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  • Coward Conscience and Bad Conscience in Shakespeare and Nietzsche
  • Sandra Bonetto

George Bernard Shaw once observed that the whole of Nietzsche was expressed in three lines that Shakespeare puts into the mouth of one of his greatest villains, Richard III 1 : "Conscience is but a word that cowards use / Devised at first to keep the strong in awe / Our strong arms be our conscience; swords, our law" (5.6). More specifically, perhaps, these lines invite a comparison between Shakespeare's repeated association of conscience with cowardice in Richard III, 2 and Nietzsche's negative evaluation of bad conscience, notably in On the Genealogy of Morals. 3 The aim of this article is to offer such a comparative analysis in order to demonstrate that Shakespeare's coward conscience anticipates Nietzsche's understanding of the bad conscience (das schlechte Gewissen) as "the consciousness of guilt" (GM, II, p. 67), including its involvement with the notions of debt, sin, punishment, and God.


Nietzsche devoted the Second Essay of his Genealogy to the discussion of bad conscience, its origins, and related matters, notably guilt (Schuld) and its relation to duty (Pflicht) and debt (Schuld). The German term Schuld denotes both guilt and debt, and both senses are inextricably linked in Nietzsche's analysis. The bad conscience as consciousness of guilt is also [End Page 512] the consciousness of a debt owed—to another individual, society, and above all to the Christian God. The debt owed to God is one that can never be repaid, so that Christian morality necessitates guilt as "eternal punishment" for man's original transgression (see GM, II, pp. 91–92). Thus, Nietzsche argues, the descriptive equivalent of bad conscience, in the language of Christianity, is sin—"this is the priestly name for the . . . bad conscience" (GM, III, p. 140). In other words, sin is essentially a debt contracted with God. This is evident, for instance, in the substitution of the word "sin" for "debt" (ophéilema) in the formula of the Our Father as found in St. Luke. Even in the more general description, e.g. in the passage of St. Matthew where Jesus is explaining the implications of the petition "Forgive us or debts as we forgive our debtors," where the expressions paràptoma (fault, error) and armatia (aberration, failing, defect in relation to a norm or whole) are the more common terms used to denote sin, the sense of debt is implicit—we only accept our failure in relation to the Christian norm or whole if we accept that we "owe it to God" to live up to that norm in the first place. Moreover, the notion of debt brings with it the debtor's fear of failing to repay the creditor, so that a fear of punishment results from the sense of not living up to the contractual relationship with God.

According to Nietzsche, the basis for the bad conscience and guilt, which he further defines as "anger directed against the self" (GM, I, p. 45), is cruelty, a natural human disposition that is displayed unabashedly in punishment. Bad conscience, he argues, is cruelty turned inward and essentially amounts to self-punishment or "psychical cruelty"—a form of subliminal suffering we impose on ourselves. Speaking of the "psychology of conscience," Nietzsche emphasises therefore that conscience "is not 'the voice of God in man'—it is rather the instinct of cruelty that turns back after it can no longer discharge itself externally" (GM, "A Polemic," p. 312). Bad conscience, or sin, is cruelty directed backwards, at oneself. In short, Nietzsche holds that the bad conscience, experienced by us as the "bite" or "sting" of conscience (morsus conscientiae; Gewissensbiss), results from the internalisation of instincts, notably the instincts to cruelty. Rather than acting on natural impulses, man has come to stifle and repress them: "Hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction—all this turned against the possessors of such instincts: that is the origin of the "'bad conscience'" (GM, II, p.85).

Anticipating Freud's theory of repression and pre-empting his psychological interpretation of conscience as superego (Über-Ich), Nietzsche argues, "all instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn [End Page 513...


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pp. 512-527
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