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  • Being a Moral Agent in Shakespeare's Vienna
  • Robert B. Pierce

In one sense we are all moral agents because we make decisions that in some degree take account of what we think we should do and what sorts of selves we want to be. But the problem of moral agency as more than just a theoretical set of philosophical issues, as the lived experience of acting morally in a contingent world, is especially acute for those who set out deliberately to try to uphold some moral ideal, for the idealist in that popular sense of the term. In describing moral agency, philosophers may tend to exaggerate the importance of reflective rationality in the human task of being moral, elevating their own habits of mind into the apex of human striving, but at least the experience of the intellectual idealist is of a special kind, and as such it is an endlessly fascinating subject for artistic contemplation in fiction and drama. That interest raises the issue of what kind of text a philosophical play or novel is. Does it constitute a kind of argument for some set of ideas? Does it show how those ideas play out in lived experience? Or are there other possible ways for a text to count as philosophical?

One may also ask why Shakespeare is a good subject for such an enquiry. He is not first and foremost a dramatist of ideas. Bernard Shaw and Tom Stoppard, for example, are far more likely to dramatize the encounter of ideas than he; but for a few years after 1599 or so, beginning with the creation of Brutus, Shakespeare seems to have devoted considerable attention to portraying how ideas impinge on the human experience, and especially to studying moral idealists. Leonato may doubt the importance of philosophical moralizing when he protests that "there was never yet philosopher / That could endure the toothache patiently" (Much Ado 5.1.35–36),1 but in Julius Caesar Brutus is determined to cure the toothaches of the Roman political world by the power [End Page 267] of thought and to govern his own life by the precepts of Stoicism. A group of Shakespeare's plays over the next few years are unusually idea-centered for him and are especially concerned with characters who try to apply moral ideas in the world. Hamlet with its intellectual protagonist comes to mind of course, but perhaps the most systematic exploration of idealists trying to live by their ideas is Measure for Measure. Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke set out on that project in a world that the play analytically divides into four environments for their moral testing: the court, the convent, the tavern-brothel, and the prison.

The dramatic richness of this topic of practical ethics lies in how terribly difficult it is to live by a morality worthy of respect. Most of us share the admiration for Brutus's idealism in Antony's tribute, "This was the noblest Roman of them all" (5.5.68), but we may also share the irony, even contempt, in the sarcastic catchphrase of his oration, "Brutus is an honorable man" (3.2.84 and following). The tragedy of Brutus's fate emerges from the difficulties of living out any idealism in our tangled and terribly imperfect world. First, moral principles like the categorical imperative and the Golden Rule, admired character traits like constancy and benevolence, even intuitions (or, as it may be, divine inspirations) about duty do not apply themselves automatically and unambiguously to a decision how to act in a specific situation.2 What does treating human beings as ends, not means entail in your quotidian dealings with your wife, your boss, the dealer who sells you a newspaper? Second, rival values may conflict with a good you are trying to uphold. How can you devote yourself to your work and also give your family the love and attention they need? Third, the demands of the ideal may extend past the limits of your will power or even attention. How many teachers are as patient and understanding of the eightieth student paper as of the first? And, finally, living up to an ideal can be painful...


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pp. 267-279
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