Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Philosophy of William Shakespeare

I believe that there is very little doubt that William Shakespeare is the most famous English writer of all time. He was an amazing talent of modest beginnings He ran into trouble early in his life when he married Anne Hathaway after he got her pregnant. He remained married to her, but spent much of his life away from her working on the London stage. GK Chesterton once said that while poets like Milton started with the very lofty idea of making poetry, Shakespeare started with the very practical idea of making money.

Shakespeare was an incredible observer of human nature. In fact, he tells us that the purpose of drama is to “hold as 'twere, the mirror up
to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image,
and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Hamlet III.v


Trying to figure out the philosophy of Shakespeare is a bit difficult. It is difficult to do an exegesis of Shakespeare because he wrote fictions, not philosophies per se. So far in this blog we have studied fictions, but we have not tried to go further up and find a unifying philosophy of a single author spread throughout his work.

The conclusions here are educated speculation based on evidence. I am more than happy to engage in vigorous debate over differing interpretations.

It is clear that Shakespeare is a Christian. There always appears an active Divine hand at work in his plays. Even when not explicitly showing the supernatural (e.g. the ghosts of King Hamlet and Banquo), Providence is cited very often. “God fought for us.” (Henry V I.viii)
Is it possible that Shakespeare was only parroting theism because of the conventions of his day? One of his contemporaries, Christopher Marlowe was an atheist, but he did not make his beliefs explicit in his works for fear of being outcast. Could the same be true of Shakespeare? Is he only giving lip service to religion.

Yes, it is possible, but there are no reflections of that anywhere in his themes, so no strong evidence supports this. His heroes are all believers. Also atheism is portrayed in the darkest tones:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” Macbeth V.v

This, to my mind is one of the most potent illustrations of the nihilism that must underpin atheism. Macbeth has no intrinsic meaning in his life. We are just brief candles waiting to be extinguished for no reason. Shakespeare gives us an understanding of where a life of Godlessness can lead.

On an historical note, not only is there no real evidence for atheism in Shakespeare, but there is strong evidence that he was actually a closet Catholic and a friend to martyr St. Robert Southwell. For more on this, please read the works of Dr. Joseph Pierce on the subject.

Another metaphysical point Shakespeare makes is that the world is not based on my perceptions. There is an objective reality no matter how my mind interprets it:

I have of late—but wherefore
I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of
exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my
disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
Hamlet II.ii

Chesterton points out here that Hamlet may not feel the goodness of creation, but he acknowledges that it is real. For Shakespeare, even if the passions prevent us from seeing the world objectively, it does not mean that there is not an objective truth.

Shakespeare places a high importance on experiential knowledge and intuition.

Many of his characters, especially in the comedies, fall in love at first sight. Though sometimes this has comic or tragic results, they often come to happy resolutions. In As You Like It, the Prince and his companions decided to live only for philosophy, but they have their worlds turned upside when the each fall in love. Shakespeare pokes gentle fun at the those who try to live by pure reason without acknowledging the passions of man.

Benedick, before he falls for Beatrice says: “I will not be sworn but love may transform me to an oyster.” (Much Ado About Nothing II.iii) And then he falls for her and his hold world changes. Cold logic gives way to heated love. This is not always an abandonment of reason, but change in perspective. Shakespeare acknowledges the dangers of falling in love and how it CAN lead to irrationality (e.g. Romeo). But Benedick and Beatrice are more rational and happier once they open their hearts to love. And this can only be done with an openness to experience.

Formal knowledge is not the only important type. Intuition is as important in Shakespeare's eyes. In the Merchant of Venice, Portia's father sets up a riddle where suitor's must choose from one of 3 caskets. Only one will lead to marriage to Portia. But this is not a riddle that can be figured out with reason only. Only a good man with a good intuition can understand the meaning of the riddle and choose rightly. This is why only Bassanio is able to do so.

But Shakespeare acknowledges that there are things that will never be understood by man. He has a healthy appreciation of mystery and man's ability to comprehend it. As Hamlet says,There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet I.iv

In other words, there is more that exists than has been revealed or can be understood.

Shakespeare acknowledges that human beings are not beasts, nor angels:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me” Hamlet II.ii

I heard someone say this, but I cannot remember who, that we are Divine dust. Divine, because we are made in God's image. But we are dust in that we are weak and venal.

We are capable of great virtue (e.g. Antonio, Cordelia, Henry V).
But we are capable of great vice (e.g. Shylock, Edmund, Richard III)
Every person has good and evil in them. How do we live rightly then? More on this in the Ethics section.

Shakespeare acknowledges that for man, if our end is only material, life is empty (see Macbeth) or Jacques:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” As You Like It, II.vii

(side note on Gender:
Shakespeare clearly sees differences in between the nature of man and woman (“Do you not know I am a woman? when I think, I must
speak.” As You Like It, III.ii) but does not seem to place women as inferiors (e.g. Portia, Lady Macbeth, Rosaline).


This is the least difficult to discern from the plays.

In order to be virtuous, a man needs 3 qualities:
  1. A Right Intention = a desire to do what is right for its own sake
  2. A Strong Will = to choose to do what is you set your mind to, despite the difficulties
  3. An Intelligent Mind = an insightful understanding and comprehension

Without ALL 3 qualities, it is impossible to achieve the good.
A deficit in one causes tragedy.

  1. Hamlet: He seeks to bring justice to the murder of his father and take out a usurper (Right Intention). And he devises a trap to learn the truth of the murderer (Intelligent Mind). But he fails to act the key moment “thus conscience [thinking] does make cowards of us all.” (No Strong Will) He fails to act when he needs to summon up the power of the will. If he had only killed Claudio after the play, all of the other deaths would have been averted.
  2. Brutus: He wants to save Rome from a dictator (Right Intention) “This was the noblest Roman of them all.” He resolves to pay any price for his cause (Strong Will), “That I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need my death.”) But he makes too many foolish choices (No Intelligent Mind) His most foolish choice was to choose murder over other methods, but even on a practical level he shows his lack of intelligence by letting Antony live and then letting him speak at Caesar's funeral.
  3. Macbeth: He has a resolve to take the crown, “I go, and it is done; the bell invites me. Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell, That summons thee to heaven or to hell” (Strong Will). He cunningly murderers his enemies (Intelligent Mind) But he does so because of selfish gain (No Right Intention) His plan can never succeed because it is for an evil end.
  4. Henry V: He desires to take back land that he believes rightfully his own (Right Intention) Refuses to back down even in the face of immense odds (Strong Will) Smartly tests the loyalty of his officers (Intelligent Mind). Henry possesses all 3 qualities and thus is a success in his endeavors
Tragedy occurs when any of these qualities are missing.

Happy Endings occur when all 3 are present in the person


William Shakespeare holds that the universe is rational, but there is more to it than reason. We are more than reason. We are more than our feelings.

Shakespeare sees us for what we are: Fallen Children of God.

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