Shakespeare’s Moral Universe Defended: “These Moral Laws of Natures and of Nations Speak Aloud”

Nearly four hundred years of criticism and interpretation of the works of William Shakespeare have provided the world with a body of work which is itself as complex and illusive as Shakespeare’s own plays and poems. Books and articles abound on topics such as Shakespeare the Atheist, Shakespeare the Catholic, Shakespeare the Freudian, Shakespeare the Alienated Modern Man. This phenomenon, although confounding, is a kind of left-handed compliment to the Bard, who revealed human nature so richly that there is something for everyone at his feast of words.

In “Shakespeare’s Tragic Flaw: What’s Missing from the Bard’s Moral Universe” (Crisis, October 1991), Joseph Sobran argues that Shakespeare has indeed been overrated as a “universal man,” a kind of omniscient psychoanalyst who was exceptionally “modern” for his time. While I agree in general, I do not share his view that Shakespeare is “the least didactic of authors.” What Sobran suggests to be a moral weakness on Shakespeare’s part (“The dramatist never seems to invade his own works or to anoint one of his characters as his spokesman”) may actually be among the factors that distinguish him as a great dramatist and moral author.

Shakespeare never superimposes an idea upon his characters; as Sobran says, he “let his characters and their actions speak for themselves.” But in letting the actions “speak for themselves,” Shakespeare subtly constructs a consistent framework of moral vision that runs through his plays like a musical ground. Shakespeare’s “didacticism” is not expressed in his characters’ words, which are designed to reflect the integrity of each character’s distinct moral nature, but in the actions themselves — the ways in which Shakespeare manipulates conflict and resolution throughout.

Shakespeare does treat Catholicism with contempt. Anyone familiar with the realities of political life in Tudor England is well aware of the consequences (social suicide or worse) suffered for aligning oneself with Papism. But the sod in which early Anglican cuttings sprouted was fertile with the moral and cultural sediment of the Catholic ethos in England. The moral order changed little after Henry VIII’s private reformation and Thomas Cranmer’s anglicizing of the liturgical rites. Morally, as well as culturally, Shakespeare’s understanding of truth is “catholic.”

The plays are peppered with references to the moral order, or what the Elizabethans considered the divinely-ordained structure of human society: “Therefore doth heaven divide / The state of man in divers functions.” (Henry V, I.ii.183-84) Shakespeare never refutes the primacy of monarchical rule — his plays consistently view other political structures (such as democracy) as chaotic, leading to anarchy: “Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows. . . .” (Troilus and Cressida, I.iii.109-10) His concept of the king as the representative of the “Body Politic,” or embodiment of the commonwealth in the king’s person, consistently defines the King as the center of an ordered society:

Upon the King! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins lay on the King!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness . . . (Henry V, IV.i.230-234)

Kingship in the plays never waivers as a moral force in the working out of human destiny:

The cess of majesty
Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw
What’s near it with it. Or it is a massy wheel
Fix’d on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose [huge] spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortis’d and adjoin’d, which when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boist’rous [ruin]. Never alone
Did the King sigh, but [with] a general groan. (Hamlet, III.iii.15-23)

Shakespeare’s plays consistently reinforce as well the concept that human nature and society are inextricably linked with the physical order. Events of the natural order (signs, portents, plagues) presage the moral struggles of humanity:

But if you would consider the true cause
Why all these fires, why all these gliding ghosts,
Why birds and beasts from quality and kind,
Why old men, fools, and children calculate,
Why all these things change from their ordinance,
Their natures, and preformed faculties,
To monstrous quality — why, you shall find
That heaven hath infus’d them with these spirits,
To make them instruments of fear and warning
Unto some monstrous state. (Julius Caesar, I.iii.62-71)

Shakespeare’s use of the concept of “time” creates a subtle link between individuals, society, and cosmic upheaval: When the impetuous young Richard II strikes out against his popular cousin Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Herford, by disinheriting him, the king’s uncle York warns, “Take Herford’s rights away, and take from Time / His charters and his customary rights; / Let not tomorrow then ensue today; / Be not thyself. . . .” (Richard II, II.i.195-98) Upon realizing his role as “scourge and minister” in the decadent Danish court, Hamlet exclaims, “The time is out of joint — O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (Hamlet, II.i.175,188-89) In King Lear, steeped in the violent storms of Lear’s wracked nature, wrecked kingdom, and ravaged landscape, Edmund declares: “Know thou this, that men / Are as the time is.” (V.iii.30-31)

This vision of moral responsibility is founded upon the interrelatedness of creatures, creation, and the Creator. In this way, “time” dramatizes the connection between mankind, the physical world, and the eternal: The cosmos itself bleeds when evil is perpetrated, and all things are sucked into the vortex of the evil deed. Or the conquest of love redeems all things through sacrifice and purification. The didactic quality of Shakespeare’s moral vision is imbedded in the actions themselves, in the context of every conflict and resolution of conflict, in much the same way that a Catholic believes that universal truth and the laws of God are revealed in life itself. Whether it be the self-hatred of Othello, the feuding in Romeo and Juliet, the jealousy of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, the lust of Angelo in Measure for Measure, or even the conditions that allowed for the tyranny of Richard III, the evil forces which create the conflict must be purged from the “time,” as Shakespeare defines it, before a resolution of the action is possible. Even in King Lear, where the lack of redemption is most notable, Cordelia’s death and Lear’s subsequent death act as purgatives which restore normalcy to society.

In the space of a short article, it is not possible to demonstrate this in all 26 plays. Though Hamlet is often read as Shakespeare’s most prescient “modern” play about 20th century alienation, desolation, and moral disintegration, a careful examination of the “time” of this play shows it to be one of his most moral, most “catholic” works.

Much has been said about Hamlet’s inability to take action, of the futility of all action in this play. Yet this tragedy is full of action! Most of the characters have no trouble launching headlong into deeds which have dramatic effects on themselves, their society, their entire nation. While it is true that Hamlet delays out of grief and disdain for the evils he perceives around him, he does indeed take his revenge on the man behind the arras, whom he mistakenly believes to be the villain Claudius. Ultimately, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is not so much about the inability to act, as it is about the inability of human beings to act morally — honorably, consistently, faithfully — in keeping with the nobility of their God-given natures:

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me — nor woman neither . . . .” (II.ii.303-309)

Hamlet is about man’s fallen nature, about the inconstancy of the human will, about sin. In fact, the play reads like a digest of the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, gluttony, covetousness, lust, sloth, anger, envy — they are all there. Although the language is charged throughout with images of death and putrefaction, this imagery of festering and infection is Shakespeare’s objective correlative for spiritual death, the contagion of sin eating away at the precious absolutes of the soul — truth, beauty, goodness:

. . . the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. (III.i.110-14)

The shadow of the Ghost, Hamlet’s murdered father, hangs over the play like a pall, placing every action in the context of mortality and the final accounting for earthly imperfections. The Ghost derides his brother’s murderous act as most horrible for depriving him of the benefits of confession, Holy Eucharist, and Extreme Unction:

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhous’led, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reck’ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head. (I.v.76-79)

This horrible act of spiritual cruelty informs the Ghost’s revelation that he was “Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confin’d to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purg’d away”(I.v.10-13) — one of the most concise descriptions of Purgatory to be found in Shakespeare’s canon. And this residual knowledge of death, judgment, and punishment for sins — even the sins of a good man such as Hamlet’s Hyperion father —  undercuts all the actions and sins of the characters that strut and fret for the following five acts.

Each of the characters presents a flawed human will in an odyssey moving either closer or further away from the ideal of constancy in action. The King is easy to understand: Envy lies at the root of his inconstancy. Lust is the Queen’s great pitfall, the cause of her defection from seeming virtue. Ophelia’s crime of inconstancy is a pathetic turning from the truth in tortured obedience to her father. Anger infects Laertes’ judgment, as the sloth of depression blunts Hamlet’s purpose in his drawn-out delay to enact his promised revenge. Gluttony and debauchery are at the heart of Danish culture, for the King’s wassail, the “heavy-headed revel” that causes other nations to “clip us drunkards,” is, according to Hamlet, “a custom / More honor’d in the breach than the observance.” (I.iii.15-17, 19) And who is more an index of worldliness than Polonius, with his crafty advice to his son that reveals his perversion of moral virtues: “the apparel oft proclaims the man” (I.iii.72)? His are the hungering eyes of the world, whose heart is avaricious, comparing and sizing up every person by the externals of wealth, taste, and discretion, and whose summary truth is “to thine own self be true.” (I.iii.78) Pretense of appearance, inconstancy of heart, flagging virtues, these are the spiritual benchmarks of the world surrounding Hamlet, who composes these speeches for the group of players that perform for the Danish Court in Act III:

Purpose is but slave to memory,
Of violent birth, but poor validity,
Which now, the fruit unripe, sticks to the tree,
But fall unshaken when they mellow be.
Most necessary ’tis that we forget
To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt.
What to ourselves in passion we propose
The passion ending, doth the purpose lose. . . .
Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown,
Our thoughts are ours, our ends none of our own . . . . (III.ii.188-95, 211-13)

Hamlet writhes with contemptuous disdain at the human predicament, where fate sets obstacles to the best of intentions and leads the human heart and will to foreswear its own best instincts. This is not a morally neutral “time,” but one which cries out for constancy, order, and truth.

No better summary of the moral order of Hamlet can be found than in the private meditations of its consummate villain Claudius:

In the corrupt’d currents of this world
Offense’s gilded hand may [shove] by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law, but ’tis not so above:
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compell’d,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. (III.iii.57-64)

Even the villain, in his most truthful and intimate soliloquy, bears witness to the reality of immutable truth and the final destiny of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Here is a man who is very worried about his own immortality. Hamlet’s speech in this scene reinforces this eternal imperative: Hamlet decides not to take his revenge on the King as he is striving to pray, but rather to wait until Claudius is embroiled in “some act / That has no relish of salvation in’t —” so that “his soul may be as damn’d and black / As hell, whereto it goes.” (III.iii.91-92, 9495) In his dealings with his mother, Hamlet’s concern — especially when reminded by the spectre of his father — is for her soul’s salvation: “Confess yourself to heaven, / Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come. . . . (III.iv.149-50) His desire is for virtue to endure and for villainy to be redressed in spite of fallen human nature.

When Hamlet repents of the cruel mistake of murdering Polonius (and not his uncle Claudius) behind the arras, he tells his mother: “. . . heaven hath pleased it so / To punish me with this and this with me, / That I must their scourge and minister be.” (III.iv.173-75) He no longer speaks of “fate” or “Fortune” playing upon men like a pipe “To sound what stop she please” (III.ii.71); here he admits of his own act in light of heaven’s pleasure. And upon his escape from exile for the murder of Polonius, he tells Horatio:

Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will — (V.ii.8-11)

God’s will is acting in the course of each life, even when men’s actions rashly try to thwart it.

Hamlet grows from a disenchanted idealist chafing under the bit of a world where virtue is scorned by vice and Lady Fortune plays with events like a game of dice, to a man of faith in the final outcome:

There is 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 if be not now, yet it [will] come —
the readiness is all. (V.ii.219-22)

Though this speech could be read as the final alienation of a man who has lost faith in the value of all actions, a kind of Stoic acceptance of meaninglessness, the actions of the play itself do not bear out this reading. The play consistently reinforces Hamlet’s initial horror with the human condition, ameliorated by his growing awareness of God’s ability to “shape our ends.” Echoing Christ’s own words about Providence and the sparrow, Hamlet surrenders his will to the unfolding of events, secure in the knowledge that good will triumph over evil. Indeed, the play’s last act bears out this moral reckoning.

Shakespeare’s moral vision, like a quiet undertow, informs each of his plays, but not by superimposing ideologies or doctrines upon the manifold complexities of human interaction. Because he was “marvellously open to all the abundance and variety of human life,” as Sobran said, because he allowed his characters the freedom to be fully themselves, because he circumscribed all the plays’ actions with the knowledge of God as the agent of eternal justice and mercy, he proves himself to be the most “catholic” and most gentle of moral teachers. Shakespeare demonstrates for his audience, rather then telling them, that truth is universal and objective, flowing from God and returning to Him in spite of the human pageant of comic mishaps and tragic offenses.

Author’s note: All references to Shakespeare’s plays are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Houghton Mifflin, 1974).


  • Carol Anne Jones

    Carol Anne Jones holds a Master's in Renaissance Literature from the University of Virginia and worked as Editorial and Production Manager of Shakespeare Quarterly when it was published by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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