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Lecture: Dr. Michael Mack on Shakespeare’s Christian Ethics

Lecture: Dr. Michael Mack on Shakespeare’s Christian Ethics

Posted: November 15, 2019


Shakespeare’s Christian Ethics


Dr. Michael Mack
Associate Professor
Department of English
The Catholic University of America
St. Vincent de Paul Lecture and Concert Series
Thomas Aquinas College, California
November 8, 2019


I am pleased to talk to you this evening about Shakespeare’s Christian ethics.  I know that the title is grand, and the topic is huge. I hope that you will forgive me for the presumption of thinking that I can do the topic justice. I also hope that you will forgive me for talking about plays that you may not have read. In preparing this lecture I was possessed, as tends to be the case for me, by a powerful spirit of enthusiasm. Shakespeare’s interest in ethics spans his career, and I have referenced works from the entire career in order to try to show Shakespeare’s approach to ethics in different genres and at different stages of his career. Although my remarks are far from exhaustive, they may nevertheless be somewhat exhausting. If you find the lecture stuffed and overweight, I just ask that you treat my folly with the same indulgence you would show that fat knight, plump Jack Falstaff.


Not a System

I realize that my title risks suggesting that I believe Shakespeare had a system of ethics, or that he was a philosopher in poet’s clothing. Let me begin by clarifying my view on how systematic Shakespeare was in his thoughts on morality.

We know simply from reading his works that Shakespeare knew about philosophical systems, from Aristotle and Plato to Cicero and Lucretius to Aquinas and Scotus to Machiavelli and Montaigne. He knew about nominalism and skepticism. He relied on Scholastic faculty psychology and virtue ethics for the categories that he employs as he creates characters that, more than any dramatic characters before, resemble real people.

What did Shakespeare make of the philosophical and theological learning that was available to him? At one extreme would be to believe that Shakespeare simply borrowed whatever was at hand that he thought would entertain audiences. This, of course, doesn’t give Shakespeare enough credit (indeed, it gives him less credit than we give ourselves). It would, however, be going too far if we said, at the other extreme, that Shakespeare adhered to one philosophy or built out a philosophical system of his own.  In my view, Shakespeare was not a systematic thinker; he was, however, a comprehensive, deep, incisive, and eminently practical thinker. There is a consistency of thought in Shakespeare’s works, but it is not the consistency of a system. It is the consistency of a person, who grows and develops but still remains the same person. Shakespeare’s works show him returning again and again to ethical problems, and they show his handling of those ethical problems developing over time, hand-in-hand with his dramatic skills. The outcome of this exploration is not a philosophical system but a corpus of independent but related poetic and dramatic works. The corpus of his works has an organic unity: its consistency is not that of a system of thought but of a living thinker. In my view, this kind of unity is something better than the unity of a system.


Psychopathology of Everyday Ethical Life

In addition to acknowledging that Shakespeare’s ethics is not a system, I want to acknowledge that his approach is not positive. What I mean is that Shakespeare is not interested primarily in ethical achievement but, rather, in ethical failure. His interest is not in what we ought to do but in what we in fact really do. That includes a special interest in the errors we make when we think we are doing the right thing. The result is that his works display not the virtuous perfection of human conduct but instead its myriad inflections and distortions.

Shakespeare is interested in virtue, but virtue gone wrong. If he were a modern physician, he would be a pathologist, exploring the origins and development of illnesses. This is true from the start of his career. One early work that serves as a kind of blueprint for his later tragedies is his narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, in which Tarquin rapes Lucrece fully knowing that it will lead to his own self-destruction. As the narrator explains, it is in wanting to have something more that we lose what we have:

So that in vent’ring ill we leave to be
The things we are, for that which we expect;
And this ambitious foul infirmity,
In having much, torments us with defect
Of that we have; so then we do neglect
            The thing we have, and all for want of wit,
            Make something nothing by augmenting it.

The dynamic we see in this stanza is repeated throughout the poem and, indeed, throughout Shakespeare’s career. Appetite, which should be directed to the good, is directed to an evil that, when we achieve it, diminishes our being or even destroys us. In trying to get something we want, “we leave to be / The things we are.” In trying to “augment” what we have, we make ourselves “nothing.”

This reaching for more, this “ambitious foul infirmity,” is the action of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth goads Macbeth to be more a man, and he replies

I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.

He of course succumbs to the temptation to be “more” and, in doing so, becomes “none.” The paradigmatic examples of this overreaching are, of course, those of Lucifer and of Adam and Eve, whose attempts to rise higher result in their fall.

Shakespeare’s comedies present the pathological as well. Although the comedies by definition end happily, it is not because of but despite the qualities of those involved. The obstacle that love must overcome is rarely just a recalcitrant older generation; it generally is some psychological block in the lovers themselves. The lovers are quite often their own worst enemies.

Shakespeare’s comedies are made up of lovers’ errors. And they are not saved from their errors but through them. This is true from the early Comedy of Errors to his late comedy Twelfth Night, in which Orsino is in love with his own fantasy of love, and Olivia is in love with a young man who is in fact a woman. In this play, whose subtitle is “Or What you Will,” the wills of the main characters are not oriented toward an object that can bring satisfaction. Their appetites are not directed toward food that will satisfy them. Of course, as things turn out, each finds a happy marriage, though not to the one they thought they loved. What makes everything work out is the fact that the woman dressed as a man has a twin brother who is identical to her in disguise. When he appears, he slips in as the quite satisfactory object of Olivia’s love. And when Viola drops her disguise, Orsino discovers that his bosom friend is in fact a woman.   

The resolution seems farfetched, and it is. But its noticeable artificiality is used by Shakespeare to call attention to its opposite: Nature’s artifice. In Twelfth Night it is not human intelligence that solves the love knot; it is Nature. Nature is invoked at the end of the play as an agent that can solve problems by tricking us, specifically by substituting one thing for another. Identical twins serve as a kind of emblem for this. She gives us one person twice over; two people who seem to be one. The confusion and mistakes that result are what bring about the happy ending. By slipping in a twin, Nature gives the misdirected will its proper object.

In this play, the main characters do not find happiness through their own virtue but through their errors. They wind up wanting what is good not because they chose it but because of external circumstances. Nature provides for us despite ourselves. She is so good at this, that we generally do not even notice. For example, she often make duties and pleasures identical twins: eating is a necessity, and it also is a pleasure.  Thanks to Nature, when we pursue pleasure we do our duty and nourish ourselves. The same goes for sex: nature lures us into perpetuating the species. In Shakespeare’s works, he often relies on bait-and-switch tricks that imitate nature and use our errant appetite to lead us, despite ourselves, toward the good.  

Shakespeare’s interest in things going wrong means that he does not give us many victorious heroes. When Shakespeare does give us one, such as Henry V, he complicates the character’s motives in ways that force us to question his moral character. Shakespeare’s Henry V is called “the mirror of Christian kings,” but the crown Henry wears is that of his father, whom he knows was a usurper and a regicide. Psychologically as well as politically, Henry lives under the shadow cast by his father. Henry takes great pains to determine the legitimacy of the war in France, but he ignores the conflict of interest that assures the approval of the Churchmen whose moral counsel he seeks. On the eve of the battle of Agincourt, he prays that God not remember his father’s guilt in obtaining the crown, but crucially he entertains no thought of parting with a crown that amounts, morally, to stolen goods. In victory, he has the troops sing the non nobis and te deum, but he imposes such harsh terms on the French king that his son will not be able to hold what he has won. Most disturbing, perhaps, are the threats that Henry deploys to win the besieged town of Harfleur. His speech to the men of Harfleur concludes,

Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command,
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of deadly murther, spoil, and villainy.
If not—why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confus’d
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughter-men.
What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid?
Or guilty in defense, be thus destroy’d?

We see here, among other things, Henry’s habit of offloading onto others his duties of conscience. If all of this comes to pass, it will not be his fault. The fault will be that of his soldiers or, indeed, of Harfleur itself!  The biblical reference to the slaughter of the innocents is particularly chilling—and odd. If Henry is the “mirror of Christian kings,” the image of a Christian king is far more complicated than the epithet suggests. Of course, Henry’s speech at the beginning of Henry IV, Part 1, in which he tells the audience that he is imitating the sun and will in time shake off the clouds of Eastcheap, should lead us to question whether his sudden conversion, as related by the churchmen at the beginning of Henry V, is genuine. It is with good reason that many critics see Henry as more Machiavellian than Christian.

Also coloring the entire play is our knowledge that Henry’s victory, seemingly definitive in the play, will in short order be overturned. If God’s blessing is on Henry, God also seems to have a sense of irony woven into his providential plan.

Henry may be something of a hypocrite in his outward expressions of religion, but he is not a hypocrite is the obvious way that we see in the earlier character Richard III. Henry may not really be a hero, but neither is he a villain. He is, rather, a complex hypocrite. Indeed, he is one of Shakespeare’s first truly complex characters, and in him we should see some kind of reflection of our own complexity, especially if we, like Henry, profess ourselves to be Christians.


Ethics Within and Beyond the Play

We certainly see all kinds of actions across the moral spectrum within Shakespeare’s works. Iago’s villainy is close to diabolical. Desdemona’s charity is saintly. But what we also can detect is the moral effect Shakespeare wants his plays to have on audiences. So let me turn now from Shakespeare’s fascination with the psychological working of his characters to his abiding interest in the psychology of his audiences.

The virtuosity with which Shakespeare draws audiences into the action of the play is unparalleled, at least to my knowledge, by any author who had come before, with the exception of Plato, whose readers are time and again run through the same ringer as the interlocutors in the dialogues. The next closest contenders, in my estimation, would be Virgil and Dante, who draw readers to identify with their heroes and thereby undergo an education with them.

But these are not the authors Shakespeare is indebted to. Rather, his playing with audience expectations is of the kind we see in the late medieval mystery plays. The best example of audience manipulation in these plays may well be the York Crucifixion, which was part of an annual production of forty-eight plays, from Creation to Judgement Day. The plays were performed on wagons that moved from station to station in the city, and the Crucifixion took advantage of the elevation of the platform on the wagon that served as the stage. For most of the play, the Cross and the man playing Christ are lying flat on the stage, so the audience does not really see them. What the audience does see are the Roman soldiers laboring with what they consider the hard work of the crucifixion. First, they drill holes in the wood—guides for the nails for the feet and the hands. The problem is that the holes for the hands are too far apart, so they have to stretch Christ’s arms out in order to nail his hands to the cross. This is intentionally ludicrous. It is a four stooges routine, with physical humor. We in the audience are laughing at their difficulties and arguments over who is at fault for what, how their boss is going to be mad at them, how craftsmanship isn’t what it used to be. The humor and irony work at multiple levels.

Finally, when the soldiers get the job done, they struggle for some time to raise up the Cross, complaining about how heavy it is. When they do finally raise it, suddenly we in the audience see what they have accomplished. We see not just a life-sized but a real-life crucifix. Suddenly, laughing doesn’t seem very appropriate at all. In making us feel ashamed, the play functions like a prank on the audience. It is, however, a beguilingly complex prank. We may have been fooled, and we may be victims of the trick played on us, but we are not innocent victims. With our laughter, we became complicit in the action of the soldiers. We even find them entertaining. And when the truly innocent victim is elevated in front of us, we recognize, painfully, that we are not innocent, and that the blood of Christ is on us.

Like the Master of York, Shakespeare wasn’t shy about pricking the consciences of his audience. Indeed, he was passionate about it, and his skill in doing so developed over the course of his career. Although the subjects of his plays were secular, the audiences for which they were performed were still Christian, and his works were still calibrated to work on the psyches of Christians.


Catching Consciences: Twelfth Night, Merchant of Venice, Hamlet

In a moment I will turn to a few plays in which Shakespeare catches the consciences of his audiences. But first I would like to pause for a moment to underscore a crucial difference between Shakespeare’s ethics and ours. For us, ethics is often seen as a discipline within philosophy, and philosophy is a distinct field from psychology and from sociology or anthropology. Those divisions did not exist in Shakespeare’s time, and his ethics is not really separable from his psychology or anthropology. Indeed, with little change in content, this lecture could be called “Shakespeare’s Christian Psychology” or “Shakespeare’s Christian Anthropology.”

My point is that this pre-disciplinary attitude toward human learning had its advantages. It allowed for what we would now call a holistic approach to human behavior. Let me illustrate by returning to Twelfth Night and focusing on the character Malvolio. He is the puritanical killjoy who complains about Sir Toby Belch’s alcoholic escapades, Feste’s clowning, and pretty much all types of fun. Shakespeare was no fan of puritans, and in general his audiences would not have had much patience for them either. In the play, some of the characters conspire to trick Malvolio in order to expose his profound vanity and selflove. Now Malvolio’s name means “ill will,” and this is properly understood in terms of the moral theories of his time. But Malvolio’s problem is not exclusively personal; insofar as he is a puritan, he participates in a larger social dynamic of the kind that our modern social sciences such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and politics might study. And that he is said to be “sick of self-love” and to “taste with a distempered appetite” indicates that his problem is not just ethical and sociological but also psychological. His soul is sick. In modern terms, we would say he is a pathological narcissist.

Our response to Malvolio is, like Shakespeare’s approach, holistic. No matter how we look at him, we do not like him. The basic reason is that he does not like anyone except himself. We in the audience are therefore delighted with the plot to trick Malvolio, and we are eager to see him knocked down a peg or ten. When Malvolio picks up the forged letter in which his employer, Lady Olivia, seems to profess her love, we are delighted, and when he concludes that he is the unnamed love in the letter, our judgment of his vanity is confirmed in spades. When he wears the yellow stockings cross-gartered to please Olivia, we laugh, and when Olivia commits him to a dark room until he recovers his sanity, we feel that justice has been served. We may begin to feel a bit uncomfortable with Feste’s psychological torture of Malvolio in prison, but Feste is so funny, and Malvolio remains so full of himself, that we want the prank to continue. However, at the end of the play, when Malvolio emerges and we see him humiliated, unrepentant, and deeply angry, we sense that maybe the trick went too far.

When Malvolio refuses to join in the comic resolution of the play, and instead says he will get revenge, we are surprised, since this is a comedy after all. And when Olivia declares that Malvolio has been abused, we, like the characters who perpetrated the plot, feel ashamed for what we did—or more properly, for what we willed. We feel that his flight and the sour note at the end of the play are, in some measure, our fault. We wanted—and felt justified in wanting—Malvolio to get his comeuppance. What we didn’t foresee is that we too would get ours. On reflection, the play brings home to the audience the truth in the truism: be careful what you wish for. The same play that showed us how nature can redirect misdirected love (in the cases of Orsino and Olivia) also makes us feel the pain of making poor choices.

In the Merchant of Venice, Shylock has a function similar to that of Malvolio. We resent his precise adherence to the terms of the bond and deplore his thirst for his revenge, which he calls justice. We are delighted with Portia’s speech on mercy, directed at Shylock, and then with her clever trapping of Shylock in his own demand for justice. He wanted justice, and he got it. But then when we see a beaten Shylock leave the stage with a broken spirit, we can’t help but be sorry—sorry for what we wished for. Like Shylock, we demand our pound of flesh. When we get what we wanted, we are sorry we did.

The Merchant of Venice, it turns out, is not about the lack of mercy of the Jew on stage but about the lack of mercy of the Christians on stage—and in the audience. If we in fact are Christian, our own consciences should convict us of failing to be Christian.

Trapping consciences is an explicit theme in Hamlet. The play-within-the-play is a trap laid by Hamlet to catch the conscience of the king. I’ll discuss this play in a bit more detail since it is far more complex than any of the plays discussed so far.

One element of that complexity is that Shakespeare intentionally employs conflicting moral systems. The play is a Senecan revenge tragedy, in which suicide and revenge are not sins but moral imperatives. However, the hero of his play happens to have a Christian conscience.

What is worse, he is also a thespian, and his idea of a revenge plot is to put on a play to “catch the conscience of the king” (2.2.604-5). That play, the Murder of Gonzalo, mirrors Claudius’s murder of Hamlet’s father, the king. As predicted, Claudius reacts to the play; but he doesn’t confess, he simply calls for light and departs. It really is not proof of anything except that Claudius did not like the play.

Hamlet designs the play as a mousetrap to catch the king, but it backfires. Hamlet, not the king, is the one who gets caught. The play does not reveal anything about the king; instead, it tips him off. The play lets the king know what Hamlet knows—that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father. The result is that Claudius ships Hamlet off to England, and to his death. What IS clear proof of the king’s guilt, though, is the letter carried by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the English king, requesting the immediate execution of Hamlet. The king’s guilt is not revealed through Hamlet’s plot against him but through his own plot against Hamlet. In a sense, Hamlet’s plot works—since it was his plot that provoked the king’s plot—but it does not work in the way that he planned. Plots backfire time and again, so that the image of the “engineer hoisted on his own petard” stands for the action of much of the play.

As with Twelfth Night and the Merchant of Venice, we in the audience want justice: we want Hamlet to kill Claudius. Earlier in the play, when Hamlet approaches Claudius at prayer (3.3), he decides not to exact revenge because if he kills Claudius at prayer, he will send him to heaven, which, given his father’s fate of wandering in purgatorial fires, does not seem like justice. We the audience know that although Claudius is kneeling, he is not praying. He has confessed (to us, not to God) that, weighed down by sin, he is unable to pray. When we see Hamlet delay, we want to shout out to Hamlet, “Just do it!” We have come to a revenge play, and we want revenge, and Shakespeare knows we will fault Hamlet for not killing Claudius.

Hamlet delays throughout the play—except when he acts rashly, as in his killing of Polonius—and all of this delay makes the play Shakespeare’s longest. Near the end of the play when Hamlet receives the challenge from Laertes, Horatio offers to stall for Hamlet, threatening to make the long play yet longer. To our surprise and relief, Hamlet declines and affirms his “readiness” for what is to come. He attributes his readiness to an insight into God’s providence:

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is’t to leave betimes, let be. (5.2.219-24)

The “fall of a sparrow” is an allusion to the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus tells the disciples not to fear because God the father is watching over them. They are worth more than a sparrow, and the hairs of their heads are even numbered.

Are not fyue sparrowes bought for two farthynges? and not one of them is forgotten before God. Also, eue the very heeres of your head are all numbred. Feare not therfore, ye are more of value the many sparrows. (Luke 12:6-7, Bishops’ Bible)

It is this same passage that provides the context needed to understand Hamlet’s enigmatic “the readiness is all”:

Be ye therfore redy also, for ye sonne of man wyll come at an houre when ye thynke not. (Luke 12:40, Bishops’ Bible)

It makes sense that when one is ready for the return of the “sonne of man,” one is ready for everything. But it remains puzzling that Hamlet, who has spent most of the play plotting, at this point does not seem to have any plan—and yet he is ready.

But not having a plan turns out to be a good thing in this play, given how plans work. Indeed, in the end, it is Claudius’s own plans that kill him. It is true that Hamlet kills him, but the unbated and poisoned sword with which Hamlet stabs him and the poisoned cup Hamlet forces him to drink were both prepared by Claudius for Hamlet. Claudius is slain by his own evil devices. In killing Claudius, Hamlet is the minister of a justice that was not of his own design. In this revenge play, he is in fact a Christian avenger.

We in the audience mistake the moral universe of the play. We are quite at home in a revenge tragedy. It was very popular in Shakespeare’s time and it still is in ours. What Shakespeare does is tricks us into checking our Christianity at the box office (assuming, that is, that we brought it with us). Once seated in the theater, we think we know what Hamlet should do—kill Claudius. However, we come to realize, or at least we should, that Hamlet may be right to hesitate in exacting vengeance. After all, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” For Hamlet to get revenge and not go to hell, he has to abandon the direct pursuit of it, drop his plotting, and trust in God’s providence—the “divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will”—and be ready to act when given his cue. If he had killed Claudius when we wanted him to, he would have gone to hell, which is just where all of us who complain about Hamlet’s delay deserve to go.

In the end, we get what we were asking for: justice and blood—and lots of it. What we should have been doing—and what we should be doing in life—is joining in Hamlet’s “let be,” which affirms a trust in providence rather than in our own plots and schemes. It also is the resolution of the dilemma of “to be or not to be”: it represents not only a readiness for death (“not to be”) but also a readiness, at long last, for life (“to be”). For the Christian who is ready, life and death are all one. That is Hamlet’s realization, and by the end of the play it should be ours as well.


Love: Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra

Let me turn to plays about love in which Shakespeare uses similar techniques to catch his audience. In Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare lures us into misjudging characters and situations so that we then can reflect on how these characters love and also on how we the audience love.  

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare gives us a clear picture of an immature lover in Romeo. He won’t love anyone but Rosalind—but then he sees Juliet and asks himself, “Did my heart love till now?” (1.5.52). We cannot help but laugh. And we share Mercutio’s cynicism, if not his imaginative brilliance. We have our doubts, and we may well side with Friar Lawrence and want the young people to heed his advice: “love moderately” since “long love doth so” (2.4.14).

But since when does anyone want a moderate love? Friar Lawrence is trying to orchestrate a comedy in which marriage reconciles the warring families. He is trying to use their love for his own purposes. His intentions are good, but he operates on the principle that the end justifies the means. The problem is that love is not something to be used, especially if one believes that it is what Christians think it is. 

The problem with Friar Lawrence is that he trusts his own plans when he should be trusting God. And he substitutes his ways—and his idea of marriage—to God’s ways, and God’s true plan for human love. And in siding with him, we are showing that we are as bad Christians as he is. Romeo and Juliet are the only ones who understand that love is something worth dying for. And it is their death, not their marriage, that reconciles the warring families of Verona.

We are duped into thinking we are superior to the young lovers, but in the end we should realize that the good judgment on which we pride ourselves can be a huge obstacle to great love. Yes, they kill themselves, and one should not kill oneself. But we also should love, and if we have lived long because we have loved sparingly, that is not to our credit. Thank goodness that Christ did not share that view of love.

Shakespeare puts our ideas of love to a much more rigorous test in Antony and Cleopatra. The opening scene is framed by Romans, and they interpret what they see as infatuation, and we are encouraged to agree. But as the play progresses, we discover Antony’s greatness time and again. Yes, he is foolish, but he has greatness of character and his love surpasses anything Romans can imagine. When Enobarbus defects and Antony magnanimously sends his possessions after him—along with his understanding and forgiveness—Enobarbus dies of a broken heart. Just as Shakespeare’s genius doesn’t fit in our heads and can make us feel like our heads are going to explode, so too Antony’s surpassing love is too great for a Roman heart, and that of Enobarbus bursts. In death, Antony is a Colossus, not only in the dream of Cleopatra but in the eyes of Caesar. We who laughed at Antony’s infatuation should, at the end of the play, feel quite small.

Indeed, the Christian allusions in Antony and Cleopatra point to something beyond both Rome and Egypt. When Cleopatra asks Antony how much he loves her, he says that to measure it one would have to find a “new heaven, new earth” (1.1.17). We originally understood this simply as an example of the hyperbolic language that lovers use. It is, however, an anachronistic allusion to the Book of Revelation. Cleopatra’s pronouncement before her death, “now no more / The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip,” is, like the “new heaven, new earth,” an anticipation or prefiguration of a greater love to come (5.2.281-2). They show Antony and Cleopatra reaching for a love and fulfillment that is beyond anything that Rome or Egypt can offer or even understand, and the allusions make it clear that the love not yet revealed in Christ is the object of their “immortal longings” (5.2.281). Theirs is a love between man and woman that goes as far as love can go before the love of Christ is revealed to and bestowed upon the world.

Of course, in 1606 this love had long been in the world and had countless times in the lives of countless Christians been taken for granted. Christian audiences who think that the play is simply a battle between Roman and Egyptian world views, between duty and pleasure, overlook the Christian allusions in the play and are tricked by Shakespeare into betraying their own worldly perspective. Romeo and Juliet and, far more impressively, Antony and Cleopatra, show us, by contrast, just how practical, domesticated, and ultimately mundane our approach to love can be. These plays point us toward a greater love, a love that we would willingly die for—and a love that is for us (unlike for Antony and Cleopatra) within reach.


Anti-Stoic, Anti-Perfectionist, Anti-Dualist Natural Law

It strikes me that although Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra end in tragedy, they actually do give us positive ideas of love. Let me now turn to the Sonnets, which in their complicated way sometimes also give us positive ideals.

The first seventeen sonnets encourage a beautiful young man to marry and have children, and in doing so these sonnets establish the moral norm for the sequence: be fruitful and multiply. As the sonnet sequence grows, the themes and perspectives also multiply, and they often become quite complex.

I would like to spend some time on Sonnet 116.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
            If this be error and upon me proved,
            I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

It is one of the most famous affirmations of love that we have. It takes a forceful stand against love that “alters” or “bends.” What the speaker is denying is considerable: it includes most of what we see in the rest of the sequence, in which the changeableness of love and the worthlessness of lovers’ vows are commonplace. The reader of Sonnet 116 need not travel any further than the immediately adjacent sonnets to see the speaker’s position contradicted. Sonnets 115 concludes that since love is a baby (think of Amor or Cupid), like a baby love should grow.

Sonnet 116 is at odds not only with its immediate predecessor but also with itself. As many have noted, the speaker seems to protest too much. From the initial refusal to “admit impediments,” the speaker betrays, through the ambiguity of “admit,” an unwillingness even to acknowledge the possibility of “impediments” to the love he describes. For the speaker, love does not overcome obstacles but, rather, asserts that obstacles are not obstacles. The number and forcefulness of the denials seems to say as much about the speaker’s psychology as it does about love. Without any alteration to the poem, it is quite possible to read the protestations as driven by doubt and fear, with the passionate certainty of the speaker in fact a sign of his uncertainty—and of his fear of admitting that uncertainty. 

As is the case throughout the Sonnets, the imagery in Sonnet 116 shifts and changes, and images are held together by a logic of association that, like consciousness itself, is not always clear. In the case of Sonnet 116, multiplication and substitution of vehicles subtly and unintentionally—subconsciously, I would suggest—undermine the intended tenor, a love that “alters not.” In the first stanza, after alluding to the Christian marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer, the speaker shifts from marriage to the image of the compass, with love as the fixed foot that does not “bend with the remover to remove.” The compass was in the period a commonplace emblem for constancy. Donne uses it famously in his “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” and Jonson used it for his own impresa—but made it a broken compass. Whereas Donne uses the compass as an image of unchanging love, Jonson uses it to call attention to the absence of any such perfection in the sublunary world. Both perspectives apply to Sonnet 116, in which the speaker insists on the kind of Neo-Platonic idealism Donne asserts in the “Valediction,” but the reality he faces—and that we see throughout the sequence—is the broken world that Jonson sees. 

The compass is never named in the first stanza, but the word is used in the third stanza, in which Love and Love’s great opponent, Time, are personified.  The descriptive imagery is focused on Time, and the word “compass” here refers not to Love but to Time’s “bending sickle.” The compass that “bends not” has become a “bending . . . compass,” and the association with marriage has given way to an alliance with “doom” and death. Indeed, the speaker’s boast that Love “bears it out until the edge of doom” contains the unintentional admission that Love lasts only “until” the end of time. As the marriage ceremony that Shakespeare echoes makes explicit, not only will all marriages end on the “dreadful day of judgment,” but those that had unadmitted “impediments” will be revealed to have been invalid all along. Although the speaker claims that love remains constant even in face of death, his bold attitude is not enough to outface Time.  Death brings the ultimate “alteration” to marriage: in parting the partners, it ends the marriage.  

Given the compasses in the first and last stanzas, it is tempting to look for a compass in the second stanza, where the successive images of the “ever-fixèd mark” and the “star to every wand’ring bark” create an overarching image of nautical navigation. Although it would be fitting that in addition to the North Star, the speaker would also mention the instrument for identifying North (especially useful when the stars are not visible), the mariner’s (magnetic) compass, he does not.  He does, however, implicitly allude to the mariner’s “moveable compass,” the volvelle (wheel chart) that was used in conjunction with a cross staff in order to navigate by the stars: the cross staff was used to take the “height” of the “Pole,” and that measurement served as the input for the moveable compass. If one grants the virtual presence of some kind of a navigational compass in the second stanza, the poem presents a different kind of compass in each stanza.  The compass is thus a constant—and a constantly changing—image uniting the three quatrains.

In the couplet, the speaker seeks to outbrave not Time but logic; he is equally bold and equally unsuccessful. The force of the conditional statement— 

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

—is clear: since the speaker has in fact written and men have loved, he must be right.  The failure of logic should also be clear—which is not to say that it is simple. Forgetting for the moment about the ambiguous pronoun reference, and focusing only on the nature of if-then statements, we can say with certainty that what he means to say—that he has loved and is right—does not logically follow from the couplet. (Consider, for example, the logically equivalent statement: “If this is not an A essay, I never wrote an essay or even graduated high school.”) The force of the couplet is quite real, but that force is emotional and psychological, not logical, and the speaker’s “error” in mistaking passion for logic can indeed be “proved.” 

Shakespeare’s sonnet is a devious and devastating send-up of “true love.” The insistence of unbending constancy is in fact a rejection of the common experience of love in the sublunary realm. Even if love is not a roller-coaster ride, it has its ups and downs. God’s love may be constant, but our response to it is not. The problem with the speaker’s idea of love is that it is so idealistic that it is not Christian. When Christians marry, it is not a marriage of true minds but of two bodies. And bodies bend and alter. The kind of mental union the speaker asserts is more proper to Platonic love, though I suspect that a thoroughgoing Platonist would object to it as well. What is clear is that the speaker has left the body out of love.

If the speaker is in error, and he is, does it follow that he is not in love? In terms both of logic and of common sense, the answer is No. Shakespeare understands that to err, especially in love, is human. To say that the speaker of 116 is not in love requires the reader to argue, at least implicitly, the very point he or she is trying to refute: that “love is not love” unless it is without error. Rather than imitate the speaker and presume to know what true love is, the reader should consider that it is still logically possible—and indeed probable—that Shakespeare believes that humans can be in love even if they are in error about what love is. Love is not incompatible with error. Indeed, in common human experience, it is inseparable from error. That we are almost always in one state of error or another does not mean that there is no constancy in love; it simply means that genuine, healthy constancy has to be compatible with the vicissitudes of the human condition. Only a love that admits error and imperfection is open to growth.


Late Shakespeare and Late Montaigne

In accepting error as human—and in many other ways—Shakespeare resembles Michel de Montaigne. Shakespeare somehow knew Montaigne’s essays in translation before they were published. Although he is not indebted to Montaigne for any of his ideas, he did see in Montaigne, at least the late Montaigne, a kindred spirit.  In the first edition of his Essays, Montaigne is what might be called a questioning Stoic. By his third and final (and greatly expanded edition), he has passed through Skepticism to an enlightened Epicureanism. As Montaigne’s Stoicism becomes increasingly attenuated over successive editions of his essays, his extended exploration of the variable human condition leads him, almost inductively, to the discovery of a flexible constancy that should guide human conduct. In the climactic conclusion of his final essay, “Of Experience,” he claims, paraphrasing Plutarch, that “it is an absolute perfection, and as it were divine for a man to know how to enjoy his being loyally” (“de savoir jouir loyalement de son être”). It is significant that Montaigne’s “loyally” is derived from “law”: what Montaigne proposes is a kind of natural law theory grounded in common human experience rather than in the superhuman logos of the Stoics. For Montaigne “the best and most commendable lives” are “fitted” to “the common mould and humane model . . . without wonder or extravagancy.” This is a natural law that is perfectly natural. Life itself provides the law, and the way to obey it is by constant attention to life. And as Montaigne’s final essay makes abundantly clear, life is lived in—and the world is experienced through—the body. 

Like Montaigne, Shakespeare was allergic to the kind of idealism that leads us away from the body and, inevitably, sets reason at odds with common human experience. Angelo in Measure for Measure is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s best example of those who attempt (in Montaigne’s terms) to “escape man,” with the unfortunate result that “insteade of transforming themselves into Angels, they transchange themselves into beastes” (385). Angelo, as his name suggests, is disconnected from his body, until he meets Isabella, who as her name suggests is beautiful—and also happens to be disconnected from her body. Angelo is less than an angel and, indeed, less than a human when he discovers sexual attraction. Prospero in the Tempest is Shakespeare’s best counter example. Virtually omnipotent on his island, Prospero “abjure[s]” his magical powers and turns from the world of spirits back to the world of imperfect human beings. Like Montaigne’s last essay, Shakespeare’s great late play presents super-human aspirations as inconsistent with human flourishing.

The Tempest ends with an epilogue in which Prospero asks the audience’s forgiveness for what he had earlier called his “rough magic.”

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. Now ‘tis true,
I must be here confin’d by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got,
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell,
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
            As you from crimes would pardoned be,
            Let your indulgence set me free.

Prospero has told us that the magical power is no longer his but ours, and he calls on us to set him free by renouncing our own power as he has his. He could have used his magic to get revenge on his enemies, but instead he forgave them. The audience now has the power to get revenge on Prospero, if we are dissatisfied with the play, by hissing, but he asks us instead to show mercy. The way that we release Prospero from his bands is with our hands, and he wants us to join them in a prayer that reaches up to Mercy itself. Of course, audiences more typically put their hands together to clap, and Prospero is making a clever appeal for applause. What you may not know is that clapping is also the way to break a magical spell. When we clap, we will break our magical hold over Prospero, and he will be free to leave the stage. And we, having shown mercy, have reason to hope that we too will receive mercy as we return to our lives in the real world.

In Prospero’s last couplet I hope that you heard an echo of the Lord’s Prayer: Prospero asks us to forgive him for any faults we found in the performance—as we ourselves wish to be forgiven for our trespasses. In this play, Shakespeare shows that the real God-like power is not magic but mercy. In the Neo-Platonism of Shakespeare’s time, becoming a magus and wielding magical power was the pinnacle of human accomplishment. Shakespeare rejects that kind of self-perfection that manifests itself in control over others. Instead, Prospero goes from playing god to in fact doing something truly divine: forgiving. This is a positive ethic, and it is the example that Shakespeare leaves us with at the end of his career.



Love, mercy, and forgiveness are not an ethical system, but they are something far greater. For his ethics, Shakespeare looks not to any system but to the Gospel. He hated the early modern-day pharisees and all forms of hypocrisy. He believed in mercy and forgiveness, and deeply distrusted those zealous to set others straight. And he does not hesitate to call out those who judge others, those who forget that “with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you againe” (Mt. 7:2, Geneva version). I have already referenced Measure for Measure: its title, like Shakespeare’s ethics, is drawn from the Sermon on the Mount.

This is not to say that Shakespeare was some version of what we today would call a “Bible Christian.” Shakespeare also drank deeply from Scholastic philosophy and theology. We know that he read the work of Richard Hooker, a learned and subtle Anglican Thomist. Shakespeare’s works indicate, to my eyes, a deep influence and kinship with the moderate realism of St. Thomas. Like St. Thomas, he was profoundly anti-dualist, and he had no patience for those who denigrate the body and its claims, whether through a false idealism (such as that of the Neo-Platonist gnostics of his time) or through an unhealthy enthusiasm for rules and restraints (as advocated by contemporary Puritans). Shakespeare has the good sense of a Thomist, and he applied it to an amazing range of situations extending well beyond anything St. Thomas had ever imagined, and in doing so, he offers new and profound insights into human ethics, psychology, anthropology, etc. He diagnoses rationalism and dualism before Descartes even arrives on the scene. He anticipates Freud’s psychology of repression and denial centuries before that terminology was available. He offered devastating critiques of Victorian “middle-class morality” long before Bernard Shaw coined that derogatory name. Please take these as examples and not as an exhaustive list of the substantial insights Shakespeare has into ethics, broadly conceived.

These insights are, I believe, fundamentally consistent with Thomas. His method of conveying them of course is not. When it comes to his dramatic method, Shakespeare is less Scholastic than biblical. Shakespeare time and again creates experiences for audiences that are akin to the experience of reading the Bible: they feel convicted. As I said before, Shakespeare saw this kind of entrapment in the medieval drama. Well, the medieval dramatists saw it in the Bible, whether in the parables of Jesus or passages such as that in which the prophet Nathan tells King David the story of a man who stole another man’s beloved sheep. If one believes that the Holy Spirit is the author of the Scriptures, it would seem that the true originator of the dramatic method Shakespeare employs is God Himself.

It has been a pleasure for me to be able to speak of Shakespeare’s Christian ethics to an audience that has, as they say, some skin in the game. I apologize for taking up so much time and for talking about so many works. It is a lot to digest, especially after dinner. I hope that you will agree with me, though, that Shakespeare is more than entertainment for an evening. I have spent a good deal of my life chewing on his works, and I hope that you will devote some time to doing the same. Thank you for listening, and please accept my best wishes for your growth in wisdom and age and grace here at Thomas Aquinas College.


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