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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: May ::
Stoic Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0555.  Monday, 12 May 1997.

From:           Ben Schneider <
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Date:           Friday, 9 May 1997 15:08:53 +0000
Subject:        Stoic Shakespeare

Dear SHAKSPEReans,

I have made my book in progress on Shakespeare's Morality available on
the SHAKSPER fileserver partly to stake a claim to this territory that I
seem to have discovered, but more importantly in the hope that you
generous people will tell me where I have gone wrong or gone too far.
Frankly, the whole product seems too good to be true.  Too neat, too
unambiguous, too simple, too logical.  Not our Shakespeare.  Please help
me see where I have erred and save me from assuming (hard to believe)
that you unquestioningly accede to my Stoical version of  Shakespeare.

I post the following synopsis to help you pick and choose.

Yours ever to command,
BEN SCHNEIDER

                            * * * * *


         Synopsis of Book on Shakespeare's Morality

Chapter I:  Why Stoicism?               Fileserver MORAL.SHAKES-1

     Stoicism is clearly the moral basis of Shakespeare's plays;
why has it been dismissed by Shakespeare scholars?  Possible
answers:  1) morals are not a popular topic in our non-
judgmental, feeling-oriented society; 2) we don't know what
Stoicism is,  a complete manual of human conduct; 3) the Renais-
sance is now identified mainly with the "rise of individual," and
therefore the fact is little known that it also fostered the
foundation of an educational system on the model of Plato's
_Republic_ whose main function was to educate leaders for public
service, and for which classical Stoicism provided the main texts
(annotated bibliography).  The immanence of death and the prev-
alence of chance in Shakespeare's time inclined individuals to
seek the good opinion of posterity.  With those pressures at a
distance, we pursue material happiness instead.  Marx and other
social historians agree that capitalism has utterly changed the
ethical landscape, reversing the ancient priority of society's
interests over those of the individual.  In the dark about Shake-
speare's morality we read his plays by the light of our own, and
since ours is the reverse of his, we read him upside-down and
backwards.


Chapter II.  _The Merchant of Venice_:  Shylock Is Us.

Fileserver MORAL.SHAKES-2

     Our understanding of this play is badly skewed by our
consciousness that Shylock is a member of a persecuted minority,
a fact which was not important to Shakespeare, at least in this
play.  What is for us an occasion for compassion would have been
for the Stoics (and Shakespeare) an occasion for moral outrage.
There were two ways of using wealth in Shakespeare's day:  give
it away (in the Stoic manner) or rent it out (in the Puritan-
capitalist manner), and that is what every line of every page of
_The Merchant_ is talking about.  The play begins with a demon-
stration of how a friend lends money to a friend (gladly and
instantly) and proceeds immediately to a demonstration  of how a
capitalist lends money (reluctantly and with calculation).  Bas-
sanio is then tested by the caskets:  he wins Portia by choos-ing
the lead casket having the motto that requires ultimate sacri-
fice, thus proving he is a better man than Arragon who "assumes
desert" without sacrificing a thing.  In a world that fortune
commands, assuming desert is fatuous.  Shylock, who goes to court
to get what he deserves, gets what he deserves.  It is the same
prize as Arragon's:  "a blinking idiot."   Shylock's trial is
also Antonio's trial, in which his near death is punishment for
his sin of anger against Shylock, and in which he is chastened so
much that he can administer clemency to his mortal enemy.  In
deference to feminism we nowadays read the last act as Portia's
stratagem for dislodging her husband's best friend.  But the play
began with a merry bond that proved to be serious, and it now
ends with a serious bond that proves to be merry.  The final act
actually shows how differently from Shylock friends who trust
each other treat a defaulting debtor--with gales of laughter.


Chapter III. _King Lear_ and the Culture of Justice.

Fileserver MORAL.SHAKES-3

     Twentieth century critics of _Lear_, apparently motivated by
a need to display compassion for victims and to avoid the stigma
attached to being judgmental, conveniently overlook Lear's
incompetence as a king and focus on his heroic suffering.  My
highly judgmental Stoic approach, which recognizes that Lear is a
good man, blames his initial burst of anger for all ensuing
disasters.  In our haste to reserve judgment on Lear, we have
disregarded Kent's function in the play as a standard of true
gentility against which to measure everyone else.  He is a para-
gon of all the Stoic virtues--mainly courage, constancy, gener-
osity, and plain dealing.  Against his example, Gloucester stands
out as trimmer, Edmund a plain-dealing villain, the sisters
double-dealing villains, Oswald a pander, Albany a right-thinking
non-actor, and Cordelia a better man than anyone, though cer-
tainly feminine.  It is customary to say, in rebuttal of the so-
called "Christian interpretation," of _Lear_ that the ending is
completely negative:  the virtuous Cordelia is dead.  But Christ
is not Pollyanna, and Stoicism thrives on bad endings.  The
ending of _Lear_ is a testimony to Lear's greatness in Stoic
terms:  his acceptance of his common humanity, his recognition of
the horror of his crime, and above all his refusal to give in to
despair (as Gloucester does) turn his death into a victory.



Chapter IV.  _Henry IV 1&2_:  The Education of a Prince.

Fileserver MORAL.SHAKES-4

     You can't read the Hal/Henry V cycle sensibly if you start
with the assumption that war is categorically immoral, and that
is where most academic critics start today.  Their general agree-
ment with Falstaff's cynical attitude toward honor has made it
difficult for them to appreciate the achievement of Prince Hal.
Actually, in Stoic terms, Falstaff is a symbol of the appetite-
indulging society that a weak government breeds.  He is "out of
all compass" and flouts justice gleefully.  The play makes a
three-way comparison based on Falstaff's famous line, "The better
part of valor is discretion" (actually a Stoic precept).  At the
extremes are Hotspur and Falstaff, having too little and too much
discretion respectively and in the middle is Hal who conducts
himself with a sane balance of both valor and discretion.  In the
division of the spoils at the end of Part 1 Hal gives a splendid
display of Stoic generosity.

     The critics are much dismayed when in Part 2 Hal banishes
his "friend" Falstaff from his sight forever, as soon as he
becomes king.  Of course, if we don't get Falstaff's significance
as a metaphor, we won't get the meaning of the new king's act.
It means that justice, after a long struggle to take charge of
the land, well documented in both parts 1 and 2, is at last
triumphant over license, and England is off to a new start.
Stoic literature on friends disqualifies Falstaff for that honor;
to Hal he was not a Bassanio; he was never more than a joke.


Chapter V.  _Henry V_:  "O, 'tis a gallant king!"

Fileserver MORAL.SHAKES-5

In their eagerness to enlist Shakespeare in the pacifist cause,
recent critics have taken to concentrating their attention on
those acts of Henry that might be considered unheroic.  Shakes-
peare, they claim, was slyly subverting the legend of England's
greatest king.  However, there are better explanations for these
acts than Machiavellian villainy:    1) Henry's flimsy excuse for
going to war with France:  every war in this period had a "just
cause" and Henry made his bishops totally responsible for the
justness of this cause.  But when the Dauphin made him a present
of tennis balls there was no backing down; national honor was
itself a just cause.  There was also a widespread belief, statedV
at the beginning of part 1, that war is good for a country.  2)
Henry's  threats to the besieged Harfleur of the horrifying
atrocities they may expect if they don't surrender:  copious
evidence shows that Henry's speech was perfectly conventional
after a breach had been made in the walls of a city.  Commanders
apparently had little control of what vengeful soldiers did to
cities that resisted them, even in Tasso when the city was Jeru-
salem and the soldiers were crusaders.  3) When the French
rallied after losing the field of Agincourt, Henry instantly
ordered the prisoners killed:  A necessity; the king's duty is to
save his own troops.  The point is, he did not hesitate.  "O,
'tis a gallant king!" remarked a spectator.  4) Henry orders the
execution of his "friend" Bardolf for robbing a church when he
had specifically forbidden looting.  According to Cicero friends
should have no status in a court of law.  The administration of
justice is the most important duty of a king.  5) Henry's order
to sing the psalm "non nobis" after the victory is an attempt to
make the war against France a holy war.  Thanking God for one's
success simply expresses the truth.  No success gives anyone the
right to "assume desert" (as do Arragon and Shylock).  6) The
wooing of Catherine at the end of the play is a hypocritical
farce, because she must marry Henry whether she likes it or not.
It was kind of him nevertheless to take the trouble to persuade
her as a free agent, and I think he did.  His proposal is a beau-
tiful example of the plain-dealing style, not a flowery formal-
ity, and in it he makes promises that he will undoubtedly keep,
having now fulfilled the promises he made at the beginning of
part 1.


Chapter VI. _The Tempest_, or Lear's Lesson Learned.

Not on Fileserver:  Early version published as "'Are We Being
Historical Yet': Colonialist Interpretations of Shakespeare's
_Tempest_" in _Shakespeare Studies_ Fall 1995.

     This play has run afoul of two academic fashions.  At first
the fantasy world of Prospero's island, evoking poetic places
like Coleridge's Xanadu, appealed to residual romanticism.
Prospero became Shakespeare the poet and his island was the
product of his magisterial creative imagination.  But in the
1980's, when victimology rose to prominence, it became evident
that the play discoursed of colonialism, with Prospero as
imperial exploiter and the island as his empire.  Interpret-
ations, just as in the Hal plays, take the form of finding flaws
in the character of the hero, and tacitly or not, crediting
Shakespeare with subversive intent.  The eight recent readings
treated here find very much the same problematics.  They find the
storm scene with which the play begins, in which sailors rail at
kings and dukes, delightfully "subversive."  But storms in Shake-
speare (see _Lear_) are a reflection of the disorder that pre-
vails in a realm whose ruler is incompetent; and Prospero, who
devoted himself to abstract study and ruled by proxy was cer-
tainly incompetent.  The critics also think that in his long
expository prelude Prospero attempts to mask his own complicity
in his overthrow by the anger he shows over his "betrayal."
Here, the crux of the play is presented as an example of auto-
cratic duplicity.  Then the critics gleefully identify Caliban's
attempted rape of Miranda with the imperialist's classic excuse
for persecuting native people, thus nullifying Caliban's obvious
function as an incipient form of Yahoo.  The critics also point
to Prospero's frequent outbursts of anger, overlooked by romantic
critics, as evidence of an oppressor's suppressed guilt.  On this
point I heartily agree:  the romantic version of Prospero is just
as shortsighted as the postcolonialist one.

     Finally, these critics find that the ending, superficially
happy, masks a particularly flagrant use of power, in which
Prospero, having regained his dukedom and acquired the kingdom of
Naples via marriage, has gained his nefarious ends and can
without risk "renounce" magic.  Here the critics nullify the
play's obvious climax, in which Prospero, prompted by his good
spirit Ariel, relents his anger at the conspirators.  The play is
really about the damage done by anger, one of the Stoics' two
most destructive passions (the other is lust), and Prospero
relents just in time to prevent another _King Lear_.  The Caliban
and Ferdinand-Miranda plots make the point that freedom (the
topic on which four acts of the play conclude) can be obtained
only by service to others, and that's what Prospero offers in his
epilogue to the audience.


B. R. Schneider, Jr
English/Emeritus
Lawrence University
Appleton, WI 54912

[Editor's Note:  To retrieve the files mentioned in the posting above,
send the following commands to 
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 
MORAL.SHAKES-1
MORAL.SHAKES-2
MORAL.SHAKES-3
MORAL.SHAKES-4
MORAL.SHAKES-5

--HMC]
 

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