The Magazine

Bard's Brain

What did Shakespeare think, and why did he think it?

Oct 1, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 03 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Shakespeare's Philosophy

Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays

by Colin McGinn

HarperCollins, 230 pp., $24.95

Shakespeare the Thinker

by A.D. Nuttall

Yale, 448 pp., $30

Shakespeare is a force unlike any other in literature, and penetrating critics have recognized not only his preternatural creative vitality but also the questions it raises about his moral judiciousness.

In his Preface to the Plays of William Shakespeare (1765), Samuel Johnson writes, "Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour of manners and of life." Such profusion and exactitude of imagination, however, bring out a certain indifference to moral precept, perhaps not unlike that of nature itself:

His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. .  .  . This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer's duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independant on time or place.

Ludwig Wittgenstein is similarly unsettled to find no moral core to Shakespeare, and thus no inspiriting teaching in his works. "I do not think that Shakespeare would have been able to reflect on the 'lot of the poet.' Nor could he regard himself as a prophet or as a teacher of mankind. People stare at him in wonderment, almost as at a spectacular natural phenomenon. They do not have the feeling that this brings them into contact with a great human being. Rather with a phenomenon."

For Wittgenstein as for Dr. Johnson, to astonish with unrelenting verbal energy or to beget a world in language is not enough; the true poet and great human being must also conceive and transmit a moral order. (Wittgenstein's exemplary man and artist is Beethoven.)

William Hazlitt, on the other hand, cuts against this grain in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817), finding a higher morality precisely in Shakespeare's taking the amoral plenum of nature as his model. Writing about Measure for Measure, Hazlitt argues:

Shakespeare was in one sense the least moral of all writers; for morality (commonly so called) is made up of antipathies; and his talent consisted in sympathy with human nature, in all its shapes, degrees, depressions, and elevations. .  .  . In one sense, Shakespeare was no moralist at all: in another, he was the greatest of all moralists. He was a moralist in the same sense in which nature is one. He taught what he had learned from it. He showed the greatest knowledge of humanity with the greatest fellow-feeling for it.

In Hazlitt's eyes, universal compassion, which grants Shakespeare entry to an unprecedented variety of interior lives, supplants conventional moral judgment as the literary virtue par excellence. Knowledge of other men's souls that runs as broad and deep as Shakespeare's produces a corresponding human warmth, which might even be called a creator's love for his creatures.

The philosopher Colin McGinn, professor at the University of Miami and the author of 16 previous books, trying his hand at Shakespearean criticism in Shakespeare's Philosophy, quotes this passage from Hazlitt approvingly. McGinn describes a Shakespeare who was a moral philosopher without being a moralizer: "Shakespeare was not in the business of issuing condemnations, or instituting social reforms, or chastising evildoers. His writings are not hortatory, not preachy, and not didactic. His plays are not ethical precepts dressed up in dramatic form." And following the lead of Shakespeare's detractors, like Wittgenstein, as well as that of his most lavish admirers, McGinn identifies nature as Shakespeare's prime inspiration and instructor. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that Shakespeare desired to join himself to nature and to create as it does, with spontaneous flowing genius.

"Shakespeare was a kind of naturalist--an artist whose reportorial power was intended to lie as close to nature as possible," he writes. "If Shakespeare could have merged with nature (while retaining his artistic powers), he would have. He brings morality into the heart of his dramas because morality is part of nature."