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. This play presents a kingdom whose citizens are confused by the uncouth and relentless manner in which King Claudius has seized the Danish throne, married his brother’s widow, and plunged the realm into preparations for an unchivalrous mode of warfare. It ends with the effortless victory of Fortinbras, a young prince who uses bold deception and ruthless force to acquire the empire he desires. Meanwhile its protagonist, though initially disgusted by this rottenness in the state, struggles to maintain his hold on the principles and methods needed to set things right. Eventually embracing his own version of the “bloody” wisdom of his rivals, Prince Hamlet succeeds in satisfying his selfish desires while abandoning Denmark to the depredations of its Finnish foes.
A tragedy this powerful requires us to sympathize with its subject despite his flaws. Young Hamlet, who by custom ought to have been elected to succeed his father, is justly outraged by his uncle’s abuse of his father’s memory, his mother’s honesty, and his own ambitions. In his finest moments—warmly welcoming a poor troupe of players and advising them on their craft; bringing his mother to repentance and counseling her on how to regain her virtues—Hamlet displays a profound comprehension of the Aristotelian theory of virtue and its skillful application to a variety of human affairs. Nonetheless, Hamlet fails in his quest to correct the domestic and political disorders he faces, and the details of his failure indicate that it is his neglect of Socratic-Christian virtues, not his pursuit of them, that accounts for his failure.
Early in the play, Hamlet is visited from Purgatory by the ghost of his father, who vividly recounts how Claudius murdered him unawares, urging him to take revenge. Initially determined to obey his father, Hamlet soon becomes paralyzed by doubts about the veracity of the apparition and about the means by which he can prove and punish his uncle’s crime.
Many scholars—Cantor included—have seen the elder Hamlet’s call for revenge as rooted in pagan tradition, interpreting Hamlet’s hesitations as the result of the Christian prohibition on vengeance and an example of the impediments Christian morality poses to the requirements of earthly politics. Yet the substance of old Hamlet’s message is palpably Catholic: he suffers the unspeakable pains of Purgatory—whose very existence was denied by the English Church of Shakespeare’s day—because his sudden death deprived him of the Catholic sacraments of Confession and Communion (respectively abolished and altered by the English Church).
As David Beauregard notes, Catholic theology treats vengeance as a virtue by which public authorities punish wrongdoers in a reasonable manner for the charitable aims of reforming the wayward and upholding the common good. Old Hamlet’s insistence that his son seek vengeance without tainting his mind, and young Hamlet’s assurance that he will do so with “wings . . . as swift as love,” confirm that this prince and rightful heir to the throne is being called upon to right the wrongs of Denmark by the exercise of prudent and charitable authority.
Hamlet’s failure to act swiftly as promised stems, not from the unreasonableness of his father’s demands, but rather from his strange unwillingness to practice the virtues he knows he requires, especially the supreme virtue of charity. Hamlet’s decided lack of charity is signaled by his recurring desire to commit suicide—an act that violates the love one naturally owes to oneself, to one’s fellow men, and to one’s Creator. It is confirmed by his declaration that he would hate to see an enemy in heaven, his desire to ensure Claudius’s damnation by killing him in the midst of his sins, and his glee at bringing about the execution of his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern without time for Confession.
Old Hamlet’s presence in Purgatory suggests that the sins of this chivalrous and “warlike” king, though real, were on balance venial in nature. By falling away from Christian virtue entirely, young Hamlet and his country fare worse. Had Hamlet approached the disorders of Denmark with the purpose of attempting to reform Claudius and securing his country’s welfare, his tremendous talents might have prevailed. Instead, Hamlet only succeeds at bringing about the shameful death of his family and friends while engineering his own spectacular demise, making himself the center of unmerited posthumous attention.
Why does Hamlet lack charity? When we meet him he is just returned from studies in Wittenberg, famous as a seat of Lutheran theology. Among other things, this revolutionary doctrine insisted that eternal salvation depends on “faith alone,” opposing the tradition that placed it in “faith that worketh by charity” and the other virtues (Gal. 5:6). In brief, Shakespeare’s Hamlet suggests that a misguided rejection of the Socratic-Christian tradition will contribute to the victory of an ugly and heartless Machiavellian realpolitik.
In our unchivalrous times, the new and disruptive forces with which Hamlet contends have become increasingly dominant in politics, religion, and even in our private lives. Like Hamlet, however, we are haunted by voices from an imperfect yet in some ways nobler past, and at least dimly cognizant of a tradition whose wisdom can (and does) provide better answers to the problems we face. Hamlet’s missed opportunities point to the ever-present possibility of amending our faults through the pursuit of personal and political virtue, best accomplished through a loving cooperation with divine grace.