Liberty Matters

Shakespeare’s Moral Universe

In his response John Alvis proposes that we focus our attention on the question, “What  theologico-moral-political precepts afford guidance in seeking to make power responsible?” This seems to me a good question on which to focus, but it also seems a difficult question to answer on Shakespeare’s behalf.  First of all, as we have noticed in earlier parts of our discussion, Shakespeare gives us precious few examples of corrupted men of power becoming more responsible. Prospero and Theseus have been mentioned. David Urban has appealed to the place of conscience: quite a few of the rulers we see in the plays are indeed afflicted by bad conscience. He brings forward Richard III, Macbeth, Claudio, Henry IV, Henry V, Prospero, and Angelo. If conscience is such a force to reproach and correct the tyrant, then we appear to be in good luck that such a natural (per Adam Smith) or divinely ordained force so universally present (or nearly so) rises to reproach men for their bad behavior. But Urban goes on to raise the nearly unavoidable question:  “to what extent has the irreligious man’s conscience proven efficacious against the absolute corruption Acton considered endemic to absolute power?” 
That is to say, in men not already moved by religion (really moved), conscience is not very efficacious.  Such seems to be the lesson of Shakespeare’s plays, especially when we consider such rulers as Macbeth and Richard III, among the truly dangerous tyrants Shakespeare gives us.  Conscience may afflict them, but it does not turn them to better ways. As Urban says, external forces are needed to bring them down.
Another reason that it is difficult to extract from Shakespeare an answer to Alvis’s question is that Shakespeare has no monocausal explanation for the corruption of men of power.  It certainly is not the mere exercise of power in itself. Let us consider two examples of rulers who acquire and use power in a corrupt way. We have spoken already of Macbeth. He is corrupted, we might say, by his sense of justice, by his sense that he deserves the highest reward in recognition of his consummate virtue. Richard III is an entirely different matter, however. Richard makes no claims on the basis of his merit or worth.  Quite the contrary.  As he tells us in Henry VI, Pt. III, Act III, sc. II, 165-68:  “since this earth affords no joy to me/ But to command, to check, to o’erbear such/As are of better person than myself,/ I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown….”  Or, putting it another way, “since I cannot prove a lover … I am determined to prove a villain” (R II, I,1). Nature has done him an injustice; he will commit injustice to get even with “dissembling nature,” by which he has been “cheated.”
Macbeth and Richard III—driven to their injustice by such different motives. Is it likely that one source of precepts, that any precepts, will make them “responsible”?  One can imagine a conversation between Socrates and Macbeth, in which the Athenian philosopher attempts to prove either that he cannot “jump the life to come” (Phaedo or Myth of Er) or that honor is not the highest good and that he should turn to philosophy instead.  More milk, Alvis would say. So let us imagine a conversation between Machiavelli and Richard III, in which the Florentine attempts to cure Richard of his resentment by teaching him that nature is actually fortuna, an impersonal set of forces neither just nor unjust, and thus nothing to “get even” with.
Within the plays we do not find these conversations. Instead Shakespeare shows us what his characters learn only too late—in the long run you’ll never get away with it.  This is the assurance that we live in an effectively moral universe. This may temper many. (Still more milk, says Alvis?). Shakespeare also provokes in his audience—or some of them—the kinds of conversations I mentioned above.