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  • Undoing Shakespearean Temperance
  • Maurice Hunt (bio)

There are about two dozen articles or book chapters on Shakespeare's plays that either entirely or in part—and in some cases only for several pages—focus on the classical virtue of temperance.1 And only ten have "temperance" or forms of this word in their title. The authors of virtually every one of these publications assume in the play(s) they analyze that temperance is a stable reality that has dramatic consequences for the characters who do or don't practice the virtue. No one has argued, as I do in the following pages, that in a number of Shakespeare plays (and a sonnet) in which temperance figures the virtue exhibits instability, evaporates, has no consequences, or is irrelevant to the action. The subtlety by which this happens, notably within the dynamics of Aristotelian methodology and its tensions, has mainly determined the selection of the works I explore. I should caution that my thesis requires my criticism of criticism itself when a commentator argues in mistaken ways for the relevance of temperance in a Shakespeare play.

John Wilkinson in 1547 translated into English Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, giving the result the title The Ethiques of Aristotle. Wilkinson's effort became part of a "renewed emphasis on the 'Ethics' in the post-Reformation educational programmes of both the Jesuits and German Lutheran pedagogues such as Melancthon."2 This emphasis reached Shakespeare, possibly in the curriculum of the King Edward school Shakespeare attended, or possibly in his general reading as preparation for writing one or more of his plays. W. R. Elton has demonstrated Shakespeare's familiarity with the Nicomachean Ethics in his analysis of the playwright's Troilus and Cressida.3 Since the dynamics of Aristotelian temperance frequently bears upon Shakespeare's staging of temperate and intemperate behavior in various characters, identifying some of its deficiencies and limitations helps explain why they either cannot attain it or find it nonexistent.

Plato helped Aristotle understand that temperance could be a rare virtue. In The Republic Plato asserted that the best men in his city-state will be "wise, courageous, self-disciplined, and just."4 By "self-disciplined," Plato means temperate, for he goes on to say that "self-discipline . . . is [End Page 73] a kind of order. . . . It is a mastery of pleasures and desires; [however], "moderate desires, which are guided by rational calculation, using intelligence and correct belief, are things you come across only among a few people."5 Only a few people had the mindset to achieve a difficult balance between two extreme emotional states both of which seem radically rooted in human nature. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle describes excellence of character as an "intermediacy between two bad states, one involving excess, the other involving deficiency." Almost immediately Aristotle admits to the problem of assigning terms to the three states of a given affect, especially with regard to its deficiency. "With regard to anger . . . there are excessive, deficient, and intermediate states, but since they are practically nameless, let us—since we say the intermediate person is mild-tempered—call the intermediate state 'mildness'; and those at the extremes, let the one who goes to excess be 'irascible,' and the corresponding state 'irascibility,' with the deficient one being in a way 'spiritless,' and the deficiency 'spiritlessness.'"6 But what could it mean to be spiritless? Would it be without feeling of any kind? So difficult is finding the right word here that one translator of the Ethics resorts to the cloudy coinage "unirascibility."7 Pleasure proves even more difficult, for what would the defect of pleasure be called: pleasurelessness, or would it be something akin to the Stoic state of apatheia?8 Montaigne in fact implicitly asserts that achieving anything more than momentary moderation in pleasure proves futile. "Isn't man a miserable animal? Hardly is it in his natural condition, to taste a single pleasure pure and entire, and still he is at pains to curtail that pleasure by his reason: his is not wretched enough unless by art and study he augments his misery."9

Howard Erskine-Hill writes that "in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle described intemperance as an excess...


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