A Note on Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Romances (5/1/10)

There is much of interest in the whole question of a balanced redress of evils committed against us—a theme dealt with in Measure for Measure, as the title clearly announces. This theme also occupies Shakespeare’s careful attention in The Merchant of Venice, where ‘Christian’ mercy and forgiveness are repeatedly (and somewhat ironically) contrasted with Old Testament justice. The superiority and the redemptive power of self-abnegating forgiveness is also a central, recurring concern of the late ‘romances’—Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest—so I think it is fair to say that Shakespeare wrestled with this profound and weighty question till the very end of his career.

I wonder if H.C. Goddard isn’t the scholar who has devoted the closest attention to the moral vision underlying Shakespeare’s plays. Others have sought to emphasize the absence in the plays of any prescriptive moral doctrine—and that Shakespeare’s true gift as a teacher about human nature lies primarily in his refraining from any sort of moral didacticism or prescriptive program.

It could be argued, perhaps, that even the most exemplary moral actions and attitudes are ultimately little more than candles in the strong and snuffing winds produced by nature and by passions under extreme circumstances. ‘Good’ persons in Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello—persons like Duncan, Banquo, Gloucester, Edgar, Cordelia, Desdemona—are usually the unfortunate victims of villains and ‘slaves of passion’ who, despite (or because of) their amorality and vice, are reliably more capable of doing harm than the decent ones are of spreading good. One almost cannot avoid coming away from the tragedies with a pessimistic view of the human condition—and of the chances for goodness to prevail against the evils of this world.

In the late plays, however, good does generally prevail, but not without the slightly discomfiting occurrence of (let’s call it like it is!) miracles to turn an otherwise stuck and hopeless situation around. The presence of such unlikely or un-natural miracles (and in The Tempest, magic) may have a good deal to do with why these last plays are commonly referred to as the ‘romances.’

If it proved to be a general truth that the human, when left to the promptings that come most naturally and automatically, is prone, where opportunity allows, to return blow for blow, evil for evil received, then perhaps any overcoming of this natural ‘eye for an eye’ justice must be regarded almost as a kind of miracle, since our first ‘nature’ is more apt to follow egoistic rather than the altruistic or ‘Christian’ course. Is this perhaps what Shakespeare was showing us in the contrast between the very different ‘worlds’ presented in the tragedies and the romances? The tragedies present us with a depiction of the human condition where the egoistic ambitions, the ‘animal’ passions and instincts, prevail so decisively and so thoroughly that acts of true goodness and altruism have but the slenderest chances of prevailing. The tragedies of Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, and Othello create little worlds where the climate and the soil conditions are too parched, too cold, too stormy, or too toxic for the tender plants of gentleness, forgiveness, and honesty to take firm root and flourish. In such harsh, treacherous, and ‘rotten’ realms, hypocrisy—or the counterfeit of virtue—grows more hardily. Authentic virtue can scarcely breathe in such environments—where it is perceived as mere weakness and foolish disregard for one’s own advantage by characters like Iago, Edmund, Claudius, and those gracious hosts, the Macbeths, who prey upon and exploit others’ goodness for their own villainous purposes.

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