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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

Edited by Michael D. Bristol

The Continuum International Publishing Group
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© Michael D. Bristol and contributors 2010

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Notes on Contributors vii

Acknowledgments x

Introduction: Is Shakespeare a Moral Philosopher? 1

Michael Bristol

Part I The Agency of Agents

1 Moral Agency and Its Problems in Julius Caesar :
Political Power, Choice, and History 15
Hugh Grady
2 A Shakespearean Phenomenology of Moral Conviction 29
James A. Knapp
3 Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception in
Shakespeare’s Tragedies 42
Keira Travis
4 Excuses, Bepissing, and Non-being: Shakespearean Puzzles
about Agency 55
Richard Strier

Part II Social Norms

5 Conduct (Un)becoming or, Playing the Warrior in Macbeth 71
Sharon O’Dair
6 To “Tempt the Rheumy and Unpurged Air”: Contagion
and Agency in Julius Caesar 86
Jennifer Feather
7 Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals in Measure for
Measure and The Merchant of Venice 99
Kathryn R. Finin
8 “The oldest hath borne most”: the Burdens of Aging and
the Morality of Uselessness in King Lear 111
Naomi Conn Liebler

Part III Moral Characters

9 Quoting the Enemy: Character, Self-Interpretation, and
the Question of Perspective in Shakespeare 129
Mustapha Fahmi
vi Contents

10 The Fool, the Blind, and the Jew 142

Tzachi Zamir
11 “Unlucky Deeds” and the Shame of Othello 159
Andrew Escobedo
12 Agency and Repentance in The Winter’s Tale 171
Gregory Currie
13 What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It? Shakespearean
Character as Moral Character 184
Sara Coodin

Works Cited 200

Index 211
Notes on Contributors

Michael Bristol is Greenshields Professor Emeritus at McGill University in

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

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

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

The idea for this volume of essays emerged from a graduate seminar on
“Shakespeare and Moral Agency,” which I taught for roughly ten years,
beginning in 1993. 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.
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. If it were possible I would mention everyone by name, but
the list is really too long to be included here. Some of those students are now
working in the field of Shakespeare studies, but most are not. 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. I also want to acknowledge the support of my colleagues on
the Shakespeare in Performance Research Team at McGill University. They
have listened to my arguments about Shakespeare and Moral Agency over the
course of many years; they have also been patient with my stories, some of which
I am sure they have heard more than once. Our work has received generous
support from the Fonds Québecois de la Recheche sur la société et la culture.
Some of my own ideas have also been developed through work with the Making
Publics project, with support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council
of Canada. 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. 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, I would like to thank all of
the participants for their contributions to a thoroughly enjoyable discussion of
the issues.
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, she might
say “. . . philosophers see profound thought in Shakespeare, not wrongly . . .”1
Thinking about the interpretation of Shakespearean drama and the practice of
moral inquiry as mutually illuminating traditions is not a new idea. 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, first published in 1769. In it she declares that Shakespeare
is “one of the greatest moral philosophers that ever lived.”2 Elizabeth Griffith,
in The Morality of Shakespeare’s Drama Illustrated describes Shakespeare’s philoso-
phy as a concern with “those moral duties which are the truest sources of mortal
bliss— domestic ties, offices, and obligations.”3 Samuel Johnson lent his consid-
erable authority as a critic to these opinions, pointing out that Shakespeare’s
“. . . 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 . . . It is this which fills the plays of Shakespeare with practi-
cal axioms and domestick wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that every verse
was a precept; and it may be said of Shakespeare, that from his works may be
collected a system of civil and oeconomical prudence.”4
The “persons” Johnson is talking about are fictional characters, the “dramatis
personae” of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s an interesting equivocation. 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. There is, of course, an informal fallacy in proceeding this way, though
the fallacy is often productive.5 But there is no confusion in Johnson’s mind
about this. “It is false, that any representation is mistaken for reality; that any
dramatick fable in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a single moment, was
ever credited. . . . The truth is that the spectators are always in their senses, and
know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the
2 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

players are only players.6 The genius of these intuitions is that they acknowl-
edge that Shakespeare’s characters invite readers or spectators to relate to them
in a self-reflexive way. Both Johnson and Montagu were fully aware of the
historical situatedness both of Shakespeare and of the figures who populate his
fictional universe. 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. 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.
I have taken the time at the beginning of this project to pay my respect to
critics of the mid-eighteenth century because, in all honesty, I believe they
deserve credit for the discovery of character as the salient feature of
Shakespeare’s work. This has been, and continues to be an indispensable
feature of all subsequent interpretation, even among those recent critics who
most strenuously deny its existence.7 What they discovered has been described
as “confusing characters with real people,” though, as I suggested earlier, no
one was actually confused about what they were doing. As well as the average
four-year old child, eighteenth century critics had a firm grasp on the principles
of make believe. And in fact, among contemporary Shakespeare scholars,
thinking about dramatic characters as if they were real people is something
of an open secret. Everyone does it; what else would one do, exactly? At the
same time there is a general understanding that it would not be comme il faut to
admit doing it. 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, “oops!” Frankly, myself, I don’t see what there is to be embar-
rassed about.
Fictional characters can be described as possible persons carrying out
possible actions in a possible world.8 We know that Achilles and Hamlet and
Winnie the Pooh don’t exist in the actual world, but we also know that a com-
petent 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. Our knowledge that stuffed donkeys don’t actually
care about what happens to their tails is not relevant to the situation. This kind
of understanding is called “getting the story.” 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.
Part of the contract we make with a fiction has to do with beliefs—or, more
accurately—make-beliefs about Achilles and the strange loss of Eeyore’s tail.
Another aspect of that contract is openness to an emotional engagement with
fictional characters. An emotional response to a fiction is in some ways a puz-
zling phenomenon, but it can be explained in reference to deeply held norma-
tive beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong.9 Oddly then, it is by way of
emotion that the philosophical interest of a fiction is initially sensed.
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.” It’s possible, by
means of historical research, to identify a framework of ideas that can plausibly
be discovered in the plays, though this is not always that satisfying. A more
genuinely philosophical approach to this material really begins with a consider-
ation of what is called “story meaning—figuring out what’s true in the fiction.10
Analysis of story meaning is just figuring out exactly what happened in the story,
but this is not always such an easy thing to do. Stories are, for the most part,
incompletely determined and so understanding what happens in a fiction
involves speculating about what isn’t explicitly stated.11 Our ability to under-
stand stories depends not only on what a literary text explicitly tells us, but also
on background knowledge of how the world actually works. Conditions that
prevail in the actual world are also basic features of the fictional universe unless
we are specifically told otherwise. Sometimes we really need to consult histori-
cal research if we are to understand how things were assumed to work in the
world from which the author is writing, but in reality our ability to understand
stories relies on mixed assumptions, some of which are historical and some of
which are not.
Raising questions about moral agency, fictional or otherwise, clearly presup-
poses the existence of a self. Otherwise the notion of the agent becomes unin-
telligible. 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. When I contemplate my Martin
Guitar, model 0–16 New Yorker, Serial # 179705, I’m looking at an object that
can be singled out from every other Martin Guitar that has ever existed. “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. The guitar has had its own history,
to be sure, easily seen in the random pattern of dings and scratches, but this is
logically distinct from the guitar “itself.”
To historicize the concept of self involves a kind of equivocation with the
term. It is entirely possible to do historical research about the renaissance
philosophy of mind, 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. It is even possible to show that our current notions of “inward-
ness” are not directly relevant to the way early modern subjects thought about
themselves.12 I do not think, however, that it follows logically from any of this
that “the self” didn’t exist in ancient times or that it “emerged” in the seven-
teenth century in connection with the philosophy of René Descartes. Such
inferences really do strike me as confusing two different kinds of inquiry. 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, quite different historical contexts.
4 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Agency refers to a capacity for action; in the current philosophical literature

the term can be used for any goal-oriented behavior. It is purposeful action,
distinguished from mindless activity like the erosion of beaches or the heat
death of the universe. Carl Ginet suggests that “. . . Nothing can count as a per-
son unless rational agency, acting for reasons, is characteristic of it.”13 Stated in
this form, however, Ginet’s stipulation is overly broad. When that red squirrel
keeps getting into your bird feeder no matter how many obstacles you set up,
her aptitude for complex analysis looks like acting for reasons, making the
squirrel indistinguishable from a person according to Ginet. She has a goal,
a repertoire of strategies for achieving this goal, creative problem-solving skills,
and an ability to shift priorities when threatened by an exasperated home-owner
or a Cooper’s Hawk. The squirrel on this description is an agent whose beha-
vior is guided by the imperative of self-preservation, arguably the most basic
form of moral agency.
People act with purpose, but they also act with strong second-order self-
consciousness. They are not simply aware of themselves, but vividly aware of
that awareness and capable of expressing that awareness to others. Human
action is often less a matter of accomplishing instrumental goals than it is about
maintaining the preferred narrative account of the self. Agents in this sense are
singular and self-determining, but their acts are performed in relation to larger
considerations in the form of moral evaluations. Self-preservation is still the
over-riding purpose, but the self that seeks its own continuance is concerned
with much more than biological survival. Human agents consider what things
matter to them and why they are important. It is not easy to do justice to these
manifold demands and at the same time maintain a coherent rapport à soi.
People who are able to do this are said to have a strong character. But a strong
character may not in fact be adequate for all situations. Agents also have to
possess flexibility, improvisatory competences, and even the skills of dissem-
bling in order to sustain a preferred interpretation of who they are and of where
they stand.
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, but precisely that it doesn’t, and that’s
why Shakespeare is a very great writer. Shakespeare’s characters exhibit internal
conflict in the form of faulty self-knowledge, incontinence, self-deception, and
other modes of subjective irrationality even within such apparently robust
personalities as Macbeth and Othello. If we ask “why did Macbeth kill Duncan?”
it seems obvious that the answer must be because he wanted to be king. This
interpretation seems feasible because the text of Shakespeare’s Macbeth
wouldn’t really make any sense otherwise. But it is clearly incomplete. Macbeth
is, among other things, “full of the milk of human kindness.” We can actually
see him work out his all-things-considered best judgment that leads to the
conclusion that he should not kill Duncan. He knows that the murder will
Is Shakespeare a Moral Philosopher? 5

“but teach bloody instruction” and he respects his obligations to the King as
kinsman and a host. And in the very next scene he carries out the murder. It is
far from certain that he knows what he really wants or even if he wants to be
king. Unlike the red squirrel, whose problem-solving ability is hard-wired to the
aim of survival, Macbeth is capable of acting in a way that he knows will lead to
his own destruction. But the complexity of Macbeth’s state of mind is not
primarily of interest to us as a faulty model of moral problem-solving. 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. The interest
for us in these characters has a quite different basis.
Shakespeare’s characters inhabit a contingent world where they are faced
with novel, unpredictable, and unprecedented situations that require evalua-
tion and judgment. The situational profile often entails a conflict between
family attachments and other, more abstract or self-interested considerations.
Isabel, in Measure for Measure, is interesting for us as a moral agent not because
she acts in obviously the right way, but because she is engaged with the com-
plexity of moral evaluation in ways that would appear impossible to resolve.
Many readers are horrified by Isabel’s self-assurance in deciding “more than
our brother is our chastity.” 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, worth even
more than the life of a loved one. 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. It is more that the plays
make us care about such decision-making in a way that engages our own con-
cern. 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,
even though this leads her into consenting to the morally questionable device
of the bed-trick.
Shakespeare’s plays have a particular salience as the object of philosophical
inquiry because of the hermeneutic density of the literary material. The only
things remotely comparable are some of the stories in Scripture, which have
generated illuminating commentary and exegesis for thousands of years.
But the density is not just a matter of the sheer quantity of accumulated
interpretation, which is itself best accounted for by the artistic quality of
Shakespeare’s language and his narrative composition. From a philosophical
perspective very close scrutiny of Shakespearean wordplay, rhetorical figures,
and patterns of internal cross-reference are very rewarding. Equally rewarding
are the styles of interpretation associated with vernacular criticism, its ability to
relate to fictional characters as if they were real people. This means that the
basic intuitions people use to understand their friends and relatives are also
appropriate tools for getting at fictional characters. But the sheer grotesque
power of Shakespearean narrative requires something more than complacent,
6 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

pre-theoretical judgments that see Romeo and Juliet as “a story about two
teenagers who fall in love.” 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. But not even the most insightful philo-
sophy will be able to console us for the sense of loss we feel over the deaths of
Romeo and Juliet. What we see in Shakespeare’s plays is not a set of instructions
on how to live the good life, but rather a salutary imagining of the pathos of our
moral existence, presented in a way that absolutely refuses the complacencies
of ideology and the distractions of wishful thinking.
It is abundantly clear in all the essays that compose this volume that no one
works from a concept of the agent as untrammeled, lucid, or fully self-aware.
At the same time, however, no one is satisfied with arguments that say, in effect
“the devil made me do it.” The first section of four essays is concerned with the
agency of agents; each raises questions about the possibility of self-reflexivity
and freedom of action. Hugh Grady’s essay, “Moral Agency and Its Problems in
Julius Caesar: Political Power, Choice, and History”, acknowledges the impor-
tance of agency for understanding drama. He re-introduces the work of
Kenneth Burke, pointing out that “Drama is, fundamentally, about people
doing things.” Grady then relates his account of agency to the current state of
Shakespeare criticism, with its focus on the subject as the product of historical
forces, rather than on the self-reflexive agent capable of self-determination. His
discussion focuses in detail on Julius Caesar to show how political reality directs
and interferes with the agent’s capacity to act freely. A crucial implication of
Grady’s essay is that whenever there is conflict—in an election, let’s say, or a war,
or even a basketball game, it’s important to remember that the other side is trying
to win. Agency in Shakespeare presupposes a field of strategic interaction, as
Machiavelli understood, and agents who ignore this reality, like “the noble
Brutus,” end up destroying the very things they hold most dear.
James A. Knapp, in “A Shakespearean Phenomenology of Moral Conviction”,
is concerned with the “strong evaluations” that guide agents to adopt plans that
aim at achieving some good.14 Knapp’s essay reflects on advances in the fields of
cognitive science and evolutionary psychology which suggest a “moral sense”
may be innate. However, science doesn’t solve the problem of moral judgment,
since universal intuitions are difficult to apply outside the specific situations in
which agents must act. One way or another there’s a good chance that you
won’t get it right, even if you meant well. Othello learns too late that his
judgment of Desdemona’s infidelity was founded in error and deception. It’s
not clear that he ever considers that the moral conviction that motivated such
an act is itself a larger kind of error. In “Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-
Deception in Shakespeare’s Tragedies”, Keira Travis finds a different pathway
into the unconscious sources that shape a character’s action. The crucial intui-
tion here is that moral agency is represented in Shakespeare by means of a
character’s “bearing” or “position” in an absolutely literal sense. Recognition of
Is Shakespeare a Moral Philosopher? 7

self and of others is revealed in a vocabulary of gestures hidden in Shakespeare’s

wordplay. His language activates the dead metaphors buried in the words
people use to understand who they are or what they think about other people.
Agents are by definition objects in motion, but Shakespeare’s characters
are only partially aware of how they move in relation to others. The essay is
particularly notable for encouraging a renewed interest in philological research,
reminding us that most of the time we think “less rigorously and less playfully
than Shakespeare.”
Richard Strier begins his essay, “Excuses, Bepissing, and Non-being:
Shakespearean puzzels above agency,” by introducing Aristotle’s distinction
between actions that go wrong “due to ignorance” and actions done “in igno-
rance.” If you act wrongly because you didn’t know something about the situa-
tion it’s not your fault. But if you’ve been ignoring something you should have
known when you acted, the result is your responsibility. Consideration of “moral
agency” here leads into a more radical questioning of agency and of motive in
the broader sense. The crucial examples are Shylock and Iago, both of whom
lack not only anything that we recognize as a motive, but who also seem to lack,
for Strier, any genuine rapport à soi. They don’t just ignore who they really are,
like Hamlet or Macbeth, they seem to embody only vacancy, absence, or the will
to annihilation that is in theological terms identical with the meaning of evil.
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 problem is generally taken to be either faulty knowledge or faulty self-
knowledge or some regrettable combination of the two.
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. Sharon O’Dair, in “Conduct (Un)becoming or, Playing the
Warrior in Macbeth”, argues that it is impossible to conceive of “self” as somehow
existing over against a person’s social being. Agents don’t just act; they must
perforce engage in social interaction. On this view agency is identified with
Judith Butler’s notion of performativity as the “reiteration of [social] norms.”15
Her claim here is a version of what Mikhail Bakhtin has called “exotopy,”
referring to all those things that come from outside the self that are necessary
for its completion—language, customary habits, the prescribed behavior that
belong to one’s social roles.16 The actions of Macbeth, on this view, should be
seen not as the violation of the social norms of hierarchical order, as in many
historical accounts of the play, 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.
The character of Brutus, in Julius Caesar, seems intent on fulfilling the tradi-
tional ideals of Republican Rome. Jennifer Feather’s essay, “To ‘Tempt the
Rheumy and Unpurged Air’: Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar” points out
that one of those traditional ideals is rational agency, conceived as acting in
8 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

accordance with one’s own all-things-considered best judgment. Following

Aristotle, she argues that virtue is a type of masculine excellence that requires
voluntary action. Weakness of the will, or akrasia, would be acting contrary to a
person’s “strong evaluations” or to what the self holds to be most dear. In these
terms Brutus presents the reader with an instance of “inverse akrasia,” acting
against one’s best judgment in a way that paradoxically leads to morally praise-
worthy results.17 This is possible because social norms are themselves irrational;
failure to “reiterate” one social imperative may lead directly to the fulfillment
of another.18
The pathos of conflicting social norms is more fully brought out by Kathryn
Finin, in “Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals in Measure for Measure
and The Merchant of Venice.” Finin develops the distinction between morality
and ethics proposed by the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit. The crucial
feature of ethics is that it is grounded in “thick relations”—family, friendship,
and, by extension, countrymen or followers of a religious tradition. Morality,
by contrast, is grounded in “thin relations” that prevail between strangers. As
Finin argues, 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. Both Measure for Measure and The Merchant
of Venice express in different ways the difficulties of moral actions “when every-
one’s suffering matters.” In both plays characters have to respond to the
demands of thick relationships even when this may entail the suffering of the
stranger or, conversely, a betrayal of the self.
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.” 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.
In King Lear this state of affairs comes about, again paradoxically, as the result
of Lear’s lavish expenditure in favor of his daughters. The play envisions no
resolution to the paradox, presenting instead only a nervous dance of respect
and contempt, where even the elderly figures themselves waver in their opi-
nions of themselves. Liebler’s essay focuses attention on the play’s enigmatic
final scene, and on the question of bearing witness it imposes on the characters
who survive, and on the audience who must attend to what Iris Murdoch has
called “a death without a consolation.”
The final group of essays in this collection takes up the question of the moral
character of fictional characters. This requires a clear recognition of an impor-
tant equivocation in the usage of character, which refers both to a particular
kind of an object and a property of that same object.19 Fictional characters are
interesting because they often exhibit attributes or traits that appear as the
source—or maybe the explanation—of their actions. When eighteenth century
critics spoke of Shakespeare’s characters they were using the term in the sense
Is Shakespeare a Moral Philosopher? 9

defined by Joseph Butler as “. . . those principles from which men would act,
if occasions and circumstance gave them power; and which, when fixed and
habitual in any person, we call his character.”20 A person’s “character” is not
only of their psychological and social traits, but even more fundamentally their
moral personality. Butler’s formulation is presented in the subjunctive, leaving
open the possibility that agency may not in fact line up with character, but may
instead be highly situation dependent.
In Mustapha Fahmi’s essay “Quoting the Enemy: Character, Self-Interpreta-
tion, and the Question of Perspective in Shakespeare” two crucial arguments
are developed at the same time. The first is that a person’s character is best
understood against a background of personal narrative, a story that depends
crucially on how one is oriented to others and to some more or less articulate
idea of goods pursued. What a person does, then, is done primarily in the
framework of self-interpretation, acting in a way that allows for the preferred
idea of the self to be conserved. 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. The second point here, however, 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. The multiple perspectives
of dramatic action require an active engagement with the text, so that viewers
assume a self-reflexive agency of their own in responding to fictional events and
fictional deeds.
Fahmi’s essay privileges the notion of self-reflexivity, seeing agents primarily
as deliberating with themselves in their relations with the world. Tzachi Zamir,
in “The Fool, the Blind, and the Jew,” emphasizes theatricality in the genesis of
action. Persons don’t act in isolation, they perform in scenes with others.
Self-conscious theatricality is often related in Shakespearean drama to artificia-
lity, malicious deception, and the avoidance of mutual recognition. 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. The complexity of Shakespearean
dramatic character provides for an emancipation from “melancholia, idolatry,
entrapment in the views of others, and blindness to the existence of others.”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. Shylock performs the role of the Jew not to flatter
prejudice, but to compel his audience to acknowledge the complacency of their
own moral simplifications.
Characters act in conformity with their beliefs about themselves and also in
accordance with their beliefs about the beliefs of others about themselves. And
it frequently happens then that they can be induced to believe falsely. Andrew
Escobedo, in “‘Unlucky Deeds’ and the Shame of Othello” is concerned with
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. In the
case of Othello the character has clearly been deceived, but Escobedo argues
that it is also true that in an important sense he has “no choice” in killing
Desdemona. It’s really true here that “the devil made me do it.” Additionally,
everyone unwittingly conspires with Iago in creating plausible evidence to
support his insinuations. Even so, 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. And in the end Othello seeks no extenuation for his action even though
what he did was not freely or rationally chosen. Othello takes responsibility for
his deed because he sees that he is responsible for his character, for his irascibi-
lity, his infatuation with the role of the betrayed husband, and his failure to
trust the one person who really loved him.
An even more baffling situation is one in which false beliefs are generated
in the imagination of the false believer. In “Agency and Repentance in The
Winter’s Tale” Gregory Currie argues that Leontes’ jealousy, unlike Othello’s is
fundamentally incomprehensible both to other characters in the drama and to
readers or viewers of Shakespeare’s play. Like Othello, Leontes seems to have
no knowledge of who his wife is or what the two of them have been to each
other. In Leontes’ case the jealousy seems even more deranged since they have
lived together over a period of years. But if Leontes’ jealousy seems in some
sense a purely psychotic episode, the death of his child Mamilius is the brute
encounter with reality that abruptly snaps him out of it. But what is truly strange
in the play is Leontes’ repentance for the destruction he has caused. Currie is
willing to concede that something like grace is suggested in the ending. 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
If there is one philosopher whose thought seems to predominate throughout
these essays it is unquestionably the Aristotle of Nichomachean Ethics. No one,
however, has made the claim that Shakespeare is “an Aristotelian.” The connec-
tion is more fully elaborated in the final essay in this volume, Sara Coodin’s
“What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It: Shakespearean Character as Moral
Character.” Coodin rejects the idea that Shakespeare’s plays are a collection of
exemplary tales that dramatize an Aristotlean program of vices and virtues.
It would make roughly as good sense to claim that Aristotle is “a Shakesperean.”
Coodin does show that Shakespeare would very likely have been aware of a
tradition of “vernacular Aristotelianism” widely circulated in early modern
society. But Shakespearean philosophy is not a derivative phenomenon.
Shakespeare as a philosopher shares with Aristotle a “panoramic” view of ethics,
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.
There are a lot of smart, well-educated people who are interested in
Shakespeare. They go to performances and to movies and they even read books.
Is Shakespeare a Moral Philosopher? 11

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 conversa-
tions 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 unin-
formed. 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 possi-
bility 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.

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 Uni-
versity 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).
12 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.
Part I

The Agency of Agents

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Chapter 1

Moral Agency and Its Problems in

Julius Caesar: Political Power, Choice,
and History
Hugh Grady

It is difficult to think about drama without pre-supposing “agency” of some kind

or other. Drama is, fundamentally, about people doing things. In Kenneth
Burke’s celebrated Pentad, for example—modeled on an abstracted dramatic
structure—he makes “agents” a central category, along with action, instruments
(or “agency”), scene, and purpose or aim.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,
psychoanalysis, and New Criticism, with a unique emphasis on motivation.
His work is finding new readers in our own time, and he is certainly a potential
source for revived thinking about agency—although here I am using him only
to help introduce the topic. But while Burke’s approach and others like it had
little influence in the preceding period of poststructuralist influence in
Shakespeare studies, 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.
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 exem-
plify. 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,
it is time to investigate different critical possibilities. Certainly, it has been
several years now, since, in a reaction to some of the less cautious theoretical
claims of followers of the poststructuralist theory of Jacques Derrida, Michel
Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard and others, one-time post-
structuralist allies like Christopher Norris and Terry Eagleton sought to dis-
tance themselves from the radical uncertainties that were adopted by many
poststructuralist theorists.2 It has become a familiar argument in many fields of
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, its great weakness was
precisely a neglect of the category of the “agent.” In the early Derrida’s focus on
language as the subject of discourse, in Foucault’s vivid description of the
subjection of individuals in a disciplinary society, and in Althusser’s highly influ-
ential re-definitions of subjectivity and ideology to describe how individuals are
“interpellated” as subjects by ideology, there seemed to be no room for the
traditional categories of freedom, choice, or other aspects of agency that had
been the great strengths of such major figures of the philosophical tradition as,
for example, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Sartre.
These “anti-humanist” ideas impacted within Shakespeare studies most influ-
entially in such works as Catherine Belsey’s The Subject of Tragedy and Jonathan
Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy, two classic Marxist- and structuralist- influenced
works of the 1980s. While both of these works were provocative interventions in
critical writing that offered fresh new perspectives and bracing political agen-
das to the field, they each treated dramatic characters as “subjects” in the
Foucauldian rather than the Kantian sense—that is, “subjects” seen primarily as
the outcomes of fields of power, language, discourse, and ideology.3 They
seemed to be the products of deterministic processes rather than agents who
defined themselves through their action. They were to be understood solely in
their relation to ideology, and whatever agency they were able to establish was
thanks only to the existence of what Alan Sinfield subsequently called “fault-
lines”—fissures in the ideological walls, as it were, brought about because of
epistemic shifts in process.4 This offered precious little space for agency. And in
addition, 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. Shakespeare’s treatment of agency was seen as an instance of an
ideology beginning to emerge, but incompletely represented in his works:
“liberal humanism,” defined by “interiority” seen as “author and origin of mean-
ing and choice,”5 soon to culminate in Enlightenment notions of a rational
subject who makes rational choices based on self-interest.
However, I believe, we will find few unequivocal examples among
Shakespeare’s characters of this type of agency. Typically, agency for major
Shakespearean characters is “mixed” or mediated. The characters’ will and
even sense of self turn out on examination to come from elsewhere, not from
within a transparent self. Agency in Shakespeare is always complicated, seldom
an instance of an actualization of “inner meaning” of the sort posited by Belsey
(as she herself recognized, in situating Shakespeare somewhere between
a decentered medieval episteme and a yet-to-fully-emerge liberal humanism).
After twenty years of experience, this approach has revealed its limitations;
many critics have concluded that it is time to look in other directions.
While for some this development has been seen as a return to traditional
formalist and positivist critical methodology, for others it has meant an
Moral Agency in Julius Caesar 17

opportunity to take the theoretical work of the previous generation ahead in

new directions, building on it rather than discarding it.6 For example, the work
of the late Derrida itself reflects this changing emphasis in what has been
described as his “ethical” turn, in dialogue with French philosopher Emmanuel
Levinas. Derrida undertook a “return” to a series of concepts that, despite their
sharing in the incompleteness of meaning of all language, and despite their
otherness from the real, were crucial to discussion, precisely for ethical
reasons. Derrida himself described this as a “return” to “religion”—encompass-
ing as well a return to such previously deconstructed key words as “presence”,
“spirituality”, and “aesthetics”—and, implicitly, agency.7 The negative, critical
phase of his early work in effect moved to a positive moment without repudia-
ting the earlier phase.
But it is a “return” that has retained something from the recent post-
structuralist past—its skepticism towards a direct connection between our
concepts and the phenomena they attempt to represent, its vigilance for the
effects of power on the ways we represent the world, its rejection of assumptions
of an available single interpretation of a work and of a single interpretation of
the documents of the past. Our task then would entail a new look at what the
methods before poststructuralism gave us that got lost in the newer ones with-
out surrendering the intellectual and political gains of the recent era of literary
criticism. The related terms “agency” and “subjectivity” strike me as obvious
candidates for such re-thinking, and indeed I have written on this issue under
the heading “subjectivity” several times before.8 Here I want to look closely at
the relationship between subjectivity and power in the fictional space of
Shakespeare’s Rome. Specifically I will analyze his 1599 Julius Caesar in the
light of the critical framework that I developed in Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and
Montaigne, one that combines attention to Machiavelli’s power politics along
with moments of Montaigne’s subjectivity. 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. The play demonstrates moral
agency, 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, the influence of interior psychological structures, and the possibility of
Providential intervention.
Shakespeare’s 1599 Julius Caesar was classified as a tragedy rather than
a history by the First Folio editors, but it is one of Shakespeare’s most explicit
investigations of the idea of historical change and the role of individuals within
it. This is the context, in my view, in which a discussion of moral agency in
Shakespeare’s works is most interesting. Moral choice in Shakespeare is always
situated and contextual, and it always takes place in a world which, as Agnes
Heller has argued, is always “out of joint,” not just in Hamlet, but throughout
the histories, tragedies, and many of the comedies. Such a world is the outcome
of a severance between the subject and a sense of meaning, a permanent
18 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

perception that things are not as they should be.9 It is a perception that can be
seen in Hegelian terms as the alienation of the subject from the objective world,
in Marxist terms as arising from a society dominated by the abstract values of
fetishized commodities and/or reified power, or even in Christian terms as the
world after the Fall. As we read Julius Caesar in the twenty-first century, all of
these interpretive frameworks are relevant, but I concentrate here on the theme
of reified power in the play, with a glance at Christian resonances where
Julius Caesar is a play that dates from the period 1595–1600, a brief but impor-
tant era in Shakespeare’s prolific career I elsewhere called his “Machiavellian
moment.”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,
Titus Andronicus. In this period he revisits those earlier genres in an almost
mirror-like fashion, producing a second historical tetralogy and another
Roman play. But the approach to history in 1595–1600 displays a new kind of
thinking. In these mid-career plays the earlier villainous Machiavels, like Titus
Andronicus’s Aaron or Richard III, are replaced by characters of much “grayer”
moral qualities. Aaron and Richard are immensely entertaining and psycholog-
ically interesting, but they are self-declared evil-doers.11 In the newer plays the
political intriguers are much more morally ambiguous. Bolingbroke of Richard
II and Cassius of Julius Caesar are masterful intriguers, but Shakespeare closes
off their interiority to us, so that while they are highly successful in achieving
their political aims, they are silent on how they see themselves morally, and they
lack emotional appeal, striking most audiences as cold at best. And there is an
entirely new kind of character in these later plays—impolitic but soulful heroes,
unsuccessful in the Machiavellian world they inhabit, but who revel in display-
ing their interiority and make a strong appeal to the audience’s allegiance in
their defeats—Richard II, Falstaff, and, most relevant here, Brutus.
As numerous critics have pointed out, 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, Othello, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and perhaps
even Coriolanus. All of these are politically unsuccessful heroes with complex
interior lives who have strong audience and readerly appeal. And all of them
are the agents of moral decisions which they make in historical circumstances
not of their own choosing.
Brutus—with his admirably Stoic sense of ethics, his self-control, his moral
scruples and practice of introspection as well as his political ineptitude—clearly
belongs in this group. 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. As in these other cases, the technique of the soliloquy
allows us access to Brutus’s interior life, and we listen empathetically as he
concludes that he must sacrifice his personal friendship with Caesar to the
needs of the greater good.12 And a bit later, also in soliloquy, he gives us
Moral Agency in Julius Caesar 19

one of Shakespeare’s most striking images of a mind wrestling with a moral


Brutus: Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in a council, and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection. (2.1.63–69)

The metaphoric reference to political division is Brutus’s recognition that

the times are out of joint, that a split between the ideal and the actual has wid-
ened, that action will be demanded of the just man if he is to honor his civic
responsibility. At the same time, the analogy has a more disturbing implication.
It glances at the Age’s (now waning) pre-modern vision of an integrated, uni-
fied cosmos in which humanity is intimately linked with the larger structures of
state and the natural world. 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. 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, 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, “This was a man.” (5.5.72–74)

For all that is admirable about Brutus and his Stoic self-possession, how-
ever, he never seems to realize that he is being skillfully manipulated by
Cassius; he carries out an action whose purposes are far less idealistic than his
own. If we are to speak of “moral agency,” as the title of this anthology sug-
gests, the issue of unintended consequences, as well as that of conscious
intentionality, has to be taken into account. What we really accomplish in our
interventions in the world is certainly as relevant to assessing the morality of
our actions as our intentions. And as the case of Brutus suggests, conscious
decision-making is at best a delimited part of a larger array of social and psy-
chological forces at work in shaping our actions in the world. Not only is this
the case for Brutus, but it is an important issue in many Shakespeare plays,
notably Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear—all featuring heroes whose good inten-
tions turn out to be highly problematic. Lear thinks he is avoiding future
strife in dividing his kingdom, while Othello thinks he is justly punishing a
miscreant wife. Hamlet, on the other hand, finds himself unable to carry out
what he claims are his intentions. To the extent that Brutus is a tragic hero,
he is, like these others, a figure of good intentions gone tragically wrong.
20 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Granting, then, that the play puts under scrutiny the sufficiency of good
intentions alone in a gray world of complex political forces, 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.
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them. (5.5.68–71)

As both Antony and Octavius agree, distinctions need to be made, motivations

and intentions must be taken into account as we judge others’ (and our own)
Shakespeare here seems to be leading the audience to make the kinds of
distinctions we make in Richard II and in Othello. Some characters are beautiful
in what they are rather than what they do; indeed, their very interior beauty
leads them to make errors that lead to tragic outcomes. Richard II, as has so
often been noted, is the poet-king beautiful in his speech and in his soul,
disastrous in his political judgments. Othello’s noble friendship and trust are
the very qualities which allow the envious Iago to bring about his downfall.
And Iago notoriously tells us of his seemingly innocent victim Michael
Cassio, “He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly” (Othello,
In Julius Caesar, Cassius takes on something of the role of Iago in the later
play. He, too, is a man driven to violence through his envy, and he makes no
secret of his envy of Caesar even in trying to appeal to Brutus’s republican ideal-
ism.13 Rather than speak of the evils of monarchy or the danger to republican
liberty in Caesar’s ascent to power, Cassius emphasizes Caesar’s mere humanity,
his equality with the other aristocrats like himself and Brutus, 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.
I was born free as Caesar. So were you.
We both have fed as well, and we can both
Endure the winter’s cold as well as he.(1.2.96–101)

Although Cassius tells Brutus that “honor is the subject of my story” (1.2.94),
envy is its clear driving motor. In the climax of his exhortation to Brutus, envy
of greatness is made the central republican virtue:

Cassius: Now in the names of all the gods at once,

Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed
Moral Agency in Julius Caesar 21

That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!

Rome, thou has lost the breed of noble bloods. (1.2.149–52)

There is even, in the quarrel scene between Brutus and Cassius (4.3), some-
thing of Iago’s homoerotic attraction to the object of his deceiving rhetoric.
And of course, like Iago, Cassius ruthlessly exploits the weaknesses of his object
of persuasion. In this play, Cassius uses Brutus’ pride in his ancestry, his desire
for love and approval, by forging letters of support from the populace urging
Brutus to act against Caesar.
But what makes this play distinctly different from Othello is its moral economy,
and what makes Cassius so different in his emotional impact on the audience
from Iago, is the general Machiavellian tenor of the world in which Cassius
operates. 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, in Julius Caesar the enemies are themselves skillful
Machiavellian politicians with the same willingness to use power, deception,
and violence as their foes to achieve their ends.
Mark Antony is the most flagrant example of this, and Cassius is clearly pre-
scient in sensing a political opponent whose skill is not unlike his own. He of
course urges a double assassination, adding Antony to the list of the conspira-
tors’ targets:

We shall find of him

A shrewd contriver, and you know his means.
If he improve them, may well stretch so far
As to annoy us all—which to prevent,
Let Antony and Caesar fall together. (2.1.157–61).

In this, as events demonstrate, Cassius is absolutely right, and Brutus’s prevail-

ing counter-arguments that such a course would appear too bloody and that
Antony is helpless without Caesar are politically foolish and naïve in the
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 4.1, which opens
with Antony’s declaration, “These many, then, shall die. Their names are
pricked.” (4.1.1). This is an early modern instance of Foucauldian power at work,
as impersonal negotiation and record-keeping with fatal consequences are point-
edly enacted for us. “Look, with a spot I damn him,” Antony says of his nephew
Publius, traded in exchange for the death of Lepidus’ brother (4.1.2–6). 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.
Caesar himself is never presented directly in such a light in this play, but we
know of his great skill in the institutionalized violence of war and conquest, and
22 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

we know that at least some devotees of republican ideals, the tribunes Flavius
and Murellus, see something very dubious in his civil war victory against
Pompey. The news of their silencing, given as a casual detail in Casca’s account
of Caesar at the festival of Lupercal (1.2.286–88), is a clear sign of dangers to
the republican constitution of Rome.
The figure of Julius Caesar in this play is a puzzling one. Many critics have
thought that the play is mis-named, that Caesar is nothing like a traditional
tragic hero, and they note that his role is, in fact, a relatively secondary one. 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, the political structure out of which his image has emerged.
He represents the larger organization of power that has developed independ-
ently of any individual’s will out of the political crisis of the Roman republic.
As a conventional Shakespearean character, he is a disappointment, almost a
caricature. We learn nothing of his interior life, his motivation, his sense of self,
as we do of Brutus. Nor do we see him displaying character traits through his
actions and words, as is the case for Cassius, Antony, and even the impersonal
Octavius. Instead, we learn of his physical weaknesses, represented to us point-
edly 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. And we see
nothing to contest Cassius’ account of the man’s flesh and blood weakness.
What is noticeable about Julius Caesar is one overwhelming trait. He is hyper-
conscious of his appearance as a political actor, and everything that he says and
does in the play is in service to his image of unshakeable self-confidence and

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. 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, sweet words,
Low-crooked curtsies, and base spaniel fawning. (3.1.36–43)

He speaks of himself in the third person habitually, and he emphasizes how any
decision that he makes might impact on his political image. The conspirators
were well aware of this quality, as was shown in how easily they persuaded him
to put aside Calpurnia’s forebodings and come to the Capitol. Caesar is merely
amplifying in his words the observation about him made by the conspirator
Decius Brutus the night before:

Decius: . . . he loves to hear

That unicorns may be betrayed with trees,
Moral Agency in Julius Caesar 23

And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,

Lions with toils, and men with flatterers.
But when I tell him he hates flatterers,
He says he does, being then most flatterèd. (2.1.203–08)

Caesar is a cardboard figure in the play, 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.14 And as
Antony shows us in his famous oration that turns the political tide against the
conspirators, rhetorical skill operates independently of any absolute concep-
tions of right and wrong.
In short, like Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, King John and The Merchant of
Venice—all plays written in the period 1595–1600—the play has a double focus,
and critics have never been able to agree on how to resolve it into any single
moral vision. We understand how Caesar reached the point he has reached, we
see why aristocrats fear him as a threat to their interests and Rome’s republican
liberties, and we see how Caesar’s followers become impassioned revengers and
empowered political actors in response to the assassination. And we see as well
the weaknesses, the foibles, and the moral misdeeds of all of these actors. The
play never takes sides in the conflict, but it does represent the events in a way
that allows us to understand the political dynamics involved.
Rather, in this play politics and history in themselves are crucially important
issues, and self-consciousness about them is displayed by virtually all the charac-
ters. Consider, for example, the famous claims of Brutus’s declaration:

Brutus: There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures. (4.3.218–24)

Here is articulated the play’s central insight about the interaction of larger
events and contingent choice. Historical events have their own logic, indepen-
dent of our wills. But if such currents are understood and taken advantage of,
they can be incorporated into political action and success. 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, The Prince:

Fortune is the arbiter of half of our actions, but that she still leaves the other half
of them, more or less, to be governed by us. And I compare her to one of these
destructive rivers that, when they are raging, flood the plains, destroy trees and
24 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

buildings, take up earth from this side and place it on the other; everyone flies
before them, everyone yields to their onslaught without being able to oppose
them in any way. And although this is how they are, it does not follow, therefore,
that men, when times are quiet, cannot make provision against them with dikes
and embankments, so that, when they rise again, either they would go into a
canal, or their impetus would not be so wild or so destructive.15

But Brutus’s sonorous observation is delivered in a context of great irony, 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. It is welcome
news, indeed, for the party of Caesar:

Octavius: Now, Antony, our hopes are answerèd.

You said the enemy would not come down,
But keep the hills and upper regions.
It proves not so. Their battles are at hand.
They mean to warn us at Philippi here,
Answering before we do demand of them. (5.1.1–6)

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. Here as elsewhere,
Shakespeare’s skepticism greatly colors his understanding of the limits of inten-
tion in moral choice and political activity.16 Brutus is wrong in his judgment
here, just as he and Cassius will prove wrong in their interpretation of the out-
come of the final battle, when each in turn makes an incorrect interpretation
of what they see and prematurely accepts defeat and suicide, when, in fact, the
battle is still to be decided. Knowledge is imperfect, judgment is open to errors,
and intentions always encounter the resistance of an opaque world of uncon-
trollable contingencies. And in Julius Caesar, these themes play out in the char-
acter of Brutus, the “noblest Roman of them all,” if we are to believe his
arch-enemy Mark Antony at the plays’ conclusion. But Brutus is a character
whose noble intentions are continuously misdirected through the unintended
consequences of his moral choices.
Thus, in its bracketing of issues of moral right and wrong and in its
concentration on the analysis of actual, non-ideal political behavior, 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
It is the play’s larger implied framework of Machiavellian analysis that gives
such power to its riveting climax, the assassination scene, and subjects Brutus’s
admirable qualities to searching inquiry. We watch as the killing unfolds within
Moral Agency in Julius Caesar 25

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

Romantic phase of Shakespearean criticism from Johann von Goethe to

Sigmund Freud. But an additional phase of Shakespeare studies has taught us
that in Julius Caesar, as elsewhere in the tragedies and histories, the main
characters are, as it were, doubly inscribed. They occupy slots within the system
of contestatory politics in the fictional Rome of the play, even while they present
themselves with psychological traits which explain their motives. It was one of
Shakespeare’s most characteristic strokes of genius to recognize, as I argued
above, how much dramatic interest could be created by emphasizing a tension
between these two character-functions. Hamlet—the avenging Prince who
seems unable to be what he thinks he should become and can’t understand
why—is the consummate example, but we see this strategy as well in figures like
Shylock, Falstaff, Iago, Macbeth, and Antony, and the romantic heroines
Rosalind and Viola. At one level, Brutus belongs in this group, 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. But looked at another way, we
could say that in Julius Caesar Shakespeare’s strategy seems to be simultaneously
one of convergence, one in which the psychologies of the characters matches
adequately and without much “surplus” the roles the plot requires them to play,
and this may have something to do with why so many critics see this play as
skilled and well crafted, but not one of the greatest works. In this play the char-
acters do what they were born (dramatically speaking) to do—Caesar to be
hubristically imperious, Antony to be passionate and action-oriented, Cassius to
be manipulative, envious, but also patrician and loyal to his friends, and Brutus
to be noble, unsuspecting, and politically inept.
Thus, 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.
If the characters’ personalities are congruent with the actions they perform, 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 gen-
erations often claimed for them. In Shakespeare, it was often said, character is
fate, and something of that compatibility between psychology and historical
choice seems to be implied here.
Interestingly, Julius Caesar seems to raise the issue of fatality in the promi-
nence it gives to the many portents which precede the day of the assassination.
We might construe the unread warning letter written by Artemidorus,
Calpurnia’s dream and the famous warning of the sooth-sayer to “Beware the
ides of March,” as rational, Machiavellian predictions based on either a pruden-
tial 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. We are told of “a tempest dropping fire” (1.3.10), a slave’s
hand on fire “like twenty torches” but unharmed (1.3.16–18), a lion outside the
Capitol indifferent to surrounding humans, a group of women “transformed
with fear, who swore they saw/Men all in fire walk up and down the streets”
Moral Agency in Julius Caesar 27

(1.3.23–25), and whizzing meteors or comets so numerous Brutus is able to

read by them (2.1.44–45). These are the portents referred to by Polonius in
Hamlet, and we recognize a similar list in Macbeth.
To be sure, these natural signs are soon inscribed into the political contest of
interpretations that is central to all the play’s debate. 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” (1.3.34–35). And we soon see the
conspirators make a convincing counter-argument about their meaning to
Caesar to entice him to travel to the Capitol.
For all the uncertainty of their ultimate meaning, however, the signs testify
to a medieval and early modern assumption, in turn inherited from the ancient
world, that there is a direct link between the events of the human world
and the natural world around it.18 There were, of course, 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. As a dramatist
Shakespeare was drawn to the idea of this connection and uses it repeatedly to
telling poetic effect. In this play there seems to be as well a philosophical impli-
cation—there is some foreknowledge of a political catastrophe about to unfold
in Rome, regardless of which way the opposing sides interpret it, and such fore-
knowledge implies fatality at work. 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. While the events of the
play are at one level nothing more than an empty if deadly political game, at
another level they form part of a sequence of crucial events in salvation his-
tory—the prelude to universal peace. Here as elsewhere in the play, we cannot
really choose between these interpretive possibilities. We can only consider them
and hold them together as different and conflicting interpretive frames in a
complex allegory.19 What I argue, then, is that while we cannot do without
a category of moral agency when we read Shakespeare, we cannot rely on it too
much either. As this discussion of Julius Caesar suggests, both agency and moral-
ity are ambiguous, uncertain issues in this and other plays, and none of the char-
acters is in charge of their destiny here or in any other Shakespearean tragedy.

Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (1945; repr. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1969), xv–xxiii, pp. 3–20.
Christopher Norris, The Truth about Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993); espe-
cially pp. 60–64; Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2003).
Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama
(London: Methuen, 1985); and Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion,
Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (1984; 3rd ed.,
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).
28 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy, p. 35.
From the large number of recent critical works attempting this development of
critical theory, see particularly the essays in Ewan Fernie, ed., Spiritual Shakespeares
(London: Routledge, 2005); John Joughin and Simon Malpas, eds., The New
Aestheticism (Manchester University Press, 2003); Andrew Mousley, Re-Humanising
Shakespeare: Literary Humanism, Wisdom, and Modernity (Edinburgh University
Press, 2007); and Peter Holbrook, Shakespeare’s Individualism (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).
Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (London: Routledge, 2002);
Herman Rapaport, Later Derrida: Reading the Recent Work (New York: Routledge,
For example, Hugh Grady, “On the Need for a Differentiated Theory of
Subjectivity,” in John J. Joughin, ed., Philosophical Shakespeares (London:
Routledge, 2000), pp. 34–50; Hugh Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne:
Power and Subjectivity from ‘Richard II’ to ‘Hamlet’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2002), pp. 22–25, 103–25.
Agnes Heller, The Time Is Out of Joint: Shakespeare as Philosopher of History (Lanham,
MD: Little, Brown, 2002), pp. 1–11; Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic
Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: New Left Books, 1977).
Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne, pp. 26–57.
Cf. Tzachi Zamir, Double Vision (Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 65–92. And
see also his comments on the complex relation to the audience of these villains
in his article for this collection, “The Fool, the Blind, and the Jew.”
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, ed. Andrew David Hadfield (New York: Barnes
and Noble, 2007), 2.1.10–15. Subsequent references to this play are from this
edition and are given in the text as act, scene, and line numbers.
René Girard, “Collective Violence and Sacrifice in Julius Caesar,” Salmagundi, 88
(1991), pp. 399–419; Wayne Rebhorn, “The Crisis of the Aristocracy in Julius Cae-
sar,” Renaissance Quarterly, 43 (1990), pp. 75–111.
Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne, pp. 180–242.
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, in his The Prince and Other Writings, trans. Wayne
Rebhorn (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003), 105.
Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne, 109–25.
Max Lerner, ed. “Introduction” Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince and The Discourses
(New York: Modern Library, 1950), p. xxvi.
The best known discussion of this linkage, as most Shakespeare scholars will
recognize, is E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (London: Chatto and
Windus, 1943); Gabriel Egan, Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism
(London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 25–28.
Hugh Grady, “Hamlet as Mourning-Play: A Benjaminesque Interpretation,”
Shakespeare Studies, 36 (2008): pp. 135–65.
Chapter 2

A Shakespearean Phenomenology of
Moral Conviction
James A. Knapp

On January 13, 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, the cover naturally
caught my eye. I was especially interested in the suggestion that “evolutionary
psychology and neurobiology are changing our understanding of what
morality is.” In the article, entitled “The Moral Instinct,” Harvard psychologist
Steven Pinker extols the promise of new research in cognitive psychology and
neuroscience to settle long debates over moral universalism and cultural rela-
tivism. Recent advances in psychological and cognitive research into the genetic
proclivity for moral judgment provide the ostensible context for Pinker’s
discussion. 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.”2 Rather
than take a side on the age-old question of whether morality is universal (innate,
natural, and so on) or local (culturally learned and thus malleable), the scien-
tific approach yields a theory of human morality in which broad categories of
universal morality allow for adaptation to particular cultural and historical
Pinker draws on psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s argument that hard-wired
moral impulses fall roughly into the categories of harm, fairness, community,
authority, and purity.3 Haidt accounts for cultural variability in moral judgment
by looking at which category is invoked or prioritized in a given cultural setting.
In other words, though the moral categories invoked to judge a particular
action are different in different cultural settings, 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, while it is immoral for the outside observer
moved by an appeal to protect from harm. The use of categories is helpful in
30 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

explaining how both judgments can be justified on moral grounds—the moral

sense, in this account, is the impulse that governs actions when they involve one
of the identified universal moral categories. 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, such precepts are
difficult to define outside of the particular situations in which they are invoked.
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. Nevertheless, Haidt suggests that contradictions about morality
“are dissolving,” including that “people are selfish, yet morally motivated” and
that “morality is universal, yet culturally variable.”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. 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, Socrates,
whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching
nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?”5
The same question seems to guide Shakespeare’s meditation on moral agency,
as we watch such evil characters as Don John, Iago, 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. Of course,
Shakespeare’s characters also display moral growth, as they seem to learn (often
too late) moral truths that could have enabled them to avert tragedy. For centu-
ries, critical commentary on Shakespeare and morality has been fueled by such
seeming contradictions in the playwright’s representation of morally relevant
human actions. 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.
If Shakespeare often represents moral situations and his plays somehow
embody universal human values, it would follow that the attentive critic could
identify the moral precepts contained therein. But the treatment of moral sit-
uations in Shakespeare does not necessarily imply an interest in moral pre-
scription. 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. While the question on the cover of
The New York Times Magazine, for example, sets up the suggestion that science
is close to unlocking the enduring human puzzle of moral judgment, 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.
Before any answer can be given, the question assumes both a static cause for
Phenomenology of Moral Conviction 31

moral behavior and a universal moral disposition. A more appropriate ques-

tion 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. There is less at stake in deeming an action good than in condemn-
ing it as morally wrong, but there is also more to gain from cultivating a pref-
erence for virtue over iniquity. It is not surprising that like the moral
philosophers, theologians, and psychologists who came before them, Pinker,
Haidt, 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. There is nothing inherently inappropriate about
asking either question; both are central to the concepts of morality and moral
agency. But in most discussions the initial questions are shorthand for Meno’s
question to Socrates, 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, 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: “. . . the virtues are
implanted in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature: we are by nature
equipped with the ability to receive them, and habit brings this ability to com-
pletion and fulfillment.”6 The history of moral philosophy in the West is
largely a (sometimes surprising) continuation of the conversation initiated by
Plato and Aristotle.

Enter Shakespeare

In the following pages, I will suggest that the debate summed up in Meno’s
question is essentially tangential to Shakespeare’s representation of moral
agency. 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,
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.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. We learn from
Shakespeare that tyranny (The Winter’s Tale), overwrought ambition (Macbeth,
Coriolanus), inaction (Hamlet), and so on are wrong, and that mercifulness
(The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure), forgiveness (The Tempest), loyalty
to authority (King Lear, 1 Henry IV), and so on are right. 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. In addition, these principles
32 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

would seem to fit relatively well into the moral categories identified by Haidt:
harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity.
At the same time though, such readings invariably move away from the
particularity of the plays in order to highlight the clarity of moral condemna-
tion or praise. Of course for those of us who study Shakespeare, 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. Certainly a
case can be made that Measure for Measure champions mercy over retribution;
but the playwright’s reflection on ethical problems in the play far exceeds any
didactic moral concerning the value of mercifulness. 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. Spock would say,
“the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one”). 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. As a result, 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, 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.

Literature constitutes a (limited) middle way . . . by allowing readers to follow the

details of the process in others. Do we thereby “learn” the value of parental love?
This could seem too crude, no doubt because learning is associated with manag-
ing some skill, digesting some piece of knowledge, or grasping some pedantic
message, rather than being an experience in which values and voices [are]
interlaced with responses that are not limited to analysis.8

Such a reading redirects critical attention to our experience with Shakespeare’s

moral agents, while downplaying the notion that we can clearly identify the
moral lessons that experience might yield. Nevertheless the focus of this kind
of moral criticism still concentrates on our ability to make reasoned judgments
about Shakespeare’s moral agents. Though Zamir takes great care to honor the
fictive experiences of Shakespeare’s moral agents as analogs for our own
experiences, 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. The focus of this approach, in other words, is on
Shakespeare’s dramatization of moral reasoning as well as the purported invita-
tion that his plays offer his audiences to partake in the same. We watch as
Phenomenology of Moral Conviction 33

Othello or Leontes use reason to make decisions that will have moral
consequences, and as their reason falters ours is exercised and strengthened.
The approach produces original and important insight into the plays, and
(from the perspective of moral philosophy) a strong argument for the power of
the literary text to contribute to philosophical discussions of morality. The
approach suggests that there is a human universal truth at stake in Shakespeare’s
staging of moral situations, and that it is our capacity—however flawed and
malleable—for moral reasoning.
It is not surprising that moral reasoning has been the focus of moral philoso-
phy and moral psychology for so long. Only in reflecting on moral situations
with the aid of reasoned argument can the more complex moral questions be
considered. With that in mind, it is worth returning to what Haidt describes as
the “the new synthesis in moral psychology,” 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, or we hear a story about
a person slapping her father, most of us have an automatic intuitive reaction that
includes a flash of negative affect. We often engage in conscious verbal reasoning
too, but this controlled process can occur only after the first automatic process
has run, and it is often influenced by the initial moral intuition. Moral reasoning,
when it occurs, is usually a post-hoc process in which we search for evidence to
support our initial intuitive reaction.9

The point is not that moral reasoning has no place in our actual experience
with moral situations, 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 value-
laden emotional response. Haidt is clear that we have the ability to override the
initial intuition, and that one way to do so is to use moral reasoning to consider
the situation. Literary characters are notorious for their moral reasoning prior
to action, and Shakespeare’s characters would seem to be no exceptions, 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. 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 estab-
lished moral principles and in tension with the calm domain of moral reason-
ing. 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, but that
his drama gains power from his engagement with the phenomenal experience
of moral conviction, independent of rational deliberation. 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, a process that
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.

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. As Zamir demonstrates,
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. But beyond this, 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, but that it is morally imperative.
The power of this conviction has led critics to look for the cultural underpin-
nings of such judgments and view the tragic heroes as victims of ideology or of
cultural mechanisms of social control. Leontes’ tragic judgment , for example,
is a result of the misogyny of the early modern culture in which his paranoia has
been cultivated. This returns me to what I see as a curious moment in Pinker’s
explication of the scientific theory of categorical moral universals. He turns to
an important thought experiment from neuroethics, known as the Trolley

You see a trolley car hurtling down the track, the conductor slumped over the
controls. In the path of the trolley are five men working on the track, oblivious to
the danger. You are standing at a fork in the track and can pull a lever that will
divert the trolley onto a spur, saving the five men. Unfortunately, the trolley would
then run over a single worker who is laboring on the spur. Is it permissible to
throw the switch, killing one man to save five?10

It turns out that almost everyone says yes, because the action benefits the greater
number of people. A variation, 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. Now the only way to stop the trolley is to throw
a heavy object in its path. And the only heavy object within reach is a fat man
standing next to you. Should you throw the man off the bridge?11

Here, most people would not push the man. The respondents cannot articulate
why they would not and the psychologists have speculated, without consensus,
Phenomenology of Moral Conviction 35

about what the relevant difference might be. Pinker sides with those who
suggest that it is the active role in killing the man that makes the difference.
In other words, the thought experiment allows us to glimpse a universal cate-
gory of moral instinct (don’t kill people with your bare hands). For the present
discussion, however, 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). He is not simply a man, but a “fat man.” Unlike the abstract man
who will die in the first example—an example that welcomes the kind of calcu-
lus that allows action to favor the benefit of the many over the one—the second
example is more particular than abstract. By now, I hope you will also see the
connection to one of my examples above: Hal’s sacrifice of Falstaff for the good
of England. In one way, Hal’s rejection of Falstaff is a straightforward example
of placing the commonwealth above individual interests. But this particular
fat man is much more compelling than that moral lesson could ever be. Put in
slightly different terms, 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. Is Shakespeare
creating a delightful vehicle through which to deliver a message about virtue?
After all, Hal does reject Falstaff, and harshly so.12 In a sense the answer is “Yes”:
in representing the gestation of England’s hero king, Shakespeare is dramatiz-
ing the virtues with which Henry was associated. At the same time, though,
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, we, like Queen Elizabeth, yearn for more of the jovial knight. The
power of the scene is heightened by the spectacle of Henry’s moral conviction,
underscored by his pronouncement: “Presume not that I am the thing I was”
This brings me to my central thesis: Shakespeare particularizes images
and thus creates ethical situations that cannot be distilled into moral precepts.
To make the point clear, 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, apart from the accidents of
a particular situation. For example, “murder is wrong,” is a moral precept; it is
true regardless of the particulars, and for this reason those who invoke it do so
with alarming confidence (even when they look the other way when the circum-
stances arise—for example, in wartime). On the other hand, ethics applies to
particular human situations in which moral judgments might be invoked: for
example, in situations where it makes sense to evaluate human action in terms
of right and wrong. Ethics cannot be thought outside an actual particularized
situation, making its variability infinite, whereas morality can produce stable
precepts that are often useless or unmanageable in actual situations. The heart
of my argument about Shakespeare’s engagement with ethics and morality is
36 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

that his plays demonstrate a keen understanding of the tension between ethics
and morals (so defined). 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.
Hal’s confrontation of this tension is made manifest in two highly charged
images Shakespeare provides prior to the ultimate rejection of Falstaff. First at
the height of the role playing in 1 Henry IV, we are presented with the image of
the Prince as King forced to do what his place demands, that which he does,
and will do (2.4.457). And again in part two when Hal recognizes the signifi-
cance of the impending succession, Shakespeare provides a vivid image:

Prince Harry: My gracious lord! my father!

This sleep is sound indeed, this is a sleep
That from this golden rigol hath divorced
So many English kings. Thy due from me
Is tears and heavy sorrows of the blood,
Which nature, love, and filial tenderness,
Shall, O dear father, pay thee plenteously:
My due from thee is this imperial crown,
Which, as immediate as thy place and blood,
Derives itself to me. [puts on the crown] Lo, here it sits,
Which God shall guard: and put the world’s whole strength
Into one giant arm, it shall not force
This lineal honour from me: this from thee
Will I to mine leave, as ’tis left to me. (4.5.33–46)

Hal is faced with the dual image of his dead father and his future majesty,
frozen for a moment when neither reality has come to pass. Like his earlier will-
ingness to banish Falstaff (while at play), the scene encapsulates the way lived
experience impacts the development of moral conviction in Shakespeare’s
characters. Here, the outcome is positive (for Hal), but the power of the scene
is not dependent on the moral outcome.
Focusing on the phenomenology of the encounter with an ethical demand,
rather than the process of moral reasoning helps explain the power of
Shakespeare’s representation of moral agency. Shakespeare foregrounds his
characters’ experience with images that congeal around ethical situations, pro-
viding visualized thought emblems through which characters and audience
alike may contemplate the moment of the ethical decision. For it is the moment
of decision that constitutes moral agents in Shakespeare. We as readers and
viewers make judgments after the fact, as do other characters in the plays, but
Shakespeare engages directly with the problematic heart of ethical action.
In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare dramatically extends the moment in which
Leontes decides to accuse his wife of adultery with his best friend. As he contorts
Phenomenology of Moral Conviction 37

reason to justify his suspicion and rationalize his impending action as a matter
of his duty to moral law, he conjures the image of himself as a cuckold:

Leontes: Thou want’st a rough pash and the shoots that I have,
To be full like me: yet they say we are
Almost as like as eggs; women say so,
That will say anything but were they false
As o’er-dyed blacks, as wind, as waters, false
As dice are to be wish’d by one that fixes
No bourn ’twixt his and mine, yet were it true
To say this boy were like me. Come, sir page,
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,
Communicat’st with dreams;—how can this be?—
With what’s unreal thou coactive art,
And fellow’st nothing: then ’tis very credent
Thou mayst co-join with something; and thou dost,
And that beyond commission, and I find it,
And that to the infection of my brains
And hardening of my brows. (1.2.128–46).

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.13 The consequences are significant. In making his decision to accuse
Hermione he is acting as a moral agent (albeit a negative one), and the imme-
diate result is the apparent death of another human being. Considering his
moral failure, we can judge Leontes with impunity, imagining his descent into
delusion as the consequences of a madness that could never touch us. 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). 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. Despite periodic objections to the play’s moral value, the moral
precept—don’t proposition nuns for sex—is unscathed by the play’s action.
There are quite a few more interesting moments for ethics in Measure for
Measure. One comes when the Duke offers Isabel a way out of the jam that
Angelo has created for her. As he describes the proposed bed-trick with
Marianna, Isabel warms to the prospect, eventually exclaiming: “The image of
38 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

it gives me content already” (3.1.260). The Duke has presented her with a
choice that is much more situational than that provided by Angelo. Isabel,
a strong believer in the moral precept, 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
situation Isabel faces goes something like this: Would you acquiesce to a raft of
morally suspect behaviors (lying to Angelo; brokering a sex act; aiding sex out-
side of marriage, 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, 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). But, 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; rather it is the
image of Mariana restored that confirms her moral conviction. For how else
could the image of the Duke’s plan make Isabel “content.” Surely she is not
taking pleasure in the image of the foul Angelo having his way with the wronged
Mariana in the dark. What makes the scene interesting for ethics, then, is the
particularization of the various factors involved at the moment of decision.
Isabel is a moral agent here, not because she acts in the right way, but because
she is engaged with the ethical in all its phenomenal complexity. Measure for
Measure will take several more turns after this point, 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.
Othello provides us with perhaps the most harrowing example of the gestation
of moral conviction gone wrong. Othello’s wonderful catechism on moral
reasoning early in the play provides a grim prologue to the play’s representa-
tion of the moment of moral decision making:

Othello: I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;

And on the proof, there is no more but this—
Away at once with love or jealousy! (3.3.190–92)

Prior to the actual ethical situation—the moment, with all of its attendant
particularity, 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. As we soon find out, it is what Othello sees
(or thinks he sees) that will be the problem. While all of Iago’s rhetorical
manipulations combine to create the context for Othello, it is the image of the
handkerchief in Cassio’s hand that provides the ocular proof Othello demands.
His journey to the moral conviction required to enable him to commit murder
is the intense focus of Act 3 scene 3. In the end there is no doubt that moral
Phenomenology of Moral Conviction 39

conviction guides his hand, for he justifies the murder in the final act on moral
grounds (5.2.1–22). 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). And while
we have no trouble condemning his murderous jealousy, I would suggest that
our fascination lies with his transformation. If, 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, we are less willing to consider how we might
act when faced with the situation Shakespeare provided for Othello. Each
detail, the sequence of events, the texture of the phenomenal world of objects
like the handkerchief, all come together to provide a dense ethical situation in
which our moral agent is called to act. 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. The image of Cassio wiping his beard with
the handkerchief ensures that abstract reason will lose out to embodied
Shakespeare’s plays allow us to reflect on the way particular experiences
arouse passion, generate moral conviction and complicate moral agency, to
contemplate the experience of the ethical in all its phenomenal complexity.
A final example can be found in Much Ado About Nothing. A young lover,
Claudio is willing to ignore everything he knows about his beloved Hero when
he is presented with the false image of her infidelity. Prior to the deception,
Claudio describes Hero to Benedick as the “sweetest lady that [he] ever look’d
on,” later noting to Don Pedro that love had grown as war had turned to

Claudio: When you went onward on this ended action,

I look’d upon her with a soldier’s eye,
That lik’d but had a rougher task at hand
Than to drive liking to the name of love.
But now I am return’d, and that war-thoughts
Have left their places vacant, in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires,
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying I lik’d her ere I went to wars. (1.1.297–305)

In describing his current condition to Don Pedro, Claudio carefully identifies

the stages of intensity through which his desire grew to the point that he knew
he was in love. The account sets up his later encounter with Don John and the
visual deception that will lead him to publicly disgrace Hero.
The emphasis on the visual is continued as Don John lays his trap. In response
to Claudio and Don Pedro’s doubt about the accusation against Hero, Don
John replies: “If you dare not trust that you see, confess not that you know”
(3.2.119–20). Claudio’s confident response resembles Othello’s reasoning
40 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

about ocular proof: “If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her,
to-morrow in the congregation, where I should wed, there will I shame her”
(3.2.123–25). Claudio is nothing if not true to his word on this count. Borachio
relates the scene in which Claudio arrives at the decision to disgrace Hero.
Having witnessed the deception contrived by Borachio with the unwitting
Margaret: “away went Claudio enrag’d; swore he would meet her as he was
appointed next morning at the temple, and there, before the whole congrega-
tion, shame her with what he saw o’er night” (3.3.159–63). Convinced of her
guilt by the illusion on the balcony, 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.

Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, 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,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty. (4.1.33–42)

His decision to disgrace her in the most public way never fails to provoke
moral outrage from my students. This judgment is possible even though
Claudio’s invective at the wedding springs from his misguided but nonetheless
experientially “authentic” moral conviction. In this particular example we
might argue that the moral precept on which Claudio bases his rage is the
problem: from our perspective, the misogynistic version of female virtue
Claudio invokes would make his action morally corrupt regardless of Hero’s
guilt or innocence. 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 Claudio-
as-moral-agent to the circumstances of phenomenal experience. The point is
emphasized when, upon the discovery of Borachio’s deception, Claudio is able
to restore the original image: “Sweet Hero, now thy image doth appear/In the
rare semblance that I lov’d it first” (5.1.251–52). And though the play will end
happily, with the virtuous Hero judged aright, one cannot help but feel that the
final scene is haunted by Claudio’s morally righteous invective at the alter. 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. 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
Phenomenology of Moral Conviction 41

engagement; the moment of action is the moment that we see Shakespeare’s

moral agents appear in all of their ethical complexity.

Steven Pinker, “The Moral Instinct,” The New York Times Magazine, January 13,
2008, sec. 6, pp. 32–37, 52, 55–56, 58.
Pinker, p. 37.
Jonathan Haidt, “The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology,” Science 316.5827
(May 18, 2007), pp. 998–1002.
Haidt, p. 998.
Plato, Dialogues of Plato, vol. III, ed. Benjamin Jowett (New York: Bigelow, Brown,
and Co., 1914), p. 11.
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 1103a 22–26, trans. Martin Ostwald (Indianapolis:
Bobbs-Merrill, 1962).
Richard Wilson, Secret Shakespeare: Studies in Theater, Religion, and Resistance
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004). Ewan Fernie, Spiritual
Shakespeares (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).
Tzachi Zamir, Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2007), 2003–04. See also, Paul Cefalu, Moral Identity in
Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
Haidt, p. 998.
Pinker, p. 35.
See 2 Henry IV (5.5.48–73).
For a detailed reading of this passage see my essay “Visual and Ethical Truth in
The Winter’s Tale,” Shakespeare Quarterly 55.3 (2004), pp. 253–78; and David Ward,
“Affection, Intention, and Dreams in The Winter’s Tale,” Modern Language Review
82 (1987): pp. 545–54.
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. In and of
itself, this fact does not make the characters particularly strange or interesting:
We all, whether we know it or not, use language of position and movement
when we talk about discovering, disclosing, explaining, understanding, and so
on. Consider the roots of some of these words. The notions of uncovering or
opening implicit in words like “discover” and “disclose” are relatively easy to
recognize, once it occurs to us to think about them; in the case of “explain,” on
the other hand, the dead metaphor in the root of the word (the Latin planus,
flat), and the senses of the word that stay closest to its origins—“to smooth out,
make smooth,” “to open out, unfold, spread out”1—are not consciously in play
for most current English speakers most of the time. The same goes for “standing”
in “understanding”: Most people rarely think about it. In Shakespeare’s drama,
however, the language of knowing and being known works in special ways,
particularly in the tragedies written between approximately 1601 and 1608.
Focusing on examples from Hamlet, King Lear, and Coriolanus, 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 reactivation
of, the roots of crucial words that characters use when they talk about knowing
and being known.
While the plays of the period in question contain some instances of what we
might call overt punning2—that is, 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”), these plays also, as
Simon Palfrey has noted, include subtler homonymic play that escapes the
bounds of single characters.3 This kind of wordplay not only seems to escape
what an audience could imagine as the conscious control of the characters, but
also implicitly comments on the characters’ blind spots. A special feature of at
least certain focal postures and gestures in Shakespeare’s mature tragedies is
Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception 43

their involvement in intricate networks of wordplay that simultaneously:

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

characters’ avowed positions. Thus, my approach would allow me to deal with

Shakespeare philosophically without ever making the philosophy of a single
speech stand on its own.
Now, having put forth my thesis and suggested some of its implications, I will
turn to examples from Hamlet, King Lear, and Coriolanus. The approximate
dates of composition for these plays are 1601, 1605, and 1608 respectively. My
treatment of the examples here is necessarily brief; however, these examples
are all susceptible to more extended treatment.


In Hamlet several characters, including Hamlet himself, are depicted as imagin-

ing their own and others’ selves as containers with contents—containers that
can be opened and unpacked. The specific word “unpack” is unusual in
Shakespeare; in fact, it appears only once, but this one instance is in Hamlet,
and it is involved in a wordplay network of the kind I have been describing.
Hamlet speaks the word in an important soliloquy, the one that ends Act 2. This
is the soliloquy beginning “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” (2.2.577).6
He berates himself repeatedly in this speech, at one point saying with bitter
sarcasm that it is “most brave” (2.2.611) of him to “unpack [his] heart with
words” (2.2.614). While Hamlet is obviously speaking with a great deal of self-
disgust here, the play also implicitly develops a criticism of the character that is
different from his criticism of himself. In other words, Hamlet is self-deceptive,
even when he is being self-critical, and the play points to that self-deception.
While Hamlet’s determined attempts to know the contents of others’ hearts
imply that he believes that inner states can be exposed, he nevertheless insists
(at least some of the time) on the undiscoverability of his own interiority.
Most people will recall his assertion, in his first extended speech in the play,
that he has “that within which passes show” (1.2.80). And yet, a fear of losing
this becomes a major implicit issue in the soliloquy at the end of Act 2.
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. In this play there is a kind of emptying out of
subjectivity associated with the attempt to discover, grasp, and control the con-
tents of the self; accordingly, the more Hamlet unpacks his heart with words,
the less he has “within.” He sees himself as being in a no-win situation: He is,
paradoxically, empty (“unpregnant” (2.2.595)) if he keeps his feelings inside;
he is full, but already in the process of emptying himself out (“unpack[ing]”),
if he articulates his feelings.
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. This wordplay network is very
Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception 45

much involved in Hamlet’s exploration of the implications of certain problem-

atic ways of thinking about what it is to know a person.
“Pack” in early modern English could, according to the Oxford English Diction-
ary, mean “[t]o plot (something); to contrive or plan in an underhand way,”7
and, in fact, the word is used in this sense elsewhere in Hamlet (for example, in
Hamlet’s “[t]this man shall set me packing” (3.4.234)—a multivalent line that
has do with carrying something, assembling belongings for a journey, and also
plotting). It is also worth noting that Hamlet discovers Claudius’s scheme to
have the king of England execute him when, on board the ship, he dares to
open (the word is “unfold” in Q2, “unseale” in F) the “packet” (5.2.18) entrusted
to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Q1 handles this part of the story differently
than Q2 and F; if anything, though, that text does more than the others to play
up the implicit wordplay around packet/packing/unpacking. In Q1, Horatio
relates to the queen the events that took place aboard the ship bound for
England. The more familiar versions of the play have Hamlet tell this story to
Horatio. Importantly, the Q1 queen’s loyalties are much less ambiguous than
are the loyalties of the Gertrude of Q2/ F; indeed, she actively conspires with
Hamlet and Horatio against her husband. The Q1 passage in which we
learn about Hamlet’s discovery of the “packet,” the contents of which reveal
the “subtle treason that the king had plotted” (TLN 1812),8 sets up a parallel
between, on the one hand, Claudius’s plotting with Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern and, on the other hand, Hamlet’s plotting with the queen and
Horatio. The word “packet” appears twice in Q1 (TLN 1814; TLN 1837): one
“packet” is Claudius’s, one “packet” is Hamlet’s. The plotting/packing Hamlet
unpacks Claudius’s packet/ plot, and replaces it with a packet of his own. This
is the case in all versions of the play, but the language of Q1 does the most to
emphasize the parallels between Hamlet’s “packing” and Claudius’s.
There is an analogous swapping during the fencing match at the end of the
play. The exchange of weapons—which exchange leaves Laertes holding the
blunt foil and Hamlet holding the sharp, poisoned sword, the “treacherous
instrument . . . Unbated and envenomed” (5.2.347–48)—has been discussed a
great deal, but, to my knowledge, nobody has in this connection drawn atten-
tion to a relevant difference between current idioms involving the word “foil”
and early modern idioms involving the same word. While we still sometimes
speak of foiling plots or villains, or of being foiled, the early modern idiom
“to take (or give, receive, or have) the foil” seems to have fallen out of use. The
relevant definition given by the OED for “foil” as a noun reads as follows:
“A repulse, defeat in an onset or enterprise; a baffling check. arch. In early use
often in phrases: to give a or the foil, to have, receive, take a (the, one’s foil); to put to
(a, the) foil.”9 When the exchange in the final scene of Hamlet is to be performed,
many options are available to actors and directors; clearly, though, if a perform-
ance of the fencing match is going to follow the text(s) at all closely, the actors
playing Hamlet and Laertes will both take the foil, figuratively and literally.
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, “to strike.” Such words include “offend,”
“offended,” “offender’s,” and “offence.” The words “defend” and “defence”
also appear. And, in the gravediggers’ hilarious routine in Act 5, there is the
pseudo-legalese phrase, “se offendendo,”10 “in self-offense,” by which the charac-
ter would seem actually to mean “in self-defence.” The fendere words repay close
examination, not so much because of the number of times they come up in
Hamlet, but rather because of where they appear and what they do. Words
semantically connected to the fendere group are also important. In a number of
instances, links to “strike,” “strokes,” and “strucken” are activated.
What is especially interesting about the fendere / striking words in Hamlet is
that, right from the very beginning, the play links words in the “offend” group
to characters’ attempts to know and to characters’ attempts to strike. 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,
Marcellus: It is offended.
Barnardo: See, it stalks away. (1.1.54–60)

Then note that, when the ghost comes again a bit later, Horatio again demands
that it “Stay and speak!” (1.1.153), and he asks Marcellus to try to force it to stay.
“Shall I strike it with my partisan?” (1.1.154), asks Marcellus. “Do, if it will not
stand” (1.1.155), answers Horatio. But the ghost responds to literal striking the
same way it responded to the verbal offence: it disappears.
Both Hamlet and his adversaries attempt at various points to know other
characters without being known. The play tends to develop this theme in terms
of figurative language of striking and offending. Characters are represented as,
so to speak, trying to strike or to offend in situations in which they cannot be
struck or offended. 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. Indeed, 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. Especially between
the “mighty opposites” (5.2.69) (that is, Hamlet and Claudius), this play depicts
a symmetry of approaches and attitudes when it comes to ways of thinking
about, knowing, and relating to people. That he defends himself against the
possibility that other characters might, so to speak, “unpack” his heart is
something of a commonplace. In addition, one could add that Hamlet seems to
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. 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.
I have sketched out only briefly here the outlines of the wordplay network in
Hamlet that points toward the main character’s self-deception. I do, neverthe-
less, think that it is worthwhile to take seriously the extent to which examina-
tion 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, and inflicting suffering, on account of, among other
things, a certain way of imagining both a topography of the self (that is, as a
container with contents) and what it is to know a self (that is, as a matter of
unpacking the container). 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 a desire not
to think of oneself (or have others think of oneself) as such an object.

King Lear

In King Lear “disposition” is a particularly interesting word. The only play by

Shakespeare to contain more instances of this word is As You Like It. And, while
it is a thematically important word in that earlier play, “disposition” in As You
Like It is not re-dramatized by means of connection to enacted or described
postures or gestures. King Lear, on the other hand, repays close consideration
of the ways in which “disposition” may have to do with characters’ orientation
to discovery (that is, of others) and self-discovery.
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, this last surrender of his will
but offend us” (1.293–95).12 This syntax of the sentence in question sets
“dispositions” in an analogous (strictly speaking, chiastic) relation to “author-
ity” (“carry authority” . . . “dispositions…bears”). “Carry” and “bears” are easily
recognizable as synonyms. But why exactly would Goneril speak of “disposi-
tions” as things one would “bear”? Why “bear” rather than, say, “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; however, I would
suggest that this play rigorously explores questions about especially the main
character’s “disposition,” and suggests that it is not just about mood or tempera-
ment. “Disposition” in this play has, rather, a stronger, quasi-literalized sense
having to do with characters’ ways of orienting themselves in relation to other
characters. Indeed, bearing, carriage, and disposition can be close synonyms in
48 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Shakespeare’s mature tragedies; it is interesting that Goneril’s comment at the

end of the first scene includes “carry,” “bears,” and “dispositions” all heaped
into a single clause. All three words are susceptible to what I call literalization
or re-dramatization. In the case of Lear, his way of wielding authority does have
to do with what to his daughters are his moods, but his moods are best under-
stood as a function of his habitual way of disposing himself in relation to other
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, scene 6. This is scene 13 of the Quarto text. This “mock trial” is
absent from the First Folio text of this play, and Roger Warren has argued that
the omission of this section of Act 3, scene 6 usually—though, he concedes, not
always—enhances the play’s theatrical effectiveness; however, I would like here
to argue for the importance of the “mock trial.”13
In this scene Gloucester and Kent have just brought Lear in from the storm.
Goneril and Regan have not only shut their father out, they have also forbidden
Gloucester to take him in. Lear stages the arraignment of the absent Goneril
and Regan in this scene, and Edgar and the fool play along with him. In his
madness here Lear displays some of the same habits of mind that he has
displayed since the beginning of the play.
The arraignment of the absent daughters repeats, in a more extreme form,
an important aspect of the ceremony that Lear tries to stage in the play’s first
scene. While Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia are present in that earlier scene,
their father counts on them to play roles that are effectively dictated by him.
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. But, of course, by the time we get to the trial scene, Lear has come
to doubt his ability to predict and control his daughters’ behaviour. So if he
wants their trial to go according to plan, it is best that they not be present.
As Lear’s doubts about his daughters become inescapable, his attempts to
overcome his doubts by discovering and neutralizing the daughters become
ever more extreme. And here, perhaps more clearly than anywhere else, his
obsession with discovering his daughters is matched by his obsession with
preventing their discovery of him.
As the trial gets underway, 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, “Want’st thou eyes at troll-madam?” (13.19–20).
Modern editors usually emend “troll-madam” to “trial, madam.” The Riverside
Shakespeare glosses “eyes at trial” as “spectators at your trial.”14 But while this
gloss may capture part of the sense, it misses an important contrast: “He”—the
king, that is—“stands and glares at her; but “madam”—Regan or Goneril—
cannot glare back. His eyes are there, her eyes are not. He stands and glares;
thou want’st eyes. This reading is reinforced by the way its sense is reversed and
Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception 49

replayed in the very next scene. In Act 3, scene 7 of the conflated text (scene 14
of Q), at Gloucester’s interrogation, Regan will stand and glare, while he will
lose his eyes. Regan literalizes her father’s exclusion of eyes, and visits her
revenge on Gloucester, his double.
Another of Lear’s strategies for exposing and evading his daughters involves
his dehumanization of them. This gets increasingly aggressive in the trial scene.
At one point he addresses them as “you she-foxes” (13.18). Here another
dimension of the symbolic structure that Lear develops begins to emerge: The
imagined court proceeding is also something of a hunt. And the idea of
hunting the daughters conveys both Lear’s desire to catch them and his fear
that they will evade him. Indeed, the anxiety about the possibility that they may
escape overwhelms him; he suddenly calls out: “Stop her there. / Arms, arms,
sword, fire, corruption in the place! / False justice, why hast thou let her scape?”
(13.49–51). 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, sword,
and fire, the king begins to whine: “The little dogs and all, Trey, Blanch, and
Sweetheart—see, they bark at me” (13.56–57). The minute the fox-daughter
disappears, three other canines appear, with their attention fixed on the king.
If Lear fails to evade and discover, he will be evaded and discovered: To him this
apparently feels logical.
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.
With Lear’s next lines, we are subjected to the imagined dissection of Regan:
“Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about her heart” (13.70–71).
Thinking of his daughter’s insides as the location of her secrets gives Lear some-
where to look (so to speak) if he wants total knowledge of this person. But in
imagining his knowledge of her in these terms, Lear is of course also imagining
his destruction of her.


In Coriolanus the “custom of request” of Act 2, scene 3 makes the main

character’s bearing or “portance” (2.3.210)15—one of the tribunes uses that
word—the focus of attention. “Portance” is an unusual word in Shakespeare; it
shows up only one other time (in Othello). It means, in the sense in which the
tribune Sicinius uses it, carriage, bearing. Coriolanus’s “portance” during
the “custom of request” is insulting to the plebeians, because it signals his
refusal to let them know him. Contrary to the custom, he refuses to uncover his
war wounds, and he refuses to narrate his military deeds.
Once we start noticing other words with the root “port” in the play, interest-
ing possibilities start to appear. “Porting” in the sense of “carrying, bearing”
emerges as an important theme; “porting” in the sense of “gate-keeping” also
50 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

comes into play. Coriolanus’s “portance” during the “custom of request” has a
lot to do with the attitudes he has shown, in other parts of the play, toward
“porting” in these other senses. The constellation of interrelated port- words
works in Coriolanus to crystallize certain crucial qualities of the main character.
One definition the OED gives for “porter” is: “One who has charge of a door
or gate, especially at the entrance of a fortified town or a castle or other
large building, a public institution, and so on; a gate-keeper, door keeper,
janitor . . . ”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” (4.5.193–94). The sense of “porter” that is
most common in current usage is the one that has to do with carrying, not
gates; for us a porter is usually a “person whose employment is to carry
burdens.”17 This and other related senses are in play in Coriolanus.
In order to understand why porters matter, we need to think more about
what the play does with the language of gates and carrying. The play uses the
word “carry,” which of course is semantically linked to “portance,” in connec-
tion with a political candidate’s winning of an election, and in connection with
a military leader’s expected conquering of a city. In Act 4, Aufidius’s lieutenant
asks his commander whether he thinks that the exiled Coriolanus will success-
fully conquer Rome: “think you he’ll carry Rome?” (4.7.27), he asks. Coriolanus
can be used by the people he serves—and, of course, things are complicated by
the fact that his allegiances change during the course of the play—as a defender
of boundaries, or as a transgressor of them. He is explicitly called the defender
of Rome’s gates: “you have pushed out your gates the very defender of them”
(5.2.41), says one of the Volscian guards when Menenius asks to be allowed to
plead with Coriolanus to spare his city. The porter / gate-keeper, having been
deported (pushed out the city’s ports/gates), is about to return to port/carry
Rome. The irony here may be connected to the irony of the name Coriolanus:
Caius Martius gets his additional name for conquering Corioles, not for being
from there, but then he comes back to conquer Rome on behalf of the
Volscians, who include the people of Corioles. So the same name ends up being
apt, for new reasons, after he changes sides; analogously, he is Rome’s porter in
one sense before his banishment, in another sense after he changes his
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.” In Act 1, the
part of the play that includes the Roman soldiers’ crucial refusal to follow Martius
through the gates of Corioles, Titus Lartius refers to the gates as “the ports”
(1.7.1). In Act 5, after Coriolanus has called off the invasion of Rome, the play’s
final scene begins with Aufidius speaking the following lines to his attendants:

Aufidius: Go, tell the lords o’ th’ city I am here.

Deliver them this paper. Having read it,
Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception 51

Bid them repair to th’ market place

. . . Him I accuse
The city ports by this hath entered and
Intends t’ appear before the people, hoping
To purge himself with words. (5.6.1–8)

Not only is it notable that the play’s final scene begins with a mention of city
ports, it is also interesting that this mention of ports appears in the context of
an instance of ironic mirroring. We find out from Aufidius’s speech that, as in
the “custom of request,” Coriolanus is again expected to appear in a market-
place and speak to the public, though in this case the marketplace is in
Corioles, not Rome. And this time the character is not running for political
office; rather, he is just trying to save his own life, having proven himself doubly
a traitor—a traitor first to the Romans, and now to the Volscians. We soon find
out, too, that this time he is much more willing to go through with the public
appearance; 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
Recall that in Act 2, scene 3 Coriolanus refuses to narrate his own deeds or to
give reasons for which the plebeians should give him their voices. We should
recall as well, however, that in Act 3, scene 1 he shows himself quite willing to
narrate the plebeians’ misdeeds and to give his reasons for his conduct toward
them. In the speech beginning “I’ll give my reasons, / More worthier than their
voices” (3.1.120–21), Coriolanus complains that the plebeians, “Being pressed
to th’ war,/ Even when the navel of the state was touched, / They would not
thread the gates” (3.1.123–25). As Lee Bliss points out, although the parallel
passage in Plutarch “is general and condemns the conscripted commoners for
often refusing to go to the wars (that is, ‘thread’ the gates of Rome), the phras-
ing here evokes memories of the soldiers who refused to follow Martius through
the gates of Corioles.”18
When the main character blames the plebeians for their refusal to thread the
gates/ports, we could say that he is accusing them of bad portance. He is also
saying that his behaviour during the “custom of request” is justified on the basis
of their bad portance. He sees his portance (we might say “attitude”) as a reflec-
tion of theirs. Of course, they could retort that their portance in Act 3,
scene 3—that is, their banishment of him (“Come, come, let’s see him out at
gates!” (3.3.150))—is a reflection of his banishment, so to speak, of them dur-
ing the “custom of request” with his withholding posture, his refusal to show his
wounds or narrate his deeds.
So, to re-emphasize, the approach attempted here depends on, among other
things, a habit of thinking about attitude and approach in a range of literal and
figurative terms. I particularly find the word “attitude” to be well adapted to my
purposes because, at least in current usage, it can refer to something at once
52 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

affective and more or less literally positional. The root of the word “attitude”
comes from the Latin aptus, “fitted, fit”; I would like to suggest that if you think,
for a minute, of attitude in terms of “fitting,” you may be able to get a clearer
sense of what ethics, in the sense that interests me, has to do with position-
and-movement words in Shakespeare. Understood as the constitution of the
self’s relation to the self, ethics is a matter of positioning, of attitude, of
In this connection, we can think of something Menenius says in Act 2, scene
2 of Coriolanus. When Coriolanus lets the senators know that he wants to be
allowed to become consul without having to appear in the traditional candi-
date’s gown (indeed, he goes so far as to insist that he “cannot / Put on the
gown” (2.2.131–32)), Menenius responds:

Menenius: Pray you, go fit you to the custom and

Take to you, as your predecessors have,
Your honour with your form. (2.2.138–40)

These are important lines; I would suggest that it is worth thinking about this
play’s major themes in terms of “fitting”. While I am at it, I will mention that
“standing” and “fitting” come together in this play’s “porting” wordplay; “port”
can mean both “bearing” and, via a bilingual pun, “wearing” (French “porter,”
“to wear”). The main character’s refusal to fit himself to the custom has, of
course, disastrous consequences for himself, his family, and his country. Even
though he does end up bowing to pressure and putting on the candidate’s
costume (yes, there may be wordplay on custom/ costume in Menenius’s
“fit you to the custom” admonition), Coriolanus never does the kind of fitting,
the kind of adjustment of his relation to his self and others.


Now, I need, finally, to comment explicitly on the fact that I have focused here
on three of Shakespeare’s so-called “mature 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. This period has, of course, traditionally been considered
the most glorious part of Shakespeare’s career. In recent years, however, plays
by Shakespeare that had in the past had relatively little attention (early plays
such as Comedy of Errors, for example, or Two Gentlemen of Verona) are coming to
be more fully appreciated as distinctive achievements in their own right.19 I am,
indeed, not entirely comfortable with the phrase “mature tragedies” because it
implies an invidious comparison. I do not want to contest the de-marginaliza-
tion of the early plays; rather, I am simply trying to develop one of many possi-
ble pedagogically generative ways of reading the tragedies.
Wordplay and the Ethics of Self-Deception 53

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

G. Blakemore Evans, ed. King Lear, in The Riverside Shakespeare (Dallas, TX:
Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1278n.
Quotations from Coriolanus are from Lee Bliss, ed. Coriolanus (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “Porter.”
Bliss, Coriolanus, 186n.
See, for example, Patricia Parker, Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture,
Context (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). 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
Chapter 4

Excuses, Bepissing, 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. It is going to point to a peculiar feature in
Shakespeare’s conception of agency. This seems to me more interesting than
his conception of “moral agency,” though I will begin with a puzzle about that.
Insofar as moral agency involves the issue of moral responsibility—that is, the
relevance to an action of (moral) praise and blame—there is one question that
I wish to raise. After that, I will turn to what I take to be the deeper puzzle.

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.1 Acting “due to ignorance,” for Aristotle, means act-
ing in a way that one cannot be blamed for, acting in a situation where one sim-
ply 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]).
For instance, though one knows that buying stolen property is wrong, 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. In this
case, one is truly acting “due to ignorance.” Such acts, for Aristotle, are pardon-
able, on the one hand, and do not properly generate regret on the other.
However, Aristotle holds that one is not acting “due to ignorance,” even though
one is acting “in ignorance,” in a situation where one is responsible for the state
that has put one into ignorance. The key examples are when a person is drunk
or angry (NE 1110b16–1111a1–2). Aristotle holds that the actions performed in
this state are not properly thought of as due to ignorance, but rather due to
drunkenness or wrath, and are therefore morally condemnable, and generative
56 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

of (moral) regret. The person did not have to get drunk (“had the power not
to” get into such a state). That is perfectly straightforward. 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, Aristotle holds that one is respon-
sible for letting oneself become that kind of person (1114a1–21). Here
again, one is not acting “due to” ignorance, but due to one’s character—for
which Aristotle holds that one is also, in some deep sense, responsible
I am not sure whether Shakespeare grasped this distinction or not. Let’s look
at the case of Hamlet. He asks Laertes, in very formal terms, to “pardon” him
(presumably for killing Polonius). The reason he should be “pardoned,”
he tells Laertes, is:

Hamlet: What I have done

That might your nature, honour, and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not; Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d—
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
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, Q1; mother F).2 (5.2.208–20)

Hamlet presents his rash and excited action in killing Polonius, an action clearly
done “in ignorance”—he did not know who was behind the arras—as due to
ignorance. He was “not himself” at the time; his “madness” made him do it, and
therefore he is among the wronged parties. He does not take any responsibility
for allowing himself to get into the state in question (“madness” or whatever).
He seems, moreover, to accept a very simple version of the voluntary, such that
only chosen (“purpos’d”) actions are to be thought of as voluntary. (Aristotle,
on the other hand, makes it quite clear that the category of the voluntary must
be much larger than the category of the chosen, 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, but [it is] not the result of choice”
I am genuinely unsure whether Shakespeare wants us to see Hamlet as
being disingenuous and consciously sophistical here, or not. It does seem
morally relevant that Hamlet did not intend to kill Polonius—he did it, to use
Excuses, Bepissing, and Non-being 57

one of J. L. Austin’s very Aristotelian distinctions—by mistake, though not by

accident (he meant to stab somebody).3 But the disclaimer seems too strong
(“Hamlet does it not”); surely Hamlet is enough of an Aristotelian to know the
argument for responsibility for one’s character, and also the argument that
one’s character is most fully revealed in “spur of the moment” actions4
(he gives, after all, a fully Aristotelian account of how character is developed
and changed in his speech to his mother about “habits,” 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, scene 4).5 Yet Hamlet seems sincere. He does
seem to bear no ill will to Laertes, and perhaps to think of him as, in some
sense, a “brother”—a fellow “gentleman” (“pardon’t as you are a gentleman”
[5.2.205]) whom he has known since childhood, and with whom he is now
indulging in innocent aristocratic “play” (5.2.185, 230). Hamlet continues the
thought in speaking of the duel as “this brothers’ wager” (5.2.230). Moreover,
the word or concept to which Hamlet most strongly appeals—even beyond the
understanding between “gentlemen”—is the idea of generosity. “Free me . . . in
your most generous thoughts,” he says. This word has been powerfully
associated with Hamlet’s own character by the shrewdest observer of character
in the play (Claudius), and has been proven true of Hamlet. Claudius’s claim
that Hamlet will not examine the foils because he is “Most generous, and free
from all contriving” turns out to be correct (4.7.133). So we are supposed to
think that Hamlet indeed knows about “generous thoughts;” after all, he is con-
descending to explain himself—something that great aristocrats didn’t often
feel obliged to do, even disingenuously. Perhaps the speech-act itself is more
important than what it actually says. But that still begs the question, since the
whole issue is whether, or to what extent, he is being (or we are asked by Shake-
speare to see him as being) disingenuous—in however grand a mode.
The puzzle only seems to me deepened by Laertes’ response. Laertes claims
to be “satisfied in nature”—which “in this case should stir me most / To my
revenge”—though not in honour, which he presents as requiring some sort of
public ratification by “elder masters of known honour.” He tells Hamlet that,
until the time of such ratification, “I do receive your offer’d love like love, /
And will not wrong it.” I think it too easy simply to say that Laertes is lying here,
given that he is just about to pick out, quite carefully, his poisoned and unbated
foil.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. Hamlet has not, after
all, used the word “love.” Yet Laertes recognizes that that is the term relevant to
Hamlet’s verbal gesture. Laertes would not say these particular words—or
rather, 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. He
could, after all, say something to the effect of, “that’s all so much fancy talk; let’s
duel,” or he could say, even more directly, that he doesn’t accept the
apology. Instead, he makes a speech that fully recognizes, even enhances,
58 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

the affective and social meaning of what Hamlet has said. Moreover, when, in
the course of the duel, after Hamlet’s second “palpable hit,” Laertes assures
Claudius that he will “hit” Hamlet now, Laertes says in an aside that “it is almost
against my conscience.” There would be no reason for him to say this if he were
not, in some sense, genuinely moved by Hamlet’s apology. And as Laertes is
dying, and asks Hamlet to “exchange forgiveness” with him, Laertes frees
Hamlet from responsibility not only for Laertes’ own death (Hamlet was truly
acting “due to ignorance” with regard to killing Laertes), but also frees him
from responsibility for Polonius’s death (“Mine and my father’s death come not
upon thee”).
So, to sum up this discussion, I am genuinely not sure what Shakespeare
means us to think of Hamlet’s apology. 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, or can offer bad arguments
to support good intentions (which we are to value above the arguments), or
that disingenuousness is a complex business. Whatever we are to conclude
about the moment in question, I think that it cannot be taken either as a
straightforward, morally responsible account or as a straightforward piece of
self-justifying and self-conscious sophistry.7
Let me say a bit about another, parallel case, and then move on to what seems
to me the greater Shakespearean puzzle. 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 igno-
rance” but not “due to” ignorance—an action done when drunk. Cassio behaves
in a truly vile and murderous way when drunk. Verbally, he “pulls rank” in a dis-
gusting and obviously ungospel-like way in insisting that “The lieutenant is to be
saved before the ancient” (2.3.106) and he is outrageous verbally and then
physically aggressive toward the gentleman (Montano) who attempts to stop
him from brawling in the street; he denies that he is drunk, and seriously
wounds the intervener.8 Meanwhile, Shakespeare has made it perfectly clear
that Cassio is fully aware of his inability to hold his alcohol (he tells Iago,
“I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking” (2.3.30–31). Certainly
Cassio could—and should—have resisted the pressure to drink. He understands
the full extent of what he has done—as Othello says, “in a town of war,” and
so on (2.3.209–13). Cassio certainly feels regret/remorse, and seems to accept
moral responsibility (for Aristotle, the existence of regret or remorse is crucial
for defining the nature of the act in question [NE 1111a20], and the character
of the agent [NE 1150b31]). Cassio says: “I will rather sue to be despised, than
to deceive so good a commander with so slight, so drunken, and so indiscreet
an officer” (2.3.273–75). 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, in the lines just quoted, that he is not
worthy of getting his position back. Iago tells Cassio that he is, with regard to
Excuses, Bepissing, and Non-being 59

drunkenness, “too severe a moraler” (2.3.294), and the play seems to accept
this, seems to accept that it is reasonable for Cassio to want his position
back, and that it is reasonable for Desdemona to wish to help him get it back.
Is it a flaw in Cassio’s character to ask Desdemona to accept this commission,
and a flaw in Desdemona’s to accept it? Is Cassio “too severe a moraler”
with regard to his own behavior when drunk, or is this another case where
Shakespeare seems to let someone too lightly off the moral hook, perhaps
giving some kind of credence to Cassio’s talk of devils? Cassio is, after all, an
admirable fellow—when, that is, he is not drunk or angry. Does Shakespeare
grasp Aristotle’s point about such states?


Let me hasten now to what I take to be a deeper puzzle in Shakespeare’s

conception of moral agency—or rather, as I have already suggested, in his
conception of agency in general. 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. The issue that
I am interested in is Shakespeare’s lack of interest in (or belief in) motives.
I want to make the general claim that this is true of Shakespeare, 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.
One of the key bits of proof for this claim occurs in a completely unexpected
and weird speech in The Merchant of Venice, a speech that might be my candidate
for the weirdest—and therefore, perhaps, one of the most important—speeches
in the whole Shakespearean corpus. At the beginning of the great trial scene in
Merchant, Shylock is given the opportunity to “disclaim” publicly his “strange
apparent cruelty” in seeking to extract the pound of flesh penalty from
Antonio. Shylock takes this as an opportunity to explain why he will not
“disclaim” the pound of flesh forfeiture. Surely we know what he is going to say.
We have heard before of Antonio’s treatment of him. Shylock has reminded
Antonio “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, / And spet upon my Jewish
gaberdine . . . And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur.” 9 And Antonio has fully
accepted this account of his behavior: “I am as like to call thee so again, / To
spet on thee again, to spurn thee too” (1.3.107–126). So Shylock has perfectly
good—meaning thoroughly intelligible (not necessarily admirable)—reasons
for hating Antonio. And, of course, 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?” [3.1.60]). So, it seems more than
reasonable that here, in a public and judicial setting, Shylock would recount his
excellent reasons for hating Antonio on the basis of Antonio’s public and
60 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

avowed treatment of him. But instead of giving another speech about how
thoroughly and regularly he has been wronged and injured by Antonio, 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! (4.1.40–42)

He refuses to answer the “why” question just at the point when it seems his
answer would be most à propos. The scene is set for him to reiterate, or
elaborate upon, his rationale for hatred. Not only does he refuse to give the
answer that would seem to be so readily to hand, and that he has given at length
elsewhere, but he shifts the whole topic from the realm of reasons to an entirely
different one:

Shylock: say it is my humour,—is it answer’d? (43)

He knows that this would not normally be considered an “answer” to the why
question, but a refusal to answer it. He goes on, however, to give an account of
human behavior that does, in a sense, serve as an answer to the why question.
Humours—here meaning something like wishes or whims, not chemicals in the
blood—are not to be questioned; they need not have a rational basis, but are
absolute in themselves as explanatory factors:

Shylock: What if my house be troubled with a rat,

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. No account of his preferences
need be given by the consumer who is willing to pay for what he wishes.10 So far,
we seem to be in a world of wishes and preferences and choices, if not a world
of rational bases for such. But Shylock’s “account” of his behavior is weirder
than that.11
After this example of a (to most people) “strange” piece of behavior that is
consciously chosen, Shylock then gives a picture of human behavior that has
nothing to do with choice, that is truly, as Aristotle would say, 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,
Cannot contain their urine—for affection
Excuses, Bepissing, and Non-being 61

(Master of passion) sways it to the mood

Of what it likes or loathes,—now for your answer:
As there is no firm reason to be rend’red
Why he cannot abide a gaping pig,
Why he a harmless necessary cat,
Why he a woolen bagpipe, but of force
Must yield to such inevitable shame,
As to offend being himself offended:
So can I give no reason, nor I will not,
More than a lodg’d hate, and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio.(4.1.47–61)

Shylock now substitutes “affection” for “humour” as his master explanatory

term. “Affection” seems to mean, here, something like “general psycho-
physiological 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).12 The picture is of persons help-
lessly under the “sway” of compulsions, of persons doing things over which they
have absolutely no control. Positive cases of “affection” are mentioned in the
speech—” what it likes and loathes”—but, as is appropriate for the context, all
the examples are of revulsion. 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”),13 to the somewhat uncanny. The bagpipe,
with its oddly produced sound (“sings i’ th’ nose”) and its strangely biological
appearance (“a woolen bagpipe”) seems somewhat more suited to producing
phobias. Early in the play—in a speech that Shylock could not have heard—
Solanio had mentioned “strange fellows” who mechanically, inappropriately,
and shamefully “laugh like parrots at a bagpiper” (1.1.51–3). Shylock sees
himself, and all of us, as such “strange fellows.” But, in Shylock’s use of
reactions to the bagpipe, 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. The unstable grammar of “to offend himself
being offended” exactly captures the point.14 We “understand” such phobias, in
the sense of recognizing them, but they hardly count as reasons for action.
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.” Shylock, astonishingly,
presents his own motives as such. When he returns from the account of the
master power of “affection” to a named passion, he can only try to give the
passion a quality of viscerality, “a lodg’d hate”; and when he re-characterizes the
“hate” as “a certain loathing,” the phrase, in its odd, almost fussy detachment
62 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

and vagueness, has just the quality of unwilled aversion that the examples
The interesting question becomes why Shakespeare would have wanted to
give Shylock this speech. I find a haunting plausibility in Kenneth Gross’s view
that “Shylock is Shakespeare,”15 but whatever one thinks about that, I would
argue that Shakespeare is here giving his Jew a speech that expresses, more
powerfully perhaps than any other in his work, 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. Shakespeare takes a
case where the motives seem obvious and then has the possessor of them
emphatically deny their relevance to his behavior. Shylock seems himself to be
in the grip of some kind of compulsion to assert the power of compulsion, and
to deny the relevance of “reasons,” even if this means offending—demeaning,
shaming, verbally bepissing—himself as well as others. This is not a case of
attempting to deny responsibility by appealing to irrational forces (“Hamlet
does it not”) but, weirdly, of accepting responsibility because of irrational
internal forces—that is who, or what, I am. And it is not even the Aristotelian
point about being responsible for one’s own character. 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). The only
term that Aristotle has for such behavior is “brutishness” (which, interestingly,
he associates with childhood trauma).16


I have spent so much time on this one passage from The Merchant of Venice
because, as must now be clear, I think it points to something general in
Shakespeare’s conception of the human agent. Even when it looks as if there is
a straightforward motive for a character’s behavior—ambition, for instance, in
Macbeth (or even Richard III)—it can be shown, I think, that those characters
are mistaken about what they actually want.17 Let me conclude this set of
reflections by spending some time on the most famous case of “motivelessness”
in Shakespeare, that of Iago. Again, my claim here will be that Iago is—not in
the particular motive that he has, but in the kind of motive that he has—
a normative case for Shakespeare’s conception of character and agency.
The first 60 or so lines of Othello consist mainly of speeches by Iago, and they
are speeches about his motives. In the first of these speeches we hear of his
resentment at not getting the job of Othello’s lieutenant, a job that Iago is fully
convinced that he deserved. “I know my price,” he says, “I am worth no worse a
place” (1.1.10). This is framed not as vainglory but as proper pride. Maybe
there is a critique here of classical ethics, of the idea of “proper pride,”
Excuses, Bepissing, and Non-being 63

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

can be seen as in dialogue with the founding story for the Judeao-Christian
conception of history. Othello is Shakespeare’s Paradise Lost. This has many
implications, but the one that I want to pursue here concerns the matter of
motivation—of devilish motivation. 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. Milton thought this
motive truly explanatory. An injury to “proper pride” seemed very deep to
Milton; it is the narrator’s as well as Satan’s own account of Satan’s motivation
(see Paradise Lost, I.98, and V.665). But Milton was much more committed
(in my view) to classical ethics than Shakespeare was.20 Shakespeare, the more
“secular” poet, seems to have needed a deeper and more mysterious explana-
tion. The idea of sheer negativity seems to be what drew him. What the perverted
biblical echo at the end of Iago’s second speech helps us to see is that the con-
ception that Shakespeare had of Iago’s “motives,” such as they are, is that they
are not ordinary, recognizable ones like “the sense of injur’d merit” (or sexual
revenge [1.3.386], or a combination of sexual revenge and sexual desire
[2.1.289–95]). What Shakespeare seems to be suggesting is that it is the mere
existence of goodness that drives Iago to a fury. 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.
Now that’s the kind of thing that Shakespeare seems to have thought of
as a motive. The theological enters to point to a mystery.
Let me try to elaborate this a bit further. Again, a “direct and directing”
reference to the religious tradition helps.21 When Iago finally sees his actual
plan (thanks to Cassio’s inability to hold his liquor) take shape—that is, to use
Desdemona’s advocacy of Cassio as a key weapon—Iago summarizes the result
he hopes for, thus: “So will I turn her virtue into pitch / And out of her own
goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all” (2.3.355–57). Again,
Paradise Lost comes to our aid. Everyone who has ever taught or taken a Milton
course knows that toward the end of the final Book, after the archangel Michael
explains to Adam that Satan will ultimately be defeated, Adam, “Replete with
joy and wonder,” bursts out: “O goodness infinite, goodness immense! / That
all this good of evil shall produce, / And evil turn to good” (PL XII.471–2). This
is the famous theme of “felix culpa”—the “fortunate fall”—that, ever since
Lovejoy’s article in 1937, everyone knows, and knows that it was widely echoed
throughout the middle ages (including in vernacular and literary texts).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, of making evil come
out of goodness—of making goodness the direct cause of evil. In the Christian
scheme, the happy cosmic outcome of the Fall is a testimony to the power and
benevolence of God, and the Fall was necessary to the full revelation of this
(in Christ). In Shakespeare’s inversion, the relation of the result to the original
situation is more intimate. Iago knows that there is something inherent in
goodness that he can use against it. He has the Neoplatonic sense of goodness
Excuses, Bepissing, and Non-being 65

as inherently active and overflowing.23 Again, it is not a matter of will, but of

being. Desdemona simply is the kind of person who will be overflowing
with charity. “She’s framed as fruitful / As the free elements” (2.3.336–37).
Her goodness of being includes, necessarily includes, a happy excess of both
goodness and being. So again, the principle of sheer negativity is clarified by
reference to its theological opposite.
Lest this still seem too fanciful, let me hasten to say that there are moments
in the play when Shakespeare explicitly presents Iago in something like these
terms. In the rather annoying scene in which Iago and Desdemona banter
about the nature of women, and Desdemona, grand lady that she is, sets Iago
the task of praising her, Iago gives a powerful reason for not wanting to play this
game, a reason that again, seems to say rather more than he intends. In attempt-
ing to refuse Desdemona’s playful challenge, Iago says, “O gentle lady, do not
put me to’t, / For I am nothing if not critical” (2.1.118–19). The context is play-
ful, and Iago does pride himself on his “tough-mindedness” (which in this case,
pace Eliot, is cynical),24 but Shakespeare clearly wants us to think about what it
would mean to be “nothing if not critical.” It would mean, taken literally, that
without an object to demean or destroy, such a person would be nothing, would
not exist. Again, as in the ontological argument, existence is a good, and has a
positive dimension.25 In this framework, Iago’s passion to destroy Othello must
be seen to derive from Othello’s fullness of being, his grand complacency, his
capacity for love and for joy. “O my fair warrior” is a truly wonderful moment
(in all senses [2.1.180]). When Cassio expresses his hope to be reconciled to
Othello, Cassio does so in strikingly Neoplatonic and Pauline language; he
hopes “that I may again / Exist, and be a member of his love” (3.4.133). So the
culpa from felix principle must be seen at work here too. Iago acknowledges—
somewhat, as he sees it, against his own grain—that “The Moor, howbeit that
I endure him not, / Is of a constant loving, noble nature, / And I dare think
he’ll prove to Desdemona / A most dear husband” (2.1.287–89). And so he
must be destroyed.26
Yet the clearest account of Iago’s deepest motivation comes in relation not to
Othello or Desdemona but to Cassio. At the beginning of the fifth Act, we watch
Iago going over the reasons why both Roderigo and Cassio must, one way or
another, be killed. His motive for wanting Roderigo out of the way is, indeed,
ordinary (“He calls me to a restitution large / Of gold and jewels that I bobbed
from him” [5.1.15–16]), and we already know his motive (or motives) for want-
ing Cassio dead—Cassio beat him out for the lieutenancy; Cassio may have slept
with Iago’s wife (2.1.305). Instead, however, of giving one of these straightfor-
ward and easily intelligible motives, Shakespeare has Iago say something else,
something entirely unexpected, and, again, self, or non-self, revealing; Iago says
of Cassio:

Iago: He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly. (5.1.19–20)
66 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

This is a deeper version of “I am nothing if not critical.” What Iago finds

intolerable about Cassio is not anything that he has (a job that Iago wants) or
anything in particular that he does; what he finds intolerable about Cassio is his
entire way of being, his ease and happiness in his being, social and ontological.
Shakespeare makes Iago aware of the void within him, of what he feels in
relation to persons who have the fullness of existence that he lacks. Again,
Neoplatonism helps us see the relation between the aesthetic terms and
ontological ones. For Neoplatonism, they are the same: the fullness of being is
goodness and beauty. Iago must make everything and everyone ugly—which
means, in the logic we have been tracing, to make it cease to exist.
As I have already suggested, Iago is, in my estimation, an especially clear
case, one in which Shakespeare essentially tells us how to think about “motives.”
But, to repeat, I take it that Iago is—not in the particular motive that he has, but
in the kind of motive that he has a—a normative case for Shakespeare’s concep-
tion of character and agency. Shakespeare, in my view, had to draw on theology
to find conceptions sufficiently mysterious. But I do not mean to suggest that
Shakespeare was writing theological dramas. He warns us not to make this
mistake; Iago does not have cleft feet—“I look down towards his feet, but that’s
a fable” (5.1.283). Theological conceptions were there, for Shakespeare, not to
point to theological mysteries, but to human ones.

All quotations from the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) are from the translation by
Martin Oswald (1962; Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1999). References will
hereafter appear parenthetically in the text by Bekker page, column, and line
Quotations are from the Q2 text edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Tylor
([Arden 3]; London, 2006).
See J. L. Austin, “A Plea for Excuses,” in Philosophical Papers, 2nd edition, ed.
J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock (Oxford, 1970), pp. 175–204, esp. pp. 184–5.
See NE 1117a20.
For an important essay on habit in Hamlet, see 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), pp. 145–72.
See the note in the lines in the Thompson-Tyler edition, p. 450. These editors see
both Hamlet and Laertes as straightforwardly “disingenuous.”
Harold Jenkins, in his edition (Arden 2; London and New York, 1982), pp. 567–8,
seems to me admirably undecided about Hamlet’s speech, as about that of Laertes.
Quotations from Othello are from the edition by E. A. J. Honigman (Arden 3; Lon-
don: Thomson Learning, 1996).
Excuses, Bepissing, and Non-being 67

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

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

Social Norms
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Chapter 5

Conduct (Un)becoming or, Playing

the Warrior in Macbeth
Sharon O’Dair

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

what philosopher Stephen Toulmin calls modernity’s “familiar metaphysical

divide,” 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, unresponsive things.”7 Indeed, this powerful assump-
tion that the self is in some unexplained way separate from its social environ-
ment has run roughshod over subsequent attempts to disrupt it, 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, even more glaringly those that fol-
lowed Judith Butler’s undermining of an essential gender identity through the
concept of performativity. Butler invoked drag performance to suggest “the
imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency,”8 but readers did
not infer from this that the structure of gender is rooted in deep-seated social
norms; that as a social role, “gender is…compelled by norms [one does] not
choose”9; that personal agency must, therefore, “work within” those norms
because they (help to) constitute the self continuously; or that that social norms
are both the condition and the limit of one’s agency. 10 Instead, readers took
from Gender Trouble the notion of “radical free agency.”11 As Butler put it years
later, readers thought her work meant they could “‘get up and put on a new
gender today,’ or ‘…have a collective meeting and decide what gender we
should perform and go perform it on the street and alter things radically’.”12
Many blamed Butler for their misconstruals; she should have written more
clearly. Perhaps. Her work is difficult, dense. But I think the problem lies more
with readers’, indeed the culture’s, seeming inability—still—to conceive of
selfhood as located anywhere other than in an interior personal space, separate
from the social. We seem unable to locate selfhood anywhere other than some
voluntaristic “fabrication of the performer’s ‘will’” or ‘choice’.”13 Butler and
Greenblatt challenge the idea that any gap exists between the self and the social
and suggest that the two are inseparable. Yet most of their readers assert either
that there is no self, or that the self is the locus of “radical free agency.” Despair
about the self or an inflation of it; these seem to be our choices and most of us
seem unable to acknowledge a reciprocal or a dialectical relationship between
self and society, the extent to which selfhood is neither constructed nor deter-
mined, neither free nor fixed but both—and both simultaneously.
Like other writers in this volume, I assume that the characters with whom
I engage represent moral agents who, as Michael D. Bristol urges earlier, are
faced with unpredictable social situations that require evaluation and judg-
ment. I follow Bristol in assuming that moral agents “are singular and self-
determining,” that is, they are very much interested in “maintaining a stable
rapport à soi—coherence, or integrity, or self-respect.” At the same time, moral
agents know their integrity depends upon how they negotiate the unpredicta-
ble social situations they face, situations that may—and in the drama usually
do—involve conflicts between obligations and expectations that are not easily
Conduct (Un)becoming 73

resolvable. In this essay, I examine Macbeth as a moral agent operating within

existing social norms for behavior whose “private qualities are successfully (or
otherwise) tested in public,” tested in, or through, time.14 These norms I infer
not from history, though I will refer to “the facts” occasionally, but from the play
itself and through a process Bristol calls “vernacular criticism,” a rigorous or
studied version of the “interpretive amateurism practiced by journalists,
flight attendants, or one’s own students” and based on “assumptions and pre-
suppositions about how to account for the actions of ordinary people.”15
A number of distinguished literary critics “have found sophisticated ways to
sustain” vernacular criticism, including Harry Berger and Harold Bloom, and
so, too, have moral philosophers such as Stanley Cavell, Charles Taylor, and
Martha Nussbaum; philosopher Tzachi Zamir offers the most recent contribu-
tion based on his work in contemporary ethics in Double Vision: Moral Philosophy
and Shakespearean Drama.16 My own route into vernacular criticism is through
sociological theory, particularly traditions of work broadly called interactionist,
which focus on small groups, subjective experience, meaning-making, and
everyday processes of social life. With roots in pragmatist philosophy and the
long history of theatrum mundi, interactionism is a qualitative or ethnographic
approach to the study of persons in groups. Interactionists use theatrical
metaphors to approach, describe, and assess persons in groups—role, act,
actor, performance—which should, I think, make their work appealing to
Shakespeareans and other critics of the drama and theater.17
Before discussing the “testing” of Macbeth’s character in time, I offer a sketch
of the society Shakespeare constructs in the play and of Macbeth’s private quali-
ties or character, what Weimann would call his “given condition or heritage.”18
Despite modernist condemnation of Macbeth’s actions as violations of natural
order, Scotland in Macbeth stands on the brink of socio-political decay. At the
outset, 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, Macbeth and Banquo, upon the “doubly redoubled strokes” of
their “brandished steel” against his enemies.19 Here, the words of Duncan echo
those of “the devil” before those of Macbeth do (1.3.107, 1.2.67, 1.3.38), and in
this world, many men—Banquo, for one, and perhaps Macduff—might look to
take Glamis’ course, with better or worse results. Macbeth knows, as does
Duncan himself, that the debt owed him is beyond the King’s ability to pay:
“The sin of my ingratitude even now / Was heavy on me. . . / More is thy due
than more than all can pay” (1.4.15–16, 21). Shakespeare intensifies the atmos-
phere of instability by suggesting that Duncan’s problems result partly from
incompetence: Duncan prepares to place significant, if not absolute, trust in
Macbeth (1.4.28–29, 54–58), but he seems not to believe that one of his nobles
might betray him. Musing on Cawdor’s recent defection, Duncan observes
“There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face. / He was a gentle-
man on whom I built / An absolute trust” (1.4.11–14). Yet within fifty lines,
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: “. . . he is so full valiant /
And in his commendations I am fed; / It is a banquet to me” (1.4.54–56).
Within fifty lines of acknowledging “there’s no art / To find the mind’s con-
struction in the face,” Duncan plants, harvests, and feeds in the love of
If Scotland under Duncan is a murky place of strong-armed politics, the text
indicates, too, that the Malcolm-Macduff alliance may not provide the final
“med’cine of the sickly weal” (5.2.27). Macbeth concludes—unsurprisingly—
with a sense of loss and sterility: no women survive, and as critics once were
fond of noting, the men who do seem puny compared with those who com-
manded the stage’s attention for so long. More specifically, in his final speech
Malcolm invokes the image of planting which, while intended to bind Malcolm
to his nobles and to recall the sweetness and light of his father’s reign, 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. Further, like his father’s, Malcolm’s victory depends upon a strong-armed
captain; and if Malcolm avoids capture in battle against Macbeth, his perform-
ance does little to alter the play’s initial image of him as a “boy” in captivity
(1.2.3–5, 2.2.22–25). Malcolm will be another Scots king who depends on his
nobles’ strength—or on that of the English—to maintain power. As Alan
Sinfield argued over twenty years ago, Macduff will be the new “king-maker”20;
the play suggests a return to, a cycle of, tyranny and violence.
Of Macbeth’s character we know that, above all, Macbeth is a fearsome war-
rior. In the play’s early scenes, Shakespeare grounds Macbeth’s character in his
role as warrior, which he plays skillfully and for which he is given much honor.
But one cannot say of Macbeth, as one can of Othello, that he is a stranger to
his society’s graces and its games, or that he is experienced only at warfare. 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, he nevertheless distances himself
from the role such that despite accomplishment, the day is both “foul and fair”
to him (1.3.97, 1.3.38). In battle Macbeth may be “valor’s minion,” a bloody
executioner, but out of the wars he sees the limits society places on its mem-
bers—as host, as husband, as Thane, and as warrior, even (1.2.19). He is noble,
loyal, and loving both to his wife and his king; and he glories in the public
honor his skills in battle bring. Not without ambition, 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, until one establishes himself as most worthy to be king. Indeed,
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”
(1.3.143–45). Ross had, after all, hailed Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor “for an
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, an
automatic succession from father to son. The playwright, it seems, deliberately
obscures the status of the succession in order to concentrate on Glamis’ designs
on the throne.
Weimann, as we have seen, thinks Shakespeare’s brilliance in characteriza-
tion, his ability to suggest “growth and change,” can only be realized when “the
self and the social . . . are seen as entering into a dynamic and unpredictable
kind of relationship.”21 Crucial to this relationship is a testing of the self, of
given qualities, in public and in time.22 Does such a testing occur in Macbeth?
I think it does, and I think Macbeth’s decision(s) to murder flow reasonably, or
at least understandably, from his self, which as I have already said, is based
primarily in the role of warrior, a role he plays well, sincerely, and with society’s
full approval. The matter of testing, of seeing the self placed in an unpredicta-
ble relationship with social norms, separates my reading of the play from Zamir’s
fine reading , whose Macbeth is not tested, who is from the outset unsatisfied,
a man who “never enjoys his accomplishments.”23 Zamir’s Macbeth is a nihilist,
the play a study in nihilism, and while I agree with much in Zamir’s reading,
I wish to offer another explanation for “why Macbeth remains unsatisfied
after he achieves what . . . he is after.”24 Rather than represent an exemplum of
“the psychological and existential [manifestations of] nihilism,”25 Macbeth
represents the sorts of behavior and judgments to which we all are subject
when acting, or shall we say, interacting in public—miscalculations, failures of
imagination, ethical compromises, and rejections of what one knows to be true.
Here is not a “black Macbeth” raging unchecked across the Scottish country-
side (4.3.52), 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” (1.3.58–59,
1.7.42). In the beginning, murder does not seem at odds with the noble and
brave self that is, as Macbeth himself says, “the disposition that I owe” (3.4.112).
And the people and nobles give Macbeth time—a grace period, 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, without persisting in it.
Or whether, in the end, 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.
Macbeth’s lethal actions at first seem not just acceptable but actually praise-
worthy—and not only to the principal beneficiaries but also to Banquo, most
other lords of Scotland, and the country itself—partly because people expect a
good deal of violence, indeed violation, to surround the position of king.
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. Rather he emphasizes it, in the scene in which Malcolm
76 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

tests Macduff, suggesting that violence, violation, and self-aggrandizement are

expected in the role. 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, claiming that, with power, he
would “pour the sweet milk of concord into hell” (4.3.50–102, 98). Note, too,
that in this scene Malcolm plays Lady Macbeth to Macduff’s Macbeth, 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, so Malcolm counsels his warrior Macduff to ignore his obliga-
tions as a surviving husband and father—to change remorse and grief into
manly anger—in order to accomplish theirs. “Be this the whetstone of your
sword,” Malcolm counsels, “Let grief / Convert to anger; blunt not the heart,
enrage it” (4.3.228–29). For Malcolm as for Lady Macbeth, grief, remorse, or
pride in a good name are motivators—or means of manipulation. Lady
Macbeth chides her husband for his fear of detection; Malcolm chides
Macduff for allowing sorrow to overcome the urge for revenge. And like Lady
Macbeth, Malcolm succeeds in restoring to his warrior his “better part of man”
(5.8.18) and in assuring him that heroic action is the only “manly . . . tune”
Of course, one can read this scene differently; Zamir suggests that Malcolm’s
“remarks . . . border on scolding.”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, long before they fight, Macbeth and Macduff oppose each
other through the philosophies they embody . . . ”. All of this is intended to
“create . . . a reader position that responds to value when it appears and closes
itself more and more to Macbeth’s nihilism as the play progresses.”27 That this
reading is clever, even compelling, or that the play offers alternatives to the
masculinity inscribed in the warrior’s role I do not dispute, but I think the
dramatic—and social—process here is more complicated than Zamir allows.
Even in reading, much less in performance, where this scene is often cut drasti-
cally, Macduff does not carry audiences with him. Macduff’s emotional response
here does not shut us down to Macbeth; Macbeth’s actions do. Furthermore,
Macduff’s expressed emotion does not alter the play’s definitions of what it
means to be a man or a warrior, as evidenced immediately in Macduff himself,
whom Malcolm restores to his “better part of man,” and later, 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” (5.9.6–9). Shakespeare does not offer competing
philosophies to choose between but an image, a representation, of the ways
individuals and societies construct, negotiate and test the roles and behaviors
that make us who we are. This play asks us, to consider, for example,
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. Roles are social prescriptions regulating
behavior and interaction, originating in what sociologists call a “fundamental
process of habitualization . . . endemic to social interaction,” and what
Butler would call “a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained
repetition of norms.”28 Emerging from iterability, from processes of habituali-
zation, are expectations for behavior that govern social interaction and
which, as sociologists say, “are binding on the individual, in the sense that he
cannot ignore or reject them without harm to himself”29 or, as Butler says
regarding gender, in the sense that the individual must perform them “under
and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and
taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death.”30 At the same time, these
binding parts do not bind completely, and all roles—as say, man, husband, host,
or warrior—allow for variety in performance; each person determines how to
fulfill—or avoid—expectations for behavior associated with his positions in
society. Whether such variation in performance is compelling, either socially or
personally, is another matter, but sociologists suggest that significant social
change can occur when persons resignfy roles through performance, just as
Butler claims the question of subversion is a matter of “working the weakness
in the norm.”31
Social roles and the norms surrounding them are, we might say, fuzzy around
the edges. This opens up the possibility for change in them but also makes the
process of learning them difficult. Erving Goffman explains that “a status, a
position, a social place is not a material thing, to be possessed and then
displayed; it is a pattern of appropriate conduct, coherent, embellished, and
well articulated. Performed with ease or clumsiness, awareness or not, guile or
good faith, it is none the less something that must be enacted and portrayed,
something that must be realized.”32 That is, a person achieves a social
position immediately—he becomes Thane of Cawdor, for example, or King of
Scotland—but only in time, if at all, does he becomes at ease with himself in
that position. Only in time—”with the aid of use” (1.3.147)—may a new role
become an internalized part of the self. And only in time can both the individ-
ual and society judge the quality of the performance and whether the new role
is, in fact, an internalized part of the self: only then can all see if use has allowed
the awkward “strange garments” to “cleave...to their mould” or if, instead, as in
Macbeth, use reveals that the garments will not fit (1.3.146). 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, as a process in time. And I think Shakespeare emphasizes this
point in his use of the image of robes and garments in Macbeth. Caroline
Spurgeon and Cleanth Brooks each famously discussed this image cluster of
78 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

robes or garments, but neither considered the placement of these images, or

the oddity that after four prominent references to the image in Act 1,
Shakespeare uses the image only twice more: once in Act 2 before Macbeth’s
investiture, when Macduff wonders if the nobles’ positions—their roles and
robes—will be less comfortable under the new king than they were under
Duncan (2.4.38); and finally, in Act 5, 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, like a giant’s robe / Upon
a dwarfish thief” (5.2.20–22).
Spurgeon thinks these images suggest that “Macbeth’s new honours sit ill
upon him, like a loose and badly fitting garment, belonging to someone else,”
and that he is a “vain, cruel, treacherous creature, snatching ruthlessly . . .
at place and power he is utterly unfitted to possess.”33 Brooks sees the situation
somewhat differently, 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.”34 For Brooks,
the crucial point about this comparison is that “these are not his garments…
they are stolen garments. Macbeth is uncomfortable in them because he
is continually conscious of the fact that they do not belong to him.”35 (34). But
another interpretation of those images is possible. 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. The community, these images suggest, 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. The
garments—shall we call them the Levi’s 501s of the 1960s, not stonewashed
Diesel jeans of 2010—are in fact his, and not perceived as stolen either by
Macbeth or by the Scots; but he is unable to break them in, get comfortable in
them, make them a compelling part of his wardrobe and self.
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, which the
play’s early scenes reveal he plays skillfully. Distinguishing the warrior’s
role is the ability to define self in a kind of vacuum; it sanctions daring. Unlike
most situations in which a person defines self in context, reflexively, by giving
more than passing consideration to the presence and opinions of others
(as Macbeth’s words in 1.7 clearly show), in battle a warrior “dispute[s] it like a
man,” doing “but what [he] should” and confronting another warrior “with
self-comparisons, / Point against point rebellious, arm ‘gainst arm” (4.3.220,
1.4.26, 1.2.56–57). Like Macbeth, he will not be afraid of what he creates—of
himself or of others (1.3.96–97). Indeed, daring and fear seem essential to
understanding Macbeth as he develops, as he grows and changes, in this play.
In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses these words again and again—over fifty times—to
suggest the limits and bounds of social role, of personal action within society.
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”), the
audience begins to understand their intimate relationship in meaning: without
fear, daring loses significance, and without daring, fear loses significance.
Shakespeare’s play reveals Macbeth as he loses both; it records a man’s move-
ment by choice out of the nervous insecurity of “initiate fear” into the cool
safety of “hard use” (3.4.142). At the play’s beginning Macbeth ranges far and
wide in Scotland and is “nothing afeard of what [his self] didst make, / Strange
images of death” (1.3.96–97). At the play’s end, he has “almost forgot the taste
of fears” (5.5.9) and finds that while in better times he would have met his ene-
mies “dareful . . . beard to beard” (5.5.6), now in Dunsinane, he is “tied to a
stake”; and “bear-like . . . must fight the course” (5.7.1–2).
There is, then, an immediacy to this role that is unusual and that encourages
the player to merge action and desire, to make his will his act. The warrior must
not let “‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’” (1.7.44). He must be “the same in [his]
own act and valour, / As [he is] in desire” (1.7.40–41). For this reason, the
warrior “deserves” the name he achieves—be it coward, the Thane of Cawdor,
or even, perhaps, butcher—for it results from action in a social context much
more free than most from the sanctions or support of one’s fellows, as is
suggested both in the play’s first description of Macbeth (1.2.16–23) and in its
late description of young Siward (5.8.40–43). To emphasize such deserving,
however, is not to say that Macbeth himself does not sin, disrupt the social
order, wade hip-deep in his friends’ blood. Shakespeare makes it plain that he
does sin and that he does so knowingly: aided by his wife, 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. Recall that in 1.7., Macbeth decides to
protect, perhaps against the strong wind of pity, the “golden opinions” he has
“bought” with his actions. To protect them requires that he submit to
society’s expectations and avoid the act society must judge unfavorably.
To be a man, he concludes to his wife, is to be social; daring, therefore, must
give way to fear. Not to do so is to be no man (1.7.47–48). In reply, Lady
Macbeth does not refute his arguments but denies their importance.
She forces his attention to the personal level—what will she think of him, and
what will he think of himself, if he lets pass this opportunity to seize the
“ornament of life” (1.7.35–45). Impugning his manhood from many sides at
once—sobriety, virility, valor, and the honor of his given word—she denies
the “tender . . . 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, not incidentally in this case, a warrior (1.7.55). Sure, too,
that “a little water clears us of this deed” (2.2.45–6, 66), she makes society’s
opinions, society’s judgments, something to be avoided practically, by deceit
and a cover-up. Against her personal threats and insults, he can offer no
80 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

argument about the social judgment he fears, but only the practical question,
“If we should fail?” (1.7.59) By it he acknowledges the appeal of deviousness,
of avoiding social judgment by assuring that society does not discover the
deed it must judge. Unlike the poor cat in the adage and unlike Banquo,
Macbeth will dare get his feet wet.
Macbeth’s boldness and daring do secure the kingship for him. But even
before his investiture—and this, too, 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, but some
other role is now his, which he cannot yet describe. “To know my deed,” he
concludes, “‘twere best not know myself” (2.2.72). And in Macbeth’s public
reaction to the news of Duncan’s murder there is more, I think, than just great
dissembling or Machiavellian politics. Macbeth’s words reveal some under-
standing 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; for from this instant
There’s nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys. Renown and grace is dead,
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of (2.3.89–94).

From the perspective urged in this paper, it is fitting that Macbeth again is
required to play the role of host, and that his failure to preserve the rule of soci-
ety (3.4.118–19) and to play the king’s role appropriately signals his movement
into butchery and his country’s into rebellion (3.6). As in 1.4, Lady Macbeth
counsels her husband to adopt a mask for the upcoming social occasion
(3.2.26–27). He must not, she warns, allow his face to reveal the distemper that
is his (3.2.27–28) because “To feed were best at home; / From thence, the sauce
to meat is ceremony: / Meeting were bare without it” (3.4.34–36). Yet if at
dinner with Duncan Macbeth was able with “false face” to hide his murderous
intent (1.7.83), he is unable, as King, to hide his “saucy doubts and fears” of vul-
nerability (3.4.24). Only the Queen’s fast talking prevents the supper from fail-
ing 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 (3.4.74–82,
109–115). In the calm of night following the debacle of this attempt to main-
tain social form, 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 am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, /
Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.134–39).
To rid himself of his terrible fears (of, perhaps, what he has made of himself,
of what name he has achieved—”something wicked”(4.1.45), and knowing he
cannot long sustain even his currently poor performance, Macbeth denies his
Conduct (Un)becoming 81

responsibilities as King (3.4.134–35) and collapses into the safety of his

privileges as King, into that part of the role so familiar to him, which allows
action to follow directly upon impulse, which allows action to “outrun the
pauser, reason” (2.3.109; cf. 4.1.145–49). Macbeth seeks security and peace in
his right as king to make his will his act. “Strange things I have in head,” he tells
his wife, “that will to hand, / Which must be acted ere they may be scanned”
(3.4.138–39). To kill the “strange and self-abuse” that results from “initiate fear,”
Macbeth decides he must “be bloody, bold, and resolute” (3.4.141–42; 4.1.79).
And Macbeth does find peace in “hard use”(3.4.142) but it is a solitary peace,
which suggests to him that life itself is “full of sound and fury, signifying noth-
ing.” Perhaps as Zamir thinks, the “tomorrow” speech is emblematic of the
nihilism that characterizes Mactbeth throughout the play, and this the moment
when “his nihilism emerges as an explicit position.”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.” Yet Macbeth speaks the “tomorrow” speech
before he hears report that “a wood / Comes toward Dunsinane” (5.5.16–28,
33–35). It would seem rather that Macbeth’s despair is rooted in an awareness
of what his choices have cost him. Early in the play Macbeth feared to lose
society’s “golden opinions,” and in Act 5 he admits that he has lost not only
them but also “that which should accompany old age, / As honor, love, obedi-
ence, troops of friends (5.3.24–25). Macbeth’s retreat into the privileges of his
role, his increasing tendency to crown his thoughts with action (cf. 4.1.144–49,
153–54), does not lead him where he had hoped it would. It leads him into
isolation and away from the society of men and women among whom he had
sought to become preeminent.
If we assume that Macbeth is neither fiendish nor insane, nor, as Lady
Macbeth hypothesizes, drunk when he decides in Act 1 to murder the king, can
we account for the irony of Macbeth’s career? I would like to offer two explana-
tions. 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, their public
ratification of them. Macbeth fails to realize what Ulysses, in Troilus and Cressida,
urges the petulant warrior Achilles to consider:

Ulysses: . . . no man is the lord of anything,

Though in and of him there be much consisting,
Till he communicate his parts to others;
Nor doth he of himself know them for aught
Till he behold them formed in th’applause
Where they’re extended—who, like an arch,
The voice again, or, like a gate of steel
Fronting the sun, receives and renders back
His figure and his heat.38
82 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Macbeth knows that murdering Duncan is wrong and and, even more impor-
tant, distasteful to his own amour propre, but he is a seasoned killer who also
knows that killing has never before disturbed his sense of the “disposition that
I owe.” Killing has brought him new privileges, responsbilities, power, honor—
not bad dreams. For Macbeth killing has been a means to an end—the privi-
lege, responsibility, power, and honor he receives as, say, Thane of Cawdor—and
it has been from the end, not the means, that Macbeth gets to know himself.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,
no place to dare to be so much more the man. Yet he yields to his Lady’s plan
because he does not acknowledge, and thus cannot describe to his wife, how
different is his heroic action in Act 1, issuing in a new role, the Thane of
Cawdor, to the heroic action he proposes for the future that will, if all goes well,
issue in a new role, the King of Scotland. In the former situation Macbeth’s new
name and his new robes issue directly from the public nature of his action.
In the latter situation his new name and his new robes issue directly from the
private—or secret—nature of his action. Unlike his battlefield killing, his
bedroom killing has no clear connection to the public honor and position he
achieves. The kingship is a position society gives—”the sovereignty will fall upon
Macbeth” (2.4.30)—because of the circumstances created by his private, secret
action. Kingship, as such, attained in this way, Shakespeare suggests, can have
little value for him, a man who cannot wear a mask, a man who has in the past
defined himself through public action. 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.
Besides underestimating the importance of public ratification of his actions,
Macbeth also badly misjudges the nature of the king’s role. When contemplat-
ing Duncan’s power, he fails to realize what Laertes describes when he talks of
Hamlet, that the king may have less freedom than his subjects:

Laertes: His greatness weighed, his will is not his own.

For he himself is subject to his birth:
He may not, as unvalu’d persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state;
And therefore must his choice be circumscrib’d
Unto the voice and yielding of that body
Whereof he is the head.40

Macbeth fails to realize that society limits even its most powerful member, just
as it limits its husbands, nobles, and warriors. I suggest that as Scotland’s fore-
most warrior, Macbeth finds kingship attractive because it seems to be the one
position in society in which, at his pleasure, a man may play the “warrior” at any
Conduct (Un)becoming 83

time. Only in battle may the warrior make his will his act, but the king seems
free to do so anywhere. That superior freedom is manifest in the king’s ability
to “pronounce” everything so, to give words the force or effect of action.
Shakespeare several times shows Duncan exercising the breath of kings, as in
his royal imperative, “Go pronounce [Cawdor’s] present death / And with his
former title greet Macbeth” (1.2.66–67) 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 (1.2. 44–45). The king need not put his body on the line to
enforce his will; as both Elizabeth and James knew, power lies in “the breath of
kings,” as Shakespeare puts it in Richard II,41 or in the ability, as Jonathan
Goldberg puts it, “to make words facts, to affirm discourse in action.”42
Or so Macbeth thinks. It is a belief Shakespeare immediately deflates.
Immediately after the murder, Macbeth discovers to his horror that he “could
not . . . pronounce ‘Amen’ . . . ” (2.2.31). Macbeth has not, if you will, com-
pleted the action, nor achieved the powerful freedom he sought. Later, when
he wants to murder Banquo, he is forced to acknowledge this limitation when
he says to the hired killers, “though I could / with barefaced power sweep him
from my sight / and bid my will avouch it, / yet I must not” (3.1.117–19). Too
late, Macbeth learns there is no absolute freedom within society, no position to
occupy in society that does not require submission to society—to the ritualized
iteration of norms. The play is thus a powerful anticipation of the arguments of
Butler and the sociologists about our world today, but the central irony of
Macbeth is, I think, 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, the position that he mistakenly believes allows
its incumbent full autonomy and authority to define the self publicly in every-
day life. A man whose face has fully revealed his self finds, intolerably, that he
must wear a mask to play the role that his daring has won him. Unable to play
the role well or for long, as his face remains a true and open book of his
self, Macbeth struggles to understand the self that his daring has made—a
murderer, something wicked, someone outside the community of men and
women. Yet in the end, having faced that self and having understood his losses,
he remains the warrior who will not yield to fear: “And damned be him that first
cries, ‘Hold, enough’!”

Robert Weimann, “Society and the Individual in Shakespeare’s Conception of
Character,” Shakespeare Survey, 1981, pp. 25, 29.
Ibid., p. 27.
Ibid., p. 26.
Compare Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In The Marx-Engels
Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1972), p. 437.
84 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (Chicago and London: The
University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 33, 34.
Philip Edwards, “Person and Office in Shakespeare’s Plays” in Interpretations of
Shakespeare: British Academy Lectures, Sel. and ed. Kenneth Muir (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 106.
Toulmin, Stephen, “The Inwardness of Mental Life,” Critical Inquiry 6 (Autumn
1979), pp. 10, 19.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York:
Routledge, 1990), p. 137.
Judith Butler, “Changing the Subject: Judith Butler’s Politics of Radical Resignif-
cation” in The Judith Butler Reader, Ed. by Sara Salih, with Judith Butler (Oxford:
Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p. 345.
Butler, “Subject,” p. 345.
Butler, “Subject,” p. 344.
Butler, “Subject,” p. 344.
Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: on the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York:
Routledge, 1993), p. 234.
Weimann, p. 26 .
Michael D. Bristol, “Vernacular Criticism and the Scenes Shakespeare Never
Wrote.” Shakespeare Survey 53 (2000): pp. 89–102. In suggesting that stage action
can be analyzed in ways similar to the ways one analyzes reality, I do not suggest—
or believe—that Macbeth, say, is a real person.
Bristol, p. 91; Tzachi Zamir, Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean
Drama (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007).
Two examples of work in this vein are historian Ronald F. E. Weismann’s
“Reconstructing Renaissance Sociology: the ‘Chicago School’ and the Study of
Renaissance Society” in Richard C. Trexler (ed), Persons in Groups: Social Behavior
as Identity Formation in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Binghampton, 1985),
pp. 39–45 and my own “Social Role and the Making of Identity in Julius Caesar”
Studies in English Literature 33 (Spring 1993): pp. 289–307.
Weimann, p. 26.
William Shakespeare, Macbeth. Ed. Kenneth Muir. London and New York:
Methuen, 1984, 1.2.1–45, 50–59; 1.2.39, 17. All subsequent citations to the play
are included in the text.
Alan Sinfield, “Macbeth: history, ideology and intellectuals,” Critical Quarterly
28 (1986), p. 70.
Weimann, p. 25.
Weimann, p. 26.
Zamir, p. 92.
Zamir, p. 93, n.3.
Zamir p. 94.
Zamir, p. 105. Emphasis mine.
Zamir, p. 108.
Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality:
A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), p. 74.
Butler Bodies, p. 95.
Ralf Dahrendorf, Essays in the Theory of Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
1968), p. 37.
Conduct (Un)becoming 85

Butler, Bodies, p. 95.
Bodies, p. 237.
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, NY,
1959), p. 75.
Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare’s Imagery (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1961), pp. 325, 327.
Cleanth Brooks, “The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness.” The Well Wrought
Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947), p. 35.
Brooks, p. 34.
Erving Goffman, Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction (Indianapolis:
Bobbs Merrill, 1961), p. 140.
Zamir, p. 93.
William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida. 3rd Series. Ed. David Bevington.
(London: Arden Shakespeare, 1998) 3.3.116–24.
See also Zamir, who makes a similar point, p. 96.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet. 2nd Series. Ed. Harold Jenkins (London, Arden
Shakespeare, 1982), 1.2.17–24.
William Shakespeare, King Richard II. 3rd Series. Ed. Charles R. Forker (London:
Arden Shakespeare, 2002), 1.3.215.
Jonathan Goldberg. James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne,
and Their Contemporaries (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983),
p. 28.
Chapter 6

To “Tempt the Rheumy and Unpurged Air”:

Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar
Jennifer Feather

What, is Brutus sick?

And will he steal out of his wholesome bed
To dare the vile contagion of night,
And tempt the rheumy and unpurged air
to add unto his sickness? (2.1.262–66)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. According to most traditional accounts, moral action
requires a deliberating subject whose will overrides mere instinct. Aristotle
insists that virtue requires voluntary action, avoiding what he calls “akrasia” or
weakness of the will.2 In the seventh book of The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle
distinguishes between three kinds of moral character to be avoided—vice, unre-
straint and bestiality—but focuses on the distinction between the two largest
categories, unrestraint (akrasia) and self-restraint (enkrateia). Most morally
culpable action according to Aristotle, is akrasia, a failure of the will, when one
acts against one’s own best judgment. One of my undergraduate students once
suggested that he had not completed his paper because of an attack of akrasia.
Unlike students who rationalize such actions by insisting that the paper is
irrelevant to their lives or to their getting a job, this student believed in the
benefit of the assignment but wanted to suggest that he lacked the discipline to
get the assignment done. In contrast, enkrateia, a firmness of the will, is refrain-
ing from fulfilling one’s desires when those desires conflict with one’s best
judgment. When my student finally sat down to write his paper, forgoing those
temptations that were distracting him, he practiced enkrateia and produced
quite a good paper.
Similarly, Portia, assuming that Brutus would not behave against his best
judgment and “tempt the rheumy and unpurged air” posits him as a rational
subject, immune to the pull of akrasia. She answers her own question in the
Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar 87

negative, insisting that Brutus must have some “sick offence within his mind”
(2.1.267). Because no rational person would add to her own physical sickness
by going out into the cold night, Portia concludes that Brutus must have a
purely psychological malady. In seeing him not as struggling with the “bodily”
temptations of akrasia, but within the throes of a difficult process of delibera-
tion, she affirms his understanding of himself as a moral subject. One might go
so far as to say that Portia sees Brutus as what Aristotle, further distinguishing
between self-restraint (enkrateia) and temperance (so-phrosune-), would describe
as a temperate subject. However, as I will argue, understanding Brutus in terms
of akrasia yields much in the way of understanding the play and the kind of
moral action it dramatizes. By seeing Brutus in terms of akrasia rather than sim-
ply ascribing his actions to so-phrosune-, I will take into account the moral content
not only of his rational decisions but also of his desires, challenging the idea of
agency that he claims.
Portia, assuming that only his process of deliberation about some weighty
matter and not the illness he claims to suffer could explain his behavior,
presupposes that moral action is based on deliberate action of a rational
subject. Portia perceives Brutus as using his reason to guide his action, and
thus, she understands him as a moral agent. He is not, like the akratic, subject
to influences that work contrary to his best judgment. However, her question
raises the possibility that Brutus’ deliberation is not entirely subject to his own
will but susceptible to external, environmental forces. Seen in the context of
early modern medicine, 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. In fact, in early modern medical models, susceptibility to
environmental imbalance is a common source of illness.3 Portia’s question both
figures Brutus as a rationally deliberating, autonomous subject and raises the
possibility of his vulnerability to the influence of the social and physical world
around him.
A Brutus who would “tempt the rheumy and unpurged air” would act con-
trary 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. In fact, Brutus does “tempt the
rheumy and unpurged air / To add unto his sickness,” and the distinction
between sickness of the mind and sickness of the body is not as stark as Portia
implies, 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, thereby maintaining the autonomy of the agent, the
rhetoric of the play repeatedly conflates the two, unsettling the easy association
between corporeal and moral integrity. Moreover, Brutus’s actions ultimately
support the Republican ideology with which he identifies even as they
88 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

undermine his own sense of the centrality of the autonomy of the agent in that
Beginning with Brutus’s suicide, I want to suggest that Brutus behaves
according to what Nomy Arpaly in her book, Unprincipled Virtue, calls “inverse
akrasia,” or “doing the right thing against one’s best judgment.”4 Such actions
involve a failure of the will just as in Aristotle’s conception of akrasia, but this
failure nonetheless produces morally laudable actions. Arpaly suggests that, for
instance, 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, then
he is submitting to inverse akrasia. As Hugh Grady suggests elsewhere in this
collection, 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. Inverse akrasia
takes seriously not only the agent’s conscious intentions but also the unin-
tended consequences of his actions.
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, let alone a moral one. Moreover, it is particularly significant
because suicide is so central to early modern conceptions of Roman virtue.
As many critics have pointed out, by the time Shakespeare was writing, sui-
cide already involved an elaborate set of social codes in imitation of Roman
models, even as it was condemned by Christian theology.5 Cato’s elaborate
justification of his own suicide, in which he sees his act as the success of his
will, was well known through North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, which
served as a source for Shakespeare’s play. In fact, to highlight the will required,
Plutarch narrates Cato’s remarkable self-mastery in accomplishing his sui-
cide. Upon “coming to himself,” Plutarch insists that Cato pushes away the
physician who is attempting to help him and then tears his own bowels apart.
However, contemporary Christian discourse sees it as usurping the power of
God.6 Immanuel Kant, like Aristotle, places emphasis on rational actions,
locating moral worth in the autonomous will and arguing that destroying a
morally worthy will is not only logically problematic but also morally repug-
nant.7 Suicide was in the early modern period, thus, an action both admired
and repudiated. Paradoxically, the sacrificial nature of this questionable act
enables Antony and Octavius to raise Brutus up as the essence of Romanness,
a Romanness that their actions will ultimately destroy. How can an ambigu-
ously rational act support Roman virtue and the Republic which throughout
the rest of the play seems synonymous with autonomous, rational action?
This tension, dramatized in terms of Brutus’s suicide, can be resolved by
reading the play’s description of contagion in terms of Arpaly’s notion of
inverse akrasia.
Shakespeare first dramatizes these conflicting narratives in Brutus’s own
initial deliberation about suicide. When Cassius, parting with Brutus for what
Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar 89

may be the last time, suggests that he might rather commit suicide than undergo
the humiliation of defeat, Brutus responds that,

Brutus: Even by the rule of that philosophy

By which I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself, I know not how,
But I do find it cowardly and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The time of life: arming myself with patience
To stay the providence of some high powers
That govern us below. (5.1.101–07)

Recognizing his own philosophy as different from Cato’s, which sees suicide as
an act of self-mastery, Brutus, though he “know[s] not how,” feels suicide is
cowardly and vile. Critics have found this passage notoriously difficult to inter-
pret. Brutus is not, in fact, a Stoic but a follower as Plutarch suggests of “Plato’s
sect” and hence, does not believe in suicide. This reading implies that Brutus’s
suicide shows “the soldier overcoming the philosopher.”8 Because, according to
such a reading, Brutus seems to go against his philosophical principles, his
feelings as a soldier must be overcoming his rational will. However, the passage
itself is ambiguous, and shows how the constancy implicit in both Platonic and
Stoic philosophy could “require either Senecan suicide, or (in Plato’s famous
image) a steadfast sticking to one’s post.”9 Moreover, Cato himself, in North’s
narration, reads Plato’s Phaedo not once, but twice before committing suicide,
revealing how mutually affirming Platonic and Stoic philosophy were under-
stood to be.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. Though he claims still to be
following a “rule” of philosophy, he also claims to “not know how” he clings to
these principles. Here we begin to see Brutus responding to impulses beyond
those dictated by his rational will. One might even call his response “inverse
akrasia,” for Brutus argues that he blames Cato for his suicide despite his recog-
nition of Cato’s justification. Significantly, he cannot identify why he holds
principles that cause him to object to suicide, but at least initially prefers
“To stay the providence of some higher powers.” As in Portia’s inadvertent
acknowledgment that individual will might be susceptible to “the rheumy and
unpurged air,” Brutus here shows himself, however subtly, susceptible to forces
outside his rational comprehension.
Though Brutus’s suicide may be ambiguously moral, even in Brutus’s own
conception, 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. After his death, Antony claims that Brutus is “the noblest Roman of
them all” (5.5.67). Octavius then ratifies this nobility in the disposition of his
90 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

corpse, 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. 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. Thus, the violence of the play, Girard argues, is
spurred less by “individual psychology than [by] the rapid march of mimetic
desire itself. . . . As the crisis worsens, the relative importance of mimesis versus
rationality goes up.”11 This claim locates agency within the deadly rivalries of
the mimetic world. These rivalries eventually threaten individual agency result-
ing in violence on an ever larger scale. 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. The ideology of emulation itself which
attempts to solidify the place of the ruling class and thereby protect the
Republic provokes its collapse.12 Girard claims that with opposition to Antony
and Octavius’s camp effectively destroyed, the disparate mimetic factions reach
unanimity, the ultimate exhaustion of the mimetic process. According to
Girard’s reading, Brutus’s sacrifice is valuable not for the principles he espouses
but because it simply exhausts the mimetic process.
A closer inspection of Antony’s encomium, however, makes clearer the values
that Antony rhetorically locates in Brutus’s sacrificed body. Antony, first,
excludes Brutus from the rest of the conspirators who participated in Caesar’s
assassination out of envy, effectively discarding the possibility that Brutus’s
participation was the result of akrasia. He says, “He only in a general and honest
thought / And a common good to all made one of them” (5.5.69–70), remark-
ing not only on Brutus’s conscious deliberation, the key, many would argue, to
autonomous moral action, but also indicating that this deliberation was respon-
sive to the needs of the commonwealth. According to Kant, responsiveness to
moral reasons, such as the needs of the community rather than a personal
impulse toward envy, assures the moral praiseworthiness of actions such as the
ones Brutus takes.13
This part of Antony’s encomium, focusing as it does on rational deliberation,
bears much in common not only with traditional philosophical understandings
of moral praiseworthiness but also with notions of Roman virtue which through-
out the play are described in terms of autonomy and self-governance. For
instance, Cassius remarks that he would “lief not be as live to be / In awe of such
a thing as I myself” (1.2.97–98). Being in awe of another human being conflicts
with Cassius’s sense of his own autonomy, a stumbling block to the sovereign
will. Autonomy, including individual bodily governance, is absolutely essential
to Cassius’s sense of himself. In response to Casca’s anxiety about the danger-
ous exhalations of the night, Cassius remarks on the invulnerability of the
Roman body to such forces. Because the individual Roman is autonomous,
he can withstand even these dangerous forces. Cassius asserts,
Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar 91

Cassius: For my part, I have walked about the streets,

Submitting me unto the perilous night;
And thus unbracéd, Casca, as you see,
Have bared my bosom to the thunder-stone. (1.3.46–49)

Cassius presents himself as so much in control of himself that his body is

self-contained even against prodigious natural forces. In fact, he makes
precisely the claim Portia makes in questioning whether Brutus would remain
in the night air if he were sick, deciding in the negative. When Antony remarks
on the deliberateness of Brutus’s actions and his ability to remain in control of
envy, a specific form of akrasia, he exalts Brutus for demonstrating this wide-
spread notion of Roman virtue. Though Aristotle himself does not mention
envy as a form of akrasia, evidence in other early modern texts suggests that
envy would fit into this category. In Book II of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which
culminates with Guyon’s defeat of Acrasia in the Bower of Bliss, Arthur’s
enkrateia is tested by the lady Prays-desire who seeks to outshine all competitors
in aspiring to honor ( Like Cassius and the faerie knights, Brutus
has held his autonomy against the akratic force of envy that might overtake his
However, Antony continues his panegyric with a surprising description of
Brutus’s virtue, praising his constitution not in terms of its invulnerability but in
terms of its mix of natural elements. He claims that Brutus’s “Life was gentle,
and the elements / So mixed in him that nature might stand up / And say to all
the world ‘This was a man’” (5.5.72–74). Though Antony’s conflation of
masculinity and nobility is not surprising, his invocation of the humoral body,
with its susceptibility to environmental influence, at least suggests a different
kind of subjectivity than the preceding description of self-control. At the very
least, it implies that Brutus’ s status as a man is ratified by nature itself because
it is a “natural,” if extraordinary, mixing of elements. Unlike Cassius’s self-
description, which pictured him as walled-off from nature, this image presents
Brutus as in harmony with nature, possessing its elements in perfect propor-
tions. 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-congratula-
tory bravado. Rather than seeing Brutus’s virtue in terms of its invincibility and
its autonomy, Antony praises it in terms of a balance of multiple influences.
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. The ambiguous status of suicide
evident in Brutus’s own initial uncertainty appears more subtly in his final
decision to kill himself. Some Renaissance authors embraced the idea that
suicide was a sign of self-mastery. Thomas Wyatt argues that the Assyrian king,
Sardanapalus, “Murdered himself to show some manful deed.”14 Brutus
too invokes this idea. When asking Voluminus to hold the sword while he runs
92 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

himself on it, he says “Our enemies have beat us to the pit, / It is more worthy
to leap in ourselves / Than tarry till they push” (5.5.23–25). Rather than leave
his fate to another, he would prefer to commit the act himself, asserting his
absolute autonomy. However, Brutus initially offers another justification,
resorting to the rhetoric of Stoic philosophy only when Volumnius remains
unpersuaded. Earlier Brutus claims that Caesar’s ghost is responsible for the
suicides of his comrades, saying “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet. / Thy
spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords / In our own proper entrails” (5.3.94),
bewailing the power of Caesar’s ghost over the autonomous judgments of the
various suicides. In so doing, he presents decisions based on supernatural
sources as against their perpetrator’s best judgments, admitting the power of
external influences. However, he initially presents his motivation in a similar
light “The ghost of Caesar hath appeared to me . . . I know my hour is come”
(5.5.17–19). Though this explanation fits into Stoic justifications, it also implies
that Brutus may not be entirely possessed of his faculties, at least in the terms
established by Cassius. 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.
Rather than seeing Brutus’ suicide either as an act of self-mastery or an
irrational succumbing to delusion, Antony’s depiction of Brutus as a perfect
fusion of elements suggests a balance between the two models. Despite the
seeming irrationality of Brutus’s acts, they ultimately confirm the picture of
society Brutus has championed. In it, autonomous agents are nonetheless
swayed by brotherhood rather than by envy. The social drive toward emulation,
or mimetic rivalry, present in both Renaissance England and Shakespeare’s
depiction of Republican Rome, inherently involves both envy and brotherhood.
Without the latter, the social system would have destroyed itself from the
beginning.15 Brotherhood, because it is not rational and relies on bonds of
affection rather than reasoned judgment, ultimately succumbs to ambition in a
system that equates moral worth solely with autonomy. Thus, the mimetic
impulse leads to ever-expanding collective violence. However, 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.
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.
This conception of agency has much to do with both Portia’s idea of
contagion and Arpaly’s notion of inverse akrasia. Arpaly theorizes a conception
of moral worth that does not rely on autonomy to explain everyday encounters.
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 inten-
tionally.”16 The model that assumes a rationalizing self cannot account for these
cases and therefore fails to account for what Arpaly calls “inverse akrasia,” that
Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar 93

is doing the right thing against one’s best judgment. In other words, one may
give in to an irrational impulse, such as Brutus’s suicide, that one has not fully
subjected to deliberation or in fact an impulse that one has subjected to
deliberation and decided against, and still behave morally. She gives the power-
ful example of Huck Finn who, having resolved to turn the slave Jim in because
it is the morally right thing to do, at the last moment decides not to turn him in
because doing the right thing is too much trouble.17 As Arpaly explains, Twain
does not understand Huck’s actions as Aristotelian “natural virtue” or Kantian
“mere inclination,” but as “Huckleberry’s long acquaintance with Jim [making]
him gradually realize that Jim is a full-fledged human being . . . . While
Huckleberry does not conceptualize his realization, it is this awareness of Jim’s
humanity that causes him to be emotionally incapable of turning Jim in.”18
Thus, Huck remains morally praiseworthy, despite the fact that he behaves
against his best judgment and thus is not autonomous, but rather susceptible to
unformulated thoughts. Though his evaluation of the situation is incomplete,
his action concurs with his deeper sense of what is right. Emotions not subject
to his rational control guide his decision.
Along these lines, I would like to argue that given the early modern associa-
tion between moral and physical sickness, 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. As I have
discussed, the various conspirators understand autonomy and invulnerability
to both persuasion and sickness as central to Roman virtue. Hence, Brutus’s
susceptibility to the ghost can be understood as akratic, that is against Brutus’s
own better judgment. In response to Brutus’s claim that Caesar’s ghost has
visited him, making him certain of his impending death, Voluminus remains
unconvinced of this, forcing Brutus to call on the language of Stoic self-mastery.
Not only does Cassius, in his refusal to be susceptible to the prodigious night
air, share Voluminus’s suspicion, both Decius and Caesar himself evince a
similar set of assumptions. Decius suggests,

Decius: It were a mock

Apt to be rendered, for someone to say,
‘Break up the Senate till another time
When Caesar’s wife shall have better dreams.’
If Caesar hide himself, shall they not whisper,
‘Lo, Caesar is afraid’?
Pardon me, Caesar, for my dear, dear love
To your proceeding bids me tell you this,
And reason to love is liable. (2.2.96–104)

Decius warns Caesar that listening to a woman’s dreams may be worthy of

mockery; Caesar responds by rebuking Calpurnia and chiding himself:
heeding dreams is foolish. Following a ghostly visitation, like following a dream,
94 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

is something of which to be ashamed. However, Brutus does follow a “dream,”

and is then able to enshrine the very notion of Romanness that he held so dear,
even if the Republic itself fails. Given traditional understandings of moral
agency, including Brutus’s own, he is morally responsible for the violence and
disorder unleashed by Caesar’s death and his suicide is justified as punishment.
Even Plato, who condemns suicide in general, claims an exception when shame
at an immoral action prompts the suicide.19 Thus, following the impulse of the
dream, feeling guilt prompted by a supernatural vision, can be understood as
inverse akrasia, as “doing the right thing against one’s own judgment.”
Such a conclusion works against the model of moral agency operating through-
out the play, in which autonomy is the great virtue and akrasia, associated with
physical illness, is the great moral failure. The play consistently opposes Roman
masculinity, and hence Roman virtue, to effeminate vacillation and physiologi-
cal fluidity. When arguing against the need for an oath to bind the conspirators,
Brutus says that their cause bears “fire enough / To kindle cowards, and to steel
with valour / The melting spirits of women” (2.1.19–21). Because they are not
women, they have steadfast rather than melting spirits. Similarly, Brutus chides
Portia, saying “It is not for your health thus to commit / Your weak condition to
the raw cold morning” (2.1.234–35), and though some have argued that Portia
may be pregnant or tainted by the conspiracy, her weakness is probably best
understood as constitutional. Aristotle himself distinguishes the akratic from
those who are constitutionally soft due to heredity or disease like Scythian kings
and the female sex, implying that women are akratic by nature.20 The characters
within the play consistently conceive of virtue in terms of masculine autonomy
in comparison to feminine weakness and susceptibility to illness.
However, I would argue that this susceptibility, while roundly criticized
throughout the play, is something like the virtue that Antony praises. In this
context, one can better understand

Caesar: So in the world: ‘tis furnished well with men,

And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive.
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds his rank
Unshaken of motion.
And that I am he. (3.1.66–70)

Caesar is unassailable, not subject to fleshly impulses. This susceptibility is

figured not only as female fluidity but also as contagion. When Cassius describes
Caesar’s epileptic fit in Spain, he remarks that he required assistance “As a sick
girl” (1.2.128) and calls him, “A man of such feeble temper” (1.2.129). In fact,
Aristotle himself directly compares akrasia to epilepsy.21 Similarly, when Brutus
goes to persuade the sick Ligarius to join the conspiracy, he calls it “A piece of
work that will make sick men whole” (2.1.326). Sickness is womanish weakness,
Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar 95

and Roman honor is capable of making the sick whole by restoring to them
their masculine autonomy.
According to the beliefs that Brutus espouses, then, to protect this stalwart
autonomy is to protect his vision of Rome. Brutus’s further description of the
enterprise paints an even starker picture:

Brutus: Old feeble carrions, and such suffering souls

That welcome wrongs: unto bad causes swear
Such creatures as men doubt. But do not stain
The even virtue of our enterprise,
Nor th’ insuppressive mettle of our spirits,
To think that or our cause or our performance
Did need an oath, when every drop of blood
That every Roman bears, and nobly bears,
Is guilty of a several bastardy
If he do break the smallest particle
Of any promise that hath passed from him (2.1.129–39).

Their identity as Romans is an oath in and of itself, making them secure in the
mettle of their spirits. Were they to break even an unmade oath, they would
prove themselves not Roman at all, and be guilty of “a several bastardy.” Indeed,
those who require oaths are “old and feeble carrions” that “welcome wrongs.”
The oath is necessary only to fight the akrasia of “such creatures as men doubt.”
The entire conspiracy is based on a notion of Roman virtue that equates
turpitude with inconstancy and effeminate fluidity.
Brutus’s surrender to womanish fear of the supernatural, then, is perplexing
in the extreme, unless one considers that Brutus is wrong about what drives
him. Perhaps, as in Arpaly’s conception, he is responsive to moral reasons of
which he is unaware. Brutus’ fears that Roman virtue will be destroyed are cor-
rect, but he misconstrues what will be destroyed, thinking it to be Roman free-
dom and autonomy, when in point of fact he fights for brotherhood rather than
autonomy. Friendship is as much at the heart of Republican virtue as autonomy,
and the characters in the play obsess about it even as they assert their own auton-
omy. Aristotle himself praises friendship between those who “are alike in their
virtue.”22 Although the conspiracy is the result of emulous rivalry, nevertheless
emulation creates deep affective bonds.23 Suicide is not the ultimate act of self-
mastery, since traditionally the suicide relies on a trusted comrade to accom-
plish his purpose.24 Brutus calls on the friendship not only of Volumnius but also
of Clitus and Dardanius as well, ultimately convincing only Strato to hold his
sword while he runs on it. He says “I prithee, Strato, stay thou by thy lord. /
Thou art a fellow of good respect. / Thy life has some smatch of honour in it”
(5.5. 44–46). Brutus considers the holding of the sword an act of friendship.
Strato, for his part, insists, “Give me your hand first” (5.5.49). Even as suicide is
96 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

an act that saves one from the humiliation of defeat, it is also an act committed
for and in friendship.
Throughout the play, brotherhood proves more essential to the Republic
than autonomy, which serves the imperial cause as well. If we look again at
Decius’s attempt to persuade Caesar to go to the Senate, one is struck by the
fact that he warns Caesar of possible mockery as a point of friendship, saying
“Pardon me, Caesar, for my dear, dear love / To your proceeding bids me tell
you this, / And reason to love is liable” (2.2.96–104). The friendship he owes to
Caesar has made him forgo reason. It has made him act against his best
judgment. Of course, Decius’s friendship is a false one, but his use of friendship
to persuade Caesar implies that the senators do take friendship seriously.
Caesar confides in Decius solely because he considers him trustworthy, saying to
him that he will let Decius know the true cause “for your private satisfaction, /
Because I love you” (2.2.73–74). His private relationship gives Caesar grounds
for trusting Decius. Decius and Caesar both present this private friendship as
important enough to override rational calculation.
His friendship with Caesar becomes the center of the conflict between auton-
omy and affection that Brutus experiences. In describing his relationship with
Caesar, Brutus says “for my part / I know no personal cause to spurn at him /
But for the general” (2.1.10–12). Brutus makes a distinction between his
personal relationship and Caesar’s effect on the populace. Clearly, these feel-
ings of friendship are precisely what make Brutus’s decision so difficult. His
decision is between the the general good, what traditionally counts as moral
action, and his individual relationship with Caesar, which is also an important
virtue.25 Brutus impulse to friendship is so powerful that it persists even while
he takes Caesar’s life. He says of himself that he “did love Caesar when [he]
struck him” (3.1.182). His intentions are not quite as clear as his freely chosen
action would suggest. Whether or not his emotional impulses prevail, they
remain an important part of his deliberation. As Arpaly claims, such impulses
may have as much moral content as deliberate actions.
Brutus’s conflict between the demands of friendship and of autonomy
appears as a disruption of corporeal harmony. He remarks to Antony on the
disjunction between the acts of his hands and his heart, “Though now we must
appear bloody and cruel, / . . . / . . . see you but our hands / . . . / Our hearts
you see not” (3.1.167–69), making his actions seem less than entirely willed.
Indeed, he describes his state of deliberation, by saying that “The genius and
the mortal instruments / Are then in council, and the state of man, / Like to a
little kingdom, suffers then / The nature of an insurrection” (2.1.66–69). These
images imply not the willed action that make sick men whole but the force of
his dissenting conscience rebelling against him. These impulses ultimately
manifest in his heeding the ghost of Caesar. His dying words addressed to
Caesar are “I killed not thee with half so a good a will” (5.5.51). Brutus himself
claims that his suicide is done with a greater sense of good will and affection
Contagion and Agency in Julius Caesar 97

than his assassination of Caesar. 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.
Actions contrary to rationality are the result of akrasia and hence, the agent
cannot be held praiseworthy for them. However, as Arpaly’s account reveals,
acting against one’s own best judgment can be a kind of inverse akrasia and can
nonetheless generate actions, like Brutus’s, for which the agent must be
admired. Brutus’s friendship for Caesar causes him to restore order and a sense
of Romanness, even if that sense is ultimately overturned by Antony and
Octavius. Such a reading of the play forces us to reconsider what constitutes
Roman virtue. I suggest that we look to the early modern rhetoric of sickness to
develop a picture of agency that goes beyond autonomous action. Even though
he may be assimilated into Antony and Octavius’s imperial project, Brutus’s
final act points toward the Republicanism he cherished, which relies ultimately
not on the assertion of autonomy alone but on brotherhood as the basis of
This reading relies significantly on taking characters seriously who are not
serious about what they say. Portia does not truly believe that Brutus has tempted
the rheumy and unpurged air nor that he is sick. Decius’s protestations of
friendship for Caesar are disingenuous as is Antony’s praise of Brutus. Even
Cassius’s bravado may be posturing which he does not fully believe. However,
Arpaly’s discussion would suggest that such rhetoric can constitute the basis of
moral action. I would argue that the suicide of Brutus lends the necessary real-
ity to these falsifications and thus preserves the Republic, if only mythically.
Such a mythology may ultimately be the basis of much of our moral action,
making Brutus precisely the hero Antony disingenuously claims he is.

All citations are taken from William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, ed. David Daniell
(New York: Arden Shakespeare, 1998).
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, ed. G.P. Goold and trans. H. Rackham
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 1145b.
Gail Kern Paster, Humoring the Body (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2004), 27.
Nomy Arpaly, Unprincipled Virtue: An Inquiry into Moral Agency (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2003), p. 4.
Coppélia Kahn, Roman Shakespeare (New York: Routledge, 1997).
Augustine, The City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin Classics,
1984), pp. 26–39.
Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, ed. and trans. Mary Gregor (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 176–77.
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar ed. David Daniell (New York: Arden
Shakespeare, 1998), p. 103, fn. 100.
98 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Geoffrey Miles, Shakespeare and the Constant Romans (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1996), p. 126.
Thomas North, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Englished by Sir
Thomas North anno 1579, with an introduction by George Wyndham (London: David
Nutt, 1895), esp. pp. 174–77.
René Girard, “Collective Violence and Sacrifice in Julius Caesar”, Salmagundi,
88 (1991), pp. 399–419, esp. p. 406.
Wayne Rebhorn, “The Crisis of the Aristocracy in Julius Caesar”, Renaissance
Quarterly, 43 (1990), pp. 75–111, esp. pp. 83–88.
Kant, p. 186.
Sir Thomas Wyatt, “Th’ Assyrians king, in peace with foul desire” in The Norton
Anthology of English Literature, 7th Edition, Vol, 1B, M.H. Abrams, Stephen
Greenblatt. et al. eds. (New York: Norton, 2000), p. 572.
Rebhorn, pp. 75–111. See also Coppélia Kahn, “‘Passions of Some Difference’:
Friendship and Emulation in Julius Caesar” in Julius Caesar:New Critical Essays, ed.
Horst Zander (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 271–86.
Arpaly, p. 12.
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Thomas Cooley (New York:
Norton, 1999), p. 113.
Arpaly, p. 10.
Plato, IX 873c.
Aristotle, 1150b.
Aristotle, 1150b.
Aristotle, 1156b.
Rebhorn, p. 92 and Kahn, “Passions of Some Difference”, pp. 271–86.
Kahn, Roman Shakespeare, p. 130.
Aristotle, Book VIII, esp. 1156b.
Chapter 7

Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals in

Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice
Kathryn R. Finin

In a recent episode of NCIS, one of the many crime scene programs on

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

ethics as theory versus morals as practice, but loyalty to loved ones and respect
for the basic humanity of others, especially when the claims of both come into
conflict. Margalit’s poignant exploration of the Israel-Palestine conflict from
this perspective is the main subject of The Ethics of Memory. His central claim
throughout this book is, in fact, that while the ethical is marked by a partiality
for those with whom we are thickly related, it cannot be at the loss of the
moral obligation we still have to those with whom we are only thinly related.
Shakespeare’s plays are rife with the competing values both within and between
such relations. Not only does this heighten the emotional valence of the plays,
it also allows us to witness how certain cultural values shape what constitutes
value or suffering, how we understand whose responsibility it is to be respon-
sive, and, finally, the limits of that responsiveness.
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 oth-
er’s desires and needs over our own. We see evidence of this kind of relation-
ship between Isabella and her brother when Lucio informs her of Claudio’s
arrest and of Angelo’s determination to make an example of him. “Assay the
power you have,” he says “Go to Lord Angelo; / And let him learn to know,
when maidens sue, / Men give like gods” (1.4.79–81).5 Despite doubting her
power, Isabella promises to “see what I can do” and says, “I will about it straight
. . . commend me to my brother” (84–88). Exercising her agency on behalf of
Claudio, despite her affinity for the convent where she is on the verge of becom-
ing a votarist, seems like an obvious kind of decision in the face of her brother’s
execution. No one is obliged, however, “to be engaged in ethical relations.
It remains an option to lead a polite solitary life with no engagements and no
commitments of the sort involved in ethical life.”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, of non-indifference”
in the face of her brother’s crisis.7 This response, the ethical moment,
challenges Isabella in ways she cannot imagine when she sets out to persuade
Angelo to show mercy and commute the sentence against Claudio.
As soon as Isabella arrives at the court of justice to plead for Claudio, we see
the tension between her sense of responsibility to her brother and her own,
very different, concerns. She begins her suit by admitting:

Isabella: There is a vice that most I do abhor,

And most desire should meet the blow of justice,
For which I would not plead, but that I must;
For which I must not plead, but that I am
At war ‘twixt will and will not. (2.2.29–33)

The twisted logic of “would not . . . must” “must not . . . am” reveals both
the depth of obligation she feels to Claudio and, simultaneously, her own
Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals 101

moral code. As the one comes up against the other, Isabella must chose between
conflicting ethical responses to self and other. She does so by separating
the man from the sin in a consummate Augustinian articulation : “I do beseech
you, let it be his fault, / And not my brother” that is “condemned” (35). Angelo
rejects such an argument, along with the ones which follow, and makes
a counter claim: “It is the law, not I, condemn your brother. / Were he my
kinsman, brother, or my son, / It should be thus with him. He must die tomor-
row” (82–84). While the discourse of law depends upon such (supposed) impar-
tiality, especially where thick relations are concerned, ethics demands partiality,
“that is, favoring a person or group over others with equal moral claim.”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, but who have not
died for it.
Initially, however, Isabella struggles to articulate a compelling reason for
Angelo to commute the harsh sentence he has delivered. She also finds it
difficult to display the emotional fervor Lucio believes she needs to sway Angelo,
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

Isabella: Tomorrow? O, that’s sudden! Spare him, spare him!

He’s not prepared for death…
Good my lord, bethink you:
Who is it that hath died for this offence?
There’s many have committed it. (85–91)

The exigency of her brother’s imminent death here trumps the abstract moral
code to which she is so committed. No longer “at war ‘twixt will and will not,”
Isabella has been changed by the act of responding to her brother’s need,
despite her basic moral belief that what Claudio has done is wrong.9 She sees
other aspects of what was so fully unambiguous before and such revision com-
plicates—thickens—Isabella’s relation to him and to her own sense of self.
The second scene in which Isabella and Angelo meet serves as a kind of itera-
tion of the first, but at a heightened pitch. Angelo foregrounds her contradic-
tory 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, or, to redeem him, / Give up
your body to such sweet uncleanness / As she that he hath stained?” (2.4.52–54).
Angelo deflects his responsibility to avoid tyranny by finding mercy within
justice, and at the same time, he shifts the ground of decision making, that is,
of saving Claudio, to Isabella. In effect, Angelo asks her what is the real extent
of your willingness to save your brother? How much will you risk or give up of
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, Angelo repeats his bribe more baldly: “Admit
no other way to save his life . . . but that either / You must lay down the treasures
of your body / To this supposed, or else to let him suffer—/ What would you
do?” (88–98). Faced with such utter violation of moral agency on Angelo’s part,
Isabella’s response signifies the doubled responsibility she has exhibited all
along. She asserts: “As much for my poor brother as myself” (99). That is,
I would do for him the same as I would do for myself, which is suffer any kind
of punishment rather than “Yield / My body up to shame” (99,104). On one
level, Isabella says all the right things, culturally speaking, by privileging her
chastity above all else. On another level, however, her unwavering commitment
to such a stance has often been read as too cold and unfeeling. Both she and
her brother face self-annihilation, although what is at stake differs given the
gendered dimensions of the conflict.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.11 In order to achieve agency at all, Isabella must act in the world of her play
based, in part, on her own judgments. Any unthinking show of devotion to
Claudio, even to save his life, would mark her as a servile instrument. Isabella
refuses this stance repeatedly.12 Faced with Angelo’s coercive bribe, she carves
out that which is most integral to her selfhood, her chaste body, even as she
expresses a willingness to give up her life for Claudio. This is the crux of her
moral agency: loyalty and devotion to Claudio, but not at the cost of her own
Much of this play’s power lies in the way Shakespeare stages such a moment
and then refuses to have Isabella, like so many of her counterparts in early mod-
ern drama, sacrifice her agency in the interests of her male family members.
In fact, 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. 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, 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.
The soliloquy with which Act 2 ends underscores Isabella’s agency as a critical
aspect of this play. Articulating a keen sense of the inability to denounce Angelo
publicly, Isabella concludes:

Isabella:I’ll to my brother
he hath in him such a mind of honour
That had he twenty heads to tender down
Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals 103

On twenty bloody blocks, he’d yield them up

Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorred pollution.
Then Isabel live chaste, and brother die:
More than our brother is our chastity. (177–85)

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. In fact, she conceives of his response to Angelo’s
lecherous bribe as identical to hers in this soliloquy. And yet, as Act 3 demon-
strates, each of these siblings has to confront the profound alterity of the other,
along with the ethical responsivity such alterity creates.
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. Express-
ing male expectation of what a women’s traditional role should be, Claudio
greets her with “Now sister, what’s the comfort?” (3.1.52). Isabella’s response,
interestingly, displays none of the emotional valence we saw in Act 2: “Why as all
comforts are: most good, most good indeed” (53). Far from bringing news of a
reprieve from death, however, she explains:

Isabella: Lord Angelo, having affairs to heaven,

Intends you for his swift ambassador,
Where you shall be an everlasting leiger.
Therefore your best appointment make with speed.
Tomorrow you set on. (54–58).

Isabella’s tone here seems difficult to understand unless we connect it with

her subsequent lines: “O Claudio, I do fear thee . . . and I quake / Lest thou a
feverous life shouldst entertain, / And six or seven winters more respect /
Than a perpetual honour” (72–75). Since he poses no physical threat to Isa-
bella, what she fears is what he will ask of her. Ethics is “always a response to
the other, but also relies on [individual] freedom . . . on the temptation of
[one’s] own non-ethical impulses.”14 Perhaps the strangely cheerful finality
with which Isabella greets Claudio, then, 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
Such is the entangled nature of thick relations, however, that questions of
responsibility and responsivity go both ways. Finally, Isabella reveals the twisted
means of Claudio’s potential salvation:

Isabella:Dost thou think, Claudio:

If I would yield him my virginity,
104 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Thou might’st be freed

This night’s the time
That I should do what I abhor to name,
Or else thou diest tomorrow. (3.1.95–101)

Claudio’s initial response exhibits all the care and loyalty Isabella expressed
hope for at the end of Act 2: “O heavens, it cannot be . . . Thou shalt not do’t”
(98, 102). Facing death is, however, “a fearful thing,” Claudio admits (116).
Musing on the reality of going “we know not where; / To lie in cold obstruction,
and to rot,” he claims that “The weariest and most loathed worldly life . . . Can
lay on nature is a paradise / To what we fear of death” (129–32). Seeking relief
from his own fear, Claudio articulates an alternative reading of Angelo’s offer:
“Sweet sister, let me live. / What sin you do to save a brother’s life, / Nature
dispenses with the deed so far / That it becomes a virtue” (134–37). The “sinful-
ness” of acquiescing to Angelo is, perhaps, the only legitimate ground from
which Isabella can refuse, since no one is ethically required to sacrifice their
soul for the life of another. Nevertheless, the primary issue here is how couch-
ing the problem of this bribe in terms of sin actually elides the personal suffer-
ing and humiliation involved for Isabella in such a coercive sexual act.
Feminist ethics helps us identify this unspoken dimension of ethical rela-
tions between Claudio and Isabella. As Alison Jaggar observes, 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.”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. Isabella
herself is quiet on this aspect of her situation; however, the force of her response
to Claudio’s request suggests something more lies under the surface:

Isabella: O, you beast! O faithless coward, O dishonest wretch,

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?
Take my defiance, Die, perish! (3.1.137–45)

As this outburst makes clear, Claudio’s interests are not the same as Isabella’s.
She is willing to sacrifice her life for her brother, but not her self. 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. As a result, it would be hard to argue that the real reason she
explodes in anger is because her immortal soul is endangered.16
Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals 105

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 rejec-
tion of his claim serve to protect Claudio from having to confront the implica-
tions 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 dimen-
sions of thick relations—especially where the people involved are not similarly
situated. The Duke’s proposal to Isabella, which he frames as inevitably bene-
ficial 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
106 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 every-
thing 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

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 rela-
tionship 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 107

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 funda-
mental 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 obliga-
tion. 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 con-
nect 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
108 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 empha-
sizes 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
Ethical Questions and Questionable Morals 109

for Measure. Moreover, Isabella’s description of Angelo works equally well here
for Portia, disguised, of course, as Balthasar: “man, proud man, / [Cross]
Dressed in a little brief authority, / Most ignorant of what [s]he’s most assured”
(2.2.120–22). Portia’s ignorance lies in the very lack of responding to her own
response concerning Shylock here in the courtroom. In Measure for Measure, the
issue is one of self to other when both are at risk. In The Merchant of Venice, how-
ever, the issue is one of cui bono—who benefits? This difference has everything
to do with the moral agency of Isabella and Portia. In a dramatic act that paral-
lels 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. Saving
Antonio’s life seems to be a partial motivation at best. Once the triangle is
severed, Bassanio is Portia’s completely.
In their different ways, Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice reveal
the difficulties of moral agency when everyone’s suffering matters. Both plays
foreground the intersecting obligations of those to whom we are thickly and
thinly related, even as we must simultaneously respond to the obligations of
self. In so doing, they reveal the disturbing effects of ethical and/or moral acts
which disregard a doubled responsivity, especially where one person stands to
benefit through the sacrifice, whether willing or unwilling, of an other. Perhaps
Bell’s “infinite responsibility . . . exhausting and never exhausted,” is a utopian
dream, but Shakespeare stages the ugly alternative in these two plays whose
moral and ethical questions have troubled audiences for centuries.

Many thanks to the participants of the Shakespeare Association seminar on Moral
Agency for their insightful comments on this essay, most especially Michael
Viki Bell, Culture & Performance: The Challenge of Ethics, Politics, and Feminist Theory
(Oxford and New York: Berg, 2007), p. 47.
Ibid., 62.
Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
2002), p. 7.
All references to Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice are from The Norton
Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1997).
Margalit, p. 105.
Quoted in Bell, p. 51.
Margalit, p. 87.
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, proud man, / Dressed in a little brief authority, / Most ignorant
of what he’s most assured” (2.2.120–22).
Historically, of course, the concerns and suffering of the female self have been
denied and/or put into the service of the “larger good” of the family, community
110 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

or state. For more on the ethical dimensions of this historical situation, see Ruth
Ginzberg’s “Philosophy Is Not a Luxury,” in Feminist Ethics, ed. Claudia Card
(Lawrence, Kansas: Kansas University Press, 1991), pp. 126–45.
See also Mary Thomas Crane, “Male Pregnancy and Cognitive Permeability in
Measure for Measure,” Shakespeare Quarterly 49, no 3 (1998): pp. 269–92; Donald R.
Wehrs, “Touching Words” Embodying Ethics in Erasmus, Shakespearean Comedy,
and Contemporary Theory,” Modern Philology 104, no. 1 (2006): pp. 1–33.
For a related discussion of agency in this play, along with Much Ado About Nothing
and The Merchant of Venice, see Peter Meidlinger who argues that Shakespeare
“evince[s] a remarkably coherent vision” in his “ongoing concern with the condi-
tions that enable one to choose the good over the right, 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, Community, and Agency in Shakespeare’s Comedies”
(Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 83 no. 3–4 (2000): pp. 701–22.
Bell, p. 61.
Ibid., p. 52.
Feminist Ethics: Projects, Problems, Prospects.” Feminist Ethics. ed. Claudia Card.
(Lawrence, Kansas: Kansas University Press, 1991), p. 85.
Jessica Slights, “Isabella’s Order: Religious Acts and Personal Desires in Measure
for Measure” Studies in Philology 95, no. 3 (1998): pp. 263–92.
Margalit, p. 33 and 37.
Levinas quoted in Bell, p. 53.
Bell, p. 47.
Margalit, p. 33.
As Gönül Bakay argues, “again and again in Shakespeare, the Turks appear as
exemplars of ‘unchristian’ behaviour: ‘What! Think you we are Turks or infidels?
/ Or that we would, against the form of law, / Proceed thus rashly in the villain’s
death.’ (Richard III); ‘Wine, Loved I deeply, dice dearly, and in woman, out-
paramoured the Turk.’ (Edgar in King Lear); ‘Why, Tis a boisterous and a cruel
style, / A style for challengers; why she defies me, / Like Turk to Christian’
(Rosalind in As You Like It).” “The Turk in English Renaissance literature”
Open Democracy. 14 Feb. 2003.
Edward Andrew, Shylock’s Rights: A Grammar of Lockian Claims (Toronto: University
of Toronto Press, 1988).
Katharine Eisaman Maus, “Introduction” The Merchant of Venice. In The Norton
Shakespeare, Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1997),
p. 1081.
Margalit, p. 7.
Kathryn Finin, “Performative Subversions: Portia, Language and the Law in
The Merchant of Venice” in Justice, Women and Power in English Renaissance Drama.
Eds. Andrew Majeske and Emily Detmer-Goebel (Madison NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson
University Press, 2009.).
McGinn, Colin. Shakespeare’s Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays.
(New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), p. 179. See also Meidlinger, pp. 710–11.
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, nor live so long” (5.3.324–25).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, an “action having
magnitude” (as Aristotle defined tragic action2)? Domesticated animals bear
burdens, and so do some human beings who have lost (or been deprived of, or
were never granted) degrees of dignity. For Hamlet, “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” (3.1.69–87).3 “Bearing” in this sense, as he clearly
states, is the opposite of action.
How is Edgar’s meaning different from Hamlet’s? Edgar appears to give it
the greatest significance—a tragic significance, and thus, arguably, a moral
one—when he identifies it as something he and his cohort will never be able
to do. Perhaps the morality of “bearing” depends upon what is borne, and
with what degree of consciousness and, since we are talking about a tragedy,
with what degree of choice. When Lear “bears” the burdens that are the results
of his actions in Act 1, 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.” Gloucester—the other “oldest” to whom Edgar must be referring—
tries to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff that isn’t there. Up to that point
in the play (4.6.41), there was not much in his “bearing”—other than the
cost of supporting his bastard son—that one could call “moral” or “ethical.”
112 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Here, as in Hamlet’s sense, “bearing” means enduring, which Gloucester says

he cannot do:

Gloucester: Oh you mighty gods,

This world I do renounce and in your sights
Shake patiently my great affliction off.
If I could bear it longer and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out.(4.6.34–40)

If Edgar is right, if “the oldest hath borne most,” he must be speaking of

endurance over their full fictive lives, before and beyond the scope of action
represented in the play. It’s also true that Lear does “bear in” Cordelia’s body
from the place where she was hanged, and while he does so, 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 (5.3.273). He can “act,” if not much or often.
And he can reminisce: “I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion/
I would have made them skip: I am old now” (275–76).
Lear remembers. It is not difficult to assess the value of “memory” for aging
protagonists (or even for thirty-year-olds like Hamlet); but what is the value to
the larger community, 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, just about Lear’s age, 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, all old people, is to a greater or lesser extent the world
of memory. People say that ultimately you are what you have done, thought and
loved. I would also say that you are what you can remember . . . Remembering is
a mental activity that you often fail to engage in because it is either arduous or
embarrassing. But it is a healthy activity. By remembering you rediscover yourself
and your identity, in spite of the many years that have passed and the thousands
of events you have experienced.5

For Bobbio, then, remembering is not only a kind of action but is the penulti-
mate kind (just before dying), an important kind. It is no less important than any
other kind of action; it is in fact the important action of old age:

The past is the dimension in which the old live. Their future is too short for
thoughts of what is going to occur. Old age, as the sick man said, does not last
long. But precisely because it doesn’t last long, you have to use your time not for
making plans for a distant future that is no longer yours, but in trying to
The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 113

understand, if you can, the meaning of your life or the lack of it. Think hard.
Do not waste the little time left. Retrace your steps. Your memories will come to
your aid.6

Bobbio gives an old man’s memories a poetic, even an encouraging cast; remem-
bering is the business of the old, no less important than the more physically active
engagements of youth. Shakespeare seems to take a chillier or less sentimental
view. No one pays much attention to old men’s memories anywhere in Shake-
speare’s work—nor, probably, in the world it reflected. As a measure of human
significance, memory alone can be cold comfort. This may have been so espe-
cially for old men during the early modern period, as Alexandra Shepard notes.
“Men . . . had more to lose than to gain in later life; their access to patriarchal divi-
dends diminished as they became physically debilitated with age, and they had
less recourse to the potent alternative sources of manhood rooted in excess,
strength, and bravado adopted by so many of their younger counterparts.”7
King Lear is not the first of Shakespeare’s plays to take up the realpolitik of
old people’s memories. 2 Henry IV devotes substantial stage time to the matter
in dialogues between two elderly country justices. When Silence and Shallow,
cousins-in-law and colleagues, meet in 3.2, they exchange family news for a brief
moment before turning to reminiscence and nostalgia.

Shallow. I was once of Clement’s Inn, where I think they will talk of mad
Shallow yet.
Silence. You were called ‘lusty Shallow’ then, cousin.
Shallow. By the mass, I was called any thing, and I would have done any thing
indeed too, and roundly too. There was I, and little John Doit of Staffordshire,
and black George Barnes, and Francis Pickbone, and Will Squele, a Cotsole
man—you had not four such swinge-bucklers in all the Inns o’ Court again; and
I may say to you, we knew where the bona-robas were and had the best of them all
at commandment. Then was Jack Falstaff, now Sir John, a boy, and page to Thomas
Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk.
Silence. This Sir John, cousin, that comes hither anon about soldiers?
Shallow. The same Sir John, the very same. I see him break Scoggin’s head at the
court-gate, when a was a crack, not thus high; and the very same day did I fight
with one Samson Stockfish, a fruiterer, behind Gray’s Inn. Jesu, Jesu, the mad
days that I have spent! And to see how many of my old acquaintance are dead!
Silence. We shall all follow, cousin.

Shallow. Death is certain. Is old Double of your town living yet?

Silence. Dead, sir.
Shallow. Jesu, Jesu, dead! ’A drew a good bow, and dead! A shot a fine shoot. John
a Gaunt loved him well, and betted much money on his head. Dead! ’A would
114 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

have clapped i’ th’ clout at twelve score, and carried you a forehand shaft a four-
teen and fourteen and a half, that it would have done a man’s heart good to see.
. . . And is old Double dead? (3.2.12–52)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), the personal is political, politics
are local, and remembered action is the only action they can manage. They do
not—perhaps never did or perhaps can no longer—concern themselves with
depositions, usurpations, displacements, who’s in, who’s out (as Lear puts it:
5.3.16); those are matters for monarchs. As King Henry pivots between memo-
ries of the king he displaced and apprehension of the son who, in 4.5, performs
his displacement, the “history in all men’s lives” alternates with the “hatch and
brood of time” (3.1.80, 86). Shallow’s chronicle of days and nights at Clement’s
Inn is remembered only there, “where I think they will talk of mad Shallow yet,”
if at all, and is of no wider political consequence.
But it’s different with kings and with tragedies of state. As the story of a king
and a kingdom, Lear’s chronicle, which only Edgar and Albany are left to
record, must present “action having magnitude.” The play offers an unusually
large number of such actions. Before we are out of the exposition set in the very
first scene, we see in rapid succession the unthinkable division of the kingdom
and the king’s unsanctioned retirement, the stupidity of the love-test, Cordelia’s
rejection by her father and one of her two suitors, the redistribution of the
divided kingdom, and Kent’s banishment. 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.
So when Gloucester observes in the next scene that “These late eclipses in the
sun and the moon portend no good to us; . . . Nature finds itself scourg’d by the
sequent events . . . All ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves“
(1.2.103–14), it really does look as if the bonds that hold the world together
have come undone. Lawrence Becker writes of “the debt that cannot be repaid”
as a specifically familial matter,9 as perhaps it is in the modern world. 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; these actions
address a complex world of such debts in both the represented feudal and the
audience’s real-world early modern circumstances. 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, not what we ought to say” [5.3.323]). All of
these debts constitute moral proving grounds in this play.
Cordelia makes much of the obligatory nature of her bond of love to
her father—she loves “according to [her] bond, no more nor less” (1.1.93).
(I note that she seems a bit miffed that Burgundy leaves her when the bond of
her dowry is broken [1.1.249–51]: evidently it’s OK for her to hold to the letter
The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 115

of a bond and “owe” nothing more, but not for a prospective husband to do
likewise.) Her commitment to her father is both ethical and moral. But Lear
hears it as a breach of all bonds, as intolerable ingratitude. 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, of the maps and boundaries of his
kingdom, and of the unconditional loyalty of the Earl of Kent. 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. But if it “cannot
be repaid,” why should Lear—or any other parent (or child, for that matter)—
think that it ought to be? (I shall revisit this question later.) Contrast Lear’s
unreasoning with the irrefutable, if cold, logic of Edmund’s “bastard” speech
(1.2.1–22). Such bonds as the law affords (for example, legitimacy) have no
bearing upon his life, simply because his father behaved immorally (“For that
I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines / Lag of a brother” 1.2.5–6) and
compounded the offense by bragging or jesting about it at the beginning of
the play (1.1.12–23) when he introduced Edmund to Kent. Shakespeare’s
uncomfortable inquiry into the relation of bonds to moral agency seems to
conclude in despair.
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, as
expressed in Lear’s haunting complaint: “Age is unnecessary” (2.4.155). The
idea that necessity or utility or even action should be a requirement for civic/
civilized life is unsettling. “We that are young” can never be certain that we live
useful or necessary lives; many of “we that are old” have long since given up the
luxury of self-deception in that regard. Lear of course wants to be all things to
himself, to his daughters, and to his subjects, despite knowing that the affirma-
tion 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. . . . When the rain came to wet me once and the wind to
make me chatter; when the thunder would not peace at my bidding, there I found
’em, there I smelt ’em out. Go to, they are not men o’their words: they told me
I was everything; ’tis a lie, I am not ague-proof. (4.6.96–104)

He itemizes some instances of what, for a king (or at least for this king), consti-
tutes or gives evidence of “agency”: making the thunder stop, keeping off the
rain and wind. 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.
Besides identifying the doubt that attaches to royal flattery, Lear here sneaks
in notice of a cultural consensus regarding age—that it confers or carries
wisdom, and that a young man who still lacks even a black beard can be flattered
by the imputation of “white hairs.” But the play in many places discloses that
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, but, like Hamlet’s recollection of
the custom of wassail in his father’s time, it is one “More honoured in the
breach than the observance” (1.4.16). Gloucester identifies a blunter baffle-
ment 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 (3.7.29–41).
Kent (“be Kent unmannerly / When Lear is mad” 1.1.146–47), Edgar (“Why
I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it” 4.6.33–34), and even
Edmund in his “bastard” speech wrestle with the implications of their respective
behaviors; only the “pelican daughters” (3.4.75) seem untroubled by dilemma.
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, political, and economic
connections. 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. 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, because he is capable
of satisfying other people’s needs, but will regard him as a being significant and
valuable in himself . . . It is, moreover, 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 . . . What we are able to bestow upon others
is usually less and rarely more than a tithe.”10
Heschel forces his readers to confront the realization that none of us is “nec-
essary,” that “necessity,” in this sense of being needed, is “a situation of being
exposed to a demand from without,”11 and the fact that such demands diminish
or disappear as we age. Lear concurs: “Age is unnecessary.” This sense, too,
might be added to the more usual materialist/Marxist understanding of Lear’s
exasperated “O, reason not the need!” (2.2.453). “Who needs me?” Heschel
asks; “Who needs mankind?”12 and he answers his own question: “Human exist-
ence cannot derive its ultimate meaning from society, because society itself is in
need of meaning.”13 This might serve as the summative commentary on an
inquiry about moral agency, or on the Aristotelian prescript for what tragedy
imitates. It is implicit, too, in Cordelia’s explanation of the terms of the “bond”
according to which she loves her father:

You have begot me, bred me, loved me; I

Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you. (1.1.96–8)

If she’s right, then Becker’s identification of “the debt that cannot be repaid” is,
on second thoughts, not quite right. It is not that the debt is unpayable;
The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 117

Cordelia explains exactly how it is paid. The problem is that the payment never
satisfies; the debt is never paid by the return of the principal, because the
creditor always demands interest. Furthermore, the meaning of “moral agency”
in familial relations often seems to embed facilitation or enabling. Think of
Orlando’s complaint against Oliver early in As You Like It; Oliver has reneged on
his moral obligation as elder brother by withholding the means and opportu-
nity for Orlando’s education in “gentlemanlike qualities,” and has done so
against the instructions in their father’s will (1.1.59–62). Likewise Gloucester’s
acknowledgment of a financial obligation to his bastard son: “His breeding, sir,
hath been at my charge” (1.1.8). Sometimes moral agency is just fiscal agency.
It was exactly that for Montaigne, in his essay “On the affection of fathers for
their children,” which was available, as we know, in Florio’s 1603 translation a
year or two before Shakespeare wrote King Lear. Montaigne thought it was per-
fectly reasonable, in fact morally obligatory, for a father to take early retirement
and disburse his estate among his children while he still has a grip on his
rational faculties.

It is cruelty and injustice not to receive them into a share and association in our
goods, and as companions in the understanding of our domestic affairs . . . and
not to cut down and restrict our own comforts in order to provide for theirs, since
we have begotten them to that end. It is an injustice that an old, broken, half-dead
father should enjoy alone, in a corner of his hearth, possessions that would suffice
for the advancement and maintenance of many children, and let them mean-
while, for lack of means, lose their best years without making progress in public
service and the knowledge of men.14

Shakespeare shows us what happens when Montaigne’s relatively comfortable

cautions are stretched or magnified by the tragic imagination, applied to kings
rather than to the burghers Montaigne apparently had in mind. 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, especially to his children, whose souls he ought to
have trained to their duty by reason, not by necessity and need nor by harshness
and force,15

Shakespeare replies, yes it can and often is.

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.
The modern world has another approach to the kind of “legacy” the old should
leave to the young. 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. The “new” currency is not property but wisdom.
118 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

In static traditional societies that evolve slowly, an old person encapsulates

a community’s cultural heritage more fully than any of its other members. The
old person knows from experience what the others have yet to learn in terms of
morals, customs, and the techniques of survival. The fundamental rules that
govern community life, the family, work, moments of play, the treatment of
diseases, attitudes to the next world, and relations with other groups do not
change, and the skills involved are passed on from father to son. In developed
societies, the accelerating change in both custom and the arts has completely
overturned the relationship between those who possess knowledge and those who
don’t. Increasingly the old are not in the know, while youth is, mainly because of
its greater ability to learn.16

Because King Lear ends on a represented brink of modernity, a condition of

accelerated change sprung in part by a breach in direct royal lineage, it is
unclear whether the world of King Lear better fits Bobbio’s description of
“traditional societies” or “developed societies.” It is also never clear, at least in
King Lear, whether anyone, young or old, is completely in possession of
anything that can be called “wisdom.” Edgar may be right when he says that
he and his cohort shall never see so much or live so long: in this play, the
consequence of change, of “progress” or progression, is that there’s nothing for
the old to pass along to the young, and the young don’t last long enough to
become old.
King Lear’s inquiry about age-related wisdom is probably unanswerable,
and that unanswerability may be one key to the play’s enduring resonance.
Its relation to questions of moral agency, on the other hand, is not so deeply
buried as to evade discovery. It has long been a critical commonplace to cite
Lear’s moral culpability—his tragic agency—in setting the “love-test,” in divid-
ing the kingdom, in taking early abdication, and in banishing Cordelia and
Kent. Daughter Regan jumps quickly to reason that the king’s behavior in Act 1
reflects “the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself”
(1.1.294–95) and that he gave over the State “in good time” (2.2.439). These
lines, oddly enough, 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. Enough, I think, has been said about
Lear’s refusal to hear what Cordelia and Kent are trying to tell him. Many crimes
and moral transgressions are committed in this play. 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 3.6. Critics generally
and understandably dismiss Lear’s commentary there as the raving of a luna-
tic.17 As it may well be. (Notice that the three mad men—one genuinely mad,
one professionally mad, and one pretending to be mad—all understand each
other perfectly; no one in this exchange seems not to know what the other two
The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 119

are talking about, so “raving” may be in fact a perfectly appropriate form of

The old king certainly sounds mad, 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. Is the moral
agency behind these horrific actions, or of the play’s subsequent actions, 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, citing the coincidence of Gloucester’s fate and his
brother’s: “The dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes”
(5.3.170–71). “The oldest” may have “borne most,” but it’s not so easy to argue
that they got what they deserved,18 or that they were the sole agents of this rep-
resented disintegration. As Kent says to the knight who reports the “unbon-
neted” Lear “contending with the fretful elements” (3.1.4–14),

If on my credit you dare build so far

To make your speed to Dover, you shall find
Some that will thank you, making just report
Of how unnatural and bemadding sorrow
The King hath cause to plain. (3.1.31–35)

Clearly there are other (im)moral agents at work in this play, besides Lear and
Gloucester, whose actions bring on what looks like madness. Lear’s “unbon-
neted” howling at the wind and rain is the keening of a traumatized human
being, no less so than his howling at the end when he carries in Cordelia’s
One way to understand the “mock trial” scene as well as the king’s confronta-
tion with the storm is in terms currently used in discussions of post-traumatic
stress-disorder. Cathy Caruth’s work on PTSD has interesting implications for
reading this play. The disorder “takes the form of repeated, intrusive hallucina-
tions, dreams, thoughts, or behaviors stemming from [an] event, . . . [which] is
not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its
repeated possession of the one who experiences it. . . . [The] traumatic symptom
cannot be interpreted, simply, as a distortion of reality, nor as the lending of
unconscious meaning to a reality it wishes to ignore, nor as the repression of
what once was wished.”19 This might serve as a reasonable explanation of what
we hear in Lear’s mock trial. His earlier pleas (not, incidentally, much different
from Edmund’s) to Nature and unnamed gods at several points in the play
(1.4.267–81; 2.2.378–81; 2.2.461–67) have availed nothing. He calls upon
once-familiar structures of order—courts, trials, classical hierarchies of judges
and accusers, beadles and defendants. What we should notice about this scene,
I think, is not that the king is mad but rather that the scene makes sense anyway.
Structures of jurisprudence, the civic necessity of laws and courts and trials, and
120 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

most important, the widespread hypocrisy societies use in “maintaining” orders

everyone violates anyway all come under indictment in this scene. The trauma
of psychological violence at the hands of his daughters, whether real (Goneril
and Regan) or perceived (Cordelia), is replayed through the framework of a
familiar judicial system of various crimes and punishments. Caruth’s terms
are useful, I think, 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, “not altogether fool” [1.4.151]), but makes perfectly good sense,
considering what has happened up to that point. “Trauma . . . does not simply
serve as record of the past but precisely registers the force of an experience that
is not yet fully owned. . . . The ability to recover the past is thus closely and para-
doxically tied up, in trauma, with the inability to have access to it. And this sug-
gests that what returns in the flashback is . . . an event that is itself constituted,
in part, by its lack of integration into consciousness.”20
What in psychoanalytic terms is called a “symptom” functions in dramatic
terms as a trope. 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, Cordelia’s excruciat-
ing “nothing,” Gloucester’s blinding violating all rules of hospitality) to macro-
events: the king’s vivisection of the kingdom, the vault-cracking storm.21 Lear
remembers his daughters’ bad behavior, and perhaps his own toward Cordelia
(4.7.71–74), but does not seem to remember having abdicated; at least there is
no mention of that, though he relives in his speeches much of the familial
violation we have already seen and heard from the play’s beginning. The trauma
occurred not only to the “gored state” but also to his own mind, so unthinkable
was his triple act of stepping down, handing over, and banishing. He is still
“every inch a king” holding court in the hovel, but cannot recall exactly how he
got there. In Caruth’s terms, the horror of what has transpired cannot be
absorbed or rendered intelligible through representation; “In its repeated
imposition as both image and amnesia, the trauma thus seems to evoke the
difficult truth of a history that is constituted by the very incomprehensibility of
its occurrence.”22
Perhaps this is one more implication of Edgar’s closing couplet; it isolates
and frames the play’s ruptures at every level—state, family, individual. This play
really has performed multiple traumas. Edgar’s line is a prediction, of course,
and as such it has little impact on an unpredictable, as-yet-unknowable future.
What it can express is an anxiety or anxiousness about what his new dual role of
king and witness entails. Edgar had no genealogical warrant for this kingship;
he’s simply the only one left of sufficient rank to take it up, and was Lear’s
godson (2.1.91), a fact surprisingly unremarked in this play that spends so
much time and poetry upon relationships. Thus far, he has no children with
whom to play Lear’s love-game; the state has already been divided (“gored”);
his envious and disenfranchised brother is dead. The damage of the play’s
The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 121

represented traumas has already been done. Of course, new damage is always
possible and unpredictable: such futures are never made explicit at the ends of
tragedies. Edgar cannot imagine more traumas than he has already seen,
enough to last a longer lifetime than remains to him or to the others left
Of course, hardly anyone else is left standing. Kent says that he must shortly
follow his master (5.3.320–21); that leaves only Albany and Edgar among the
play’s major figures. Like other “remnants” at the ends of Shakespearean
tragedies, they are left precisely because the play does not end with the deaths
of the protagonists. It ends with the promise to bear witness. Commenting on
Paul Celan’s observation that “no one bears witness for the witness,” Shoshana
Felman adds: “To bear witness is to bear the solitude of a responsibility, and to bear
the responsibility, precisely, of that solitude.”23 What Edgar is literally appointed to
do, besides taking up crown and scepter, is to bear witness to what he has seen
and lived, however briefly. Felman continues:

The appointment to bear witness is, paradoxically enough, an appointment

to transgress the confines of that isolated stance, to speak for others and to
others. . . . Emmanuel Levinas can thus suggest that the witness’ speech is one
that, by its very definition, transcends the witness who is but its medium, the
medium of realization of the testimony. “The witness,” writes Levinas, “testifies to
what has been said through him. Because the witness has said ‘here I am’ before
the other.”24

Edgar’s appointment is neither the first nor the last instance of such closing
testimonies in Shakespearean tragedy. Like Horatio, the Capulet/Montague
statues, Antony for Brutus, Octavius for Antony and Cleopatra, Aufidius for
Coriolanus, Edgar serves as a reiterative Shakespearean trope whose task it is to
bear witness, to testify, as if the play itself were incomplete, a chorus to some
other play or some other experience. Hamlet commissions Horatio not only to
“tell [his] story” (5.2.333) but to tell a story that exceeds ordinary credibility
and yet must be told, must not be forgotten. Some events will not make sense; all
Horatio can “truly deliver” is a narrative

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and [forc’d] cause,
And in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads. (5.2.381–85)

Horatio can deliver a tale, perhaps not as harrowing and blood-freezing as the
one the Ghost failed to deliver (1.5.16), but no more sense-making, and beyond
what he can tell, as Hamlet said, “the rest is silence” (5.2.357–58). All these
122 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

speech acts translating unspeakable violence and violation make no sense,

cannot be explained, any more than the Shoah can be explained.

I survived, a witness, only to show you.

You personally—
To make you a witness.25

These lines were written to accompany one of dozens of drawings made by

David Olère, a Polish Jew who had emigrated to Paris long before the war, and
the only artist who survived the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp.
Arrested and assigned to the Sonderkommando, the corps of prisoners who moved
the bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoria, 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.
No photographs were taken of the activities inside the crematoria; when he
returned to Paris after the liberation, 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, to testify on behalf of those who were
murdered. Some of his portraits, scenes, and diagrams literally testified in the
prosecution of numbers of Nazi war criminals. After he died in 1985 at the age
of 83, his son Alexandre (who resumed the original spelling of the family name)
donated his father’s work to Holocaust museums in Europe, Israel, and the
Unites States. Alex wrote the poems collected in Witness and reproduced his
father’s words: “I must survive. I walk and my assignment walks ahead of me.
I am able to show, so I must show, so I will show or nobody else will.”26 David
Olère was my cousin; his mother and my maternal grandfather were siblings.
I met him when he was 82, in the last year of his life. We talked mostly about
family. There was not much else to say on that afternoon. He had indeed “seen
so much” and “borne most,” unspeakably “most”; he had lived so long, he said,
to be “un témoin,” a witness.
Genocide, alas, continues. A troupe of Rwandan actors recently revived Peter
Weiss’s post-Auschwitz play, The Investigation, which coincidentally takes the
form of a courtroom trial.27 They were shocked, they explained in a post-
performance question-and-answer session, to learn that there had been another
holocaust before their own in the 1990s. Much of that discussion focused on
“testimony,” on “bearing witness.” “Testimony,” Felman writes, “seems to be
composed of bits and pieces of a memory that has been overwhelmed by occur-
rences that have not settled into understanding or remembrance, acts that can-
not be construed as knowledge nor assimilated into full cognition, events in
excess of our full frames of reference.”28 Testimony is not explanation; it tells, or
rather “vow[s] to tell, to promise and produce one’s own speech as material
evidence for truth,”29 but it cannot rationalize nor offer “a completed statement,
a totalizable account of . . . events.”30 Tzachi Zamir follows this line of thinking
The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 123

as well: “Knowledge is structuralized, meaning that if one does not undergo

certain experiences, one never fully understands. King Lear also suggests that
experiences matter not only epistemologically but also metaphysically.”31
I wonder whether Shakespeare’s original audience, including the king, would
have been terrified by the images of disintegration at every level understood to
be the organized universe. 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, also, Felman’s commentary is helpful. In a courtroom, testi-
mony “is called for when the facts upon which justice must pronounce its
verdict are not clear, when historical accuracy is in doubt, and when both the
truth and its supporting elements of evidence are called into question. The
legal model of the trial dramatizes, in this way, a contained, and culturally
channeled, institutionalized, crisis of truth.”32 King Lear challenges various testi-
monies and their “crises of truth,” from the love-test in Act 1 to the mock trial in
Act 4, when Edgar, still disguised, tells us in an aside that no testimony could
convey what he sees and hears: “I would not take this from report; it is, / And my
heart breaks at it” (4.6.141–42). What exactly is the “it” to which Edgar/Tom
refers, implicit in his final lines as well: the eldest hath borne most [of what?]; we
that are young / Shall never see so much [of what?] nor live so long [for what?].
What is this floating signifier that both eludes and provides the measure of sig-
nificant human experience? The question begs another—to what does tragedy
itself testify? What is the trauma it inscribes, reiterates, and commemorates?
A generation ago, a handful of European theater theorists answered that
question by intoning (in various accents): cruelty. For Antonin Artaud, writing
in 1938, theater that mattered (in the West, 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] . . . but the much more terrible and
necessary cruelty which things can exercise against us. We are not free. And the
sky can still fall on our heads. And the theater has been created to teach us that
first of all.”33 Jan Kott, echoing Artaud, observed that “the cruelty of Lear was to
the Elizabethans a contemporary reality, and has remained real since. But it is
a philosophical cruelty. … The cruelty of the absolute lies in demanding . . . a
choice [between opposing values] and in imposing a situation which excludes
the possibility of a compromise, and where one of the alternatives is death. The
absolute is greedy and demands everything; the hero’s death is its confirma-
tion.”34 For Bertold Brecht, the sufferings commemorated in great art “appall
me because they are unnecessary.”35 These claims that tragedy signals some-
thing both cruel and unnecessary take the moral onus off the “character”—
indeed, each of these theorists has argued against the notion of “character”—and
situate it in something experiential, something that transcends (or transgresses
or translates) the specificity of particular settings or circumstances. For Kott, it
was nothing less than “the meaning of this journey [from cradle to grave], into
the existence or non-existence of Heaven and Hell”:
124 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

King Lear makes a tragic mockery of all eschatologies . . . of both Christian and
secular theodicies; of cosmogony and of the rational view of history; of the gods
and the good nature, of man made in “image and likeness”. In King Lear both
the medieval and the Renaissance orders of established values disintegrate. All
that remains at the end of this gigantic pantomime is the earth—empty and

I would not go as far as Kott does in reading Lear as absurdist avant la lettre, 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. The “established values” to
which Kott refers exist—if they ever existed—in a network of relationships,
familial and communal, that is systematically dismantled from the opening
violations of the play forward. At every level, as Gloucester observes in Act 1,

Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries,
discord; in palaces, treason and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father. This
villain of mine comes under the prediction—there’s son against father. The King
falls from bias of nature—there’s father against child. We have seen the best of
our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us
disquietly to our graves . . . (1.2.106–14)

“We have seen the best of our time,” says the father in Act 1; “we that are young
/ Shall never see so much, nor live so long,” says the son at the end. So the play
is orderly after all, ending with a rhetorical confirmation of a point that was
made with less thought and only coincidental evidence early on. Edgar’s last
lines bear witness to a moral order he can only hope will not need reiteration.
“We . . . / Shall never see so much nor live so long” honors the elderly dead; it
also implies a promise that will sound familiar to survivors of the twentieth
century: “Never again.”

Editorial commentary I have seen on these lines is generally limited to discussion
of the probable speaker (Albany in Q; Edgar in F), a debate not relevant to my
discussion. Quotations from King Lear follow the Arden 3 edition by R. A. Foakes
(London: Thomson Learning, 1997).
Poetics. Trans and ed. Kenneth A. Telford (Chicago: Regnery, 1961), Ch. 6,
Quotations from Hamlet follow the Arden 3 edition by Ann Thompson and Neil
Taylor (London: Thomson Learning, 2006).
On the significance of communal memory, see Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of
Memory (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 84–106,
esp. 94–96 where his words aptly condense the “kernel” of Edgar’s lines: “This
The Burdens of Aging in King Lear 125

‘we’ is an enduring body that will survive after our personal death. We shall not
be remembered personally, but we shall be remembered by taking part in events
that will be remembered for their significance in the life of the collective.”
Norberto Bobbio, Old Age and Other Essays. Trans. and ed. Allan Cameron
(Cambridge: Polity, 2001), pp. 12–13.
Bobbio, pp. 12–13.
Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2003), p. 221. I thank Mario DiGangi for bringing this book to my attention.
Quotations from 2 Henry IV follow the Arden edition by A. R. Humphreys
(London: Methuen, 1981).
Lawrence C. Becker, Reciprocity (Chicago and London: University of Chicago
Press, 1986), p. 178.
Abraham J. Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (New York:
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1967), pp. 75–76. See also Margalit, pp. 94–103.
Heschel, p. 77.
ibid., p. 77.
ibid., p. 76.
Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays, trans. Donald M. Frame (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1965), p. 280.
Montaigne, p. 281.
Bobbio, p. 5.
See Foakes’ Introduction, 133 and textual note at 3.6.17–55n.
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. Let copula-
tion thrive” (4.6.111–12). On the large questions of “crime and punishment”
represented in this play, it seems to me that Shakespeare offers no clear conclu-
sion 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” (5.3.261–62). 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.
Cathy Caruth, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore and London: The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), pp. 4–5.
Caruth, pp. 151–52.
On the play’s multiple instances of trauma-tropes, see Timothy Murray, Drama
Trauma: Specters of Race and Sexuality in Performance, Video, and Art (London and
New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 39–56.
Caruth p. 153.
Shoshana Felman “Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching”.
In Caruth, ed., p. 15.
Felman, p. 15.
Alexandre Oler, “Such a Labor Place,” p. 44.
Oler, “The Death March,” Witness, p. 98.
Adapted by Jean Baudrillard; performed in Kinyarwandan with English
supertitles at Montclair State University, February 5, 2009.
Felman, p. 16.
Felman, p. 17.
126 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

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

Moral Characters
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Chapter 9

Quoting the Enemy: Character,

Self-Interpretation, and the Question of
Perspective in Shakespeare
Mustapha Fahmi

An action in itself is perfectly devoid of value,

it all depends on who performs it
Nietzsche, The Will to Power

For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing,

Whose end, both at first and now, was and is . . . to show virtue her feature . . .
Hamlet (3.2.19–23)

In the opening chapter of Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor singles out “three
axes” of ethical thinking: our obligations to others, our understandings of what
makes a life worth living, and our sense of dignity.1 The first axis has to do with
the kind of actions we ought to take in our dealings with those around us, the
second concerns the kind of persons we want to be, and the third amounts to
our ability to command other people’s good opinion. Character criticism of
Shakespeare has often favoured the first axis, focusing on the actions a charac-
ter takes or fails to take. Why does Richard II stop the duel? What prevents
Hamlet from killing Claudius? Why does Isabella sacrifice her brother’s life?
In what follows, I focus on the second and, to a limited extent, third axes, and
on the way they are tied to the notion of self-interpretation. Through examples
from Hamlet and Richard II, supplemented by references to other plays, I want
to argue that Shakespeare’s characters make sense of themselves through
a language of that constitutes their true identity. I draw on the hermeneutic
tradition in general, 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.2 The “good” here is what Taylor defines as “the object
of our love or allegiance.”3 I also argue that there is a strong sense in which
130 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

action-oriented criticism is incompatible with Shakespeare’s perspectivism, one

of the most distinctive features of his dramatic vision. Nor am I indifferent to
historical specificity. Shakespeare and Taylor belong to different cultures and
different historical periods; the human subject they have in mind is hardly
the same. However, I do believe that there are common characteristics and
points of convergence as well as a serious possibility for dialogue across these

Nothing Good or Bad

When Hamlet compares the world to a prison, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

disagree, ”we think not so, my lord” (Hamlet, 2.2.246). However, instead of
trying to convince them of his point of view, or ridicule them, as he does with
almost everyone in the play, the young prince acquiesces. “Why then ‘tis none
to you,” he says, “for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes
it so” (2.2.250–51). Despite its proverbial status, Hamlet’s statement has rarely
been cited as an expression of one of the most fundamental laws of the
Shakespeare universe, perspectivism. When we talk about perspectivism the
name that usually springs to mind is Nietzsche, who has a great deal to say in
his writings about this aspect of life. “Facts are precisely what there is not,” he
says in The Will to Power, “only interpretations.5 But if facts do not exist, how
can interpretations exist? An interpretation, one would argue, must be the
interpretation of something. Shakespeare’s perspectivism is less controversial;
it questions not so much the facts themselves as the objectivity and the validity
of the values that we attribute to the facts. The existence of the world, for
example, is a fact that few people would wish to deny, but whether the world
is good or bad is a matter of perspective. For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,
who are the prince’s fellows and the king’s trusted men, the world is a great
place. With a murdered father, a stained mother, and a lost crown, Hamlet
sees things differently. For him, the world is a prison though a “goodly one”
(2.2.246). Nor is the importance of perspectivism limited to Hamlet’s power-
ful statement; it applies, in my view, to the very way in which the Bard struc-
tures his plays.
One of the things we learn from the study of Shakespeare’s sources is that
whenever he takes a story from someone else, and a story is always a story of
someone doing something, he usually starts by removing any clear motive
underlying the action. By so doing, he opens his characters’ actions and omis-
sions to a variety of different readings. For example, in Hamlet’s source, we
know why the prince feigns madness. 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. In Shakespeare’s play, the absence of an obvious motive for the prince’s
antic disposition is the subject of a notorious debate.
Quoting the Enemy 131

The other striking feature of Shakespeare’s treatment of his sources has to do

with the question of perspective itself. Stories are always told from a particular
perspective, and it is Shakespeare’s custom to add an opposite perspective to
the one he inherits from his source. This not only makes his stance towards life
more balanced than that of his authorities, it also allows one perspective to
expose both the strengths and the weaknesses of the other. But the two perspec-
tives are usually so balanced, so opposed, and so persuasive that it is almost
impossible to know what Shakespeare thinks about his own characters. 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, who despises those
to whom he owes his power and privileges? Quite often, readers adopt one of
the perspectives of the drama and present it as the dramatist’s own point of
view, which is probably the surest way to misread Shakespeare’s purpose. For no
matter what perspective is chosen, the arguments in its favour will always be
defeated by the textual evidence in support of the other perspective. But
Shakespeare’s perspectivism, as I have already intimated, is a double-edged
sword: a delight for readers, perhaps, but a problem for critics, and more par-
ticularly for directors, who feel compelled, when rendering the plays, to fore-
ground one perspective at the expense of the other. Those who try to transpose
the balanced view of the text onto the stage often end up offering stale and dull
One of the dominant features of conventional character criticism, 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, a type of reading that quite often leads to judge-
mental interpretations that rely on ideological formations such as the princi-
ples of social hierarchy. For an action can scarcely be good or bad, wise or
foolish, significant or insignificant in itself. An action whose value is totally
independent of human interpretation is an illusion. Indeed, we talk more about
ourselves when we judge an action than about the action itself.6 A renewed
character criticism, I propose, should concern itself a bit less with the action
than with the ethical purpose that directs the action.

The Purpose of Playing

In his critique of behaviorism, which seeks to give an objective account of

a person through a scientific study of his or her behavior, 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 self-
interpretation is incomplete.7 What distinguishes human beings is that we
articulate a definition of who we are; we view ourselves as if we were characters
132 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

in a novel written with our own words. “To ask who a person is, in abstraction
from his or her self-interpretations,” says Taylor, “is to ask a misguided question,
one to which there couldn’t be in principle an answer” (1989, p. 34). To be sure
information available to an external observer, such as colour, gender, and social
status might be interesting to know, but has only partial bearing on the way we
make sense of our own characters from a first-personal point of view. It matters
little if the way we view ourselves is totally erroneous; for even if it is, it still
reflects the image we want to present, hence the essential link between self-
interpretation and ethics. Wanting to be recognized as someone in particular
implies that we possess a specific image of the good, an image that we strive to
embody. To interpret ourselves in this sense is not to give an accurate account
of who we really are, but rather to give our life a direction towards a certain
purpose that we regard as higher than the other purposes, and which we want
other people to recognize. The capacity to distinguish between higher and
lower goods is one of the underlying conditions of agency in Shakespeare.
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, but also more likely
to lead them to happiness. In Measure for Measure, for instance, Isabella must
choose between two unhappy alternatives: sacrificing her brother’s life or her
chastity. Without the slightest hesitation, she makes what most contemporary
readers regard as the wrong choice: “more than our brother is our chastity”
(3.1.184). In the world of Vienna, a world of sexual laxity and moral decadence,
chastity is the pursued good that can give Isabella’s life a meaning and
a direction towards self-affirmation and happiness. It is important to take
Isabella’s choice seriously, for she is nothing if not chaste. Identity and the good
cannot be separated.
Nor can we invent our way of defining ourselves. Self-interpretations are gen-
erally made available to us by our culture, and are developed in interaction with
other people:

My discovering my own identity doesn’t mean that I work it out in isolation, but
that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internal, with others . . .
My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others.8

We become selves, according to this account, through a continuous exchange

with other people, real or imagined, especially those whose views matter to us,
whether they are friends or enemies. This scarcely means that our interlocutors
have to share our cultural background. Our dialogue may involve people from
various cultures or various periods of time, or even figures dwelling in the realm
of imagination. Don Quixote and Emma Bovary, for example, are powerful
illustrations of the way in which people can define themselves through dialogue
with fictional characters. 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. What this brings to light is the
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, or
the role we strive to play in the theatrum mundi.
The histrionic dimension of Shakespeare’s characterization is a common-
place in contemporary criticism. The plays abound in situations where individ-
uation is reached by means of role-playing. Shakespeare’s men, it has been
argued, play at being men, his women play at being women, his kings play at
being kings.9 But to put the matter this way, I am afraid, is to confuse role-play-
ing with self-interpretation. The theatrical roots of selfhood can hardly be
denied; and the Bard never misses an opportunity to remind us of this psycho-
logical fact. The world, says Antonio to his friend Gratiano in The Merchant of
Venice, is “a stage where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one.”
To which Gratiano replies, “Let me play the fool! / With mirth and laughter let
old wrinkles come” (1.1.77–80). Coriolanus’ vision is scarcely different. “Like a
dull actor now / I have forgot my part and I am out,” he says when his mother
kneels before him in supplication to save Rome from his long awaited revenge
(Coriolanus, 5.3.40–41). But what can one infer from these examples?
That human beings play at being themselves? Not really. Life, according to
Shakespeare, is a theatre in which people move, like professional actors, from
one role to another with nothing in between. The roles they choose reflect less
their reality than the ideal they want to achieve. To live happily, according to
Gratiano, is to fight the ravages of time with mirth and to laugh at everything
and everyone, including oneself. But what happens when one stops acting?
One simply loses all sense of identity and feels, like Coriolanus, totally in the
void. Shakespeare’s characters do not play at being themselves, as some critics
believe, they enact their own image of the good. Nor can acting, in this sense of
course, be separated from the notion of dignity.
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, which may amount to no less than a loss of dignity. To understand
this is to understand, among other things, why Lear insists so much on keeping
the appearance of a king even after giving away his entire kingdom. Without
the title and the hundred knights to follow him, Lear will not command the
respect and admiration of those who see him in public. And it is hardly surpris-
ing that the dissolution of Lear’s identity begins with a reference to his com-
portment: “Does any here know me? / This is not Lear / Does Lear walk thus,
speak thus?” (King Lear, 1.4.206–08).

Back to the Future

The character criticism I propose here is scarcely an invitation to sacrifice

action in favour of self-interpretation; what I mean, rather, is that an action may
be more comprehensible if read in the light of the image that the character has
134 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

of himself or herself. 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; it may
sometimes be located in the future too, that is, in the objective that directs the
action or stops it. 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.
Conventional character criticism tends to read Hamlet’s character in terms of
the action he fails to take: killing Claudius. But judging action or inaction is, as
I have already pointed out, a way of talking about oneself. No wonder that most
of the critics of the play, as it has quite often been mentioned, end up seeing in
the young prince either their own image or the image of their concerns.
Another aspect that Hamlet’s critics share has to do with their attempt to locate
the hero’s problem in his past, giving little consequence to the purpose that
shapes his life and gives it meaning. To be sure, the young prince has all sorts of
trouble converting his thoughts into deeds, but his delay, his ambivalence, and
his constant questioning are intelligible only if seen from the perspective of the
intellectual life he wants to lead, and from which he draws the verbal brilliance
that enables him to articulate his dilemma powerfully:

Hamlet: What is a man,

If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. (Hamlet, 4.4.33–39)

Hamlet defines himself as a man whose life is dedicated to philosophical

reflection; and his crisis stems from the sad fact that those around him, with the
exception of his friend Horatio, do not recognize his self-interpretation. In the
eyes of the Ghost, of Claudius and of Ophelia, he is respectively an avenger,
a challenger to the crown, and a lover. Ironically, Hamlet identifies with none
of the above. 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,
the passages where he talks about his interest in the crown or, more particularly,
his love for Ophelia are perhaps his poorest.
Rather than a barrier to action, deep thinking is the good that gives Hamlet’s
life a meaning and a direction. Hamlet does not procrastinate, he philoso-
phizes. And he does so in the manner of a poet who sees things as if for the first
time, taking nothing for granted. In this sense, 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?”
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. Gods are expected to come down at any moment and intervene
in people’s affairs, or send their angels to support the legitimate king and
punish the rebels (Richard II, 3.2.60–62). The king compares himself to Christ
on a number of occasions; and Bolingbroke and his followers are Judases
(4.1.170), or sometimes Pilates trying in vain to wash their hands of the
horrible crime of deposing another god (4.1.239–42). Indeed, the play in its
entirety appears to be the tragedy of a man who defines himself as a god on
earth, only to realize in the end that few people around him recognize his
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. Some of these critics
have gone so far in their indignation as to use Lancastrian arguments—some-
times Lancastrian words—to condemn the king. Hershel Baker says that,

Richard has nothing but his royal birth and title to justify his misbehavior, and
these are not enough to save him from the consequences of his crimes and follies.
He acts flippantly toward Bolingbroke and Mowbray, insolently toward his uncles
Gaunt and York, and illegally toward his banished cousin. Dissolute and avari-
cious, and “basely led / By flatterers,” he converts his “sceptered isle” into a “pelt-
ing farm” and himself into the “landlord” of the realm.10

Besides taking at face value Gaunt’s judgement, which is certainly obscured by

his son’s banishment, 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. Richard does not “farm” his whole “royal realm” (1.4.45), he merely
grants the profits from the royal taxes to particular persons in exchange for an
immediate sum of money to finance the war. This right is usually granted to the
highest bidder. But if Richard’s detractors see things from a Lancastrian point
of view, his admirers tend to emphasize the Yorkist argument of legitimacy.
Thus, David Bevington maintains that,

Richard is consistently more impressive and majestic in appearance than his rival
Bolingbroke . . . He eloquently expounds a sacramental view of kingship, accord-
ing to which “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off an
anointed king.” Bolingbroke can depose Richard but can never capture the aura
of majesty that Richard possesses; Bolingbroke may succeed politically, but only at
the expense of desecrating an idea.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, right or wrong.
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. The answer might as well depend upon our ability to see through
Shakespeare’s perspectivism, and to resist condemning the king by quoting his
enemies or celebrating him by quoting his friends. 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, especially his enemies. Self-interpretation is
the royal road to character.
The play opens with a duel: two mighty lords, Bolingbroke and Mowbray,
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 (1.1.46). Richard takes great delight
in the show taking place in front of him, as it allows him to enjoy the role of the
one who can give life or death. After considering the consequences that the
duel might have on the future of the two families as well as that of the realm,
Richard asks Bolingbroke and Mowbray to “forget, forgive, conclude and be
agreed” (1.1.156). But the two contenders have gone too far in their confronta-
tion to accept a peaceful solution; they reject the king’s offer. What the dukes
ignore, however, is that a suggestion made by God’s deputy is no less than a
divine order. Refusing such an order is a serious challenge not only to Richard’s
authority but also to God’s will. The situation in which Richard finds himself at
this point in the play is scarcely unusual in Shakespeare. 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, between his inclination and his duty, his
preference and his safety. It is also the moment when an important question
needs to be answered, a question upon which depend both the identity of the
leader and the future of his subjects. It is Richard’s first dilemma. Whether or
not to let the duel take place is the first of a series of crucial questions with
which he is faced. But questions of this nature can be answered only against a
background of intelligibility, a point of perspective from which one can decide
what to accept and what to oppose. “To be able to answer for oneself,” says
Taylor, “is to know where one stands, what one wants to answer.” (1989, p. 29)
Richard defines himself as a god on earth, a definition that not only shapes the
meanings things have for him, but also supplies him with the rich language of
expression that he uses to answer both those who recognize his self-interpreta-
tion (the Yorkists) and those who do not (the Lancastrians). For Richard, there
is no such thing as a competent or incompetent ruler; there are only legitimate
kings and usurpers. A legitimate king cannot be wrong, for all his actions and
decisions are sanctioned by heaven. A usurper cannot be right, since his very
existence is a sacrilege. In other words, Richard has little choice as to the way in
which the quarrel of the two dukes should be handled. If he is a god, then he
must act as a god and demand total obedience. Any other decision would be a
denial of his identity, for if not a god on earth there is little else that Richard
would like to be.
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. Perhaps. But to allow the duel to take place is also to bend to
the contenders’ will, which is, in Richard’s eyes, a blow not only to his authority
but also to his ability to command the respect of those around him. In this
respect, the dukes’ refusal to be ruled by their sovereign has much more
dangerous implications for Richard’s image than their banishment. It is impor-
tant as well to note that those who blame the decision on Richard’s incompe-
tence, and argue that the whole episode is meant to show how unfit for his
office the king is, tend to judge Richard’s actions from their own moral space,
or at least from the point of view of deontological ethics, 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. But if the main purpose
of studying a literary character is to understand his or her behavior and motives,
then the critics, who disregard the kind of leader that Richard wants to be in
favour of the actions that a good leader ought to take, are probably mistaken;
for only when seen as part of an ethical orientation can a character’s action be
elucidated. To be sure, shrewdness is one of the qualities of a good leader, but
who said that Richard would want to be praised for his shrewdness? What Rich-
ard wants is to be recognized as God’s deputy. Nor does he need to be shrewd
to remain in power. All he needs, actually, is to satisfy the moral requirements
of the one virtue upon which his position depends, reciprocity, something he
fails to do when he decides to deprive Bolingbroke of his inheritance.
Richard’s crown, like Gaunt’s fortune and lands, is a gift of the past that the
king owes less to his hard work than to tradition. The principle of reciprocity
requires that all gifts be returned; yet there seems to be only one way that the
gifts of the past can be returned, and that is by being bestowed on successor
generations.12 When Richard stops the process by seizing his uncle’s lands, he
not only provokes the nobility of England, but also strips his position of all
legitimacy. If the right of inheritance is not that important, as Richard’s gesture
seems to imply, then the rightful king does not have to be the first in line of
succession. And this is what York tries to explain to the king:

York: Take Hereford’s rights away, and take from time

His charters, and his customary rights;
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day:
Be not thyself. For how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession. (2.1.195–99)

Giving increases the authority of the person who gives, and enables him to gain
a certain control over the recipient.13 Richard’s failure to grant Bolingbroke
what God, law and tradition have given him, decreases his authority and
138 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

broaches a deep gap in the ground on which he stands; and it is only a matter
of time before his royal carpet is pulled from under his feet. The aristocrats’
right to pass on their property to their heirs was protected by Magna Carta.14
Only conviction for treason could prevent an heir from getting his father’s
property. The implication here is that Richard could have, in all legality, appro-
priated his uncle’s estates to finance his Irish wars, had he waited a little; for by
the time of Gaunt’s death Bolingbroke is already preparing to invade his own
country. But, unlike Henry V, Richard needs no tennis balls to put to execution
what he already has in mind. He is above human laws, and therefore needs no
The Shakespearean character moves in a space of questions that have to be
answered sooner or later. As long as his sense of himself is strong and the good
he pursues is clear and well defined, the character will have no problem answer-
ing for himself. It is when his self-interpretation is questioned or denied
altogether that his capacity to answer questions is lost, and with it his sense of
identity. The crucial scene that takes place before Flint Castle best illustrates
this situation. When Richard meets the rebels, one feels that he still has what
Max Weber calls institutional charisma, the kind of charisma which is often
“inherited, or passed along with accession to an office, or invested in an institu-
tion”.15 The rebels themselves, especially Bolingbroke, are amazed and intimi-
dated by his appearance:

Bolingbroke: See, see King Richard doth himself appear,

As doth the blushing discontented sun
From out the fiery portal of the east,
When he perceives the envious clouds are bent
To dim his glory and to stain the track
Of his bright passage of the Occident. (3.3.62–67)

Bolingbroke’s reaction here shows him as the champion of the old order, in
which degree, priority and place are all observed. 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. It is very important to imagine this scene on stage.
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. This not merely increases his authority, it strengthens as well his sense of
who he is (3.3.72–81). If we judge by Northumberland’s deferential answer,
the rebels seem to be immensely impressed by Richard’s confident speech.
Bolingbroke wants no more than what has been taken away from him by the
king, his father’s land and title. Richard seems disposed to accept this compro-
mise, but not without some reluctance, as a compromise might affect the image
he has of himself, and which he wants other people to recognize. And, just like
Lear, he is much concerned with his comportment in public, something he
Quoting the Enemy 139

directly associates with his sense of dignity: “We do debase ourselves, cousin, do
we not, / To look so poorly, and to speak so fair?” (3.3.127–28). And the second
major question that Richard must answer in the play is whether or not to accept
compromise. 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. Before he even hears Bolingbroke’s message, Richard gives his answer,
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. Must he be
depos’d? / The king shall be contented. Must he lose / The name of king?
A God’s name, let it go” (3.3.143–46). The dialogue between Richard and his
peers is broken, because the relation between what has been uttered so far and
his excessive reply is missing. Who talked about deposition? What the rebels
want is a compromise; 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”
(1.1.196). By asking him to “come down” and negotiate with them, the rebels
force Richard to give up the part he has always played in favour of a new part,
one in which he is less a god beyond human laws than a man among men.
Richard cannot accept. Like Hamlet, he lacks the language to articulate the
new part; and this is what he expresses admirably later:

Richard: Alack, 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, flatter, bow, and bend my knee. (4.1.162–65)

A person like Richard, who places more importance on symbols than what the
symbols stand for, would have laughed at the censors who decided during
Elizabeth’s reign to remove the so-called “abdication scene” (4.1).16 The real
abdication, at least for Richard himself, is his descent to the “base court”
(3.3.178–82). What happens later in Westminster Hall is no more than the for-
mal confirmation of an event that has taken place before ,and there is a sense
in which the show staged by Richard is his own idea of a good revenge.17
Richard’s easy and wilful abdication could be usefully read in terms of Milan
Kundera’s concept of litost. According to Kundera, litost is “a state of torment
caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self”.18 This feeling is usu-
ally followed by a strong desire for revenge, a desire to make the person who
caused your misery share your torment. Now, if your counterpart is weaker than
yourself, you merely insult him or her under false pretences. In other words, if
two of your subjects offend you by declining your offer, you banish them and say
that it is in order to avoid another civil war(1.3.125–39). But if your counterpart
is stronger, if he has a whole army behind him, you avenge yourself by destroy-
ing yourself. Litost, in this sense, is an attempt to seek revenge through self-
destruction; and a man obsessed with litost, whether his name is Richard or
140 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Werther, will always opt for the worst defeat, his consolation being that those
who have caused his torment and misery will regret their deeds or get punished
by some providential power. 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. In this light, Richard’s self-dramatization and self-pity are not so much
addressed to his enemies as to an eventual audience, 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. Richard is not totally wrong: in
1 Henry IV, Northumberland prays God to forgive him for the role he played in
the deposition of “the unhappy king” (1.3.146), and Hotspur calls Richard
“that sweet lovely rose” (1.3.173).

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 15.
pp. 45–76.
p. 3
My work on Shakespeare in general is deeply influenced by Michael Bristol’s
philosophical criticism. In 1996, when the departments of English throughout
North America were still busy historicizing Shakespeare’s plays, Bristol gave a
seminar at McGill University called “Shakespeare and Moral Agency.” To me, as
well as to the other graduate students attending the seminar, the language used
by Bristol to make sense of the plays was so fresh that the plays themselves looked
new, the work of a newly discovered dramatist.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale
(New York: Vintage Books, 1968) p. 267.
David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, revised by P. H.
Nidditch, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 468.
Charles Taylor, Philosophical Papers 1: Human Agency and Language (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 45–76 .
Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity (Concord: Anansi, 1996), p. 231.
Colin McGinn, Shakespeare’s Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays
(New York: Harper Collins, 2006), p. 160 .
Herschel Baker, (1974) “Introduction to Richard II,” The Riverside Shakespeare,
ed. G. Blakemore Evans. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 801.
Bevington 1988.
Lawrence Becker, Reciprocity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990),
p. 231.
Michael Bristol, Big-Time Shakespeare (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 142.
Katharine Eisaman Maus, “Introduction to Richard II,” The Norton Shakespeare
(based on the Oxford edition), gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: Norton,
1997), p. 946.
Quoting the Enemy 141

Charles Lindholm, Charisma (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p. 24.
Baker, 1974, p. 801.
Thomas F. Laan, Role-playing in Shakespeare (Toronto:University of Toronto Press,
1978), p. 122.
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, trans. Michael Henry Heim
(New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 122.
Chapter 10

The Fool, the Blind, and the Jew

Tzachi Zamir

“Don’t look down! A fool never attempts to hide his humiliation. On the contrary,
he lets others perceive it as clearly as possible. I know, we all know, that you cannot
sing in Armenian! What just took place was a pathetic effort on your part to pre-
tend to do so! Now, look up!”1

An obtuse son plays a cruel and tasteless joke on his blind father (The Merchant
of Venice, Act 2). The son (Launcelot) has been away from home for a long time.
The father (Gobbo) is seeking directions to his son’s house. Launcelot first
provides meaningless directions. He then informs Gobbo that his son is dead.
Once the joke goes too far, Launcelot discloses his true identity to his grieving

Launcelot: Do you not know me, father?

Gobbo: Alack sir, I am sand-blind, I know you not.
Launcelot: . . . Well, old man, I will tell you news of your son, —[kneels.] Give me
your blessing,—truth will come to light, murder cannot be hid long, a man’s son
may, but in the end truth will out.
Gobbo: Pray you sir stand up, I am sure you are not Launcelot my boy.
Launcelot: Pray you let’s have no more fooling about it, but give me your
blessing: I am Launcelot your boy that was, your son that is, your child that
shall be.
Gobbo: I cannot think you are my son.
Launcelot: I know not what I shall think of that: but I am Launcelot the Jew’s
man, and I am sure Margery your wife is my mother.
Gobbo: Her name is Margery indeed,—I’ll be sworn, if thou be Launcelot, thou
art my own flesh and blood . . . (2.2.79–88).2

This essay will offer an analysis of the humor in this exchange. I know that
performing such close-reading will not escape censure. The interpreter of
laughter is doomed to be regarded either as prudish or obsessively cerebral.
The Fool, the Blind, and the Jew 143

I am willing to risk these ascriptions since I believe that the philosophical pay-
offs of such analysis offset a compromised reputation.


Apart from poking fun at another’s disability, the Launcelot-Gobbo exchange is

a farcical re-enactment of a tragic recognition scene. The scene foregrounds a
consciously theatricalized sense of mutual acknowledgment. Like Lear’s recog-
nition of Cordelia (“I think this lady/ To be my child Cordelia” [4.7]), Gobbo
is wrenched out of grief and despair into acknowledging his son, reciprocating
Launcelot’s burlesque self-revelation (“your boy that was, your son that is, your
child that shall be”). The joke is that prior to the ostensibly moving acknowl-
edgment, Gobbo coldly rejects Launcelot (“I cannot think you are my son”).
The biblical allusion to the kneeling Jacob seeking a patriarchal blessing from
blind Isaac, the echo of Job in Gobbo’s name, the preposterously chivalric
undertones in the name ‘Launcelot,’ the Jew’s servant, the tacit invocation of
the Gloria of the Prayer Book (“As it was in the beginning, is now, and euer shall
be”),3 and the echoes of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy,4 all intensify a sense of ludicrous
If the exchange was intended to move us, if it was in fact of a tragic nature,
Launcelot’s recognition of his father should have been immediately recipro-
cated by the father’s acknowledgment of his son. Gobbo’s denial of filial con-
nections with his son spoils Launcelot’s dramatic orchestration of the scene.
Theatre is here satirizing one of its own genres. It mocks the theatricality of ges-
tures through which tragedy structures intimacy. We are granted an amusing
unilateral scene of “tragic” recognition. “I was, am and will be your son!” cries
Launcelot in a language that mimics the pathos of reunion. “No you are not!”
retorts his perplexed and uninspired father.
Things degenerate even further. It is part of a fool’s charm that his deeds turn
awry. Even a practical joke backfires. Launcelot’s jollity at staging the mock
recognition is followed by the suggestion that his father has been cuckolded.

Gobbo: I cannot think you are my son.

Launcelot: I know not what I shall think of that. . . . I am sure Margery your wife
is my mother”.

The text offers several options to the actor playing Launcelot. He can choose to
deliver “I know not what I shall think of that” as a tease. 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, in line 15). For the
audience the effect is much the same. Either the joke boomerangs through
Launcelot’s discovery that he is a bastard, or Launcelot’s amusement at his
father’s cuckoldry is pathetic given his blindness to its consequences in terms of
his own status.
144 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Ideally, reunion should involve a deepening of the value of another; in the

light of new knowledge, the relationship is purified and reborn. Launcelot is
obviously not undergoing any of this. 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 witty superiority
required for satire is beyond the reach of a fool like Launcelot, who is immedi-
ately drawn down from the safe position of a haughty wit into sweaty entangle-
ments. Thus, the comic movement ignited by the exchange entails a twofold
collapse of theatrical genres. Tragedy is deflated by satire. Satire then opens up
to the disturbing possibility that the one satirizing is in danger of being exposed
as a bastard.
The first step to analyzing such humor is to recognize that the comic is
a language designed to touch, among many things, powerful anxieties. When
possible, analysis should thus seek to connect the planned creation of an
occasion for laughter with particular and distinct anxieties being tapped. Such
a framework yields important outcroppings in understanding the comic effect
produced in this particular scene. The reach of the first comic kernel is deep.
By momentarily mocking tragic reunion, comic distance addresses a particular
histrionics of emotion. It also undermines the epistemology of value implied by
tragic recognition (learning through suffering, the birth of fresh apprehen-
sion, the crystallization of value). In tragedy one learns through suffering;
distance and pain genuinely effect a sharpening of values. Tragedy thus presup-
poses that depth exists, that the meaning of another can be vividly apprehended,
that values are not merely skin deep, and that we would divine this if the veil
of daily obtuseness were lifted through pain’s capacity to occasion such an
Such assumptions are comforting, 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. We ourselves will
never be fully acknowledged. By satirizing tragic recognition firstly through
hyperbole, secondly, by making it unilateral and thirdly, by its degeneration
into a banal fare of misunderstanding and worry, the Gobbo-Launcelot
exchange fleetingly yet effectively touches upon the fear that the ordinary,
benumbing, tiresome hustle and bustle is all that exists.
The second comic kernel, the fool’s inability to sustain the satire, partakes
of the general pattern of clownish humor. The fool overreaches and then
falls flat on his face, completely exposed. Gobbo furnishes the unimpressive
foil for Launcelot’s failure. Wedding fools to each other is a staple of
Shakespeare’s artistry. Doubling or tripling professional fools, buffoons, and
ironists, Shakespeare constructs momentary hierarchies between them that,
once pretentiously erected, are then skillfully collapsed, delighting the onlooker.
Launcelot does not, for instance, realize that by tricking his blind father for his
audience’s pleasure, he is not merely establishing his own superiority through
The Fool, the Blind, and the Jew 145

his father’s shame. Like children who aim to provoke laughter by slapping
themselves, Launcelot is unwittingly joking at his own expense and humilia-
tion.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. Launcelot’s condescending confidence is eroded.
By positioning satire itself beyond Launcelot’s reach, comedy undermines a
different comforting thought than the one unsettled by the first comic kernel
above. Satire pivots around our ability to detach ourselves and watch life’s
commotion from afar. Disinterestedly realizing our limitations, we are bemused
by our shortcomings. The accessibility of such a vantage point entails also the
availability of wisdom, where wisdom is understood as the ability to serenely
contemplate things from a distance.6 Satirizing tragedy (the first comic kernel)
establishes distance from the theatricality of emotional gesture and a comfort-
ing epistemology of value. 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. Wisdom’s vantage point is accessible only
momentarily. Launcelot’s incapacity to maintain comedy is itself comic. 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.

The Blind and the Foolish

The strands of this short but immensely pregnant comic exchange hinge on
theatrical genres. Tragedy and satire are being unsettled by undermining the
optimism upon which they rely. Tragedy implies that depth of emotion and
value exist. Satire assumes that wisdom is both possible and accessible. Both
theatrical genres are being undercut. The problematization itself is achieved
by a third theatrical convention: the fool. A fool, at least this kind of fool (not
the masked philosophers-in-a-coxcomb type such as Lear’s fool, Hamlet’s grave-
digger or As You Like It’s Touchstone), is a man inescapably inhabiting the space
of shame. In this particular exchange, one of the fools (Gobbo) is blind. This
enables the fool-type not only to mobilize the undermining of dramatic genres,
but also to occasion self-criticism. Fool-humor in this scene is self-reflexive,
articulating its own moral dubiousness.
We access this dimension once we no longer take for granted the soundness
of the underlying assumption of the fool convention: the legitimacy (moral,
aesthetic) of staging and taking delight in the intellectual inferiority of another.
Indeed, evidence suggests that pitying fools rather than mocking them, was not
an unknown experience for Elizabethans.7 Shakespeare delineates in this scene
a profound overlap between the fool and the blind. Our awareness of the
disturbing nature of Launcelot’s mockery of a physical limitation to some
146 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

degree hampers laughter at a mental limitation. Indeed, in some performances,

for example, Trevor Nunn’s 1999 production, Gobbo (played by Oscar James) is
crushed to such an extent upon learning of his son’s death, that the scene
would probably not elicit any laughter. “. . . there’s no denying the pain that
[Launcelot] Gobbo inflicts on his blind father,” says actor Christopher
Luscombe on playing the role, “. . . it seemed important to face up to this
unattractive trait in the character and not smooth it out to suit our 90s
By having a fool pranking at the expense of the blind, Shakespeare is, on one
level, breaking up the complex idea of the “natural” fool as a person who “in
the real world . . . made his living by exploiting his defects.”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 another level
Shakespeare implements a sanctioning of fool-humor as such, conceived as
well-deserved retribution. We may laugh at Launcelot because a son who manip-
ulates his blind father deserves punishment. But beyond nemesis, Shakespeare
also reflects back to the audience an unsettling dimension of comic spectator-
ship, highlighting the implications of the aesthetic consumption of fools as
morally legitimate comic targets. This last operation is no longer funny. 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; we revel in his mental one).
The parallelism between intellectual and physical limitations discloses
a possible source of the dramatic effectiveness of buffoons. Ridiculing a blind
man entails casting a comic gaze upon someone who is not himself a spectator.
The blind person cannot reciprocate another’s look, cannot even recognize his
own flesh and blood. Could the limitations of fools effect the same kind of
comforting distance, allowing spectators to, in Cavell’s sense, remain unac-
knowledged or, in Nietzsche’s sense, merge with the Dionysian? Safely tucked
in unparticularized superiority, the fool enables his audience to remain undis-
closed, escaping specificity and individuation. We are merely above his reach.
Even when the fool permits himself to look back at us, ignoring the fourth wall,
he perceives only a relationship in which he is inescapably in thrall to his
audience’s good will. By casting himself as completely and helplessly other-
defined, by allowing the audience to be unreachably beyond him, the fool,
through his own highly particular exposure, enables the audience to dissolve
into an undifferentiated, unperceivable superiority. Theatre thus offers not
merely a union of the elect but a momentary escape from the burden of partic-
ularized personal experience and the weight of being individually perceived.
De-individuating the audience through comic effect allows advancing our
understanding of comic superiority. Shakespeare’s coupling of the fool and the
blind enables rethinking the well-known Hobbesian theory of laughter as supe-
riority (“The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from
The Fool, the Blind, and the Jew 147

some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with

our own formerly.”)10 Pace Hobbes, we do not laugh simply because we are
rendered superior. We seek superiority rather, because it is a state occasioning
the pleasure of release from one’s particular selfhood.
At the same time, the unindividuated audience is being directly and
complexly addressed. “Mark me now,” says Launcelot: “now will I raise the
waters”. Launcelot draws on the convention of the aside to, in effect, offer a play
for the audience in which his father will be made to cry (hyperbolically “raising
the waters”). Inviting the audience to witness a cruel prank is also a means for
making the audience party to the ruse, even a cause of it. The audience is
allowed to maintain moral distance by censuring Launcelot. Rhetorically, such
a process is widespread in the theatre: appease the audience’s possible moral
misgivings regarding its own delight at performed cruelty. Achieve this by allow-
ing the audience to direct its moral condemnation at a character rather than at
itself and the dubiousness of its own voyeuristic pleasure.
A fool like Launcelot can succeed even more in deepening our resistance to
pleasure in cruelty because, unlike villains like Richard III or Iago, he does not
exert fascination. He lacks the charisma that would otherwise hamper our own
best judgment. On the contrary, there is nothing impressive about the Jew’s
servant. 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. 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.
We should obviously not be surprised to witness theatre transforming into an
imaginative space for the impermissible. Fiction and theatre often invoke an
overly sharp didactic stance in order to facilitate immoral identification.
Shakespeare elsewhere draws out morally dubious responses and interests in
such ways. The uncontestable moral condemnation of Tarquin and rape in
The Rape of Lucrece, for example, allows the narrator to smoothly glide into eroti-
cally suffused descriptions of a sleeping woman’s body. Falstaff’s clustering the
deadly sins of gluttony, sloth, avarice and pride, unequivocally determines his
immoral status, inscribing it into his incontinent flesh. 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. Launcelot’s summoning of
the audience in his aside differs from these examples. “Mark me now” is unnec-
essary in terms of the information required for the success of the joke.
We already know that he is Gobbo’s son. 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
aimed at pacifying the audience, inviting it to be a party to a scene, but also
reassuring it of its own spectatorship, rather than its complicity. “You will only be
watching” is what Launcelot seems to be telling us, constituting us as mere
watchers and constituting spectatorship as a position detached from moral
148 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

agency. The status of uninvolved onlooker is rendered morally acceptable,

whereas agency entails responsibility.
The idea of a distinction between imagining/watching and agency is a mirage.
The status of watching is, undoubtedly, a less innocent position. It involves
imaginative participation and a mode of objectionable pleasure-seeking. It also
occasions the prank Launcelot plays. On a deeper level, it tacitly commissions
the very writing, performing and staging of the scene. Comic “release,” comedy
as a playing out of the morally impermissible, depends in this instance upon
restricting morality to action rather than witnessing. Launcelot’s prologue to
his prank renders visible a link between theatricality and the illusion of the
suspension of moral agency. Such a withdrawal from moral responsibility is not
some unproblematic structural given of spectatorship but is itself negotiable,
and needs sometimes to be established by theatre’s rhetoric.
Theatre edifies, as numerous defenders of it have argued throughout the
ages. But, as its detractors have claimed, it also traffics with a fantasy of the
capacity to shed moral responsibility within its walls. One of theatre’s more
subtle manipulations involves pretending that the audience is not really there.
Morally unburdened, invisible, released from the frosty grip of particularized
agency, one can laugh at the blind and enjoy the witticisms of a murderer.
The grim reality is that there are no permissible holidays one can take from
moral responsibility.

Foolishness and Liminality

Launcelot will be immediately aided by Gobbo to switch from his former master
to serving Bassanio, thus becoming yet another constituent of a plethora of
goods flowing from Shylock into his Christian context. He thus participates in
the play’s progressive correction of the distortion entailed by the existence of a
rich Jew. Shylock’s daughter elopes and converts. He loses his money. He is
forced to become a Christian. Relocating into Bassanio’s service, Launcelot
importantly contributes to the movement of parental, 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). For Falstaff, in another play, the lowest
imaginable existence is that of a Jew—“I am a Jew else: an Ebrew Jew” (1 Henry IV,
2.6.152–153). Launcelot’s position is even more inferior. Obsessively, the
Merchant’s text situates him again and again in the indigestible position of being
“the Jew’s man.” He is described as “serving” the Jew, calling Shylock “the Jew,
my master.” Given Launcelot’s ironically chivalrous name, such self-positioning
is even more degrading.
Anomalies proliferate when Lorenzo later admonishes Launcelot for
“getting up of the negro’s belly: the Moor is with child by you Launcelot!” (3.5. 35).
The Fool, the Blind, and the Jew 149

We then suspect that this clown is morally reckless. Launcelot marks an unsta-
ble liminality between seemingly unbridgeable worlds (Christian-Jew/Mooress,
white/black), casually crossing over insurmountable cultural divides:

Lorenzo: Whither goest thou?

Launcelot: Marry, sir, to bid my old master the Jew to sup tonight with my new
master the Christian. (2.4.16–18)

Proudly declaring the religious affiliation of his new master, Launcelot’s

language heightens, but at the same time trivializes religious affiliation.
Judaism and Christianity strike us as no more than X’s and Y’s, interchangeable
variants in a self-serving calculus.
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. “Seem” should remind us that some of the strongest moments
in the play involve a crossing over (Portia and Nerissa would cross gendered
boundaries, Jessica trespasses a religious one, Bassanio woos a woman outside
the pale of his social position and Shylock, in the most famous speech of the
play, would appeal to constitutional sameness and fluidity between Jews and
Christians and, by implication, between human beings in general). Yet these
other transitions are marked by the gravity of the context (the harsh legal con-
text of the trial, the genuine erotic energies that characterize Portia’s and
Bassanio’s relationship or the one between Jessica and Lorenzo, the real pain
animating Shylock’s lines). Launcelot, on the other hand, 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).
The clown’s function here is not merely to destabilize or overturn some
given cultural hierarchy. It is to undermine categorization as such. Launcelot’s
cavalier gallop between religions and skin colors forms a comic corollary to
Shylock’s plea for human sameness. 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 non-
fictional world, threatening to obliterate this last distinction as well. His father
is perhaps even more subversive: Gobbo’s ignorance is such that he thinks that
“Jew” is a proper name! (“I pray you, which is the way to Master Jew’s”? 2.2.36).
Launcelot’s undermining of oppositions questions the very value of the
categories that define subjective experience. When Portia and her maid cross
over gendered borders, when Shylock demarcates a shared human experience
that transcends religious affiliations, when Jessica frees herself from the old
religion, when Bassanio woos a rich woman with borrowed money, the catego-
ries of class, religion and gender are being transcended. But, at the same time,
such categories become entrenched in our mind. The dramatic effectiveness of
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. Shylock is so obsessively preoccu-
pied with distancing himself from Christians in language (note his use of
“moneys” in 1.3), deed, and space, that we question the sincerity of his trans-
gressing speech, particularly given the irony of his advocating a diabolical cause
while drawing on the arguments that uphold human equality. Trespassing
socio-cultural boundaries, Portia, Shylock, Jessica and Bassanio paradoxically
heighten our sense of them; Launcelot (and his father), on the other hand,
render these divisions irrelevant.11

Wisdom and Pseudo-Wisdom

This disregard for cultural or religious divides is intimately interwoven with a

distrust of language, the vehicle through which distinctions are drawn and
sustained. There are two different ways whereby language enables Shakespeare’s
characters to seem to rise above life. The first is philosophical, solemn, respect-
ful. It usually invokes some sententious generalizing about life. Macbeth
associating life with empty role-playing, Prospero characterizing life as a dream,
Hamlet situating “man” betwixt angels and beasts, Lear’s disenchanted musings
over “unaccommodated man.” Memorable, frequently quoted, self-commend-
ing, this kind of philosophizing (usually bad philosophizing on the part of
these characters) bespeaks the value of human life and the beauty of thought,
even when the thoughts are wrong, simplistic or partial. Although often under-
lining life’s meaninglessness, such speeches also disclose life’s grandness by
exhibiting the human capacity to create beauty through language. Well-crafted
sentences interlock, flowing into each other on the rhythmic pulsation of
iambic pentameter. Language is being celebrated.
But then there is a second way in which Shakespeare’s characters move beyond
(or below) life. It is revealed when language crumbles due to agonizing pain
(Lear’s howling when he enters with dead Cordelia). It comes to the fore, too,
when the grip of language and its categories is relaxed due to madness (Lear,
Ophelia), or through witchcraft,12 or through the constitutional ignorance of a
buffoon such as Launcelot. George Gordon has divided Shakespeare’s fools into
two groups, those who control language and those who are controlled by it.13
Launcelot belongs in the latter (though he might fancy himself to belong to the
former). See what happens when he introduces himself to the audience:

Launcelot: Certainly, my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew

my master: the fiend is at mine elbow, and tempts me, saying to
me, “Gobbo, Launcelot Gobbo, good Launcelot,” or “good Gobbo,”
or “good Launcelot Gobbo, use your legs, take the start, run away.” (2.2.1–5)
The Fool, the Blind, 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.
Which is the precise way in which he is named by the hypothetical fiend?
Compare this state to the one of tragic heroes. For tragic characters, attaching
a description to themselves, narrativization as such, is never a problem. The
only important issue is which narrative is appropriate to them, pleading to
others to remember them according to what they were rather than what they
presently are (Othello or Antony come to mind). By contrast, Launcelot’s inten-
tion to convey a dilemma is thwarted. He is overpowered by the gap between
himself and irrelevantly different terms through which he can be addressed.
He is unable to tell a story. The smoothness of telling evades him.
Anyone who systematically blunders when asked to tell a joke can sympathize
with Launcelot’s social malfunction. But Launcelot’s failure does more than
forge a momentary linkage between him and joke-bunglers. Shakespeare is
exploiting the comic potential of sidetracking. A fool is unable to stick to a
planned course of action.
The discrepancy between narrative intention and actual telling highlights the
capacity of language to attain control over its wielder. Rather than a docile
expressive means, language turns into a formidable jinnee which, once released,
exerts its resistance and may even overpower its users. The unruliness of
language is a salient feature in Shakespeare’s plays. Mercutio is uncontrollably
carried away in his Queen Mab speech. Prince Henry is unable to restrain his
verbal creativity in describing Falstaff’s fatness. 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, burying themselves under a pile of erudite
words. Rather than taking resolute action, Hamlet becomes absorbed in
eloquent bemoaning. Egeus describes in sumptuous detail the hateful candy
which won his daughter to deceitful Lysander. Like the characters in cartoons
that continue to energetically run when the ground is no longer beneath their
feet, Shakespeare repeatedly allows his characters to be engulfed by signs that
become dissociated from intention.
Rather than exposing human weakness, the recurring pattern highlights the
frailty of the quintessential human feature—language. Whereas language can
ennoble the mind and become the means whereby Shakespeare mesmerized
his age and ours, language is also that which can playfully enthrall, manipulate
and debilitate, rendering us pathetically powerless. In the specific context of
the Merchant, Launcelot not only instances the capacity to disregard the human/
social division into categories of gender, race, culture and religion but also
exemplifies the capacity of language to assume control rather than be a mere
means of human interaction. 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.
152 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Foolishness, Blindness, and Judaism

How is the fool function related to the graver themes foregrounded by the
Merchant? Is it, for instance, 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, willy-nilly?14 I have already suggested that Launcelot’s disruptive
liminality tacitly links him to Shylock’s “hath not a Jew eyes” speech. 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, regardless of their skin color or
their religious affiliation. But there is another connection forged between
Launcelot and Shylock. Both are presented as limited. 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.
Shylock instances the inaccessibility of Jews as such, 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. “On what compulsion
must I? Tell me that” (4.1.183), he demands of Portia, betraying his religion’s
affiliation with the language of command and duty rather than with an experi-
enced interpenetration of life and action with hope, faith, charity, mercy and
love. 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. 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. It is rather of some built-in inability to grasp the profoundness of the
Gospel in the first place.15 Gobbo stands for physical limitation; Launcelot’s
limitation is intellectual; Shylock’s is moral. Shylock cannot fathom the
language of God even when it is thrust in his face. 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, but
conveys, even celebrates, a Jew’s incapacity to comprehend a superior moral
language, one predicated not on justice or fairness but on love, a form of love
that if it could only universally prevail, would render courts and law itself
Compassion towards Shylock can arise precisely because his insulation from
grace lies beyond his control. In order to maintain our sympathies with the
Christians under attack by the blood-sucking usurer, the Merchant must neutra-
lize the possibility of pitying Shylock. Thus it mobilizes the same rhetoric we
have noted before with regards to the clowns: Blind Gobbo was mercilessly
manipulated by his son, who turns his father’s handicap into a source of (his)
The Fool, the Blind, and the Jew 153

comic delight. Yet Launcelot fails to control his own lame jokes. He thereby falls
short of the wit he believes he possesses. Such failures elicit our comic response.
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 unscrupu-
lousness. Similarly, 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. Such a manipulation is ren-
dered morally permissible through a progressive and systematic alienation of
the audience from Shylock.
A “cannibalistic” villain, Shylock instances, at the trial scene, the most
gruesome anti-Semitic blood libels regarding Jewish ritualistic slaughter. Audi-
ences have—at least from the nineteenth century on—responded to Shylock’s
capacity to evoke understanding for his cause. “The poor man is wronged”
exclaimed a moved spectator within the hearing of Heine.16 Yet no audience
sympathizes enough with Shylock’s pain to wish him to actually succeed in
obtaining the pound of flesh. Shylock basically attempts to compel a court of
law to sanction, legitimate and audit a murder. He powerfully stages for the
court and for us the monstrosity of a legally sanctioned immorality, an immoral-
ity constituted by the contract, the cornerstone of law. The more horrid the trial
scene, 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.

Moral Fantasies
We know, and Shakespeare’s audience was well aware, too, that moral
responsibility expires once a person is unable to prevent a reprehensible
action due to a constitutional incapacity, be it physical or mental (Aristotle,
Nicomachean Ethics, III. i). The Merchant is not a deterministic play. And yet the
process I have described does hamper the ascription of responsibility to
Shylock. Shakespeare weaves together two distinct threads that jointly under-
mine Shylock’s explicit acknowledgment of accountability (“My deeds upon my
head”). The first relates to the crushing pain of losing a daughter, sufficient in
itself to render his suit understandable. The second is the one surveyed earlier:
Shylock’s inability to fathom any principle higher than justice.
These movements, subtle yet influential, disturb the hierarchies that govern
spectatorship. Ultimately, they threaten to sabotage the existing power scheme
by undermining the moral condemnation of Shylock. At the same time, the
play’s rhetoric prevents us from pursuing such routes. The play repeatedly
obstructs the possibility of experiencing empathy towards Shylock whenever
such a moment might arise. The Merchant is thus able to reconcile in one
dramatically satisfying image a deservedly punished villain who, due to his
154 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

religious physiology, was unable to act differently than he did. Such an

achievement brings out the limits of staging moral agency. Suppose that Shylock
was, in fact, a person rather than a theatricalized character. A moral assessment
of his actions would then necessitate a further probing into his obsessive pur-
suit of Antonio’s flesh. We would wish to know more about Antonio’s actual
involvement in Jessica’s elopement. We would have to factor in Shylock’s alter-
native routes for action, taking into account his dire predicament and the
possibility that he was wronged. But Shylock is not a moral agent. He is part of
an overall fictional creation. The audience, moreover, is not some ethics-debat-
ing society attempting to determine the moral rationale for Shylock’s deeds.
Plays configure an overall impression shaped by numerous strands of
meaning. Moral content certainly plays a part—sometimes a decisive part—in
this process. But aesthetic distance often enables the entertaining of alien moral
notions. We extend momentary sympathies which would and should be
avoided in non-fictional contexts. To contemplate, understand or sympathize
are obviously not the same as to justify. But the moral dimensions of theatrical
response are too fraught to be neatly transferable to non-fictionalized moral
agency. Shylock instances this hiatus between life and theatre. In life it would be
implausible to demand punishment for actions that lie beyond the perpetra-
tor’s control. One would have to demonstrate that enough control has been
retained to warrant responsibility. In fiction, this tension does not have to be
relaxed. On the contrary, 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. In life, a moral
evaluation should strive for clarification, consistency, generality, and the possi-
bility of reapplication. In the theatre, moral response is often vague, conflictive,
undecided. Such differences suggest that when moral or immoral conduct is
being staged, when a moral response is being configured by the rhetoric of a
play, when, in short, morality is being theatricalized, one should access the
moral content with an eye wide open to theatre’s unique mode of addressing
and illuminating moral content. Theatre often follows our moral intuition and
is able to inform and clarify them for us. But theatre is also able to shuffle and
shift these intuitions, to juggle and rearrange them in variegated ways.
One such way is theatre’s capacity to fashion a fantasy out of our moral
intuitions. The “villain” accommodates the fantasy of nothing more than inexcus-
able and unpardonable evil that merits categorical annihilation. The “fool”
accommodates the fantasy of nothing more than structural inferiority. Theatrical
types embody other fantasies: the pantaloon is nothing more than the unsympa-
thetic obstacle to love. Such simplifications enable generation of the mirage of
moral clarity. When touching upon morality, theatre thus involves not merely
an aesthetically plausible presentation of moral agency. It also sometimes
undertakes to create the space for moral fantasy, for moral evaluation unbur-
dened by the clutter of details that plague any actual non-fictional evaluation.
Few would oppose this contention. Bombarded as we are with countless
The Fool, the Blind, and the Jew 155

cinematic productions that simplify a chunk of life by neatly separating the

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

of a culture’s ideology by theorists such as Brecht or Althusser.17 Nor am I trying

to resuscitate the idea that we can and should draw on a non-aestheticized
rendering of reality. 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. 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.
But a lovely feature of the Merchant is how it also mobilizes a critique of
life-following-drama patterns in the Launcelot-Gobbo exchange. The pinprick-
ing in relation to tragedy and comedy from which I began ridicules dramatic
genres and highlights life’s inability to mimic art.
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. Shylock is not merely
advocating equality or tolerance. He is detheatricalizing the category of a “Jew.”
Judaism is not really a human category in the play. It is rather a type (“Enter
Shylock the Jew”), a religiously colored subcategory of some villainous vice.
Sentences such as “I hate him for he is a Christian,” or “I will feed fat the ancient
grudge I bear him,” or “Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him,” leave little room
for a different take on this man. But then, as often in Shakespeare, one suspects
that he begins with some set type and then allows it to evolve without imposing
a predetermined sense of its nature. It is then that the birth of a highly
particularized character takes place. Demanding the audience to perceive the
person underlying the Jew, with eyes, hands, senses, dimensions, affections
and passions, Shylock is not merely undermining the importance ascribed to
religious differences. Through what is in fact a highly repetitious speech,
Shylock presses against the theatrical illusion by undermining the type he is
supposed to peacefully embody. He invites, even compels his audience to
acknowledge the particular character with its idiosyncratic speech, peeping
behind the theatrical type, the submerged particular momentarily breaking the
surface of a moral simplification. In momentarily annihilating the plausibility
of his marginalization by his culture through his repetitive de-theatricalization
of Judaism, Shylock duplicates the unsettling of norms, categories and cultural
divides that was already set in motion by his servant.18

A critique barked at me by Javier Katz, my instructor in a workshop on clowning
and buffoonery in the Lecoq school of physical theatre in Tel-Aviv, Israel.
The Arden Shakespeare, Second Series, J. R. Brown Ed. (London: Arden Shakespeare,
2001 [1955]). I shall use this version of the text throughout this essay.
The Fool, the Blind, and the Jew 157

Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark: University of
Delaware Press, 1999), p. 170.
Brown’s commentary (Arden) calls attention to: “The Heauens are just, murder
canot be hid: / Time is the author both of truth and right, / And time will bring
this treacherie to light.” Kyd, Spanish Tragedy (2.6.58–60).
Judith Rosenheim, “Making Friends of Stage and Page: A Response to Alan
Rosen,” Connotations 1999/2000, 9.3: 257–68, p. 260).
D. R. Robinson, “Wisdom Throughout the Ages,” in Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins,
and Development, ed. R. J. Sternbeg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1993), pp. 13–24, particularly p. 20.
James Black, “ Shakespeare’s Mastery of Fooling” in Mirror up to Shakespeare: Essays
in Honour of G.R. Hibbard, ed. J.C. Gray (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
1988), p. 83. R. H. Goldsmith, Wise Fools in Shakespeare, Michigan State University
Press: Michigan, 1963, p. 6.
“Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice and Moth in Love’s Labour’s Lost”, in
Players of Shakespeare 4, Ed. R. Smallwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press , 1998) p. 23.
Enid Welsford, The Fool: His Social & Literary History (London: Faber and Faber,
1935), p. 273.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. McPherson (Harmondsworth: Penguin
Books, 1974), 125.
Roger Ellis “The Fool in Shakespeare: A Study in Alienation,” Critical Quarterly,
1968, 10:3: 245–68 claims that such indifference is a pretense.
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., J. Elsom (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), pp. 2–3.
G. Gordon, Shakespearian Comedy and Other Studies (London: Oxford University
Press, 1944), p. 64.
Demarginalizing Launcelot begins with Dorothy C. Hockey’s rather diffident
“The Patch is Kind Enough,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1959):
pp. 448–50. See also J. Bulman’s Shakespeare in Performance: The Merchant of Venice,
and Alan Rosen, “Impertinent Matters: Lancelot Gobbo and the Fortunes of
Performance Criticism,” Connotations, 1998/9, 8.2: 217–31. Rosen mentions
productions that eliminate Launcelot entirely and some that rendered him
a pivotal character. In Komisarjevsky’s production (1930), he is the first and last
character on stage.
For other links between Gobbo’s blindness and the blindness of Judaism in light
of the play’s invocation of biblical allusions, see Judith Rosenheim, “Allegorical
Commentary in the Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Studies 24, 1996: pp. 156–210;
John Scott Colley, “Launcelot, Jacob, and Esau: Old and New Law in ‘The Merchant
of Venice’”, The Yearbook of English Studies, 10, 1980: pp. 181–89; Rene E. Fortin
“Launcelot and the Uses of Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,” Studies in English
Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 14, No. 2, (1974): pp. 259–70.
For this remark and a performance history, see Mahood’s introduction to
The New Cambridge Shakespeare version of the play (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2003), particularly p. 44.
158 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Louis Althusser, “‘The Piccolo Teatro’: Bertolazzi and Brecht—Notes on
a Materialist Theatre,” Mimesis, Masochism, and Mime: the Politics of Theatricality in
Contemporary French Thought, ed. Timothy Murray (Ann Arbor: University of
Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 199–215.
I am grateful to Sanford Budick, Elizabeth Freund and Talia Trainin for
comments and criticisms on an earlier draft of this essay.
Chapter 11

“Unlucky Deeds” and the Shame of Othello

Andrew Escobedo

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

trying to weasel out of the responsibility for murdering his innocent wife, but
rather acknowledging that a man can be an instrument and an agent at the
same moment.
In the final scene of the play Othello also asks rhetorically, “who can control
his fate?” Fate and luck, although we might initially think of them as opposed,
play overlapping roles, both denying the agent full control over his actions.
Tragedy is the place where the confluence of unlucky circumstance starts to
seem like the product of a hostile fate. Yet tragic fate generally stops short of a
fatality that would render the human will irrelevant, expressing instead a densely
layered determinism that may disable the alternativity of choice but leaves intact
the spontaneity of will. In Othello, fate is the product of a peculiar combination of
one’s character and one’s luck. Specifically, the play asks us to take seriously the
distasteful idea that a man of Othello’s character, faced with the unlucky
circumstances in which he finds himself, has no choice but to kill his wife. It will
take me some time to explain satisfactorily what I mean by claiming that
Othello has “no choice,” but I can say from the outset that it does not mean
immunity to moral responsibility. Rather, it suggests a different criterion of
assessing such responsibility, one that relies partly on the pronouncement of
Heracleitus that ethos anthropoi daimo-n: a man’s character is his fate. Shakespeare
asks us to read this formula backwards as well as forwards.
Criticism tends to account for Othello’s culpability in one of two ways. Some
commentators offer psychological readings to reveal why he did it but not who
he is. Others do focus on the question of character, but suggest that he becomes
someone else in the final scene. The Moor’s “long spiritual death” involves “the
acquisition of an alien sensibility and its principles,” argues Harold Skulsky.5
E. A. J. Honigmann, in an account of Othello’s secret motives, insists more
generally that “in [Shakespeare’s] greatest tragedies the hero is invaded or
possessed by an alien personality, and, challenged in his inmost being, appears
to be ‘taken over’.”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),7 and it also suggests that the
hero culpably fails to resist an outside influence. Yet “alien” misstates the rela-
tionship, in tragedy, between the daimo-n that possesses and the ethos that allows
the possession to take place, eventually obliging the hero to own that possession
as an act of will, if not exactly a “choice.” The manner in which a tragic
agent ends up responsible for an external imposition emerges conveniently in
Aristotle’s notion of hamartia.
In Chapter 13 of the Poetics, 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. If an extremely virtuous person suffers a downfall,
the spectacle of undeserved (anaxion) suffering strikes us as merely disgusting,
not piteous or fearful. Likewise, if an extremely wicked person suffers a
downfall, no one feels pity for deserved suffering. “This leaves,” writes Aristotle,
Unlucky Deeds 161

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

and Heracles do not appear to feel guilt about their actions; instead, they feel
The philosopher Bernard Williams has used Greek tragedy to develop ideas
about moral luck, agency, and shame. Tragedy can teach us, he suggests, to
recognize the extent to which the moral evaluation of our actions often depends
on factors outside the control of our choices. In promoting this recognition,
Williams advocates an ethic of shame as a supplement to the more normative
ethic of guilt in moral philosophy. The contrast between guilt and shame in the
social sciences is well known. Guilt expresses the feeling of remorse for actions
we have chosen to perform, often involving the desire to make reparation, if
possible, to the people we have injured. We sometimes even feel guilty about
actions that the community approves of but that we privately feel are wrong.
Shame, on the other hand, expresses the feeling of violating social or cultural
values, compromising our social identity, our sense of our standing in the com-
munity.14 Shame often includes the impression of being looked at, caught in
the act as we make such violations, even when no one is actually looking. When
we feel shame we want to escape from the view of others, like Edmund
Spenser’s character in The Faerie Queene: “And Shame his ugly face did hide
from living eye” (2.7.22). But when we feel guilt, the discomfort appears to
come more from the inside than the outside. As Williams describes it: “[Shame]
is not even the wish, as people say, to sink through the floor, but rather the wish
that the space occupied by me should be instantaneously empty. With guilt it is
not like this; I am more dominated by the thought that even if I disappeared, it
would come with me.”15
Commentators have sometimes suggested that guilt represents a more sophi-
sticated moral consciousness than shame. Shame always risks the charge of
heteronormativity: an action that violates norms in one community may be the
confirmation of norms in another community. It is hard to formulate abstract
moral law out of shame. Also, since shame depends on our sense of our stand-
ing in the community, it can appear merely instrumental or self-interested,
expressing a regard for saving face rather than a personal concern for those we
have injured. Aristotle, for his part, insisted that shame (aidos) was not a virtue,
and philosophers up to Kant and onward have agreed.16 Guilt, by contrast,
involves an awareness that we have harmed others—whatever the community
may say—and promotes a sense of our responsibility to those others. Ideally,
this sense of responsibility for particular others translates into a sense of respon-
sibility for others in general, manifesting the abstract moral law that obliges us
to feel such responsibility in the first place. Guilt, in this sense, signals a mature
conscience. Describing the effects of guilt in Pauline thought, Paul Ricoeur
suggests that “with guilt, ‘conscience’ is born; a responsible agent appears, to
face the prophetic call and its demands for holiness.”17
Without denying guilt’s power to motivate ethical behavior, Williams takes
issue with the philosophical partiality for guilt over shame. Guilt’s emphasis on
Unlucky Deeds 163

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

traced the influence of Hercules Furens less directly, but equally compellingly,
through the tradition of Senecan furor, especially as it was transmitted through
Renaissance plays featuring the Herod and Miriam theme.24 Tristan l’Hermite’s
La Mariane, Lodovico Dolce’s Marianna, and Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of
Miriam offer a Herod who, as a kind of Senecan tyrant, orders the execution of
his wife Miriam out of jealousy prompted by false charges of Miriam’s infidelity.
This has intriguing parallels for Othello, whose rage and despair in the final
scene is reminiscent of the rage and despair of these Seneca-inspired Herods,
and who in the Folio version of his last speech compares himself to “the base
Judean,” who “threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe” (5.2.352–53).
Both Miola and Braden thus suggest important ways that Seneca’s tragedy
influenced the final scene of Othello. Yet they tend to describe this influence
according to the protocols of guilt rather than of shame. For example, Miola
suggests that Seneca’s Hercules is afflicted with “guilt and a desire for infernal
punishments. Invoking the fiends in Hades, Hercules imagines himself pun-
ished there.”25 Yet in what Miola goes on to quote, Hercules does not actually
ask for punishment; instead, he asks for seclusion: “If any [places] yet do lie /
Beyond Erebus, yet unknown to Cerberus and me, / There hide me, ground.”26
Seneca’s Hercules in fact never asks to be punished for what he has done to his
family, but rather considers suicide because he cannot stand to be himself any
longer. Likewise, the Seneca-inspired Herods that Braden describes revise their
Classical heritage by dwelling not on the shame of what they have become, but
instead on their guilt for what they have done to innocent Miriam and their
wish for punishment. Tristan’s Hérode, for example, calls on his people “to
punish my sin” and assures his wife in heaven that “I feel a remorse quite strong
and quite palpable.”27 Seneca’s Hercules, by contrast, offers no such pointed
expressions of remorse for those he has harmed. Shakespeare, of course, was as
capable as Tristan and Dolce of turning tragic shame into Christian guilt, 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.
What would it mean to apply the determinism of character and the ethics of
shame to this final scene? To start, such an application would have to concede
that Othello is not literally possessed by frenzy in the way Hercules is. He is
surprisingly calm as he speaks to Desdemona, compared to his behavior in
Act 4. Shakespeare seems to suggest instead that Othello is trying to integrate
the proposition of killing his wife into his personality. It is not easy: he has to
talk himself into it, to some degree. We see this in his first speech, as he looks at
his sleeping wife. He keeps the “cause” that he cites at the beginning carefully
vague, and he distances his wife’s humanity by objectifying her as “monumental
alabaster” (5.2.5). 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, / It needs must wither” (13–15) and “Be thus when thou art dead
Unlucky Deeds 165

and I will kill thee / And love thee after” (18–19). All these things give the
impression of a mind seeking to dull the horror of the act before it.
But if it is a mind not at rest, it is a mind basically resolved. Nothing he says in
this speech suggests that he is still deciding whether or not to kill Desdemona.
He has already decided, and he implies reasons for his decision that follow
from the expression of his character seen earlier in the play. 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,
we have little reason to think that he does not believe himself, even deep down.
He has already demonstrated a moral sensibility ready to mete out swift punish-
ment in the name of justice and order, 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; he dies upon his motion” (2.3.169–70); and he has made clear his willing-
ness to place justice before affection: “Cassio, I love thee, / But never more be
officer of mine” (2.3.244–45). In the final scene he has made up his mind,
he gives reasons that resonate with earlier indications of his character, 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” (5.2.12–13).
To note that he also objectifies Desdemona as “alabaster” (5) does not count
against this last point; rather, it indicates that he misunderstands what the final-
ity of her death will do to him, that it will turn him into stone instead of her.
Yet what does this determinism of character amount to? After all, Othello
could choose not to kill Desdemona, could he not? The answer depends on what
range of options the play encourages us to ascribe to him at this point. Othello is
a drama in which ethos and daimo-n carry out closely related functions, provid-
ing both a detailed portrait of character and intense pressure from an outside
malevolent influence. Iago is the “demi-devil” (5.2.298) who tempts Othello to
lose faith in Desdemona and also the voice already in Othello’s head, like the
daimones of Greek literature. Othello’s jealousy, unlike that of Leontes in
The Winter’s Tale, explicitly begins with an outside influence, yet once it starts his
inclination toward passion lends it power. As he warned the street brawlers
earlier, “My blood begins my safer guides to rule / And passion, having my best
judgement collied, / Assays to lead the way” (2.3.201–03). Othello’s susceptibi-
lity to passion is also mentioned by Lodovico, 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? (4.1.265–68)

We’ve already seen that passion could indeed shake Othello all along, but this
assessment does rightly suggest the manner in which chance overlaps with
166 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Othello’s indulgence in passion. The astonishing scope of luck in the plot, all
of it bad—the losing and finding of the handkerchief, Desdemona’s ill-timed
vehemence on Cassio’s behalf, 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. Significantly, Shakespeare gives Othello
no scene, prior to his act of violence, in which he deliberates about the options
before him, as the playwright gives to Brutus in the Julius Caesar (2.1) and to
Macbeth throughout the first two acts of his drama. As I indicated at the begin-
ning of this essay, the lack of an alternativity of choice does not mean that
Othello is not culpable, both for his lack of faith and for the murder. But his
culpability emerges not so much from a deliberate choice as from a hideous
hamartia reflecting an imperfect character.
If the above description of Othello’s moral agency is accurate, we should
expect that the expression of his responsibility will be shame—and to a consid-
erable degree it is, as we will see. As I noted earlier, however, Othello is not
Seneca’s Hercules or Euripides’s Heracles. No daimo-n of madness literally
possesses him; he holds the pillow to his wife’s face knowing that she is his wife.
After he discovers that Iago has misled him, he voices painful remorse for the
injury he has done to her:

Othello: Now: how dost thou look now? O ill-starr’d wench,

Pale as thy smock. When we shall meet at compt
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it. Cold, cold, my girl,
Even like thy chastity. O cursed, cursed slave!
Whip me, ye devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight!
Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur,
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
O Desdemon! dead, Desdemon! Dead! O, O! (5.2.270–79)

This is the first time he speaks to her after learning of his error. He reanimates
her corpse with personhood in order to imagine her just censure at Judgment
Day, to imagine the agency of her just retribution (“hurl my soul from heaven”),
and to imagine the just punishments that will torture him (“blow me,” “roast
me”) and perhaps contain the seeds of amends (“wash me”). Here we have guilt
in all its psychological richness, a nightmare of self-loathing and desire worthy
of Hawthorne, Poe, or Zola. In this vision, Othello does not get to vanish; he has
to stay with himself. To quote Williams again: “With guilt . . . I am more domi-
nated by the thought that even if I disappeared, it would come with me.”
The above expression of Othello’s guilt is so compelling that it sometimes
prevents modern audiences and readers, I think, from appreciating the other
Unlucky Deeds 167

dimension of his culpability that he voices: his shame. His shame articulates
not only what he has done and why, but who he is now that he has done it.
The passage quoted above is only the second half of a speech that begins rather

Othello: Behold, I have a weapon,

A better never did itself sustain
Upon a soldier’s thigh. 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, O vain boast,
Who can control his fate? ’Tis not so now.
Be not afraid, though you do see me weaponed:
Here is my journey’s end, here is my butt
And very sea-mark of my utmost sail.
Do you go back dismayed? ’tis a lost fear;
Man but a rush against Othello’s breast
And he retires. Where should Othello go? (5.2.258–69)

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,
but here in his shame he sees an ending: “Here is my journey’s end, here is my
butt / And very sea-mark of my utmost sail.” This ending is the ending of him-
self: Othello cannot have been duped into killing his innocent wife and still be
Othello. He will disappear, because he realizes the difference between the man
he used to be and the man he is now. Certainly, this difference conforms to the
masculinist language of prowess and weaponry, but the play has never con-
cealed the fact that this constituted one of the cores of Othello’s identity. The
loss of this identity signals his recognition that the social values that once guar-
anteed his virtue are the same ones that deny his worth now. This is the burden
of his later reply to Lodovico: “That’s he that was Othello? Here I am” (281).
The template of shame allow us to read this line not so much as a psychoana-
lytic instance of internal rupture, but rather as an entirely public confession of
lost social identity.
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), “Who can control his fate?” (263), “ill-starred
wench” (270), “unlucky deeds” (339). Critics have commonly take these state-
ments as evidence of Othello’s attempt to deny his moral responsibility for what
he has done.28 These assertions, they suggest, are bad faith, and bad faith is the
provenance of guilt. Harry Berger comes close to this position in his fascinating
168 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

interpretation of the play’s characters as collaborating in their own destruction.29

The loss of the handkerchief, Desdemona’s appeal for Cassio, Othello’s
ignorance of Iago’s game—according to Berger all these things proceed from
the characters’ partly-conscious will to make them happen. This reading has
virtues almost beyond count, yet it also interprets luck right out of the play
because, in Berger’s view, deep down these people really know what they are
doing. 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,” and emphasizing
shame in Shakespeare’s art “diverts attention from . . . the varied pressures of
conscience on speakers’ self-interpretation.”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. Although Berger doesn’t intend it, these assumptions might
incline us to ascribe a greater degree of autonomy to the characters in Othello
than the play appears to warrant. We might be tempted to agree with the critical
assessment that sees Othello’s appeal to the forces of chance as bad faith. But
to assume this is to suggest that guilt is the only legitimate expression of culpa-
bility. In none of the above statements is Othello simply trying to disjoin his
action from himself. He acknowledges rather that this action sticks to him at a
variety of levels. In this tragedy, the error of the moon, the vagaries of cosmic
forces, do make men mad. Desdemona is ill-starred. The handkerchief, which in
Cinthio’s version Iago skillfully filches from Desdemona, Emilia finds by chance
in Shakespeare’s version. The unlucky deeds that have befallen Othello are the
same ones he owns when he thrusts the sword into his body. 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, or thus. Our bodies are gardens, to the which
our wills are gardeners” (1.3.320–22). Iago appeals to a model of will that exerts
absolute dominion over life, one that precludes the possibility of unlucky deeds,
making it immune to shame.
Some readers, following T.S. Eliot, are dissatisfied that Othello’s death speech
says so little specifically about Desdemona and what he has done to her. Our
response to this speech will depend partly on what we expect from tragedy.
Modern audiences and readers have come to expect guilt, from Shakespeare at
least. Perhaps, along with Harry Berger, the richest recent account of hidden
interior motives in Othello comes from Stanley Cavell, 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), and for this he can never forgive her.
Cavell concludes that “Tragedy is the place we are not allowed to escape the
consequences, or price, of this cover: that the failure to acknowledge a best case
of the other is a denial of that other, presaging the death of the other.”31 Yet, for
all the insight of Cavell’s reading, it may turn out that tragedy, as a classical
inheritance, is not the place that demands recognition of the other. We might
Unlucky Deeds 169

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
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 Univer-
sity 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.
170 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

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 responsi-
ble 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 pros-
pect 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
172 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

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 judge-
ment, 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
Agency and Repentance 173

unreasonable jealousy which psychiatrists have identified is sometimes called

Othello syndrome.6 Given the difference between these two plays, it would be
better renamed the Leontes syndrome.
I referred just now to unreasonable jealousy and it is important to see the
legitimacy of this category. 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 ade-
quate motivation, that its fantasies are created out of nothing; otherwise it is not
jealousy.”7 In fact we recognize a category of reasonable jealousy, as we recog-
nize reasonable anger and distress; we think it natural to be jealous in certain
circumstances, and indeed that it would be pathological not to be jealous if one
knew that someone deeply loved had deceived and been unfaithful. We cannot
put off the burden of explaining Leontes’ state simply by pointing out that he
is jealous.


The Lords’ perplexity naturally turns them to the thought that some
“putter-on” has poisoned Leontes mind (2.1, 141–43), reminding us of the plot
of the earlier Othello. But Leontes is manifestly the originator of his own notions
of infidelity, and for the first one-third of the play the primary question is to
determine how this fancy can be sustained so long. A natural thought is found
in Camillo’s already noted urging to Leontes to “be cur’d of this diseased opin-
ion.” For Leontes is, surely, the victim of some delusion. True enough, but it
doesn’t explain much without substantial supplementation. It is not, after all,
clear what sorts of mental states delusions are, and the term may in fact cover a
variety of psychological kinds. 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, unsup-
ported and impervious to counter evidence. Yet there is some tendency, among
professionals and laypersons, to associate delusions with imagination, and
references to Leontes’ “jealous imaginings” are common in the literature of
criticism.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.” Do such
claims constitute denials that the person in question believes something, or is
this a way, 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, and it is
unlikely to have occurred to Shakespeare in quite this form. We must tread
carefully, not imposing the pattern of a current philosophical and psychiatric
dispute on his conception. But there is a fixed point to guide us, and it is this:
174 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

within the play, it is a datum that Leontes is responsible for his actions; neither
he nor anyone else ever suggests that he might claim diminished responsibility
on grounds of madness. But what is it, precisely, that he has done or failed to do
for which he is culpable?
One thing generally said to distinguish imagining from belief is the subjec-
tion of imagination to what is quaintly called “will.” Roughly speaking, the world
impresses beliefs on us; we generate and sustain our imaginings. Imaginings are
not always happily called voluntary, still less deliberate; yet we recognise
a category of actions—things people do—which are yet done without setting
ourselves to do them and which are, in a sense done “against our will,” as with
compulsive shoplifting; for that reason I’ll avoid saying that imagining depends
on the will. But imagining is something we do, and we can sensibly ask whether
someone is responsible for this or that imagining, though the answer may
sometimes be no.
I don’t quite accept this picture, holding that there are imaginings generated
by processes that don’t entitle us to count them as acts, even involuntary ones.
Still, the picture is useful; the test of action-dependency serves to distinguish a
lot of imaginings from beliefs, and its helps in the case of Leontes. His delu-
sional state consists, I think, of a mixture of belief and imagination, perhaps
together with cognitive states that don’t fit easily into either category and for
which we have no accepted labels. The core of the delusion is the conviction
that Hermione is unfaithful, and this is sustained and magnified by an emotion-
ally destabilizing set of imaginings. We need to see how imagination causes this
conviction to flourish in a context where the evidence is so hostile to it.
The opening scene with Leontes, 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; the not entirely
sincere plea to Polixenes to stay longer, agreement to which Hermione so deftly
secures; Polixenes’ unfortunately resonating reference to the nine months he
has been in Sicilia already. While there are signs of tensions in this early scene
between Leontes and Polixenes, I don’t see evidence for what Michael Bristol
calls “a bitter and potentially deadly struggle for honour and prestige.”9 It is not
astonishing that Leontes should have the thought of unfaithfulness; it is
astonishing that the thought should immediately rise to a certainty beyond all
question. It is a thought that ought to have at this stage a very low credence
indeed; after all, it is Hermione we are speaking of, and everything we will come
know about her, and everything that Leontes does know about her, makes the
idea so improbable. But something allows this thought to become the map by
which Leontes will steer for the next two acts. It is not that Leontes misjudges
the evidence; rather, his credence is independent of the evidence. He is just not
interested in getting any evidence, and certainly not in hearing the arguments
of those around him, of Paulina who later points out the baby’s likeness to him,
of all the Lords whose judgement is that the idea is utterly impossible—and
Agency and Repentance 175

when it comes to understanding action and motive the judgment of others is

often the best evidence. Instead, the thought is sustained by a defensive
barrier of vivid and emotion-generating images of lust, cuckoldry and shame.10
He instantly and fatally makes the thought the centre of an imaginative project,
“constructing an intense moral drama in which he enacts the role of the
deceived husband.”11 This puts him in the position of one almost entirely
disconnected from reality, a role few of us could afford to sustain for long.
Paradoxically, it is the great power of Leontes’ kingship that makes it possible
for him to be absorbed in the make-believe; his transactions with reality can, for
a while at least, be reduced to giving a few orders, a point I’ll come back to
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.
Leontes has just heard the judgement of the Oracle, that Hermione is innocent,
and rejected it. But then the death of his son, Mamillius, is announced, at which
point he declares “I have too much believed mine own suspicions” (3.2.151).
By contrast, Greene’s Pandosto abandons his suspicions immediately he hears
the judgement of the oracle. Immediately he announces a programme of
recovery and reparation: reconciliation with Polixenes, renewal of love with
Hermione (this before he is told she is dead), calling home Camillo who he had
denounced as a traitor.
Why this very sudden change? Leontes was prepared, without hesitation, to
reject the Oracle when its judgement went against him; 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, reinterpreted, or explained away. Throughout the
period of his madness (allowing, for the moment, this description of his
state) Leontes, because of his position of unchallengeable authority, has been
able to dictate the course of events, and the most he has had to put up with
is, first of all, Camillo’s defection to the cause of Polixenes, which Leontes
treats as further proof of Polixenes’ guilt, and the arguments of Paulina, who
Leontes is able simply to order out of his presence. Leontes is in the position
of being able to sustain his fancy through his mastery of circumstance. Until,
that is, the death of his son is announced: a devastating event which consti-
tutes, as it were, his running straight into the brick wall of reality. A state-
ment, even one from an Oracle, may be interpreted; the death of a son allows
no interpretation. I suggest that it is at this point that his fancy crumbles
because he has, at last, to deal with reality from a standpoint within reality
itself, and cannot manage events from the shell of his imagining. Cavell, for
whom the death of Mamillius is central, 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. This is in a general
way undeniable but it hardly suggests why it is here that he buckles, lets
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


Leontes is not the only character to undergo a dramatic reversal of outlook on

the deaths of Mamillius and (apparently) Hermione. At one moment Paulina is
angrily assuring Leontes that no penitence, however long and painful, could
match the enormity of his crime:

Paulina: Do not repent these things, for they are heavier

Than all thy woes can stir; therefore betake thee
To nothing but despair. A thousand knees
Ten thousand years together, naked, fasting,
Upon a barren mountain and still winter
In storm perpetual, could not move the gods
To look that way thou wert (3. 2. 208–14)

A moment later she says that “What’s gone and what’s past help / Should be
past grief . . . I’ll speak of her no more, 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
These two speeches, so different in emotional tone, have something in com-
mon, if we take the first at face value. According to both, Leontes should not
repent: first because no repentance can equal the crime; second because these
things are “past help.” In the highly charged atmosphere of the scene it is not
helpful to look for a logic to the arguments, but their common conclusion does
stand in marked contrast to what, as we come to know, actually happened dur-
ing the next sixteen years. Far from saying nothing, Paulina has filled that time
with vivid recollections of Leontes’ offences, keeping him chained to a daily
round of exhausting penitence. 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 reconcilia-
tion portrayed in the play’s ending. L. C. 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 . . .”13 Others, while
inclining the same way, recognize that mere human psychology is not here
equal to the task of getting us to a positive conclusion, 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, after a long repentance under his Conscience, find that that very con-
science had unknown to him kept his soul in being and could at last restore it
Agency and Repentance 177

to him alive and whole.”14 In the final scene, says Frye, there is only “the sense
of a participation in the redeeming and reviving power of a nature identified
with art, grace and love.”15 For Mahood “Hermione represents the grace of
heaven towards Leontes.”16 Bethel declares simply that “Leontes and they are
all born again,”17
We ought not to legislate entirely against such notions. But a reasonable
constraint on their application is that they should illuminate the actions and
persons of the play. And these invocations of grace, the economy of soul and
conscience, the power of art and nature, seem disconnected from the psycho-
logical realities of desire and responsibility made vivid in the play’s early part.
Grace in particular seems too easy a substitute for a forgiveness the play itself
fails to motivate. As Michael Bristol puts it:

It is usual to . . . interpret the play’s conclusion in terms of reconciliation. This

may explain what the restoration of Hermione means as an allegory of divine
grace. However, this type of religious interpretation fails to provide any kind of
plausible motivation for Hermione’s willingness to be restored to Leontes. To put
the question as crudely as possible, 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. And there’s an important clue in his observation that the
“the living statue is the ultimate in luxury goods, a lavish promise of consumer
satisfaction;” I’ll argue that Leontes’ acceptance of Hermione-as-statue is an
indication that, whatever suffering he has undergone, he is not significantly
more in touch with moral reality at the end than at the beginning. But I shall
part company with Bristol when he says that “Leontes’s ‘redemption’ is . . . the
result of his own bold, risk-taking decisions,” arguing that, to the contrary,
Leontes’ moral disconnection is a kind of incapacity for action.

Virtue and Agency

It’s of the nature of grace to be undeserved, an exogenous restitution for which

we claim no credit.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. I sympa-
thize with them; notably absent is any evidence for moral change in Leontes,
surely a necessary condition, though perhaps not a sufficient one, for the looked
for re-establishing of relationships. Pafford, acutely aware of the problem, says,
despairingly, 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 . . . come to know himself and to be aware of his littleness.”20
178 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Others merely assume that after his sixteen years of suffering and repentance,
“knowledge gained through suffering brings knowledge gained by virtue.”21
And while for some more recent commentators, Leontes’ “reformation remains
a work in progress,”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.23
Appeals to Aristotelian virtue are particularly inappropriate here. On Aristotle’s

. . . the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the
arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by
doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the
lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts,
brave by doing brave acts.24

The picture is of moral growth through moral action—both mental acts that
generate, control and interrogate our reasons, and the bodily dispositions that
put our decisions into effect. Saint-like sorrow and the saying of endless prayers
do not provide for this activity in either form, though some would think them a
worthy accompaniment to it in a case such as this. Julia Annas, discussing
Aristotle’s view, says something relevant to understanding how Paulina, for all
her steadfastness and good sense, fails in her project of renewal:

The learner depends on the expert to learn in the first place, but the goal of
learning is to have your own understanding of what you have learned from the
expert. The expert in a practical field aims not to produce clone-like disciples
who will mimic what she does, but pupils who will go on to become experts them-
selves, which they can do only if they acquire their own understanding of the

Leontes has not acquired his own practical understanding of right action; he
has learned merely to accept the judgement of the expert. Leontes does see
vividly that he was wrong, has done wrong, and is very sorry for it; to this extent
there has been progress. But it is a mistake to picture him, at the end of the
play, on the path to virtue, merely with some way to go. For all his remorse, he
has not grown morally in the intervening years; if anything he is a weaker
character, entirely at Paulina’s command. And remorse, unaided by practical
moral skills, is not a promising basis for a renewed relationship under such
difficult circumstances. “The brute fact of change is dramatically foregrounded,
but ideas of growth or of lived experience or of any sequence of developmental
steps or incremental stages are repressed.”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
Agency and Repentance 179

is the vivid picture the play gives us of Paulina as its moral centre; our convic-
tion 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.27 In the face of Leontes’ anger, Paulina is
fearlessly rational in defence of Hermione, not merely insisting on Hermione’s
innocence, but pointing carefully to the evidence in her favour. Her interven-
tions contrast with the ineffective sighing of the Lords who “creep like shadows
by him [Leontes]” and “nourish the cause of his awaking” (2.3.33–39). The
most doubtful element of her counsel—that Leontes not remarry, which jeop-
ardizes the succession—seems finally vindicated by the survival of Hermione
and the reappearance of Perdita. But while her forceful and uncompromising
activity is an appropriate response to Leontes’ fury, 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, I think, a significant criticism of Paulina that she fails to
provide it: merely a reminder that her moral resources have human limits.


Aristotle’s observations on habituation to virtue bear on a question raised

earlier: Leontes’ responsibility for the events of the play’s earlier part. If we
think him deluded in the first part of the play, 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, from which evil actions flow. But there are other ways to be respon-
sible for bad outcomes, and one of them is to fail to develop the right kind of
habits of thinking. 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, especially when those ideas are emotionally
highly charged and apt to generate lurid imaginings. Leontes, long accustomed
to the privileges of kingship, has not developed these habits; there have pre-
sumably been few occasions on which his orders have been questioned and,
where his actions have produced bad consequences, he is likely to have been
sheltered from them. 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,
Communicatest with dreams;—how can this be?—
With what’s unreal thou coactive art,
180 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

And fellowst nothing: then ’tis very credent

Thou mayst co-join with something; and thou dost,
And that beyond commission, and I find it,
And that to the infection of my brains
And hardening of my brows (1.2.137–46).28

But by this time he can get no purchase on it. The idea that in his present state
things rationally regarded as impossible seem possible, as they do in dreams,
quickly gives way to a disordered conclusion without determinate content,
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.29 Leontes seems to want to
accept both the unreality of Hermione’s offence and the rightness of his violent
response to it. Whatever the conclusion, the passage indexes a fatal veering
from the path of reason.
Leontes, at the height of his delusion, 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. 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, to some degree, against the dangers of
excessive imagining. This is not what we get. Throughout the delusional period,
Paulina has made it her business to be an external check on Leontes’ beliefs—
and getting nothing but threats of execution for her pains. But once Leontes
has turned from vengeful madman to biddable penitent, she—despite her
earlier promise to “say nothing”—is not able to allow him to recover the critical
faculties necessary for regrowth. She sees to it that he does not forget his actions,
keeping him in a continual state of repentant inactivity, all his energies devoted
to recalling the enormity of his crime—and his debt to her.30 The result of this
has been the imprinting of patterns of thought and speech, but not the right
ones. Leontes’ greeting to her at the beginning of the final scene, “O grave and
good Paulina, the great comfort I have had of thee!” (5.3.1–2) has the sound of
habitual and formulaic deference. Everywhere, she is “good”, “grave and good”,
“true” Paulina, who always “speaks the truth.”31 From Leontes’ now supine posi-
tion, everyone looks uniformly elevated: Polixenes, whom he once so easily
believed to be Hermione’s seducer is, by the end, “a holy father”, “sacred”,
“blest”; an exchanged glance between Hermione and Polixenes which would
once have been further proof of adultery is now itself “holy.”32 When, in response
to Cleomenes’ entreaty, Leontes says he cannot forgive himself as long as he
remembers what he has done, Paulina is quick to reinforce his mood of morbid

Paulina: Too true, my lord:

If, one by one, you wedded all the world,
Or from the all that are took something good,
Agency and Repentance 181

To make a perfect woman, she you kill’d

Would be unparallel’d (5.1.12–16),

To which Leontes’ reply, “Say so but seldom,” suggests that her speaking thus
has not been seldom at all. Hermione’s only words are addressed to Perdita,
making it clear that her reason for being at these odd proceedings is at last to
see her daughter (5.3.122–127). Later, Paulina, having revealed the so life-like
statue, tempts Leontes with “I could afflict you further,” to which he—not know-
ing what is to come, and expecting only a further opportunity to wallow in sor-
row—replies “Do Paulina, for this affliction has a taste as sweet as any cordial
comfort” (75–77). On seeing the statue—what he takes to be a statue—Leontes
is overcome by its life-likeness, and Paulina says she will cover it in case he
comes to believe it is alive. Leontes replies,

Leontes: Make me to think so twenty years together!

No settled sense of the world can match
the pleasure of that madness (5.3.71–73)

I suggest that the “coming to life” of the statue represents what is in fact a con-
tinuation of Leontes’ fantasy state—a state in which he can, repentant but
otherwise unchanged, 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”, and the artifice of the end-
ing—magical or not—seems to reflect his failure, here as at the beginning, to
come to terms with real things. When Hermione descends, she “hangs about
his neck,” yet says nothing to him, while he focuses on Paulina’s need for a
husband.33 Hermione’s arrival, however contrived, seems to be more in the
nature of a present from Paulina than an act of will on her part; as Leontes
says to Paulina, “Thou shouldst take a husband by my consent as I by thine a
wife.”34 Hermione’s revival, standing uneasily between magic and the merely
unbelievable, is a culmination to Leontes’ sweet affliction: a silent, unreal
presence that enables him to imagine himself restored to a grounded human
existence, without having undergone the practice that would make that
existence possible.35

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, 2008. My thanks to Michael for his invitation to that
meeting and for the insightful suggestions which have helped me to revise the
essay. As will be clear, we remain at some distance from agreement about the play;
but there is no likelihood that he will be blamed for my errors.
182 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

Leonard Barkan, “‘Living Sculptures’: Ovid, Michelangelo, and The Winter’s Tale,”
English Literary History, 48 (Winter, 1981), pp. 639–67.
Allan Bloom, Shakespeare on Love and Friendship (University of Chicago Press,
2000), p. 123. 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,” Shakespeare Quarterly. Fall 2004.
Vol. 55, pp. 253–78; the quotation is on p. 253). 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).
Jean E. Howard, Introduction to The Winter’s Tale,The Norton Shakespeare,
volume 2, (W.W. Norton & Company Ltd ,Second Edition, 2008), p. 1150.
Inga-Stina Ewbank, “The triumph of time,” A Review of English Literature, 5:2
(1964): pp. 83–100, p. 113.
Todd, J. and Dewhurst, K. “The Othello syndrome: A study in the psychopatho-
logy of sexual jealousy,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 1955, 122,
pp. 367–74.
Howard Felperin, Shakespearean Romance, (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1972) p. 214.
Lawrence Danson. “‘The Catastrophe is a Nuptial’: The Space of Masculine
Desire in Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale.” Shakespeare Survey Volume 46:
Shakespeare and Sexuality. Ed. Stanley Wells (Cambridge University Press, 1993),
p.77. 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, 2006).
Michael Bristol, “In Search of the Bear: Spatiotemporal Form and the
Heterogeneity of Economies in ‘The Winter’s Tale’,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 42,
No. 2 (Summer, 1991), pp. 145–67, p. 156.
See again Knapp, “Visual and Ethical Truth in The Winter’s Tale,” p. 274.
M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare’s Wordplay (London: Methuen, 1957).
Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge: In Seven Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, Second edition, 2003), p. 195.
L. C. Knights, “‘Integration’ in ‘The Winter’s Tale’”, Sewanee Review, 1976, 84.4,
pp. 595–613.
Neville Coghill, “Six Points of Stage-Craft in The Winter’s Tale,” Shakespeare Survey
Volume 11: The Last Plays. Ed. Allardyce Nicoll (Cambridge: Cambridge Univer-
sity Press, 1958).
N. Frye, “Recognition in The Winter’s Tale,” Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan
Drama in Honour of Hardin Craig, ed. R. Hosley (London: Routledge, 1963), p.
Mahood, Shakespeare’s Wordplay, p. 154.
S. L. Bethel, The Winter’s Tale: A Study (London: Staples Press, 1947), p. 102
“In Search of the Bear,” p. 166.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own
doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast”
Eph 2:8–9.
In his 1963 Arden Shakespeare edition of The Winter’s Tale, pp. lxxii–lxxiii.
Agency and Repentance 183

Kenneth J. Semon, “Fantasy and Wonder in Shakespeare’s Last Plays,” Shakespeare
Quarterly 25 (1974), pp. 89–102, 97–8. “Hard-won maturity and wisdom, no less
than the miracle of youth and love, allow both young and old to join the final
comic dance” (Scott Colley, “Leontes’ Search for Wisdom in ‘The Winter’s Tale’,”
South Atlantic Review, 48.1 (Jan., 1983), pp. 43–53, p. 44).
Introduction to The Winter’s Tale, Susan Snyder and Deborah Curren-Aquino
(eds) (Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.60.
Ibid., p.42.
Nicomachean Ethics, Part II, Book 2. Ross’ translation (Clarendon Press, 1998).
“Being Virtuous and Doing the Right Thing,” Proceedings and Addresses of the
American Philosophical Association 78 (2004) pp. 61–74. Thanks to Neil Sinclair for
drawing my attention to this essay.
Bristol, “In Search of the Bear,” 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. Kurland, “We Need No More
of Your Advice”: Political Realism in The Winter’s Tale, Studies in English Literature,
1500–1900, 31 (Spring, 1991), pp. 365–86.
Mark van Doren called this “the obscurest passage in Shakespeare,” Shakespeare
(Henry Holt and Company, 1939), p. 316).
I am indebted here to Harold Goddard (Meaning of Shakespeare (Phoenix
Books University of Chicago Press, Volume 2, 1963), p.651; see also Knights,
“‘Integration’ in ‘The Winter’s Tale’”: “Dreams are ‘unreal’ . . . so if affection can
work on such insubstantial material, how much more likely that it can join with
what is actually there” (p.126). For a different reading see David Ward, “Affection,
Intention, and Dreams in The Winter’s Tale,” The Modern Language Review, 82.3
(Jul., 1987), pp. 545–54.
Even Curren-Aquino describes the sixteen years as “an endless cycle of
potentially numbing sameness” (Introduction to Winter’s Tale, Cambridge
edition, p.45).
5.1.49; 5.3. 151; 5.3. 1; 5.1. 81; 5.1. 55; 5.3.70.
5.1.169–73; 5.3.148.
Hermione’s only words are addressed to Perdita, making it clear that her reason
for being at these odd proceedings is at last to see her daughter (5.3.122–27).
5.3.136–37. If this interpretation is right it is very natural to take the lines
But how is to be question’d; for I saw her,
As I thought, dead; and have in vain said many
A prayer upon her grave . . .
as a weak minded and confused parenthesis which interrupts the flow of his
firmer thought concerning Paulina’s marriage, resumed halfway through 141.
Curran-Aquino insists that “Leontes has the last word and exits the play issuing
orders” (Introduction to The Winter’s Tale, Susan Snyder and Deborah Curren-
Aquino (eds) (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 56). His instruction is in fact
“Good Paulina, lead us from hence” (5.3.152). As they later remark, “agency is
now imparted to someone else and the speaker relegated to object” (p. 58).
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 con-
cept 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 charac-
ter, 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 exami-
nation 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? 185

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 contempo-
raries. 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 make-
believe 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 represe-
ntation 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 obliga-
tions. 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 termino-
logy, 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
186 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
Perhaps most unsatisfying in Beauregard’s criticism is the sense that histori-
cally-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 manifesta-
tion 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 con-
cepts 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 philo-
sophical as a category has also arguably informed Shakespeare scholarship in a
variety of ways. In recent decades, studies of Shakespeare and character criti-
cism 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 philo-
sophical 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? 187

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 criti-
cal preoccupation with character and psychological interiority—a critical pre-
occupation de Grazia equates with a kind of universalizing arrogance. Among
the many scholars who, like de Grazia, have adopted new historicist perspec-
tives, philosophy is either ignored, or treated as a wrong-headed critical strat-
egy—sometimes dismissed as “presentism”—that aspires to rise above the social
and cultural particulars of the early modern period. For a majority of Renais-
sance 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 con-
ceived as an exclusively deontological enterprise. In this sense, there is no phi-
losophizing Shakespeare, at least not in a way that would yield anything new or


Recently, a small number of scholars writing under the auspices of moral-

philosophical approaches to Shakespeare have begun to suggest that philoso-
phy 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 reason-
ing 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 philosophi-
cal speculation. His article “How Many Children Did She Have?” calls into ques-
tion 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,
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, including their own background knowledge
and life experiences. Those moments most worth reflecting on in Shakespeare,
Bristol argues, are not scenes that purport to impart privileged, universally true
points of view. Instead, the episodes most worthy of critical speculation are the
ones where audiences must insert themselves and grapple with the plays’ most
salient unresolved questions.11
For Bristol, this kind of speculation counts as a legitimate form of moral
inquiry—one characterized by vernacularism. Moral inquiry is vernacular for
Bristol in the sense of being something most of us practice every day; it is
a common and useful practical instrument we rely on in order to make sense of
other people’s motivations and actions. 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. This understanding of
philosophical inquiry as an everyday tool connected to practical judgment and
knowledge, however, was hardly invented by the eighteenth century critics,
though they did exercise it a great deal in their treatment of Shakespeare.
Rather, vernacular, 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.
Vernacular English Renaissance discussions of the moral life often address
this feature of moral inquiry via the concept of prudence, a virtue associated in
early modernity with practical reason and situated decision-making. English
Renaissance writers also tend to associate prudence with Aristotle’s ethical
thought. Aristotelian moral philosophy serves as an important point of
departure for a wide range of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century speculations
about the moral life, particularly within vernacular writings. Within many ver-
nacular discussions of the moral life, prudential reasoning represents a starting
point for more effective examinations of human happiness. Prudential reason-
ing and the exercise of prudential judgment involve reflecting about the kinds
of things that matter to us both in an immediate sense, and in a larger, more
fully considered, sense. They constitute a species of small but regular commit-
ments to moral self-inventory. Miles Sandys’ 1634 discussion of prudential intel-
ligence in Prudence: The First of the Foure Cardinall Virtues, defines the prudent
individual as someone “who can well consult concerning those things, which
are good, and profitable for himself or others, not alone for some particular
part, but for the whole course of well living.”12 For Sandys, prudence is defined
as a species of worldly deliberation about which course of action will prove most
beneficial. “According to that in Aristotle,” he writes, “those are prudent who
can rightly take Counsell in those things, which are good and profitable to
themselves, not which is ad valetudinem aut vires; but altogether to reason of
What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It? 189

our well-living: again, hee [Aristotle] termes it a virtue of the understanding, by

which wee may consult of Good and Evill things which belong unto
Prudence amounts to a situated form of insight about the things that are
useful to us, according to Sandys, but situated reasoning about what is “profita-
ble” nevertheless remain importantly linked to a more comprehensive form of
insight, too. Long-term thinking about the moral life for Sandys takes place
within contingent, shifting circumstances, but the choices made within those
contingent circumstances are also important to the overall, lifelong project of
cultivating happiness. Sandys encourages readers to conceive of prudential rea-
soning as a potentially expansive form of insight that can mitigate against short-
sightedness both in the situational here-and-now and over the longue durée of a
person’s moral life, or “whole course of well living.” He frames this in terms of
an Aristotelian eudaemonism, or concern for “felicitie,” but we might also
describe it in Bristol’s terms, as a basis for ethical and political reflection.14


Some modern philosophers have, in recent years expressed a desire not unlike
that of philosophically-inclined literary critics, to reorient philosophy away
from the deontology associated with Kant towards a conception embedded in
the subjective particulars of lived experience. This has frequently been expressed
in a nostalgic way, as a desire to return to Classical philosophy’s virtue-centered
pursuit of human flourishing, eudaemonia. Modern philosophers refer to this
return to Classical moral philosophy as virtue ethics, and virtue ethics has, in
recent decades, 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, Martha Nussbaum, Bernard Williams, and even
Hannah Arendt, to name just a few. Each of these figures has posited an account
that features a Classically-based, character-focused alternative to non-Classical
modes of moral philosophy.
Despite its characteristic tendency to return to Classical philosophical mod-
els, virtue ethics is also a distinctly modern way of thinking about philosophy
that stems from a present-day discontent with modern moral-philosophical
inquiry. David Norton, a celebrated Hume scholar, has recently outlined a series
of arguments in “Moral Minimalism and the Development of Character,” which
contrasts modern with ancient, and describes some of the ways in which Classi-
cal philosophy out-performs modern moral approaches.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. Modern morality’s
characteristic “minimalism” exists in distinct and unflattering counterpoint to
ancient ethical theory, which Norton believes offers a much fuller sense of what
190 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

constitutes ethical decision-making and the well-lived life. Norton makes no

apologies for claiming that modern conceptions of morality have resulted in a
“dilution of moral thought and moral life.”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, which deems
each and every human life-situation and predicament worthy of moral investi-
gation and scrutiny; and (2) that virtue ethics’ concern with human flourishing
provides an indispensable incentive to the cultivation of virtue, without which
moral thriving is unlikely to occur.
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. The Classical conception, and Aristotle in particu-
lar, insists that moral inquiry involves the scrutiny of all aspects of lived experi-
ence, without exception. Ancient moral philosophy is thereby not only a way of
doing philosophy when particular situations deemed to have moral content
arise. Rather, virtue ethics can be more usefully understood as a way of life
responsive to all domains of human experience. Under a Classical virtue ethical
conception, everything counts as fodder for the life-long enterprise of moral
reasoning about ends, because every human predicament represents a site for
the potential cultivation of moral character. Norton phrases it simply and
effectively: “‘The moral situation’ is the life of each person in its entirety.”17
Conversely, modern morality, and Kantian philosophy in particular, is charac-
terized by a highly selective understanding of what constitutes a properly moral
situation; many instances where individuals are faced with the possibility of hav-
ing to make a choice do not constitute moral predicaments at all in the Kantian
view. Modern culture has proven just as exceptionalist in its release of entire
domains of human experience from moral scrutiny; as Norton points out, the
highly influential realms of business management and science have resolutely
refused to place themselves under a moralizing gaze, and have instead flour-
ished by virtue of their claim to be value-free.18
The modern study of philosophy has been marked by a preference for
exceptionalist approaches to moral problems. 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.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,
usually in the form of desert-island type counterfactuals. Under this brand of
philosophy, questions of character tended to be avoided completely because
they were thought to represent something outside the frame of what was con-
sidered ‘proper,’ that is, legitimate philosophical inquiry. There is an obvious
analogy to be drawn here, between this type of approach, which marginalizes
allegedly extra-philosophical considerations, and New Critical practices within
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, particularly actual people.
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. Both attempt
to recuperate and legitimize those dimensions of human life typically consid-
ered too messy, subjective, or indeterminate to form part of rational critical
Classical ethics’ panoramic focus means that no situation is exempt from
moral scrutiny. For Aristotle, the focal point of philosophical effort and striving
is the cultivation of ethos or moral character. Ethos is both a way of life in the
practical-habitual sense of the way we choose to live, as well as a more essential-
ist sense that encompasses intangibles like intentions, moral ideals, and disposi-
tional proclivities. As much as an ethos is determined by actions, 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
Moral character’s function as orientation that can help make sense of
and contextualize behavior becomes clearer when we consider a concept like
prohairesis. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes prohairesis, which some
translators render as ‘choice’ and others as ‘responsible action,’ as importantly
tied to moral character. Aristotle remarks that prohairesis “cannot exist without
both intellect and a moral condition of the mind.” “In the sphere of action,” he
writes, “good action and the reverse cannot exist without intellect and moral
character.”20 Aristotle’s conception, which effectively makes choice not only
expressive of, but contingent upon character, is admittedly problematic for
modern readers. We tend to understand choice nowadays as the act of selecting
from among a range of available options. Choice is an existential issue, not a
characterological, much less moral one. When faced with the decision about
whether to eat carrot sticks or a chocolate éclair for my mid-afternoon snack,
my choice, typically understood, is whichever food I actually end up eating,
provided I am given free access to both snacks. There is no question of my char-
acteristic set of attitudes about snacking, or to my habitual snacking practices:
only to my particular decision in this instance.
Conversely, for Aristotle, the notion of choice, or prohairesis, is qualified
by the two things excluded by the modern understanding of choosing: my char-
acterological disposition, in this case, as either a health-conscious or self-
indulgent person; and my habitual proclivity to actually snack on either pastries
or vegetables on a regular basis. Only when there is a correspondence between
the two (sweet tooth and chocolate éclair, or healthy eater and carrot stick) in
relation to the actual choice I have made in this instance do we have an exam-
ple of choice. When there is a non-correspondence, say, if I am a health-
conscious person but eat the éclair today, we do not, in Aristotle’s view, have an
192 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

instance of choice, but rather an instance of akrasia, or uncontrolled desire for

ends known to be self-harming.
Gertrude Anscombe’s seminal essay “Thought and Action in Aristotle”
explores this dimension of Aristotelian thought, and succeeds in emphasizing
prohairesis’ estrangement from modern notions of choosing. Her categorization
of Aristotle’s notion of prohairesis as a less-than-winning concept, unlike his
notion of practicality, 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, to use
Norton’s phrasing, much more minimalist, and wholly unconcerned with char-
acterological orientation.21 For Aristotle, 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. The two elements—habit-
ual practice, and essential identity, are mutually constitutive, and inseparably
linked for Aristotle, and there is really no separating them when it comes to a
concept like moral character.
Mustapha Fahmi’s approach to Shakespearean character endeavors to sketch
out a conception of character remarkably consonant with Aristotle’s concept of
ethos. Fahmi proposes that we think about identity in Shakespeare as a function
of both essentialist principle and practical action. His article “Shakespeare: The
Orientation of the Human” appears in a collection of essays devoted to discuss-
ing the critical contribution of Harold Bloom, and its argument seeks to address
Bloom’s well-known theory of Shakespeare’s characters as self-overhearers.
Fahmi’s central point is that Shakespeare’s characters are not self-overhearers,
in the sense that they do not develop, nor are they constituted through a myste-
rious self-generating process of growth via the sheer exuberance of their own
supra-human personalities. Instead, Fahmi advances the far more modest and
moderate claim that Shakespeare’s characters, in fact, develop and are consti-
tuted by the relationships or dialogues in which they engage with the individuals
who matter to them.22
The notion of dialogically-shaped personhood, and of dialogism in general,
is rooted in Bakhtinian theory, but despite the Bakhtinian genealogy Fahmi
claims for his argument, this idea shares a great deal with Aristotle’s approach
to ethics. Fahmi uses Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism to mediate between the
bookends of character represented by Bloom’s idea of Shakespearean subjectiv-
ity as self-generating on one end, and Foucault’s sense of social constructivism
that insists on human subjectivity as nothing but an empty husk on the other.23
He argues that Shakespeare’s fictional agents are imbricated within the social
worlds they inhabit, in a way that opposes both Bloom’s sense of the social as
merely ornamental, and Foucault’s sense of it as completely constitutive.
Instead, for Fahmi, characters engage with circumstances according to the
lights of their own unique ethical perspectives. Character, so conceived, resists
being reduced to either essentialist or existential concepts, but is rather revealed
What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It? 193

in the way that characters reason about their own moral ends, and attempt to
fulfill them.


Mustapha Fahmi has proposed that Shakespeare’s characters are best

understood as agents endowed with moral investments. Borrowing from
Charles Taylor, Fahmi suggests that the identity of Shakespeare’s characters
functions as a source of orientation in a space of moral questions. That orienta-
tion is comprised of strong evaluations about the things that matter to them,
that remain subject to continual revision as they confront the tangible parame-
ters of contingent circumstance.24 The moral orientations that characterize
Shakespeare’s fictional agents are highly idiosyncratic, with different kinds of
moral investments. One way of figuring out what those investments are, accord-
ing to Fahmi, is by paying attention to the kinds of models individuals aspire to
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. 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.25 A goldmine of expressive content is made available
when characters reveal their own ideals. 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 opin-
ion that Hamlet is a tortured, sensitive soul, or a bloodthirsty disinherited
prince. Understanding who Hamlet is according to his own estimation, resists
turning him into a mere reflection of who I, the critic, want him to be, or
a misplaced embodiment of who I myself aspire to be in my own private life.
Characterological criticism thus becomes a less circular, impressionistic under-
taking, and instead gains a modicum of well-deserved legitimacy.
What literary criticism has been unwilling to recognize is the motivational
component Norton is so keen to emphasize and praise in Classical moral
philosophy. 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. Ideals also have an enormous power to impact human
behavior, and motivate moral growth. For Norton, 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.
What literary critics have been even less apt to recognize, however, is that
those goals, in turn, entail a series of moral responsibilities. If Hamlet’s sense of
himself is characterized by the concept of a good and loyal son, then part of
that sense of identity entails an ethical commitment to exact revenge for his
194 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

father’s murder, according to the codes of honor by which his father lived. The
“I am” associated with an ontological view of character is dependent, for
Aristotle, on a “what I do” as well as a “what I ought to be doing.” The “I ought”
expresses the way in which an individual moves from the ontological into the
phenomenological, and literally completes and enacts character, or ethos,
teleologically. 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. The “ought to” is another way of describing moral
responsibility, and the kind of moral responsibility hard-wired to Aristotle’s
conception of moral character means that, within Classical ethics, notions of
character are also inextricably linked to moral obligations.
It is not only typical for modern philosophers like Norton to view moral
character as a concept with strong ties to moral accountability. The assumption
that moral living is comprised of a kind of responsibility or self-awareness in the
face of choice, is also a function of the way in which moral-philosophical writers
in the Renaissance conceived of the moral life. Levinus Lemnius’ The Touchstone
of Complexions explains that making wise choices begins with an awareness of
our own disposition, which for him amounts to an acquaintance with our
humoral constitution. In a section whose marginal note reads “every man must
search out his own inclination and nature,” Lemnius suggests the following
prescription designed to improve and mitigate temperamental excesses:

Thus if a man throughe abundance of humours, and stoate of bloude and spir-
ites, feel hymselfe prone to carnalitye and fleshiye luste, let him by altering his
order and diet, enjoyne to himselfe a most strict ordinary and frame his dealings
to a more stayed moderation. But if hee feele himself to bee of a nature somewhat
sulleyne and sterne, and given somewhat to a wayward, whining testye, churlish,
and intractable then reason sylleth, such a one to be reclaimed to an order and
trade of life, gentler and pleasaunter, insomuch it shall not be ill for such a one
to frequent dancing, singing, womens flatteryes, allurements, and embracings,
provided always, that all the same be not otherwise done nor meant, but in hon-
estye and comeliness, within a reasonable measure.26

The kinds of decisions that arise in daily life about whether “it shall not be ill
for such a one to frequent dancing, singing, womens flatteryes, allurements,
and embracings” are here explicitly connected to the issue of constitution.
Lemnius deploys the language of humoral physiology which, in his day, was the
most readily understood description for individuals’ underlying dispositions,
and one that also carried strong moral connotations. 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
What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It? 195

site of transformation, of imbalances and excesses which required continual

moderation and repair. Typological discussions were not, however, intended to
offer exhaustive catalogues that could then be applied to a set series of circum-
stances. Texts like Touchstone represent the act of choosing an appropriate
course of action as a crucial determinant of successful self-regulation. For
Lemnius, choosing wisely requires the instrumental application of insight about
our own humoral character in the face of unpredictable, often uncontrollable
external cues. 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. In order to prove useful, typological expositions like these have to
be selectively and intelligently applied to a series of specific empirical circum-
stances—circumstances whose ultimate outcome was thought to have a morally
determinative effect on character.
No choice is regarded as too insignificant to merit moral scrutiny in
Renaissance discussions of temperamental self-regulation and management of
the passions. Selecting an appropriate vocation, choosing the right diet and
exercise, and all of the routine activities associated with habitual action are
thought to have an impact on character, and ultimately relate to the eudaemon-
istically-conceived life. In The Passions of the Minde, Thomas Wright emphasizes
vocational choice when he narrates the following anecdote about a merchant
who fails at his profession, only to discover his true vocation as a preacher:

No man ought to be employed to any office, act, or exercise contrary to his natu-
ral passions and inclination. This rule concerneth all sort of superiors in the
employments of their subjects, all parents for the education of their children,
schoolmasters for the training up of their scholars. The ground of this rule depen-
deth of long experience, and reason. For by experience we learn that men be
oftentimes employed to one trade and never can profit therein: contrariwise,
when either they of themselves or others do change that course to another where-
unto they were inclined they become very excellent men. I knew one in Flanders
employed of his friends to be a merchant, against his inclination; but he never
scarce could abide to deal in merchandise, and so at last therewith awearied left
them and turned his course to study, wherein he excelled, and became one of the
rarest preachers there. I myself heard him preach after, very godly and learnedly;
a hundred such examples I could bring you.27

In Wright’s view, the choice of an appropriate vocation contains not only

a practical incentive, but also a social aspect with far-reaching implications. The
subject of Wright’s anecdote, a failed merchant-turned-preacher who “never
scarce could abide to deal in merchandise” becomes not just a story about
personal vocational fulfilment, but insofar as Wright’s subject serves as a moral
exemplum (“a hundred such examples I could bring you,” Wright assures us),
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
In Renaissance discussions like Wright’s, practical choices and their far-
reaching social effects have important ties to character. It would, however, 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. Rather, the two dimensions—corporeal and environmental,
inward and outward—are imagined in a relationship that draws extensively on
Aristotelian teleology. For Aristotle, inward states represent potentials capable
of being actualized in accordance with their natural, logical ends. 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 inten-
tional dispositions in effective, concrete ways. Choice for both Aristotle and ver-
nacular Renaissance philosophers like Lemnius is envisioned as a crucial
opportunity to align inward states, both emotional and intentional (providing
they are rationally-conceived) with their logical and teleological outcomes.
Successful self-regulation, however, requires awareness and self-presence in
the face of choice. In Lemnius’ terms, this amounts to an honest appraisal of
the kind of person I am—a lusty bon-vivant whose vices are exacerbated by
gaming, dancing, and beautiful women, or a moody introvert for whom those
pursuits represent harmless, even beneficial distractions. Aristotle is even more
explicit on this point, and makes the concept of choice itself contingent upon
character, as we have seen with his discussion of prohairesis.
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, but more significantly, in the basic sense of what the concept of charac-
ter itself actually entails. The Classical conception involves a comprehensive,
lifelong focus on moral development that contains an idealistic dimension—
one that helps provide a strong motivational push towards actualizing objec-
tively worthy goals. The Classical concept of character, in other words, does not
consist of abstract, or inert qualities, that is; the ideal of a good and loyal son,
much as those qualities and concepts do form an important part of the overall
picture. Character is neither inert nor static according to Aristotle. As we have
seen from both Renaissance discussions and in the recent dialogically-focused
model of character advanced by Mustapha Fahmi, individuals’ basic disposi-
tions are extremely responsive to external phenomena, and remain importantly
tied to the realm of contingent circumstance in Shakespeare. Classical ethics
understands character as fundamentally responsive, and a person’s ethical
character depends not only on inward, dispositional states, but envisions and
calls for the completion and actualization of those states in physically manifest,
socio-political terms. Moral character therefore entails a sense not only of who
What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It? 197

I am, but also calls for activities that correspond with and actualize those
The basic self-presence required for moral responsibility in Classical ethics
posits that I cannot simply forget who I am, viz. my strengths and weaknesses,
my constituent dispositions and tendencies, when faced with a moment of
choice. To do so is to behave akratically, or step outside of myself characteologi-
cally, effectively becoming morally incomprehensible to myself and devoid of
identity. One way of thinking about this is to imagine that shrinking from
moral responsibility drains the very lifeblood of ethical identity. When Hamlet
says to Laertes, “Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? / Never Hamlet. / If Hamlet
from himself be ta’en away, / And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes, /
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it,” 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.28 These disavowals of
identity and moral accountability call for a more concerted exploration of Clas-
sical concepts like akrasia, and topics like emotion—topics which consistently
preoccupy Classical and Renaissance moral philosophers.
Philosophizing Shakespeare, however, can also address a different kind of
problem—a historical one. Hamlet’s frustrated exclamation that he is a “pigeon-
livered and lack[s] gall to make oppression bitter,” that is, that he lacks the req-
uisite humoral constitution, in this case, bile, for courageous action, suggests
that his inability to act decisively is fundamentally a reflection of his weak char-
acter.29 If, as I have been arguing, Shakespearean character is importantly tied
to the Aristotelian notion of ethos or moral character, Hamlet’s proclamation
does more than describe a humoral imbalance; it also declares that he is aware
of his own inability to meet those moral obligations he envisions for himself,
and which he himself acknowledges to be ethically and characterologically
definitive. He is quite literally unable to be himself in the full sense implied by
the term ‘character,’ though he remains saddled with the knowledge of both
who he is inwardly and how he is supposed to behave. This is a problem sugges-
tive of more than just a failure to take moral responsibility—it suggests that on
some level, the failure is bound up with the virtue ethical sense of character
itself, despite its importance to Hamlet’s own sense of himself as a moral agent.
What I hope a more extensive study of the Shakespearean character’s relation-
ship 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, resonates not only on an individual moral-characterological level, but
also on a cultural and historical one. My view of literary character as impor-
tantly 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, but which for a culture preoccupied and deeply invested in recov-
ering modes of ancient thought, would have been experienced as a crisis of
epic proportions. A closer examination of characters like Hamlet in light of a
198 Shakespeare and Moral Agency

virtue ethical conception may well help us better conceive of how such failings
are construed and experienced, 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.

Tzachi Zamir, Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama. (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2007); Colin McGinn, Shakespeare’s Philosophy: Disco-
vering the Meaning Behind the Plays (New York: HarperCollins, 2006). Martha
Nussbaum has recently reviewed both books, along with A. D. Nutall’s Shakespeare
the Thinker (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) in “Stages of Thought,” The
New Republic 238 (May 7, 2008): pp. 37–41.
On treating Shakespeare’s characters like actual people, see Michael Bristol,
“How Many Children Did She Have?” in Philosophical Shakespeares, ed. John Joughin
(London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 18–33. See also Mustapha Fahmi, “Shakespeare:
The Orientation of the Human” in Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare, eds. Christy Desmet
and Robert Sawyer (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 97–107.
David Beauregard, Virtue’s Own Feature: Shakespeare and the Virtue Ethics Tradition.
(Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995).
Beauregard, Virtue, p. 9.
Beauregard, Virtue, p. 22.
Paul Oskar, Kristeller, Renaissance Thought II: Papers on Humanism and the Arts
(New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 113–14.
Charles Schmitt, Aristotle and the Renaissance. (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1983).
Margreta de Grazia, “Teleology, Delay, and the ‘Old Mole,’” Shakespeare Quarterly
50 (Fall 1999): pp. 251–67.
Michael Bristol, “Vernacular Criticism and the Scenes Shakespeare Never Wrote,”
Shakespeare Survey 53 (2000): pp. 89–102.
L. C. Knights, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” in Explorations: Essays in
Criticism Mainly on the Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New York: George W.
Stewart, 1947), pp. 15–54.
Bristol, Vernacular, p. 98.
Miles Sandys, Prudence: The First of the Foure Cardinall Virtues (1634), p. 50.
Sandys, Prudence, p. 49.
Bristol, Children, p. 33.
David Norton, “Moral Minimalism and the Development of Moral Character,” in
Midwest Studies in Philosophy Volume XIII: Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue, eds.
Peter French, Theodore Uehling, and Howard Wettstein (Notre Dame: Univer-
sity of Norte Dame Press, 1988), pp. 180–195.
Norton, “Minimalism,” p. 180.
ibid., “Minimalism,” p. 183.
ibid., “Minimalism,” p. 184.
What’s Virtue Ethics Got to Do With It? 199

Martha Nussbaum, “Virtue Ethics: A Misleading Category?” The Journal of Ethics 3
(1999): pp. 171–73.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics: Book Six, trans. and ed. L. H. G. Greenwood
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), 1139a.
Gertrude Anscombe, “Thought and Action in Aristotle,” in Articles on Aristotle 2,
ed. Jonathan Barnes, Malcolm Schofield, and Richard Sorabji (London:
Duckworth, 1975), pp. 61–71.
Fahmi, “Orientation,” p. 99.
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead,
1998). Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” in Language, Counter-Memory,
Practice, ed., intro. Donald Bouchard. Trans. Donald Bouchard and Sherry Simon
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977).
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).
Fahmi, “Orientation,” p. 100.
Levinus Lemnius, The Touchstone of Complexions (1581), p. 6.
Thomas Wright. The Passions of the Minde in Generall. Newbold Critical Edition,
The Renaissance Imagination, vol. 15 (New York: Garland, 1986), p. 163.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) Ed.
G. R. Hibbard. 5.2.179–182.
Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2.565.
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action 4, 6–10, 15–16, 19, 23, 26, Cavell, Stanley 73, 168, 175
29–31, 33–41, 55–6, 58, 61, 63, Coghill, Neville 176
71, 76–9, 81–4, 86–8, 90–1, 93–4, Coriolanus 18, 31, 42, 44, 49–52, 121,
96–7, 111–12, 114–15, 129–31, 131, 133, 155
133–4, 137, 139, 148, 151–4, Currie, Gregory 10
159–62, 164, 167–8, 172, 174–5,
177–80, 186, 188, 191, 192, De Grazia, Margreta 187
194–5, 197 deception see also self-deception 6, 9,
akrasia 8, 86–95, 97, 192, 197 21, 39–40
Althusser, Louis 156 delusion 37, 92, 173–4, 180
Anderson, Perry 71, 84 Derrida, Jacques 15, 17
Andrew, Edward 106, 110
Annas, Julia 78 Eagleton, Terry 15
Anscombe, Gertrude 192 Eliot, Thomas Stearns 65, 159, 168
Aristotle 8, 10, 16, 31, 41, 55–63, 67, Ewbank, Inga-Stina 171
86–8, 91, 94, 97–8, 111, 153,
160–2, 169, 178, 184–6, 188–92, Fahmi, Mustapha 187, 192–3, 196
194, 196 Foucault, Michael 15
Arpaly, Nomy 88, 92–3, 96–8 Frye, Northrop 177
Artaud, Antonin 123
Garber, Marjorie 43
Baker, Hershel 135 Ginet, Carl 4
Beauregard, David 185–6 Girard, René 90
Becker, Lawrence C. 14 Goffman, Erving 77–8
Bell, Vikki 99 Goldberg, Jonathan 83
Belsey, Katherine 16 Gordon, G. 150
Berger, Harry 73, 167–8 Grady, Hugh 6, 88
Bloom, Alan 171
Bloom, Harold 73, 192 Haidt, Jonathan 29–33, 40
Bobbio, Norberto 112–13 Hamlet 2, 7, 17–19, 26–8, 31, 42, 44–7,
Braden, Gordon 163–4 56–8, 62, 82, 111–12, 121,
Brecht, Bertold 123, 156 129–30, 134, 139, 150–1, 186,
Bristol, Michael 72–3, 174, 177, 187–8 193, 197–8
Brooks, Cleanth 77–8 Heller, Agnes 17
Burke, Kenneth 6, 15 Heracleitus 160
Butler, Joseph 9 Heschel, Abraham J. 116
Butler, Judith 72, 77, 83 Honigmann, E. A. J. 160
212 Index

imagination 10, 43, 75, 117, 132, 156, motivation, motive 7, 15, 22, 62, 64–6,
172–4 92, 108–9, 130, 134, 171, 173,
intention 20, 24, 37, 41, 61, 151, 161, 185, 177, 186
Nietzsche, Friedrich 130
Jaggar, Alison M. 104 Norris, Christopher 15
Johnson, Samuel 1–2 Norton, David 189–91, 193–4
Julius Caesar 6–7, 15–17, 86–7 Nussbaum, Martha 73, 161, 189–90

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