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Shakespeare and conscience

At the outset of an undergraduate Shakespeare course I often ask my students to make a list of ten things that may not, or do not, exist. I say “things” because I want to be as vague as possible. Most students submit lists featuring zombies and mermaids, love charms and time travel. Hogwarts is a popular place name, as are Westeros and Middle Earth. But few students venture into religious territory. Concepts such as providence and damnation are seldom volunteered, and over the past decade only a handful of undergraduates have ever mentioned God, the soul, or conscience.

Midway through the semester I repeat my request, this time insisting that students create lists in the form of quotations from Shakespeare. This yields phrases like “noble blood” (Richard II) and “the Weird Sisters” (Macbeth), along with propositions such as “men have marble, women waxen minds” (The Rape of Lucrece) and “There’s such divinity doth hedge a king / That treason can but peep to what it would” (Hamlet). In short, debatable ideas about class, gender, political authority, and supernatural reality begin to surface, and this aids me greatly in steering class discussions. I ask why certain characters favor certain ideological perspectives, and students do well in proffering answers. They quickly see that Edgar’s claim near the end of King Lear – “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to scourge us” – is absurdly inadequate in explanatory power. It may suffice to account for Gloucester’s fate, but were the gods “just” in their treatment of Cordelia? Or did she exist merely to die and thereby punish her father?

Hamlet’s play-within-a-play is a particularly rich site for exploration. The theory behind Hamlet’s scheme is that people who’ve committed heinous crimes will involuntarily reveal their guilt if confronted with a theatrical image of their transgression. “The Mousetrap” is thus a lie-detector test, and Hamlet seems strangely naive in his confidence that it will prove a valid instrument. “The play’s the thing,” he says, “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” But is it? And does he?

Productions give differing answers. In the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company Hamlet, with David Tennant in the title role, this scene allows Claudius to confirm Hamlet’s hostility toward him more than it allows Hamlet to confirm Claudius’s guilt. Hamlet is still exultant – he tells Horatio that he’ll “take the Ghost’s word for a thousand pound” – but whether his theory about conscience has been verified is anything but evident. I ask my students whether they’d want to live in a world where people held convictions of this sort. Some laugh; others say they already live in just such a world.

Otello and Desdemona, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Otello and Desdemona by Alexandre-Marie Colin. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

If conscience needs prompting in Hamlet, it works quite well without it in Macbeth. Undergraduates love this play for its brevity, its magnificent intensity, and its “secret, black, and midnight hags.” I tell them (as Samuel Johnson has often told me) that it was a criminal offense not to believe in witches during the reign of King James I – although I can’t easily imagine how such a law was enforced. Did Shakespeare believe in witches? We’ll never know. But does it make sense, in a fictional realm where witches do exist, for conscience to gnaw relentlessly at the inner peace of murderers, robbing them of sleep and inducing hallucinations? I think it does. The heightened malevolence of such a realm cries out for an equal and opposite force of irresistible self-confrontation.

Nowadays we tend to think of conscience as a psychic internalization of socially-sanctioned moral imperatives, but in Shakespeare’s day conscience was routinely viewed as an instrument of providence. The theologian William Perkins described it as “a little god sitting in the middle of men’s hearts, arraigning them in this life as they shall be arraigned at the tribunal of the everliving God in the day of judgment.” This sounds impressive – if not exactly pleasant – but the problem is that such a view falls short with respect to empirical confirmation. We know, of course, that absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily constitute proof of absence, but we’ve also seen that Claudius is a tough nut to crack despite Hamlet’s optimism. And the optimism of King Lear is still greater in this regard – though perhaps because it’s partly shaped by madness.

When Lear rushes into the storm, he implores divine authority to jump-start the workings of conscience in guilty men and women:

                                                 Let the great gods
That keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulgèd crimes
Unwhipped of justice. Hide thee, thou bloody hand,
Thou perjured and thou simular of virtue
That art incestuous. Caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practiced on man’s life. Close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents and cry
These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man
More sinned against than sinning.

These are difficult lines, but their broad arc of meaning is clear enough. Lear understands the storm as Hamlet understands “The Mousetrap”: as a divinely-guided instrument, a tool of exposure. But whether the tool works is even more doubtful than in Hamlet. Lear himself seems the only character in the play who’s ready at this point to acknowledge moral failure.

That conscience leads inevitably to confession cannot be demonstrated in Shakespeare. But that conscience partakes of divine rectitude is unfalsifiable as a proposition. Indeed it bears a close family resemblance to Othello’s claim, when he turns to the lifeless Desdemona, that “When we shall meet at compt, / This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, / And fiends will snatch at it.” No one can show that this won’t or couldn’t happen. Othello’s speech is grounded in a vision of how the world ought and needs to be, as are the assumptions of Lear and Hamlet regarding self-exposure. Belief, in short, is mostly desire.

If my students ponder no idea but this, they will not have read Shakespeare in vain.

Featured image credit: Macbeth meets the three witches; scene from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. Wood engraving, 19th century. Wellcome Trust. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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