The ‘wicked characters’

L. Joseph Hebert

Grounded in twenty years of study and public speaking, R. V. Young’s Shakespeare and the Idea of Western Civilization is primarily a work of literary criticism. Combining “a close reading of the text with an effort to locate the work in the context of political, social, and literary history,” Young discusses a handful of Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, and histories in moderate but vivid detail. For him, the ideal critic is one whose arguments and observations, whether we accept or reject them, send us back to the original text in a more thoughtful state of mind. As Young sees it, the purpose of literary studies is to “lead us out (educare) of ourselves—of our preconceptions, our prejudices, our partisanship, and our interests.” This book, clearly a product of his personal wrestling with various conundrums posed by the Bard, is an invitation to commence or continue searching in Shakespeare for a better understanding of ourselves and of the world.
Contemporary academic treatments of Shakespeare, Young observes, tend to waver between two stances. At times they recruit the Bard into the ranks of the woke literati, taking his characters and plots as illustrations of the inequity of traditional moral and political nostrums. Some plays or passages, though, are unwilling to be thus requisitioned into the service of “radical political ends.” At those times, interpreters turn to various ploys in a “campaign to disparage Shakespeare and diminish his influence.” Tactics range from theories discounting the coherence of his works or diminishing his free agency as an author—think of the 1990 film Shakespeare in Love—to blistering denunciations of his masterpieces as epiphenomena of systemic oppression. “The choice of reading modes is,” as one scholar admits, “strategic: governed by what seems likely to disclose the political potential of the text.”
Strategy is an element of war, and Young sees the various “rhetorical devices and intellectual schemes” used to disparage Shakespeare as part of a warlike project to discredit not only the Bard, but also the foundational principles of the “cultural tradition” of which he is an heir and transmitter. What is that tradition? Though the “idea of Western civilization” had “not yet emerged” in Shakespeare’s day, what the Bard did know was Christendom: a “cosmopolitan vision” whose disintegration left Europeans forever scrambling to find a unifying substitute. Tracing conceptual links between the revolutionary movements responsible for Christendom’s decline and ideologies driving our own cultural dissolution, Young applies the wisdom in Shakespeare’s response to the civilizational crisis of his age, and then to the culture wars of ours. The result is a fresh perspective on disputes that might seem to be growing stale.
Ideology, as Young aptly defines it, is “a set of preconceptions about how the world ought to be that displace any genuine perception of the world itself.” Rampant in our age, it is a problem as old as the hills. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare dramatizes the subtlety of ideology’s snares and the deadliness of its consequences. Prudent as he is, Caesar is blinded to his own mortality by the need to cultivate a godlike status. Brutus allows his noble devotion to the republican cause to become a “pompous self-delusion” that its partisans can do no wrong. Each lacks one or more of the virtues necessary to perceive and act in accordance with an accurate vision of the world. The seat of such virtues, and of the limited but real happiness they make possible, is the human soul. Informed by the classical notion that politics is “dependent on ethics,” Shakespeare reminds us that political institutions, vital as they are, cannot shield us from the inherent complexities of political life, whose management requires strength of soul. Though good regimes may foster moral character and bad ones hinder it, the most fundamental of human blessings—“personal integrity” and “mental candor”—are “prior to and more permanent than any particular political arrangement.”
Those under the influence of contemporary theory will balk at this critique of ideology, and at the proposed solution. Denying the “capacity of the human intellect to transcend its material circumstances,” they insist that “human reality is totally ‘constructed’—by language, economic forces, [and] society,” and that happiness hinges on empowering humanity to “construct a reality that suits us.” To pit our own desires against reality, however, is to court disaster. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare encourages us to aim high in matters of love, while tempering our idealism with a sober recognition of the permanence of human imperfection, and the patience it requires of us. The young lovers are right to deplore the senseless feuding of their families, but gravely mistaken to conclude that Montague and Capulet are mere names that can be dissolved at will, or that marriage can be reduced to a union of hearts divorced from the wider community. Unmoored from a prudent consideration of the greater good, “love can be as irrational and destructive as hate.”
Young traces the sagacity with which Shakespeare explores our most sublime and devastating passions to a Christian civilization characterized by its capacity to balance “apparent contradictions” without “imposing a definitive resolution.” As heir to a collapsed empire, the Church shaped a milieu in which politics and religion, reason and authority, particular and universal, and other polarities of human existence were held together within a “single, expansive culture.” Constituted partly by dogma but also by reasoned debate, this civilization conserved itself through self-examination and renewal. Despite its many warts, Young concludes, Christian society laid the foundations for what is best in Western civilization, including later triumphs such as “the condemnation of slavery, the liberation of women from an exclusively domestic role, and the institutions of legal equality and political democracy.”
The ethical, political, and religious revolutions that eventually tore Christendom apart also sought to liberate humanity from bondage, but they did so with the support of radicalized notions of autonomy that often minimized or repudiated objective truth. As a result, they fostered the idea that the fulfillment of human destiny requires the building of an apparatus capable of “changing the world” and even “human nature” itself. Effecting such change, however, requires enormous concentrations of power in the hands of a managerial elite. Traditional morality, stressing the dangers of unchecked authority, poses an impediment to these utopian schemes. If “progressive ideologues” are to fashion a “temporal paradise,” they must embrace a “totalizing kind of politics” and suppress the “moral norms” of which Shakespeare’s masterpieces are a “consummate expression.” Yet it is these moral norms, Young insists, that “make civilized life possible.”
Repudiating the idea of objective reality, ideology prevents us from forming the “habit of reflection and patience in discerning what in our civilization is right and deserving of preservation and enhancement, and what is wrong requiring reform or even, in some instances, renunciation.” Young contends that we can learn this habit from Shakespeare, but to convince us of this he must wage a counter-polemic against the Bard’s detractors. His tactics are well suited to the nature of the struggle. Focusing on immortal works of art chosen to illuminate matters of current controversy, he deftly hoists the naysayers by their own petard. As it happens, questions of “love and marriage, of race and ethnicity, of politics, of religion, of colonialism” have long attracted the critical attention of poets and audiences. All it takes to turn the tables on Shakespeare’s critics is to juxtapose their tendentious claims with the Bard’s actual treatment of these issues.
Grounded in a tradition fully cognizant of the problematic nature of human affairs, Shakespeare responds to life’s perennial paradoxes with a depth and nuance that readily embarrass the comparatively blinkered vision of his most ardent antagonists. In matters of love and marriage, for example, Shakespeare demonstrates the dangers of a naïve radicalism as well as a stilted traditionalism. In several of his comedies, he depicts potentially happy marriages resulting from a combination of shrewd realism and good fortune. Cautiously embracing romantic love as an improvement upon couplings of mere convenience, he paints marriage as a form of classical friendship, demanding the self-discipline to make a gift of oneself to one’s spouse and relations while prudently correcting or forgiving their faults and foibles.
In Othello and Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare deals with the seeds of modern racism and antisemitism. In Young’s view, “there can be no question that the Jew suffers ill use at the hands of the Christians,” or that the Moor encounters “animosity, suspicion, and disdain” on account of his “racial difference.” By shining a light on these Venetian sins, Shakespeare intends to “unsettle assumptions and disturb the conscience”—but not in the simplistic mode of today’s systemic theorists. Shylock is a villain as well as a victim, but his besetting sin—revenge—is decidedly human, as is the hypocrisy of the Christians who admonish him to show mercy, while refusing it to him. Othello, “a gentleman of fully heroic stature,” is denigrated by characters whose minds are visibly clouded by jealousy, callousness, or malice. Shakespeare neither condones such prejudices, nor believes that their root causes can be wished, admonished, or legislated away. Emphasizing that the weaknesses of nature demand mutual forbearance, the Bard affirms “the principles of the Western world” while issuing “a daring challenge to that civilization to embody its principles with more constancy.”
In Shakespeare’s drama, “the guardians of traditional order—princes, priests, parents—have [often] neglected or betrayed their trust and allowed the institutions they rule to become oppressive and vulnerable to rebellion.” Richard II’s conviction that God will uphold his crown despite his flagrant misgovernance triggers a Parliamentary transfer of power. In theory, this could be beneficial, but in practice the new dynasty struggles to find a secure basis of legitimacy, resulting first in the surreptitious Machiavellianism of Henry V, and later in the scarcely disguised tyranny of Richard III. Here one wishes Young had taken the argument a step further, addressing Shakespeare’s treatment of a more recent English revolution in Henry VIII or the collaborative play Sir Thomas More. In any case, the secret to promoting virtue and good governance in the Elizabethan or Jacobian eras remains elusive, much like strategies for salvaging the virtues of Western civilization from the present cultural wreckage.
Though the fate of the world may never be decided in the faculty lounge, Young succeeds in persuading us that “an attack on the literature of the West, especially in the work of one of its most important figures, is an attack upon the civilization itself.” Literature is a chief repository of and testing ground for the convictions informing culture in its continuity and change, and the scholars with whom Young contends are participants in a “long-term project to discredit altogether the culture” of the West. Insofar as they succeed at shaping the minds and hearts of future generations, their project threatens us with civilizational suicide. Rescuing the Western soul from a tragic demise requires us to see their medicine for the hemlock it is.
Young does not expect his book to change the face of literary criticism, but he does give us grounds for hope—if not optimism. Relentless as they are, the waves of Shakespeare abuse cannot help breaking upon the rock of the man and his achievements. Due to the Bard’s “unique combination of imaginative intelligence, skill, and creative genius,” he continues to be “cherished,” studied, and performed throughout the world. To encounter his works is to encounter a and powerful reaffirmation of the complex, paradoxical, and liberating tradition of which he is the “principal poet.” Given the sympathy of postmodern scholars for the sophisticated excuses concocted by Shakespeare’s villains, we may take comfort in the tendency of these “wicked characters” to “destroy themselves,” even as the “most virtuous characters” flounder in their attempts to set things right. Above all, we should take from the Bard’s writings the wisdom and courage necessary to do our part in promoting a much needed a revitalization of the Western soul.