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Shakespeare's Portrayal of the
Moral Life

Shakespeare's Portrayal '


The Moral Life



Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the
University of Wisconsin




Copyright, igo2
By Charles Scribner's Sons

jill rights reserved

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Introduction ix

^\, A Study of Motives 1

II. Transcendentalism 29

'^III. The Criterion of Right and Wrong . 64

■^ IV. The Nature of the Good 77

V. Conscience and the Conscienceless . 97

VI. The Freedom of the Will .... 131

,VII. Virtue and Happiness 159

VIII. Ethics and Metaphysics 204


If conduct be " three-fourths of life," or in other
words if all deliberate action have a moral bearing,
Shakespeare's description of the moral world is but
a name for his collected works. Accordingly, since
nothing that is broadly human was foreign to his
mind, or failed of at least a passing notice at his
hands, the title of the following study would seem
to be as comprehensive as that of the professorship
founded for Professor Teufelsdrockh at the Uni-
versity of Weiss-nicht-wo. The aim of this under-
taking, however, is a modest one. Using as our
material the concrete facts of life as they appear
in the pages of the great dramas, we shall merely
attempt to discover what light they throw upon
a single group of ethical problems. Manifestly
such an inquiry may be confined within definite

The problems of ethics fall into two distinct
classes. First, the moral life of the race as it
actually exists and has existed calls for description
and explanation. Starting from the phenomena
of moral approval and disapproval, in other words,
from the fact that certain actions are judged right
and others wrong, we here ask : What is the nature

X Introduction

of the moral judgment, to what kinds of action does
it attach itself, and under what conditions does it
arise ? Under these few rubrics may be disposed
a long series of familiar topics : the standard or
standards by which conduct is judged, the nature
of conscience and its mode of working, the nature
and source of the consciousness of obligation, the
conditions under which responsibility is imputed
(the ethical side of the free-will controversy), and
the relation of metaphysical and theological beliefs
to morality. Others closely related, as the connec-
tion between character and happiness, and the
dynamics of virtue and of crime, will naturally
suggest themselves in the course of such an inquiry.
In the exploration of this broad field a second set
of problems soon presents itself. For the morality
that is proves to be a mass of inconsistencies and
in part absurdities. Accordingly the question
forces itself upon us, How can we reduce the moral
judgments of mankind to a consistent and reason-
able system, where the word " reasonable " means
that which would approve itself to a mind cog-
nizant of and sensitive to all the facts of human
experience. The first part of a complete treatise
on ethics is thus in method a science, the second
an art.

To the catholic mind both of these departments
of inquiry are alike interesting and important.
Every wise man will accept with gladness any as-
sistance in either direction which the skilled
observer of human life is able to offer him. Un-

Introduction xi

fortunately, however, the aid that Shakespeare can
give us is limited to the descriptive branch of the
subject. Of what he thought about the art of
living — and this includes the art of judging — we
have no direct and little indirect evidence. There
are, indeed, certain historical romances masquerad-
ing under the name of biographies that profess to
inform us what he thought and how he felt upon
almost every subject of human interest. But their
results are obtained by picking out from the varied
deliverances of his characters those with which the
novelist happens to agree. Criticism upon such a
method seems superfluous. I at all events shall
not attempt to use it. I shall confine myself to
an account of the moral life as it is represented
upon Shakespeare's stage. I shall treat his char-
acters as if they were living beings, whose con-
sciousness we — happy peepers and botanizers —
were permitted to explore. My descriptions, of
course, must be in general terms ; but the formulse
in which they are presented will be mine, — objec-
tive statements, as far as possible, of what I dis-
cover in my journey through the world he has
created. What thoughts arose in the dramatist's
mind as he contemplated his creations thus becomes
a matter with which I have nothing to do. Not
merely how he criticised but also how he general-
ized are subjects that alike fall outside the inquiry
that is here proposed.

How far these offspring of a poet's imagination
resemble the men and women with whom scientific

xii Introduction

ethics attempts to deal, I have in the main re-
frained from considering. There is as yet no suffi-
cient concensus of experts in this field to make the
subject worth discussing, although we are un-
doubtedly nearer the goal than we were a genera-
tion ago. At only one point has a departure from
this plan seemed desirable, namely in the study of
moral pathology. The reasons for making an ex-
ception in this case will appear in their proper

But while questions of truth and error are
allowed for the most part to pass unconsidered,
the following study is not intended as a mere ex-
ercise in literary interpretation. It is an attempt
to lay before the reader the results of the observa-
tions of a man who was one of the most gifted
students of human nature the world has ever seen.
The record that he left no worker in the humani-
ties can afford to neglect. No worker, in fact, does
neglect it. But the concreteness of its form and
the intermixture of irrelevant material — irrelevant
from the point of view of science — which is the
consequence of the motives that brought it into
being, these have operated to render much it could
teach us practically non-existent. For this reason
it has seemed worth while to re-write that portion
which deals with the moral life. In the process
its beauty dies and for many people its interest
entirely disappears. There may be some, how-
ever, who will care to make a systematic review of
the materials which the great observer has col-

Introduction xiii

lected. In this hope the present experiment has
been hazarded.

In order to get Shakespeare's powers at their
best, I have confined myself as far as possible to
those dramas which received their present form
after the close of the year 1600, or in other words?
to the works of the third and fourth periods accord-
ing to the common classification. These dramas,
it will be remembered, were written during the last
ten, or at most twelve years of the poet's literary
life, after an apprenticeship, if such we can call it,
that had begun, at the very latest, as far back as
1590. It has not, indeed, proved practicable to
exclude all references to the earlier works, espe-
cially the English histories. But it will be found
that, where issues of importance are at stake, it is
the four great tragedies, the Roman and Greek
histories, the small group of romances, and the
so-called comedies. All 's Well that Ends Well,
and Measure for Measure, that supply in the main
the material for our investigation.

Portrayal of the Moral Life



The fundamental fact of the moral life is the
approval and disapproval of conduct. It might
therefore be expected that our first topic would
be an account of the moral judgments expressly
enunciated by Shakespeare's characters. Such in-
deed would be the prescription of logic. But the
nature of the material at our disposal compels us
to begin with a study of the motives in which the
life of action has its source. True it is not with
conduct, but with judgments upon conduct, that
ethics as such has to deal, yet no absolute line of
demarcation can be drawn between the two. Every
action entitled to the name of voluntary is the out-
come of a judgment approving it, pronouncing it
an action that for some reason, or perhaps for many
reasons, it is well to perform. These reasons are
the motives. A study of motives is thus a study
of the points of view from which conduct may be

2 Shakespeare's Portrayal of Moral Life

approved, and a complete enumeration of the mo-
tives, persuasive and dissuasive, operating in any
given case would, therefore, reveal to us the totality
of the grounds on which the judgment of the agent
was passed at the moment of action. Any such
enumeration might seem to involve a hopeless
task on account of the multitude of the threads
that enter into the fabric of even the most com-
monplace life. But by confining our attention
to the highest types of moral endeavor we so
far narrow the field that it can be explored, while
at the same time we omit nothing that is really
essential. At the conclusion of our inquiry, we
should accordingly expect to be in possession of
the data with which to construct a theory of moral

Our study of motives may fittingly begin with an
examination of King Lear, that tremendous drama
of struggling optimism in which are disclosed the
sublimest heights and deepest abysses of human
character. What inspired the humanity of Al-
bany and the devotion of Gloucester, Edgar, and
Kent ? Let us listen to the confession of that
loyal servant who has more than once been pro-
nounced the most perfect character in Shake-
speare. The childish old king, thrown into a fit of
petulance at the ruin of a pretty little theatrical
effect through what he considers the unreasonable
obstinacy of one of the actors, has just disowned
his best-loved daughter and parted her patrimony
between her sisters. Kent attempts for the sec-

A Study of Motives 3

Olid time to interpose, when Lear with mounting
passion cries :

" Kent, on thy life, no more.
Kent. My life I never held but as a

pawn Lear I. i.

To wage against thy enemies; nor fear to

lose it,
Thy safety being the motive."

What made his master's safety his motive ? He
himself tells us as he enters in disguise the palace
from which but a few days before he had been
driven as an exile:

" Now, banished Kent,

If thou canst serve where thou dost stand

condemned, _ . ,

I. IV. 4.
So may it come, thy master, whom thou


Shall find thee full of labours.''

" Thy master whom thou lovest ! " This is the
key to a devotion which did not ask that master's
favor, which survived his prosperity and the in-
tegrity of his mind, — a devotion which was no
mere selfish clinging to an object of affection as
was Antony's passion for Cleopatra, but rather
the visible expression of a spirit of self-forgetting
service quickened by veneration, love, and pity.
In the wild night on the heath, when the dis-

1 The text of all quotations from Shakespeare and the nam*
bering of lines follow the Globe Edition,

4 Shakespeare's Portrayal of Moral Life

guised nobleman and the fool are trying to prevail
upon Lear to take refuge in the hovel, the old king
turning to his companion plaintively asks, " Wilt
break my heart ? " Answers Kent : *' I had rather
break mine own/' This is not declama-
tion, it is prophecy. For as soon as the
strain was over and his charge had been brought in
safety to the French camp, the summons came call-
ing him to his long home. While recounting to
Edsrar Lear's wanderings " his ffrief ffrew

V. iii. 216. . ^ ,, , . ^r, ,.p \ ^ .

puissant, the strmgs oi lite began to
crack," and he fell tranced to the ground. The
warning voice was not misunderstood. Come to
bid his king and master aye good-night, he sees
that master gently carried before him through the
portal. He scarcely notes that with a new ruler a
better era is to dawn, for his thought is fixed upon
the journey he must shortly go. The end is at
hand ; and soon, like the faithful fool, he will
have " gone to bed at noon."

While in Kent altruism, or the spirit of service,
derives its strength primarily from love, in Glouces-
ter we find it awakened by the emotion of pity.
" Alack, alack, Edmund," he says to his son after
Lear has rushed out into the storm, " I like not this
unnatural dealing. When I desired their leave that
I might pity him, they took from me the
use of mine own house." Soon he is
compelled to formulate his motives in the presence
of the infuriated daughters and the Duke of Corn-
wall, for they have been informed by the treacher-

A Study of Motives 5

ous Edmund of his final attempt to serve Lear by
sending the old king to Cordelia.

Cornwall. Where hast thou sent the king?
Gloucester, To Dover.
'Regan. Wherefore to Dover?

Gloucester. Because I would not see thy cruel nails

Pluck out his poor old eyes ; nor thy fierce sister

In his anointed flesh stick bearish fangs.

The sea, with such a storm as his bare head

In hell-black night endured, would have in. vii. 60.

buoy'd up,
And quench'd the stelled fires :
Yet, poor old heart, he holp the heavens to rain.
If wolves had at thy gate howl'd that stern time,
Thou shouldst have said '* Good porter, turn the key,"
All cruels else subscribed.

Pity, too, is the source of Albany's devotion to the
cause of Lear, if we may believe the taunts of his
ferocious wife. When at last he has been forced
to open his eyes to the true nature of this woman,
he turns upon her and tries to blast her with invec-
tive. Utterly unmoved she retorts :

<^ Milk-livered man!
That bear*st a cheek for blows, a head for
wrongs :

IV. u. 60.

that not know'st
Fools do those villains pity who are pun-
Ere they have done their mischief."

L. 70.

6 Shakespeare's Portrayal of Moral Life

Goneril is reproaching him, it will be remembered,
for delaying to take the field against the French
army which has entered England to restore her
father to the throne. Almost the next moment
brings her new evidence of the workings of com-
passion. In the midst of their mutual recrimina-
tions a messenger enters bearing the information :

" The Duke of Cornwall 's dead :
Slain by bis servant, going to put out
The other eye of Gloucester.
Albany. Gloucester's eyes !
Messenger. A servant that he bred, thrili'd

with remorse [pity],
Opposed against the act, bending his sword
To his great master."

It is to this same emotion that Cordelia's thought
spontaneously turns as the natural restraint upon
inhuman deeds :

*^ Had you not been their father, these white
IV. vii. 30. flakes

Had challenged pity of them.

And the hard-hearted Edmund apparently shares
her view of the place of this motive in the system
of human incentives. For he reminds the soldier
sent to kill Cordelia, "to be tender-
minded does not become a sword."
A study of the place of love and pity in the other
plays would lead to similar results. They are not
merely recognized as forces that exist; they are

A Study of Motives 7

counted among the most important incitements to
service, the most powerful and widely diffused re-
straints upon selfishness and passion. It Tempest I.
was pity that moved Prospero to teach ^- 35^-
Caliban ; it was pity to the general wrong of Rome
that drove from the heart of Brutus the j. c. m. i.
pity for his friend ; it was pity (or hu- 165-172.
manity) that moved Pisanio to disobey his master's
command to murder Imogen ; and this cym. in. ii.
same humanity that made Camillo at the 15-17.
risk of his life and in the face of certain exile warn
Polixenes of the death prepared for him w. T. m.
by his friend and host. The belief in "• ^^^•
the universality and the power of pity is attested
by the fact that to it the suppliant habitually ad-
dresses his principal appeal ; so Arthur in King
John, Isabella in Measure for Measure, and Marina
in Pericles.

In the preceding description altruism has been
represented as aroused by some strong emotion.
There is, however, a calm regard for another's good
which is capable of moving to action, just as the
apprehension of our own good may control our
conduct without the intervention of any appreciable
feeling. Does Shakespeare recognize and report
this fact ? The answer is not easy to give. The
little that can be said on the subject may best be
reserved for another place. ^

It will now be clear that altruism is represented
by Shakespeare as one of the most important factors
1 See p. 38.

8 Shakespeare*s Portrayal of Moral Life

in the moral life. This suggests the question : Do
his men and women, after the fashion of some well-
known moralists, identify virtue with altruism, or
do they recognize the pursuit of what are primarily
personal goods to be legitimate or even obligatory ?
Before attempting an answer, certain possible mis-
understandings must be cleared from the way. It
has often been asserted that there is no real con-
flict between altruism and egoism, that your good
is my good, because what is for your best interest
is for my best interest also. The data upon which
this assertion rests do not concern us here ; but
even if they be permitted to pass unchallenged the
conclusion drawn from them involves what has been
called the psychologist's fallacy. This form of
muddle-headedness consists in the substitution of
the point of view of the observer who is acquainted
with all the relevant facts for that of the person he
is observing. Manifestly if the agent believes him-
self to be making a sacrifice, a conflict with his
egoism may actually take place. Manifestly such
a person may ask himself how far the spirit of ser-
vice ought to be allowed to carry him. Again, it
has been urged that self-sacrifice does not represent
any assignable phenomenon of human life, that
what goes by that name is the identification of my
own good with the good of another, the making of
his good mine. The substance of this contention
must be granted, but there still remains the prob-
lem : Within the area of my own good how much
consideration ought to be shown for that which is

A Study of Motives 9

my good solely because it is another's, and that
wliicli is mine independently of what the other's
interests may be ? No analytical subtleties can
volatilize into nothingness the world-old struggle
with this perplexity.

We accordingly enter upon no barren inquiry
when we study the claims of egoism against altru-
ism as conceived by the people of Shakespeare's
world. At the outset one fact emerges with unmis-
takable clearness. The ideals of what is due as
between friend and friend, servant and master,
benefitted and benefactor, and in general those who
stand in some exceptionally close relation to each
other, are uniformly set very high. Witness Isa-
bella and Cordelia, Antonio, the merchant of Yenice,
and Coriolanus, who throws away vengeance and
honor at the prayer of his mother. Witness the
gruff soldier Enobarbus,who takes his life in remorse
at having abandoned a master who had long for-
feited all claims to his allegiance. But the obliga-
tions to service are not limited to those who can
urge special claims. Camillo gives up what he
most loves, and risks his life to save the life of
Polixenes, a stranger and a foreigner. What he
suffered in leaving his native land, a w. T. iv.
self-condemned exile, is shown by the "* ^~^^*
passionate longing he feels to return to Sicily, not-
withstanding the brilliant position that his judg-
ment and character had won him at the court of
his new master. It is the story of a single noble
deed that we read in The Winter's Tale; but

lo Shakespeare's Portrayal of Moral Life

Antonio, Cerimon, and Tim-on in his palmy days,
are represented as passing their entire lives in acts
of helpfulness and service. What these men do,
they and others approve. For they are not de-
spised by their neighbors as eccentric fools; but
rather are they looked up to with humility and
reverence, as men born to show their grosser fellows
a more excellent way.

Such lives need not betoken, however, a creed of
complete self-abnegation. For some at least of the
most altruistic characters distinctly recognize the
existence of a proper limit to service. The Duke
of Vienna, enumerating to Claudio the evils of
life, treats as entirely legitimate the pursuit of
ends having a purely personal value. In his
M. for M. arraignment of the fate that ever holds
in. i. 6-41. ^i^Q gQQ(j before our eyes but forbids us
to grasp it with our hands, there is no trace of
the dogma enunciated by Fichte : " Whoever
thinks of his own interests as an interest at all, and
desires any life and being whatever, and any self-
ish indulgence whatever, save in the race and for
the race, he is at bottom, whatever be the good
works with which he seeks to hide his misshapen
form, nothing but abase, despicable, utterly wicked,
and at the same time unhappy man." An explicit
assertion of the rights of self occurs during the
dispute between Orlando and his older brother in
As You Like It. The latter having feigned
compliance with the other's demand for an educa-
tion and an allowance sufficient for his proper sup-

A Study of Motives 1 1

port, Orlando replies : " I will no further

offend you than becomes me for my

good." Still more unequivocal are the words of

Rosencrantz to King Claudio :

•■■* The single and peculiar life is bound,
With all the strength and armour of the Hamlet III.

mind, iii. H-

To keep itself from noyance."

Rosencrantz is not exactly a member of the moral
elite ; but the force of what he says consists in the
fact that it has the air of a commonplace, express-
ing not merely what people do but what all would
admit they ought to do.

The principle stated in the words just quoted is
often embodied in action. Isabella, — that spirit
so pure that even the foul-mouthed Lucio holds
her as a thing ensky'd and sainted, — Isabella de-
clares herself willing to die but not willing to lose
her soul in order to save her brother's ^ ^^^ ^
life. And while this of course does not n. iv. 105-
represent her real motive for refusing ^^®*
the infamous offer of Angelo, it is certainly a con-
sideration that appeals to her as reasonable. The
highly idealized Henry Y. — " the mirror of all
Christian kings" — never thinks of waiving his
claim to what has fallen to him and his heirs by
gift of heaven, and washes his hands of all respon-
sibility for the bloodshed that will follow the asser-
tion of his right. In leading the English army
into France, his point of view is not that the laws

1 2 Shakespeare's Portrayal of Moral Life

of succession have imposed upon him a duty to
others which he must not permit himself to shirk ;
nor is it that we owe a duty to the world at large
to maintain our personal rights, as Ihering insists
in his Kampf ums Recht. Henry simply argues as
follows : This fruitful land of France is mine ;
therefore, let the consequences to others be what
they may, I am justified in possessing myself of it.
Where, then, lies the limit ? The son of Henry's
royal opponent, on learning of the English demands,
encourages his father to .resist with the words:
" Self-love is not so vile a sin as self -neglecting."
Henry V. This, however, is no universally accepted
n. iv. 74. axiom. We find Antonio professing
himself willing to make any sacrifice, however
extreme, for his kinsman Bassanio. And we know
his are not empty professions. Desdemona, in like
manner, assures Cassio of her readiness to do more
Othello III. for him than she dare for herself.
IV. 130. Amidst this diversity of opinion we meet
one statement that appears to rest upon a principle
which has found a wide, though by no means uni-
versal acceptance among moralists. When the
Athenian senator is asked for a loan of money
with which the most pressing obligations of the now
bankrupt Timon may be met, he urges, by way of
excuse for refusal, his own extreme necessities, and
as major premise asserts : " I must not break my
Timon of hack to heal his finger." In this phrase
Athens 11. seems to be implicitly contained the
^' ^" doctrine that has been formulated by

A Study of Motives 13

Professor Sidgwick as follows : " One is morally
bound to regard the good of any other individual

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