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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare and Moral Agency ed. by Michael D. Bristol
  • Lars Engle (bio)
Shakespeare and Moral Agency. Edited by Michael D. Bristol. London and New York: Continuum, 2010. Pp. x + 212. $120.00 cloth.

For more than a decade leading up to his retirement from McGill University, Michael Bristol taught a course entitled “Shakespeare and Moral Agency,” and he convened a seminar on that topic at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA). The SAA likes to claim that its seminar system leads to publication, and the book under review bears out this assertion, offering happy testimony that intellectual life in provocative dialogue with younger people doesn’t cease with the end of full-time university teaching. Since publishing this collection, with its unusually powerful introduction, Bristol has curated a group of papers on moral agency—one of them by me—for Shakespeare Studies, and has published a superb essay on Macbeth, historicism, and moral agency in New Literary History. Thus, Shakespeare and Moral Agency sits near the middle of an ongoing study and is part of Bristol’s attempt to make it not merely his own project, but a widely shared one.

Bristol’s introductory essay, “Is Shakespeare a Moral Philosopher?,” notes that early critics of Shakespeare such as Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Griffith, and Samuel Johnson, while under no illusions that Shakespeare’s characters are real people, nonetheless believed that “the complexity of Shakespearean drama is only fully revealed through sustained reflection on the moral disposition of its characters” (2). This reflection, Bristol claims, is a way that intelligent, nonacademic readers profit from Shakespeare, and he wants academic discourse to acknowledge the centrality of these kinds of “vernacular intuitions” (11). [End Page 216]

Many of the essays in this volume do acknowledge, as Hugh Grady puts it, that “drama is, fundamentally, about people doing things” (15) and that we can set our own experience of doing things profitably alongside the things done in drama. Keira Travis suggests that a focus on complexes of wordplay allows one “to deal with Shakespeare philosophically without ever making the philosophy of a single speech stand on its own” (44). Sharon O’Dair illustrates the importance of setting particularly striking speeches in full context: she notes that the thanes of Scotland, aware of Duncan’s weakness, show every sign of initially accepting Macbeth’s kingship despite their suspicions that he gained it by murder. She then invokes Erving Goffman to dispute Caroline Spurgeon’s and Cleanth Brooks’s long-influential accounts of the clothing images in the play:

[N]either considered the . . . oddity that after four prominent references to the image in Act I, Shakespeare uses the image only twice more: once in Act 2 . . . and finally, in Act 5, when Angus and presumably the rest of Scotland pass judgment on Macbeth’s performance in the role of king: “Now does he feel his title / Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe / Upon a dwarfish thief ”


. . . The prominence and placement of the robe images suggest that the community condemns Macbeth as usurper or butcher only after he has proven himself incapable of playing the king’s role satisfactorily. The community, these images suggest, gives Macbeth what Goffman calls “some learner’s license”—time to grow comfortable in his new role, and his new garments—before it passes judgment upon him.


Richard Strier argues provocatively that Shakespeare’s strangest and most interesting accounts of agency suggest that human beings (Hamlet, Shylock, Iago) do not seem to have access to their real reasons for doing things. As Strier puts it with deliberate extremity, the “deeper puzzle” (55) is “Shakespeare’s lack of interest in (or belief in) motives” (59). His argument—that Shakespeare at times seems less philosophical than our vernacular intuitions might wish him to be—can be juxtaposed with Bristol’s compelling point that “human action is often less a matter of accomplishing instrumental goals than it is about maintaining the preferred narrative account of the self ” (4), a claim explored by Mustapha Fahmi in his contribution to the collection. Moreover, in her essay on King Lear, Naomi Conn Liebler...


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pp. 216-219
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