The Shakespearean Ethic - John Vyvyan - E-Book

The Shakespearean Ethic E-Book

John Vyvyan

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Originally published by Chatto & Windus in 1959, this book has long been out of print and largely neglected by Shakespearean scholars. It offers a viewpoint seldom considered: an unusual and exceptionally clear insight into Shakespeare’s philosophy. It does so with freshness, modesty and conviction.
Appreciating the danger Shakespeare faced in writing at a time of major religious intolerance, Vyvyan shows how subtly the plays explore aspects of the perennial philosophy allegorically. In doing so, Shakespeare raises the fundamental question of ethics: What ought we to do?
‘Shakespeare,’ says the author, ‘is never ethically neutral. He is never in doubt as to whether the souls of his characters are rising or falling.’ There is a constant pattern in the tragedies: ‘first the hero is untrue to his own self, then he casts out love, then conscience is gone – or rather inverted – and the devil enters into him.’ Vyvyan shows us this pattern of damnation, or its counterpart – a pattern of regeneration – working out in certain plays, contrasting Hamlet with Measure for Measure and Othello with The Winter’s Tale, where a similar dilemma and choice confront the hero. His intuitive insights also illumine Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus which focus on the fall, whereas The Tempest explores most fully the pattern of regeneration and creative mercy.
Here is a book, both thought-provoking and persuasive, which will send many readers back to Shakespeare’s plays with fresh vision and clearer understanding. To assist such readers, this edition cross-references the quotations in the text to the relevant place in the play. The text has been completely reset and the index expanded.

John Vyvyan, born in 1908 in Sussex, was educated mainly in Switzerland. His first profession was archaeology, and he worked with Sir Flinders Petrie in the Middle East. Illness, which dogged him all his life, ended this kind of arduous field work, and he retired from archaeology to become a Shakespearean scholar and to write. Studies such as The Shakespearean Ethic, Shakespeare and The Rose of Love (1960) and Shakespeare and Platonic Beauty (1961), led to the offer of a visiting lectureship at the State University of New York. He died in Exmouth in 1975.

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John Vyvyan


© The Estate of John Vyvyan 2011

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the publisher, Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) Ltd

First published in 1959 by

Chatto & Windus, London

This edition published 2011 by

Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) Ltd

107 Parkway House, Sheen Lane,

London SW14 8LS

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record of this bookis available from the British Library

ISBN: 978-0-85683-284-0

Cover design by ML Design, London (

Based on a stained glass window reproduced courtesy ofThe School of Economic Science, London

Photography © Richard Wythe

Typeset by Alacrity, Chesterfield, Sandford, Somerset

Printed and bound in the United Kingdomby Short Run Press Ltd, Exeter

The tradition of modern thought presents philosophy as asking at the outset of its task three vital questions: What can we know? What ought we to do? What may we hope? The second of these is recognised as the fundamental problem of ethics.


Mind, from the supreme heights a kindred mind calls to thee, that thou be a dividing mean betwixt the low deities and Jove.

Lose not thy rights; nor, downward hurled and falling to the depths, plunge to the waters of black Acheron.




Publishers’ Note

1 Principles of Construction in the Tragedies

2 Macbeth, Julius Caesar: The Temptation

3 Hamlet: Choosing

4 Hamlet: Stepping into Darkness

5 Hamlet: Tragic Climax

6 Measure for Measure: Resolving Tragedy

7 Measure for Measure: Creative Mercy

8 The Plays as Allegory

9 Othello: How Tragedy Progresses

10 Winter’s Tale: Driving Out Good Counsel

11 Winter’s Tale: Resolution of the Tragedy

12 There is Always a Choice

13 Passion Plays and other Parallels

14 The Soul as a Kingdom

15 The Tempest: Tragic Pattern Reversed

16 The Pattern for Regeneration

Appendix – Titus Andronicus

Author’s Shakespearean References

Author’s Other References


Publishers’ Note

THIS IS AN ENTIRELY NEW edition of John Vyvyan’s insightful book in that the entire text has been reset, but without alteration except for the addition of chapter titles to indicate the content.

However, some additions have been made which we hope will enhance the usefulness of this edition. Having been educated in Switzerland, John Vyvyan was clearly familiar with the great literature of Italy, France and Germany and has sometimes made a point by quoting from Goethe or Dante, for example, in the original. For the benefit of readers less familiar with these languages, we have added translations as footnotes. We appreciate that translations can never be as apt as the original but we hope they will be useful.

Vyvyan illustrates his argument with many quotations from Shakespeare’s plays. To assist in finding where they appear in the respective plays, we have listed the first line of the quotations at the end of the book and relied on the Oxford University Press edition of The Complete Works for the references. There is also a short list of the books to which Vyvyan refers. Finally, the index has been considerably enlarged.

Despite extensive enquiries, we have been unable to trace the copyright owner. Should the publication of this edition lead to the discovery of the copyright owner, we would be pleased to hear from them and ask them to accept our good faith in proceeding without prior permission.


Principles of Construction in the Tragedies

IT IS STRIKING that Shakespeare’s tragic characters are continually asking themselves questions. In their soliloquies, they weigh up alternative courses of action, and the question is implicit, What ought I to do?

In the opinion of some critics, however, for us to ask such a question is illegitimate. The critical argument is, that since what Hamlet or Brutus actually did was dramatically excellent, it was therefore, within our terms of reference, right. That is true, from its own standpoint; but it has this flaw: by limiting the problem to aesthetics and the theatre, it leaves out Shakespeare. From the evidence of the sonnets alone, which were probably not intended for publication, we see that Shakespeare was himself a ‘perturbed spirit’. He was not satisfied with conventional answers; yet he needed answers, for his own peace, in terms of life. And his plays are part of his quest for them.

Why do we enjoy tragedy? Partly, as Aristotle suggests, because it helps us to ‘gather the meaning of things’. A modern audience seeing, let us say, Macbeth, is unlikely to be much stirred by pity or terror. But we may feel that something from the deeps has been revealed; and it is not only Macbeth’s soul that we then know better, but our own; because the figures of the drama are not unlike transformation symbols between the conscious mind and the unconscious. But if seeing a tragedy has helped us to understand ourselves better, that is because it has brought over to consciousness things that our unconscious already knew. It is like Plato’s doctrine of reminiscence: what seems like new knowledge has, in fact, been brought out of ourselves.

If an audience has this experience, it is far more intense for an author; and it is the curious fascination of bringing forth wisdom from himself that chiefly impels him to write. A poet does not write to set down things he clearly knows, but to open the lips of his own oracle. Rhythm helps him to establish communication with the unconscious; and it is more for purposes of discovery than presentation that poetry is rhythmical.

In their uninspired moments, poets may long for fame and wealth; but these incentives have nothing to do with the production of poetry; not even their opposites, derision and poverty, can keep a poet from his task when the forms of the unconscious are demanding expression. Fiat tragoedia, ruat caelum.* There is also, of course, a resistance to expression; so that to write tragedy is like wrestling with a dark angel and compelling him to reveal himself. In the throes of this struggle, mundane motives cease to count. It is true that Shakespeare was capable of mercenary as well as sublime thoughts; but from the critical point of view this is an unproductive vein. It is irrelevant to criticism that Shakespeare was successful; if his work had led him to misery, like poor Greene, he would have done it, or died.

We must, however, distinguish between inspiration and intention. They stand in contrast, as the unconscious to the conscious mind. It is possible to have too much of either; too much adherence to intention tends to artificiality, and too much inspiration to mediumship. It is not the least of Shakespeare’s qualities that he is able to balance these opposites so finely. But what we must consider first is intention.

What ought Hamlet or Brutus to do – something that will make a good play, or something that will lead to a good life? I am sure that both these questions are important. It is obvious that Shakespeare aimed at dramatic excellence; but it is equally clear – unless we prefer to be blind to it – that he was deeply concerned with the meaning and enhancement of life. What the tragic hero did may have been theatrically right; but if it was ethically wrong, that also was Shakespeare’s preoccupation. And a study of this second point may lead us to a better understanding of himself. Our need for this is brought home by Bradley’s astonishing remark: ‘We cannot be sure, as with those other poets we can, that in his works he expressed his deepest and most cherished convictions on ultimate questions, or even that he had any. And in his dramatic conceptions there is enough to occupy us.’* This statement is a challenge in itself. And I hope to show that Shakespeare had convictions, that he expressed them, and that they are so related to his dramatic conceptions as to be mutually revealing. In fact, the ethical problem seems to have exercised an increasing fascination over him; and in his later plays, when he knew all the tricks of the theatre and could probably have gone from strength to strength in the production of theatrical success, he wittingly sacrificed stage effect in order to pursue the ethical as distinct from the dramatic problem. These later plays are more seldom staged, but Shakespeare was not in his dotage; it is simply that in them he was less concerned with the art of the theatre than with the science of life. The ethical interest had always been with him, and it is from this standpoint that we shall proceed.

Shakespeare allows his characters, nearly always, to express their own philosophy, and we cannot identify him personally with any one of them. Occasionally, however, he slips in a few lines which we may feel come straight from him to us; but we can only be sure of this if they express ideas that are consistently developed in successive plays. To trace a few of these continuing themes is one of the aims of this book.

It may sound platitudinous to say that only a careful study of the context can tell us what Shakespeare intends a word to mean; but a surprising amount of confusion has been caused by failing to distinguish between Shakespeare’s values and those of his characters. Words like honour, nobility, justice, traitor and harlot are often, perhaps more often than not, to be suspected in this connection. Sometimes, but comparatively seldom, this is obvious. Ophelia, Desdemona and Hermione are all called harlots by the hero, and it is clear that he is self-deceived. But when we notice how frequently justice, as the speaker terms it, is to Shakespeare tyranny or worse, how often honour, in its conventional sense, is deliberately shown by Shakespeare as preventing conciliation and conducing to superfluous death, we come to mistrust the face value of many other words and to consider them in a wider context of ideas. Gradually this leads us to a persisting standard of value, for Shakespeare was no chameleon in his principles; and it is not unreasonable to hope that, although we may never know much about his life, it will be possible some day to establish his philosophy. But we must begin by being sure, as Bradley was not, that he had one.

Any characteristics that recur in play after play are important to this enquiry. I should like to consider, first of all, Shakespeare’s method of presenting tragedy. In all presentation there is an element of showmanship, but a great deal more is here involved. Any attempt to fit Shakespeare’s tragedies to the Aristotelean pattern is to lay them on a Procrustean bed, for Shakespeare worked out a pattern of his own. Much of this has been thoroughly mapped* and it would be supererogatory to go over well-trodden ground. But there are some other principles of construction in the tragedies which, so far as I know, have not been isolated and to which Shakespeare is remarkably faithful. I will summarise what I conceive these to be, and attempt to justify the statement later.

FIRST: We are shown a soul, in many respects noble, but with a fatal flaw, which lays it open to a special temptation.

SECOND: The ‘voices’ of the coming temptation are characterised for us, so that we may have no doubt that they will persuade to evil.

THIRD: There is a temptation scene, in which the weak spot of the hero’s soul is probed, and the temptation is yielded to.

FOURTH: We are shown an inner conflict, usually in the form of a soliloquy, in which the native nobility of the hero’s soul opposes the temptation, but fails.

FIFTH and SIXTH: There is a second temptation and a second inner conflict, of mounting intensity, with the result that the hero loses the kingship of his own soul.

SEVENTH: The tragic act, or act of darkness.

EIGHTH: The realisation of horror.

NINTH: Death.

This is Shakespeare’s own way of conceiving tragedy, and it has little to do with Aristotle. I will illustrate this briefly from Macbeth. I do not mean to discuss the play, but merely to show that it contains the pattern.

Macbeth, before he enters, has cast his shadow on the scene. The full measure of it can only be taken after we have established Shakespeare’s standard from several plays, and I must ask the reader’s patience if some statements seem arbitrary here. Support for them has yet to be built; and this cannot be done from a single tragedy. The opening scene is as short as it well could be, and yet there is much more in it than atmosphere. There is an under-meaning in the words of the witches that they will meet Macbeth on the heath when the battle – his great victory – has been ‘lost and won’. The battle is then in progress, and the witches know that Macbeth, although winning in one sense, has already begun to lose in another; that is the reason why the hour has come to tempt him. Shakespeare doubtless had in mind a text he has illustrated several times – that it is possible to gain the world and to lose one’s soul. We are about to witness the tragedy of a man who will lose to win; and in order to do so, he must invert his values, ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair.’ This is one of the constants of Shakespearean tragedy. The inversion of values is shown taking place in every tragic hero, but he is generally unconscious of it.

The witches, who are themselves psychic phenomena, alert us to the fact that two battles are really taking place; and the more important, philosophically, is that within Macbeth. His state of soul is shown to us, symbolically, before he comes on stage. ‘What bloody man is that?’ Then we are told of his recent exploits; of ‘his brandish’d steel which smoked with bloody execution’; of how, when he met the rebel, ‘he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps’, and fixed his head on the battlements. And the savagery is summed up, as if it were ‘to bathe in reeking wounds, or memorise another Golgotha’. To the hearers, all this is heroic; but, as may be shown from other plays, it is a form of madness to Shakespeare:

I have made you mad;

And even with such-like valour men hang and drownTheir proper selves.

‘Proper selves’ represents another Shakespearean constant of which we shall have more to say. Temptation is resisted when the ‘proper self’ is in command; but when it is not, which is a kind of madness, the temptation is yielded to. Macbeth, by giving rein to a blood-lust that is linked with Golgotha, has become a man who ‘is not with himself’ and therefore he is predisposed to fall.

The voices of temptation – the witches first, and Lady Macbeth later – are obviously persuading to evil.

The first temptation is by the witches. We must remember that Macbeth, written in 1606, comes late in Shakespeare’s tragedies, and he was able to handle such scenes with great economy. What the witches say is brief and equivocal; but it is temptation beyond doubt. Banquo says, ‘Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear?’ Macbeth starts because the witches have touched the flaw in his soul. They did not sow the evil seed, but watered it. It is the guilt of an idea already present that he fears. And then we are told his fault – ‘the royal hope, that he seems rapt withal’.

With great concision, the fruit of long experience in temptation scenes, Shakespeare has presented the essential points: the background weakness of the hero’s soul, the nature of the temptation, and the implication that, if he follows his fate, he will yield. But it must be stressed – although to do so here is to anticipate – that no Shakespearean hero is compelled to follow his fate; there is always a spiritual quality in him which, if it is asserted as it ought to be, is superior to fate. ‘My fate cries out!’ may be Shakespeare’s indication that a temptation is in progress; but to follow a ghost is the opposite of asserting the soul’s supremacy. This is looking too far ahead; enough, for the moment, that Macbeth is being tempted to follow the witches: ‘Would they had stayed!’

The first inner conflict is then revealed to us in Macbeth’s asides:

This supernatural soliciting

Cannot be ill, cannot be good …

If good, why do I yield to that suggestion

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,

Against the use of nature? Present fears

Are less than horrible imaginings:

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,

Shakes so my single state of man that function

Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is

But what is not.

Instead of sovereignty of the proper self, there is an insurrection in his soul; and the tragic inversion is continuing, so that ‘nothing is but what is not’.

The second temptation is by Lady Macbeth. Its place in the pattern is all we need to notice about it at the moment.

The second inner conflict is integrated with the temptation – a point of construction we will consider later – and is revealed in soliloquy:

If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well

It were done quickly; if the assassinationCould trammel up the consequence, and catchWith his surcease success; that but this blowMight be the be-all and the end-all here,But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,We’d jump the life to come. But in these casesWe still have judgment here; that we but teachBloody instructions, which, being taught, returnTo plague the inventor …

The temptation is then intensified, and the final battle ‘lost and won’ – a spiritual defeat, accompanied by an outward show of resolution:

I am settled, and bend up

Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.

We are still on the bloodstained path to Golgotha.

The three other phases of the sequence – the tragic act, the realisation of horror and the hero’s death – all clearly follow in due order.

We may pause to notice, here, that the tragic act comes early in Macbeth, midway in Julius Caesar, near the end in Othello, and right at the end in Hamlet. It is most unlikely that this is accidental. Shakespeare’s choice of plots is not haphazard. I suggest that he selected and shaped these in order to give himself the opportunity to analyse, in detail, each stage of his tragic path. Macbeth is a deep study of the aftermath of the deed of darkness, of the realisation of horror and the relentless approach of the reckoning of death. Othello particularly examines the temptation; that is why Iago is a much more developed character than the witches or Hamlet’s ghost. Hamlet is almost wholely concerned with the inner conflict.

* ‘Let the tragedy be played out, though the heavens should fall.’

* Bradley, ‘Shakespearian Tragedy’, Lecture I.

* See T.W. Baldwin: William Shakespeare’s Five-Act Structure, University of Illinois Press, 1947.


Macbeth, Julius Caesar:The Temptation

NO ONE DOUBTS that Macbeth and Othello ought not to have done what they did. The general comment on Othello is, ‘O, the pity of it!’ And on Macbeth, ‘Oh, horror! horror! horror!’ But about the assassination of Caesar there has always been a division of opinion. Brutus can, and does, support his action upon ethical grounds. Are they valid; or rather, since that is our enquiry, did Shakespeare think they were?

It has been said that Shakespeare does not take sides in Julius Caesar. But this is not so. Each of his major plays is (besides being so many other things) a study in morals. Shakespeare is never ethically neutral. He is never in doubt as to whether the souls of his characters are rising or falling. Julius Caesar is really the tragedy of Brutus; and Caesar’s last reproachful question has an under-meaning; in this sense it is not a question, but a statement and a prophecy, ‘Et tu, Brute!’ Before the play opens, ‘Brutus was Caesar’s angel’. At its close, Caesar’s ghost is to him, ‘Thy evil spirit, Brutus.’ How great a fall from grace! But if we set the play beside the tragic sequence – which, I believe, Shakespeare looked upon as his rules of tragedy – we are not surprised that Brutus fell. He falls by the pattern. Let us trace this out.

The fatal flaw in the soul of Brutus, as Shakespeare displays it to us, is that he puts politics before humanity: that he has more faith in the power of death than in the power of love. More than once we are told that there is mutual love between himself and Caesar; but Brutus never assays its influence. ‘… I love him well.’ ‘It must be by his death …’ That juxtaposition begins to reveal Brutus. It does not even occur to him that a political situation might be met in terms of humanity and life. His weak point, which the temptation probes, is that he sets what we now call an ideology higher than love and life.

The voice of the temptation is clearly characterised, so that we may know for certain that to follow its council will be to fall. Shakespeare is showing us his own thoughts when he describes the tempter. ‘Yond’ Cassius has a lean and hungry look …’, and ‘… he hears no music’. The man who has no music in his soul, ‘Is fit for treasons, strategems and spoils …’, and, therefore, he is very dangerous. Cassius confirms both points – the weakness in Brutus and the evil in himself – in a soliloquy that would be surprisingly candid, if it were not intended as a sign-post to the audience:

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet, I see,

Thy honourable metal may be wroughtFrom that it is disposed: therefore, it is meetThat noble minds keep ever with their likes,For who so firm that cannot be seduced?

He has tied the label of seducer on himself. If Brutus continues in such company, he will gradually be corrupted. Shakespeare is following his pattern; and shows, by doing so, that he is not neutral.

The first temptation stands out clearly against this background. And the first inner conflict, of which there are several intimations, comes to a head in the soliloquy, ‘It must be by his death.’

The second temptation is by means of the anonymous letters which are thrown into his house from the street. And to this, again, Brutus yields:

O Rome, I make thee promise …

He has scarcely uttered the words, when he is plunged into the second inner conflict. The soliloquy in which this is mirrored is most important, because it also sheds light on other plays:

Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar,

I have not slept.

Between the acting of a dreadful thingAnd the first motion, all the interim isLike a phantasma or a hideous dream:The Genius and the mortal instrumentsAre then in council, and the state of man,Like to a little kingdom, suffers thenThe nature of an insurrection.

This could be said of all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, and it states his own theory of the conditions which must lead up to every tragic act. We have already found them in Macbeth:

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,Shakes so my single state of man that functionIs smother’d in surmise, and nothing isBut what is not.

When the evil voices have been listened to, and are allowed to re-echo in the mind, they create the thoughts that are traitors. These, like the soldiers in the Trojan horse, capture the citadel from within. What the tragic hero is now losing is, in Swinburne’s perfect phrase, ‘the Lordship of the soul’. Shakespeare pictures the soul as a kingdom (potentially the kingdom of heaven) wherein man’s true self should be enthroned. The outcome of the inner warfare, which always follows the yielding to temptation, is that the ruler within is overthrown. The Genius now controls the mortal instruments; and the Genius, in this sense, is a usurping power, the inspiration of the deed of darkness. The tragic act is never consummated in the physical world until the lordship of the inner world has been lost.

It is because Shakespeare makes these assumptions that we find, if we analyse his tragedies, that he has his laws and follows them; but they are not Aristotelean. First, there is the battle within, and the losing of it precipitates the tragedy:

Yield up, O Love, thy crown and hearted throneTo tyrannous hate!

The relationship between love and the self, as Shakespeare defines it, we must examine later. Meanwhile, it is clear that Brutus, Othello and Macbeth all describe a similar experience as they undergo it.

The defeat of the spirit is often shown as an extinguishing of light. This, too, is important in several plays, and merits a short digression. Shakespeare uses light in a way we might call sacramental, as the outward sign of the inward grace. And the hero turns away from light before the tragic crime. Macbeth:

Stars, hide your fires;

Let not light see my black and deep desires.

And again, before the murder of Banquo, he says:

Come, seeling night,

Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,And with thy bloody and invisible handCancel and tear to pieces that great bondWhich keeps me pale! Light thickens, and the crowMakes wing to the rooky wood …

Othello, also, is an enemy of light:

Put out the light, and then put out the light:

If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,I can again thy former light restore,Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,I know not where is that Promethean heatThat can thy light relume.

But the tragic hero may also show a hunger for light, which springs from the intuition that it would save him – if he could obtain it. But he fails. Whenever Shakespeare’s characters call for, ‘Lights!’ – as after the play scene in Hamlet, when the whole stage takes up the cry, ‘Lights! Lights!’ – it is as if Shakespeare were telling us of a despairing need for inward illumination. And when they cannot see the physical light, or when it is unnatural as in Richard III:

The lights burn blue.

Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.

Or when they extinguish it deliberately:

Out, out, brief candle!

Then we may know, as if Shakespeare had whispered in our ear, that they are stumbling in spiritual darkness towards the precipice where they will surely fall.

The sacrament of light is used most tellingly in the case of Brutus. There is a nobility in him that will not easily consent to darkness. It is the day of the assassination, but it is not yet daylight. A storm is raging, with flashes of lightning. Brutus is up; but he cannot see, he tells us, ‘the progress of the stars’. He is in darkness without and within. Then he calls to the sleeping boy, whose name is light:

Lucius, ho! Lucius, I say! When, Lucius, when? Awake! Get me a taper in my study, Lucius. When it is lighted, come and call me.

What an invocation! But it is not by the light of the taper, which Lucius brings, that he reads the anonymous letter, thrown in to tempt him further. As with Richard, ‘the lights burn blue’, when he says:

The exhalations whizzing in the air

Give so much light that I may read by them.

That is the prelude to the second temptation. The conspirators arrive, ‘their faces buried in their cloaks’, adding a deeper darkness to the night; and then Shakespeare, with the same symbolism, gives us his own judgment on the plot itself. The dawn of Caesar’s death-day is about to break. Decius speaks:

Here lies the east: doth not the day break here?

Casca: No.

Cinna: O, pardon, sir, it doth –

Casca: You shall confess that you are both deceived.

Here, as I point my sword, the sun arises.

That is the faction: about to put Rome, and the whole world to rights, they do not know the direction of the sunrise. And they look for it, not in heaven, but on the point of a sword. For Brutus, the lights have gone out; and he knows it, in his soul:

O, conspiracy …

Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enoughTo mask thy monstrous visage? Seek none, conspiracy;Hide it in smiles and affability.

He might have been quoted by Macbeth:

False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

The assassination takes place. And before Brutus meets his own death, on the point of his own sword, he experiences – though less fully than Macbeth – the realisation of horror. War has come. Brutus is in his tent, at night. And the ghost of Caesar enters.

Brutus: How ill this taper burns. Ha! who comes here?

I think it is the weakness of mine eyes

That shapes this monstrous apparition.

It comes upon me. Art thou anything?

Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,

That makest my blood cold, and my hair to stare?

Speak to me what thou art.

Ghost:                                 Thy evil spirit, Brutus.

It is not a weak spirit, either; and as the disasters multiply around him, Brutus exclaims:

O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!

Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swordsIn our own proper entrails.

The horror which Brutus here feels is to be traced directly to the original flaw in his soul. He had no confidence in the power of love, but he relied on death. And now, the love he did not trust is replaced by an evil spirit; and the death, in which he did repose his faith, is ineffectual.

This is one of the themes which runs through all Shakespeare’s tragedies: to kill someone is never the way out. Killing cannot, according to Shakespeare, be a solution; because, in the final sense, killing is impossible. The ghost always comes back:

‘Thou shalt see me at Philippi!’ says Caesar’s ghost.

‘To-morrow in the battle think on me!’ say the ghosts to Richard III.

And the ghost of Banquo quickly intrudes upon the feast of Macbeth’s ambition. Shakespeare believes in immortality, and draws the logical conclusion: whatever may be the outcome of killing one’s enemies, one thing it can never be is a conclusive victory.


Hamlet: Choosing

BRUTUS, we are told, ‘was Caesar’s angel’. Desdemona was Othello’s love. Duncan was Macbeth’s king, who had lately done him honour. Each of the three assassins was striking at his own good. He was striking at himself. And it is Shakespeare’s purpose to show that from the moment of the deed his own life withers, and gradually goes down to dusty death. Their action is condemned with a general comment, ‘It is not, and it cannot come to good.’

The case of Hamlet, however, is far more difficult. He had as good reason to hate his uncle as anyone could have. And it is the verdict of almost every reader and critic that since Claudius deserved punishment, and since no one but Hamlet could bring him to book, it was his duty to do so. There is wide agreement that Hamlet’s failure does not lie in his doing the deed, but in his delay. To think otherwise is to give up human law.

But if the ethical implications of Shakespeare’s tragic sequence hold good in Hamlet, as they do in his other tragedies, then he must think otherwise; because in every other instance he shows the tragic outcome to result from a series of wrong actions done by the hero. If Shakespeare believed that it was Hamlet’s duty to take revenge, then the play stands out as a solitary exception to all the rest. This, to say the least, is unlikely; and when we measure Hamlet by the pattern, and consider its themes in the widest context of Shakespearean thought – especially in relation to Measure for Measure, which was probably written directly after – then we see it is impossible. Shakespeare, of course, was well aware of how momentous such a reversal of the common judgment is; and it is partly for that reason that he leaves it for us to draw the inference. When we do, Hamlet becomes invested with a new grandeur: it is a great challenge – as the Gospels are a great challenge – to all our preconceptions of what justice really is.

A key to Hamlet, one of several, is in Ophelia’s exclamation:

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!

It is true that he was pretending to be mad when she said that; but it is nevertheless appropriate to his real state throughout the play. So great was the overthrow of his mind that it was matched with a longing that life itself should be overthrown:

… to die, to sleep,

No more; and by a sleep to say we endThe heart-ache and the thousand natural shocksThat flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummationDevoutly to be wished. To die …

Could any man be more overthrown, and still live? Ophelia’s words are true of Hamlet’s real state throughout the tragedy.

Why was Hamlet overthrown? He was sickened, of course, by what was going on around him. Too much was rotten in the state of Denmark, and it came too close – his father, his uncle, his mother. He saw the world as an unweeded garden. But all that, bad though it was, is only a setting. The overthrow is within.