William Shakespeare and the Socratic-Christian Heritage
by L. Joseph Hebert
Though he certainly finds fault in distorted versions of Christian ideals, Shakespeare pays tribute to the truth, beauty, and goodness of genuine Christian virtue.
In a recent Weekly Standard cover story, noted Shakespeare scholar Paul Cantor attributes the death of chivalry partly to the flogging it received in the works of William Shakespeare. Few would contest the conclusion that chivalry is dead. But was its death a good thing or a bad one?
We tend to look back on tales of courtly love and valorous combat as “quaint” or “uplifting,” and Cantor admits that chivalry was “a noble ideal [that] at its best did much to refine an otherwise coarse and brutal world.” Still, at the heart of chivalry Cantor finds something he considers profoundly dangerous: “an attempt to give a religious dimension to all aspects of life—to saturate the world with Christianity” by spiritualizing love, warfare, and politics.
The problem with chivalry, in Cantor’s view, is that it distorts “the common-sense understanding of down-to-earth human affairs,” making “the ordinary relations between men and women . . . seem crass and base by comparison with the poetic ideal,” and turning warfare “into something more brutal by making it fanatical.” In a pattern that Shakespeare pokes fun at in his plays, chivalry (at least in its more desiccated forms) encourages human beings to fight and to love “by the book,” imposing a set of artificial constraints on their perceptions and behaviors.
Cantor is right to see Shakespeare’s poetic art as integrally concerned with observing and commenting upon moral, political, and religious matters ranging from the comic to the sublime. He is also right to notice Shakespeare’s keen interest in the revolutionary ideas and acts of men like Niccolò Machiavelli and Henry VIII. Cantor is mistaken, however, in declaring Shakespeare a trenchant critic of the old order and a firm supporter of its modern opponents. It would be more accurate to say that Shakespeare’s penetrating pen exposes the dangers of folly and fanaticism wherever he finds them. And though he certainly finds fault in distorted versions of Christian ideals—including the excesses of certain forms of chivalry—Shakespeare pays tribute to the truth, beauty, and goodness of genuine Christian virtue. He also offers incisive criticisms of a “realpolitik” grounded in false assumptions about human nature and itself productive of “many unintended and disastrous consequences.”
Christianity and the Culture of Chivalry
To solve a problem, we need to understand its causes. In Cantor’s view, the “absolute demands” imposed on humanity by Christianity form the basis of chivalry’s immoderation. For Cantor, this toxic intrusion of Christianity into human affairs, with its “many unintended and disastrous consequences,” represents “the baleful heritage of the Middle Ages” from which Shakespeare wisely sought to “break free.”
Cantor sees this connection between Christianity and chivalrous love in tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet, which “reveal the destructive power of love when it seeks a radical break with the everyday world of social reality in its quest to achieve an otherworldly transcendence.” Shakespeare’s comedies, on the other hand, follow a pattern that “forces the lovers to abandon their courtly love conceptions and come to terms with the reality of day-to-day relations between men and women.” In both cases, we learn that “the absolute demands of religion . . . must be separated from love to achieve the domestic peace of marriage.”
Cantor also finds this connection between chivalry and faith in the history plays, which “chronicle the transition from medieval to modern monarchy,” showing that English kings, as they “move from high-minded and idealistic motives for war to [a] Machiavellian concern for realpolitik,” “are successful to the extent that they manage to neutralize the impact of the church and its officials on English politics.” Here we learn that “the absolute demands of religion must be separated from politics to bring peace to the state,” justifying the “subordination of religion to politics that became the cornerstone of the Tudor and Elizabethan regimes.”
Cantor’s argument misses the evident fact that Christendom, though it had troubles of its own, was not uniquely brutal in its approach to either love or war. Aristotle’s remark that man, without the constraints of law and virtue, “is the most unholy and the most savage of the animals, and the worst with regard to sex and food,” is sadly easy to confirm in the annals of every age. If anything, modern man has done more to demonstrate its truth. Given the savageness of Tudor politics and its sequels—including totalitarianism and its bloody wars, and the sexual revolution and related “culture wars”—how could anyone affirm that modernity has ushered in an era of “peace” and “common sense” in love and politics?
Cantor’s argument also neglects the Socratic-Christian tradition responsible for the best ideals and practices of Christendom—and for the further reforms proposed by early Christian humanists such as Thomas More. This tradition was rooted in both Scripture and Socratic ethics; it encouraged the personal and political practice of virtue understood as the reasoned pursuit of objective goods, but was also deeply cognizant of the permanent limitations of politics. Far from threatening (in Cantor’s words) to “unleash the dark side of human nature by pretending that it did not exist,” this tradition—best articulated by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas—insisted on both the essential goodness of human nature and the encumbrances of original sin. It taught that the pursuit of the highest virtues, though it could not wholly rely upon or hope to perfect the justice of earthly cities, had much to gain from and to contribute to the mitigation of evil and the promotion of good in the political realm.
In exposing the flaws of political regimes and ideals from ancient to medieval to modern times, Shakespeare’s plays draw on this Socratic-Christian tradition. Though (in good Socratic form) Shakespeare gives a fair hearing to revolutionary ideas—such as Machiavelli’s proposal that classical and Christian virtues be abandoned in the name of the unrestrained pursuit of desires by princes and peoples—he ultimately and repeatedly signals the deadliness of these notions and the superiority of reforms grounded in the reality of higher goods.
Hamlet and the Conflict Between Old and New
An excellent illustration of Shakespeare’s response to the conflict between old ideals and new is Hamlet.
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