The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0267 Monday, 2 April 2007
Date: Sunday, 01 Apr 2007 11:29:26 -0400
Subject: 18.0224 "Shakespeare and the Uses of Power"
Comment: Re: SHK 18.0224 "Shakespeare and the Uses of Power"
Thanks to Joseph Egert, I had a chance to read Stephen Greenblatt's
article, "Shakespeare and the Uses of Power" (4.12.07).
In an otherwise very informative and entertaining article, I have a few
quibbles. Greenblatt comes to the conclusion that Shakespeare does not
have an overall ethical concept. Greenblatt doesn't explain this very
well in his use of the concepts of Bernard Williams on this. Greenblatt
seems to follow Williams in using the poles of "reason" and "desire" as
the ethical duality confronting mankind. But how about the simple
feeling that some things are just "not right" and should not be done?
Greenblatt even mentions the operations of this phenomenon in the
actions of simple people displaying this pure morality-an ethical
imperative- borne of compassion for the other and for what is right
action. In the case of Macbeth, Macbeth indeed subscribes to a higher
morality that he overrules even though he recognizes the practical
problems that usurpation brings with it. The latter is just another
reason to refrain from evil. But for him and his Lady ambition is just
Note that Hector in Troilus and Cressida raises the issue of a higher,
universal morality in the play, but then, like Macbeth, he and Troy
abandon the pursuit of this in favor of pursuing honor as a more
I also find that Greenblatt does not do justice to Prospero's sense of
justice since Greenblatt only partially quotes Prospero as letting
"reason" govern his actions in avoiding his dispensation of full
punishment for the evil doers in the play. Prospero actually says:
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gaitist my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further.
Prospero is saying that wrong is wrong but that he is willing to curb
his anger just so the baddies repent. Of course, this doesn't
necessarily mean that Shakespeare subscribes to the view taken by the
wise Prospero, gifted with powers far beyond that of mortal men, but I
wager that he does.
I note that in Pericles, there is manifest a world view of measure for
measure as the evil ones are punished and the righteous ones are
ultimately rewarded. I recognize here the formula of most Hollywood
films in the era when Hollywood was at its world apex in turning out
films that were admired the world over.
From the looks of things, a case can be made that Shakespeare does
indeed subscribe to a universal morality that, though it operates slowly
and does not bring immediate reward to good persons (or even any reward
discernable in this life) or immediate punishment for the evil doers, it
is a force that must be recognized and honored, and which must give us
pause in our actions even though selfish desires will in the moment
override it. Note that this "still small voice" of morality remains in
operation behind the scenes and even returns to plague evil doers, with
Lady Macbeth as a most striking instance of the phenomenon of the guilty
conscience coming from a seemingly dedicated killer.
Another quibble, Greenblatt asserts that Prospero "leaves Ariel behind."
In fact, Ariel is not left behind on the island but is given his
freedom, presumably to speak compassion and morality in the ear of
anyone who will listen. It is only Caliban that is left on the island.
In sum, let us not follow Greenblatt in making Shakespeare an exponent
of the view of a world without intrinsic ethical imperatives-if I
understand Greenblatt right-since the poet leaves open the operations of
these forces in the universe even if he is not dogmatic about asserting
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