Shakespeare's Moral Categories in King Lear and Hamlet
Morality works in categories. A deed, or a habit, is identified as good or bad by the moral category into which it falls. When we think in moral terms, we think in categories.
Shakespeare’s moral categories were in the main the same as our own, so that in most cases we have no difficulty seeing in what moral terms Shakespeare intends us to judge his characters and their deeds. We recognize as wrong murder, theft, dishonesty and adultery; and similarly, we perceive as commendable honesty, frankness, love, wisdom, and so on.
However, sometimes Shakespeare had his characters manifest dramatically important traits which were more easily identified in his day than in ours, because of the fading from our culture of the moral categories and assumptions the dramatist was invoking. In such cases it is easy for us to mistake what Shakespeare is “saying” about a character.
Most of these moral categories which seem esoteric today derive from classical Greek and Roman thinkers—most notably from Aristotle (Greek, 4th century BC) and in lesser degree from Cicero (1st Century BC) and Seneca the Younger (Roman, 1st century AD)—and had been refined and developed during the Middle Ages by Catholic moral philosophers, the foremost of whom was Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Some elements of this traditional thought which are relevant to Hamlet and King Lear are explained below.
A. THE BASICS OF NATURAL LAW PHILOSOPHY
It would be true to say that Natural Law moral philosophy, of which the two great systematizers were Aristotle and Aquinas, forms the basis of Western moral thought—confused and inconsistent though that thought is today. For instance, without assuming that there is some kind of “natural law” one cannot sensibly talk of innate “human rights”.
The basic tenet of Natural Law thinking is that there is a complex of behavioural laws, inscribed in our natures, to which we are morally obliged to conform. The temporal (as distinct from eternal) penalty for nonconformity—that is, for sin—is individual and social disharmony. Inciting us to disorderly behaviour are our restive passions; while indicating the way to order and rectitude is our moral reason, by which we can discover the principles of Natural Law.
Passion is not bad in itself, but, rather, is good and proper, provided it is regulated to accord with right reason.
Natural Law moral philosophy thus focuses on order and proportion; and it assumes a moral universe which is rational and comprehensible. Men can make themselves and their world happier by reasoning out and conforming to the natural purposes of human nature and human society.
Most of Shakespeare’s tragedies show how disorder results from people committing naturally-evident evil or folly. The disorder can be to oneself: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth win power by murder, but lose all peace of mind and all joy in life. It can be to innocent individuals: the Montague-Capulet family feud results in Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths; Hamlet’s killing of Polonius results in Ophelia’s madness and death. It can be to society: the conspirators’ murder of Julius Caesar issues in civil war—as does Lear’s imprudence.
In a nutshell, the basic principle of Natural Law moral philosophy is: rightful deeds conduce to universal harmony, and are right because they do; wrongful deeds conduce to universal disharmony, and are wrong because they do.
It is widely but mistakenly supposed that in traditional Christian thought revenge is condemned as always sinful.
In fact, the word “revenge” in its classical origins denoted simply “punishment” (Greek dike) or “restitution” (Roman vindicatio, meaning retrieving one’s own, and implying a settling of accounts). This fact was known to every educated Elizabethan, since school studies were mainly in Latin with a little Greek thrown in.
In the New Testament revenge is presented as being wrong as a private ambition (Romans 12:19)—which the Church has taken to mean as a disorderly ambition for more than due justice—but right as a function of civil law (Romans 13:4).
Aquinas taught that revengefulness is a “special virtue”, constituting the instinctual root of man’s desire and capacity for ordered justice (Summa Theologica 220.127.116.11). Indeed, according to Aquinas’ principles, not only does just revenge represent a universal good, but because of this the person on whom it is inflicted has both harm and good done to him—harm as a private person; good as a social person.
What was universally condemned by medieval thinkers was the execution of private revenge for civil offences. Indeed, contrary to what is generally believed, Aquinas nowhere taught that the killing of a tyrant by the tyrant’s subjects could be right, although he did allow that the principles of moral order might justify the killing of a tyrant by another ruler acting in the interests of the tyrant’s subjects (Summa 11.11 180.1 ad 5).
Even so, Aquinas’ principles were taken by some later Catholic theologians to imply—regardless of whether Aquinas recognized or intended the implication—that tyrannicide by a tyrant’s subjects can in extreme cases be just. Some Catholic moral philosophers contended that Catholic subjects could justly overthrow a persecuting Protestant ruler; and some Protestant leaders likewise contended that Protestant subjects could justly overthrow a persecuting Catholic ruler.
In Hamlet Laertes’ thirst for private revenge against Hamlet is undoubtedly wrong, in terms of all moral teaching of Shakespeare’s day. Laertes recognizes that this is so when he begs Hamlet’s forgiveness as they lie dying.
However, an American nun has argued in a well-regarded scholarly article (Sister Miriam Joseph, “Discerning the Ghost in Hamlet”, Proceedings of the Modern Languages Association of America, LXX ) that Hamlet’s revengefulness against Claudius might be justifiable, given that the command to revenge comes to him from the ghost of the previous, murdered king speaking as if it retained its kingly prerogatives in Purgatory.
Hamlet, of course, makes a sustained effort to establish whether the Ghost is indeed from Purgatory, or is a deceiving demon from the Hell of the Damned.
From this we might reasonably infer that educated Elizabethans probably did not think that Hamlet was necessarily doing wrong in seeking to revenge his father’s death in obedience to his father’s spirit. Presumably they felt that he had a tenuous but morally tenable case for obeying the spirit; and that if he pursued the revenge in a meticulously orderly fashion, it might not be “private” but properly magisterial, in the sense of representing an execution through him of his ghosted father’s kingly prerogatives.
C. THE FOUR CARDINAL VIRTUES
The “cardinal”—meaning primary—virtues were proposed in classical times as the basic behavioural habits conducive to a balanced and moral life, and were subsequently promoted by Christian theologians, including Aquinas (Summa 1.11.61). They are:
i Prudence (or Wisdom): Assessing clearly the likely consequences of one’s prospective actions before acting. The opposite of prudence—imprudence—consists generally in rashness or impulsiveness.
ii. Justice: Not merely obeying the law, but following natural principles of justice in one’s dealings with others.
iii. Fortitude: Moral stamina — persisting with difficult or unpleasant duties for the sake of right.
iv. Temperance: Keeping one’s emotions under strict rational control, and avoiding all emotional excess. Hence one should never be excessively elated, excessively down-hearted, excessively angry, and so on.
In King Lear it is evident that Lear is initially deficient in wisdom/prudence, justice and temperance; while
lacks fortitude. In Hamlet there is constant emphasis on temperance, a virtue strong in Hamlet but weak in Laertes. Gloucester
Of the cardinal virtues, the one most emphasised in Shakespeare’s day was temperance (which the dramatist often refers to as “patience”, connoting in today’s slang “keeping one’s cool”). Elizabethan society was acutely aware of the evils and disruptions which could occur if people gave way to unruly emotions—for instance, to disordered revengefulness.
When Shakespeare speaks of “reason” versus “blood”, he means moral rationality versus intemperate passion.
One reason for the emphasis on temperance in Shakespeare’s times was the high priority given to that virtue in the moral essays of Seneca the Younger. Seneca was also famous—indeed, more famous—in Shakespeare’s day for his tragedies, which tended to be bloodthirsty and to feature ghosts which urged the heroes to revenge.
D. SINS AGAINST THE HOLY SPIRIT
In the New Testament, mention is several times made (e.g., Matthew ; Mark -29; Luke ; 1 John ) of “sins against the Holy Spirit”, which are never identified but are presented as being “unforgivable”. Hence the Church has always regarded them as being the most serious of sins; and theologians have sought to identify precisely what they are.
St Thomas Aquinas taught that “sins against the Holy Spirit” are sins which involve a person’s directly scorning God’s grace, as distinct from a normal sin, where grace is not directly scorned but ignored. Since we need grace to move us to repent, by directly scorning grace we cut off our incentive to repent and so remain unrepentant. Hence sins against the Holy Spirit are “unforgivable” because “unrepentable”.
Aquinas identified six “sins against the Holy Spirit” (Summa 11.11.14):
i. Presumption, which is assuming that God will not condemn you for your sins even if you don’t repent them.
ii. Despair, which is assuming that God is not sufficiently good or merciful to forgive you your sins, or to give you the graces you need to do His will;
iii. Envy of a brother’s grace, which consists in resenting that another should enjoy God’s favour (the foremost benefit of which is the grace of salvation);
iv. Impenitence, which is refusing to recognize as evil the sins of one’s past.
v. Obduracy, which is refusing to recognize as evil sins to which one is presently tempted.
vi. Resisting the known truth, which is seeking by effort of will to deceive oneself that one is not persuaded of truths of faith which one actually recognizes as truths.
It will be seen that Hamlet manifests presumption, in that he speaks of himself as personifying Virtue and being the agent of Heaven’s justice (III.iv.153-56; 174-76), even though he has just murdered Polonius and has resolved to seek Claudius’ damnation. He manifests impenitence in that he never shows any contrition, not even when dying, for the many grave wrongs he has done. Most conspicuously of all, he manifests envy of a brother’s grace, in that he habitually seeks the damnation of those he regards as his enemies (I.ii.182-83; III.iii.74ff.; V.ii.36-47).
“Envy of a brother’s grace’ was also known in the Middle Ages as diabolical hatred (see the Bishop of Galway [Dr. Michael Browne], “Moral Theology in Hamlet” the Tablet London, 20 June 1959), because envy—meaning resentful hatred—of all good was held to be, together with pride, one of the two root sins of Satan (Summa, I. 63)
It is noteworthy that in 1311 at the Council of Vienne (France), the Church had condemned the hitherto-common practice of governments’ denying condemned criminals the right to have their sins forgiven through sacramental Confession before their executions (J Huizinga, The Decline of the Middle Ages Doubleday, NY, 1954, pp.24-25). This decree showed the Church’s horror at the evil of hoping for another’s damnation.
E. SETTLED MALICE VERSUS IMPASSIONED MALICE
A further moral distinction made by Aristotle and Aquinas was that between settled malice and passion-based malice (see Aristotle, Ethics V.8; Aquinas, Summa 18.104.22.168). A “malice” is simply a harm; and every sin, being by definition harmful, is a malice.
A “settled” malice is a malice which one harbours when one is in a calm frame of mind, and hence it is deliberated and is sustained by the will.
“Passion-based” malice, on the other hand, is a malice to which one gives way when in the heat of passion, but which is contrary to the principles and habits of behaviour to which one adheres when in calm mind.
A sin proceeding from “settled” malice is more serious than a purely passion-based sin as it involves a much deeper and more determined rejection of righteousness.
Aquinas taught that another reason why a sin of “settled malice” is more serious than a sin of “passion-based” malice is because it is much more impervious to repentance. If a sin results purely from passion, when the passion passes one will feel remorse and is likely to repent the sin before God. However, if one was open to committing the sin even before the onset of passion, or has sinned dispassionately, one is much less likely to repent. Hence one is more likely to be damned in consequence of a sin of “settled” malice than of a purely passion-induced malice.
This moral distinction is preserved in Western law in the distinction still made, in deciding the degree of a person’s culpability for a crime, between “cold-blooded” and “hot-blooded crimes”, with the former being treated as more serious.
In Hamlet it will be seen that Laertes’ revengefulness conforms to Aquinas’ definition of a purely “passion-induced” malice, in that it represents a lapse from the lord’s normally virtuous moral disposition; is rebuked by his conscience during the fencing scene; and is repented by him as he lies dying.
Hamlet’s murders, revengefulness and diabolical hatred, by contrast, proceed from a “settled” malice, in that they sit as easily with him when he is calm as when he is impassioned. Moreover, he repents nothing as he dies—indeed, he seems to assume that God will not hold anything he did against him.
F. DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE
In King Lear Shakespeare shows us how people afflicted with unjust suffering can learn not only to endure that suffering with dignity, but to profit from it. This theme was nothing novel: in classical times, one of the standard functions claimed for philosophy was to furnish consolation in adversity; and, of course, the purifying potential of suffering has always been a central theme of Christianity.
learn from their ordeals how blind they had been in their days of prosperity to, among other things, the sufferings of those with nothing. Lear reflects (IV.iv.28ff.) that “pomp” should experience the “houseless poverty” of “Poor naked wretches”, Gloucester
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
declares (IV.i.69-73) that “the superfluous and lustdieted man” should give of his abundance Gloucester
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.
Shakespeare is here enunciating traditional Catholic social philosophy. Aquinas taught that the fruits of the earth are for all men, and that although it is natural and proper not only that there should be private property but that some men should own more goods than others, natural justice requires that those who have a superabundance of goods should give of their superfluity to help the poor. [Summa Theologica II.II.66.7]
Indeed, Aquinas maintained that in a case where a person could survive only by taking from the superfluity of another, such an appropriation was legitimate and did not constitute theft.
G. THE TWO SENSES OF “HELL”
The Romans distinguished between Hades—the realm of the dead—and Tartarus, the place of torment within Hades. The Jewish parallels were Sheol and Gehenna.
In Shakespeare’s day the term “hell” could be used in either an hadeic or a tartarean sense. The hadeic sense of the word is still preserved in the Apostle’s Creed, which says of Christ, “He descended into hell...”
Thus when Hamlet speaks of being called to his revenge by “heaven and hell” (II.ii.596), given that he (tentatively) believes the Ghost to come from Purgatory, he means by “hell” simply “the Underworld” or “the realms of those dead who are not in Heaven”.
Shakespeare uses “hell” in this same sense in The Comedy of Errors IV.ii.32—3, where Drom io of
No, he’s in Tartar Limbo [ worse than hell. A devil in an everlasting garment hath him.