Shakespeare’s Tragic Flaw: What’s Missing from the Bard’s Moral Universe

The morality of a great writer,” says Chesterton, “is not the morality he teaches, but the morality he takes for granted.” Part of the joy and mystery of Shakespeare lies in the morality he takes for granted. He is the least didactic of authors; he offers no special doctrine and seems to let his characters and their actions speak for themselves. The dramatist never seems to invade his own works or to anoint one of his characters as his spokesman.

In this respect Chesterton was right to contrast Bernard Shaw, the preaching Puritan, with Shakespeare, who was “spiritually a Catholic”—a man of the Middle Ages, relaxed, patient, humorous, marvelously open to all the abundance and variety of human life, never eager to rush to conclusions nor to “improve” his audience by announcing them. The very idea of improving the world seems alien to Shakespeare; he accepts it as it is, laughing at its perennial comedy and thinking its profoundest defects beyond the reach of any possible reform.

And to this extent Shakespeare is certainly what we would call conservative. He has no vision of a better world waiting to be born. He has no quarrel with monarchy, though he has no illusions about it either. His patriotism requires no false idealization of the scoundrels and weaklings who have ruled his country. His horror of mob rule is evident. If he has anything approaching a specific political attitude, it is perhaps a regret at the weakening of old feudal loyalties and a contempt for the cash nexus. He seems to believe in what Samuel Johnson would call “subordination”: traditional social hierarchy and acceptance of one’s own place in it.

There is genuine feeling in his portraits of faithful servants, like the nameless one who dies trying to prevent Gloucester’s blinding in King Lear or Timon’s loyal steward or good old Adam in As You Like It; we feel a correspondingly sincere contempt of the social-climbing Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Though it is risky to impute attitudes to Shakespeare, my own sense is that Antony and Cleopatra represents a kind of autumnal summing-up of Shakespeare’s real vision of this world; it seems to me to intimate a sort of sensual conservatism, in which good things pass away and the earth is inherited by the strong and calculating, who have their uses for it but hardly know how to enjoy it. Even so, Shakespeare doesn’t moralize against Octavius, any more than he moralizes against Cordelia’s murderers; this is merely the way things are.

The range of Shakespeare’s imagination and his insight into human character are so far beyond those of any other writer as to seem infinite. How could the same man create both Othello and Falstaff? And yet nobody else could have created either. How such contrasting gigantic figures could belong to the same imaginative universe we can’t explain, but we have no doubt that they do, that they are both supremely “Shakespearean.”

And we are apt to feel that because Shakespeare comprehends so much of human life, he comprehends all of it. His characters speak for so many points of view, and express, with such wondrous eloquence, our own deepest feelings about so many aspects of human experience, that whole anthologies are assembled of passages from his plays and sonnets to display his range. Love, death, war, friendship, parenthood, fear, guilt, hope, regret, laughter: no wonder his admirers are tempted to hyperbolic praise of Shakespeare’s “universality.” Is there anything about us he didn’t understand four centuries ago?

In fact, there is. There was even something he didn’t understand about his own contemporaries. Surprising as it may seem, there is one great and obvious lacuna in Shakespeare’s picture of the world: religious experience.

If, as Chesterton says, Shakespeare was “spiritually” a Catholic, the evidence for it is meager. I think it would be more accurate to say he was culturally a Catholic, in that there is a deep residue of traditional Catholic morality in his works. It can even be said that this residue gives his plays their moral coherence. For although Shakespeare rarely preaches to us, he is anything but a moral relativist. He has no tendency to radically rpvise inherited morality; he never shows any doubt as to the nature of good and evil, right and wrong, the noble and the base. Murder is evil, disloyalty and slander are despicable, women should be chaste (the charm of Cleopatra notwithstanding); an inventory of Shakespeare’s moral “views” would seem platitudinous. These things indeed he takes for granted, and gets on with his stories.

In his book Shakespeare’s Religious Frontier, Robert Stevenson shows that Shakespeare systematically alters those stories as he receives them from his sources to present the Catholic clergy and hierarchy in an unflattering light. Where they appear favorably in the sources, Shakespeare usually omits them altogether. Those who survive in his plays reflect little credit on the Catholic Church, from the cynical Machiavellian Cardinal Pandulph in King John to the “churlish priest” in Hamlet, who grumbles at poor Ophelia’s funeral that she should have received a suicide’s disgraceful burial in “ground unsanctified.”

In the first scene of Henry V, we see the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely scheming to bribe the king to make war against France, so as to distract him from his purpose of claiming church properties in England. A writer with Catholic sympathies would hardly have featured such unflattering figures at a time when Catholicism in England was under persecution. Against them, one may cite Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, who secretly helps the young lovers; yet even he deserts them when his own skin is at risk—hardly an advertisement for the good old days of Catholicism.

Of course, these ecclesiastical characters don’t loom very large in the totality of Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare seems generally uninterested in Church affairs. But to the extent that he takes notice of Catholicism at all, his attention is distinctly negative.

More telling, for the purpose of inferring Shakespeare’s general attitude toward religion, are Shakespeare’s chief characters, especially his heroes and heroines whose inner lives provide the chief fascination of his plays. They are practically indifferent to religion; it is at most a marginal consideration with them. In their moments of deepest anguish, they never turn to God. It is striking that even at their deaths the thought of their souls’ fate hardly occurs to them.

Hamlet, the only Shakespeare play in which religious language is pervasive, is a partial exception. Hamlet laments that “the Everlasting” has “set his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter,” but this occurs to him as a sort of external rather than a conscientious obstacle to suicide. He assumes the immortality of the soul at one moment, but has his doubts in his most famous soliloquy. The play is ambiguous as to whether the Ghost has come from purgatory or hell; such questions remain “thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.” Macbeth is willing to “jump the life to come,” but says no more of the afterlife. Claudio in Measure for Measure fears “to die, and go we know not where”; not even his sister, a novice in a convent, displays any intimacy with the divine; no character in Shakespeare does. Considering the public furors over religion in Shakespeare’s day, his secularism is all the more remarkable.

Moreover, invocations of God in Shakespeare’s plays typically reveal their subjects as hypocrites. The ostentatious prayers of the murderous Richard III are downright comical (and Laurence Olivier plays them hilariously in his film of the play). Henry V, after threatening to fill France with widows and orphans to avenge the Dauphin’s insulting gift of tennis balls, adds with unconscious irony, “But this lies all within the will of God.” Harold Goddard is right, I think, to see a more general irony in Shakespeare’s portrait of this “mirror of all Christian kings,” who invades a country on a slender pretext and conquers with threats of slaughter and rape. Henry is exceptional among Shakespeare’s heroes in that he does pray briefly on the eve of the battle of Agincourt, but his prayer serves chiefly to remind us how dubious his claim to the English crown is, even as he asserts his title to France, and he asks only for immediate deliverance from danger, not for salvation. After the battle he publicly thanks God for victory, but it is open to question whether this is sincere piety or formal sanctimony. (Richard BI does scream, “Have mercy, Jesu!” after his nocturnal visitation by the ghosts of his victims, but as soon as he awakens, he recovers his Nietzschean self-possession.)

It would be too much to say that Shakespeare is anti- religious, but he never shows faith in God or Christ as a vital dimension of life. When he approaches the divine, his enormous powers of expression seem to fail him, and he comes as close to falling into merely conventional expressions, reflecting no depth of insight or feeling, as he ever does. Even Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus contains more Christian piety than anything in Shakespeare; only one of the sonnets, where the poet speaks most intimately, speaks with anything like religious emotion—”Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth”—and it makes no overt reference to God.

Shakespeare does speak freely of the soul and sin, a habit that can mislead us into supposing he is religious, since only religious people talk that way now. But for him these terms belonged to the only available moral vocabulary, and he is content to make use of them for his purposes. He is, in his way, profoundly interested in the soul, but not at all in theology. He seeks to understand it in the framework of temporal ethics. And I repeat, there is nothing radical in his morality. Even where he poses an excruciating moral dilemma, the basic nature of right and wrong is not in question. When Isabella must decide whether to submit to Angelo’s sexual blackmail to save Claudio’s life, it is assumed that to do so would be wrong, though perhaps excusable; in any case, an unconvincing twist of the plot allows her (and us) to escape the problem. And if the play ducks the powerful question it raises, it does imply clearly that the life of a nun is barren and futile. Shakespeare seems to me beyond dispute a thoroughly worldly poet, though by no means amoral.

But there is another side of his morality. He has no liking for the merely impious. Horatio speaks of the folk-belief that evil spirits can’t go abroad during the Nativity season with a sort of tender skepticism: “So have I heard, and do in part believe it.” Such villains as Iago, Edmund, and Cassius speak scorn-fully of the supernatural and lay exaggerated stress on free will. The Shakespearean villain characteristically envisions himself as a self-made man, without social debts or any duty to accept his place in the social order. He is both envious and ambitious, with a secret rancor and contempt for those who (undeservedly, he feels) outrank him.

Much of the power of Shakespearean drama springs from the motivations of its villains. Their actions are un-ambiguously evil and destructive, and finally self-destructive; but those evil actions are driven by something more than purely evil motives. Often they have real grievances that alienate them from their societies. Richard III has his deformity, Edmund his bastardy; Shylock has been the target of prejudice and insult; Iago has been denied promotion. One way or another, society has humiliated them, and injured self-esteem is the source of their envy.

Moreover, they are anything but cardboard villains; they are perceptive and resourceful men, apart from their evil-doing. Iago, for instance, has insights of which Othello is incapable; in some ways the Shakespearean villain may be really superior to his environment. And his self-aware superiority, as well as his humiliation, estranges him from others. This is why Shakespeare’s villains are so fascinating.

Critics and readers have long discussed Iago’s motives and debated whether Shylock is more victim than villain. But the Shakespearean villain needs no condescension. He knows what he is, he does evil deliberately, and Shakespeare never sentimentalizes his alienation in the manner of the modem liberal. Such alienation is bad for all moral and social order. When the moment of decision arrives, when the man must define himself by his actions, Shylock is no more justified by his humiliation than Angelo by his lust.

For Shakespeare, to understand all is not to forgive all; it is merely to respect the dignity of the villain as a moral agent. And he shows us the mystery of moral agency, forcing us to see our own affinity with the evildoer, who may be in some ways a larger man than the spectator who condemns his actions. We ourselves are not allowed to feel easily superior to these villains. They might well have been better men than we are.

Of course, Shakespeare’s plays can never be reduced to any formula, but Goddard provocatively sees many of them as struggles between force and imagination, often embodied in contests between the atavistic demands of the father resisted, with varying success, by the child’s inchoate sense of freedom. Tragedy ensues when the father’s will prevails.

This allows Goddard to see, for example, the Henry V cycle not as the story of a hero’s emergence, but as the subtle development of a dutifully Machiavellian son who, in banishing Falstaff, betrays his own higher possibilities; and to see Hamlet not as the drama of a son’s attempt to do his duty, but as the tragedy of Hamlet’s coarsening as he inures himself to the violent code he has inherited. This seems to me to make sense of the disturbing scene in which Hamlet, after acknowledging the “divinity that shapes our ends,” ascribes to divine providence his having the means to sentence two old friends to death, “not shriving-time allowed.” And on Goddard’s reading, King Lear is the story of a father whose agony teaches him to relinquish his imperious role, with all its self-delusions; the tragedy being that he learns too late.

Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, even more than his villains, are superior to their own actions. They bring on themselves a fate for which they can be blamed without being said (except for Macbeth) to deserve. And in the gap between responsibility (they are not victims) and desert (they aren’t villains either) lies tragedy.

Shakespeare’s genius is hard to exaggerate. Yet, in certain respects, it has been exaggerated. We have been overpowered by him for centuries. The blur of his “universality” has made it hard to see him as a very specific individual writer, whose astounding greatness is not without its own limitations. He tells us great truths about man. But he does not tell us the whole truth. We should be able to acknowledge this without feeling that his real virtues been seriously diminished.


  • Joseph Sobran

    Michael Joseph Sobran, Jr. (1946 - 2010) was an American journalist and writer, formerly with National Review and a syndicated columnist, known as Joe Sobran. Pundit Pat Buchanan called Sobran "perhaps the finest columnist of our generation".

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