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[Chalice] Reflections on Justice [Chalice]
in Shakespeare

Presented December 18, 2005, by Joseph Messina

I originally thought I was going to talk today about justice (hence my title), but as I looked at Shakespeare's plays with this in mind I found myself drawn to something that interests and moves me more-not mercy, which we often think of as justice's opposite, but forgiveness, which is something else. Forgiveness plays a powerful role in Shakespeare. It can save his comedies for comedy. It can mitigate the heartbreak of his tragedies, even while being an element of their pain. That's the note I think I have to close on, because it rings truest to me.1

I'll nonetheless begin with justice, because my moral consciousness dawned when as a child I learned that the world wasn't just. "It isn't fair. I didn't do it. He [my brother] or she [my sister] did it. Punish him or her." More often I said "her," because my little sister couldn't talk yet and so couldn't defend herself when I was trying to redirect the radical injustice of my parents toward some other target.

To my child's mind my parents and the whole pack of adults weren't just, though they were real enough, as my stinging backside and wounded pride well knew. And through that sting and wound, that childish suffering, there arose in me, as maybe in all children, the knowledge of the terrible clash between justice and reality. Maybe that child's knowledge is not so different from that which stirred in Aeschylus, the creator of Prometheus, and in the Hebrew poet who created Job, and in the other Hebrew prophets, in Socrates, in Jesus, in Dante, in Shakespeare, and in the creators of so much of our great theology, philosophy, and poetry, a good deal of which can be viewed as forms of resistance, of refusal to accept injustice simply because it is real. In this connection I always think of a great and powerful formulation by Ursula Le Guin, who speaks of "the terrible justice of reality" to which we often, as we become adults, learn to submit without a struggle. The story from which that quotation comes, however, is not about submitting, but about seeking an alternative to the terrible justice of reality.2 I hope that at least part of my talk will be part of that seeking. In Le Guin's story the seekers must reject and walk away from terrible injustice, but it's typical of LeGuin's tough-mindedness that they don't walk away to some just utopia, some place where they can live out an ideal. Rather, they are going we know not where-a little like me as I wondered where my reflection on justice in Shakespeare was going to take me.

There's so much in Shakespeare to feed a reflection on justice that any selection must be arbitrary, yet in accordance with some sense of a master mood or worldview, be it his or the selector's. In Macbeth, for example, there's a great soliloquy on the operation of both earthly and final judgment. It occurs before Macbeth has committed murder, while he can still just stop at the horrible thought of it:

If it [the murder of King Duncan] were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly. If the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump [risk] the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught return
To plague the inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips.

Macbeth believes, and the play bears out his belief, that sin is punished-not just in eternity but in the Shakespearean here, "upon this bank and shoal of time"; retribution is internal to history and not just in eternity; sin is condemned to historical failure and punishment. Furthermore, here and elsewhere in the plays Shakespearean retribution is not just in history; it is an interpretation of history. Thus much of Shakespeare can be read as testimony to a moral immanence,3 a moral indwelling, in every human being and in every historical moment; historical time is a moral medium. Much of Shakespeare. And yet there's much that one must struggle to read that way. There have been generations of commentators, in particular the late Victorian and early and mid-20th-century ones, who have struggled to read him that way. My late Shakespeare teacher, Irving Ribner, a kind foster father to me, read Shakespeare in this touchingly hopeful way, devoting much of his work to the proposition that Shakespeare made moral sense within an orderly Elizabethan world-view.

One can make reassuring moral sense of the workings of justice in the fate of Macbeth, a man who goes bad and pays dearly for it. Yet even in this play, which seems to stage the mechanisms by which the powers above work their justice through men in the world, there's much to unsettle and dismay us. What are we to make of the merciless slaughter of the wife and children of Macduff, a deed with no point or purpose in the moral world except maybe to perfect Macbeth in evil?

And what of the moral career of Macbeth himself, what about his heroism of the damned? A moment ago I referred to what appears to be a Shakespearean confidence in the moral immanence in everyman, and a Shakespearean commitment to ethical interpretation, to uncovering the indwelling moral being. Shakespeare's Macbeth is fully aware of the evil of his deeds and is tormented by that awareness, but his recognition of his evil leads to no reversal, no real attempt to at least just stop. His self-awareness deepens, then degenerates into coarse superstition and fear alternating with swaggering, and finally into a perverse resolve to hang tough. Awareness does not, here, turn the sinner's life around, does not save him from some of the worst effects of sin, the effects upon himself; Aristotle spoke of recognition-seeing oneself clearly-and reversal in tragedy-availing oneself of the chance to change that seeing clearly presents4 -but what are we to make of recognition without reversal?

Claudius in Hamlet is another problematic instance. One of our readings this morning was an excerpt from his great soliloquy, right after his conscience has been quickened by an enactment of a deed much like his murder of his brother. This soliloquy was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln's. In a letter to the actor James Hackett, Lincoln wrote,

Some of Shakespeare's plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are "Lear," "Richard III.," "Henry VIII.," "Hamlet," and especially "Macbeth." . . .

Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in "Hamlet" commencing "Oh, my offense is rank," surpasses that commencing "To be or not to be."

William H. Herndon, his law partner and early biographer, writes that Lincoln had a profound sense of sin and suffered from a consequent hopelessness: "Lincoln maintained that God could not forgive; that punishment has to follow the sin."5 That seems harsh, but in the Christianity of Lincoln's day it's maybe not such a strange belief; after all, death itself was held to be not a natural event but a sentence, what Paul called the wages of sin, God's punishment of humankind's willful disobedience, which could not be forgiven but had to be atoned for, a very different matter from forgiveness. Views like this would help to explain Lincoln's choice of Claudius' soliloquy.

O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon 't,
A brother's murder! Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will.
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent .
What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? . . .
I'll look up;
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it when one cannot repent?
. . .
Help, angels! Make assay.
Bow, stubborn knees; and heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe!
All may be well.

This remarkable soliloquy sets up a wonderful possibility for a sinful man: that he might put his fault in the past; or better, that he might return to the condition of a new-born babe, clean as fresh snow. But as you remember, Claudius does not rise from prayer washed clean; the awful, dismaying reality is that he can't look up, he can't pray. I don't know whether Shakespeare was influenced here by some contemporary theology, according to which no one could make a move toward God unless God so moved him, and if God didn't move him, the sinner could do nothing toward his own redemption. Whether or not Shakespeare let such a theological postulate inform his presentation of Claudius, he has confronted us here with the disturbing spectacle of a man who tries to repent, but cannot.

If this were all that Shakespeare and the world presented, we'd be in awful shape. Shakespeare at least presents something else, and for that I would like to read again the 4th passage in the readings we heard earlier, from Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition:

The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility-of being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing-is the faculty of forgiving. [F]orgiving serves to undo the deeds of the past, whose 'sins' hang like Damocles' sword over every new generation. . . .

Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever. [Forgiving] depend[s] on plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no one can forgive himself; forgiving enacted in solitude and isolation remain[s] without reality and can signify no more than a role played before one's self.

That may be how Shakespeare considered Claudius' attempt to pray-a role a man plays, or tries to play, before God, but which ends as a role played only before the self and therefore condemned to failure. Divine forgiveness seems to be unavailable, or at least hidden from our sight; and to forgive oneself doesn't work. What's left to us, the gift within our reach, is forgiveness by our fellow human beings. Here Shakespeare provides us with some wonderful instances, especially in his comedies and romances, of a marvelous capacity to forgive, as great as our capacity to wrong one another. One could argue that without this capacity to forgive, typically embodied in one of Shakespeare's great female characters like Marianna in Measure for Measure, or Hermione in The Winter's Tale, or Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, the world of Shakespearean comedy and romance simply could not be. This capacity redeems the world of comedy & romance from some pretty foul doings and pretty foul characters. It has a part to play in the tragedies, too. The awfulness of Hamlet and Laertes' slaughter of each other, for example, is softened by their exchange of forgiveness before they die. But in the tragedies forgiveness can run up against an intransigence, a lack of give in the universe we inhabit. I'll close my talk with a few words about one of the most moving instances of forgiveness in Shakespeare-an instance which for me defines the emotional effect of what may be his most unsettling tragedy, King Lear.

I just finished reading the final exams in my Shakespeare class. Here's what one student, J. C. Weyand, has to say about the effect of King Lear on him. I had asked students to write about the catharsis of King Lear,6 the release of emotions that Aristotle says is the basic effect of tragic drama. J. C. wrote,

[King Lear] struck me as more depressing than any [other] tragedy. At the beginning of the play (and assumedly before the play begins) Lear commits many crimes [against] humanity, including banishing his daughter Cordelia, because she didn't want to flatter him. However, throughout the tragedy Lear is stripped of everything he had-his power, his title, [his wealth], his daughters, and his sanity. He is paying for the crimes (figurative of course) he committed. Paying the penalty for your sins is a key step to salvation. Lear experiences all the pains one would expect him to endure in order for him to be saved. A catharsis is . . . a change or purification that a person endures in the process of spiritual cleansing. In this tragedy Lear does just that. The catharsis is about Lear purging himself of everything and cleansing himself. Lear is stripped of everything in penalty of folly and pride.

This is what makes the tragedy of King Lear so depressing to all of us. It is the fact that after Lear is stripped of everything, broken and powerless, he dies. Lear pays the price for his sins and has changed his person for the better. [H]e should be saved and in the end live. However, not only Lear's but Cordelia's life is needlessly snuffed out, leaving the reader with a sense of pain and injustice.

To what J. C. says I'd want to add that the pain of the play's ending is especially intense because when reunited for a brief moment before their deaths Lear and Cordelia participate in a beautiful rite of forgiveness. As Cordelia kneels for Lear's blessing, he kneels before her:

O! Look upon me, sir [she says]
And hold your hand in benediction o'er me.
No, sir, you must not kneel.

And here are the last words of Lear's reply:

You must bear with me.
Pray you now, forget and forgive: I am old and foolish.

"Forget and forgive": we still say that. This association of forgiving and forgetting suggests that forgiving is a kind of forgetting. And forgetting-isn't it a kind of undoing? What we forget-did it really happen?

All Lear wants now from the world is his daughter's forgiveness. When Cordelia's forces have lost the battle and Lear & she have been taken by their murderous enemies, he says,

Come, let's away to prison;
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray and sing, and tell old tales . . .

It will be enough for him to wear out life in a walled prison, enacting over and over this blessed moment of forgiveness.

But this moment of healing and repair has been just that, a moment; any hope it kindles is mercilessly extinguished by the remaining action, which pursues the effects of Lear's early bad choices to their brutal conclusion. It's as if Lear had unleashed an unforgiving law that makes one pay despite penance and human forgiveness.

We can forgive one another, yet in the stark universe we all inhabit we die unforgiven. We leave the play with a fear that is basic to human existence: that one's repentance for one's wrongs is not enough, for it can't undo their brutal effects, it can't repair the rent they make in nature and society.7 One can't make things right; such is the tyranny of brutal factness that what's done cannot be undone. Our comfort must come not from the unforgiving gods of the brute universe but from "the [forgiving] presence and acting of others" of which Hannah Arendt speaks. Here, in the giving and accepting of forgiveness within the family and all the circles of those with whom we are bonded in our loves and sympathies, lies our comfort and our consolation as we endure the terrible justice of reality.


(1) The inspiration for this talk is a lecture by Frank Kermode called "Justice and Mercy in Shakespeare" (Houston Law Review, 33 (Winter 1996), 1155-74). Though I've gone in a different direction from Kermode, I'm pleased to acknowledge his influence.

(2) "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."

(3) I draw on Cynthia Ozick's comments on the ancient Hebrew commentators' attempts to find an indwelling moral design in human reality as this is imaged in Hebrew scripture. See her essay on the Book of Ruth in Metaphor and Memory (New York, 1989).

(4) I'm using Aristotle's terms in senses he probably did not intend.

(5) Caleb Crain, "Rail-Splitting: Two Opposite Approaches to Honest Abe," The New Yorker, 11/7/05, 126-133.

(6) This is the title of an essay by Judah Stampfer which I regularly assign to my students to help them prepare for an exam on King Lear. This essay has profoundly influenced my understanding of the play. Shakespeare Survey 13 (1960), 1-10.

(7) See Stampfer's essay.

©2005 Joseph Messina

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Messina, Joseph. 2005. Reflections on Justice in Shakespeare, /talks/20051218.shtml (accessed August 10, 2020).

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