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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare and Renaissance Ethics eds. by Patrick Gray and John D. Cox
  • Michael Bristol (bio)
Shakespeare and Renaissance Ethics. Edited by Patrick Gray and John D. Cox. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. x + 310. $103.00 cloth, $31.99 paper.

Ethos is the daimon; character is fate. i'm not sure even heraclitus himself really understood what this means. renaissance ethics was a messy affair, and one of the better ways to become acquainted with its complexity is by reading Shakespeare. the basic confusion is already fully apparent in the table of contents for Shakespeare and Renaissance Ethics, edited by Patrick Gray and John D. cox. there are three divisions here, each containing four essays. Part 1 takes classical ethics as its focus, while Part 2 discusses the imperatives of christian teachings on the moral life. in the final section, attention shifts to the ethical thinking of Montaigne.

It is not easy to harmonize the demands of christian belief with aristotelian virtue ethics, although both structures of feeling were current in early modern England. classical virtue ethics is oriented toward eudaimonia, felicity or living a beautiful life. Because there are conflicting manifestations of goodness, the "pursuit of happiness" can follow divergent paths. on the other hand, what is required of a christian is to recognize the good as indivisible. there is an order to the way things are, mysterious as it may appear, and the followers of christ are enjoined to find their own place in this structure of being, by way of faith or by way of the sacraments. or both. Montaigne would be the wild card in this larger conflict, and possibly therefore the most important of Shakespeare's moral sources.

At this point i would like to engage with just a few of the essays to illustrate the larger concerns of the project. i begin with camus's suggestion that suicide is the only serious philosophical problem. it's uncanny how profoundly camus influenced Shakespeare. Gordon Braden's essay, "Fame, Eternity, and Shakespeare's romans," begins by pointing out that this question fascinated early modern thinkers, even though the classical idea of the nobility of suicide in ancient rome is strongly repudiated by Saint augustine and other christian authorities. in the roman plays, augustinian concern with the afterlife of the soul is absent: "the only thing lasting forever is farewell" (46). Even so, in Julius Caesar the nobility of suicide is itself called into question when Brutus asks for help taking his own life; Volumnius tells him, "that's not an office for a friend, my lord" (5.5.33). it seems that classical ethics is itself divided over suicide when [End Page 300] it is in conflict with other virtues, quite apart from any latent conflict with christian doctrine.

I always learn something worthwhile when i read an essay by robert S. Miola, and "'Wrying but a little'? Marriage, Punishment and Forgiveness in Cymbeline" is no exception. Miola is impressed with the emotional power of the moment when Leonatus, thinking imogen has been murdered as punishment for her adultery, repents what he has done: "how many / Must murder wives much better than themselves / For wrying but a little!" (186). Miola takes time to show that punishing an adulterous wife with death is accepted within christian teaching. What makes the situation in Cymbeline noteworthy is that Leonatus forgives imogen for adultery while he still thinks she is guilty. Forgiveness of an adulterous wife is also encouraged in christian thought, and Miola makes it abundantly clear that the existence of contradictory moral frameworks is always and already present within christianity itself.

The essay that triggered the strongest resistance for me is Peter holbrook's "Shakespeare, Montaigne, and classical reason." his discussion starts out with a spirited rejection of the notion that a fictional character can actually represent anything as labile as individual human agency: "Great mimetic works of art, such as Lear, Othello, or Hamlet, are great because we cannot imagine the worlds they depict, and the people inhabiting them, differently: these are immoveable and absolute" (265). Let's just say it's hard for me not to take this personally and even harder for...


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