled aversion that the examples support. my claim here will be that Iago is—not in the particular motive that he has. that those characters are mistaken about what they actually want.”15 but whatever one thinks about that. I find a haunting plausibility in Kenneth Gross’s view that “Shylock is Shakespeare. more powerfully perhaps than any other in his work. And it is not even the Aristotelian point about being responsible for one’s own character. I think. of the idea of “proper pride. Shakespeare’s sense of the lack of access that persons normally have to the actual springs of their own behavior. I think this speech is meant to alert us to how little grip “motives”—what we say are the reasons for our behavior—have on our behavior. This is not a case of attempting to deny responsibility by appealing to irrational forces (“Hamlet does it not”) but. Again.1. a job that Iago is fully convinced that he deserved. The only term that Aristotle has for such behavior is “brutishness” (which. The interesting question becomes why Shakespeare would have wanted to give Shylock this speech. The first 60 or so lines of Othello consist mainly of speeches by Iago. shaming. I am.10). for instance.” he says. or what. as must now be clear. and they are speeches about his motives. Shylock seems himself to be in the grip of some kind of compulsion to assert the power of compulsion. I think it points to something general in Shakespeare’s conception of the human agent.17 Let me conclude this set of reflections by spending some time on the most famous case of “motivelessness” in Shakespeare.” even if this means offending—demeaning.” . This is framed not as vainglory but as proper pride. “I know my price. Even when it looks as if there is a straightforward motive for a character’s behavior—ambition.16 III I have spent so much time on this one passage from The Merchant of Venice because. he associates with childhood trauma). “I am worth no worse a place” (1. in Macbeth (or even Richard III)—it can be shown.

This.” God either does or does not—depending on one’s interpretation—give His name. But what does it mean? The figure who says this in Exodus is asserting—in all the translations of the Hebrew bible (though perhaps not in the Hebrew bible itself)—some sort of absolute ontological priority. The playwright wants to alert the biblically literate in the audience that his conception of this character involves not a figure with a solid if rather sinister sense of himself. a discourse on proper service as Iago sees it. “profane. and Non-being 63 or maybe the critique here is of the stance or tone that this conception generates in Iago.” animo (not anima). “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). does not have a self. it should not be. like Hamlet’s. on how manly. saying (in all the protestant English bibles of the century). Everything is set up for the speech to end with the culminating and. It does not mean to interpret the bible. what is Shakespeare doing in this line? It is. properly proud assertion. in response to the request that Moses makes of God to be able to answer the query that Moses knows that he will get regarding the God in whose name he is claiming to act. in some deeper sense. This is an echo that Shakespeare surely expected many people in his audience to catch. The play as a whole . it uses the bible to interpret the character that Shakespeare is creating. but rather a figure who. Iago cannot be purposely echoing this in the negative. “I am not what I am. Rather. self-contained and self-interested. but on the opposite. “some soul”—meaning. on its inability to express the inward.19 Shakespeare would seem to be giving us a picture of a perfect hypocrite. is to have. There is no “I am” just at the point where one seemed to be powerfully unfolding. not Iago.18 We might learn more from Iago’s second speech. merely being. the tone of mockery and resentment (not a stance that Aristotle recommended for the person with “proper pride”). Shakespeare has Iago culminate his elaborate self-presentation with a negative version of one of the most mysterious moments in the Hebrew bible. So let us pursue further the question of what the biblical/theological reference does here. it is the latter. “spirit. Bepissing. and with full awareness. non. If.“obsequious” followers maintain the “forms and visages of duty” while truly only serving (“attending on”) themselves.” The point is not that the inner cannot be expressed but that.Excuses. “I am not what I seem. someone fully. for Iago.” But that is not what Shakespeare gives us. “What is his name. The speech ends with a contempt for “outward action” based not. for the properly self-serving. Instead we get the very strange assertion. as is much more probable. however one understands this. in this context.” Either this is a slip of the pen on Shakespeare’s part—though both the 1622 quarto and the first Folio have the same line—or a slip of the tongue on Iago’s. on its contemptible ability to do so. to “demonstrate / The native act and figure of my heart. as he says. the moment in Exodus when. the first and one of the most spectacular of the biblical echoes in the play.” Shakespeare is doing something here. as virtually every commentator has noted. as Honigman says. as Machiavelli would say.

and V. The theological enters to point to a mystery. “Replete with joy and wonder.289–95]).355–57). and the Fall was necessary to the full revelation of this (in Christ). This is the famous theme of “felix culpa”—the “fortunate fall”—that.22 Shakespeare again (I think) expects many in his audience to recognize what is going on when Iago boasts of doing the opposite of this. But Milton was much more committed (in my view) to classical ethics than Shakespeare was. He has the Neoplatonic sense of goodness . Again. is that they are not ordinary. thus: “So will I turn her virtue into pitch / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all” (2. to use Desdemona’s advocacy of Cassio as a key weapon—Iago summarizes the result he hopes for. Milton’s explanation for Satan’s behavior is Satan’s “sense of injur’d merit” in relation to the Elevation of the Son— precisely the motive that Shakespeare initially gives to Iago.21 When Iago finally sees his actual plan (thanks to Cassio’s inability to hold his liquor) take shape—that is. In a Neoplatonic and perhaps biblical context—especially given the prominence of the Exodus echo—one might say that it is the fact of anything at all existing that drives him to a fury. of making evil come out of goodness—of making goodness the direct cause of evil. What Shakespeare seems to be suggesting is that it is the mere existence of goodness that drives Iago to a fury. the relation of the result to the original situation is more intimate.98.386]. Now that’s the kind of thing that Shakespeare seems to have thought of as a motive.” such as they are. after the archangel Michael explains to Adam that Satan will ultimately be defeated.3.471–2). Iago knows that there is something inherent in goodness that he can use against it.64 Shakespeare and Moral Agency can be seen as in dialogue with the founding story for the Judeao-Christian conception of history. Paradise Lost comes to our aid. ever since Lovejoy’s article in 1937. or a combination of sexual revenge and sexual desire [2.1. Othello is Shakespeare’s Paradise Lost. Let me try to elaborate this a bit further. and knows that it was widely echoed throughout the middle ages (including in vernacular and literary texts). In Shakespeare’s inversion. the happy cosmic outcome of the Fall is a testimony to the power and benevolence of God. but the one that I want to pursue here concerns the matter of motivation—of devilish motivation.20 Shakespeare. This has many implications.3. I. seems to have needed a deeper and more mysterious explanation. goodness immense! / That all this good of evil shall produce. recognizable ones like “the sense of injur’d merit” (or sexual revenge [1. Again. Everyone who has ever taught or taken a Milton course knows that toward the end of the final Book. the more “secular” poet. Milton thought this motive truly explanatory. In the Christian scheme. Adam.665). What the perverted biblical echo at the end of Iago’s second speech helps us to see is that the conception that Shakespeare had of Iago’s “motives. it is the narrator’s as well as Satan’s own account of Satan’s motivation (see Paradise Lost. / And evil turn to good” (PL XII. everyone knows. The idea of sheer negativity seems to be what drew him. a “direct and directing” reference to the religious tradition helps.” bursts out: “O goodness infinite. An injury to “proper pride” seemed very deep to Milton.

however. do not put me to’t. grand lady that she is. / And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona / A most dear husband” (2. his capacity for love and for joy. and Non-being 65 as inherently active and overflowing.15–16]). Her goodness of being includes. his grand complacency. and be a member of his love” (3. Iago’s passion to destroy Othello must be seen to derive from Othello’s fullness of being.118–19). / Is of a constant loving. In the rather annoying scene in which Iago and Desdemona banter about the nature of women.1. he hopes “that I may again / Exist. Lest this still seem too fanciful. (5. howbeit that I endure him not. the principle of sheer negativity is clarified by reference to its theological opposite. pace Eliot.287–89). Iago says of Cassio: Iago: He hath a daily beauty in his life That makes me ugly. / For I am nothing if not critical” (2. “She’s framed as fruitful / As the free elements” (2.133). Instead.180]).1. against his own grain—that “The Moor.” It would mean. or non-self. “O my fair warrior” is a truly wonderful moment (in all senses [2.1. as he sees it.1. but of being. Bepissing. self. So the culpa from felix principle must be seen at work here too. Shakespeare has Iago say something else. taken literally. a happy excess of both goodness and being.336–37). and has a positive dimension. The context is playful. again. and Iago does pride himself on his “tough-mindedness” (which in this case. revealing.19–20) . let me hasten to say that there are moments in the play when Shakespeare explicitly presents Iago in something like these terms. Desdemona simply is the kind of person who will be overflowing with charity.1. In attempting to refuse Desdemona’s playful challenge. So again. and Desdemona. Cassio does so in strikingly Neoplatonic and Pauline language.23 Again.26 Yet the clearest account of Iago’s deepest motivation comes in relation not to Othello or Desdemona but to Cassio. is cynical). Again. Cassio may have slept with Iago’s wife (2. be killed. necessarily includes. “O gentle lady. and. we watch Iago going over the reasons why both Roderigo and Cassio must. such a person would be nothing. Iago gives a powerful reason for not wanting to play this game. Iago acknowledges— somewhat. as in the ontological argument. and we already know his motive (or motives) for wanting Cassio dead—Cassio beat him out for the lieutenancy. And so he must be destroyed. would not exist. it is not a matter of will.3. sets Iago the task of praising her.4. ordinary (“He calls me to a restitution large / Of gold and jewels that I bobbed from him” [5.305).Excuses. Iago says. something entirely unexpected. that without an object to demean or destroy.25 In this framework. a reason that again. At the beginning of the fifth Act.1. When Cassio expresses his hope to be reconciled to Othello. His motive for wanting Roderigo out of the way is. seems to say rather more than he intends.24 but Shakespeare clearly wants us to think about what it would mean to be “nothing if not critical. existence is a good. noble nature. of giving one of these straightforward and easily intelligible motives. one way or another. indeed.

“Damnéd Custom . London: Thomson Learning. his ease and happiness in his being. For Neoplatonism. 1970). for Shakespeare. to repeat. . A. J. I take it that Iago is—not in the particular motive that he has. in the logic we have been tracing. 450. and line numbers. as about that of Laertes. Warnock (Oxford. 2006). p. 2nd edition. see Paul Cefalu.” What Iago finds intolerable about Cassio is not anything that he has (a job that Iago wants) or anything in particular that he does. See NE 1117a20. but that’s a fable” (5. Theological conceptions were there.283). J. 567–8. . See J.” in Philosophical Papers. ed. pp. Shakespeare. London. O. esp. seems to me admirably undecided about Hamlet’s speech. pp. what he finds intolerable about Cassio is his entire way of being. These editors see both Hamlet and Laertes as straightforwardly “disingenuous. Quotations from Othello are from the edition by E. Quotations are from the Q2 text edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Tylor ([Arden 3]. 175–204.” But. IN: Bobbs-Merrill. pp. pp. Neoplatonism helps us see the relation between the aesthetic terms and ontological ones. had to draw on theology to find conceptions sufficiently mysterious. an especially clear case.” Harold Jenkins. Habit’s Devil: Hamlet’s Part-Whole Fallacy and the Early Modern Philosophy of Mind. Honigman (Arden 3. Urmson and G. in his edition (Arden 2. column. L. Austin. of what he feels in relation to persons who have the fullness of existence that he lacks. Again. in my view. 184–5. See the note in the lines in the Thompson-Tyler edition. they are the same: the fullness of being is goodness and beauty. social and ontological. 1982). For an important essay on habit in Hamlet. but to human ones. . London and New York. one in which Shakespeare essentially tells us how to think about “motives. in my estimation.66 Shakespeare and Moral Agency This is a deeper version of “I am nothing if not critical. J.1. Iago is. References will hereafter appear parenthetically in the text by Bekker page.” in Revisionist Shakespeare: Transitional Ideologies in Texts and Context (New York: Palgrave Macmillan. but in the kind of motive that he has a—a normative case for Shakespeare’s conception of character and agency. 145–72. But I do not mean to suggest that Shakespeare was writing theological dramas. 1996). 1999). Iago must make everything and everyone ugly—which means. 2004). As I have already suggested. Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 All quotations from the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) are from the translation by Martin Oswald (1962. Shakespeare makes Iago aware of the void within him. to make it cease to exist. He warns us not to make this mistake. Indianapolis. Iago does not have cleft feet—“I look down towards his feet. “A Plea for Excuses. not to point to theological mysteries.

London: Methuen. 165–67). J. Pafford struggles with this passage in an Appendix (pp. Witchcraft makes the homely frightening (think of broomsticks as vehicles. “Milton against Humility. O. I have borrowed “direct and directing” from Stanley Fish. In Eliot’s definition of “wit. . 96–8. 1964). see also Cefalu. in Essays in the History of Ideas (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 61–80. p. MA: Harvard University Press. 211. ed. H. Marshall Grossman (London: Routledge. Pafford (Arden 2. ed. 262. O. Bepissing. p. 82. Kenneth Gross. See The Winter’s Tale. See A. Revised and Enlarged Edition (Cambridge. NE 1148b23–30 (discussing. 1950). The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (1936. and have considered Macbeth in an appendix to that essay (“What about Macbeth?”) that will appear in my forthcoming book. The reason why cats are so normal as witches’ “familiars” is clearly because they are so familiar. 206–25. p. Lovejoy. 277–95. and Non-being 9 67 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 Quotations from The Merchant of Venice are from the edition by John Russell Brown (Arden 2. trans.” in Reading Renaissance Ethics. 1972). pp. Posner sees Shylock as here giving voice to “a common place of liberal theory – the subjectivity of [monetary] value. among other things. 1963). New York: Harper and Row.. or merely of old women—or just of women).” in Religion and Culture in the English Renaissance. See Strier. and may actually add something to it by coordinating the social with the psychological. 189. 2006). Shylock is Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Claire McEachern and Debora Shuger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.” he distinguished sharply between tough-mindedness and cynicism. Eliot. 1948). pp. Revisionist Shakespeare. 2007).Excuses. 1960). Self-Consuming Artifacts: the Experience of Seventeenth Century Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press. The comma after “offend” that Q2 inserts only weakly rationalizes the line. pp. ed. This is where the Posner reading fails to capture the content of the speech. “Milton and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall” (1937). I have made some suggestions along these lines with regard to Richard III in “Shakespeare against Morality. London: Methuen. 1955). A Bilingual Edition. pp. The “high-minded” person “will show his stature in his relations with men of eminence and fortune. 1997). rpt. 1998). pp.” For Aristotle on proper pride (“high-mindedness. 94. S. See Machiavelli’s The Prince. Plotinus is the key formulator. Richard A. “sexual relations between males”). but will be unassuming toward those of moderate means” (1124b18–20).“The Unrepentant Renaissance: from Petrarch to Shakespeare to Milton. see “Andrew Marvell. Mark Musa (New York: St Martin’s Press. and ed.” megalopsychia) see NE 1122a18– 1123a33). Lovejoy. A.” Law and Literature. New Edition (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co.” in Selected Essays of T. 258–86.

1971). 26 . pp. Alvin Plantinga (New York: Anchor Books. Brower.68 25 Shakespeare and Moral Agency See The Ontological Argument: From St. Anselm to Contemporary Philosophers. “Introduction: The Noble Moor.” Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1965). On our difficulty with “the recognition of greatness. 1–28.” and how this threatens our reading of Othello (and Othello). see Reuben A. ed.

Part II Social Norms .

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”2 That is. For Shakespeare the outside world of society is inseparable from what a person’s character unfolds as his ‘belongings’. between individual action and social circumstance. “the mere juxtaposition of character and society fails to satisfy Shakespeare’s immense sense of character. not the qualities as such (as a given condition or heritage) is the dramatic source of character. but under circumstances existing already. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “Men make their own history. given and transmitted from the past. emerges from and always engages with the social. but they do not make it as they please. . the personal or individual is also social. [is] one of the most central and fundamental problems of historical materialism as an account of the development of human civilization. The testing itself (as a process in time).”1 Accordingly.”6 Such a judgment reflects and reinforces . Generations of Shakespeareans have taken for granted “that there is a distinction between the Shakespearean person and the public or political position he chooses or is forced into. a character on stage does not exist until “his private qualities are successfully (or otherwise) tested in public.”4 It should not surprise that the Marxist critic offers an understanding of character that is sociological. Merely to confront the idea of personal autonomy with the experience of social relations is not good enough as a definition of character.”5 Nor does it surprise that Weimann’s argument—his processural and dialectical understanding of character—has been largely ignored by literary critics. “the nature of the relationships between structure and subject . Robert Weimann argued that “the most original and far-reaching dimension in Shakespeare’s conception of character” is “the dimension of growth and change. they do not make it under self-selected circumstances. As a result.”3 A classic formulation of this insight comes from Marx. since Marxism is a branch of the discipline of sociology and as Perry Anderson notes. suggests Weimann. Playing the Warrior in Macbeth Sharon O’Dair Twenty-five years ago. in an essay not widely cited since. .Chapter 5 Conduct (Un)becoming or.” which can not “be adequately understood” without recognizing how character is effected through “the dialectic between identity and relationship.

’ or ‘…have a collective meeting and decide what gender we should perform and go perform it on the street and alter things radically’. 10 Instead. Like other writers in this volume.” At the same time. this powerful assumption that the self is in some unexplained way separate from its social environment has run roughshod over subsequent attempts to disrupt it. readers thought her work meant they could “‘get up and put on a new gender today. I assume that the characters with whom I engage represent moral agents who. attempts more compelling to our discipline than Weimann’s: witness the misreadings that followed Stephen Greenblatt’s reworking of an autonomous (inner) self through the notion of “self-fashioning” or. they are very much interested in “maintaining a stable rapport à soi—coherence.”11 As Butler put it years later.72 Shakespeare and Moral Agency what philosopher Stephen Toulmin calls modernity’s “familiar metaphysical divide. that as a social role. moral agents know their integrity depends upon how they negotiate the unpredictable social situations they face. neither free nor fixed but both—and both simultaneously. therefore. Butler invoked drag performance to suggest “the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency. readers took from Gender Trouble the notion of “radical free agency. the extent to which selfhood is neither constructed nor determined. even more glaringly those that followed Judith Butler’s undermining of an essential gender identity through the concept of performativity.” that is. these seem to be our choices and most of us seem unable to acknowledge a reciprocal or a dialectical relationship between self and society. or self-respect. situations that may—and in the drama usually do—involve conflicts between obligations and expectations that are not easily . she should have written more clearly. separate from the social. Bristol urges earlier. I follow Bristol in assuming that moral agents “are singular and selfdetermining. Her work is difficult.”12 Many blamed Butler for their misconstruals. seeming inability—still—to conceive of selfhood as located anywhere other than in an interior personal space. as Michael D.” the assumption that “the sphere of the moral and the personal is essentially an inner mental world while the outer material world is essentially the sphere of indifferent.”13 Butler and Greenblatt challenge the idea that any gap exists between the self and the social and suggest that the two are inseparable.”8 but readers did not infer from this that the structure of gender is rooted in deep-seated social norms. Perhaps. “work within” those norms because they (help to) constitute the self continuously.” Despair about the self or an inflation of it. We seem unable to locate selfhood anywhere other than some voluntaristic “fabrication of the performer’s ‘will’” or ‘choice’. or integrity. Yet most of their readers assert either that there is no self. “gender is…compelled by norms [one does] not choose”9. unresponsive things. or that the self is the locus of “radical free agency.”7 Indeed. But I think the problem lies more with readers’. dense. are faced with unpredictable social situations that require evaluation and judgment. that personal agency must. or that that social norms are both the condition and the limit of one’s agency. indeed the culture’s.

trust in Macbeth (1. for one. 54–58). Charles Taylor. if not absolute. time. upon the “doubly redoubled strokes” of their “brandished steel” against his enemies. act. Scotland in Macbeth stands on the brink of socio-political decay. 1. or one’s own students” and based on “assumptions and presuppositions about how to account for the actions of ordinary people. with better or worse results. Macbeth knows. and everyday processes of social life. but from the play itself and through a process Bristol calls “vernacular criticism.” tested in. Yet within fifty lines. . and perhaps Macduff—might look to take Glamis’ course.” a rigorous or studied version of the “interpretive amateurism practiced by journalists. 1. I examine Macbeth as a moral agent operating within existing social norms for behavior whose “private qualities are successfully (or otherwise) tested in public. particularly traditions of work broadly called interactionist. . Macbeth and Banquo. I think. With roots in pragmatist philosophy and the long history of theatrum mundi.Conduct (Un)becoming 73 resolvable. Interactionists use theatrical metaphors to approach.28–29. or through. and so.2. At the outset. 21). but he seems not to believe that one of his nobles might betray him. and assess persons in groups—role. including Harry Berger and Harold Bloom.15–16. / He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust” (1. actor.4.11–14).38). meaning-making. .3.67. Shakespeare intensifies the atmosphere of instability by suggesting that Duncan’s problems result partly from incompetence: Duncan prepares to place significant. / More is thy due than more than all can pay” (1.”15 A number of distinguished literary critics “have found sophisticated ways to sustain” vernacular criticism. interactionism is a qualitative or ethnographic approach to the study of persons in groups. as does Duncan himself.3. I offer a sketch of the society Shakespeare constructs in the play and of Macbeth’s private qualities or character. performance—which should. too.4. Scotland is under siege from within and without and Duncan’s authority—he is not in the wars himself—depends upon the strong arms of his captains.17 Before discussing the “testing” of Macbeth’s character in time. flight attendants. the words of Duncan echo those of “the devil” before those of Macbeth do (1. subjective experience. and Martha Nussbaum.”18 Despite modernist condemnation of Macbeth’s actions as violations of natural order.4. many men—Banquo. Musing on Cawdor’s recent defection. and in this world. philosopher Tzachi Zamir offers the most recent contribution based on his work in contemporary ethics in Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama. what Weimann would call his “given condition or heritage.107. though I will refer to “the facts” occasionally. have moral philosophers such as Stanley Cavell. that the debt owed him is beyond the King’s ability to pay: “The sin of my ingratitude even now / Was heavy on me. Duncan observes “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face. which focus on small groups.19 Here.14 These norms I infer not from history. describe. make their work appealing to Shakespeareans and other critics of the drama and theater. In this essay.16 My own route into vernacular criticism is through sociological theory.

the day is both “foul and fair” to him (1.” Duncan plants. If in battle Macbeth plays his part with ardor and is not afraid of the “strange images of death” he makes within the rebel ranks. Macbeth is a fearsome warrior.3.38). Of Macbeth’s character we know that.22–25).2. Macbeth knows the power he commands is great in a society in which nobles fight among themselves for power and in which the populace seems willing to suspend judgment for a time while they do.3–5. Macbeth concludes—unsurprisingly— with a sense of loss and sterility: no women survive. 2. which he plays skillfully and for which he is given much honor. Malcolm will be another Scots king who depends on his nobles’ strength—or on that of the English—to maintain power. Malcolm’s victory depends upon a strong-armed captain. If Scotland under Duncan is a murky place of strong-armed politics. above all. Within fifty lines of acknowledging “there’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face. as one can of Othello. loyal. and feeds in the love of Macbeth. Further. 1. too. the play suggests a return to. In the play’s early scenes. or that he is experienced only at warfare.27). Macduff will be the new “king-maker”20. harvests. and if Malcolm avoids capture in battle against Macbeth. after all.3.19).” a bloody executioner. until one establishes himself as most worthy to be king. but out of the wars he sees the limits society places on its members—as host. Not without ambition. he nevertheless distances himself from the role such that despite accomplishment. the text indicates. while intended to bind Malcolm to his nobles and to recall the sweetness and light of his father’s reign. it is not unreasonable to infer that Macbeth expected Duncan to nominate him as his successor—the notion that “Chance / may crown me / Without my stir” (1. the men who do seem puny compared with those who commanded the stage’s attention for so long. and as critics once were fond of noting. he is so full valiant / And in his commendations I am fed. and he glories in the public honor his skills in battle bring. a cycle of. But one cannot say of Macbeth.54–56).143–45). that the Malcolm-Macduff alliance may not provide the final “med’cine of the sickly weal” (5.97. and loving both to his wife and his king. He is noble. even (1. as Thane.74 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Duncan not only tells Macbeth he has “begun to plant” him in his heart in order to make him “full of growing” (28–29) but also suggests to Banquo that his “harvest” from Macbeth has already been realized: “. .2. as husband. hailed Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor “for an . . must also force the audience—because of the direct association of the son with the father—to review once more what have been the results of “plantings” in this play.2. Ross had. like his father’s. More specifically. Indeed. As Alan Sinfield argued over twenty years ago. / It is a banquet to me” (1. his performance does little to alter the play’s initial image of him as a “boy” in captivity (1.3. tyranny and violence. in his final speech Malcolm invokes the image of planting which. and as warrior. In battle Macbeth may be “valor’s minion. Shakespeare grounds Macbeth’s character in his role as warrior.2. that he is a stranger to his society’s graces and its games.4.

”25 Macbeth represents the sorts of behavior and judgments to which we all are subject when acting. Or whether. is based primarily in the role of warrior. he is after. are seen as entering into a dynamic and unpredictable kind of relationship.22 Does such a testing occur in Macbeth? I think it does. most other lords of Scotland. thinks Shakespeare’s brilliance in characterization. a man who “never enjoys his accomplishments.3. failures of imagination. from his self. his ability to suggest “growth and change. it seems. which as I have already said. but a man conscious of his power and position within a weak state who ambitiously yet fearfully “dare[s] look on that / Which might appal the devil” in order to secure what is for him “the ornament of life” (1. . and with society’s full approval. Here is not a “black Macbeth” raging unchecked across the Scottish countryside (4.4. murder does not seem at odds with the noble and brave self that is. or at least understandably. Rather he emphasizes it. as Macbeth himself says. . in public and in time. as we have seen.”21 Crucial to this relationship is a testing of the self. of given qualities. or shall we say. . and the country itself—partly because people expect a good deal of violence. and I think Macbeth’s decision(s) to murder flow reasonably. who is from the outset unsatisfied. ethical compromises.Conduct (Un)becoming 75 earnest of a greater honor” and it seems odd that Shakespeare would expend so much dramatic time to announce what is commonly understand. Macbeth has occupied the position of king only to lose both that “disposition” and the sense of vital relationship to society that makes kingship the “ornament of life”—that gives kingship meaning. sincerely. the play a study in nihilism.58–59. And the people and nobles give Macbeth time—a grace period. of seeing the self placed in an unpredictable relationship with social norms. “the disposition that I owe” (3. and while I agree with much in Zamir’s reading. Weimann. In the beginning.”24 Rather than represent an exemplum of “the psychological and existential [manifestations of] nihilism.7. in the end.42). I wish to offer another explanation for “why Macbeth remains unsatisfied after he achieves what . to surround the position of king. without persisting in it.3.”23 Zamir’s Macbeth is a nihilist.” can only be realized when “the self and the social . whose Macbeth is not tested. . in the scene in which Malcolm . so to speak— to see if he will follow through on the violent Machiavellian course he initiates to become a king who is able to use cruelty well. indeed violation. a role he plays well. an automatic succession from father to son. The playwright. deliberately obscures the status of the succession in order to concentrate on Glamis’ designs on the throne. Macbeth’s lethal actions at first seem not just acceptable but actually praiseworthy—and not only to the principal beneficiaries but also to Banquo. Shakespeare does not establish this as a compelling social norm in the first act only to let his audience forget it under the flood of blood that follows Macbeth’s ascension.52). 1. interacting in public—miscalculations. and rejections of what one knows to be true.112). separates my reading of the play from Zamir’s fine reading . The matter of testing.

Lady Macbeth chides her husband for his fear of detection. or pride in a good name are motivators—or means of manipulation. a reader position that responds to value when it appears and closes itself more and more to Macbeth’s nihilism as the play progresses. so Malcolm counsels his warrior Macduff to ignore his obligations as a surviving husband and father—to change remorse and grief into manly anger—in order to accomplish theirs. but I think the dramatic—and social—process here is more complicated than Zamir allows. where this scene is often cut drastically. even compelling. blunt not the heart. much less in performance. Shakespeare does not offer competing philosophies to choose between but an image. violation. . border on scolding. and self-aggrandizement are expected in the role. to consider. as evidenced immediately in Macduff himself. All of this is intended to “create . for example.228–29). ”. Macduff excuses Malcolm’s professed bottomless lust and his “stanchless avarice.” and pronounces him unfit to govern only when Malcolm denies possessing even one kingly grace. For Malcolm as for Lady Macbeth. a representation. And like Lady Macbeth. remorse. long before they fight.3.18) and in assuring him that heroic action is the only “manly . . Of course. Macduff does not carry audiences with him. suggesting that violence.76 Shakespeare and Moral Agency tests Macduff. Note. Macbeth and Macduff oppose each other through the philosophies they embody . . with power. . 98).3.”27 That this reading is clever. Macbeth’s actions do. . Malcolm chides Macduff for allowing sorrow to overcome the urge for revenge.9.”26 But Zamir wants this long scene to establish a fundamental contrast between Macduff and Macbeth: “Nothing less than feminizing a general is needed in order for us to…perceive the alternative metaphysics of time and commitment to value that makes this confrontation a moment in which.6–9). or that the play offers alternatives to the masculinity inscribed in the warrior’s role I do not dispute.50–102. . Malcolm succeeds in restoring to his warrior his “better part of man” (5. too. one can read this scene differently.3. This play asks us. “Be this the whetstone of your sword. insisting upon violence to achieve power: as Lady Macbeth counsels her warrior Macbeth to ignore his obligations as kinsman and host in order to accomplish their objective. Macduff’s emotional response here does not shut us down to Macbeth. that in this scene Malcolm plays Lady Macbeth to Macduff’s Macbeth.235). tune” (4. enrage it” (4. . whom Malcolm restores to his “better part of man. Furthermore. in the experience of young Siward: “He only lived but till he was a man / The which no sooner had his prowess confirmed / In the unshrinking station where he fought / But that like a man he died” (5.” Malcolm counsels. “Let grief / Convert to anger. . negotiate and test the roles and behaviors that make us who we are. of the ways individuals and societies construct. he would “pour the sweet milk of concord into hell” (4.” and later. Zamir suggests that Malcolm’s “remarks .8. Even in reading. Macduff’s expressed emotion does not alter the play’s definitions of what it means to be a man or a warrior. claiming that. grief. .

Whether such variation in performance is compelling. or warrior—allow for variety in performance. something that must be realized. it is none the less something that must be enacted and portrayed.” and what Butler would call “a process of iterability. but sociologists suggest that significant social change can occur when persons resignfy roles through performance. as Butler says regarding gender. either socially or personally. man. This sociological understanding of a self’s relationship to the social group fits well with Weimann’s judgment that Shakespeare’s characterizations are compelling because of “the dimension of growth and change” achieved in a testing of the self in public. is another matter. awareness or not. This opens up the possibility for change in them but also makes the process of learning them difficult.3. guile or good faith. Caroline Spurgeon and Cleanth Brooks each famously discussed this image cluster of . from processes of habitualization. a position. does he becomes at ease with himself in that position. as in Macbeth.. just as Butler claims the question of subversion is a matter of “working the weakness in the norm. if at all. Performed with ease or clumsiness.”28 Emerging from iterability. each person determines how to fulfill—or avoid—expectations for behavior associated with his positions in society. fuzzy around the edges. are expectations for behavior that govern social interaction and which.”30 At the same time. or King of Scotland—but only in time. “are binding on the individual. and all roles—as say. host. as a process in time. with the threat of ostracism and even death.”32 That is. . to be possessed and then displayed. for example. we might say. and well articulated. as sociologists say. it is a pattern of appropriate conduct.Conduct (Un)becoming 77 “how much emotion becomes a man?” or “how much violence and violation becomes a king?” Neither question is easy to answer.146). instead.3. use reveals that the garments will not fit (1. endemic to social interaction. coherent. embellished. in fact. a person achieves a social position immediately—he becomes Thane of Cawdor. . a social place is not a material thing. under and through the force of prohibition and taboo. And only in time can both the individual and society judge the quality of the performance and whether the new role is. husband.”31 Social roles and the norms surrounding them are. in the sense that he cannot ignore or reject them without harm to himself”29 or. in the sense that the individual must perform them “under and through constraint. an internalized part of the self: only then can all see if use has allowed the awkward “strange garments” to “cleave. a regularized and constrained repetition of norms. these binding parts do not bind completely.. And I think Shakespeare emphasizes this point in his use of the image of robes and garments in Macbeth. Roles are social prescriptions regulating behavior and interaction. Erving Goffman explains that “a status.147)—may a new role become an internalized part of the self. Only in time—”with the aid of use” (1. originating in what sociologists call a “fundamental process of habitualization .to their mould” or if.

Can we then account for Macbeth’s boldness in seeking a “giant’s robe”? Macbeth’s boldness manifests itself concretely in his role as warrior. it sanctions daring.4. not stonewashed Diesel jeans of 2010—are in fact his. cruel. The community. but he is unable to break them in. Shakespeare uses these words again and again—over fifty times—to suggest the limits and bounds of social role.2. in this play. Indeed.78 Shakespeare and Moral Agency robes or garments. make them a compelling part of his wardrobe and self. Distinguishing the warrior’s role is the ability to define self in a kind of vacuum. supplementing her analysis of the garment imagery with an analysis of “a series of masking or cloaking images” that suggest Macbeth is “consciously hiding [his disgraceful] self throughout the play. 1. he will not be afraid of what he creates—of himself or of others (1.2.4. like a giant’s robe / Upon a dwarfish thief” (5. get comfortable in them. gives Macbeth what Goffman calls “some learner’s license”36—time to grow comfortable in his new role. and his new garments—before it passes judgment upon him.7 clearly show). which the play’s early scenes reveal he plays skillfully. . reflexively.96–97). Spurgeon thinks these images suggest that “Macbeth’s new honours sit ill upon him. Unlike most situations in which a person defines self in context. but neither considered the placement of these images. when Angus and presumably the rest of Scotland pass judgment on Macbeth’s performance in the role of king: “Now does he feel his title / Hang loose about him. belonging to someone else. by giving more than passing consideration to the presence and opinions of others (as Macbeth’s words in 1. treacherous creature. at place and power he is utterly unfitted to possess. in Act 5.56–57). as he grows and changes. Like Macbeth.3. these images suggest. like a loose and badly fitting garment. Macbeth is uncomfortable in them because he is continually conscious of the fact that they do not belong to him. daring and fear seem essential to understanding Macbeth as he develops.” and that he is a “vain. and not perceived as stolen either by Macbeth or by the Scots. when Macduff wonders if the nobles’ positions—their roles and robes—will be less comfortable under the new king than they were under Duncan (2. In Macbeth. in battle a warrior “dispute[s] it like a man. or the oddity that after four prominent references to the image in Act 1. / Point against point rebellious. snatching ruthlessly .3.” doing “but what [he] should” and confronting another warrior “with self-comparisons. . of personal action within society. arm ‘gainst arm” (4.”34 For Brooks. The garments—shall we call them the Levi’s 501s of the 1960s.”33 Brooks sees the situation somewhat differently. 1. the crucial point about this comparison is that “these are not his garments… they are stolen garments. But another interpretation of those images is possible.20–22).220.”35 (34). and finally. .38). Shakespeare uses the image only twice more: once in Act 2 before Macbeth’s investiture. The prominence and placement of the robe images suggest that the community condemns Macbeth as usurper or butcher only after he has proven himself incapable of playing the king’s role satisfactorily.26.

To protect them requires that he submit to society’s expectations and avoid the act society must judge unfavorably. The warrior must not let “‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’” (1.7. then.47–48).7. is to be social. daring. Recall that in 1. and the honor of his given word—she denies the “tender .5.. something to be avoided practically. wade hip-deep in his friends’ blood.45–6. virility. At the play’s beginning Macbeth ranges far and wide in Scotland and is “nothing afeard of what [his self] didst make. an immediacy to this role that is unusual and that encourages the player to merge action and desire. In reply. the audience begins to understand their intimate relationship in meaning: without fear. . Macbeth decides to protect. butcher—for it results from action in a social context much more free than most from the sanctions or support of one’s fellows.7. Macbeth chooses to ignore his own fears about violating his double trust (and about doing more than may become a man) so that he may achieve—with one daring stroke—the name and the robe of sovereignty. . fear loses significance.16–23) and in its late description of young Siward (5. Against her personal threats and insults. disrupt the social order. 66). valor.4. She forces his attention to the personal level—what will she think of him. however. . therefore. and without daring.142).5. to make his will his act. perhaps against the strong wind of pity.2. must fight the course” (5.1–2).9) and finds that while in better times he would have met his enemies “dareful . / As [he is] in desire” (1. the warrior “deserves” the name he achieves—be it coward.8. He must be “the same in [his] own act and valour. the Thane of Cawdor.96–97). by deceit and a cover-up.44). she makes society’s opinions.55). society’s judgments. daring loses significance. . he has “almost forgot the taste of fears” (5. must give way to fear.7. that “a little water clears us of this deed” (2. and what will he think of himself. To emphasize such deserving. To be a man. . a warrior (1. At the play’s end.35–45). love” that characterizes herself as a woman in order to emphasize how far he has strayed from the valor and daring that characterize him as a man and.6). Shakespeare makes it plain that he does sin and that he does so knowingly: aided by his wife.7. not incidentally in this case.Conduct (Un)becoming 79 As the play proceeds and the ears are bombarded by the repetition of “daring” and “fear” (and their negatives “dare not” and “nothing afeard”).7.40–43). and “bear-like . Sure. or even. is not to say that Macbeth himself does not sin.40–41). / Strange images of death” (1. it records a man’s movement by choice out of the nervous insecurity of “initiate fear” into the cool safety of “hard use” (3. . the “golden opinions” he has “bought” with his actions. There is. if he lets pass this opportunity to seize the “ornament of life” (1. Shakespeare’s play reveals Macbeth as he loses both. Not to do so is to be no man (1.7. Lady Macbeth does not refute his arguments but denies their importance. he can offer no . he concludes to his wife.3. Impugning his manhood from many sides at once—sobriety. beard to beard” (5. For this reason. too.2. as is suggested both in the play’s first description of Macbeth (1. he is “tied to a stake”. perhaps. now in Dunsinane.

Macbeth denies his .83).2. But even before his investiture—and this.59) By it he acknowledges the appeal of deviousness. of avoiding social judgment by assuring that society does not discover the deed it must judge.89–94). The wine of life is drawn. it is fitting that Macbeth again is required to play the role of host. 109–115). what he has made of himself.27–28) because “To feed were best at home.2.4. for from this instant There’s nothing serious in mortality: All is but toys.3.4.4. / From thence. the sauce to meat is ceremony: / Meeting were bare without it” (3.7.45). In the calm of night following the debacle of this attempt to maintain social form. he is unable. suggests a testing of the self in public as a process in time—Macbeth senses that the deed is significant for him in a way foreign to his anticipation: not just the kingly robes and kingly role.4. Only the Queen’s fast talking prevents the supper from failing completely as Macbeth publicly muses on the qualities of the murdered and admits that his behavior is at odds with what he knows of himself (3. Macbeth’s boldness and daring do secure the kingship for him.134–39).4. Lady Macbeth counsels her husband to adopt a mask for the upcoming social occasion (3. Renown and grace is dead. He must not. And in Macbeth’s public reaction to the news of Duncan’s murder there is more.72). As in 1.80 Shakespeare and Moral Agency argument about the social judgment he fears.” he concludes. / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3. as King. Yet if at dinner with Duncan Macbeth was able with “false face” to hide his murderous intent (1. but only the practical question. Macbeth attempts to regain “the disposition that I owe” by aligning himself fully with the warrior’s role: “For mine own good / All causes shall give way. I think. “‘twere best not know myself” (2.74–82.26–27). she warns.1. perhaps.2. should I wade no more. of what name he has achieved—”something wicked”(4.4. To rid himself of his terrible fears (of. and that his failure to preserve the rule of society (3. which he cannot yet describe. Unlike the poor cat in the adage and unlike Banquo. Macbeth’s words reveal some understanding of the unanticipated effects his act holds for him: Macbeth: Had I but lived an hour before this chance I had lived a blessed time. “To know my deed.34–36). and the mere lees Is left this vault to brag of (2. I am in blood / Stepped in so far that. Macbeth will dare get his feet wet. From the perspective urged in this paper. too.7. but some other role is now his. “If we should fail?” (1.6). and knowing he cannot long sustain even his currently poor performance. to hide his “saucy doubts and fears” of vulnerability (3.24).118–19) and to play the king’s role appropriately signals his movement into butchery and his country’s into rebellion (3. than just great dissembling or Machiavellian politics. allow his face to reveal the distemper that is his (3.

4. obedience.138–39). If we assume that Macbeth is neither fiendish nor insane.4. which allows action to follow directly upon impulse. Macbeth’s retreat into the privileges of his role. It leads him into isolation and away from the society of men and women among whom he had sought to become preeminent. To kill the “strange and self-abuse” that results from “initiate fear. into that part of the role so familiar to him. his increasing tendency to crown his thoughts with action (cf. can we account for the irony of Macbeth’s career? I would like to offer two explanations.1. 153–54). and this the moment when “his nihilism emerges as an explicit position.24–25).1. 4.79).5.141–42. Macbeth fails to realize what Ulysses. nor.38 .144–49. the “tomorrow” speech is emblematic of the nihilism that characterizes Mactbeth throughout the play. 33–35).3. urges the petulant warrior Achilles to consider: Ulysses: . Till he communicate his parts to others. reason” (2.” he tells his wife. like a gate of steel Fronting the sun.” Yet Macbeth speaks the “tomorrow” speech before he hears report that “a wood / Comes toward Dunsinane” (5. It would seem rather that Macbeth’s despair is rooted in an awareness of what his choices have cost him.” Perhaps as Zamir thinks. “that will to hand. The irony results partly from Macbeth’s faulty reasoning in Act 1 about the importance to himself of the group’s responses to his actions. 4. which suggests to him that life itself is “full of sound and fury. receives and renders back His figure and his heat. “Strange things I have in head.” Macbeth decides he must “be bloody. bold.1.16–28.”37 Or perhaps despair is appropriate for a man who realizes that he has placed his life and his faith in “th’equivocation of the fiend.4. as Lady Macbeth hypothesizes. Macbeth seeks security and peace in his right as king to make his will his act. . . no man is the lord of anything.3. Early in the play Macbeth feared to lose society’s “golden opinions. does not lead him where he had hoped it would. signifying nothing. and resolute” (3. Reverb’rate The voice again. troops of friends (5. / As honor. And Macbeth does find peace in “hard use”(3.109. like an arch. or. drunk when he decides in Act 1 to murder the king. Nor doth he of himself know them for aught Till he behold them formed in th’applause Where they’re extended—who. cf. love. their public ratification of them.4. in Troilus and Cressida. which allows action to “outrun the pauser.Conduct (Un)becoming 81 responsibilities as King (3. Though in and of him there be much consisting. / Which must be acted ere they may be scanned” (3.” and in Act 5 he admits that he has lost not only them but also “that which should accompany old age.4.142) but it is a solitary peace.145–49).134–35) and collapses into the safety of his privileges as King.

power. Yet he yields to his Lady’s plan because he does not acknowledge.4.82 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Macbeth knows that murdering Duncan is wrong and and. and honor he receives as. Unlike his battlefield killing. Thane of Cawdor—and it has been from the end. For Macbeth killing has been a means to an end—the privilege. For he himself is subject to his birth: He may not. distasteful to his own amour propre. as unvalu’d persons do. issuing in a new role. even more important. power. to the heroic action he proposes for the future that will.40 Macbeth fails to realize that society limits even its most powerful member. a man may play the “warrior” at any .39 Macbeth is ready to abandon his wild fantasy of murdering Duncan to become king because he knows his own castle is no place to practice the warrior’s role. Besides underestimating the importance of public ratification of his actions. as such. In the former situation Macbeth’s new name and his new robes issue directly from the public nature of his action. say. just as it limits its husbands. responsibility. and warriors. attained in this way. if all goes well. responsbilities. honor— not bad dreams. that Macbeth gets to know himself. how different is his heroic action in Act 1. can have little value for him. the Thane of Cawdor. In the latter situation his new name and his new robes issue directly from the private—or secret—nature of his action. Carve for himself. secret action. but he is a seasoned killer who also knows that killing has never before disturbed his sense of the “disposition that I owe. for on his choice depends The safety and health of this whole state. When contemplating Duncan’s power. Macbeth also badly misjudges the nature of the king’s role. issue in a new role. he fails to realize what Laertes describes when he talks of Hamlet. his will is not his own. and thus cannot describe to his wife. And it is a mask that kingship becomes for him since this time it is from the deed (the means) and not from the office or role (the end) that Macbeth knows himself. a man who cannot wear a mask. Kingship. And therefore must his choice be circumscrib’d Unto the voice and yielding of that body Whereof he is the head. at his pleasure. Shakespeare suggests. that the king may have less freedom than his subjects: Laertes: His greatness weighed. no place to dare to be so much more the man. the King of Scotland. nobles.” Killing has brought him new privileges.30)—because of the circumstances created by his private. a man who has in the past defined himself through public action. I suggest that as Scotland’s foremost warrior. Macbeth finds kingship attractive because it seems to be the one position in society in which. The kingship is a position society gives—”the sovereignty will fall upon Macbeth” (2. not the means. his bedroom killing has no clear connection to the public honor and position he achieves.

Macbeth has not. he is forced to acknowledge this limitation when he says to the hired killers. Immediately after the murder. no position to occupy in society that does not require submission to society—to the ritualized iteration of norms. p. 29. enough’!” Notes 1 2 3 4 Robert Weimann. Robert C.1. “though I could / with barefaced power sweep him from my sight / and bid my will avouch it. when he wants to murder Banquo. pp. p. 437. That superior freedom is manifest in the king’s ability to “pronounce” everything so. 1972)..117–19). / yet I must not” (3. Ibid.41 or in the ability. that a man who takes pride in defining himself publicly in action on the battlefield chooses to act in secrecy to achieve the most powerful position in society. nor achieved the powerful freedom he sought. Tucker (New York: W. but the central irony of Macbeth is. ed. to affirm discourse in action. Ibid. he remains the warrior who will not yield to fear: “And damned be him that first cries. completed the action. something wicked. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. 44–45). as Jonathan Goldberg puts it. someone outside the community of men and women.2. Macbeth struggles to understand the self that his daring has made—a murderer.”42 Or so Macbeth thinks. as in his royal imperative. to give words the force or effect of action. intolerably. . . Only in battle may the warrior make his will his act. “to make words facts. 25. The play is thus a powerful anticipation of the arguments of Butler and the sociologists about our world today. 27. . p. In The Marx-Engels Reader. Norton and Co.31). the position that he mistakenly believes allows its incumbent full autonomy and authority to define the self publicly in everyday life. that he must wear a mask to play the role that his daring has won him. Too late.” as Shakespeare puts it in Richard II. W. as both Elizabeth and James knew.66–67) or in his elevation in Act 1 of the Captain’s narrative to the realm of imperative speech and thus to the realm of physical action (1. power lies in “the breath of kings. Macbeth discovers to his horror that he “could not .. having faced that self and having understood his losses. if you will. . Compare Karl Marx.2. I think. “Go pronounce [Cawdor’s] present death / And with his former title greet Macbeth” (1. . The king need not put his body on the line to enforce his will. but the king seems free to do so anywhere..Conduct (Un)becoming 83 time. 26. ‘Hold. A man whose face has fully revealed his self finds. as his face remains a true and open book of his self. 1981.2.” Shakespeare Survey. Unable to play the role well or for long. Shakespeare several times shows Duncan exercising the breath of kings. Yet in the end. Later. It is a belief Shakespeare immediately deflates. Macbeth learns there is no absolute freedom within society. pronounce ‘Amen’ . “Society and the Individual in Shakespeare’s Conception of Character. ” (2.

26. 37.1–45. 34. E. In suggesting that stage action can be analyzed in ways similar to the ways one analyzes reality. by Sara Salih. 108. Bristol. Kenneth Muir. Weimann. Zamir. Kenneth Muir (Oxford: Clarendon Press. Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. Bodies That Matter: on the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge. is a real person. “Subject. p. 105. 2004). Alan Sinfield. 91. pp.” p. p. 93. p. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City. I do not suggest— or believe—that Macbeth. 1984). “The Inwardness of Mental Life. “Macbeth: history. Butler. 74. Judith Butler. pp. p. Zamir. 234. p. Bristol. 345. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge. Judith Butler. p. NY: Doubleday. 19. 345. Butler.” Critical Quarterly 28 (1986). 39–45 and my own “Social Role and the Making of Identity in Julius Caesar” Studies in English Literature 33 (Spring 1993): pp. Stephen. Persons in Groups: Social Behavior as Identity Formation in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Binghampton. 94. 137. p. p. p. p. 25. Zamir p. Tzachi Zamir. 1993). 1968).84 5 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Perry Anderson. 1984. “Changing the Subject: Judith Butler’s Politics of Radical Resignifcation” in The Judith Butler Reader. Zamir. Zamir. Sel. p. Ed. with Judith Butler (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Butler. London and New York: Methuen. Weimann. Berger and Thomas Luckmann.2. 26 .” Critical Inquiry 6 (Autumn 1979). Weismann’s “Reconstructing Renaissance Sociology: the ‘Chicago School’ and the Study of Renaissance Society” in Richard C. William Shakespeare. 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 . p. Two examples of work in this vein are historian Ronald F.” p. Emphasis mine. 1990).39. 89–102. Essays in the Theory of Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press. In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.2. 70. 95. 17. 289–307. Butler Bodies. Ralf Dahrendorf. 1. All subsequent citations to the play are included in the text. and ed. 50–59. Weimann. 1. 344. “Person and Office in Shakespeare’s Plays” in Interpretations of Shakespeare: British Academy Lectures. p. 10. 1985). p. n. 92. 1967). “Subject. ideology and intellectuals. say. Trexler (ed). 1985). pp. Philip Edwards.” p. p. Macbeth. 2007).” Shakespeare Survey 53 (2000): pp. Weimann. Peter L. “Vernacular Criticism and the Scenes Shakespeare Never Wrote. p. Toulmin.3. Ed. Judith Butler. Michael D. p. 26. 106. 344. “Subject. 33.

Zamir. (London: Arden Shakespeare.17–24. William Shakespeare. who makes a similar point.Conduct (Un)becoming 30 31 32 85 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 Butler. p. Cleanth Brooks.116–24. James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson. Caroline Spurgeon. 35. p. NY. Charles R. Ed. David Bevington. Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill. “The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness. Shakespeare’s Imagery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Bodies. 1947). 96.2. Arden Shakespeare. 1. Ed. Ed. 325. 28. p. 1959). Shakespeare. See also Zamir. Brooks. Erving Goffman. Forker (London: Arden Shakespeare. p. 1961).3. p. Erving Goffman. and Their Contemporaries (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1983). Jonathan Goldberg. p. Donne.” The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock. 3rd Series. 1. 93. 2nd Series. 237. p. Hamlet. 2002). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City. 1982). Troilus and Cressida.215. 327. p. p.3. 95. pp. . 140. 75. 3rd Series. Bodies. William Shakespeare. William Shakespeare. 1998) 3. 34. King Richard II. Harold Jenkins (London. 1961).

he practiced enkrateia and produced quite a good paper. When my student finally sat down to write his paper. Similarly. Portia. is Brutus sick? And will he steal out of his wholesome bed To dare the vile contagion of night. unrestraint (akrasia) and self-restraint (enkrateia). Unlike students who rationalize such actions by insisting that the paper is irrelevant to their lives or to their getting a job. Aristotle distinguishes between three kinds of moral character to be avoided—vice. unrestraint and bestiality—but focuses on the distinction between the two largest categories. According to most traditional accounts. is akrasia. In contrast. forgoing those temptations that were distracting him. this student believed in the benefit of the assignment but wanted to suggest that he lacked the discipline to get the assignment done.2 In the seventh book of The Nichomachean Ethics. assuming that Brutus would not behave against his best judgment and “tempt the rheumy and unpurged air” posits him as a rational subject. avoiding what he calls “akrasia” or weakness of the will. when one acts against one’s own best judgment. is refraining from fulfilling one’s desires when those desires conflict with one’s best judgment. moral action requires a deliberating subject whose will overrides mere instinct. enkrateia. Most morally culpable action according to Aristotle. a failure of the will. She answers her own question in the .Chapter 6 To “Tempt the Rheumy and Unpurged Air”: Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar Jennifer Feather What. One of my undergraduate students once suggested that he had not completed his paper because of an attack of akrasia.1. immune to the pull of akrasia. Aristotle insists that virtue requires voluntary action. a firmness of the will. And tempt the rheumy and unpurged air to add unto his sickness? (2.262–66)1 Portia’s rhetorical question to Brutus’s claim that he is sick challenges the rationality of his actions at the very moment in the play that he seems to be behaving most rationally.

the rhetoric of the play repeatedly conflates the two. Because no rational person would add to her own physical sickness by going out into the cold night. In seeing him not as struggling with the “bodily” temptations of akrasia. her question raises the possibility that Brutus’ deliberation is not entirely subject to his own will but susceptible to external. thereby maintaining the autonomy of the agent. presupposes that moral action is based on deliberate action of a rational subject. Portia. I will take into account the moral content not only of his rational decisions but also of his desires. One might go so far as to say that Portia sees Brutus as what Aristotle. In fact. However. Portia perceives Brutus as using his reason to guide his action.3 Portia’s question both figures Brutus as a rationally deliberating. challenging the idea of agency that he claims. autonomous subject and raises the possibility of his vulnerability to the influence of the social and physical world around him. Seen in the context of early modern medicine. forcing us to rethink both the conception of Roman virtue that Brutus’s actions affirm and the basis of moral agency operating in those actions. Though the characters in the play work persistently to separate physical illness and mental struggle. as I will argue. she understands him as a moral agent. Portia concludes that Brutus must have a purely psychological malady. assuming that only his process of deliberation about some weighty matter and not the illness he claims to suffer could explain his behavior. He is not. However. she affirms his understanding of himself as a moral subject. would describe as a temperate subject. susceptibility to environmental imbalance is a common source of illness. environmental forces. subject to influences that work contrary to his best judgment. insisting that Brutus must have some “sick offence within his mind” (2. but within the throes of a difficult process of deliberation. and thus. A Brutus who would “tempt the rheumy and unpurged air” would act contrary to what he understands as most essential to Roman virtue—the autonomy of the agent—and represents a notion of subjectivity that the senators associate both with physical sickness and with akrasia. Brutus does “tempt the rheumy and unpurged air / To add unto his sickness. like the akratic. understanding Brutus in terms of akrasia yields much in the way of understanding the play and the kind of moral action it dramatizes.1. Moreover. Brutus’s actions ultimately support the Republican ideology with which he identifies even as they . her question about tempting “the rheumy and unpurged air” challenges Brutus on the grounds that he would not exacerbate the vulnerability implied by his supposed illness by putting his delicate humoral balance in jeopardy. further distinguishing between self-restraint (enkrateia) and temperance (sophrosune-).267).Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar 87 negative.” and the distinction between sickness of the mind and sickness of the body is not as stark as Portia implies. unsettling the easy association between corporeal and moral integrity. In fact. in early modern medical models. By seeing Brutus in terms of akrasia rather than simply ascribing his actions to sophrosune-.

I want to suggest that Brutus behaves according to what Nomy Arpaly in her book. In fact. when my student decides that the paper is irrelevant but completes it anyway because he gets caught up in his own interest in the argument. Unprincipled Virtue. an action both admired and repudiated. How can an ambiguously rational act support Roman virtue and the Republic which throughout the rest of the play seems synonymous with autonomous. As Hugh Grady suggests elsewhere in this collection. can be resolved by reading the play’s description of contagion in terms of Arpaly’s notion of inverse akrasia. When Cassius. like Aristotle. we cannot chose between interpretive possibilities that rely on the category of individual moral agency and those that see the agency of the characters severely limited by historical and political exigencies. by the time Shakespeare was writing. let alone a moral one.” or “doing the right thing against one’s best judgment. Upon “coming to himself. Inverse akrasia takes seriously not only the agent’s conscious intentions but also the unintended consequences of his actions. then he is submitting to inverse akrasia. calls “inverse akrasia. for instance. it is particularly significant because suicide is so central to early modern conceptions of Roman virtue. a Romanness that their actions will ultimately destroy. Beginning with Brutus’s suicide. Shakespeare first dramatizes these conflicting narratives in Brutus’s own initial deliberation about suicide. rational action? This tension. to highlight the will required. dramatized in terms of Brutus’s suicide. which served as a source for Shakespeare’s play. Brutus’s suicide serves as an important locus of inquiry about the nature of moral agency because it challenges our assumptions about what constitutes an action. Plutarch narrates Cato’s remarkable self-mastery in accomplishing his suicide.”4 Such actions involve a failure of the will just as in Aristotle’s conception of akrasia. parting with Brutus for what . Paradoxically. the sacrificial nature of this questionable act enables Antony and Octavius to raise Brutus up as the essence of Romanness. places emphasis on rational actions. was well known through North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives. contemporary Christian discourse sees it as usurping the power of God.6 Immanuel Kant. Arpaly suggests that. locating moral worth in the autonomous will and arguing that destroying a morally worthy will is not only logically problematic but also morally repugnant. thus.” Plutarch insists that Cato pushes away the physician who is attempting to help him and then tears his own bowels apart. Moreover. However. suicide already involved an elaborate set of social codes in imitation of Roman models. in which he sees his act as the success of his will. but this failure nonetheless produces morally laudable actions.88 Shakespeare and Moral Agency undermine his own sense of the centrality of the autonomy of the agent in that ideology. As many critics have pointed out. even as it was condemned by Christian theology.5 Cato’s elaborate justification of his own suicide.7 Suicide was in the early modern period.

This reading implies that Brutus’s suicide shows “the soldier overcoming the philosopher. Critics have found this passage notoriously difficult to interpret.Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar 89 may be the last time. reads Plato’s Phaedo not once. in fact. But I do find it cowardly and vile. Cato himself. I know not how.”8 Because.” Brutus here shows himself. Here we begin to see Brutus responding to impulses beyond those dictated by his rational will. according to such a reading. suggests that he might rather commit suicide than undergo the humiliation of defeat.” for Brutus argues that he blames Cato for his suicide despite his recognition of Cato’s justification. After his death. but twice before committing suicide. One might even call his response “inverse akrasia.10 This ambiguous attitude towards suicide begins to manifest itself in Brutus’s thinking and his wavering in this passage suggests that he is not entirely sure about his philosophical principles. in North’s narration. his feelings as a soldier must be overcoming his rational will. even in Brutus’s own conception. For fear of what might fall. Octavius then ratifies this nobility in the disposition of his .” feels suicide is cowardly and vile. Antony claims that Brutus is “the noblest Roman of them all” (5. or (in Plato’s famous image) a steadfast sticking to one’s post.1.101–07) Recognizing his own philosophy as different from Cato’s. so to prevent The time of life: arming myself with patience To stay the providence of some high powers That govern us below. and shows how the constancy implicit in both Platonic and Stoic philosophy could “require either Senecan suicide. he cannot identify why he holds principles that cause him to object to suicide. susceptible to forces outside his rational comprehension. Though he claims still to be following a “rule” of philosophy. but at least initially prefers “To stay the providence of some higher powers. revealing how mutually affirming Platonic and Stoic philosophy were understood to be.”9 Moreover. a Stoic but a follower as Plutarch suggests of “Plato’s sect” and hence.5. however subtly. Significantly. which sees suicide as an act of self-mastery. Brutus. Brutus seems to go against his philosophical principles. it also cements his place as the paragon of Roman and Republican virtue stemming the tide of collective violence that surged after Caesar’s murder. Brutus: Even by the rule of that philosophy By which I did blame Cato for the death Which he did give himself. Though Brutus’s suicide may be ambiguously moral. (5. the passage itself is ambiguous. Brutus responds that. though he “know[s] not how. does not believe in suicide. he also claims to “not know how” he clings to these principles. However.” As in Portia’s inadvertent acknowledgment that individual will might be susceptible to “the rheumy and unpurged air.67). Brutus is not.

As the crisis worsens. . The ideology of emulation itself which attempts to solidify the place of the ruling class and thereby protect the Republic provokes its collapse. According to Girard’s reading.69–70). effectively discarding the possibility that Brutus’s participation was the result of akrasia. first. ritually raising Brutus to the status of a heroic scion of Roman virtue and ending the bloody antagonism that has marked the play’s action. bears much in common not only with traditional philosophical understandings of moral praiseworthiness but also with notions of Roman virtue which throughout the play are described in terms of autonomy and self-governance. the key. is absolutely essential to Cassius’s sense of himself. the disparate mimetic factions reach unanimity. A closer inspection of Antony’s encomium.”11 This claim locates agency within the deadly rivalries of the mimetic world. the violence of the play. These rivalries eventually threaten individual agency resulting in violence on an ever larger scale. remarking not only on Brutus’s conscious deliberation. makes clearer the values that Antony rhetorically locates in Brutus’s sacrificed body. focusing as it does on rational deliberation. Being in awe of another human being conflicts with Cassius’s sense of his own autonomy. to autonomous moral action. For instance.5. the relative importance of mimesis versus rationality goes up. Emulation which at once seeks to imitate and destroy the rival undergirds the emergence of an imperial will that precedes the collapse of the Republic. Thus. Cassius remarks that he would “lief not be as live to be / In awe of such a thing as I myself” (1. many would argue. but also indicating that this deliberation was responsive to the needs of the commonwealth. Autonomy. Antony. In response to Casca’s anxiety about the dangerous exhalations of the night. . Girard argues.13 This part of Antony’s encomium. a stumbling block to the sovereign will. Because the individual Roman is autonomous. excludes Brutus from the rest of the conspirators who participated in Caesar’s assassination out of envy. responsiveness to moral reasons. René Girard argues that Brutus’s body marks the sacrificial violence necessary for the founding of imperial Rome because it ends the “mimetic crisis” in which the very aspiration of the various aristocrats toward Roman ideals induces an ultimately destructive rivalry. such as the needs of the community rather than a personal impulse toward envy. He says. Brutus’s sacrifice is valuable not for the principles he espouses but because it simply exhausts the mimetic process. assures the moral praiseworthiness of actions such as the ones Brutus takes. . . Cassius remarks on the invulnerability of the Roman body to such forces.97–98). he can withstand even these dangerous forces. Cassius asserts.12 Girard claims that with opposition to Antony and Octavius’s camp effectively destroyed.2. “He only in a general and honest thought / And a common good to all made one of them” (5. is spurred less by “individual psychology than [by] the rapid march of mimetic desire itself.90 Shakespeare and Moral Agency corpse. the ultimate exhaustion of the mimetic process. including individual bodily governance. however. According to Kant.

it implies that Brutus’ s status as a man is ratified by nature itself because it is a “natural. And thus unbracéd. When Antony remarks on the deliberateness of Brutus’s actions and his ability to remain in control of envy. Thomas Wyatt argues that the Assyrian king.46–49) 91 Cassius presents himself as so much in control of himself that his body is self-contained even against prodigious natural forces. The Roman virtue intimated in Antony’s description of Brutus as a balance of elements gives us a different way of understanding Brutus’s suicide and ultimately his participation in the conspiracy. Some Renaissance authors embraced the idea that suicide was a sign of self-mastery. he exalts Brutus for demonstrating this widespread notion of Roman virtue. In fact. Sardanapalus. as you see. at least suggests a different kind of subjectivity than the preceding description of self-control.3. possessing its elements in perfect proportions. Such a notion of gentleness as a mixture of elements suggests a kind of Roman virtue less reliant on autonomous action than Cassius’s self-congratulatory bravado. Unlike Cassius’s selfdescription. praising his constitution not in terms of its invulnerability but in terms of its mix of natural elements. Like Cassius and the faerie knights. However. his invocation of the humoral body. he makes precisely the claim Portia makes in questioning whether Brutus would remain in the night air if he were sick. which culminates with Guyon’s defeat of Acrasia in the Bower of Bliss. Though Antony’s conflation of masculinity and nobility is not surprising. this image presents Brutus as in harmony with nature.9. evidence in other early modern texts suggests that envy would fit into this category.39). At the very least. Antony praises it in terms of a balance of multiple influences.Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar Cassius: For my part. Casca. He claims that Brutus’s “Life was gentle. a specific form of akrasia.5. Rather than seeing Brutus’s virtue in terms of its invincibility and its autonomy. which pictured him as walled-off from nature. Though Aristotle himself does not mention envy as a form of akrasia. with its susceptibility to environmental influence. mixing of elements. In Book II of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Arthur’s enkrateia is tested by the lady Prays-desire who seeks to outshine all competitors in aspiring to honor (2.2. When asking Voluminus to hold the sword while he runs . Submitting me unto the perilous night. Have bared my bosom to the thunder-stone. I have walked about the streets.” if extraordinary. (1. The ambiguous status of suicide evident in Brutus’s own initial uncertainty appears more subtly in his final decision to kill himself. deciding in the negative. and the elements / So mixed in him that nature might stand up / And say to all the world ‘This was a man’” (5. “Murdered himself to show some manful deed. Antony continues his panegyric with a surprising description of Brutus’s virtue.72–74). Brutus has held his autonomy against the akratic force of envy that might overtake his will.”14 Brutus too invokes this idea.

at least in the terms established by Cassius. . he says “Our enemies have beat us to the pit.92 Shakespeare and Moral Agency himself on it. In so doing. Though this explanation fits into Stoic justifications. present in both Renaissance England and Shakespeare’s depiction of Republican Rome. Brutus resorts to the accepted language of manly virtue precisely because Volumnius remains reluctant after hearing Brutus’s initial rationale based on the appearance of Caesar’s ghost. Earlier Brutus claims that Caesar’s ghost is responsible for the suicides of his comrades. This conception of agency has much to do with both Portia’s idea of contagion and Arpaly’s notion of inverse akrasia. However.3. / Thy spirit walks abroad.”16 The model that assumes a rationalizing self cannot account for these cases and therefore fails to account for what Arpaly calls “inverse akrasia. Without the latter. thou art mighty yet.17–19). Despite the seeming irrationality of Brutus’s acts.5. Thus. he would prefer to commit the act himself.5. asserting his absolute autonomy. Antony’s depiction of Brutus as a perfect fusion of elements suggests a balance between the two models. he initially presents his motivation in a similar light “The ghost of Caesar hath appeared to me . inherently involves both envy and brotherhood. it also implies that Brutus may not be entirely possessed of his faculties. However. he presents decisions based on supernatural sources as against their perpetrator’s best judgments. / It is more worthy to leap in ourselves / Than tarry till they push” (5. Brutus’s suicide can ratify that sense of brotherhood which separates republican and imperial notions of agency by replacing mimetic crisis with a hybrid form of subjectivity. Brutus initially offers another justification. or mimetic rivalry. She argues that “one can think of a variety of cases in which one forms irrational beliefs—those that are contrary to evidence—casually but not intentionally. autonomous agents are nonetheless swayed by brotherhood rather than by envy. The social drive toward emulation. Arpaly theorizes a conception of moral worth that does not rely on autonomy to explain everyday encounters. ultimately succumbs to ambition in a system that equates moral worth solely with autonomy.94). However. In it. they ultimately confirm the picture of society Brutus has championed.” that . and turns our swords / In our own proper entrails” (5. resorting to the rhetoric of Stoic philosophy only when Volumnius remains unpersuaded.15 Brotherhood. Rather than seeing Brutus’ suicide either as an act of self-mastery or an irrational succumbing to delusion.23–25). bewailing the power of Caesar’s ghost over the autonomous judgments of the various suicides. . the mimetic impulse leads to ever-expanding collective violence. saying “O Julius Caesar. the social system would have destroyed itself from the beginning. admitting the power of external influences. Rather than leave his fate to another. because it is not rational and relies on bonds of affection rather than reasoned judgment. If we reconceive agency not as absolute autonomy but as “a mixture of elements” we explain how Brutus could have chosen to destroy his closest friend and how his suicide promotes a Republican ideal that even the Republic may not have achieved. I know my hour is come” (5.

Caesar. Brutus’s susceptibility to the ghost can be understood as akratic. Voluminus remains unconvinced of this. one may give in to an irrational impulse. such as Brutus’s suicide. In response to Brutus’s claim that Caesar’s ghost has visited him. While Huckleberry does not conceptualize his realization. despite the fact that he behaves against his best judgment and thus is not autonomous. having resolved to turn the slave Jim in because it is the morally right thing to do. shall they not whisper. the various conspirators understand autonomy and invulnerability to both persuasion and sickness as central to Roman virtue. like following a dream. Caesar responds by rebuking Calpurnia and chiding himself: heeding dreams is foolish. that is against Brutus’s own better judgment. for someone to say. . ‘Lo. And reason to love is liable. She gives the powerful example of Huck Finn who. I would like to argue that given the early modern association between moral and physical sickness.”18 Thus. both Decius and Caesar himself evince a similar set of assumptions.Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar 93 is doing the right thing against one’s best judgment. making him certain of his impending death. Brutus’s susceptibility to Caesar’s ghost and his resulting suicide are both a tempting “of the rheumy and unpurged air” and an early modern example of inverse akrasia. Though his evaluation of the situation is incomplete.96–104) Decius warns Caesar that listening to a woman’s dreams may be worthy of mockery. Decius suggests. Twain does not understand Huck’s actions as Aristotelian “natural virtue” or Kantian “mere inclination. Hence. Not only does Cassius.” but as “Huckleberry’s long acquaintance with Jim [making] him gradually realize that Jim is a full-fledged human being . Decius: It were a mock Apt to be rendered. Caesar is afraid’? Pardon me. In other words. . it is this awareness of Jim’s humanity that causes him to be emotionally incapable of turning Jim in. that one has not fully subjected to deliberation or in fact an impulse that one has subjected to deliberation and decided against. (2. Following a ghostly visitation. forcing Brutus to call on the language of Stoic self-mastery. Along these lines. share Voluminus’s suspicion. and still behave morally.17 As Arpaly explains.2. .’ If Caesar hide himself. ‘Break up the Senate till another time When Caesar’s wife shall have better dreams. Emotions not subject to his rational control guide his decision. for my dear. but rather susceptible to unformulated thoughts. his action concurs with his deeper sense of what is right. at the last moment decides not to turn him in because doing the right thing is too much trouble. Huck remains morally praiseworthy. dear love To your proceeding bids me tell you this. in his refusal to be susceptible to the prodigious night air. As I have discussed. .

associated with physical illness. When Cassius describes Caesar’s epileptic fit in Spain.2. in which autonomy is the great virtue and akrasia.21 Similarly. following the impulse of the dream. However.234–35). who condemns suicide in general. implying that women are akratic by nature. one can better understand Caesar: So in the world: ‘tis furnished well with men. her weakness is probably best understood as constitutional. is the great moral failure. when Brutus goes to persuade the sick Ligarius to join the conspiracy. Brutus chides Portia. Aristotle himself directly compares akrasia to epilepsy.66–70) Caesar is unassailable.1. as “doing the right thing against one’s own judgment. .1. he calls it “A piece of work that will make sick men whole” (2. The play consistently opposes Roman masculinity. Yet in the number I do know but one That unassailable holds his rank Unshaken of motion. And men are flesh and blood. not subject to fleshly impulses.326).94 Shakespeare and Moral Agency is something of which to be ashamed. can be understood as inverse akrasia. Even Plato. and though some have argued that Portia may be pregnant or tainted by the conspiracy. In this context. Brutus says that their cause bears “fire enough / To kindle cowards. and apprehensive. including Brutus’s own. When arguing against the need for an oath to bind the conspirators.1.128) and calls him. Given traditional understandings of moral agency. And that I am he. and hence Roman virtue. feeling guilt prompted by a supernatural vision. is something like the virtue that Antony praises. Similarly. they have steadfast rather than melting spirits. he remarks that he required assistance “As a sick girl” (1. “A man of such feeble temper” (1. saying “It is not for your health thus to commit / Your weak condition to the raw cold morning” (2. Brutus does follow a “dream. and to steel with valour / The melting spirits of women” (2.” and is then able to enshrine the very notion of Romanness that he held so dear. while roundly criticized throughout the play.19–21). I would argue that this susceptibility. (3.19 Thus. In fact. Aristotle himself distinguishes the akratic from those who are constitutionally soft due to heredity or disease like Scythian kings and the female sex. Because they are not women. This susceptibility is figured not only as female fluidity but also as contagion. claims an exception when shame at an immoral action prompts the suicide. he is morally responsible for the violence and disorder unleashed by Caesar’s death and his suicide is justified as punishment. However. even if the Republic itself fails. to effeminate vacillation and physiological fluidity. Sickness is womanish weakness.129).2.” Such a conclusion works against the model of moral agency operating throughout the play.1.20 The characters within the play consistently conceive of virtue in terms of masculine autonomy in comparison to feminine weakness and susceptibility to illness.

” The entire conspiracy is based on a notion of Roman virtue that equates turpitude with inconstancy and effeminate fluidity.24 Brutus calls on the friendship not only of Volumnius but also of Clitus and Dardanius as well. Strato. to protect this stalwart autonomy is to protect his vision of Rome. but he misconstrues what will be destroyed. nevertheless emulation creates deep affective bonds.”22 Although the conspiracy is the result of emulous rivalry. Aristotle himself praises friendship between those who “are alike in their virtue. and such suffering souls That welcome wrongs: unto bad causes swear Such creatures as men doubt. Brutus’s surrender to womanish fear of the supernatural.49). Brutus’s further description of the enterprise paints an even starker picture: Brutus: Old feeble carrions. Strato.” The oath is necessary only to fight the akrasia of “such creatures as men doubt. unless one considers that Brutus is wrong about what drives him. Nor th’ insuppressive mettle of our spirits. when every drop of blood That every Roman bears. for his part. as in Arpaly’s conception. Even as suicide is . Friendship is as much at the heart of Republican virtue as autonomy. then. then. / Thy life has some smatch of honour in it” (5. they would prove themselves not Roman at all. insists. To think that or our cause or our performance Did need an oath.5. is perplexing in the extreme. Brutus considers the holding of the sword an act of friendship.” Indeed. stay thou by thy lord. ultimately convincing only Strato to hold his sword while he runs on it. Were they to break even an unmade oath. when in point of fact he fights for brotherhood rather than autonomy. and be guilty of “a several bastardy.23 Suicide is not the ultimate act of selfmastery.Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar 95 and Roman honor is capable of making the sick whole by restoring to them their masculine autonomy. he is responsive to moral reasons of which he is unaware. 44–46). But do not stain The even virtue of our enterprise. those who require oaths are “old and feeble carrions” that “welcome wrongs. He says “I prithee. Brutus’ fears that Roman virtue will be destroyed are correct. According to the beliefs that Brutus espouses. thinking it to be Roman freedom and autonomy.129–39). and the characters in the play obsess about it even as they assert their own autonomy. and nobly bears. making them secure in the mettle of their spirits. Their identity as Romans is an oath in and of itself. Perhaps. Is guilty of a several bastardy If he do break the smallest particle Of any promise that hath passed from him (2.5. “Give me your hand first” (5. since traditionally the suicide relies on a trusted comrade to accomplish his purpose. / Thou art a fellow of good respect.1.

he describes his state of deliberation. Brutus’s conflict between the demands of friendship and of autonomy appears as a disruption of corporeal harmony. In describing his relationship with Caesar.182).5. Whether or not his emotional impulses prevail. what traditionally counts as moral action.96–104). making his actions seem less than entirely willed.1. His friendship with Caesar becomes the center of the conflict between autonomy and affection that Brutus experiences. for my dear. . Brutus himself claims that his suicide is done with a greater sense of good will and affection . / Like to a little kingdom. He says of himself that he “did love Caesar when [he] struck him” (3.1. dear love / To your proceeding bids me tell you this. it is also an act committed for and in friendship. His private relationship gives Caesar grounds for trusting Decius. they remain an important part of his deliberation. His decision is between the the general good. Brutus says “for my part / I know no personal cause to spurn at him / But for the general” (2. These impulses ultimately manifest in his heeding the ghost of Caesar.167–69).1. suffers then / The nature of an insurrection” (2. .96 Shakespeare and Moral Agency an act that saves one from the humiliation of defeat. saying to him that he will let Decius know the true cause “for your private satisfaction. Brutus makes a distinction between his personal relationship and Caesar’s effect on the populace. see you but our hands / . but his use of friendship to persuade Caesar implies that the senators do take friendship seriously. these feelings of friendship are precisely what make Brutus’s decision so difficult.66–69). It has made him act against his best judgment.2. His intentions are not quite as clear as his freely chosen action would suggest. . Caesar confides in Decius solely because he considers him trustworthy. The friendship he owes to Caesar has made him forgo reason. . . Clearly.25 Brutus impulse to friendship is so powerful that it persists even while he takes Caesar’s life. which is also an important virtue.1. / . saying “Pardon me.73–74). Caesar.10–12). such impulses may have as much moral content as deliberate actions. These images imply not the willed action that make sick men whole but the force of his dissenting conscience rebelling against him. by saying that “The genius and the mortal instruments / Are then in council. . brotherhood proves more essential to the Republic than autonomy. and the state of man. Decius’s friendship is a false one. Of course. one is struck by the fact that he warns Caesar of possible mockery as a point of friendship. / Our hearts you see not” (3. Throughout the play.51). / .2. As Arpaly claims. If we look again at Decius’s attempt to persuade Caesar to go to the Senate. His dying words addressed to Caesar are “I killed not thee with half so a good a will” (5. / Because I love you” (2. Decius and Caesar both present this private friendship as important enough to override rational calculation. which serves the imperial cause as well. “Though now we must appear bloody and cruel. / And reason to love is liable” (2. Indeed. He remarks to Antony on the disjunction between the acts of his hands and his heart. and his individual relationship with Caesar.

This reading relies significantly on taking characters seriously who are not serious about what they say. Coppélia Kahn. p. Portia does not truly believe that Brutus has tempted the rheumy and unpurged air nor that he is sick. 1997). as Arpaly’s account reveals. Mary Gregor (New York: Cambridge University Press. and trans. making Brutus precisely the hero Antony disingenuously claims he is. 1998). Unprincipled Virtue: An Inquiry into Moral Agency (New York: Oxford University Press. even if that sense is ultimately overturned by Antony and Octavius. Nomy Arpaly. Immanuel Kant. trans. 1998). Even though he may be assimilated into Antony and Octavius’s imperial project. 1984). Humoring the Body (Chicago: University of Chicago. William Shakespeare. 1990). 100. David Daniell (New York: Arden Shakespeare. Roman Shakespeare (New York: Routledge.P. the agent cannot be held praiseworthy for them. David Daniell (New York: Arden Shakespeare. p. 2004). 2003). MA: Harvard University Press. Brutus’s friendship for Caesar causes him to restore order and a sense of Romanness. The Metaphysics of Morals. Goold and trans. However. However. ed. I would argue that the suicide of Brutus lends the necessary reality to these falsifications and thus preserves the Republic. Taking these impulses into account implies a competing model of moral worth that relies not on autonomy but on less than fully rationalized impulses and their ultimate legacy. 103.Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar 97 than his assassination of Caesar. 27. ed. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin Classics. Julius Caesar. ed. Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 All citations are taken from William Shakespeare. Such a reading of the play forces us to reconsider what constitutes Roman virtue. G. Such a mythology may ultimately be the basis of much of our moral action. Brutus’s final act points toward the Republicanism he cherished. Rackham (Cambridge. 1145b. The City of God. Actions contrary to rationality are the result of akrasia and hence. Arpaly’s discussion would suggest that such rhetoric can constitute the basis of moral action. like Brutus’s. Even Cassius’s bravado may be posturing which he does not fully believe. I suggest that we look to the early modern rhetoric of sickness to develop a picture of agency that goes beyond autonomous action. Julius Caesar ed. Aristotle. acting against one’s own best judgment can be a kind of inverse akrasia and can nonetheless generate actions. if only mythically. which relies ultimately not on the assertion of autonomy alone but on brotherhood as the basis of identity. 176–77. 4. 1996). Augustine. H. for which the agent must be admired. . fn. The Nicomachean Ethics. pp. Decius’s protestations of friendship for Caesar are disingenuous as is Antony’s praise of Brutus. pp. Gail Kern Paster. 26–39.

René Girard. 75–111. Vol. esp. 572. Arpaly. p. Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. 83–88. Renaissance Quarterly. Aristotle. Kahn. pp. pp. “The Crisis of the Aristocracy in Julius Caesar”. p. Aristotle. 1895). 1150b. Thomas North. p. pp. Englished by Sir Thomas North anno 1579. p.H. (New York: Norton. “Passions of Some Difference”. Book VIII. 1B. M. Kant. esp. 271–86. Rebhorn. 186. 406. 130. 75–111. Stephen Greenblatt. “Th’ Assyrians king. 92 and Kahn. pp. 174–77. esp. Mark Twain. 1156b. esp. eds. 1996). Plato. See also Coppélia Kahn. Salmagundi. 1150b. Abrams. Sir Thomas Wyatt. 12. 126. 88 (1991). p. 2000). “‘Passions of Some Difference’: Friendship and Emulation in Julius Caesar” in Julius Caesar:New Critical Essays. pp. 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 . 1156b. Roman Shakespeare. with an introduction by George Wyndham (London: David Nutt. p. Wayne Rebhorn. Arpaly. p. 10. 271–86. 113. Thomas Cooley (New York: Norton. pp. 399–419.98 9 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Geoffrey Miles. “Collective Violence and Sacrifice in Julius Caesar”. IX 873c. Aristotle. 2005). pp. Aristotle. ed. et al. p. ed. 1999). Rebhorn. 7th Edition. in peace with foul desire” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Shakespeare and the Constant Romans (New York: Oxford University Press. p. Horst Zander (New York: Routledge. 43 (1990).

contribute to Isabella’s status as a moral agent even as they prevent Portia from taking up such a subject position. combined with the plays’ problematic themes. “grounded in attributes such as parent. in its most general sense. however. it is “exhausting. “grounded in the attribute of being human— the stranger. and never exhausted. In Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice. discerning what is ethical or what is moral is anything but clear. Ethics. The apparent clarity of these terms quickly dissolves as characters find themselves immersed in situations which are multiply fraught. countrymen” mark the ethical for Margalit. While this distinction is etymologically sound. Mallard. the remote” mark the moral. I argue. More specifically.” explains the difference between morals and ethics this way: “The ethical man knows it is wrong to cheat on his wife.” and as cultural theorist Vikki Bell argues.”4 The distinction.”3 Isabella engages in this doubled responsivity while Portia ignores it. Dr. the gendered dynamics. is not one of . concerns the “quality of spaces between people. “Thick” relations. The moral man wouldn’t do it. the plays involve different kinds of relationships which necessarily shape the characters’ responses. this essay explores the questions raised by Isabella’s refusal to trade her body for her brother’s life and the equally troubling questions raised by Portia’s trial of Shylock: both of which take us into the complex web of human relations. but responding to one’s own response as well: “an ethics of self-interrogation. friend. Finin In a recent episode of NCIS. it doesn’t take us very far where Shakespeare’s plays are concerned. for example.”2 This responsibility not only involves responding to the call of the other. whereas “thin” relations.”1 Linking ethics to the study of what is right or wrong and morals to the acts which follow from such distinctions is commonplace. aka “Ducky. lover. one of the many crime scene programs on television these days.Chapter 7 Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals in Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice Kathryn R. Infinite responsibility. then. Avishai Margalit’s distinction between “thick” and “thin” relations provides a way to analyze the fundamentally different nature of the relationships in the two plays: differences which.

No one is obliged. but that I must. . Isabella promises to “see what I can do” and says. We see evidence of this kind of relationship between Isabella and her brother when Lucio informs her of Claudio’s arrest and of Angelo’s determination to make an example of him. Exercising her agency on behalf of Claudio. the ethical moment. how we understand whose responsibility it is to be responsive. but loyalty to loved ones and respect for the basic humanity of others. . It remains an option to lead a polite solitary life with no engagements and no commitments of the sort involved in ethical life. For which I would not plead. we see the tension between her sense of responsibility to her brother and her own.100 Shakespeare and Moral Agency ethics as theory versus morals as practice.2. . Shakespeare’s plays are rife with the competing values both within and between such relations. . of non-indifference” in the face of her brother’s crisis. am” reveals both the depth of obligation she feels to Claudio and. it cannot be at the loss of the moral obligation we still have to those with whom we are only thinly related. His central claim throughout this book is. “to be engaged in ethical relations. despite her affinity for the convent where she is on the verge of becoming a votarist. however.7 This response.5 Despite doubting her power. commend me to my brother” (84–88). And most desire should meet the blow of justice. As soon as Isabella arrives at the court of justice to plead for Claudio. Not only does this heighten the emotional valence of the plays. For which I must not plead. that while the ethical is marked by a partiality for those with whom we are thickly related.” he says “Go to Lord Angelo. the limits of that responsiveness. (2. challenges Isabella in ways she cannot imagine when she sets out to persuade Angelo to show mercy and commute the sentence against Claudio. .79–81). when maidens sue. One of the markers of thick relations is the degree to which we care for someone and are willing to act in ways that may require us to privilege the other’s desires and needs over our own. especially when the claims of both come into conflict. . and. seems like an obvious kind of decision in the face of her brother’s execution. Margalit’s poignant exploration of the Israel-Palestine conflict from this perspective is the main subject of The Ethics of Memory. She begins her suit by admitting: Isabella: There is a vice that most I do abhor. her own .29–33) The twisted logic of “would not . in fact. concerns. finally. must” “must not . / Men give like gods” (1. simultaneously.”6 Isabella is on the verge of detaching from such thick relations with the secular world when she displays that moment of what Levinas calls “pure responsiveness. “I will about it straight . “Assay the power you have. it also allows us to witness how certain cultural values shape what constitutes value or suffering.4. but that I am At war ‘twixt will and will not. / And let him learn to know. very different.

but hearing that Claudio will be executed the next day cuts through the sense of conflicted obligations between self and other which have created these problems: Isabella: Tomorrow? O. spare him! He’s not prepared for death… . to redeem him. to Isabella. No longer “at war ‘twixt will and will not. condemn your brother. however. favoring a person or group over others with equal moral claim. / And not my brother” that is “condemned” (35). Good my lord.. Angelo rejects such an argument. Isabella must chose between conflicting ethical responses to self and other. In effect. Isabella struggles to articulate a compelling reason for Angelo to commute the harsh sentence he has delivered. but who have not died for it. (85–91) The exigency of her brother’s imminent death here trumps the abstract moral code to which she is so committed. Initially. brother.4. or my son. / Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness / As she that he hath stained?” (2. and at the same time. / It should be thus with him. let it be his fault. that’s sudden! Spare him. especially where thick relations are concerned. “that is. She also finds it difficult to display the emotional fervor Lucio believes she needs to sway Angelo.” Isabella has been changed by the act of responding to her brother’s need. Angelo foregrounds her contradictory commitments to Claudio and her own moral code with the test he devises as a way to satiate his own newfound sexual desire: “Which had you rather: that the most just law / Now took your brother’s life. bethink you: Who is it that hath died for this offence? There’s many have committed it. or. The second scene in which Isabella and Angelo meet serves as a kind of iteration of the first.9 She sees other aspects of what was so fully unambiguous before and such revision complicates—thickens—Isabella’s relation to him and to her own sense of self. that is. Angelo asks her what is the real extent of your willingness to save your brother? How much will you risk or give up of .Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals 101 moral code.52–54). / Were he my kinsman. not I. despite her basic moral belief that what Claudio has done is wrong..”8 The central ground of Isabella’s protest is demonstrating that Claudio’s moral claim to live is equal to all others who have committed this crime. While the discourse of law depends upon such (supposed) impartiality. She does so by separating the man from the sin in a consummate Augustinian articulation : “I do beseech you. Angelo deflects his responsibility to avoid tyranny by finding mercy within justice. He must die tomorrow” (82–84). he shifts the ground of decision making. of saving Claudio. but at a heightened pitch. As the one comes up against the other. along with the ones which follow. ethics demands partiality. and makes a counter claim: “It is the law.

even to save his life. . Isabella says all the right things.102 Shakespeare and Moral Agency yourself to save him? How much do you really love your brother? Not getting through to Isabella the first time. however. her unwavering commitment to such a stance has often been read as too cold and unfeeling. Any unthinking show of devotion to Claudio. Both she and her brother face self-annihilation. by privileging her chastity above all else. would mark her as a servile instrument. like so many of her counterparts in early modern drama. but that either / You must lay down the treasures of your body / To this supposed.12 Faced with Angelo’s coercive bribe. Isabella’s response signifies the doubled responsibility she has exhibited all along. That is.10 Isabella’s insistence that the overlapping integrity of her body and selfhood is as valuable as Claudio’s life actually signifies her status as a moral agent in the play. on her own judgments.104). he hath in him such a mind of honour That had he twenty heads to tender down . her status as a moral agent in this play comes from the strength of her engagement with the complex web of ethical relations she experiences. Articulating a keen sense of the inability to denounce Angelo publicly. The soliloquy with which Act 2 ends underscores Isabella’s agency as a critical aspect of this play. even as she expresses a willingness to give up her life for Claudio. Isabella must act in the world of her play based. Isabella refuses this stance repeatedly. but not at the cost of her own humanity. On another level. This is the crux of her moral agency: loyalty and devotion to Claudio. On one level. Faced with such utter violation of moral agency on Angelo’s part. she carves out that which is most integral to her selfhood. in part. her chaste body. Much of this play’s power lies in the way Shakespeare stages such a moment and then refuses to have Isabella. I would do for him the same as I would do for myself. In fact..11 In order to achieve agency at all. She asserts: “As much for my poor brother as myself” (99). or else to let him suffer—/ What would you do?” (88–98). which is suffer any kind of punishment rather than “Yield / My body up to shame” (99.. . sacrifice her agency in the interests of her male family members. Isabella concludes: Isabella:I’ll to my brother . particularly “what are the conditions and limits of my care for others?”13 Measure for Measure stages those limits and raises questions about whether loyalty to the female self is as integral a part of thick relations as loyalty to the male other. One of the most disturbing aspects of this problem play is the way Angelo’s extortive quid pro quo prompts questions about the gendered relation of the self to the other. Angelo repeats his bribe more baldly: “Admit no other way to save his life . although what is at stake differs given the gendered dimensions of the conflict. culturally speaking.

as Act 3 demonstrates. Then Isabel live chaste. and I quake / Lest thou a feverous life shouldst entertain. Claudio greets her with “Now sister. Therefore your best appointment make with speed. Isabella’s response. . however. she explains: Isabella: Lord Angelo.1. but also relies on [individual] freedom .Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals On twenty bloody blocks.52). most good indeed” (53). In fact. she conceives of his response to Angelo’s lecherous bribe as identical to hers in this soliloquy. displays none of the emotional valence we saw in Act 2: “Why as all comforts are: most good. he’d yield them up Before his sister should her body stoop To such abhorred pollution. The gendered loyalty which colors the thick relations between Isabella and Claudio lies at the heart of their first face-to-face encounter in the play. . each of these siblings has to confront the profound alterity of the other. what’s the comfort?” (3. Finally. . Tomorrow you set on. interestingly. Since he poses no physical threat to Isabella. along with the ethical responsivity such alterity creates. that questions of responsibility and responsivity go both ways. having affairs to heaven. And yet. . Far from bringing news of a reprieve from death. then. I do fear thee .”14 Perhaps the strangely cheerful finality with which Isabella greets Claudio. (177–85) 103 Isabella’s conviction here that Claudio would sacrifice his life twenty times over indicates her sense of their relationship: the care for and loyalty to each other which define thick relations. / And six or seven winters more respect / Than a perpetual honour” (72–75). however. Intends you for his swift ambassador. Where you shall be an everlasting leiger. Ethics is “always a response to the other. Claudio: If I would yield him my virginity. is an attempt to forestall the very request he will make of her: a request which will bring her to that vulnerable moment where her freedom is called into question by the presence of the other. Such is the entangled nature of thick relations. (54–58). and brother die: More than our brother is our chastity. Expressing male expectation of what a women’s traditional role should be. on the temptation of [one’s] own non-ethical impulses. . what she fears is what he will ask of her. Isabella’s tone here seems difficult to understand unless we connect it with her subsequent lines: “O Claudio. Isabella reveals the twisted means of Claudio’s potential salvation: Isabella:Dost thou think.

the only legitimate ground from which Isabella can refuse. perhaps. however. As Alison Jaggar observes.1. you beast! O faithless coward. Facing death is.. Thou shalt not do’t” (98. . With thou be made a man out of my vice? Is’t not a kind of incest to take life From thine own sister’s shame? What should I think? . / Nature dispenses with the deed so far / That it becomes a virtue” (134–37).104 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Thou might’st be freed . Feminist ethics helps us identify this unspoken dimension of ethical relations between Claudio and Isabella.95–101) Claudio’s initial response exhibits all the care and loyalty Isabella expressed hope for at the end of Act 2: “O heavens. but not her self. it cannot be .”15 The specifically gendered dimension of suffering and humiliation in abusive sexual acts is one such issue and raises questions about what counts as ethical in the thick relations between these two siblings in Measure for Measure. . She is willing to sacrifice her life for her brother.137–45) As this outburst makes clear. Claudio articulates an alternative reading of Angelo’s offer: “Sweet sister. feminists have “enlarge[d] the concerns of traditional Western ethics which has [traditionally] devalued or ignored issues or spheres of life that are associated with women. . it would be hard to argue that the real reason she explodes in anger is because her immortal soul is endangered. however.. and to rot. let me live. Or else thou diest tomorrow. Seeking relief from his own fear. the primary issue here is how couching the problem of this bribe in terms of sin actually elides the personal suffering and humiliation involved for Isabella in such a coercive sexual act. Musing on the reality of going “we know not where. Nevertheless. Isabella herself is quiet on this aspect of her situation. / To lie in cold obstruction. The “sinfulness” of acquiescing to Angelo is.” Claudio admits (116).1. Earlier we saw Isabella re-evaluate her belief in the absolute sinfulness of illicit sexuality since such commitment to abstract morality produces the very kind of injustice her brother faces. 102). Die. “a fearful thing. since no one is ethically required to sacrifice their soul for the life of another. (3. Can lay on nature is a paradise / To what we fear of death” (129–32). . perish! (3. / What sin you do to save a brother’s life..” he claims that “The weariest and most loathed worldly life .. Take my defiance. Claudio’s interests are not the same as Isabella’s. As a result. This night’s the time That I should do what I abhor to name. O dishonest wretch. the force of her response to Claudio’s request suggests something more lies under the surface: Isabella: O.16 .

Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals


Claudio’s request registers as a betrayal for Isabella because it violates the loyalty and caring which constitute the very nature of their thick relations. Such caring is a “demanding attitude,” an “unselfish heed of the particular needs and interests of others; as Margalit argues, “it calls for more than mere moral rights and wrongs.”17 Claudio draws upon the moral codes of thin relations (that is, the “sin” or lack thereof) when Isabella expects the ethical responsiveness of thick relations. Ironically, the strength of Isabella’s anger and her utter rejection of his claim serve to protect Claudio from having to confront the implications of his request, although Shakespeare hints at it when Claudio says to the disguised Duke, “Let me ask my sister pardon” (172). Nevertheless, in Act 3, both Isabella and Claudio have to face “the strangeness of the other,” the “irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions” in the face of the other.18 While the suffering and humiliation Isabella would suffer at Angelo’s hands remains unspoken, the play pushes us to the very limits of what thick relations require of these two siblings. In the end, both are saved from the full weight of the demands of caring for the other by the Duke’s bed-trick option. But this, along with the Duke’s proposal, presents as many problems as they solve given the gendered dimensions of thick relations—especially where the people involved are not similarly situated. The Duke’s proposal to Isabella, which he frames as inevitably beneficial for her, seems as problematic as Claudio’s request for her to acquiesce to Angelo’s bribe. Isabella’s decision to join the order of St Clare clearly stems from an inner desire and demonstrates her sense of agency, not a lack of viable marriage offers. Thus, what possible response could she make in the face of such a request—a request which renders completely invisible her desire for a very differently motivated kind of community—except a stunned silence? Instead of taking us deep into the ethical complexities of thick relations, The Merchant of Venice stages the chasm between thick and thin relations. This play reveals just how fully moral agency concerns the “quality of spaces between people” with whom we are not thickly related, even as we become entangled in each other’s lives.19 Portia saves Antonio’s life, but her lack of any self-interrogation, especially that “doubling moment” concerning her response to Shylock undermines Portia’s status as a moral agent. We should note that Isabella achieves this very kind of agency in the process of refusing to save her brother’s life. The irony of such an alignment only serves to foreground the challenges and the limits of responding to the call of the other. No part of the play exhibits the chasm between thick and thin relations more powerfully than the trial scene of Act 4. Shylock is asked to extend mercy at least three different times in this scene alone. The Duke and his friends take as self-evident that extending mercy to their friend Antonio is the right thing to do. The obvious “moral” here is that Shylock should care for the life of Antonio. He doesn’t. He wants revenge and is poised to get it, in yet another example of irony, through legal means. To exhibit concern for Antonio’s life would require


Shakespeare and Moral Agency

that “demanding attitude toward others . . . that unselfish heed of the particular needs and interests of others” which is constitutive of thick relations.20 As everything in the play attests to, however, Shylock and the Venetians are connected in the thinnest of possible ways; neither side seems willing to cross the divide in a way that would encourage such a shift. Using Shylock’s name for the first and only time in the scene, the Duke says: “Shylock, the world thinks—and I think so too—/ That thou but lead’st this fashion of thy malice / To the last hour of act, and then ‘tis thought / Thou’lt show thy mercy . . . ” (4.1.16–20). Shylock’s only response is to reiterate his “purpose . . . to have the due and forfeit of my bond,” admitting there is no “why” except “to say it is my humour” (4.1.34, 42). In a mutual attack on the alterity of the other, Shylock compares Antonio to “a rat” and a “gaping pig” (4.1.43, 46), while the Duke and his friends refer to Shylock only as “Jew,” liken him to “Turks and Tarters,”21 and describe him as an “inexorable dog,” and a “ravenous” wolf (4.1.31, 127, 137). If ethics concerns the “quality of spaces between people,” then this opening castigates everyone from an ethical perspective. Indeed, each subsequent request for mercy only reveals how little intercourse exists between Shylock and the people whose city he shares. When the Duke asks “How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend’ring none?” (4.1.87), Shylock replies: “What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong?” (4.1.88). He dismisses the question, preferring instead to castigate the Duke for employing a double standard:
Shylock: You have among you many a purchased slave Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules, You use in abject and in slavish parts Because you bought them. Shall I say to you ‘Let them be free, marry them to your heirs. Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates Be seasoned with such viands.’ You will answer ‘The slaves are ours.’ So do I answer you. (4.1.89–97).

As many commentators have observed, this speech beautifully exposes the hypocrisy of Christian culture. While audiences often respond to the truth of such claims, no one in the play is willing to complicate—to thicken—their relationship with him by doing so. Edward Andrew makes the surprising claim that Shylock at first wants to build a deeper friendship with Antonio and that this is what accounts for his proposal to make an interest-free loan.22 Far from trying to deepen his relationship with Shylock, the Duke refuses to engage him at all, claiming: “Upon my power I may dismiss this court” (4.1.103). This speech, like Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eye’s,” reveals his willingness to speak truth to power. At the same time, however, Shylock continually elides the issue of how

Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals


his bond, while seemingly legal, was never moral.23 Whether we define “moral” in the conventional sense, as that which concerns “right or principled conduct,” or as Margalit does, as that which is “grounded in the attribute of being human—the stranger, the remote,” Shylock refuses to acknowledge the fundamental obligation we all have not to take the life of another human being.24 As such, he undermines whatever moral ground his words establish. Ultimately, his refusal to engage the moral issue at the heart of this bond, especially given his marginal cultural status, is what renders him so vulnerable to destruction. When Portia enters the courtroom and certifies the legality of the bond, she decrees that Shylock “must be merciful” (4.1.177). Responding to this third such demand, Shylock asks, “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that” (4.1.178). In a speech which reiterates the requisite Christian virtue of mercy, Portia launches into her lengthy, stirring and completely ineffectual speech on mercy. Emphasizing that “the quality of mercy is not strain’d,” she claims:
Portia: It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown; His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice. (4.1.180–92)

Yoking the power, images and language of religion to that of law, Portia’s narrative takes as obvious, natural and true—as divinely ordained—that sympathy for the human condition should overrule any other considerations legal or otherwise. Portia is, in many ways, right. Even thin relations entail some obligation. Nevertheless, Portia’s speech is also troubling. Even though all the major characters rely upon this value to establish their superiority over Shylock, this is no authentic effort to reach across the divide of thin relations and connect with the other in a meaningful way. Instead, this rhetorical display comes off as a staged performance: one which seems directed at everyone but Shylock.25 Predictably, given what Shylock has revealed in the earlier parts of the play, he rejects Portia’s mode of reasoning. ”My deeds upon my head!” he replies, “I crave the law, / The penalty and forfeit of my bond” (4.1.201–02). Rather than “proff[er] any moral opinions of his own,” Shakespeare prefers to “[provide] us with the materials with which to evaluate . . . it is left to the audience’s


Shakespeare and Moral Agency

moral sense to supply the moral assessment.”26 Obviously, no one’s moral sense here is that Antonio should die. But Portia’s unwillingness to engage Shylock in an authentic way, along with his equal degree of unwillingness, reveals a problematic repetition: everyone in this trial scene refuses to cross the divide between thick and thin relations. In what increasingly feels like a cat and mouse game, Portia shifts tactics a bit. Expressing a moral obligation outside the bond itself, Portia indicates that Shylock should provide a surgeon “To stop [Antonio’s] wounds, lest he do bleed to death” (4.1.258). Suspicious of such an interpretive approach, Shylock refuses unless it is specifically “nominated in the bond” (4.1.258). Portia says, “It is not so express’d, but what of that? / ‘Twere good you do so much for charity” (4.1.260–61, italics added). Using Shylock’s rigid mode of reasoning to set the fixity of patriarchal writ against him, Portia awards Shylock his pound of flesh, but institutes her famous caveat:
Portia: Tarry a little, there is something else. This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh.’ … But in the cutting of it, if thou dost shed One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods Are by the laws of Venice confiscate Unto the state of Venice. (4.1.305–12, italics added)

Emphasizing the law’s partiality to “Christian blood,” we see the limits of Portia’s salvific, but morally questionable response. Far from bridging the chasm between thick and thin relations, Portia emphasizes it here, going far beyond what she needs to do in order to save Antonio’s life. Not only does she deny Shylock his principal payment, but she confiscates all his wealth, which becomes “forfeit to the state” (4.1.360). While the Duke commutes the sentence of death Shylock faces “for seek[ing] the life of [a Venetian] citizen,” Shylock observes: “Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that. / You take my house when you do take the prop / That doth sustain my house; you take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live” (4.1.346, 369–72). Finally, in a move which recalls Isabella’s distinction between her life and her self, while Shylock is granted life, he is forced to convert to Christianity. Unlike Isabella, however, whose silence ends Measure for Measure, Portia forces Shylock to respond: “Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?” (388). Marking the dissolution of what Shylock defines as the core of his selfhood, he speaks the words that have been scripted for him: “I am content” (389). Despite saving Antonio’s life, Portia’s excessive condemnation of Shylock raises questions about her own motivation. Ultimately, Portia’s overly-legalistic and harsh reading of the bond renders her as “tyrannous” as Angelo in Measure

/ Most ignorant of what he’s most assured” (2. The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. community . even as we must simultaneously respond to the obligations of self. In so doing. most especially Michael Bristol. Isabella also calls into question the justice of applying the law so strictly to one man only: “it is tyrannous” she claims and attacks the legitimacy of Angelo’s judgment: “man.120–22). the concerns and suffering of the female self have been denied and/or put into the service of the “larger good” of the family. Perhaps Bell’s “infinite responsibility . Margalit. they reveal the disturbing effects of ethical and/or moral acts which disregard a doubled responsivity. 51.2. Moreover. Politics. the issue is one of cui bono—who benefits? This difference has everything to do with the moral agency of Isabella and Portia. In The Merchant of Venice. 1997). Once the triangle is severed. / [Cross] Dressed in a little brief authority. In their different ways.Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals 109 for Measure. Both plays foreground the intersecting obligations of those to whom we are thickly and thinly related. W. however. of course. In Measure for Measure. / Most ignorant of what [s]he’s most assured” (2. whether willing or unwilling. Culture & Performance: The Challenge of Ethics. exhausting and never exhausted. the issue is one of self to other when both are at risk. Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice reveal the difficulties of moral agency when everyone’s suffering matters.2. and Feminist Theory (Oxford and New York: Berg. but Shakespeare stages the ugly alternative in these two plays whose moral and ethical questions have troubled audiences for centuries. Ed. of an other. / Dressed in a little brief authority. 7.. of course. . proud man. Avishai Margalit. All references to Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice are from The Norton Shakespeare. Saving Antonio’s life seems to be a partial motivation at best. 47. 2007). Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W. disguised. 87. In a dramatic act that parallels the initial drama of Antonio’s bond. we see Portia brutally annihilate Shylock’s self in order to break Antonio’s emotional hold on Bassanio. Portia’s ignorance lies in the very lack of responding to her own response concerning Shylock here in the courtroom. p. Bassanio is Portia’s completely. Margalit. 2002).120–22). Norton & Co. . 62.” is a utopian dream. Isabella’s description of Angelo works equally well here for Portia. p. p. Quoted in Bell. as Balthasar: “man. Viki Bell. Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Many thanks to the participants of the Shakespeare Association seminar on Moral Agency for their insightful comments on this essay. proud man. Ibid. especially where one person stands to benefit through the sacrifice. 105. p. p. Historically.

33 and 37. dice dearly. outparamoured the Turk. Ed. p. Kathryn Finin. 33. ‘Why. p. “Male Pregnancy and Cognitive Permeability in Measure for Measure. Levinas quoted in Bell. p. Tis a boisterous and a cruel style. Donald R. Wehrs. 14 Feb. W. no 3 (1998): pp. against the form of law. / Like Turk to Christian’ (Rosalind in As You Like It). the Turks appear as exemplars of ‘unchristian’ behaviour: ‘What! Think you we are Turks or infidels? / Or that we would. and in woman. 1991).” Feminist Ethics. / Proceed thus rashly in the villain’s death.110 Shakespeare and Moral Agency 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 or state. Katharine Eisaman Maus. Community. Norton & Co. see Peter Meidlinger who argues that Shakespeare “evince[s] a remarkably coherent vision” in his “ongoing concern with the conditions that enable one to choose the good over the right. Claudia Card (Lawrence. Women and Power in English Renaissance Drama. 3 (1998): pp.’ (Richard III). “Introduction” The Merchant of Venice. no. p. “again and again in Shakespeare. Language and the Law in The Merchant of Venice” in Justice. 1988). 85. 1–33. ed. 179. Bell. why she defies me. along with Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice.” in Feminist Ethics. Shylock’s Rights: A Grammar of Lockian Claims (Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 126–45. Problems. while they demonstrate the difficulty of creating social conditions that compel characters to modify their lives’ projects in order to make them more valuable and less destructive” “When Good Meets Right: Identity. For more on the ethical dimensions of this historical situation. Kansas: Kansas University Press. Kansas: Kansas University Press. ed. Shakespearean Comedy. 1997). 263–92. “Isabella’s Order: Religious Acts and Personal Desires in Measure for Measure” Studies in Philology 95. 1 (2006): pp. 53. . Jessica Slights. p. For a related discussion of agency in this play. no. / A style for challengers. ‘Wine. “Performative Subversions: Portia. As Gönül Bakay argues. Prospects. Margalit.” “The Turk in English Renaissance literature” Open Democracy. In The Norton Shakespeare.. 701–22. 2003. 2006). and Agency in Shakespeare’s Comedies” (Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 1081. 710–11. Margalit. p.). pp. Margalit. Bell. Claudia Card. (New York: Harper Perennial. pp. p. (Lawrence. 47. p. 269–92. 52. 3–4 (2000): pp. 7. 1991). See also Meidlinger. Shakespeare’s Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays. 61. and Contemporary Theory. Stephen Greenblatt et al (New York: W.’ (Edgar in King Lear). p. Eds. p.” Shakespeare Quarterly 49. See also Mary Thomas Crane. “Touching Words” Embodying Ethics in Erasmus. Colin. Andrew Majeske and Emily Detmer-Goebel (Madison NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. Ibid. 2009. Edward Andrew. 83 no.” Modern Philology 104. Feminist Ethics: Projects. Loved I deeply. see Ruth Ginzberg’s “Philosophy Is Not a Luxury. McGinn.

there was not much in his “bearing”—other than the cost of supporting his bastard son—that one could call “moral” or “ethical. a moral one—when he identifies it as something he and his cohort will never be able to do. an “action having magnitude” (as Aristotle defined tragic action2)? Domesticated animals bear burdens. “bearing” either “fardels” or Time’s and proud men’s contempt is so shameful that only dread of “the undiscovered country” would make him “rather bear those ills we have” and “lose the name of action” (3. and so do some human beings who have lost (or been deprived of. For Hamlet. When Lear “bears” the burdens that are the results of his actions in Act 1. arguably.69–87).41). what choice does he have? The contexts for his actions after Act 1—seeking shelter in successively straitened conditions and then challenging the thunder—do not offer much opportunity for actively chosen “bearing. with what degree of choice. or were never granted) degrees of dignity.” . How is Edgar’s meaning different from Hamlet’s? Edgar appears to give it the greatest significance—a tragic significance.6. since we are talking about a tragedy.3 “Bearing” in this sense.1 Is some special worthiness attached to being worn down by life? What does it mean to predict on behalf of “we that are young” that the burdens that ground down our elders will never be ours? What kind of act is bearing a burden? Is it heroic.” Gloucester—the other “oldest” to whom Edgar must be referring— tries to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff that isn’t there.3. is the opposite of action. Up to that point in the play (4.1.Chapter 8 “The oldest hath borne most”: the Burdens of Aging and the Morality of Uselessness in King Lear Naomi Conn Liebler I begin with a confession: I do not understand—have never understood—the closing line of King Lear: “The oldest hath borne most: we that are young / Shall never see so much. as he clearly states. and thus. Perhaps the morality of “bearing” depends upon what is borne. nor live so long” (5.324–25). and with what degree of consciousness and.

People say that ultimately you are what you have done. as in Hamlet’s sense. Their future is too short for thoughts of what is going to occur. all old people. Remembering is a mental activity that you often fail to engage in because it is either arduous or embarrassing. as the sick man said. the Italian political philosopher Norberto Bobbio (who died in 2004 at the age of 94) commented on the significance for old people of acts of memory: The world of old people. but in trying to .(4. .3. in spite of the many years that have passed and the thousands of events you have experienced.273). remembering is not only a kind of action but is the penultimate kind (just before dying). It is no less important than any other kind of action.6. you have to use your time not for making plans for a distant future that is no longer yours. I would also say that you are what you can remember . Old age. By remembering you rediscover yourself and your identity. with my good biting falchion/ I would have made them skip: I am old now” (275–76). But precisely because it doesn’t last long. which Gloucester says he cannot do: Gloucester: Oh you mighty gods. But it is a healthy activity.112 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Here. If I could bear it longer and not fall To quarrel with your great opposeless wills. It’s also true that Lear does “bear in” Cordelia’s body from the place where she was hanged. an important kind. he seeks and gets confirmation from the “Officer” (Q) or “Gentleman” (F) with him that he “kill’d the slave that was a-hanging” her (5. the ethical agency of that act of “remembering”?4 Does reminiscing constitute “action having magnitude”? Is memory what “the eldest hath borne most”? When he was 87 years old. He can “act.” if not much or often. And he can reminisce: “I have seen the day. Lear remembers. It is not difficult to assess the value of “memory” for aging protagonists (or even for thirty-year-olds like Hamlet). it is in fact the important action of old age: The past is the dimension in which the old live. but what is the value to the larger community. . before and beyond the scope of action represented in the play. does not last long. then. My snuff and loathed part of nature should Burn itself out. is to a greater or lesser extent the world of memory. and while he does so. just about Lear’s age.” he must be speaking of endurance over their full fictive lives. thought and loved.34–40) If Edgar is right. This world I do renounce and in your sights Shake patiently my great affliction off. “bearing” means enduring.5 For Bobbio. if “the oldest hath borne most.

I see him break Scoggin’s head at the court-gate. and Francis Pickbone. dead! ’A drew a good bow. even an encouraging cast. we knew where the bona-robas were and had the best of them all at commandment. We shall all follow. cousin. and betted much money on his head. the very same. “Men . I was once of Clement’s Inn. and roundly too. Is old Double of your town living yet? Silence. memory alone can be cold comfort.. they exchange family news for a brief moment before turning to reminiscence and nostalgia. The same Sir John. that comes hither anon about soldiers? Shallow. sir. There was I. Dead. John a Gaunt loved him well.. no less important than the more physically active engagements of youth. When Silence and Shallow. now Sir John. No one pays much attention to old men’s memories anywhere in Shakespeare’s work—nor. As a measure of human significance. and the very same day did I fight with one Samson Stockfish. their access to patriarchal dividends diminished as they became physically debilitated with age.2. By the mass. Do not waste the little time left. cousins-in-law and colleagues. Shallow. and bravado adopted by so many of their younger counterparts. and I may say to you. I was called any thing. and they had less recourse to the potent alternative sources of manhood rooted in excess. and page to Thomas Mowbray. This may have been so especially for old men during the early modern period. Shallow. the mad days that I have spent! And to see how many of my old acquaintance are dead! Silence. Death is certain. Shakespeare seems to take a chillier or less sentimental view. Jesu. and black George Barnes. behind Gray’s Inn. Silence. when a was a crack. cousin. Shallow. You were called ‘lusty Shallow’ then.6 Bobbio gives an old man’s memories a poetic. and little John Doit of Staffordshire. Jesu. a Cotsole man—you had not four such swinge-bucklers in all the Inns o’ Court again. Duke of Norfolk. Retrace your steps. where I think they will talk of mad Shallow yet. and dead! A shot a fine shoot. meet in 3. probably. had more to lose than to gain in later life. Silence. the meaning of your life or the lack of it. Then was Jack Falstaff. .”7 King Lear is not the first of Shakespeare’s plays to take up the realpolitik of old people’s memories. Jesu. . strength. Shallow. a fruiterer. Dead! ’A would . and Will Squele. not thus high. 2 Henry IV devotes substantial stage time to the matter in dialogues between two elderly country justices. and I would have done any thing indeed too. as Alexandra Shepard notes. Jesu. if you can. cousin. Think hard.The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 113 understand. This Sir John. Your memories will come to your aid. . a boy. remembering is the business of the old. in the world it reflected.

They do not—perhaps never did or perhaps can no longer—concern themselves with depositions.3.103–14).2. must present “action having magnitude. Cordelia makes much of the obligatory nature of her bond of love to her father—she loves “according to [her] bond. and Kent’s banishment. As the story of a king and a kingdom.1. . we see in rapid succession the unthinkable division of the kingdom and the king’s unsanctioned retirement. Shallow’s chronicle of days and nights at Clement’s Inn is remembered only there. the personal is political.9 as perhaps it is in the modern world.3. “where I think they will talk of mad Shallow yet. Nature finds itself scourg’d by the sequent events . Before we are out of the exposition set in the very first scene. They encompass emotional debts as well as those of action (and this is Edgar’s other point in his closing lines—we must “speak what we feel. Lear’s chronicle. . that it would have done a man’s heart good to see. politics are local. All of these debts constitute moral proving grounds in this play.1.1. .5. . who’s out (as Lear puts it: 5. . Cordelia’s rejection by her father and one of her two suitors. the stupidity of the love-test. Lawrence Becker writes of “the debt that cannot be repaid” as a specifically familial matter.12–52)8 The pair’s meta-commentaries are focused on their personal histories and nostalgia for their long-lost glory days. For them in ways quite different from King Henry’s (or King Lear’s. for that matter). .2.323]). the redistribution of the divided kingdom. and is of no wider political consequence. All of these actions break bonds that are the supporting structures of civilization: familial and feudal bonds as well as the divinely ordained obligation of a monarch to rule until God takes him off. But the opening scene of King Lear and the whole of the play’s actions that unfold from it occur in a domain in which un-payable debts can occur. no more nor less” (1. not what we ought to say” [5.” if at all. . And is old Double dead? (3. who’s in. it really does look as if the bonds that hold the world together have come undone.249–51]: evidently it’s OK for her to hold to the letter . As King Henry pivots between memories of the king he displaced and apprehension of the son who. But it’s different with kings and with tragedies of state. the “history in all men’s lives” alternates with the “hatch and brood of time” (3. displacements. these actions address a complex world of such debts in both the represented feudal and the audience’s real-world early modern circumstances. (I note that she seems a bit miffed that Burgundy leaves her when the bond of her dowry is broken [1. So when Gloucester observes in the next scene that “These late eclipses in the sun and the moon portend no good to us.80. All ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves“ (1. in 4. 86). and remembered action is the only action they can manage.114 Shakespeare and Moral Agency have clapped i’ th’ clout at twelve score. usurpations. those are matters for monarchs. and carried you a forehand shaft a fourteen and fourteen and a half.16). .93). which only Edgar and Albany are left to record.” The play offers an unusually large number of such actions. performs his displacement.

if cold.12–23) when he introduced Edmund to Kent. But if it “cannot be repaid. of the maps and boundaries of his kingdom. but not for a prospective husband to do likewise.” But the play in many places discloses that .) Her commitment to her father is both ethical and moral. Perhaps he must hear it this way because he himself is quite busy in that first scene slashing the bonds of divine ordination to kingship. What Lear calls upon Cordelia to affirm is Becker’s “debt that cannot be repaid” and the importance of that indenture in the chain of civilized being. . as intolerable ingratitude. Questions about another kind of ethical and/or moral relation—not exactly a legal one and nowhere (that I know of) codified—disturb this play. constitutes or gives evidence of “agency”: making the thunder stop.” why should Lear—or any other parent (or child. and of the unconditional loyalty of the Earl of Kent. there I smelt ’em out. despite knowing that the affirmation he once demanded is and always was false: They flattered me like a dog and told me I had the white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there. to his daughters. That these are not royal prerogatives (in so far as they not even human prerogatives) puts to question the meaning of “age” and “agency” and of both as conditions of potency or usefulness.6. Lear of course wants to be all things to himself. But Lear hears it as a breach of all bonds. many of “we that are old” have long since given up the luxury of self-deception in that regard. Such bonds as the law affords (for example. When the rain came to wet me once and the wind to make me chatter.1–22). The idea that necessity or utility or even action should be a requirement for civic/ civilized life is unsettling. when the thunder would not peace at my bidding. as expressed in Lear’s haunting complaint: “Age is unnecessary” (2.) Contrast Lear’s unreasoning with the irrefutable.1.4. logic of Edmund’s “bastard” speech (1. I am not ague-proof. . ’tis a lie. keeping off the rain and wind. “We that are young” can never be certain that we live useful or necessary lives. Shakespeare’s uncomfortable inquiry into the relation of bonds to moral agency seems to conclude in despair.155).5–6) and compounded the offense by bragging or jesting about it at the beginning of the play (1. for a king (or at least for this king).2. there I found ’em. and that a young man who still lacks even a black beard can be flattered by the imputation of “white hairs.96–104) He itemizes some instances of what. (4. simply because his father behaved immorally (“For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines / Lag of a brother” 1. . Go to. legitimacy) have no bearing upon his life.2.The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 115 of a bond and “owe” nothing more. for that matter)— think that it ought to be? (I shall revisit this question later. and to his subjects. Lear here sneaks in notice of a cultural consensus regarding age—that it confers or carries wisdom. Besides identifying the doubt that attaches to royal flattery. they are not men o’their words: they told me I was everything.

16). loved me. too. Edgar (“Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it” 4. Kent (“be Kent unmannerly / When Lear is mad” 1. might be added to the more usual materialist/Marxist understanding of Lear’s exasperated “O. but will regard him as a being significant and valuable in himself . “Who needs mankind?”12 and he answers his own question: “Human existence cannot derive its ultimate meaning from society. because society itself is in need of meaning. . in Cordelia’s explanation of the terms of the “bond” according to which she loves her father: You have begot me.”10 Heschel forces his readers to confront the realization that none of us is “necessary.75) seem untroubled by dilemma. and most honour you. It is. but. not quite right. “Who needs me?” Heschel asks.” in this sense of being needed. Underpinning the tragic dismay visible in both plot and subplot in this play is a set of expectations (and their disappointment) that begins in a dynamic of family relations and radiates outward into larger social.96–8) If she’s right. moreover.116 Shakespeare and Moral Agency this cultural agreement is an ethical principle only—by which I mean that it can stand as an ideal or a collectively held fiction.453). It is implicit. (1. on second thoughts. then Becker’s identification of “the debt that cannot be repaid” is.”11 and the fact that such demands diminish or disappear as we age.33–34). Gloucester identifies a blunter bafflement when attacked in his own castle by his “guests” who submit neither to the ethics of comitatus nor to the morality of reverence for the aged (3. because he is capable of satisfying other people’s needs. obvious that a person’s service to society does not claim all of his life and can therefore not be the ultimate answer to his quest of meaning for life as a whole . The theologian Abraham Heschel observed that “every one of us entertains the keen expectation that other people will not regard him merely because of what he is worth to them. political.” This sense. like Hamlet’s recollection of the custom of wassail in his father’s time. bred me.29–41). I Return those duties back as are right fit. The matter of potency/usefulness and its inevitable link to questions of agency is one of the most compelling—and disturbing—among questions about old age and the reciprocal relations and obligations between one generation and another. .7. It is not that the debt is unpayable.2. and economic connections.” that “necessity.1. and even Edmund in his “bastard” speech wrestle with the implications of their respective behaviors.4. love you. Lear concurs: “Age is unnecessary. only the “pelican daughters” (3. or on the Aristotelian prescript for what tragedy imitates.”13 This might serve as the summative commentary on an inquiry about moral agency.146–47).1. too. .4. Obey you. reason not the need!” (2. . is “a situation of being exposed to a demand from without. it is one “More honoured in the breach than the observance” (1.6. . What we are able to bestow upon others is usually less and rarely more than a tithe.

Montaigne thought it was perfectly reasonable.” and has done so against the instructions in their father’s will (1. Its summation in Bobbio’s essay restores what might be for some a more “ethical” dimension (because unsullied by the taint of lucre) to this notion of legacy. lose their best years without making progress in public service and the knowledge of men. because the creditor always demands interest. To the latter’s insistence that No old age can be so decrepit and rancid in a person who has passed his life in honor as not to be venerable.1. It was exactly that for Montaigne. as we know. . Oliver has reneged on his moral obligation as elder brother by withholding the means and opportunity for Orlando’s education in “gentlemanlike qualities. and let them meanwhile. in a corner of his hearth. It is an injustice that an old. for a father to take early retirement and disburse his estate among his children while he still has a grip on his rational faculties. and not to cut down and restrict our own comforts in order to provide for theirs. possessions that would suffice for the advancement and maintenance of many children.14 Shakespeare shows us what happens when Montaigne’s relatively comfortable cautions are stretched or magnified by the tragic imagination. the debt is never paid by the return of the principal. in Florio’s 1603 translation a year or two before Shakespeare wrote King Lear.59–62). in fact morally obligatory. especially to his children.15 Shakespeare replies. The “new” currency is not property but wisdom. broken. and as companions in the understanding of our domestic affairs . in his essay “On the affection of fathers for their children. yes it can and often is. hath been at my charge” (1. It is cruelty and injustice not to receive them into a share and association in our goods. . not by necessity and need nor by harshness and force. applied to kings rather than to the burghers Montaigne apparently had in mind.8). The modern world has another approach to the kind of “legacy” the old should leave to the young. sir.1. . The problem is that the payment never satisfies. The material emphases of Montaigne’s instructions to fathers remind us that money is often implicated in ideas about morality—or at least it was for him. whose souls he ought to have trained to their duty by reason.The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 117 Cordelia explains exactly how it is paid.” which was available. since we have begotten them to that end. Furthermore. Likewise Gloucester’s acknowledgment of a financial obligation to his bastard son: “His breeding. for lack of means. Sometimes moral agency is just fiscal agency. Think of Orlando’s complaint against Oliver early in As You Like It. the meaning of “moral agency” in familial relations often seems to embed facilitation or enabling. half-dead father should enjoy alone.

of “progress” or progression. These lines. King Lear’s inquiry about age-related wisdom is probably unanswerable.” in dividing the kingdom. In developed societies.439). work. in taking early abdication. the treatment of diseases. Its relation to questions of moral agency.2.16 Because King Lear ends on a represented brink of modernity. one professionally mad. It has long been a critical commonplace to cite Lear’s moral culpability—his tragic agency—in setting the “love-test. and one pretending to be mad—all understand each other perfectly. Enough. and the skills involved are passed on from father to son. and in banishing Cordelia and Kent. on the other hand.6. an old person encapsulates a community’s cultural heritage more fully than any of its other members. I think. oddly enough.1. and that unanswerability may be one key to the play’s enduring resonance. the consequence of change. is not so deeply buried as to evade discovery.17 As it may well be. whether anyone.294–95) and that he gave over the State “in good time” (2. Critics generally and understandably dismiss Lear’s commentary there as the raving of a lunatic. a condition of accelerated change sprung in part by a breach in direct royal lineage. yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (1. the family. and the young don’t last long enough to become old. at least in King Lear. no one in this exchange seems not to know what the other two . The old person knows from experience what the others have yet to learn in terms of morals. Many crimes and moral transgressions are committed in this play.118 Shakespeare and Moral Agency In static traditional societies that evolve slowly. is completely in possession of anything that can be called “wisdom. young or old. But the only move made to adjudicate them in anything like a civilized court is the one represented by inversion in the problematic “mock” trial in Lear’s hovel in 3.” It is also never clear. The fundamental rules that govern community life. suggest that she knows her father better than he knows himself—an arrogance we have no particular reason to credit and hardly evidence of her perspicacity or superior insight—and that the old man was not entirely responsible for his behavior. is that there’s nothing for the old to pass along to the young. attitudes to the next world. and the techniques of survival. the accelerating change in both custom and the arts has completely overturned the relationship between those who possess knowledge and those who don’t. moments of play. and relations with other groups do not change. while youth is. has been said about Lear’s refusal to hear what Cordelia and Kent are trying to tell him. (Notice that the three mad men—one genuinely mad. Daughter Regan jumps quickly to reason that the king’s behavior in Act 1 reflects “the infirmity of his age. it is unclear whether the world of King Lear better fits Bobbio’s description of “traditional societies” or “developed societies. Increasingly the old are not in the know.” Edgar may be right when he says that he and his cohort shall never see so much or live so long: in this play. mainly because of its greater ability to learn. customs.

nor as the lending of unconscious meaning to a reality it wishes to ignore. [which] is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time. besides Lear and Gloucester. nor as the repression of what once was wished. classical hierarchies of judges and accusers. but only belatedly.3.4. and .2. citing the coincidence of Gloucester’s fate and his brother’s: “The dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes” (5. Is the moral agency behind these horrific actions. beadles and defendants. . . . . Cathy Caruth’s work on PTSD has interesting implications for reading this play. you shall find Some that will thank you. Structures of jurisprudence. thoughts. As Kent says to the knight who reports the “unbonneted” Lear “contending with the fretful elements” (3. the civic necessity of laws and courts and trials. “The oldest” may have “borne most.”19 This might serve as a reasonable explanation of what we hear in Lear’s mock trial. . dreams. as a distortion of reality. 2. much different from Edmund’s) to Nature and unnamed gods at several points in the play (1.18 or that they were the sole agents of this represented disintegration.378–81. 2. The disorder “takes the form of repeated.461–67) have availed nothing. no less so than his howling at the end when he carries in Cordelia’s corpse. . incidentally. simply. (3.31–35) Clearly there are other (im)moral agents at work in this play. is not that the king is mad but rather that the scene makes sense anyway.The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 119 are talking about. trials.) The old king certainly sounds mad.4–14). making just report Of how unnatural and bemadding sorrow The King hath cause to plain. or of the play’s subsequent actions.2. What we should notice about this scene.267–81. Lear’s “unbonneted” howling at the wind and rain is the keening of a traumatized human being. [The] traumatic symptom cannot be interpreted. or behaviors stemming from [an] event. One way to understand the “mock trial” scene as well as the king’s confrontation with the storm is in terms currently used in discussions of post-traumatic stress-disorder.” but it’s not so easy to argue that they got what they deserved. his alone? Is Lear the agent of his own despair and of his own madness? Does Gloucester deserve to have his eyes gouged out in his own home by his “guests”? Edgar seems to think so.1. in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it.170–71). His earlier pleas (not. intrusive hallucinations. If on my credit you dare build so far To make your speed to Dover.1. and his lunacy has satisfied many not only as an explanation of his actions but also as a fit consequence—some might say a morally fitting punishment—for his early actions in the play. so “raving” may be in fact a perfectly appropriate form of discourse. I think. whose actions bring on what looks like madness. He calls upon once-familiar structures of order—courts.

21 Lear remembers his daughters’ bad behavior. he has no children with whom to play Lear’s love-game. and perhaps his own toward Cordelia (4. by its lack of integration into consciousness. . The ability to recover the past is thus closely and paradoxically tied up. the state has already been divided (“gored”).151]).71–74). I think. and was Lear’s godson (2. . the widespread hypocrisy societies use in “maintaining” orders everyone violates anyway all come under indictment in this scene. though he relives in his speeches much of the familial violation we have already seen and heard from the play’s beginning. his envious and disenfranchised brother is dead. . but does not seem to remember having abdicated.120 Shakespeare and Moral Agency most important. . the vault-cracking storm. Thus far.1. as-yet-unknowable future. . . at least there is no mention of that. it isolates and frames the play’s ruptures at every level—state. with the inability to have access to it. whether real (Goneril and Regan) or perceived (Cordelia). The damage of the play’s .”22 Perhaps this is one more implication of Edgar’s closing couplet. What it can express is an anxiety or anxiousness about what his new dual role of king and witness entails. does not simply serve as record of the past but precisely registers the force of an experience that is not yet fully owned. “In its repeated imposition as both image and amnesia. “not altogether fool” [1.7. but cannot recall exactly how he got there. The trauma occurred not only to the “gored state” but also to his own mind. . family.4. Cordelia’s excruciating “nothing. the trauma thus seems to evoke the difficult truth of a history that is constituted by the very incomprehensibility of its occurrence. Edgar’s line is a prediction. The trauma of psychological violence at the hands of his daughters. in trauma. in part. of course. Caruth’s terms are useful. and as such it has little impact on an unpredictable. This play really has performed multiple traumas. In Caruth’s terms. considering what has happened up to that point. the horror of what has transpired cannot be absorbed or rendered intelligible through representation. handing over. an event that is itself constituted. a fact surprisingly unremarked in this play that spends so much time and poetry upon relationships. This play offers us quite a few such tropes for trauma ranging from individual representations (Goneril’s and Regan’s steady and systematic dismantling of their father’s estate and thus of their father. “Trauma . and banishing. so unthinkable was his triple act of stepping down.91). is replayed through the framework of a familiar judicial system of various crimes and punishments. individual. toward a synthesizing of these scenes in the middle of the play with something that is not only “not-mad” (or as Kent says of the Fool’s discourse.”20 What in psychoanalytic terms is called a “symptom” functions in dramatic terms as a trope. but makes perfectly good sense. And this suggests that what returns in the flashback is . he’s simply the only one left of sufficient rank to take it up. Edgar had no genealogical warrant for this kingship.” Gloucester’s blinding violating all rules of hospitality) to macroevents: the king’s vivisection of the kingdom. He is still “every inch a king” holding court in the hovel.

” Shoshana Felman adds: “To bear witness is to bear the solitude of a responsibility.2.2.333) but to tell a story that exceeds ordinary credibility and yet must be told. an appointment to transgress the confines of that isolated stance. Aufidius for Coriolanus. “the rest is silence” (5.” writes Levinas. . .16). Edgar serves as a reiterative Shakespearean trope whose task it is to bear witness. must not be forgotten. (5. Commenting on Paul Celan’s observation that “no one bears witness for the witness. the medium of realization of the testimony. Some events will not make sense. a chorus to some other play or some other experience. besides taking up crown and scepter. as if the play itself were incomplete. as Hamlet said. and to bear the responsibility. Of deaths put on by cunning and [forc’d] cause. of that solitude. casual slaughters.381–85) Horatio can deliver a tale. is to bear witness to what he has seen and lived. hardly anyone else is left standing. All these . purposes mistook Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads. bloody. and beyond what he can tell. Because the witness has said ‘here I am’ before the other.3. paradoxically enough. perhaps not as harrowing and blood-freezing as the one the Ghost failed to deliver (1. “The witness. It ends with the promise to bear witness. Hamlet commissions Horatio not only to “tell [his] story” (5. Octavius for Antony and Cleopatra. “testifies to what has been said through him. transcends the witness who is but its medium. enough to last a longer lifetime than remains to him or to the others left standing. that leaves only Albany and Edgar among the play’s major figures. Kent says that he must shortly follow his master (5. Of accidental judgments. and unnatural acts. however briefly. Like other “remnants” at the ends of Shakespearean tragedies. the Capulet/Montague statues. precisely.5. to speak for others and to others. to testify. Felman continues: The appointment to bear witness is.320–21). they are left precisely because the play does not end with the deaths of the protagonists. but no more sense-making. Antony for Brutus. all Horatio can “truly deliver” is a narrative Of carnal. by its very definition. And in this upshot. Of course.2. Like Horatio. new damage is always possible and unpredictable: such futures are never made explicit at the ends of tragedies. Emmanuel Levinas can thus suggest that the witness’ speech is one that. . Edgar cannot imagine more traumas than he has already seen.357–58). Of course.The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 121 represented traumas has already been done.”23 What Edgar is literally appointed to do.”24 Edgar’s appointment is neither the first nor the last instance of such closing testimonies in Shakespearean tragedy.

and diagrams literally testified in the prosecution of numbers of Nazi war criminals. any more than the Shoah can be explained. continues. to testify on behalf of those who were murdered. only to show you. There was not much else to say on that afternoon. You personally— To make you a witness. The Investigation. when he returned to Paris after the liberation. alas. Israel. acts that cannot be construed as knowledge nor assimilated into full cognition. “seems to be composed of bits and pieces of a memory that has been overwhelmed by occurrences that have not settled into understanding or remembrance.”28 Testimony is not explanation. to learn that there had been another holocaust before their own in the 1990s. Much of that discussion focused on “testimony. events. he said. Arrested and assigned to the Sonderkommando.”26 David Olère was my cousin. A troupe of Rwandan actors recently revived Peter Weiss’s post-Auschwitz play. which coincidentally takes the form of a courtroom trial.122 Shakespeare and Moral Agency speech acts translating unspeakable violence and violation make no sense. I walk and my assignment walks ahead of me. scenes.”29 but it cannot rationalize nor offer “a completed statement. it tells.” a witness. or rather “vow[s] to tell. so I must show. they explained in a postperformance question-and-answer session. and the Unites States. After he died in 1985 at the age of 83. a totalizable account of . He had indeed “seen so much” and “borne most. cannot be explained. David committed the rest of his life and work to recording in his drawings and sculptures what he had seen and survived in the camp between 1943 and 1945. events in excess of our full frames of reference. to promise and produce one’s own speech as material evidence for truth. No photographs were taken of the activities inside the crematoria.27 They were shocked. We talked mostly about family. Some of his portraits. Alex wrote the poems collected in Witness and reproduced his father’s words: “I must survive. a Polish Jew who had emigrated to Paris long before the war.”30 Tzachi Zamir follows this line of thinking . to be “un témoin.25 These lines were written to accompany one of dozens of drawings made by David Olère. he had lived so long. in the last year of his life. so I will show or nobody else will. . and the only artist who survived the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp.” on “bearing witness. he survived his assignment because his artistic and linguistic skills—he could draw and could also speak and write several languages—made him especially useful to the SS officers. the corps of prisoners who moved the bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoria.” unspeakably “most”. I am able to show. his son Alexandre (who resumed the original spelling of the family name) donated his father’s work to Holocaust museums in Europe. a witness.” “Testimony. I survived. Genocide. his mother and my maternal grandfather were siblings. I met him when he was 82. .” Felman writes.

In a courtroom. and commemorates? A generation ago.”32 King Lear challenges various testimonies and their “crises of truth. but the much more terrible and necessary cruelty which things can exercise against us. it is. something that transcends (or transgresses or translates) the specificity of particular settings or circumstances. and where one of the alternatives is death. also. Felman’s commentary is helpful. a handful of European theater theorists answered that question by intoning (in various accents): cruelty. meaning that if one does not undergo certain experiences. echoing Artaud. would have been terrified by the images of disintegration at every level understood to be the organized universe. .” from the love-test in Act 1 to the mock trial in Act 4. when Edgar.”33 Jan Kott. For Kott. it was nothing less than “the meaning of this journey [from cradle to grave].”31 I wonder whether Shakespeare’s original audience. a choice [between opposing values] and in imposing a situation which excludes the possibility of a compromise. implicit in his final lines as well: the eldest hath borne most [of what?]. reiterates. in this way.The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 123 as well: “Knowledge is structuralized. The absolute is greedy and demands everything. when historical accuracy is in doubt. We are not free. one never fully understands. into the existence or non-existence of Heaven and Hell”: . . And the theater has been created to teach us that first of all. . The legal model of the trial dramatizes. a contained. And the sky can still fall on our heads. and when both the truth and its supporting elements of evidence are called into question. . For Antonin Artaud. we that are young / Shall never see so much [of what?] nor live so long [for what?]. But it is a philosophical cruelty. only Jacobean tragedy) signaled “not the cruelty we can exercise upon each other by hacking at each other’s bodies [which was willful and unnecessary] .6. observed that “the cruelty of Lear was to the Elizabethans a contemporary reality. still disguised. Is the play’s imagined dismantling of foundational principles the content as well as the context of its testimony to the unspeakable? In this context. institutionalized.”34 For Bertold Brecht. What exactly is the “it” to which Edgar/Tom refers.”35 These claims that tragedy signals something both cruel and unnecessary take the moral onus off the “character”— indeed. crisis of truth. theater that mattered (in the West. the sufferings commemorated in great art “appall me because they are unnecessary. each of these theorists has argued against the notion of “character”—and situate it in something experiential. tells us in an aside that no testimony could convey what he sees and hears: “I would not take this from report. … The cruelty of the absolute lies in demanding . the hero’s death is its confirmation. / And my heart breaks at it” (4. writing in 1938. testimony “is called for when the facts upon which justice must pronounce its verdict are not clear. and culturally channeled. and has remained real since. including the king. What is this floating signifier that both eludes and provides the measure of significant human experience? The question begs another—to what does tragedy itself testify? What is the trauma it inscribes.141–42). King Lear also suggests that experiences matter not only epistemologically but also metaphysically.

” says the son at the end. in countries.124 Shakespeare and Moral Agency King Lear makes a tragic mockery of all eschatologies . 1961).” says the father in Act 1. familial and communal. and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves . but I can recognize the urge to find some way of making moral order out of a play that insists so much on the dissolution of that order. hollowness. treason and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father. esp. 6. mutinies. / Shall never see so much nor live so long” honors the elderly dead. pp. “we that are young / Shall never see so much. 84–106. friendship falls off. 2006). We have seen the best of our time. (1. Poetics. 2002). Ch. So the play is orderly after all. of the gods and the good nature. . . a debate not relevant to my discussion. . 1997).2. . Foakes (London: Thomson Learning. In King Lear both the medieval and the Renaissance orders of established values disintegrate.” Notes 1 2 3 4 Editorial commentary I have seen on these lines is generally limited to discussion of the probable speaker (Albany in Q. of man made in “image and likeness”. On the significance of communal memory. as Gloucester observes in Act 1. see Avishai Margalit. This villain of mine comes under the prediction—there’s son against father. All that remains at the end of this gigantic pantomime is the earth—empty and bleeding. 94–96 where his words aptly condense the “kernel” of Edgar’s lines: “This . it also implies a promise that will sound familiar to survivors of the twentieth century: “Never again. Edgar in F).36 I would not go as far as Kott does in reading Lear as absurdist avant la lettre. 1449b Quotations from Hamlet follow the Arden 3 edition by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Thomson Learning. The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press. A. “We . Trans and ed. The “established values” to which Kott refers exist—if they ever existed—in a network of relationships. Love cools. of both Christian and secular theodicies. Edgar’s last lines bear witness to a moral order he can only hope will not need reiteration. . in palaces. . Machinations. nor live so long. brothers divide: in cities. Kenneth A. Telford (Chicago: Regnery. Quotations from King Lear follow the Arden 3 edition by R. treachery.106–14) “We have seen the best of our time. of cosmogony and of the rational view of history. discord. that is systematically dismantled from the opening violations of the play forward. At every level. The King falls from bias of nature—there’s father against child. ending with a rhetorical confirmation of a point that was made with less thought and only coincidental evidence early on.

pp. 1965). Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. or the Vicissitudes of Teaching”. 12–13. p. 1986). 98. 1997). p. Felman. Strauss. p.6.. 2003).The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 125 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 ‘we’ is an enduring body that will survive after our personal death. Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press. Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press. Heschel. 15. p. 15. Old Age and Other Essays. 2009.111–12).” Witness.6. 1995). p. 12–13. 280. 1981). pp. ed. On the large questions of “crime and punishment” represented in this play.. 4–5. Adapted by Jean Baudrillard. ibid. 281. 221. Heschel. p. Caruth.17–55n. pp. Becker. Foakes’ note to this line suggests that Kent’s line refers to Lear himself while Edgar’s invokes an apocalyptic image of the last judgment. 178. 76. 17. 5. pp. performed in Kinyarwandan with English supertitles at Montclair State University. 39–56. 153. Humphreys (London: Methuen. p. I thank Mario DiGangi for bringing this book to my attention. Felman. Donald M. see Timothy Murray. In Caruth. We shall not be remembered personally. p. p.” Norberto Bobbio. ed. 133 and textual note at 3. “Such a Labor Place. 77. Cathy Caruth. On the play’s multiple instances of trauma-tropes. and Giroux. Shoshana Felman “Education and Crisis. Michel de Montaigne. 77. Even Lear rejects a draconian system that posits violent punishment for adultery: “The wren goes to’t and the small gilded fly / Does lecher in my sight.3. R. Bobbio. 16. 2001). Alexandre Oler. pp. The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (New York: Farrar. ibid. See also Margalit. The Complete Essays. and Art (London and New York: Routledge.” p. 44. Allan Cameron (Cambridge: Polity. p. and ed. February 5. Let copulation thrive” (4. Felman. Lawrence C. Montaigne. Caruth p. Drama Trauma: Specters of Race and Sexuality in Performance. pp. .261–62). Abraham J. See Foakes’ Introduction. 94–103. 151–52. p. it seems to me that Shakespeare offers no clear conclusion at the end where Kent and Edgar differently interpret the sight of Lear denying Cordelia’s death and calling for a mirror: “Is this the promised end? / Or image of that horror” (5. 1967). Video. p. but we shall be remembered by taking part in events that will be remembered for their significance in the life of the collective. Trans.. pp. Reciprocity (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Oler. trans. “The Death March. p. Bobbio. Quotations from 2 Henry IV follow the Arden edition by A. 75–76.

201. 147. . 1966). Jan Kott.126 30 31 Shakespeare and Moral Agency 32 33 34 35 36 Felman. 71. p. 1958). Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 17. “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction. The Theatre and its Double. Trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Weidenfeld. p. 1966).” Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Trans.” Brecht on Theatre. p. p. Boleslaw Taborski (New York: Anchor/Doubleday. 79. Kott. 2007). John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang. “King Lear or Endgame. 135. pp. Felman. 16. trans. 130. p. p.

Part III Moral Characters .

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to a limited extent. . I want to argue that Shakespeare’s characters make sense of themselves through a language of that constitutes their true identity. The Will to Power For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing. our understandings of what makes a life worth living. and our sense of dignity. . it all depends on who performs it Nietzsche. Whose end. but I am particularly indebted to Charles Taylor’s idea that self-interpretations are shaped by the pursuit of a certain good deemed higher than the other goods. and the Question of Perspective in Shakespeare Mustapha Fahmi An action in itself is perfectly devoid of value. supplemented by references to other plays.Chapter 9 Quoting the Enemy: Character. .2 The “good” here is what Taylor defines as “the object of our love or allegiance. and the third amounts to our ability to command other people’s good opinion. I focus on the second and. . Charles Taylor singles out “three axes” of ethical thinking: our obligations to others.1 The first axis has to do with the kind of actions we ought to take in our dealings with those around us.19–23) In the opening chapter of Sources of the Self. was and is . third axes. the second concerns the kind of persons we want to be. focusing on the actions a character takes or fails to take. both at first and now.”3 I also argue that there is a strong sense in which . and on the way they are tied to the notion of self-interpretation. I draw on the hermeneutic tradition in general. Hamlet (3.2. Character criticism of Shakespeare has often favoured the first axis. Through examples from Hamlet and Richard II. Self-Interpretation. Why does Richard II stop the duel? What prevents Hamlet from killing Claudius? Why does Isabella sacrifice her brother’s life? In what follows. to show virtue her feature .

Nor am I indifferent to historical specificity. my lord” (Hamlet. the world is a great place. Nor is the importance of perspectivism limited to Hamlet’s powerful statement. he opens his characters’ actions and omissions to a variety of different readings. it questions not so much the facts themselves as the objectivity and the validity of the values that we attribute to the facts. For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. the absence of an obvious motive for the prince’s antic disposition is the subject of a notorious debate. With a murdered father. as he does with almost everyone in the play. Shakespeare’s perspectivism is less controversial. In Shakespeare’s play.” he says in The Will to Power. He is still a child and needs to distract his enemy’s attention until he is old enough to translate his bloody thoughts into action. By so doing. how can interpretations exist? An interpretation. we know why the prince feigns madness. the world is a prison though a “goodly one” (2. one of the most distinctive features of his dramatic vision. but whether the world is good or bad is a matter of perspective. 2. a stained mother.2. perspectivism.5 But if facts do not exist.250–51). One of the things we learn from the study of Shakespeare’s sources is that whenever he takes a story from someone else. in Hamlet’s source. instead of trying to convince them of his point of view. who are the prince’s fellows and the king’s trusted men. “for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (2. in my view.130 Shakespeare and Moral Agency action-oriented criticism is incompatible with Shakespeare’s perspectivism. ”we think not so.” he says. he usually starts by removing any clear motive underlying the action.2. or ridicule them.4 Nothing Good or Bad When Hamlet compares the world to a prison.2. The existence of the world. it applies. When we talk about perspectivism the name that usually springs to mind is Nietzsche. must be the interpretation of something. For him. . “Why then ‘tis none to you. For example. to the very way in which the Bard structures his plays. However. I do believe that there are common characteristics and points of convergence as well as a serious possibility for dialogue across these differences. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern disagree. However. is a fact that few people would wish to deny. and a lost crown.246). and a story is always a story of someone doing something. Hamlet’s statement has rarely been cited as an expression of one of the most fundamental laws of the Shakespeare universe. one would argue. for example.246). the young prince acquiesces. who has a great deal to say in his writings about this aspect of life. the human subject they have in mind is hardly the same. Shakespeare and Taylor belong to different cultures and different historical periods. “only interpretations. Hamlet sees things differently. “Facts are precisely what there is not. Despite its proverbial status.

and more particularly for directors. but a problem for critics. and so persuasive that it is almost impossible to know what Shakespeare thinks about his own characters. the arguments in its favour will always be defeated by the textual evidence in support of the other perspective. which is probably the surest way to misread Shakespeare’s purpose. One of the dominant features of conventional character criticism. But the two perspectives are usually so balanced. I propose. we view ourselves as if we were characters .Quoting the Enemy 131 The other striking feature of Shakespeare’s treatment of his sources has to do with the question of perspective itself. a type of reading that quite often leads to judgemental interpretations that rely on ideological formations such as the principles of social hierarchy. Is Henry V an ideal leader who inspires a whole nation and leads it to glory? Or is he a subtle and unscrupulous king who spares no means to legitimize a usurped crown? Is Coriolanus a great hero betrayed by those he has always defended and protected? Or is he a proud and condescending snob. This not only makes his stance towards life more balanced than that of his authorities. which seeks to give an objective account of a person through a scientific study of his or her behavior. who despises those to whom he owes his power and privileges? Quite often. The Purpose of Playing In his critique of behaviorism. and it is Shakespeare’s custom to add an opposite perspective to the one he inherits from his source. Charles Taylor maintains that any attempt to develop a theory of human action that does not consider such distinctive human properties as self-understanding and selfinterpretation is incomplete. should concern itself a bit less with the action than with the ethical purpose that directs the action. is a double-edged sword: a delight for readers. we talk more about ourselves when we judge an action than about the action itself. But Shakespeare’s perspectivism. For an action can scarcely be good or bad. Stories are always told from a particular perspective. as I have already pointed out. is that it tends to read literary characters in terms of the actions they take or fail to take. Those who try to transpose the balanced view of the text onto the stage often end up offering stale and dull performances.7 What distinguishes human beings is that we articulate a definition of who we are. wise or foolish. it also allows one perspective to expose both the strengths and the weaknesses of the other. Indeed. as I have already intimated. who feel compelled. An action whose value is totally independent of human interpretation is an illusion. so opposed. to foreground one perspective at the expense of the other.6 A renewed character criticism. when rendering the plays. For no matter what perspective is chosen. perhaps. readers adopt one of the perspectives of the drama and present it as the dramatist’s own point of view. significant or insignificant in itself.

a world of sexual laxity and moral decadence. and are developed in interaction with other people: My discovering my own identity doesn’t mean that I work it out in isolation. To interpret ourselves in this sense is not to give an accurate account of who we really are. In the world of Vienna. are powerful illustrations of the way in which people can define themselves through dialogue with fictional characters. hence the essential link between selfinterpretation and ethics. but rather to give our life a direction towards a certain purpose that we regard as higher than the other purposes. 34). “To ask who a person is. Isabella must choose between two unhappy alternatives: sacrificing her brother’s life or her chastity. through a continuous exchange with other people. especially those whose views matter to us. according to this account. partly internal. but has only partial bearing on the way we make sense of our own characters from a first-personal point of view. “is to ask a misguided question.” says Taylor. It matters little if the way we view ourselves is totally erroneous. or even figures dwelling in the realm of imagination. it still reflects the image we want to present. Our dialogue may involve people from various cultures or various periods of time. for she is nothing if not chaste. Without the slightest hesitation.184). and social status might be interesting to know.132 Shakespeare and Moral Agency in a novel written with our own words. she makes what most contemporary readers regard as the wrong choice: “more than our brother is our chastity” (3.1. . for instance. but also more likely to lead them to happiness. Self-interpretations are generally made available to us by our culture. whether they are friends or enemies. one to which there couldn’t be in principle an answer” (1989. and which we want other people to recognize. This scarcely means that our interlocutors have to share our cultural background. Don Quixote and Emma Bovary. Identity and the good cannot be separated. It is important to take Isabella’s choice seriously. Both the mad knight and the beautiful Emma undergo a severe identity crisis when they realize in the end that those around them do not view them the way they view themselves. Nor can we invent our way of defining ourselves. for example. gender. but that I negotiate it through dialogue. Shakespeare’s agents seem to act out of a certain conviction that the good they pursue is not only higher and worthier than other goods. with others . for even if it is. real or imagined. chastity is the pursued good that can give Isabella’s life a meaning and a direction towards self-affirmation and happiness. To be sure information available to an external observer. What this brings to light is the . such as colour. p. In Measure for Measure. in abstraction from his or her self-interpretations. The capacity to distinguish between higher and lower goods is one of the underlying conditions of agency in Shakespeare.8 We become selves. My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others. partly overt. an image that we strive to embody. Wanting to be recognized as someone in particular implies that we possess a specific image of the good. .

77–80). is a theatre in which people move. which may amount to no less than a loss of dignity. Without the title and the hundred knights to follow him. totally in the void. Lear will not command the respect and admiration of those who see him in public. “Let me play the fool! / With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come” (1.9 But to put the matter this way. The plays abound in situations where individuation is reached by means of role-playing. is that an action may be more comprehensible if read in the light of the image that the character has . Life. To understand this is to understand.40–41). they enact their own image of the good. including oneself. To deprive people of speaking or walking or behaving publicly in a certain way is to deny them the possibility to conform to the image they have of themselves. what I mean.4. Coriolanus’ vision is scarcely different. according to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s men. 1. as some critics believe.1. is to confuse role-playing with self-interpretation. be separated from the notion of dignity. But what happens when one stops acting? One simply loses all sense of identity and feels. or the role we strive to play in the theatrum mundi. like Coriolanus. Shakespeare’s characters do not play at being themselves. speak thus?” (King Lear.3. 5.” he says when his mother kneels before him in supplication to save Rome from his long awaited revenge (Coriolanus.Quoting the Enemy 133 crucial idea that we go through an identity crisis not so much when other people question who we really are as when they question who we want to be. from one role to another with nothing in between. The histrionic dimension of Shakespeare’s characterization is a commonplace in contemporary criticism. is “a stage where every man must play a part. Back to the Future The character criticism I propose here is scarcely an invitation to sacrifice action in favour of self-interpretation. “Like a dull actor now / I have forgot my part and I am out. But what can one infer from these examples? That human beings play at being themselves? Not really. Nor can acting. And it is hardly surprising that the dissolution of Lear’s identity begins with a reference to his comportment: “Does any here know me? / This is not Lear / Does Lear walk thus. The theatrical roots of selfhood can hardly be denied. in this sense of course. why Lear insists so much on keeping the appearance of a king even after giving away his entire kingdom. among other things. like professional actors. / And mine a sad one.206–08). I am afraid. according to Gratiano. his women play at being women. his kings play at being kings. The world. is to fight the ravages of time with mirth and to laugh at everything and everyone. says Antonio to his friend Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice. The roles they choose reflect less their reality than the ideal they want to achieve. rather. To live happily. play at being men. it has been argued.” To which Gratiano replies. and the Bard never misses an opportunity to remind us of this psychological fact.

he is respectively an avenger.33–39) Hamlet defines himself as a man whose life is dedicated to philosophical reflection. Hamlet does not procrastinate.134 Shakespeare and Moral Agency of himself or herself. In this sense. But judging action or inaction is. In the eyes of the Ghost. and a lover. a way of talking about oneself. Another aspect that Hamlet’s critics share has to do with their attempt to locate the hero’s problem in his past. 4. If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? A beast. Looking before and after. it may sometimes be located in the future too. in the objective that directs the action or stops it. giving little consequence to the purpose that shapes his life and gives it meaning. taking nothing for granted. more particularly. end up seeing in the young prince either their own image or the image of their concerns. Conventional character criticism tends to read Hamlet’s character in terms of the action he fails to take: killing Claudius. of Claudius and of Ophelia. his ambivalence. as I have already pointed out. a challenger to the crown. gave us not That capability and god-like reason To fust in us unused.4. as it has quite often been mentioned. no more. and from which he draws the verbal brilliance that enables him to articulate his dilemma powerfully: Hamlet: What is a man. (Hamlet. he that made us with such large discourse. No wonder that most of the critics of the play. What this implies as well is the idea that the motive for action or inaction does not have necessarily to lie in the character’s past. but his delay. his love for Ophelia are perhaps his poorest. He lacks language to articulate any of the roles given to him by the others. And if his best poetry in the play expresses his philosophical insights. deep thinking is the good that gives Hamlet’s life a meaning and a direction. do not recognize his self-interpretation. To be sure. he philosophizes. And he does so in the manner of a poet who sees things as if for the first time. Ironically. Even a notoriously complicated case such as Hamlet’s inaction may prove intelligible if read against the background of the young prince’s own self-definition. with the exception of his friend Horatio. Sure. that is. Rather than a barrier to action. such questions as “why does Hamlet refuse to act?” or “are the motives that Hamlet gives to account for his inaction plausible?” should probably be dropped in favour of questions like “how does Hamlet make sense of himself?” or simply “what kind of person does Hamlet want to be?” . the young prince has all sorts of trouble converting his thoughts into deeds. and his constant questioning are intelligible only if seen from the perspective of the intellectual life he wants to lead. Hamlet identifies with none of the above. and his crisis stems from the sad fact that those around him. the passages where he talks about his interest in the crown or.

1.10 Besides taking at face value Gaunt’s judgement. the play in its entirety appears to be the tragedy of a man who defines himself as a god on earth. 3. He eloquently expounds a sacramental view of kingship. and Bolingbroke and his followers are Judases (4.1. Baker seems as well to take literally what most editors of the play consider to be no more than a metaphorical exaggeration of a usual practice. Dissolute and avaricious. David Bevington maintains that. or sometimes Pilates trying in vain to wash their hands of the horrible crime of deposing another god (4. But if Richard’s detractors see things from a Lancastrian point of view.2. Richard’s belief in the sanctity of his position has provoked the indignation not only of his enemies but also of a number of critics. Thus. . The king compares himself to Christ on a number of occasions. Some of these critics have gone so far in their indignation as to use Lancastrian arguments—sometimes Lancastrian words—to condemn the king. Hershel Baker says that. only to realize in the end that few people around him recognize his self-definition. and illegally toward his banished cousin. Indeed.170). .” Bolingbroke can depose Richard but can never capture the aura of majesty that Richard possesses. Richard is consistently more impressive and majestic in appearance than his rival Bolingbroke .11 What these readings (and dozens of others like them) suggest is that asking whether Richard is a good or a bad person depends on the framework of evaluations within which we articulate opinions of good or bad. Gods are expected to come down at any moment and intervene in people’s affairs.4. or send their angels to support the legitimate king and punish the rebels (Richard II. This right is usually granted to the highest bidder. Richard does not “farm” his whole “royal realm” (1. his admirers tend to emphasize the Yorkist argument of legitimacy. but only at the expense of desecrating an idea. and “basely led / By flatterers.239–42). right or wrong. he merely grants the profits from the royal taxes to particular persons in exchange for an immediate sum of money to finance the war. according to which “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off an anointed king.60–62). . Richard has nothing but his royal birth and title to justify his misbehavior.45). insolently toward his uncles Gaunt and York. and these are not enough to save him from the consequences of his crimes and follies. Bolingbroke may succeed politically. He acts flippantly toward Bolingbroke and Mowbray.” he converts his “sceptered isle” into a “pelting farm” and himself into the “landlord” of the realm. which is certainly obscured by his son’s banishment.Quoting the Enemy 135 Playing God: The Case of Richard II The characters of Richard II seem to move in a world totally commanded by divine powers.

“To be able to answer for oneself. for all his actions and decisions are sanctioned by heaven. The play opens with a duel: two mighty lords. In other words. . The answer might as well depend upon our ability to see through Shakespeare’s perspectivism. If he is a god. is that a suggestion made by God’s deputy is no less than a divine order. Any other decision would be a denial of his identity. what one wants to answer. however.” says Taylor. a question upon which depend both the identity of the leader and the future of his subjects. accuse each other of high treason in the presence of the king and are ready to die in single combat to prove who is right (1. then he must act as a god and demand total obedience. But questions of this nature can be answered only against a background of intelligibility. there are only legitimate kings and usurpers. between his inclination and his duty. but also supplies him with the rich language of expression that he uses to answer both those who recognize his self-interpretation (the Yorkists) and those who do not (the Lancastrians). Refusing such an order is a serious challenge not only to Richard’s authority but also to God’s will. Self-interpretation is the royal road to character. But the two contenders have gone too far in their confrontation to accept a peaceful solution. conclude and be agreed” (1. and to resist condemning the king by quoting his enemies or celebrating him by quoting his friends. his preference and his safety.156). especially his enemies.46). since his very existence is a sacrilege. The situation in which Richard finds himself at this point in the play is scarcely unusual in Shakespeare. A legitimate king cannot be wrong. It is crucial then for a better understanding of the play to consider the way Richard views himself rather than the way he is viewed by the others. Richard takes great delight in the show taking place in front of him. Richard has little choice as to the way in which the quarrel of the two dukes should be handled. Richard asks Bolingbroke and Mowbray to “forget. 29) Richard defines himself as a god on earth. It is also the moment when an important question needs to be answered. Bolingbroke and Mowbray. forgive. What the dukes ignore. After considering the consequences that the duel might have on the future of the two families as well as that of the realm. p. as it allows him to enjoy the role of the one who can give life or death. a definition that not only shapes the meanings things have for him. It has to do with that moment when every Shakespearean character is asked to make a choice between what he wants and what he should do. It is Richard’s first dilemma.136 Shakespeare and Moral Agency The passages quoted above are more likely to give us an insight into their authors’ moral values than to provide any deeper insight into the king’s character. they reject the king’s offer. for if not a god on earth there is little else that Richard would like to be.” (1989. “is to know where one stands.1.1. there is no such thing as a competent or incompetent ruler. For Richard. Whether or not to let the duel take place is the first of a series of crucial questions with which he is faced. A usurper cannot be right. a point of perspective from which one can decide what to accept and what to oppose.

and that is by being bestowed on successor generations. The principle of reciprocity requires that all gifts be returned. and enables him to gain a certain control over the recipient. It is important as well to note that those who blame the decision on Richard’s incompetence. and his customary rights. is a gift of the past that the king owes less to his hard work than to tradition. Nor does he need to be shrewd to remain in power.13 Richard’s failure to grant Bolingbroke what God. then the rightful king does not have to be the first in line of succession. actually. as Richard’s gesture seems to imply. tend to judge Richard’s actions from their own moral space. for only when seen as part of an ethical orientation can a character’s action be elucidated. To be sure. In this respect. he not only provokes the nobility of England. Perhaps. but also strips his position of all legitimacy. And this is what York tries to explain to the king: York: Take Hereford’s rights away. then the critics. Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day: Be not thyself. who disregard the kind of leader that Richard wants to be in favour of the actions that a good leader ought to take. but who said that Richard would want to be praised for his shrewdness? What Richard wants is to be recognized as God’s deputy. For how art thou a king But by fair sequence and succession. (2. like Gaunt’s fortune and lands. is to satisfy the moral requirements of the one virtue upon which his position depends. the dukes’ refusal to be ruled by their sovereign has much more dangerous implications for Richard’s image than their banishment. something he fails to do when he decides to deprive Bolingbroke of his inheritance. But to allow the duel to take place is also to bend to the contenders’ will. All he needs. yet there seems to be only one way that the gifts of the past can be returned. reciprocity. a blow not only to his authority but also to his ability to command the respect of those around him. But if the main purpose of studying a literary character is to understand his or her behavior and motives. If the right of inheritance is not that important. or at least from the point of view of deontological ethics.195–99) Giving increases the authority of the person who gives.12 When Richard stops the process by seizing his uncle’s lands. and argue that the whole episode is meant to show how unfit for his office the king is. shrewdness is one of the qualities of a good leader. decreases his authority and . are probably mistaken. in Richard’s eyes. Richard’s crown. according to which people ought to take actions in conformity with their duty: the king’s duty being the stability of the realm and the welfare of its people.1. and take from time His charters.Quoting the Enemy 137 Richard’s decision to stop the confrontation and banish both Mowbray and Bolingbroke is hardly a popular decision among contemporary critics. Quite a few of them believe that the duel would have rid the king of one of the two powerful dukes. law and tradition have given him. which is.

just like Lear. the rebels seem to be immensely impressed by Richard’s confident speech. for by the time of Gaunt’s death Bolingbroke is already preparing to invade his own country. It is when his self-interpretation is questioned or denied altogether that his capacity to answer questions is lost. are amazed and intimidated by his appearance: Bolingbroke: See. The crucial scene that takes place before Flint Castle best illustrates this situation. Richard seems disposed to accept this compromise. The implication here is that Richard could have. (3. his father’s land and title. When he perceives the envious clouds are bent To dim his glory and to stain the track Of his bright passage of the Occident.62–67) Bolingbroke’s reaction here shows him as the champion of the old order. and with it his sense of identity. And. in all legality. as a compromise might affect the image he has of himself. appropriated his uncle’s estates to finance his Irish wars. When Richard meets the rebels. and it is only a matter of time before his royal carpet is pulled from under his feet. in which degree. he is much concerned with his comportment in public. He is above human laws. This not merely increases his authority. or passed along with accession to an office. The First Folio’s stage direction tells us that Richard “enter[s] on the walls” which implies that at this point Richard assumes a Godlike position above the rebels. The aristocrats’ right to pass on their property to their heirs was protected by Magna Carta. If we judge by Northumberland’s deferential answer.72–81). especially Bolingbroke. one feels that he still has what Max Weber calls institutional charisma.14 Only conviction for treason could prevent an heir from getting his father’s property.3.3. the kind of charisma which is often “inherited. Richard needs no tennis balls to put to execution what he already has in mind. but not without some reluctance. As doth the blushing discontented sun From out the fiery portal of the east. priority and place are all observed. had he waited a little.138 Shakespeare and Moral Agency broaches a deep gap in the ground on which he stands.15 The rebels themselves. unlike Henry V. It is very important to imagine this scene on stage. As long as his sense of himself is strong and the good he pursues is clear and well defined. something he . and therefore needs no justification. and which he wants other people to recognize. or invested in an institution”. But. the character will have no problem answering for himself. He does not seem to object to Richard’s staying in power as long as his right to inherit his father’s property is not taken away from him. see King Richard doth himself appear. it strengthens as well his sense of who he is (3. Bolingbroke wants no more than what has been taken away from him by the king. The Shakespearean character moves in a space of questions that have to be answered sooner or later.

What happens next is a remarkable example of the way in which a person loses his background of intelligibility and with it his capacity to take action. / To look so poorly.127–28). in this sense. one in which he is less a god beyond human laws than a man among men. Must he lose / The name of king? A God’s name. but Richard would rather leave the stage than play a role that is so decidedly below his dignity: “We are not born to sue but to command” (1.162–65) A person like Richard.125–39). Who talked about deposition? What the rebels want is a compromise. flatter. Richard gives his answer. you avenge yourself by destroying yourself.3. would have laughed at the censors who decided during Elizabeth’s reign to remove the so-called “abdication scene” (4.3. What happens later in Westminster Hall is no more than the formal confirmation of an event that has taken place before . and a man obsessed with litost. cousin. Like Hamlet.17 Richard’s easy and wilful abdication could be usefully read in terms of Milan Kundera’s concept of litost. Richard cannot accept. because the relation between what has been uttered so far and his excessive reply is missing. By asking him to “come down” and negotiate with them. if your counterpart is weaker than yourself. if he has a whole army behind him. do we not.3. the rebels force Richard to give up the part he has always played in favour of a new part. and this is what he expresses admirably later: Richard: Alack. you banish them and say that it is in order to avoid another civil war(1.and there is a sense in which the show staged by Richard is his own idea of a good revenge. at least for Richard himself. And the second major question that Richard must answer in the play is whether or not to accept compromise. Before he even hears Bolingbroke’s message. let it go” (3. But if your counterpart is stronger. bow.3.196).18 This feeling is usually followed by a strong desire for revenge.178–82). Now. you merely insult him or her under false pretences. if two of your subjects offend you by declining your offer. and bend my knee. Must he be depos’d? / The king shall be contented. (4. According to Kundera. who places more importance on symbols than what the symbols stand for. a desire to make the person who caused your misery share your torment. and to speak so fair?” (3. he lacks the language to articulate the new part. whether his name is Richard or . is an attempt to seek revenge through selfdestruction. In other words.1. The dialogue between Richard and his peers is broken. an answer that bears no relation whatever to what the rebels have to say: “What must the king do now? Must he submit? / The king shall do it.1. litost is “a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self”.16 The real abdication. why am I sent for to a king Before I have shook off the regal thoughts Wherewith I reign’d? I hardly yet have learn’d To insinuate.1).Quoting the Enemy 139 directly associates with his sense of dignity: “We do debase ourselves.143–46). is his descent to the “base court” (3. Litost.

Philosophical Papers 1: Human Agency and Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. those who will remember his abdication with regret when they see the “disaster” it has caused England and the pains it has inflicted upon its people. gen. Charles Taylor. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Katharine Eisaman Maus. the language used by Bristol to make sense of the plays was so fresh that the plays themselves looked new. pp. p. Herschel Baker. (1974) “Introduction to Richard II. 231. as well as to the other graduate students attending the seminar. The Malaise of Modernity (Concord: Anansi. pp. 3 My work on Shakespeare in general is deeply influenced by Michael Bristol’s philosophical criticism. p. MA: Harvard University Press.” The Norton Shakespeare (based on the Oxford edition). Blakemore Evans. 142. David Hume. Reciprocity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. A. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. Charles Taylor. Walter Kaufmann and R. 2006). 801. H.140 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Werther. Friedrich Nietzsche. Richard’s self-dramatization and self-pity are not so much addressed to his enemies as to an eventual audience. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge. In this light. 1990). ed. 1974). Shakespeare’s Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays (New York: Harper Collins. and Hotspur calls Richard “that sweet lovely rose” (1. 160 . ed. 267. ed. 1996).” To me. Bristol gave a seminar at McGill University called “Shakespeare and Moral Agency.” The Riverside Shakespeare. Colin McGinn. when the departments of English throughout North America were still busy historicizing Shakespeare’s plays. 45–76.3. Trans. 15. Richard is not totally wrong: in 1 Henry IV. 1997).3. 1998). 1986). p. 231.J. 1989). 45–76 . 468.173). L. revised by P. Michael Bristol. 2nd ed. the work of a newly discovered dramatist. Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Charles Taylor. G. p. What this suggests is the idea that those like Richard who suffer from litost are constantly in dialogue with a “super-addressee” beyond their present interlocutors: somebody will one day understand their behavior. 1968) p. p. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: Norton. “Introduction to Richard II. will always opt for the worst defeat.146). p. 1996). The Will to Power. Big-Time Shakespeare (London: Routledge. Treatise of Human Nature. Northumberland prays God to forgive him for the role he played in the deposition of “the unhappy king” (1. . his consolation being that those who have caused his torment and misery will regret their deeds or get punished by some providential power. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books. In 1996. 946. Bevington 1988. Selby-Bigge. Nidditch. Lawrence Becker.

801. 24. Baker. p. Thomas F. Role-playing in Shakespeare (Toronto:University of Toronto Press. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Charisma (Oxford: Blackwell. 122. 122. p. Michael Henry Heim (New York: Penguin Books. . Laan.Quoting the Enemy 15 16 17 141 18 Charles Lindholm. 1978). Milan Kundera. 1986). trans. p. p. 1993). 1974.

look up!”1 An obtuse son plays a cruel and tasteless joke on his blind father (The Merchant of Venice. . Launcelot: I know not what I shall think of that: but I am Launcelot the Jew’s man. and the Jew Tzachi Zamir “Don’t look down! A fool never attempts to hide his humiliation. (2. father? Gobbo: Alack sir. a man’s son may. but give me your blessing: I am Launcelot your boy that was. I know. Launcelot: .—I’ll be sworn. your child that shall be. . The father (Gobbo) is seeking directions to his son’s house.] Give me your blessing. the Blind. Well.79–88). I am sand-blind. Act 2). Launcelot first provides meaningless directions. —[kneels. Once the joke goes too far.—truth will come to light. if thou be Launcelot.2 This essay will offer an analysis of the humor in this exchange. but in the end truth will out.2. Launcelot: Pray you let’s have no more fooling about it. On the contrary. we all know. your son that is. he lets others perceive it as clearly as possible. . . I know you not. He then informs Gobbo that his son is dead. murder cannot be hid long. Gobbo: Her name is Margery indeed. Gobbo: I cannot think you are my son. Gobbo: Pray you sir stand up. thou art my own flesh and blood . that you cannot sing in Armenian! What just took place was a pathetic effort on your part to pretend to do so! Now. old man. .Chapter 10 The Fool. and I am sure Margery your wife is my mother. I know that performing such close-reading will not escape censure. I am sure you are not Launcelot my boy. The son (Launcelot) has been away from home for a long time. I will tell you news of your son. The interpreter of laughter is doomed to be regarded either as prudish or obsessively cerebral. Launcelot discloses his true identity to his grieving father: Launcelot: Do you not know me.

your child that shall be”). He can also express shock at the discovery of his mother’s unfaithfulness (he assured the audience that she was “an honest woman” a few moments ago. It mocks the theatricality of gestures through which tragedy structures intimacy. The biblical allusion to the kneeling Jacob seeking a patriarchal blessing from blind Isaac. am and will be your son!” cries Launcelot in a language that mimics the pathos of reunion. reciprocating Launcelot’s burlesque self-revelation (“your boy that was. Either the joke boomerangs through Launcelot’s discovery that he is a bastard. Launcelot’s recognition of his father should have been immediately reciprocated by the father’s acknowledgment of his son. The joke is that prior to the ostensibly moving acknowledgment. your son that is. if it was in fact of a tragic nature. Gobbo: I cannot think you are my son. If the exchange was intended to move us.4 all intensify a sense of ludicrous bombast. *** Apart from poking fun at another’s disability. For the audience the effect is much the same. the Blind. and euer shall be”). He can choose to deliver “I know not what I shall think of that” as a tease.’ the Jew’s servant. . the echo of Job in Gobbo’s name. is now.The Fool. Things degenerate even further. I am sure Margery your wife is my mother”. Gobbo coldly rejects Launcelot (“I cannot think you are my son”). . . the Launcelot-Gobbo exchange is a farcical re-enactment of a tragic recognition scene. The text offers several options to the actor playing Launcelot.3 and the echoes of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. “I was. the tacit invocation of the Gloria of the Prayer Book (“As it was in the beginning. Like Lear’s recognition of Cordelia (“I think this lady/ To be my child Cordelia” [4. Gobbo’s denial of filial connections with his son spoils Launcelot’s dramatic orchestration of the scene. . Theatre is here satirizing one of its own genres.7]). in line 15). Launcelot’s jollity at staging the mock recognition is followed by the suggestion that his father has been cuckolded. Even a practical joke backfires. It is part of a fool’s charm that his deeds turn awry. the preposterously chivalric undertones in the name ‘Launcelot. Launcelot: I know not what I shall think of that. and the Jew 143 I am willing to risk these ascriptions since I believe that the philosophical payoffs of such analysis offset a compromised reputation. Gobbo is wrenched out of grief and despair into acknowledging his son. “No you are not!” retorts his perplexed and uninspired father. The scene foregrounds a consciously theatricalized sense of mutual acknowledgment. We are granted an amusing unilateral scene of “tragic” recognition. or Launcelot’s amusement at his father’s cuckoldry is pathetic given his blindness to its consequences in terms of his own status.

that the meaning of another can be vividly apprehended. by its degeneration into a banal fare of misunderstanding and worry. By momentarily mocking tragic reunion. Tragedy thus presupposes that depth exists. distance and pain genuinely effect a sharpening of values. His father spoils the comedy by turning the recognition scene from a theatricalized spectacle jokingly staged into the tedious and anxiety-ridden matter of producing proof. the relationship is purified and reborn. Tragedy is deflated by satire. Doubling or tripling professional fools. It also undermines the epistemology of value implied by tragic recognition (learning through suffering. secondly. that values are not merely skin deep. tiresome hustle and bustle is all that exists. and that we would divine this if the veil of daily obtuseness were lifted through pain’s capacity to occasion such an awakening. Satire then opens up to the disturbing possibility that the one satirizing is in danger of being exposed as a bastard. The reach of the first comic kernel is deep. The witty superiority required for satire is beyond the reach of a fool like Launcelot. comic distance addresses a particular histrionics of emotion. Such a framework yields important outcroppings in understanding the comic effect produced in this particular scene. once pretentiously erected. The second comic kernel.144 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Ideally. partakes of the general pattern of clownish humor. the birth of fresh apprehension. Wedding fools to each other is a staple of Shakespeare’s artistry. who is immediately drawn down from the safe position of a haughty wit into sweaty entanglements. By satirizing tragic recognition firstly through hyperbole. completely exposed. realize that by tricking his blind father for his audience’s pleasure. delighting the onlooker. especially when contrasted to the dismal alternative: there is no intensity or depth. Nor is there a state in which the other attains the significance which he has always justly merited. by making it unilateral and thirdly. Gobbo furnishes the unimpressive foil for Launcelot’s failure. and ironists. Thus. Launcelot is obviously not undergoing any of this. Shakespeare constructs momentary hierarchies between them that. When possible. benumbing. are then skillfully collapsed. the comic movement ignited by the exchange entails a twofold collapse of theatrical genres. he is not merely establishing his own superiority through . We ourselves will never be fully acknowledged. Launcelot does not. the Gobbo-Launcelot exchange fleetingly yet effectively touches upon the fear that the ordinary. analysis should thus seek to connect the planned creation of an occasion for laughter with particular and distinct anxieties being tapped. In tragedy one learns through suffering. buffoons. Such assumptions are comforting. The first step to analyzing such humor is to recognize that the comic is a language designed to touch. among many things. The fool overreaches and then falls flat on his face. for instance. in the light of new knowledge. the crystallization of value). the fool’s inability to sustain the satire. reunion should involve a deepening of the value of another. powerful anxieties.

Launcelot’s incapacity to maintain comedy is itself comic. The problematization itself is achieved by a third theatrical convention: the fool. one of the fools (Gobbo) is blind. Fool-humor in this scene is self-reflexive. the Blind. Both theatrical genres are being undercut. A failure in this parody (the second kernel) has comic consequences because it unleashes the second distinct anxiety that such a distance cannot be maintained.5 That the audience then unexpectedly becomes privy to Gobbo’s denial of paternity vis-à-vis Launcelot and thus jeopardizes the latter’s legitimacy turns the tables. Satire pivots around our ability to detach ourselves and watch life’s commotion from afar. By positioning satire itself beyond Launcelot’s reach. Like children who aim to provoke laughter by slapping themselves. Satire assumes that wisdom is both possible and accessible. Launcelot’s condescending confidence is eroded. We access this dimension once we no longer take for granted the soundness of the underlying assumption of the fool convention: the legitimacy (moral. comedy undermines a different comforting thought than the one unsettled by the first comic kernel above. where wisdom is understood as the ability to serenely contemplate things from a distance. evidence suggests that pitying fools rather than mocking them. Wisdom’s vantage point is accessible only momentarily. at least this kind of fool (not the masked philosophers-in-a-coxcomb type such as Lear’s fool. we are bemused by our shortcomings. The Blind and the Foolish The strands of this short but immensely pregnant comic exchange hinge on theatrical genres. Tragedy implies that depth of emotion and value exist. is a man inescapably inhabiting the space of shame. The accessibility of such a vantage point entails also the availability of wisdom. Disinterestedly realizing our limitations. Hamlet’s gravedigger or As You Like It’s Touchstone). articulating its own moral dubiousness. The inability to uphold the distance associated with wisdom awakens the disturbing prospect that we must reconcile ourselves to our foolishness rather than flatter ourselves for those moments of wisdom intimated by the possibility of satire. and the Jew 145 his father’s shame. was not an unknown experience for Elizabethans.The Fool.7 Shakespeare delineates in this scene a profound overlap between the fool and the blind.6 Satirizing tragedy (the first comic kernel) establishes distance from the theatricality of emotional gesture and a comforting epistemology of value. This enables the fool-type not only to mobilize the undermining of dramatic genres. In this particular exchange. aesthetic) of staging and taking delight in the intellectual inferiority of another. Indeed. but also to occasion self-criticism. A fool. Our awareness of the disturbing nature of Launcelot’s mockery of a physical limitation to some . Tragedy and satire are being unsettled by undermining the optimism upon which they rely. Launcelot is unwittingly joking at his own expense and humiliation.

that the scene would probably not elicit any laughter. unperceivable superiority. allowing spectators to. . made his living by exploiting his defects. . Theatre thus offers not merely a union of the elect but a momentary escape from the burden of particularized personal experience and the weight of being individually perceived. It is a process wherein the explicit staged material is being tacitly duplicated between real spectators and staged fictional matter (Launcelot wallows in his father’s physical limitation. Gobbo (played by Oscar James) is crushed to such an extent upon learning of his son’s death. the fool. we revel in his mental one). Could the limitations of fools effect the same kind of comforting distance. De-individuating the audience through comic effect allows advancing our understanding of comic superiority. On another level Shakespeare implements a sanctioning of fool-humor as such. remain unacknowledged or. by allowing the audience to be unreachably beyond him. Shakespeare’s coupling of the fool and the blind enables rethinking the well-known Hobbesian theory of laughter as superiority (“The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from . We are merely above his reach. Shakespeare also reflects back to the audience an unsettling dimension of comic spectatorship. for example. in Nietzsche’s sense. conceived as well-deserved retribution. he perceives only a relationship in which he is inescapably in thrall to his audience’s good will. highlighting the implications of the aesthetic consumption of fools as morally legitimate comic targets. through his own highly particular exposure. By casting himself as completely and helplessly otherdefined. Shakespeare is. This last operation is no longer funny. breaking up the complex idea of the “natural” fool as a person who “in the real world . “. But beyond nemesis. escaping specificity and individuation. ignoring the fourth wall. Ridiculing a blind man entails casting a comic gaze upon someone who is not himself a spectator. . there’s no denying the pain that [Launcelot] Gobbo inflicts on his blind father. Trevor Nunn’s 1999 production. in some performances.”9 A son mocking his blind father acts out the usually self-contained structure of the imbecile/ “innocent”/clown-dwarf who capitalizes on his own deformity. on one level. We may laugh at Launcelot because a son who manipulates his blind father deserves punishment. “. Even when the fool permits himself to look back at us. enables the audience to dissolve into an undifferentiated.” says actor Christopher Luscombe on playing the role. . in Cavell’s sense. the fool enables his audience to remain undisclosed. Indeed. The parallelism between intellectual and physical limitations discloses a possible source of the dramatic effectiveness of buffoons. The blind person cannot reciprocate another’s look. cannot even recognize his own flesh and blood. merge with the Dionysian? Safely tucked in unparticularized superiority.”8 By having a fool pranking at the expense of the blind. . it seemed important to face up to this unattractive trait in the character and not smooth it out to suit our 90s sensibilities.146 Shakespeare and Moral Agency degree hampers laughter at a mental limitation. .

On the contrary. The uncontestable moral condemnation of Tarquin and rape in The Rape of Lucrece. allows the narrator to smoothly glide into erotically suffused descriptions of a sleeping woman’s body. constituting us as mere watchers and constituting spectatorship as a position detached from moral . he does not exert fascination. even a cause of it. and the Jew 147 some eminency in ourselves. because it is a state occasioning the pleasure of release from one’s particular selfhood. offer a play for the audience in which his father will be made to cry (hyperbolically “raising the waters”). Falstaff’s clustering the deadly sins of gluttony. Rhetorically. or with our own formerly.The Fool. Fiction and theatre often invoke an overly sharp didactic stance in order to facilitate immoral identification. “Mark me now. the Blind. Shakespeare elsewhere draws out morally dubious responses and interests in such ways. we do not laugh simply because we are rendered superior. unequivocally determines his immoral status. We should obviously not be surprised to witness theatre transforming into an imaginative space for the impermissible. such a process is widespread in the theatre: appease the audience’s possible moral misgivings regarding its own delight at performed cruelty. sloth. Launcelot’s summoning of the audience in his aside differs from these examples. inscribing it into his incontinent flesh. there is nothing impressive about the Jew’s servant.”)10 Pace Hobbes. the unindividuated audience is being directly and complexly addressed. in effect. “Mark me now” is aimed at pacifying the audience. We seek superiority rather. inviting it to be a party to a scene. At the same time his inferior status enables him to marshal a scathing critique of the chivalric values that control the worthier characters around him. A fool like Launcelot can succeed even more in deepening our resistance to pleasure in cruelty because. “You will only be watching” is what Launcelot seems to be telling us. for example. but also reassuring it of its own spectatorship. At the same time. Achieve this by allowing the audience to direct its moral condemnation at a character rather than at itself and the dubiousness of its own voyeuristic pleasure. Launcelot draws on the convention of the aside to. Inviting the audience to witness a cruel prank is also a means for making the audience party to the ruse.” says Launcelot: “now will I raise the waters”. The audience is allowed to maintain moral distance by censuring Launcelot. He lacks the charisma that would otherwise hamper our own best judgment. rather than its complicity. We would readily see that he is playing a joke on his father when he tells Gobbo that his son is dead. “Mark me now” is unnecessary in terms of the information required for the success of the joke. He facilitates distance (and thereby illicit pleasure) by yoking together the superiority felt towards a fool to a withdrawal from empathy when he mocks his blind father. avarice and pride. We already know that he is Gobbo’s son. unlike villains like Richard III or Iago. by comparison with the infirmity of others. Launcelot was introduced moments ago by making a travesty of his deliberation whether or not to leave the Jew through an abysmal parody of a deliberation speech.

The status of watching is. The idea of a distinction between imagining/watching and agency is a mirage.6. Morally unburdened. invisible. The status of uninvolved onlooker is rendered morally acceptable. whereas agency entails responsibility.152–153). Foolishness and Liminality Launcelot will be immediately aided by Gobbo to switch from his former master to serving Bassanio. in another play.” comedy as a playing out of the morally impermissible. and needs sometimes to be established by theatre’s rhetoric. thus becoming yet another constituent of a plethora of goods flowing from Shylock into his Christian context. performing and staging of the scene. Anomalies proliferate when Lorenzo later admonishes Launcelot for “getting up of the negro’s belly: the Moor is with child by you Launcelot!” (3. Such a withdrawal from moral responsibility is not some unproblematic structural given of spectatorship but is itself negotiable. Obsessively. . undoubtedly. On a deeper level. Launcelot’s prologue to his prank renders visible a link between theatricality and the illusion of the suspension of moral agency. Relocating into Bassanio’s service. my master. as numerous defenders of it have argued throughout the ages. the Merchant’s text situates him again and again in the indigestible position of being “the Jew’s man. He thus participates in the play’s progressive correction of the distortion entailed by the existence of a rich Jew. 2. such self-positioning is even more degrading. Comic “release. Launcelot’s position is even more inferior. it also traffics with a fantasy of the capacity to shed moral responsibility within its walls. calling Shylock “the Jew. religious and pecuniary capital by mending the structural—possibly even religious—oxymoron of a Christian serving a Jew (“For I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer” he angrily declares as he walks towards Bassanio). the lowest imaginable existence is that of a Jew—“I am a Jew else: an Ebrew Jew” (1 Henry IV. It also occasions the prank Launcelot plays. released from the frosty grip of particularized agency. Theatre edifies. one can laugh at the blind and enjoy the witticisms of a murderer. Shylock’s daughter elopes and converts.148 Shakespeare and Moral Agency agency. a less innocent position. But. Launcelot importantly contributes to the movement of parental. He is forced to become a Christian.5. One of theatre’s more subtle manipulations involves pretending that the audience is not really there. 35).” He is described as “serving” the Jew. He loses his money. The grim reality is that there are no permissible holidays one can take from moral responsibility. It involves imaginative participation and a mode of objectionable pleasure-seeking. it tacitly commissions the very writing. as its detractors have claimed. depends in this instance upon restricting morality to action rather than witnessing. For Falstaff.” Given Launcelot’s ironically chivalrous name.

white/black). When Portia and her maid cross over gendered borders. religion and gender are being transcended. to bid my old master the Jew to sup tonight with my new master the Christian. expresses flippant disregard for the all-important social categories he travels between and which his culture strives so hard to set apart (then and now). Launcelot. Launcelot’s capacity to gear his asides to collapse the audience-actor divide (“Mark me now”) enables him to even cross over from the space populated by fictional entities into the spectator’s nonfictional world. Jessica trespasses a religious one. The shifting back and forth between Jewish and Christian masters and his indifference at impregnating a mooress enables this clown and his humor to erode the rigid differentiating categories that seem to govern so many of the other characters. The dramatic effectiveness of . the Blind. His father is perhaps even more subversive: Gobbo’s ignorance is such that he thinks that “Jew” is a proper name! (“I pray you. Launcelot’s undermining of oppositions questions the very value of the categories that define subjective experience. when Jessica frees herself from the old religion. (2. Launcelot marks an unstable liminality between seemingly unbridgeable worlds (Christian-Jew/Mooress. but at the same time trivializes religious affiliation. “Seem” should remind us that some of the strongest moments in the play involve a crossing over (Portia and Nerissa would cross gendered boundaries. on the other hand. the real pain animating Shylock’s lines). the genuine erotic energies that characterize Portia’s and Bassanio’s relationship or the one between Jessica and Lorenzo. at the same time. between human beings in general). which is the way to Master Jew’s”? 2. casually crossing over insurmountable cultural divides: Lorenzo: Whither goest thou? Launcelot: Marry. Launcelot’s language heightens. sir. in the most famous speech of the play.The Fool.4. threatening to obliterate this last distinction as well.36). It is to undermine categorization as such. when Bassanio woos a rich woman with borrowed money. Yet these other transitions are marked by the gravity of the context (the harsh legal context of the trial. by implication.16–18) Proudly declaring the religious affiliation of his new master. The clown’s function here is not merely to destabilize or overturn some given cultural hierarchy. such categories become entrenched in our mind. would appeal to constitutional sameness and fluidity between Jews and Christians and. But. the categories of class. Launcelot’s cavalier gallop between religions and skin colors forms a comic corollary to Shylock’s plea for human sameness. Judaism and Christianity strike us as no more than X’s and Y’s. interchangeable variants in a self-serving calculus. Bassanio woos a woman outside the pale of his social position and Shylock. and the Jew 149 We then suspect that this clown is morally reckless. when Shylock demarcates a shared human experience that transcends religious affiliations.2.

“Gobbo. when the grip of language and its categories is relaxed due to madness (Lear. But then there is a second way in which Shakespeare’s characters move beyond (or below) life. and space.150 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Portia’s disguise in court depends upon the audience’s persistent awareness that she is a woman pretending to be a man. It is revealed when language crumbles due to agonizing pain (Lear’s howling when he enters with dead Cordelia).1–5) .3). those who control language and those who are controlled by it. such speeches also disclose life’s grandness by exhibiting the human capacity to create beauty through language.12 or through the constitutional ignorance of a buffoon such as Launcelot. deed. too. flowing into each other on the rhythmic pulsation of iambic pentameter. Language is being celebrated.” (2. Jessica and Bassanio paradoxically heighten our sense of them. It comes to the fore. Prospero characterizing life as a dream. simplistic or partial. the vehicle through which distinctions are drawn and sustained. respectful. solemn. run away. The first is philosophical. my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master: the fiend is at mine elbow. on the other hand. even when the thoughts are wrong.2. Ophelia). Well-crafted sentences interlock. Shylock. Portia. Although often underlining life’s meaninglessness.” or “good Gobbo. saying to me. Macbeth associating life with empty role-playing. Launcelot (and his father). good Launcelot. There are two different ways whereby language enables Shakespeare’s characters to seem to rise above life. Lear’s disenchanted musings over “unaccommodated man. particularly given the irony of his advocating a diabolical cause while drawing on the arguments that uphold human equality. frequently quoted. render these divisions irrelevant.11 Wisdom and Pseudo-Wisdom This disregard for cultural or religious divides is intimately interwoven with a distrust of language. Shylock is so obsessively preoccupied with distancing himself from Christians in language (note his use of “moneys” in 1. or through witchcraft.” or “good Launcelot Gobbo. Trespassing socio-cultural boundaries. Hamlet situating “man” betwixt angels and beasts. and tempts me. self-commending. Launcelot Gobbo. that we question the sincerity of his transgressing speech. take the start.13 Launcelot belongs in the latter (though he might fancy himself to belong to the former). It usually invokes some sententious generalizing about life. See what happens when he introduces himself to the audience: Launcelot: Certainly. George Gordon has divided Shakespeare’s fools into two groups.” Memorable. use your legs. this kind of philosophizing (usually bad philosophizing on the part of these characters) bespeaks the value of human life and the beauty of thought.

Prince Henry is unable to restrain his verbal creativity in describing Falstaff’s fatness. narrativization as such. For tragic characters. Rather than exposing human weakness. culture and religion but also exemplifies the capacity of language to assume control rather than be a mere means of human interaction. Launcelot’s intention to convey a dilemma is thwarted. Rather than a docile expressive means. attaching a description to themselves. The pedants in Love’s Labors Lost take such great pains to find the precise Latin expression that they altogether lose the capacity to communicate. The only important issue is which narrative is appropriate to them. once released. Hamlet becomes absorbed in eloquent bemoaning. race. The unruliness of language is a salient feature in Shakespeare’s plays. . exerts its resistance and may even overpower its users. Which is the precise way in which he is named by the hypothetical fiend? Compare this state to the one of tragic heroes. the Blind. Anyone who systematically blunders when asked to tell a joke can sympathize with Launcelot’s social malfunction. The discrepancy between narrative intention and actual telling highlights the capacity of language to attain control over its wielder. Egeus describes in sumptuous detail the hateful candy which won his daughter to deceitful Lysander. manipulate and debilitate. and the Jew 151 To flee or not to flee? While hyperbolically presenting his agonizing dilemma— to stay or leave his Jewish master—Launcelot is sidetracked into irrelevancies. Shakespeare is exploiting the comic potential of sidetracking. He is unable to tell a story. The smoothness of telling evades him. is never a problem. Rather than taking resolute action. language turns into a formidable jinnee which. But Launcelot’s failure does more than forge a momentary linkage between him and joke-bunglers. In the specific context of the Merchant.The Fool. the recurring pattern highlights the frailty of the quintessential human feature—language. language is also that which can playfully enthrall. He is overpowered by the gap between himself and irrelevantly different terms through which he can be addressed. pleading to others to remember them according to what they were rather than what they presently are (Othello or Antony come to mind). Launcelot not only instances the capacity to disregard the human/ social division into categories of gender. Whereas language can ennoble the mind and become the means whereby Shakespeare mesmerized his age and ours. burying themselves under a pile of erudite words. Shakespeare repeatedly allows his characters to be engulfed by signs that become dissociated from intention. Mercutio is uncontrollably carried away in his Queen Mab speech. Like the characters in cartoons that continue to energetically run when the ground is no longer beneath their feet. The exposure of the instability and unreliability of language contributes further to a rocking of the cultural divides that uphold the more solemn features of this play. By contrast. rendering us pathetically powerless. A fool is unable to stick to a planned course of action.

willy-nilly?14 I have already suggested that Launcelot’s disruptive liminality tacitly links him to Shylock’s “hath not a Jew eyes” speech. confined as they are to a highly restricted sense of justice and revenge. unable to fathom the rich depths of agape and its power to transform personal relationships. faith. a Jew’s incapacity to comprehend a superior moral language. would render courts and law itself superfluous. a form of love that if it could only universally prevail.1. But there is another connection forged between Launcelot and Shylock. Blindness. one predicated not on justice or fairness but on love. His obstinate refusal to make use of the chances repeatedly offered him to tone down his demand does not merely expose the unsalvageable hardened villain that Venice perceives. and Judaism How is the fool function related to the graver themes foregrounded by the Merchant? Is it. charity. Thus it mobilizes the same rhetoric we have noted before with regards to the clowns: Blind Gobbo was mercilessly manipulated by his son. In order to maintain our sympathies with the Christians under attack by the blood-sucking usurer. Shylock’s is moral.152 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Foolishness. the Merchant must neutralize the possibility of pitying Shylock. “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that” (4. Shylock’s raspy insulation from the gospel of mercy which smoothly trickles from Portia’s lips to every listener’s hearty approval is not some personal disability pertaining only to him. Launcelot’s limitation is intellectual. Shakespeare thus projects onto Shylock the same moral obtuseness one perceives in the Jews’ deafness in the New Testament: The sense conveyed is not one of comprehending the proposed morally novel content prior to its rejection. Both are presented as limited. for instance. Shylock’s inability to internalize Portia’s sermon reverberates with a far more ancestral inability of Jews to fathom the liberating language of Christ’s preaching. Launcelot’s blurring of the Christian-Jew or white-black polarities entails implementing in deed the sameness that Shylock’s speech seems to celebrate in memorable words: a human nexus that all people share. betraying his religion’s affiliation with the language of command and duty rather than with an experienced interpenetration of life and action with hope. linked to the central role played by money and its potential to be literally replaced by human flesh in a proto-Capitalist economy? Is fool humor somehow connected to the celebration of the triumph of mercy and Christianity over the legalistic discourse of duties that is imposed upon Judaism.183). mercy and love. even celebrates. he demands of Portia. but conveys. Compassion towards Shylock can arise precisely because his insulation from grace lies beyond his control.15 Gobbo stands for physical limitation. regardless of their skin color or their religious affiliation. Shylock instances the inaccessibility of Jews as such. who turns his father’s handicap into a source of (his) . Shylock cannot fathom the language of God even when it is thrust in his face. It is rather of some built-in inability to grasp the profoundness of the Gospel in the first place.

they threaten to sabotage the existing power scheme by undermining the moral condemnation of Shylock. Shakespeare weaves together two distinct threads that jointly undermine Shylock’s explicit acknowledgment of accountability (“My deeds upon my head”). A “cannibalistic” villain.The Fool. Moral Fantasies We know. He powerfully stages for the court and for us the monstrosity of a legally sanctioned immorality. be it physical or mental (Aristotle. He thereby falls short of the wit he believes he possesses. Similarly. Such a manipulation is rendered morally permissible through a progressive and systematic alienation of the audience from Shylock. Ultimately. The Merchant is not a deterministic play. an immorality constituted by the contract. At the same time. sufficient in itself to render his suit understandable. legitimate and audit a murder. The more horrid the trial scene. Shylock basically attempts to compel a court of law to sanction. and Shakespeare’s audience was well aware. The play repeatedly obstructs the possibility of experiencing empathy towards Shylock whenever such a moment might arise. “The poor man is wronged” exclaimed a moved spectator within the hearing of Heine. the cornerstone of law. Nicomachean Ethics. i). Shylock instances. disturb the hierarchies that govern spectatorship. We were able to laugh freely because the play had already subtly dissociated us from Launcelot and the possibility of pitying him by pointing at his unscrupulousness. Audiences have—at least from the nineteenth century on—responded to Shylock’s capacity to evoke understanding for his cause. Yet Launcelot fails to control his own lame jokes. These movements. and the Jew 153 comic delight. the most gruesome anti-Semitic blood libels regarding Jewish ritualistic slaughter. that moral responsibility expires once a person is unable to prevent a reprehensible action due to a constitutional incapacity. due to his . And yet the process I have described does hamper the ascription of responsibility to Shylock. the easier it becomes for the audience to follow and even endorse the didactic exploitation of a man’s moral limitation as well as the celebration of the moral abjection of his religion. subtle yet influential.16 Yet no audience sympathizes enough with Shylock’s pain to wish him to actually succeed in obtaining the pound of flesh. The first relates to the crushing pain of losing a daughter. The second is the one surveyed earlier: Shylock’s inability to fathom any principle higher than justice. the Blind. too. at the trial scene. III. the play’s rhetoric prevents us from pursuing such routes. the manipulation of Shylock’s moral limitation at the trial scene heightens the Christian spectator’s sense of moral superiority due to his confidence that he belongs to the right religion. The Merchant is thus able to reconcile in one dramatically satisfying image a deservedly punished villain who. Such failures elicit our comic response.

conflictive. to juggle and rearrange them in variegated ways. moreover. a person rather than a theatricalized character. theatre thus involves not merely an aesthetically plausible presentation of moral agency. The “fool” accommodates the fantasy of nothing more than structural inferiority. generality. one should access the moral content with an eye wide open to theatre’s unique mode of addressing and illuminating moral content. undecided. Suppose that Shylock was. To contemplate. But Shylock is not a moral agent. But the moral dimensions of theatrical response are too fraught to be neatly transferable to non-fictionalized moral agency. in short. The audience. On the contrary. In life it would be implausible to demand punishment for actions that lie beyond the perpetrator’s control. A moral assessment of his actions would then necessitate a further probing into his obsessive pursuit of Antonio’s flesh. Theatre often follows our moral intuition and is able to inform and clarify them for us. morality is being theatricalized. Moral content certainly plays a part—sometimes a decisive part—in this process. this tension does not have to be relaxed. and the possibility of reapplication. In fiction. When touching upon morality. In life. It also sometimes undertakes to create the space for moral fantasy. when a moral response is being configured by the rhetoric of a play. Few would oppose this contention. a moral evaluation should strive for clarification.154 Shakespeare and Moral Agency religious physiology. in fact. moral response is often vague. the response can include a heightened sense of a character’s lack of responsibility (Shylock’s inability to grasp a superior spiritual content) coupled with a demand that he should be punished. Such simplifications enable generation of the mirage of moral clarity. Bombarded as we are with countless . Such differences suggest that when moral or immoral conduct is being staged. But theatre is also able to shuffle and shift these intuitions. The “villain” accommodates the fantasy of nothing more than inexcusable and unpardonable evil that merits categorical annihilation. He is part of an overall fictional creation. One such way is theatre’s capacity to fashion a fantasy out of our moral intuitions. We extend momentary sympathies which would and should be avoided in non-fictional contexts. One would have to demonstrate that enough control has been retained to warrant responsibility. was unable to act differently than he did. is not some ethics-debating society attempting to determine the moral rationale for Shylock’s deeds. We would wish to know more about Antonio’s actual involvement in Jessica’s elopement. We would have to factor in Shylock’s alternative routes for action. consistency. Shylock instances this hiatus between life and theatre. Plays configure an overall impression shaped by numerous strands of meaning. Theatrical types embody other fantasies: the pantaloon is nothing more than the unsympathetic obstacle to love. In the theatre. for moral evaluation unburdened by the clutter of details that plague any actual non-fictional evaluation. Such an achievement brings out the limits of staging moral agency. when. understand or sympathize are obviously not the same as to justify. But aesthetic distance often enables the entertaining of alien moral notions. taking into account his dire predicament and the possibility that he was wronged.

Heroes thus accommodate the fantasy of a smooth transition between life and a socially approved version of it. theatre may promote moral understanding by heightening and crystallizing values. of Launcelot’s inability to fit himself either to a tragic or a comic articulation. does he. Consider Prince Hal or Othello or Coriolanus. I am not subscribing to the more far-reaching Marxist attacks on theatre as a replaying . Like the villain. highly intelligent character who embodies an ideologically governed narrative. Drama—theirs and ours—satisfies the need to consume fantasies of a moral space purged of the multilayered complexities of actual ethical evaluation. We thereby access the double nature of theatre’s relations to moral content. But whereas the villain invites condemnation by lacking attributes that would predictably mitigate our assurance regarding his blame. the narrativization of life. Theatre thus contributes to and shapes a public life in which ethical complexities risk being subsumed under fictional categories and aesthetic processes. but also by feeding and creating such fantasies. suppressing any fissures that threaten to open up between perceived complexities and the story to be lived. they all risk simplifying and distorting complexities into moral myths. the Blind. again. through his fools and anti-heroes.The Fool. or. The Merchant’s audience is enticed into consuming the moral fantasy in which a villain limited by his social circumstances is nevertheless also morally responsible for his deeds. the distortions and simplifications used to maintain self-contradictory institutions.” the sought for “happy” or “tragic” end. in moments such as these. “Villainy. it is. But. we need little convincing. the hero resists or is altogether blind to the discrepancy between life and some culturally sanctioned narrative regarding that which makes life worthwhile. The experience of theatrical spectatorship does not prompt us to probe further the plausibility of this conflicted response. On the one hand. Such episodes highlight a wedge inadvertently inserted between a character and a dominant ideological framework. The hero is fully at home in a contingent cultural myth. and the Jew 155 cinematic productions that simplify a chunk of life by neatly separating the good from the bad. anti-heroes bring out an implicit dimension of heroism as such: The “hero” is the one who manages to totally obliterate the gap between reality and ideology. One thinks of Falstaff’s “honor” speech or his defense of alcohol. at least. of Edmund’s plea on behalf of bastards. by exposing latent movements that underlie moral life. Indeed. Does Shakespeare allow us to develop a keener perception of the fine line dividing morality and moral fantasy? Failing this. help us realize when we are succumbing to the seductive simplifications of a moral fantasy? If he does. theatre can also hamper moral understanding. in the Merchant. not only by obfuscating the distinction between moral life and moral fantasy. the admirable. enabling public figures to then package an intricate reality through the deceptively simplified trappings that assimilate moral life into moral fantasy. on the other hand. the hero appeals because he is a simplification. or by sharpening sensitivities and exposing processes by which an opening up to others is attained.

Brown Ed. There exists no mode of articulating moral life that is truly purged of the literary dimensions which are part and parcel of any attempt to narrativize non-fictional life in any satisfying and complex way. (London: Arden Shakespeare. a religiously colored subcategory of some villainous vice. Israel. with eyes. dimensions. But a lovely feature of the Merchant is how it also mobilizes a critique of life-following-drama patterns in the Launcelot-Gobbo exchange. . Sentences such as “I hate him for he is a Christian. It is then that the birth of a highly particularized character takes place. peeping behind the theatrical type. Shylock is not merely undermining the importance ascribed to religious differences. Demanding the audience to perceive the person underlying the Jew. But then.” leave little room for a different take on this man. senses.” Judaism is not really a human category in the play. The Arden Shakespeare.” or “Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him. Shylock presses against the theatrical illusion by undermining the type he is supposed to peacefully embody.17 Nor am I trying to resuscitate the idea that we can and should draw on a non-aestheticized rendering of reality. affections and passions. Through what is in fact a highly repetitious speech. hands. I am focusing rather on the ways whereby the Merchant exposes theatre’s contribution to the fictionalization of the moral imagination by creating a specific moral fantasy. one suspects that he begins with some set type and then allows it to evolve without imposing a predetermined sense of its nature. R. The pinpricking in relation to tragedy and comedy from which I began ridicules dramatic genres and highlights life’s inability to mimic art. as often in Shakespeare.” or “I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him. It is rather a type (“Enter Shylock the Jew”). Shylock duplicates the unsettling of norms. the submerged particular momentarily breaking the surface of a moral simplification. categories and cultural divides that was already set in motion by his servant. 2001 [1955]). J. He is detheatricalizing the category of a “Jew. It is precisely this moral fantasy which renders the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech even more striking than some pithy and moving appeal to human sameness which ought to override religious differences. Second Series. He invites. I shall use this version of the text throughout this essay. my instructor in a workshop on clowning and buffoonery in the Lecoq school of physical theatre in Tel-Aviv. even compels his audience to acknowledge the particular character with its idiosyncratic speech. Shylock is not merely advocating equality or tolerance. In momentarily annihilating the plausibility of his marginalization by his culture through his repetitive de-theatricalization of Judaism.18 Notes 1 2 A critique barked at me by Javier Katz.156 Shakespeare and Moral Agency of a culture’s ideology by theorists such as Brecht or Althusser.

Judith Rosenheim. p. “Launcelot. 1999). G.6. 10. .R. pp. 3 (1959): pp. murder canot be hid: / Time is the author both of truth and right.3: 257–68. 1993). 64.” Connotations 1999/2000. For other links between Gobbo’s blindness and the blindness of Judaism in light of the play’s invocation of biblical allusions. R. Robinson.” Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol.” Connotations. Vol. J. See also J. 9. 273. 2003). The Fool: His Social & Literary History (London: Faber and Faber. he is the first and last character on stage. 23. 1500–1900. 1944). pp. 1996: pp. Gordon.” in Wisdom: Its Nature.” Shakespeare Studies 24. 6. Rosen mentions productions that eliminate Launcelot entirely and some that rendered him a pivotal character. Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press. R. 1980: pp. J. 1988). in Players of Shakespeare 4. “Impertinent Matters: Lancelot Gobbo and the Fortunes of Performance Criticism. the Blind. Wise Fools in Shakespeare. 1935). Roger Ellis “The Fool in Shakespeare: A Study in Alienation. p. H. The Yearbook of English Studies. Rene E. Brown’s commentary (Arden) calls attention to: “The Heauens are just. No. ed. 13–24. see Judith Rosenheim. See Terry Eagleton’s reading of the language of Macbeth’s witches as hovering between sense and non-sense in William Shakespeare (Rereading Literature Series) ed.2: 217–31. ed. Goldsmith. ed. James Black. “Wisdom Throughout the Ages. For this remark and a performance history. “Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice and Moth in Love’s Labour’s Lost”. and the Jew 3 157 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Naseeb Shaheen. Bulman’s Shakespeare in Performance: The Merchant of Venice. C. R. p. 2. “Making Friends of Stage and Page: A Response to Alan Rosen. 448–50. Fortin “Launcelot and the Uses of Allegory in The Merchant of Venice. “ Shakespeare’s Mastery of Fooling” in Mirror up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G.The Fool. p. 156–210. Elsom (Oxford: Blackwell. p. and Esau: Old and New Law in ‘The Merchant of Venice’”. No. 1963. Gray (Toronto: University of Toronto Press. John Scott Colley. 170.. 44.” Kyd. Shakespearian Comedy and Other Studies (London: Oxford University Press. Hockey’s rather diffident “The Patch is Kind Enough. Ed. 1974). J. 260). 181–89. In Komisarjevsky’s production (1930). 8. Smallwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press . “Allegorical Commentary in the Merchant of Venice. McPherson (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. Spanish Tragedy (2. 1968.” Studies in English Literature. p. Jacob. 1986). Enid Welsford. Demarginalizing Launcelot begins with Dorothy C. Leviathan. 1998/9. Michigan State University Press: Michigan.C.58–60). 125. 1998) p. 2–3. 14. particularly p. Origins. Thomas Hobbes.” Critical Quarterly. and Development. particularly p. Hibbard. 259–70. D. (1974): pp. 10:3: 245–68 claims that such indifference is a pretense. 83. 20. 10. and Alan Rosen. see Mahood’s introduction to The New Cambridge Shakespeare version of the play (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. B. / And time will bring this treacherie to light. Sternbeg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. R.

. I am grateful to Sanford Budick.158 17 Shakespeare and Moral Agency 18 Louis Althusser. Masochism.” Mimesis. Timothy Murray (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. and Mime: the Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary French Thought. “‘The Piccolo Teatro’: Bertolazzi and Brecht—Notes on a Materialist Theatre. Elizabeth Freund and Talia Trainin for comments and criticisms on an earlier draft of this essay. pp. 1997). 199–215. ed.

In terms of moral responsibility. Eliot described. in an effort to avoid letting him off the hook: his moral agency underscores the culpability of his freely chosen action. even though the difference between the two is mere luck. but the drunk lieutenant who is provoked into a fight while on duty is more blameworthy. subsequent critics have tended to follow Eliot in their evaluation of the moral questions raised by the play’s last scene. can a deed even be unlucky? We call events lucky or unlucky.” and I suggest that it is a version of moral luck that Shakespeare has in mind when he puts the phrase “unlucky deeds” in Othello’s mouth. but the man who kills a pedestrian while driving home drunk deserves more blame. The line between action and event becomes vanishingly small. in reference to this final speech. Factors not entirely in our control may determine our actions and may produce consequences we did not foresee. yet these unlucky conditions will nonetheless sometimes saddle us with moral culpability.S. luck had nothing to do with it.” namely.”2 With some interesting exceptions. The man who drives home drunk deserves blame. Othello characterizes the events that have led to this point in the drama as “these unlucky deeds. that our deeds do depend on luck to a considerable extent. I think.3 It is disturbing to grant this claim.4 Othello is not .”1 This sounds suspicious: how can holding a pillow to your wife’s face until she suffocates amount to “unlucky”? And beyond that. what T. but deeds are what we choose to do. the difference between the two lieutenants is one of luck. Again.Chapter 11 “Unlucky Deeds” and the Shame of Othello Andrew Escobedo In his final speech. “Unlucky deeds” may thus represent Othello’s bad faith effort to assuage his guilt through self-deception. luck that nonetheless does not allow us to disclaim moral responsibility for those deeds. as “the human will to see things as they are not. Critics are eager to demonstrate Othello’s bad faith. The philosophers who write about the impact of chance on moral culpability have dubbed the phenomenon “moral luck. Yet there is a different possible implication lurking in the phrase “unlucky deeds. We might draw a similar example from the plot of Othello: the lieutenant who becomes drunk on duty is blameworthy. but equally disturbing to deny it.

appears to be ‘taken over’. but suggest that he becomes someone else in the final scene.” The manner in which a tragic agent ends up responsible for an external imposition emerges conveniently in Aristotle’s notion of hamartia. If an extremely virtuous person suffers a downfall. J. A. Yet tragic fate generally stops short of a fatality that would render the human will irrelevant. insists more generally that “in [Shakespeare’s] greatest tragedies the hero is invaded or possessed by an alien personality. Honigmann. . if an extremely wicked person suffers a downfall.” but I can say from the outset that it does not mean immunity to moral responsibility. the spectacle of undeserved (anaxion) suffering strikes us as merely disgusting. Yet “alien” misstates the relationship. no one feels pity for deserved suffering. Criticism tends to account for Othello’s culpability in one of two ways. but rather acknowledging that a man can be an instrument and an agent at the same moment. one that relies partly on the pronouncement of Heracleitus that ethos anthropoi daimon: a man’s character is his fate. It will take me some time to explain satisfactorily what I mean by claiming that Othello has “no choice. and.7 and it also suggests that the hero culpably fails to resist an outside influence. eventually obliging the hero to own that possession as an act of will. In Chapter 13 of the Poetics. “This leaves.” argues Harold Skulsky.” writes Aristotle.160 Shakespeare and Moral Agency trying to weasel out of the responsibility for murdering his innocent wife. Likewise. the play asks us to take seriously the distasteful idea that a man of Othello’s character. Rather. expressing instead a densely layered determinism that may disable the alternativity of choice but leaves intact the spontaneity of will. although we might initially think of them as opposed. it suggests a different criterion of assessing such responsibility.”6 The “alien” in these sentences does a good deal of work: it sensibly avoids the idea that the hero’s character is inherently villainous (as Leavis came close to arguing about Othello). challenged in his inmost being. fate is the product of a peculiar combination of one’s character and one’s luck. Specifically. if not exactly a “choice. The Moor’s “long spiritual death” involves “the acquisition of an alien sensibility and its principles. not piteous or fearful. Tragedy is the place where the confluence of unlucky circumstance starts to seem like the product of a hostile fate. Some commentators offer psychological readings to reveal why he did it but not who he is. Aristotle uses the concept of hamartia to describe our experience of the relation between a certain kind of moral character and a certain kind of action. Others do focus on the question of character. in an account of Othello’s secret motives. between the daimon that possesses and the ethos that allows the possession to take place. In the final scene of the play Othello also asks rhetorically. both denying the agent full control over his actions. “who can control his fate?” Fate and luck. Shakespeare asks us to read this formula backwards as well as forwards. has no choice but to kill his wife. faced with the unlucky circumstances in which he finds himself. play overlapping roles. in tragedy. In Othello.5 E.

without her action being hekousia. and still less if Shakespeare did. we can say that Aristotle argues that culpability obtains only when the first term of each set applies.”8 This error. most relevant to Othello. . .12 We do not know if Greek tragedians thought about their plays in these terms. Simplifying grossly. Agamemnon. Aristotle makes a distinction between actions that are hekousia or akousia (translating roughly. each of which entails an act of impiety. the concept again loosens the link between intention and blameworthiness: an agent can have within her a culpable arche. but it does reflect the imperfection of a character whose errors produce suffering that is not simply anaxion. and this culpability stems as much from character as from choice. we do not even know if Aristotle ever saw the versions of the tragedies that have come down to us. Greek tragedy sometimes appears alien to modern audiences because Oedipus. Such a person is someone not preeminent in virtue and justice. indicating the degree to which. and one who falls into adversity not through evil and depravity. but through a kind of error [hamartia].Unlucky Deeds 161 “the person in-between these cases. in which divine interference pushes a character already inclined toward irascibility to the point of horrifying violence (the massacre of his wife and children). for an error is culpable when the cause [arche-] of one’s ignorance lies in oneself. during his discussion of justice. does not signal degenerate character. In Book 3. willing. the origin or instrument of an action.9 It is an act not exactly intended or chosen that nonetheless sticks to the agent. but only a misadventure [atuche-ma] when the cause lies outside oneself. in which necessity forces the agent choose between two options he loathes (sacrifice his daughter or his fleet).or organon.10 In Book 5. . These examples all suggest the limits of moral autonomy (although not of moral responsibility). Whatever the exact relation in Aristotle’s mind between hamartia and hamarte-ma. (3) the case of Euripides’s Heracles. (1) The case of Sophocles’s Oedipus.”11 Leaning against the wall of a house that unexpectedly collapses on the people inside might illustrate atuche-ma. A version of hamartia also makes an appearance in the Rhetoric (1374b6). at the least we can say that Aristotle’s suggestion that hamartia blurs a firm distinction between hekousia and akousia speaks to tragedy’s disinclination to use intention to determine responsibility for injury. (2) The case of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. however. “interference from the world leaves no selfsufficient kernel of the person safely intact.”13 In this respect. Aristotle calls an action hamarte-ma “when. This disinclination takes at least three forms. though not contrary to reasonable expectation. as Martha Nussbaum puts it. voluntary or involuntary) and between actors who are arche. it is done without evil intent . Finally. the Nichomachean Ethics. Nonetheless. he offers a subtler account of culpability. but I am most interested in the role it plays in the treatise specifically about moral behavior. in which unintended consequence makes an otherwise justifiable action hideously culpable. bulldozing a house without confirming it is empty might illustrate hamarte-ma. a misjudgment or missing the mark (as the etymology of the word suggests).

signals a mature conscience. We sometimes even feel guilty about actions that the community approves of but that we privately feel are wrong. Guilt. compromising our social identity. this sense of responsibility for particular others translates into a sense of responsibility for others in general. expressing a regard for saving face rather than a personal concern for those we have injured.16 Guilt. I am more dominated by the thought that even if I disappeared. it would come with me. Shame. to sink through the floor. ‘conscience’ is born. in this sense. Williams takes issue with the philosophical partiality for guilt over shame. In promoting this recognition. the discomfort appears to come more from the inside than the outside. Also. and philosophers up to Kant and onward have agreed. to face the prophetic call and its demands for holiness. he suggests. When we feel shame we want to escape from the view of others. as people say.162 Shakespeare and Moral Agency and Heracles do not appear to feel guilt about their actions. It is hard to formulate abstract moral law out of shame. our sense of our standing in the community. Aristotle. it can appear merely instrumental or self-interested. As Williams describes it: “[Shame] is not even the wish. insisted that shame (aidos) was not a virtue. they feel shame.22). Tragedy can teach us. to the people we have injured. to recognize the extent to which the moral evaluation of our actions often depends on factors outside the control of our choices. But when we feel guilt. for his part. involves an awareness that we have harmed others—whatever the community may say—and promotes a sense of our responsibility to those others. if possible. by contrast. Guilt expresses the feeling of remorse for actions we have chosen to perform. like Edmund Spenser’s character in The Faerie Queene: “And Shame his ugly face did hide from living eye” (2. Shame always risks the charge of heteronormativity: an action that violates norms in one community may be the confirmation of norms in another community. The contrast between guilt and shame in the social sciences is well known. and shame. even when no one is actually looking. on the other hand. With guilt it is not like this. expresses the feeling of violating social or cultural values. Ideally. but rather the wish that the space occupied by me should be instantaneously empty. often involving the desire to make reparation.”15 Commentators have sometimes suggested that guilt represents a more sophisticated moral consciousness than shame. since shame depends on our sense of our standing in the community. Paul Ricoeur suggests that “with guilt. Describing the effects of guilt in Pauline thought. Williams advocates an ethic of shame as a supplement to the more normative ethic of guilt in moral philosophy. Guilt’s emphasis on .14 Shame often includes the impression of being looked at. manifesting the abstract moral law that obliges us to feel such responsibility in the first place.”17 Without denying guilt’s power to motivate ethical behavior. a responsible agent appears. agency. caught in the act as we make such violations.7. The philosopher Bernard Williams has used Greek tragedy to develop ideas about moral luck. instead.

Construing guilt too narrowly as moral law might encourage us to ignore the injury we have done to others simply because it was unintended. trying to dissuade his friend from suicide. that to none else it gave?”21 Hercules believes he has polluted himself and the land around him. Miola has made a persuasive case for the presence of numerous verbal and tonal echoes from the Seneca play in Othello. as Williams puts it: “By giving through the emotions a sense of who one is and of what one hopes to be. and resonates with. but less often who the agent is. This scene owes practically nothing to Cinthio’s story in the Hecatomithi. Seneca. but probably owes a good deal to Seneca’s Hercules Furens (translated into English by Jasper Heywood in 1560 and reissued in the popular Seneca anthology edited by Thomas Newton in 1581). as present in Elizabethan schoolbook editions. Hercules understands his culpability in terms of a inclination for wrathful justice that has marked his character up to this point: “Shall he give pardon to himself. Guilt also risks leaving out the whole person. Hercules replies darkly. which obliges them to see their actions as both the consequence of their moral identity and as a demand on this identity. “Full often times did error great the place of guilt [sceleris] obtain. In Euripides’ Heracles.22 The Latin play closely translates from its Greek original the ideas of character.Unlucky Deeds 163 individual moral autonomy leaves out the social expectation inherent in shame. Hercules Furens in particular follows the tone and structure of its Greek original. [shame] mediates between act. the righteous wrath with which he kills the tyrant Lycus. pollution. but this possession nonetheless follows immediately upon. Latin tragedy.19 But Seneca’s plays especially offered a rich example of the classical notion of tragic shame. as in Euripides. The daimon of madness possesses Heracles from the outside. not from remorse for the harm he has done to his family. and shame.”20 Crucially. Shame recovers the importance of character and circumstance in moral evaluation. and consequence. the agent’s responsibility to a concrete community. never resorts to the argument that Heracles can disclaim responsibility for slaughtering his own family because Hera inflicted him with madness. Several critics have discussed the impact that Hercules Furens on Shakespeare’s play. and the prospect of continuing to live on earth threatens an unbearable feeling of shameful exposure: “Where shall I hide myself?”. isolating moral choices from the character in which they originate: guilt asks why the agent acted. Seneca’s Theseus even gives Hercules the option of disclaiming responsibility because his madness caused him to mistake his victim: “Who ever yet to ignorance hath given name of crime?”. routinely included an apparatus by commentators such as Donatus that employed the Aristotelian concepts of error and reversal. makes clear that Hercules’s sense of culpability derives from a shameful diminution of character. he asks. and also between ethical demands and the rest of life. like Euripides. Theseus. character. Heracles marks an apt place at which to begin to turn toward the final scene in Othello.”18 Greek tragedy depicts agents apprehending moral responsibility vis-à-vis the experience of shame.23 Gordon Braden has . Robert S.

Shakespeare seems to suggest instead that Othello is trying to integrate the proposition of killing his wife into his personality. especially as it was transmitted through Renaissance plays featuring the Herod and Miriam theme. He keeps the “cause” that he cites at the beginning carefully vague. ground. It is not easy: he has to talk himself into it. He also attempts to verbally unstitch his purposed action and her consequent death: “when I have plucked the rose / I cannot give it vital growth again. but we should also leave open the possibility that as he wrote the final scene of Othello Shakespeare recognized that Hercules Furens derived moral culpability from the protagonist’s character and not from his intentions. Lodovico Dolce’s Marianna. What would it mean to apply the determinism of character and the ethics of shame to this final scene? To start. and Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Miriam offer a Herod who. he asks for seclusion: “If any [places] yet do lie / Beyond Erebus. Hercules does not actually ask for punishment. Likewise. the Seneca-inspired Herods that Braden describes revise their Classical heritage by dwelling not on the shame of what they have become. to some degree. / It needs must wither” (13–15) and “Be thus when thou art dead . as a kind of Senecan tyrant. Miola suggests that Seneca’s Hercules is afflicted with “guilt and a desire for infernal punishments. such an application would have to concede that Othello is not literally possessed by frenzy in the way Hercules is. but rather considers suicide because he cannot stand to be himself any longer.”27 Seneca’s Hercules. calls on his people “to punish my sin” and assures his wife in heaven that “I feel a remorse quite strong and quite palpable.”26 Seneca’s Hercules in fact never asks to be punished for what he has done to his family. orders the execution of his wife Miriam out of jealousy prompted by false charges of Miriam’s infidelity.” who “threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe” (5. Invoking the fiends in Hades.352–53).2. Shakespeare. was as capable as Tristan and Dolce of turning tragic shame into Christian guilt. compared to his behavior in Act 4. through the tradition of Senecan furor. Both Miola and Braden thus suggest important ways that Seneca’s tragedy influenced the final scene of Othello. He is surprisingly calm as he speaks to Desdemona.2. We see this in his first speech.5).”25 Yet in what Miola goes on to quote. / There hide me. whose rage and despair in the final scene is reminiscent of the rage and despair of these Seneca-inspired Herods. but instead on their guilt for what they have done to innocent Miriam and their wish for punishment. This has intriguing parallels for Othello. and he distances his wife’s humanity by objectifying her as “monumental alabaster” (5. Yet they tend to describe this influence according to the protocols of guilt rather than of shame. Hercules imagines himself punished there. For example. but equally compellingly. of course. offers no such pointed expressions of remorse for those he has harmed. by contrast.24 Tristan l’Hermite’s La Mariane.164 Shakespeare and Moral Agency traced the influence of Hercules Furens less directly. yet unknown to Cerberus and me. for example. instead. Tristan’s Hérode. and who in the Folio version of his last speech compares himself to “the base Judean. as he looks at his sleeping wife.

unlike that of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. he gives reasons that resonate with earlier indications of his character. providing both a detailed portrait of character and intense pressure from an outside malevolent influence.265–68) We’ve already seen that passion could indeed shake Othello all along. Othello could choose not to kill Desdemona. In the final scene he has made up his mind. / But never more be officer of mine” (2.298) who tempts Othello to lose faith in Desdemona and also the voice already in Othello’s head. and he appears to understand the finality of what he proposes to do: “I know not where is that Promethean heat / That can thy light relume” (5.3. like the daimones of Greek literature. Yet what does this determinism of character amount to? After all.2. explicitly begins with an outside influence. whose comment gets Othello’s predicament both right and wrong after he sees the Moor slap Desdemona: Lodovico: Is this the nature Whom passion could not shake? whose solid virtue The shot of accident nor dart of chance Could neither graze nor pierce? (4. To note that he also objectifies Desdemona as “alabaster” (5) does not count against this last point. / Assays to lead the way” (2. yet once it starts his inclination toward passion lends it power. Iago is the “demi-devil” (5. Nothing he says in this speech suggests that he is still deciding whether or not to kill Desdemona. even deep down. All these things give the impression of a mind seeking to dull the horror of the act before it.1.3. and he has made clear his willingness to place justice before affection: “Cassio. we have little reason to think that he does not believe himself. that it will turn him into stone instead of her. He has already demonstrated a moral sensibility ready to mete out swift punishment in the name of justice and order.201–03). But if it is a mind not at rest. having my best judgement collied. it is a mind basically resolved.Unlucky Deeds 165 and I will kill thee / And love thee after” (18–19).244–45). Othello is a drama in which ethos and daimon carry out closely related functions. As he warned the street brawlers earlier.169–70).2. Even if Shakespeare invites us to flinch in distaste at Othello’s account of himself as “Justice” (17) and his intended deed as a “sacrifice” (65) rather than a murder. “My blood begins my safer guides to rule / And passion. could he not? The answer depends on what range of options the play encourages us to ascribe to him at this point. Othello’s jealousy. I love thee.3. he dies upon his motion” (2. it indicates that he misunderstands what the finality of her death will do to him.12–13). as when he interrupts the brawl in the streets of Cyprus: “He that stirs next to carve for his own rage / Holds his soul light. rather. but this assessment does rightly suggest the manner in which chance overlaps with . Othello’s susceptibility to passion is also mentioned by Lodovico. He has already decided. and he implies reasons for his decision that follow from the expression of his character seen earlier in the play.

and to imagine the just punishments that will torture him (“blow me. He reanimates her corpse with personhood in order to imagine her just censure at Judgment Day. From the possession of this heavenly sight! Blow me about in winds. he has to stay with himself. O! (5. from appreciating the other . Othello does not get to vanish. roast me in sulphur. But his culpability emerges not so much from a deliberate choice as from a hideous hamartia reflecting an imperfect character.2. When we shall meet at compt This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven. Desdemon! Dead! O. cold. . Here we have guilt in all its psychological richness.166 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Othello’s indulgence in passion. Desdemona’s ill-timed vehemence on Cassio’s behalf. The astonishing scope of luck in the plot. Pale as thy smock. Poe. in which he deliberates about the options before him. As I noted earlier. I am more dominated by the thought that even if I disappeared. or Zola. I think. as we will see. As I indicated at the beginning of this essay. Shakespeare gives Othello no scene. he voices painful remorse for the injury he has done to her: Othello: Now: how dost thou look now? O ill-starr’d wench. as the playwright gives to Brutus in the Julius Caesar (2. Cold. my girl.” “roast me”) and perhaps contain the seeds of amends (“wash me”). however. And fiends will snatch at it. In this vision. we should expect that the expression of his responsibility will be shame—and to a considerable degree it is. prior to his act of violence. it would come with me. If the above description of Othello’s moral agency is accurate. . ye devils. the lack of an alternativity of choice does not mean that Othello is not culpable. all of it bad—the losing and finding of the handkerchief. a nightmare of self-loathing and desire worthy of Hawthorne. To quote Williams again: “With guilt . No daimon of madness literally possesses him. he holds the pillow to his wife’s face knowing that she is his wife.270–79) This is the first time he speaks to her after learning of his error. Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire! O Desdemon! dead. After he discovers that Iago has misled him. both for his lack of faith and for the murder.1) and to Macbeth throughout the first two acts of his drama. to imagine the agency of her just retribution (“hurl my soul from heaven”). Othello is not Seneca’s Hercules or Euripides’s Heracles. O cursed. Significantly. cursed slave! Whip me.” The above expression of Othello’s guilt is so compelling that it sometimes prevents modern audiences and readers. Cassio’s entrance at the moment of Othello’s faint—all these unlucky circumstances conspire with the momentum of Othello’s character to produce the sense of claustrophobic fatedness that so many readers have detected in the play. Even like thy chastity.

Harry Berger comes close to this position in his fascinating . A better never did itself sustain Upon a soldier’s thigh. and bad faith is the provenance of guilt.2. though you do see me weaponed: Here is my journey’s end. The loss of this identity signals his recognition that the social values that once guaranteed his virtue are the same ones that deny his worth now. here is my butt / And very sea-mark of my utmost sail. Man but a rush against Othello’s breast And he retires. Critics have commonly take these statements as evidence of Othello’s attempt to deny his moral responsibility for what he has done. but here in his shame he sees an ending: “Here is my journey’s end. This is the burden of his later reply to Lodovico: “That’s he that was Othello? Here I am” (281). O vain boast. The template of shame allow us to read this line not so much as a psychoanalytic instance of internal rupture.28 These assertions. “Who can control his fate?” (263). but rather as an entirely public confession of lost social identity. He will disappear. Do you go back dismayed? ’tis a lost fear. Be not afraid. His shame articulates not only what he has done and why. I have seen the day That with this little arm and this good sword I have made my way through more impediments Than twenty times your stop: but. because he realizes the difference between the man he used to be and the man he is now. Where should Othello go? (5. here is my butt And very sea-mark of my utmost sail. Certainly.Unlucky Deeds 167 dimension of his culpability that he voices: his shame. but who he is now that he has done it. they suggest. “unlucky deeds” (339).” This ending is the ending of himself: Othello cannot have been duped into killing his innocent wife and still be Othello. Who can control his fate? ’Tis not so now. “ill-starred wench” (270).258–69) The final question here approximates the question of Seneca’s Hercules: “Where shall I hide myself?” In his guilt Othello imagines an afterlife of torture. I have a weapon. Othello makes this confession in response to Lodovico’s comment on his combined negligence and bad luck—“Where is this rash and most unfortunate man” (282)—reminding us of the extent to which Othello’s sense of shame overlaps with his view of human action as subject to fate and chance: “It is the very error of the moon” (108). are bad faith. this difference conforms to the masculinist language of prowess and weaponry. The passage quoted above is only the second half of a speech that begins rather differently: Othello: Behold. but the play has never concealed the fact that this constituted one of the cores of Othello’s identity.

. He acknowledges rather that this action sticks to him at a variety of levels. Desdemona is ill-starred. Desdemona’s appeal for Cassio. This view matches the priority that Berger gives to guilt over shame in the introduction to his Making Trifles of Terrors: shame’s fear of self-exposure “presupposes a fear of what has been revealed to oneself. making it immune to shame. We might . which in Cinthio’s version Iago skillfully filches from Desdemona. presaging the death of the other. along with Harry Berger. deep down these people really know what they are doing. In this tragedy. Some readers. the error of the moon. of this cover: that the failure to acknowledge a best case of the other is a denial of that other. are dissatisfied that Othello’s death speech says so little specifically about Desdemona and what he has done to her. following T. the varied pressures of conscience on speakers’ self-interpretation. it may turn out that tragedy. for all the insight of Cavell’s reading.168 Shakespeare and Moral Agency interpretation of the play’s characters as collaborating in their own destruction. . We might be tempted to agree with the critical assessment that sees Othello’s appeal to the forces of chance as bad faith.S. Iago appeals to a model of will that exerts absolute dominion over life. Our bodies are gardens.29 The loss of the handkerchief. Perhaps. In none of the above statements is Othello simply trying to disjoin his action from himself. one that precludes the possibility of unlucky deeds. Emilia finds by chance in Shakespeare’s version.320–22). Although Berger doesn’t intend it. to the which our wills are gardeners” (1. these assumptions might incline us to ascribe a greater degree of autonomy to the characters in Othello than the play appears to warrant. Our response to this speech will depend partly on what we expect from tragedy. The unlucky deeds that have befallen Othello are the same ones he owns when he thrusts the sword into his body. who argues that the Moor secretly wants to believe Iago’s slanders on Desdemona’s chastity because he has come to realize that he cannot be complete without her (she makes his autonomy both possible and impossible). from Shakespeare at least. But to assume this is to suggest that guilt is the only legitimate expression of culpability. and for this he can never forgive her. The handkerchief.”31 Yet. yet it also interprets luck right out of the play because. in Berger’s view. or thus.3.”30 Yet it is far from clear that shame always presupposes a more primordial guilt. or that self-interpretation derives more profoundly from conscience than from social expectation. do make men mad. as a classical inheritance. or price.” and emphasizing shame in Shakespeare’s art “diverts attention from . is not the place that demands recognition of the other. Modern audiences and readers have come to expect guilt. Cavell concludes that “Tragedy is the place we are not allowed to escape the consequences. The character in the play most likely to scoff at the question of “who can control his fate?” is Iago: “’Tis in ourselves that we are thus. Eliot. Othello’s ignorance of Iago’s game—according to Berger all these things proceed from the characters’ partly-conscious will to make them happen. the vagaries of cosmic forces. This reading has virtues almost beyond count. the richest recent account of hidden interior motives in Othello comes from Stanley Cavell.

Unlucky Deeds


find this place somewhere else, say, in the modern novel. Tragedy, by contrast, might force the recognition that our capacity to do right by the other is limited by circumstances outside our control, circumstances for which we nonetheless bear some responsibility. Tragedy might insist that the good we are able to do depends on who we are, and that who we are will sometimes depend on things like luck, necessity, and a sense of shame.













William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997), 5.2.339. All subsequent quotations of the play will be from this edition. T.S. Eliot, “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca” (1927), rpt. in Selected Essays, 3rd ed. (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), p. 131. Notice that luck encompasses equally cases of arbitrary happenstance (a pedestrian happens to cross the street at the wrong moment) and calculated malevolence (Roderigo did not happen to pick a fight with Cassio—it was part of a plan). In both cases, external forces deprive of the agent of control over his immediate actions and the agent does not expect these forces to impinge on his actions. The two seminal accounts of moral luck come from Bernard Williams, “Moral Luck” (1979), reprinted in Moral Luck and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 20–39; and Thomas Nagel, “Moral Luck,” Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 24–38. There is a sizable industry in recent moral philosophy of seeking to deny the claims of moral luck. Good places to start are Brian Rosebury, “Moral Responsibility and Moral Luck,” Philosophical Review 104 (1995): pp. 499–524; and Darren Domski, “There is No Door: Finally Solving the Problem of Moral Luck,” Journal of Philosophy 101 (2004): pp. 445–64. Harold Skulsky, Spirits Finely Touched (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976), pp. 234–35. E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies Revisited (1976, revised and rpt. New York: Palgrave, 2002), p. 13. F. R. Leavis, “Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero,” in The Common Pursuit (New York: George W. Stewart, 1952). Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Stephen Halliwell, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2005), 1452b27–1453a9. See E. R. Dodds, “On Misunderstanding the ‘Oedipus Rex’,” Greece & Rome 13.1, 2nd Ser. (1966): pp. 37–49, esp. 38–42. Anthony John Patrick Kenny, Aristotle’s Theory of the Will (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 27–37. Also see Sarah Broadie’s commentary in her edition of the Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 311–22. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), V.8.1135b15. See also Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (1986, rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 382–89.

13 14

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16 17 18 19


21 22 23


25 26 27 28




Nussbaum, p. 381. E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951), Chapter. 2; Paul Cefalu, Moral Identity in Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 17–46. Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 89. Ethics IV.9.1128b1–28. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 143. Williams, Shame, p. 102. Donald V. Stump, “Greek and Shakespearean Tragedy: Four Indirect Routes from Athens to London,” in Hamartia: The Concept of Error in the Western Tradition: Essays in Honor of John M. Crossett, eds. Donald V. Stump, James A. Arieti, Lloyd Gerson, Eleanore Stump (New York: Edwin Mellon, 1983), pp. 224–26. Seneca his Tenne Tragedies, Translated into English (London: Thomas Marsh, 1581), 19r. Seneca, 19v. Seneca, 20r. Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), pp. 124–43. Braden, Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger’s Privilege (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 153–71. Miola, p. 138. Seneca, 19r. Qtd. in Braden, p. 160, 163. For example, E. A. J. Honigmann, “Introduction,” Othello, ed. Honigmann (Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997), 1–111, at 72; Jane Adamson, Othello as Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 264–301; Katherine S. Stockholder, “Egregiously an Ass: Chance and Accident in Othello,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 13.2 (1973), pp. 256–272, at 271. The two relevant articles are “Impertinent Trifling: Desdemona’s Handkerchief,” SQ 47 (1996): 235–50, and “Acts of Silence, Acts of Speech: How to Do Things with Othello and Desdemona,” Renaissance Drama 33 (2004), pp. 3–35. Berger, Making Trifles of Terrors: Redistributing Complicities in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), xiii. Berger makes these remarks in the context of disagreeing with the emphasis on shame in Stanley Cavell’s interpretation of King Lear. Cavell, Disowning Knowledge (1987, rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 138.

Chapter 12

Agency and Repentance in The Winter’s Tale1
Gregory Currie

Winter’s Tale begins deep in the psychological world of friendship and rivalry, jealousy and trust. It ends, apparently, with characters playing their parts in events which either abandon motive for magic, or where motivation has lost all believability. The wife we believed dead either turns from stone to life or, artfully disguised as stone, emerges from years of hiding in a “removed house” at the bottom of the garden, wordlessly reconciled with the husband responsible for her crushing losses. Attempts to accept the device of the statue have sometimes been rather strained. Leonard Barkan says “All of Shakespeare’s art consists of statues coming to life.”2 Allan Bloom declares the final scene to be “one of the strangest tales in all literature.”3 Is this because the disaster and disintegration we witnessed in the first half is just too comprehensive to allow a psychologically plausible repair? The question assumes that the ending is a restitution, and so it appears. Leontes, convinced of his wife Hermione’s infidelity with Polixenes, has ordered her to prison and the baby she is about to be delivered of to exiled abandon; at her trial the news of the death of their son has brought Hermione to an apparently fatal collapse. Suddenly Leontes is freed from his rage-filled belief in Hermione’s guilt, spending the next sixteen years in off-stage repentance under the moral tutorship of “good Paulina.” Finally, he is reconciled with King Polixenes of Bohemia and with his advisor, Camillo, both of whom he had declared his mortal enemies; his daughter, Perdita, returns, bringing the prospect of a royal marriage; Paulina, to whom he owes his moral recovery, is repaid with marriage to Camillo. All exit to share the recounting of their adventures. For Leontes and Hermione, it is, at best, a partial restitution: Mamillius, their son, is dead; Hermione has aged—as Leontes notes—and there will be no more children; it is impossible that they will regain their former contentment. There are “deep strains of melancholia” that underwrite the “measured celebrations.”4 Inga-Stina Ewbank notes “the human suffering that has gone before . . . that weighs so heavily on the play right till the very end.”5 Going somewhat further, I’ll argue that it is not merely the shadow of the past which compromises present


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happiness. The psychological richness of the beginning and the thinner formality of the conclusion represent in different ways the same unresolved tendencies to fantasy, illusion and irresponsibility that enduringly characterize the person of Leontes. Forgiveness there is, but the play severely limits the hope that can be drawn from it with this thought: that virtue arises from action, not from an inactive repentance, however sincere. I will begin with the nature of Leontes’ motivational state at the point where he becomes jealous. This is crucial to understanding the beginning and the end of the play.

Jealousy is a primary theme of both Othello and The Winter’s Tale. But it is treated very differently in these two plays. Othello takes us on a carefully constructed journey that makes Othello’s jealousy explicable without relieving him altogether of culpability for the jealousy itself, and not merely for the actions that flow from it. Othello is made jealous by the carefully planted suggestions and—crucially—bits of evidence provided by Iago, who plans to destroy him. He has good reason to put faith in both Iago’s truthfulness and in his judgement, and he is understandably taken in by Iago’s displays of reluctance to speak against either Desdemona or Cassio. What Iago tells him about the handkerchief coheres with Desdemona’s own behaviour—she can’t find the handkerchief, and wants only to talk of Cassio’s case, which Othello fatally but understandably misconstrues. There are moments when Iago over-reaches himself and a more reflective, secure mind than Othello’s might have become suspicious at the suggestion that Iago saw Cassio casually wiping his beard with the handkerchief. But few believers are fully rational believers. Given Othello’s outsider status, the newness of his marriage, a tendency towards jealousy which, after a certain point, turns into vengeful action rather than continued scrutiny of the facts, his action presents no epistemic puzzle. By contrast, jealousy in Winter’s Tale emerges fully formed and very early (within 150 lines of the beginning) and on such a thin basis of fact and inference as makes the start of the play as hard to interpret as the end. Those around Leontes find all this as perplexing as we do, and their loyalty to the King and to the social fabric he represents is strained by their inability to see things from anything like his perspective. Not that he gives them much help. The first to hear his opinions, Camillo, is treated to a lurid account of events (“kissing with inside lip”) from the darker recesses of Leontes’ imagination; Camillo’s response is to beg him to “be cur’d of this diseased opinion” (1.2, 297–98). When Leontes confronts Hermione he offers nothing but insistence on her guilt; when the Lords urge the impossibility of what he claims he merely replies “we need no more your advice” (2.2, 168). The disorder of excessive and

There is a tradition of thinking about The Winter’s Tale according to which there is no problem in accounting for Leontes’ jealousy because “it is the nature of jealousy that it has neither rational cause nor adequate motivation. 141–43). otherwise it is not jealousy.6 Given the difference between these two plays. and indeed that it would be pathological not to be jealous if one knew that someone deeply loved had deceived and been unfaithful.1. but it doesn’t explain much without substantial supplementation. and references to Leontes’ “jealous imaginings” are common in the literature of criticism. and it is unlikely to have occurred to Shakespeare in quite this form. we think it natural to be jealous in certain circumstances. the victim of some delusion. Delusions The Lords’ perplexity naturally turns them to the thought that some “putter-on” has poisoned Leontes mind (2. A natural thought is found in Camillo’s already noted urging to Leontes to “be cur’d of this diseased opinion. not imposing the pattern of a current philosophical and psychiatric dispute on his conception. It is not. it would be better renamed the Leontes syndrome. But Leontes is manifestly the originator of his own notions of infidelity. We must tread carefully.Agency and Repentance 173 unreasonable jealousy which psychiatrists have identified is sometimes called Othello syndrome. and the term may in fact cover a variety of psychological kinds. Yet there is some tendency. a rather uncomfortable way. of saying that their believing has become like imagining in some as yet unspecified respect? This is not a question to which the play gives us any direct answer. or is this a way. unsupported and impervious to counter evidence. as we recognize reasonable anger and distress. after all. We cannot put off the burden of explaining Leontes’ state simply by pointing out that he is jealous. True enough.8 It is not always easy to know what people have in mind when they speak of imagination in this context—just as it is not clear what people mean when they commonly say that someone merely “imagined something. I referred just now to unreasonable jealousy and it is important to see the legitimacy of this category. among professionals and laypersons. But there is a fixed point to guide us. and it is this: . and for the first one-third of the play the primary question is to determine how this fancy can be sustained so long. surely. to associate delusions with imagination.”7 In fact we recognize a category of reasonable jealousy.” Do such claims constitute denials that the person in question believes something. clear what sorts of mental states delusions are. Leontes’ own later diagnosis of his troubles— “I have too much believed mine own suspicion”—suggests the more or less orthodox view that delusions are beliefs: peculiarly irrational ones.” For Leontes is. that its fantasies are created out of nothing. reminding us of the plot of the earlier Othello.

rather. his credence is independent of the evidence. It is not that Leontes misjudges the evidence. of a mixture of belief and imagination.174 Shakespeare and Moral Agency within the play. agreement to which Hermione so deftly secures. Hermione and Polixenes can be played in such a way as to highlight things that make understandable the thought of her unfaithfulness: the fragment of conversation overheard. Imaginings are not always happily called voluntary. and certainly not in hearing the arguments of those around him. I don’t quite accept this picture. But imagining is something we do. and its helps in the case of Leontes. The core of the delusion is the conviction that Hermione is unfaithful. Still. in a sense done “against our will. His delusional state consists. it is a datum that Leontes is responsible for his actions. we generate and sustain our imaginings.” as with compulsive shoplifting. that he has done or failed to do for which he is culpable? One thing generally said to distinguish imagining from belief is the subjection of imagination to what is quaintly called “will. neither he nor anyone else ever suggests that he might claim diminished responsibility on grounds of madness. The opening scene with Leontes. makes the idea so improbable. Polixenes’ unfortunately resonating reference to the nine months he has been in Sicilia already. He is just not interested in getting any evidence. it is astonishing that the thought should immediately rise to a certainty beyond all question. and everything we will come know about her. I think. and everything that Leontes does know about her. yet we recognise a category of actions—things people do—which are yet done without setting ourselves to do them and which are. the not entirely sincere plea to Polixenes to stay longer. We need to see how imagination causes this conviction to flourish in a context where the evidence is so hostile to it. But what is it. the world impresses beliefs on us.” Roughly speaking. the picture is useful. the test of action-dependency serves to distinguish a lot of imaginings from beliefs. and this is sustained and magnified by an emotionally destabilizing set of imaginings. I don’t see evidence for what Michael Bristol calls “a bitter and potentially deadly struggle for honour and prestige. But something allows this thought to become the map by which Leontes will steer for the next two acts. perhaps together with cognitive states that don’t fit easily into either category and for which we have no accepted labels. precisely. for that reason I’ll avoid saying that imagining depends on the will. It is a thought that ought to have at this stage a very low credence indeed. of Paulina who later points out the baby’s likeness to him. still less deliberate. after all.”9 It is not astonishing that Leontes should have the thought of unfaithfulness. even involuntary ones. of all the Lords whose judgement is that the idea is utterly impossible—and . holding that there are imaginings generated by processes that don’t entitle us to count them as acts. and we can sensibly ask whether someone is responsible for this or that imagining. While there are signs of tensions in this early scene between Leontes and Polixenes. though the answer may sometimes be no. it is Hermione we are speaking of.

at which point he declares “I have too much believed mine own suspicions” (3. his running straight into the brick wall of reality. Why this very sudden change? Leontes was prepared. first of all.Agency and Repentance 175 when it comes to understanding action and motive the judgment of others is often the best evidence. The end of Leontes’ obsession comes as a result of something which has only an indirect bearing on the question whether Hermione really is unfaithful. who Leontes is able simply to order out of his presence. renewal of love with Hermione (this before he is told she is dead). he is suddenly brought to accept it on the news of his son’s death. The death of a child is an extreme instance of the capacity of the real world to force itself upon us in ways that can’t be denied. for a while at least. But then the death of his son. for the moment. Until. as it were. which Leontes treats as further proof of Polixenes’ guilt. a role few of us could afford to sustain for long. may be interpreted. because of his position of unchallengeable authority. Camillo’s defection to the cause of Polixenes. to reject the Oracle when its judgement went against him. the death of his son is announced: a devastating event which constitutes. Leontes has just heard the judgement of the Oracle. Cavell. to deal with reality from a standpoint within reality itself. or explained away. this description of his state) Leontes. for whom the death of Mamillius is central. Mamillius. Instead. lets . A statement. cuckoldry and shame. it is the great power of Leontes’ kingship that makes it possible for him to be absorbed in the make-believe. Throughout the period of his madness (allowing. says this: “Of course you can say that the consequences of Leontes’ folly have just built up too far for him to bear them any further and that he is shocked into the truth. that Hermione is innocent. has been able to dictate the course of events. and rejected it. Leontes is in the position of being able to sustain his fancy through his mastery of circumstance. the thought is sustained by a defensive barrier of vivid and emotion-generating images of lust. Greene’s Pandosto abandons his suspicions immediately he hears the judgement of the oracle. and the arguments of Paulina. reinterpreted.”11 This puts him in the position of one almost entirely disconnected from reality. at last. Paradoxically. I suggest that it is at this point that his fancy crumbles because he has. and cannot manage events from the shell of his imagining. is announced.2. This is in a general way undeniable but it hardly suggests why it is here that he buckles. Immediately he announces a programme of recovery and reparation: reconciliation with Polixenes. his transactions with reality can. a point I’ll come back to directly. “constructing an intense moral drama in which he enacts the role of the deceived husband.151). without hesitation. that is. By contrast. even one from an Oracle. be reduced to giving a few orders. calling home Camillo who he had denounced as a traitor.10 He instantly and fatally makes the thought the centre of an imaginative project. and the most he has had to put up with is. the death of a son allows no interpretation.

given all that has happened. they frame their accounts in transcendent terms: Coghill tells us that “a man who believed himself to have destroyed his soul by some great sin might. if we take the first at face value. after a long repentance under his Conscience.” In the highly charged atmosphere of the scene it is not helpful to look for a logic to the arguments. According to both. Far from saying nothing. find that that very conscience had unknown to him kept his soul in being and could at last restore it . keeping him chained to a daily round of exhausting penitence. nor of your children / I’ll not remember you of my own lord / Who is lost too: take your patience to you / And I’ll say nothing. Upon a barren mountain and still winter In storm perpetual. C. What has been its effect? The answer of many commentators is that Paulina’s efforts have been rewarded by a moral and psychological renewal which justifies the reconciliation portrayed in the play’s ending. fasting. while inclining the same way. Paulina has filled that time with vivid recollections of Leontes’ offences.176 Shakespeare and Moral Agency himself feel the shock” What more likely place is there to “feel the shock” than at the death of a child?12 Repentance Leontes is not the only character to undergo a dramatic reversal of outlook on the deaths of Mamillius and (apparently) Hermione. however long and painful. for they are heavier Than all thy woes can stir. A thousand knees Ten thousand years together. L. have something in common.”13 Others.” These two speeches. as we come to know. Leontes should not repent: first because no repentance can equal the crime. . 2. second because these things are “past help. actually happened during the next sixteen years. 208–14) A moment later she says that “What’s gone and what’s past help / Should be past grief . so different in emotional tone. I’ll speak of her no more. could not move the gods To look that way thou wert (3. At one moment Paulina is angrily assuring Leontes that no penitence. naked. recognize that mere human psychology is not here equal to the task of getting us to a positive conclusion. Knights typifies this view: “It is only with the full and continued recognition of what he has done—resolutely assisted by Paulina—that we hear at his court the note of new life . therefore betake thee To nothing but despair. . . but their common conclusion does stand in marked contrast to what. . could match the enormity of his crime: Paulina: Do not repent these things.

But I shall part company with Bristol when he says that “Leontes’s ‘redemption’ is . And there’s an important clue in his observation that the “the living statue is the ultimate in luxury goods.”14 In the final scene. he is not significantly more in touch with moral reality at the end than at the beginning. grace and love. for the looked for re-establishing of relationships. I sympathize with them. Pafford. . seem disconnected from the psychological realities of desire and responsibility made vivid in the play’s early part. a lavish promise of consumer satisfaction. Grace in particular seems too easy a substitute for a forgiveness the play itself fails to motivate. surely a necessary condition. whatever suffering he has undergone. As Michael Bristol puts it: It is usual to . there is only “the sense of a participation in the redeeming and reviving power of a nature identified with art. acutely aware of the problem.Agency and Repentance 177 to him alive and whole.” I’ll argue that Leontes’ acceptance of Hermione-as-statue is an indication that. . to the contrary. To put the question as crudely as possible. the economy of soul and conscience. the power of art and nature. notably absent is any evidence for moral change in Leontes. interpret the play’s conclusion in terms of reconciliation. And these invocations of grace. But a reasonable constraint on their application is that they should illuminate the actions and persons of the play. come to know himself and to be aware of his littleness. says. this type of religious interpretation fails to provide any kind of plausible motivation for Hermione’s willingness to be restored to Leontes. Virtue and Agency It’s of the nature of grace to be undeserved.” arguing that. that “we must assume that [Leontes] had a noble heart” despite the fact that “from the text it is difficult to see that he is changed: there is no evidence that he has . This may explain what the restoration of Hermione means as an allegory of divine grace. says Frye. why does Hermione agree to take Leontes back and why on earth would she want him?18 I agree with Bristol that we need an account of the play’s ending that sheds light on psychologically efficacious rather than merely allegorical or symbolic aspects of its characters. despairingly. risk-taking decisions. . . Leontes’ moral disconnection is a kind of incapacity for action.”20 .”15 For Mahood “Hermione represents the grace of heaven towards Leontes. However. an exogenous restitution for which we claim no credit. the result of his own bold. though perhaps not a sufficient one.”17 We ought not to legislate entirely against such notions. .”16 Bethel declares simply that “Leontes and they are all born again. .19 Recourse to it in the context of this play is appealing for those who want a recovery but who can’t find a naturalistic path to it.

but ideas of growth or of lived experience or of any sequence of developmental steps or incremental stages are repressed. as also happens in the case of the arts as well. control and interrogate our reasons. fails in her project of renewal: The learner depends on the expert to learn in the first place. And remorse.”26 Why have commentators struggled to see an ending with Leontes at least partially restored? A significant barrier to accepting the points I have just made . But it is a mistake to picture him. says something relevant to understanding how Paulina. which they can do only if they acquire their own understanding of the subject. unaided by practical moral skills. For all his remorse. so too we become just by doing just acts. . Leontes’ “reformation remains a work in progress. at the end of the play. has done wrong. . brave by doing brave acts. Leontes does see vividly that he was wrong. for all her steadfastness and good sense. e. he has not grown morally in the intervening years.”22 they also suggest that the courtiers’ plea to him to end his “performance of a saint-like sorrow” signals his commitment to the habitual practice of character formation which Aristotle identified as the way to virtue. to this extent there has been progress. entirely at Paulina’s command.23 Appeals to Aristotelian virtue are particularly inappropriate here. merely with some way to go. “The brute fact of change is dramatically foregrounded. temperate by doing temperate acts. discussing Aristotle’s view.24 The picture is of moral growth through moral action—both mental acts that generate. Julia Annas. we learn by doing them. and the bodily dispositions that put our decisions into effect. if anything he is a weaker character. . “knowledge gained through suffering brings knowledge gained by virtue. On Aristotle’s account.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre. and is very sorry for it.25 Leontes has not acquired his own practical understanding of right action. the virtues we get by first exercising them. is not a promising basis for a renewed relationship under such difficult circumstances. but the goal of learning is to have your own understanding of what you have learned from the expert. For the things we have to learn before we can do them.178 Shakespeare and Moral Agency Others merely assume that after his sixteen years of suffering and repentance. but pupils who will go on to become experts themselves.”21 And while for some more recent commentators. on the path to virtue. though some would think them a worthy accompaniment to it in a case such as this. he has learned merely to accept the judgement of the expert. The expert in a practical field aims not to produce clone-like disciples who will mimic what she does. Saint-like sorrow and the saying of endless prayers do not provide for this activity in either form.

long accustomed to the privileges of kingship. Communicatest with dreams. and one of them is to fail to develop the right kind of habits of thinking. has not developed these habits.33–39).Agency and Repentance 179 is the vivid picture the play gives us of Paulina as its moral centre. our conviction that Leontes is to some extent morally revived depends a good deal on our sense that he has been worked upon by an agent who unites moral and practical sense with firmness of purpose. Responsibility Aristotle’s observations on habituation to virtue bear on a question raised earlier: Leontes’ responsibility for the events of the play’s earlier part. One important such habit is that of questioning the ideas that form within your mind to see whether any of them have arisen in ways which make them untrustworthy. which jeopardizes the succession—seems finally vindicated by the survival of Hermione and the reappearance of Perdita. in what sense is he responsible for the admittedly terrible events that follow from his delusions? One way we can be responsible for bad things is by having bad motivations—evil desires and intentions. but pointing carefully to the evidence in her favour. .27 In the face of Leontes’ anger.—how can this be?— With what’s unreal thou coactive art. from which evil actions flow. Leontes. there have presumably been few occasions on which his orders have been questioned and. especially when those ideas are emotionally highly charged and apt to generate lurid imaginings. he is likely to have been sheltered from them. The most doubtful element of her counsel—that Leontes not remarry. I think. Her interventions contrast with the ineffective sighing of the Lords who “creep like shadows by him [Leontes]” and “nourish the cause of his awaking” (2. But there are other ways to be responsible for bad outcomes. One question that we should ask when we feel driven by strong emotion to some course of action that may have bad consequences for others is simply: “Am I imagining all this?” Leontes gets close to this question in the notably obscure passage: Leontes: Can thy dam?—may’t be?— Affection! thy intention stabs the centre: Thou dost make possible things not so held. If we think him deluded in the first part of the play. it requires a significant modulation in the latter part if he is to regain the status of a moral agent for himself. It is not. where his actions have produced bad consequences. Paulina is fearlessly rational in defence of Hermione.3. not merely insisting on Hermione’s innocence. But while her forceful and uncompromising activity is an appropriate response to Leontes’ fury. a significant criticism of Paulina that she fails to provide it: merely a reminder that her moral resources have human limits.

quickly gives way to a disordered conclusion without determinate content. and thou dost. “sacred”. But once Leontes has turned from vengeful madman to biddable penitent.180 Shakespeare and Moral Agency And fellowst nothing: then ’tis very credent Thou mayst co-join with something. keeping him in a continual state of repentant inactivity. “a holy father”. the passage indexes a fatal veering from the path of reason. Or from the all that are took something good. .28 But by this time he can get no purchase on it. Whatever the conclusion. my lord: If. She sees to it that he does not forget his actions. by the end. Everywhere. at the height of his delusion. to some degree. The idea that in his present state things rationally regarded as impossible seem possible. Paulina has made it her business to be an external check on Leontes’ beliefs— and getting nothing but threats of execution for her pains.”32 When.29 Leontes seems to want to accept both the unreality of Hermione’s offence and the rightness of his violent response to it. And that to the infection of my brains And hardening of my brows (1.30 The result of this has been the imprinting of patterns of thought and speech. And that beyond commission. Throughout the delusional period.3. everyone looks uniformly elevated: Polixenes. but not the right ones.2.”31 From Leontes’ now supine position. the great comfort I have had of thee!” (5.1–2) has the sound of habitual and formulaic deference. “true” Paulina. Paulina is quick to reinforce his mood of morbid resignation: Paulina: Too true. “grave and good”. and I find it. “O grave and good Paulina. The most positive arc of development for the latter half of the play would be to show a moral recovery that focused on strengthening habitual ways of thought and action that would be proof. against the dangers of excessive imagining.137–46). all his energies devoted to recalling the enormity of his crime—and his debt to her. an exchanged glance between Hermione and Polixenes which would once have been further proof of adultery is now itself “holy. “blest”. you wedded all the world. whom he once so easily believed to be Hermione’s seducer is. who always “speaks the truth. she is “good”. This is not what we get. she—despite her earlier promise to “say nothing”—is not able to allow him to recover the critical faculties necessary for regrowth. though the words put us in mind of the idea that an unreal trait may apply to a real person—faithlessness to Hermione in this case. as they do in dreams. one by one. Leontes. did not exercise due diligence in interrogating his own reasons because—an Aristotelian is likely to say—he had never developed the habits of mind that would make that possible in times of stress. Leontes says he cannot forgive himself as long as he remembers what he has done. in response to Cleomenes’ entreaty. Leontes’ greeting to her at the beginning of the final scene.

Leontes: Make me to think so twenty years together! No settled sense of the world can match the pleasure of that madness (5. . without having undergone the practice that would make that existence possible.Agency and Repentance To make a perfect woman. 2008. but there is no likelihood that he will be blamed for my errors. and Paulina says she will cover it in case he comes to believe it is alive. Later. we remain at some distance from agreement about the play. making it clear that her reason for being at these odd proceedings is at last to see her daughter (5. unreal presence that enables him to imagine himself restored to a grounded human existence. however contrived. suppose it possible to pick up again a full relationship with someone he has deeply wronged. Leontes has not achieved—nor is he likely to achieve—a “settled sense of the world”. On seeing the statue—what he takes to be a statue—Leontes is overcome by its life-likeness. having revealed the so life-like statue. “Say so but seldom. As will be clear. When Hermione descends. as Leontes says to Paulina. Hermione’s only words are addressed to Perdita.33 Hermione’s arrival. seems to be more in the nature of a present from Paulina than an act of will on her part.” yet says nothing to him.122–127).3. she you kill’d Would be unparallel’d (5. she “hangs about his neck. to come to terms with real things. for this affliction has a taste as sweet as any cordial comfort” (75–77).3.1. and expecting only a further opportunity to wallow in sorrow—replies “Do Paulina. 181 To which Leontes’ reply. tempts Leontes with “I could afflict you further.35 Notes 1 This essay began life as a contribution to a seminar on Shakespeare and Moral Agency which Michael Bristol organized at the Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Dallas. standing uneasily between magic and the merely unbelievable. here as at the beginning. while he focuses on Paulina’s need for a husband. is a culmination to Leontes’ sweet affliction: a silent.71–73) I suggest that the “coming to life” of the statue represents what is in fact a continuation of Leontes’ fantasy state—a state in which he can.12–16).” suggests that her speaking thus has not been seldom at all. Leontes replies.” to which he—not knowing what is to come. Paulina. My thanks to Michael for his invitation to that meeting and for the insightful suggestions which have helped me to revise the essay. “Thou shouldst take a husband by my consent as I by thine a wife. repentant but otherwise unchanged. and the artifice of the ending—magical or not—seems to reflect his failure.”34 Hermione’s revival.

” Shakespeare Survey Volume 11: The Last Plays. “The Othello syndrome: A study in the psychopathology of sexual jealousy. lxxii–lxxiii. 2 (Summer. 197. 5:2 (1964): pp. Neville Coghill. pp. Introduction to The Winter’s Tale. 195. The Winter’s Tale: A Study (London: Staples Press. Fall 2004. 122. pp. 2006). 639–67. 1958). Frye. K. p.” Shakespeare Quarterly. Cymbeline. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. Howard Felperin. and The Winter’s Tale.” Shakespeare Quarterly. S. Norton & Company Ltd . M. Sewanee Review. 274. M. N. 1993). 55. Knights. Disowning Knowledge: In Seven Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 154. Stanley Cavell.” English Literary History. 123. “The triumph of time. Bethel. 1150. 145–67. 102 “In Search of the Bear. Michelangelo. L. pp. Stanley Wells (Cambridge University Press. 84. Mahood. Lawrence Danson. p. 156. 48 (Winter. pp. Vol. 113. Todd. Shakespeare’s Wordplay. Hosley (London: Routledge. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. C. 166. Mahood. The present essay is an attempt to develop my own account of this deeper truth (Thanks to Michael Bristol for bringing Knapp’s essay to my attention). Allardyce Nicoll (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Allan Bloom. 1976. 1947). 253–78. Howard. “Six Points of Stage-Craft in The Winter’s Tale. so that no one may boast” Eph 2:8–9. 1981). 253). and The Winter’s Tale. 1991). “In Search of the Bear: Spatiotemporal Form and the Heterogeneity of Economies in ‘The Winter’s Tale’. In his 1963 Arden Shakespeare edition of The Winter’s Tale.” Shakespeare Survey Volume 46: Shakespeare and Sexuality.W. 42.” Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honour of Hardin Craig. 1963). Shakespeare’s Wordplay (London: Methuen. Jean E. . Shakespeare on Love and Friendship (University of Chicago Press. the quotation is on p. p. James Knapp says that “characters and audience alike are confronted with an impossibility that somehow gestures toward a deeper truth” (“Visual and Ethical Truth in The Winter’s Tale.” p. R. p.77. it is the gift of God—not the result of works. and Dewhurst. pp. L. 1972) p. ed. p. 83–100. Inga-Stina Ewbank. 1955. p. Colin McGinn also suggests that Shakespeare gave an unprecendentedly large role to the imagination as a source of human behaviour (Shakespeare’s Philosophy (New York: HarperCollins. “‘Integration’ in ‘The Winter’s Tale’”. Vol. p. “‘Living Sculptures’: Ovid. volume 2.” p. and this is not your own doing.Second Edition.” A Review of English Literature. 2003). 2000). Second edition. 595–613. No. J. Michael Bristol. 1957). (W. See again Knapp. 214.182 2 Shakespeare and Moral Agency 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 Leonard Barkan. Ed. pp. 2008). p.” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Shakespearean Romance.4. Ed. “‘The Catastrophe is a Nuptial’: The Space of Masculine Desire in Othello.The Norton Shakespeare. “Recognition in The Winter’s Tale. “Visual and Ethical Truth in The Winter’s Tale. 367–74.

making it clear that her reason for being at these odd proceedings is at last to see her daughter (5. 31 (Spring. 35 . p. 146 On the theme of counsel in Winter’s Tale and its relation to historical circumstances at the time of writing see Stuart M. Cambridge edition. As they later remark.3 (Jul. “‘Integration’ in ‘The Winter’s Tale’”: “Dreams are ‘unreal’ . Curran-Aquino insists that “Leontes has the last word and exits the play issuing orders” (Introduction to The Winter’s Tale. 43–53.49. Susan Snyder and Deborah Curren-Aquino (eds) (Cambridge University Press. Studies in English Literature.169–73. 1963). 316). pp. 5. p. Nicomachean Ethics. 1987). 1998).Agency and Repentance 21 183 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 Kenneth J. 89–102. dead. “In Search of the Bear. 5.” South Atlantic Review. “Being Virtuous and Doing the Right Thing.42. resumed halfway through 141. “We Need No More of Your Advice”: Political Realism in The Winter’s Tale. 5. 1. “agency is now imparted to someone else and the speaker relegated to object” (p. 545–54..152). 365–86.126). 44). 5.3. Intention. and have in vain said many A prayer upon her grave .122–27). .45). 5. Kurland. allow both young and old to join the final comic dance” (Scott Colley. Introduction to The Winter’s Tale. 1991). Even Curren-Aquino describes the sixteen years as “an endless cycle of potentially numbing sameness” (Introduction to Winter’s Tale. Volume 2. Part II.” p. 5. p.3. Susan Snyder and Deborah CurrenAquino (eds) (Cambridge University Press. pp.60.” Shakespeare Quarterly 25 (1974). 56). see also Knights. .1. 48. Book 2.” The Modern Language Review. For a different reading see David Ward.1. Thanks to Neil Sinclair for drawing my attention to this essay. Ross’ translation (Clarendon Press. Mark van Doren called this “the obscurest passage in Shakespeare. 61–74. and Dreams in The Winter’s Tale. 1983).. 5.3. “Affection.1.3. pp. p. Hermione’s only words are addressed to Perdita.651. His instruction is in fact “Good Paulina. 2007). pp. “Fantasy and Wonder in Shakespeare’s Last Plays.70. for I saw her. lead us from hence” (5. 55. p.. If this interpretation is right it is very natural to take the lines following: But how is to be question’d. as a weak minded and confused parenthesis which interrupts the flow of his firmer thought concerning Paulina’s marriage. 1500–1900. 151. 58).” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 78 (2004) pp. Ibid. I am indebted here to Harold Goddard (Meaning of Shakespeare (Phoenix Books University of Chicago Press. 81.1 (Jan. “Leontes’ Search for Wisdom in ‘The Winter’s Tale’. . 2007). 97–8. . so if affection can work on such insubstantial material. “Hard-won maturity and wisdom. p.136–37.1.3. Semon.3. 82. 5. how much more likely that it can join with what is actually there” (p. 5.” Shakespeare (Henry Holt and Company. no less than the miracle of youth and love.148.3. As I thought. 1939). Bristol.

Chapter 13

What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It? Shakespearean Character as Moral Character
Sara Coodin

What does it mean to ‘philosophize’ Shakespeare? How and in what way is Shakespeare “a moral philosopher?” The question has gained currency recently with the publication of at least two new books by philosophers, and other work currently in progress, including the present volume.1 Not everyone will see this as a positive development. Within modern culture moral philosophy is frequently understood as a system of universally binding rules abstracted from the messy particulars of day-to-day life represented in Shakespeare’s stories and the subjective irrationality exhibited by his characters. At least, that is how Aristotle’s Ethics has typically been understood in relation to Shakespeare’s plays and their characters. So it may seem like an odd choice to introduce a discussion of Shakespearean character by talking about a philosophical concept like moral character. Nevertheless, moral character is a principle that helps us get closer to Shakespeare’s most complex fictional agents. I am referring in particular to Aristotle’s concept of ethos and to the potential usefulness of his ideas within the enterprise of character criticism. Aristotle views moral character, a person’s ethos, as a life-long process of philosophical striving, in which a person’s every resource is marshaled in the service of moral growth towards eudaemonia, variously understood as happiness, human flourishing, or simply living a beautiful life. In the pages that follow, I make the claim that Aristotle’s moral understanding of character can be usefully applied to the critical examination of Shakespearean literary characters, in ways that suggest at important new points of connection between Shakespeare and moral philosophy. Rather than viewing Shakespeare’s characters as verbal patterns, or as interpellated “subjects,” I prefer to engage with them as if they were actual people.2 One of the main differences in this approach is the degree to which our background knowledge comes to be included and invested in the literary analysis of fictional beings. That knowledge is largely expressed or transposed via the kinds of emotional connections we feel towards literary characters. In the first section I discuss the way Aristotle’s ethical thought has been construed by many critics.

What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It?


Following this, I point out some challenges to this conception by critics who have approached Shakespeare through the lens of moral philosophy. I then argue that there are important points of contact between those critically innovative perspectives and some of Aristotle’s most fundamental ideas about character, particularly as they were understood by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Finally, I suggest ways in which understanding Shakespearean character as essentially moral in nature can specify and elaborate concepts of agency that will form the basis for a more truly philosophical understanding of the makebelieve people who inhabit Shakespeare’s fictional universe.

David Beauregard’s Virtue’s Own Feature is one of the most detailed of the recent attempts to cross-read Aristotle’s ethical thought with Shakespeare through intensive consideration of the relationship between Thomistic Aristotelianism and Shakespearean character. Beauregard describes the relationship between the two as a clear and evident line of influence, but one which the modern estrangement from Classical virtue ethics has unfortunately occluded.3 His study, which proposes to “clarify an important part of the ethic implicit in [Shakespeare’s] plays,” proceeds under the assumption that Shakespeare’s plays represent a clear ethic, or at least one that would have been perceived clearly by early modern audiences.4 Our inability to appreciate that ethic, he maintains, stems from our modern expectation that literary forms endeavor to treat “general ideas, the exploration of problems and themes, or the representation of irreducible dualities and antinomies.” “The sixteenth-century poet,” Beauregard argues, “saw poetry as primarily mimetic, rhetorical, and corporate: that is, the poet ‘imitated’ an object, he tried to move his audience to affective and moral dispositions, and he tried to contribute to the ‘commonweal,’ or good, of the body politic.”5 Beauregard’s treatment of Thomistic Aristotelianism is admirable in its historical detail, and yet his grasp of early modern Aristotelianism remains rather schematic. The discussion is focused on Aristotle’s Ethics understood as deontology, a unified body of knowledge that deals with binding moral obligations. This, unfortunately, leads to the impression that Aristotle and his early modern followers were thoroughly doctrinaire. However, according to Paul Oskar Kristeller, Aristotelian thought in the Renaissance was anything but a “body of common doctrines” or a stable corpus of received ideas transmitted in a pure form over time. It was rather a group of thinkers with many diversified opinions on many different issues. Those thinkers “shared a common terminology, a common method of argument, and the reference to a common body of authoritative texts,” but produced varying conclusions about those texts.6 Renaissance Aristotelianisms, as Charles Schmitt terms them, are more accurately


Shakespeare and Moral Agency

understood as attempts to digest and creatively adapt Aristotle’s philosophical insights by different thinkers in order to meet pressing contemporary exigencies.7 Perhaps most unsatisfying in Beauregard’s criticism is the sense that historically-motivated reflections about philosophical influences on Shakespeare come at the cost of psychologically satisfying accounts of character, motivation, and action. Shakespearean character for Beauregard is a concrete manifestation of abstract philosophical concepts. Although he inserts an extremely complex set of parameters into the philosophical concepts he applies to characters like Hamlet, the basic framework he uses to understand the concepts of philosophy and character remains fundamentally typological— characters simply represent or somehow “embody” philosophical abstractions. Aristotle amounts to a system of ideas that is ultimately mapped onto the aesthetic surface of a Shakespeare play. The view of philosophy as a system of static concepts is perhaps understandable for modern readers approaching Aquinas for the first time, where Aristotle can indeed read like an elaborate list of prescriptions. Applying philosophy to literature can, under this conception, appear like an exercise in deontological reasoning where the particularity of Shakespeare’s characters are measured according to their conformity to Aristotelian imperatives. Characters under this schema become manifestations of virtues and vices rather than agents who make use of and modify received ideas in unexpected and varied ways. The notion that mapping static concepts onto Shakespeare constitutes philosophical activity, however, actually mirrors the pejorative sense behind “scholastic” as the dull, academic rehearsal of ideas, more than it accounts for actual philosophical practice in early modernity, and still less the complex ways in which Aristotle was being interpreted and used. Beauregard’s literary-critical understanding of Aristotle as a fundamentally schematic and narrowly prescriptive thinker is symptomatic of a more pervasive modern prejudice, that conceives of not just Aristotle, but moral philosophy categorically as fundamentally deontological. Kantian philosophy, whose role in shaping modern philosophy is hard to overestimate, insists adamantly on the importance of deontological rules and duties. According to Kant, categorical imperatives are not only universally binding moral codes, they are also universal in the sense of being abstracted from the particulars associated with subjective experience. A similarly deontological conception of what defines the philosophical as a category has also arguably informed Shakespeare scholarship in a variety of ways. In recent decades, studies of Shakespeare and character criticism have implicitly cast philosophy as a form of un-historical analysis that ignores the particular exigencies of early modern culture. Margreta de Grazia’s discussion of Hegelian idealism in “Teleology, Delay, and the ‘Old Mole’” is a good example; even though she aims to single out the particular kind of philosophical idealism that she sees as a precursor of character criticism, she is not particularly careful about pointing out that Hegel represents only one form of

What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It?


philosophical inquiry.8 De Grazia’s work, in fact, consistently targets eighteenth century philosophy, marking it as the point of origin for our own modern critical preoccupation with character and psychological interiority—a critical preoccupation de Grazia equates with a kind of universalizing arrogance. Among the many scholars who, like de Grazia, have adopted new historicist perspectives, philosophy is either ignored, or treated as a wrong-headed critical strategy—sometimes dismissed as “presentism”—that aspires to rise above the social and cultural particulars of the early modern period. For a majority of Renaissance literary scholars today, socio-historical considerations represent the bread and butter of critical investigation. Philosophy can appear wholly out of line with historically-focused literary scholarship when the philosophical is conceived as an exclusively deontological enterprise. In this sense, there is no philosophizing Shakespeare, at least not in a way that would yield anything new or valuable.

Recently, a small number of scholars writing under the auspices of moralphilosophical approaches to Shakespeare have begun to suggest that philosophy is not solely or even most accurately defined by deontological rule-seeking or abstracting from situational particulars. Both Michael Bristol and Mustapha Fahmi have focused on philosophy as a mode of inquiry tied to situated reasoning and questions of moral agency in Shakespeare. Bristol has explicitly argued for a view of philosophy as a form of vernacular moral inquiry—a perspective that he locates in both eighteenth century character criticism as well as in the musings of airline flight attendants.9 Vernacular inquiry presumes that there is little or no meaningful distinction between fictional characters and actual persons when it comes to thinking about why people do and say the things they do, and Bristol’s mode of critique basically treats Shakespeare’s characters like actual people. There is nothing all that new about this way of thinking about the motivations and interior lives of fictional characters—it has long been an important factor in characterological criticism, most famously in the work of A. C. Bradley. By attempting to legitimize this kind of character criticism, however, Bristol also questions pervasive assumptions about what it means to engage in philosophical speculation. His article “How Many Children Did She Have?” calls into question the logic behind L. C. Knights’ dismissal of Bradley’s style of character criticism. Knights’ self-proclaimed critical superiority over Bradley is, in large part, fuelled by a belief that stripping critical insights of their connection to subjective experience is a hallmark of critical legitimacy.10 Bristol attempts to demonstrate that legitimate critical perspectives do not necessarily traffic in logical abstractions, universal rules, or subject-free forms of evaluation. In fact,

the episodes most worthy of critical speculation are the ones where audiences must insert themselves and grapple with the plays’ most salient unresolved questions. it is a common and useful practical instrument we rely on in order to make sense of other people’s motivations and actions. Moral inquiry is vernacular for Bristol in the sense of being something most of us practice every day. Bristol argues.11 For Bristol. Miles Sandys’ 1634 discussion of prudential intelligence in Prudence: The First of the Foure Cardinall Virtues. “those are prudent who can rightly take Counsell in those things.”12 For Sandys. prudence is defined as a species of worldly deliberation about which course of action will prove most beneficial. but for the whole course of well living. Vernacular English Renaissance discussions of the moral life often address this feature of moral inquiry via the concept of prudence. including their own background knowledge and life experiences. Instead. not alone for some particular part. sense. Aristotelian moral philosophy serves as an important point of departure for a wide range of sixteenth. They constitute a species of small but regular commitments to moral self-inventory. though they did exercise it a great deal in their treatment of Shakespeare. vernacular. and in a larger.188 Shakespeare and Moral Agency literary interpretation is more often represented in the attempt on the part of audiences to piece together satisfying responses to important questions using a variety of intellectual resources.” he writes. particularly within vernacular writings. however. Bristol identifies this kind of moral inquiry with the eighteenth century literary critics and their practice of reading into the interior lives of Shakespeare’s characters. Rather. practical moral inquiry is also very much the way that ethics and economics—those branches of philosophical inquiry associated with self-regulation and the management of households—were being discussed in Shakespeare’s own era. Prudential reasoning and the exercise of prudential judgment involve reflecting about the kinds of things that matter to us both in an immediate sense. Those moments most worth reflecting on in Shakespeare. and profitable for himself or others. are not scenes that purport to impart privileged. English Renaissance writers also tend to associate prudence with Aristotle’s ethical thought. but altogether to reason of . This understanding of philosophical inquiry as an everyday tool connected to practical judgment and knowledge. this kind of speculation counts as a legitimate form of moral inquiry—one characterized by vernacularism. more fully considered. “According to that in Aristotle. defines the prudent individual as someone “who can well consult concerning those things. prudential reasoning represents a starting point for more effective examinations of human happiness. which are good and profitable to themselves. universally true points of view. a virtue associated in early modernity with practical reason and situated decision-making. which are good. not which is ad valetudinem aut vires.and seventeenth-century speculations about the moral life. was hardly invented by the eighteenth century critics. Within many vernacular discussions of the moral life.

has recently outlined a series of arguments in “Moral Minimalism and the Development of Character. according to Sandys. to name just a few.”13 Prudence amounts to a situated form of insight about the things that are useful to us. lifelong project of cultivating happiness.What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It? 189 our well-living: again. character-focused alternative to non-Classical modes of moral philosophy. to reorient philosophy away from the deontology associated with Kant towards a conception embedded in the subjective particulars of lived experience. and even Hannah Arendt.” He frames this in terms of an Aristotelian eudaemonism. but the choices made within those contingent circumstances are also important to the overall. in recent years expressed a desire not unlike that of philosophically-inclined literary critics. by which wee may consult of Good and Evill things which belong unto Felicitie. as a basis for ethical and political reflection. or concern for “felicitie. as a desire to return to Classical philosophy’s virtue-centered pursuit of human flourishing. hee [Aristotle] termes it a virtue of the understanding. eudaemonia. Each of these figures has posited an account that features a Classically-based. and virtue ethics has. This has frequently been expressed in a nostalgic way. shifting circumstances. Bernard Williams. Martha Nussbaum.15 He is deeply critical of the tendency within modern moral philosophy to exclude entire domains of human experience from its discussion of the moral life. a celebrated Hume scholar.” but we might also describe it in Bristol’s terms. in recent decades. but situated reasoning about what is “profitable” nevertheless remain importantly linked to a more comprehensive form of insight.” which contrasts modern with ancient. become an increasingly popular approach to moral philosophy that can be said to account for the critical contributions of philosophers as diverse as Alasdair MacIntyre. and describes some of the ways in which Classical philosophy out-performs modern moral approaches. Sandys encourages readers to conceive of prudential reasoning as a potentially expansive form of insight that can mitigate against shortsightedness both in the situational here-and-now and over the longue durée of a person’s moral life. virtue ethics is also a distinctly modern way of thinking about philosophy that stems from a present-day discontent with modern moral-philosophical inquiry. Long-term thinking about the moral life for Sandys takes place within contingent.14 III Some modern philosophers have. David Norton. which Norton believes offers a much fuller sense of what . Modern morality’s characteristic “minimalism” exists in distinct and unflattering counterpoint to ancient ethical theory. Despite its characteristic tendency to return to Classical philosophical models. or “whole course of well living. Modern philosophers refer to this return to Classical moral philosophy as virtue ethics. too.

”16 Two of the central claims that underwrite his argument about Classical ethics’ superiority are: (1) that virtue ethics is superior to modern morality because of its inclusiveness. everything counts as fodder for the life-long enterprise of moral reasoning about ends. and have instead flourished by virtue of their claim to be value-free.’ that is. questions of character tended to be avoided completely because they were thought to represent something outside the frame of what was considered ‘proper. There is an obvious analogy to be drawn here. Norton’s first point refers to a basic contrast between modern and ancient modes of moral thought—one drawn by a variety of philosophers writing under the auspices of virtue ethics. Under this brand of philosophy. Norton phrases it simply and effectively: “‘The moral situation’ is the life of each person in its entirety. is characterized by a highly selective understanding of what constitutes a properly moral situation. insists that moral inquiry involves the scrutiny of all aspects of lived experience. The Classical conception. modern morality. Norton makes no apologies for claiming that modern conceptions of morality have resulted in a “dilution of moral thought and moral life. many instances where individuals are faced with the possibility of having to make a choice do not constitute moral predicaments at all in the Kantian view. and New Critical practices within . which deems each and every human life-situation and predicament worthy of moral investigation and scrutiny. and Kantian philosophy in particular. Martha Nussbaum has argued that virtue ethical theorists’ strong objections to modern moral philosophy’s exceptionalist tendencies ought to be read as expressions of dissatisfaction with the undergraduate and post-graduate educational experiences of their day. virtue ethics can be more usefully understood as a way of life responsive to all domains of human experience. usually in the form of desert-island type counterfactuals.19 That era’s program for philosophical study focused on the analysis of so-called problem situations and instances involving isolated examples of human choice. and (2) that virtue ethics’ concern with human flourishing provides an indispensable incentive to the cultivation of virtue. which marginalizes allegedly extra-philosophical considerations. Ancient moral philosophy is thereby not only a way of doing philosophy when particular situations deemed to have moral content arise.190 Shakespeare and Moral Agency constitutes ethical decision-making and the well-lived life. and Aristotle in particular. without exception.”17 Conversely. Under a Classical virtue ethical conception.18 The modern study of philosophy has been marked by a preference for exceptionalist approaches to moral problems. without which moral thriving is unlikely to occur. as Norton points out. Modern culture has proven just as exceptionalist in its release of entire domains of human experience from moral scrutiny. Rather. because every human predicament represents a site for the potential cultivation of moral character. between this type of approach. the highly influential realms of business management and science have resolutely refused to place themselves under a moralizing gaze. legitimate philosophical inquiry.

Conversely. moral character also functions as a sort of back-story that stands behind actions and provides a highly personalized interpretive context for understanding and assessing their value.”20 Aristotle’s conception. When faced with the decision about whether to eat carrot sticks or a chocolate éclair for my mid-afternoon snack. moral ideals. Moral character’s function as orientation that can help make sense of and contextualize behavior becomes clearer when we consider a concept like prohairesis. As much as an ethos is determined by actions.” “In the sphere of action.What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It? 191 literary studies. which similarly propose to focus exclusively on the language of the text without reference to anything outside of it. and my habitual proclivity to actually snack on either pastries or vegetables on a regular basis. Aristotle describes prohairesis. we do not. or to my habitual snacking practices: only to my particular decision in this instance. as well as a more essentialist sense that encompasses intangibles like intentions. is whichever food I actually end up eating. is qualified by the two things excluded by the modern understanding of choosing: my characterological disposition. Choice is an existential issue. Ethos is both a way of life in the practical-habitual sense of the way we choose to live. For Aristotle. particularly actual people. There is no question of my characteristic set of attitudes about snacking. provided I am given free access to both snacks. have an . Bristol’s attempt to legitimize vernacular speculation about Shakespeare’s characters has important parallels with the kind of panoramic moral vision advocated by Norton and other virtue ethical philosophers. the notion of choice. In the Nicomachean Ethics. which effectively makes choice not only expressive of. Classical ethics’ panoramic focus means that no situation is exempt from moral scrutiny.’ as importantly tied to moral character. Aristotle remarks that prohairesis “cannot exist without both intellect and a moral condition of the mind. or healthy eater and carrot stick) in relation to the actual choice I have made in this instance do we have an example of choice. much less moral one. my choice. or indeterminate to form part of rational critical practice. “good action and the reverse cannot exist without intellect and moral character. in Aristotle’s view. in this case. We tend to understand choice nowadays as the act of selecting from among a range of available options. When there is a non-correspondence.” he writes. Only when there is a correspondence between the two (sweet tooth and chocolate éclair. as either a health-conscious or selfindulgent person. not a characterological. say. but contingent upon character. Both attempt to recuperate and legitimize those dimensions of human life typically considered too messy. subjective. the focal point of philosophical effort and striving is the cultivation of ethos or moral character. if I am a healthconscious person but eat the éclair today. and dispositional proclivities. is admittedly problematic for modern readers. or prohairesis. typically understood. which some translators render as ‘choice’ and others as ‘responsible action. for Aristotle.

but is rather revealed . and Foucault’s sense of it as completely constitutive. Gertrude Anscombe’s seminal essay “Thought and Action in Aristotle” explores this dimension of Aristotelian thought. and of dialogism in general. but rather an instance of akrasia. in fact. and its argument seeks to address Bloom’s well-known theory of Shakespeare’s characters as self-overhearers. both essentialized and practical dimensions of a person’s identity must be taken into account when considering whether something like a moral choice has occurred. nor are they constituted through a mysterious self-generating process of growth via the sheer exuberance of their own supra-human personalities. Instead. The two elements—habitual practice.192 Shakespeare and Moral Agency instance of choice. and Foucault’s sense of social constructivism that insists on human subjectivity as nothing but an empty husk on the other. His article “Shakespeare: The Orientation of the Human” appears in a collection of essays devoted to discussing the critical contribution of Harold Bloom. and succeeds in emphasizing prohairesis’ estrangement from modern notions of choosing. which has persisted to this day in the modern vernacular understanding—manages to emphasize just how great a disparity there is between a moral philosophical view centered on ethos and one that is. and inseparably linked for Aristotle. in the sense that they do not develop. and there is really no separating them when it comes to a concept like moral character.23 He argues that Shakespeare’s fictional agents are imbricated within the social worlds they inhabit. for Fahmi. Instead. Fahmi uses Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism to mediate between the bookends of character represented by Bloom’s idea of Shakespearean subjectivity as self-generating on one end. Fahmi’s central point is that Shakespeare’s characters are not self-overhearers.21 For Aristotle. develop and are constituted by the relationships or dialogues in which they engage with the individuals who matter to them. resists being reduced to either essentialist or existential concepts. so conceived. but despite the Bakhtinian genealogy Fahmi claims for his argument. Fahmi advances the far more modest and moderate claim that Shakespeare’s characters. and wholly unconcerned with characterological orientation. much more minimalist. or uncontrolled desire for ends known to be self-harming.22 The notion of dialogically-shaped personhood. is rooted in Bakhtinian theory. this idea shares a great deal with Aristotle’s approach to ethics. in a way that opposes both Bloom’s sense of the social as merely ornamental. Her categorization of Aristotle’s notion of prohairesis as a less-than-winning concept. Character. Fahmi proposes that we think about identity in Shakespeare as a function of both essentialist principle and practical action. characters engage with circumstances according to the lights of their own unique ethical perspectives. Mustapha Fahmi’s approach to Shakespearean character endeavors to sketch out a conception of character remarkably consonant with Aristotle’s concept of ethos. are mutually constitutive. to use Norton’s phrasing. and essential identity. unlike his notion of practicality.

is by paying attention to the kinds of models individuals aspire to emulate. Borrowing from Charles Taylor. What literary critics have been even less apt to recognize. Characterological criticism thus becomes a less circular. Ideals also have an enormous power to impact human behavior.24 The moral orientations that characterize Shakespeare’s fictional agents are highly idiosyncratic. sensitive soul. and attempt to fulfill them. Fahmi’s character criticism has therefore already made good use of one of the main insights articulated by virtue ethics: moral ideals represent important ways of determining people’s moral identities. resists turning him into a mere reflection of who I. IV Mustapha Fahmi has proposed that Shakespeare’s characters are best understood as agents endowed with moral investments.25 A goldmine of expressive content is made available when characters reveal their own ideals. Understanding who Hamlet is according to his own estimation. moral ideals help form clear and detailed pictures of what individuals imagine the good life to be about that then inspire them to actualize their goals. the critic. Norton’s point about virtue ethics is that moral ideals are not only important for the kind of expressive information they provide about the kinds of things people value. What literary criticism has been unwilling to recognize is the motivational component Norton is so keen to emphasize and praise in Classical moral philosophy. is that those goals. Taking such statements as indices of character has the added benefit of helping to establish a more bias-resistant mode of characterological criticism than simply accepting any one critic’s opinion that Hamlet is a tortured. want him to be. according to Fahmi.What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It? 193 in the way that characters reason about their own moral ends. with different kinds of moral investments. and motivate moral growth. entail a series of moral responsibilities. One way of figuring out what those investments are. or a misplaced embodiment of who I myself aspire to be in my own private life. If Hamlet’s sense of himself is characterized by the concept of a good and loyal son. impressionistic undertaking. or a bloodthirsty disinherited prince. Fahmi suggests that the identity of Shakespeare’s characters functions as a source of orientation in a space of moral questions. in turn. that remain subject to continual revision as they confront the tangible parameters of contingent circumstance. For Norton. then part of that sense of identity entails an ethical commitment to exact revenge for his . Fahmi has advanced the claim that getting to know who characters themselves aspire to be is the only way to get to know them at all. That orientation is comprised of strong evaluations about the things that matter to them. and instead gains a modicum of well-deserved legitimacy. however.

but in honestye and comeliness.” The “I ought” expresses the way in which an individual moves from the ontological into the phenomenological. The assumption that moral living is comprised of a kind of responsibility or self-awareness in the face of choice. In a section whose marginal note reads “every man must search out his own inclination and nature. that all the same be not otherwise done nor meant. such a one to be reclaimed to an order and trade of life.194 Shakespeare and Moral Agency father’s murder. on a “what I do” as well as a “what I ought to be doing. womens flatteryes. singing. insomuch it shall not be ill for such a one to frequent dancing. and the kind of moral responsibility hard-wired to Aristotle’s conception of moral character means that. The “I am” associated with an ontological view of character is dependent. is also a function of the way in which moral-philosophical writers in the Renaissance conceived of the moral life. and given somewhat to a wayward. allurements. The fungibility associated with humoral character brings to the fore Fahmi’s idea of social imbrication in a distinctly material language in which the body was literally imagined as the .26 The kinds of decisions that arise in daily life about whether “it shall not be ill for such a one to frequent dancing. The “ought to” is another way of describing moral responsibility. and one that also carried strong moral connotations. teleologically. and embracings” are here explicitly connected to the issue of constitution. Lemnius deploys the language of humoral physiology which. feel hymselfe prone to carnalitye and fleshiye luste. whining testye. and intractable then reason sylleth. within Classical ethics. within a reasonable measure. for Aristotle. or ethos. allurements. It is not only typical for modern philosophers like Norton to view moral character as a concept with strong ties to moral accountability. and stoate of bloude and spirites. in his day.” Lemnius suggests the following prescription designed to improve and mitigate temperamental excesses: Thus if a man throughe abundance of humours. was the most readily understood description for individuals’ underlying dispositions. and embracings. which for him amounts to an acquaintance with our humoral constitution. and literally completes and enacts character. let him by altering his order and diet. provided always. gentler and pleasaunter. womens flatteryes. according to the codes of honor by which his father lived. But if hee feele himself to bee of a nature somewhat sulleyne and sterne. Levinus Lemnius’ The Touchstone of Complexions explains that making wise choices begins with an awareness of our own disposition. churlish. The continuum between thought and action so central to Aristotle’s conception of the ethical life ensures that any essentialized notion of character becomes inseparable from a conception of what a character of that sort ought to be doing. enjoyne to himselfe a most strict ordinary and frame his dealings to a more stayed moderation. singing. notions of character are also inextricably linked to moral obligations.

and ultimately relate to the eudaemonistically-conceived life. against his inclination. No choice is regarded as too insignificant to merit moral scrutiny in Renaissance discussions of temperamental self-regulation and management of the passions. typological expositions like these have to be selectively and intelligently applied to a series of specific empirical circumstances—circumstances whose ultimate outcome was thought to have a morally determinative effect on character. but also a social aspect with far-reaching implications. when either they of themselves or others do change that course to another whereunto they were inclined they become very excellent men. the choice of an appropriate vocation contains not only a practical incentive. I knew one in Flanders employed of his friends to be a merchant. . and became one of the rarest preachers there. Moments of choice are represented as moments of temptation in which a desire to pursue a pleasurable but ultimately harmful course of action runs strong. This rule concerneth all sort of superiors in the employments of their subjects. In order to prove useful. The subject of Wright’s anecdote. schoolmasters for the training up of their scholars. choosing wisely requires the instrumental application of insight about our own humoral character in the face of unpredictable. all parents for the education of their children. a hundred such examples I could bring you. of imbalances and excesses which required continual moderation and repair. and reason. often uncontrollable external cues. For by experience we learn that men be oftentimes employed to one trade and never can profit therein: contrariwise. or exercise contrary to his natural passions and inclination. a failed merchant-turned-preacher who “never scarce could abide to deal in merchandise” becomes not just a story about personal vocational fulfilment. Typological discussions were not. but he never scarce could abide to deal in merchandise. act. and all of the routine activities associated with habitual action are thought to have an impact on character. For Lemnius. very godly and learnedly. The ground of this rule dependeth of long experience. and so at last therewith awearied left them and turned his course to study.” Wright assures us). Selecting an appropriate vocation. only to discover his true vocation as a preacher: No man ought to be employed to any office. Texts like Touchstone represent the act of choosing an appropriate course of action as a crucial determinant of successful self-regulation. In The Passions of the Minde. wherein he excelled. Thomas Wright emphasizes vocational choice when he narrates the following anecdote about a merchant who fails at his profession. intended to offer exhaustive catalogues that could then be applied to a set series of circumstances.What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It? 195 site of transformation. but insofar as Wright’s subject serves as a moral exemplum (“a hundred such examples I could bring you. I myself heard him preach after.27 In Wright’s view. however. choosing the right diet and exercise.

and remain importantly tied to the realm of contingent circumstance in Shakespeare. as we have seen with his discussion of prohairesis. The Classical concept of character. As we have seen from both Renaissance discussions and in the recent dialogically-focused model of character advanced by Mustapha Fahmi. dancing. Choice for both Aristotle and vernacular Renaissance philosophers like Lemnius is envisioned as a crucial opportunity to align inward states. be a mistake to reduce the Renaissance concept of character outlined by these writers to a merely passive receptacle through which environmental or social forces circulate. but more significantly. The Classical conception involves a comprehensive. in the basic sense of what the concept of character itself actually entails. does not consist of abstract. both emotional and intentional (providing they are rationally-conceived) with their logical and teleological outcomes. Classical ethics understands character as fundamentally responsive. however. much as those qualities and concepts do form an important part of the overall picture. concrete ways. and beautiful women. but envisions and calls for the completion and actualization of those states in physically manifest. dispositional states. Character is neither inert nor static according to Aristotle. practical choices and their farreaching social effects have important ties to character. In Renaissance discussions like Wright’s. inward states represent potentials capable of being actualized in accordance with their natural. in other words. Prudential reasoning of the kind outlined by Sandys and discussed extensively by Aristotle in Book VI of the Ethics becomes centrally important because that form of thinking excels at formulating practical plans that can help actualize intentional dispositions in effective. Aristotle is even more explicit on this point. In Lemnius’ terms. lifelong focus on moral development that contains an idealistic dimension— one that helps provide a strong motivational push towards actualizing objectively worthy goals. Moral character therefore entails a sense not only of who . even beneficial distractions. the two dimensions—corporeal and environmental. however. or a moody introvert for whom those pursuits represent harmless. and a person’s ethical character depends not only on inward. It would. individuals’ basic dispositions are extremely responsive to external phenomena. requires awareness and self-presence in the face of choice. The divide between pre-modern and modern visions of the ethical life centers not only on the intensive focus accorded to character under a Classical model. logical ends. and makes the concept of choice itself contingent upon character. Successful self-regulation. socio-political terms. Rather. or inert qualities. For Aristotle. this amounts to an honest appraisal of the kind of person I am—a lusty bon-vivant whose vices are exacerbated by gaming. the ideal of a good and loyal son. inward and outward—are imagined in a relationship that draws extensively on Aristotelian teleology.196 Shakespeare and Moral Agency it also carries the implication that social phenomena such as economic failure and religious apathy are indeed functions of human agency and human choice. that is.

” that is. can also address a different kind of problem—a historical one. He is quite literally unable to be himself in the full sense implied by the term ‘character. This is a problem suggestive of more than just a failure to take moral responsibility—it suggests that on some level. in this case. my strengths and weaknesses. would have been experienced as a crisis of epic proportions. Shakespearean character is importantly tied to the Aristotelian notion of ethos or moral character. The basic self-presence required for moral responsibility in Classical ethics posits that I cannot simply forget who I am. What I hope a more extensive study of the Shakespearean character’s relationship to Aristotelian ethical thought will fill out is the sense in which that failure resonates not only as an instance of botched revenge and dashed hopes—that is to say. My view of literary character as importantly connected to moral character proposes that such failures entail the collapse of an entire ethical mode—one that we have only begun to investigate and theorize. the failure is bound up with the virtue ethical sense of character itself. One way of thinking about this is to imagine that shrinking from moral responsibility drains the very lifeblood of ethical identity. resonates not only on an individual moral-characterological level.29 If. Hamlet’s proclamation does more than describe a humoral imbalance. however. despite its importance to Hamlet’s own sense of himself as a moral agent. Hamlet denies it. but also calls for activities that correspond with and actualize those contents. it also declares that he is aware of his own inability to meet those moral obligations he envisions for himself. but which for a culture preoccupied and deeply invested in recovering modes of ancient thought. when faced with a moment of choice.28 These disavowals of identity and moral accountability call for a more concerted exploration of Classical concepts like akrasia. “Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? / Never Hamlet. A closer examination of characters like Hamlet in light of a . Philosophizing Shakespeare. When Hamlet says to Laertes. / If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away. and which he himself acknowledges to be ethically and characterologically definitive. viz. as I have been arguing. and topics like emotion—topics which consistently preoccupy Classical and Renaissance moral philosophers. effectively becoming morally incomprehensible to myself and devoid of identity.What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It? 197 I am. but also on a cultural and historical one. / And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes.’ though he remains saddled with the knowledge of both who he is inwardly and how he is supposed to behave.” he disclaims identity at precisely the moment when what seems most required is an honest avowal of moral responsibility in the deaths of Laertes’ father and sister. my constituent dispositions and tendencies. for courageous action. suggests that his inability to act decisively is fundamentally a reflection of his weak character. / Then Hamlet does it not. Hamlet’s frustrated exclamation that he is a “pigeonlivered and lack[s] gall to make oppression bitter. To do so is to behave akratically. or step outside of myself characteologically. bile. that he lacks the requisite humoral constitution.

184. 2006).” p. On treating Shakespeare’s characters like actual people. 98. 37–41. p. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Michael Bristol. Martha Nussbaum has recently reviewed both books. just as a more careful examination of Classical philosophical insights about moral character can lend dimensionality to our understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare’s characters as moral agents. 2007).” p. 113–14. 2008): pp. “Minimalism. Theodore Uehling. Vernacular. 15–54. “Vernacular Criticism and the Scenes Shakespeare Never Wrote. Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Tzachi Zamir. Beauregard. pp. (Newark: University of Delaware Press.. pp.198 Shakespeare and Moral Agency virtue ethical conception may well help us better conceive of how such failings are construed and experienced. Sandys. Prudence. and Howard Wettstein (Notre Dame: University of Norte Dame Press. . 180. 22. p. 2001). David Beauregard. Stewart. Virtue. eds. pp. “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” in Explorations: Essays in Criticism Mainly on the Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New York: George W. 1965). L. “Minimalism. ed. D. Nutall’s Shakespeare the Thinker (New Haven: Yale University Press. and the ‘Old Mole. Charles Schmitt. “Shakespeare: The Orientation of the Human” in Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare. ibid. Norton. p.” Shakespeare Survey 53 (2000): pp. 1988). 183. C. 33. 9.” The New Republic 238 (May 7. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. Christy Desmet and Robert Sawyer (New York: Palgrave. Delay. 251–67. Miles Sandys.’” Shakespeare Quarterly 50 (Fall 1999): pp. ibid. Colin McGinn. 1995). “How Many Children Did She Have?” in Philosophical Shakespeares. Bristol. 97–107. Margreta de Grazia. p. Renaissance Thought II: Papers on Humanism and the Arts (New York: Harper & Row. “Teleology. 50. 49. 1947). “Minimalism.” p. Paul Oskar. David Norton. Virtue. pp. Shakespeare’s Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays (New York: HarperCollins. Knights. 180–195. “Moral Minimalism and the Development of Moral Character. eds. 2000). Beauregard.” in Midwest Studies in Philosophy Volume XIII: Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue. 89–102. Aristotle and the Renaissance. 18–33. p. Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama. 2007) in “Stages of Thought. pp. Bristol.. Children. John Joughin (London: Routledge. p. along with A. Peter French. Virtue’s Own Feature: Shakespeare and the Virtue Ethics Tradition. See also Mustapha Fahmi. Prudence: The First of the Foure Cardinall Virtues (1634). 1983). see Michael Bristol. Kristeller.

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111–12. 151–4. 26–8. 31. Julia 78 Anscombe. 7. 49–52. 77. 63. 139. Gregory 10 De Grazia. 133–4. 184–6. Harry 73. Terry 15 Eliot. Cleanth 77–8 Burke. 33–41. Stanley 73. 97–8. 153. 192 Bobbio. Jonathan 83 Gordon. 91. Bertold 123. Jacques 15. 111. 97. 41. 177. 174–5. 96–7. 15–16. 197 Althusser. 131. 39–40 delusion 37. 61. 42. A. 129–31. 84 Andrew. 10. 110 Annas. Abraham J. Lawrence C. Harold 73. Judith 72. Norberto 112–13 Braden. 168 Ewbank. 167–8 Bloom. 155 Currie.Index action 4. 192. 197–8 Heller. 6–10. 192–3. 19. 194–5. 31. 67. Perry 71. 186. 121. 114–15. 17 Eagleton. 93–4. 193. 160 . Joseph 9 Butler. 178. 92. 159. 133. E. 14 Bell. 90–1. 88 Haidt. 188–92. 174. Erving 77–8 Goldberg. Vikki 99 Belsey. David 185–6 Becker. 44–7. 121. 192. 175 Coghill. 164. 86–95. Kenneth 6. 129–30. 94. 15 Butler. Northrop 177 Garber. Carl 4 Girard. 96–8 Artaud. 42. 197 akrasia 8. 55–63. 55–6. 194. 44. 58. 180 Derrida. Gertrude 192 Aristotle 8. Marjorie 43 Ginet. 177–80. Inga-Stina 171 Fahmi. 62. 29–31. 31. 150–1. Alan 171 Bloom. Michael 72–3. 159–62. 116 Honigmann. 188. Jonathan 29–33. 21. 167–8. 23. Agnes 17 Heracleitus 160 Heschel. 169. 82. Nomy 88. 111–12. 148. 150 Grady. Michael 15 Frye. Hershel 135 Beauregard. 186. 160–2. Neville 176 Coriolanus 18. 137. Louis 156 Anderson. 56–8. 40 Hamlet 2. 156 Bristol. 16. 187–8 Brooks. 76–9. 26. 172. 71. 83 Cavell. Edward 106. J. Gordon 163–4 Brecht. G. Thomas Stearns 65. 196 Foucault. 173–4. Katherine 16 Berger. 86–8. 196 Arpaly. 191. 168. 139. 17–19. René 90 Goffman. Mustapha 187. Margreta 187 deception see also self-deception 6. 9. Hugh 6. 81–4. 86–8. 92–3. 134. Antonin 123 Baker.

156. 76. 140. Part 2 23. 194. M. M. 8. Bernard 162–3. 179 Jaggar. 117. 107 Marx. 73. 162. 88. 99–109. Steven 29. 97 responsibility 7.212 Index motivation. The 8–9. Robert 71. 121 Liebler 8 Macbeth 4–5. 99. C. 81. 171. 160 Lemnius. Charles 73. 132 Merchant of Venice. 186 Nietzsche. 135–40 Knights. L. Part 1 31. 24. Niccolò 6. 148 King Henry IV. 116. 27. 32. 31–2. 34. 61. Martha 73. 166 Wright. 129–32. 99–103. motive 7. 90. 142–56 Miola. Elizabeth 2 Montaigne. 177. 19. 174. Levinus 194. 176. 188–9 rationality 86. Karl 71 Marxism. 31. 90. Tzachi 9. 31–2. 104 Johnson. 62. Miles 188–99. 15. Alison M. 31. 169. 196 Levinas. 105. Paul 162 Sandys. 159–63. 179–81. 132. 18. 189 King Henry IV. 62. F. 159 Seneca 163–4 Shepard. 23. 109. 31. 100. 196. David 189–91. 186. 94 poststructuralism. Christopher 15 Norton. 173. 136. 44. 75 Williams. 42. 44–9. 10. R. 177 Margalit. Robert 163–4 Montagu. 83. 166–9 moral responsibility see responsibility . 189–90 Olère. 35 Plato 30–1. 150. 148. 193–4 Nussbaum. Emmanuel 11. 31. Caroline 77 Strier. Simon 42 Pinker. 7. poststructuralist 15–17 prudence 1. 130. Richard 7 Taylor. 166–7. 41. 187 Kott. 59–62. 37. 26–7. Harold 160 Spurgeon. 193 Toulmin. 121. 198 Schmitt. 166 Machiavelli. 117 moral luck 159. 197 Ricoeur. 6. David 122 Palfrey. 111–24. 19. 122 imagination 10. 172–4 intention 20. 161. 73. 99–109. Michel de 17. Avishai 8. 18. Samuel 1–2 Julius Caesar 6–7. 71. 71–83. 37–8. 161. Immanuel 16. 63 Mahood. Marxist 15–16. 134. 32. 17. 86–7 Kant. 162. 47. Jan 123–4 Leavis. 133 King Richard II 18. 17. Friedrich 130 Norris. 115. 92. 15–17. Thomas 195–6 Zamir. 133. 22. 55–8. 155 Measure for Measure 5. 153–4. 129. Stephen 72 Troilus and Cressida 81 Weimann. 82. 43. 113–14 King Lear 8. 64–6. 20. 62. 24. Charles 185 self-deception 4. Alexandra 113 Sinfield. 185. 23. Alan 16 Skulsky. 177. 63. 108–9. 61. 151. 36. 75.

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