by William Shakespeare
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William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar tends to be overshadowed by a dramatic moment within the play itself, when Mark Antony’s moving speech turns public sentiment against Caesar’s assassins. The oration is rightfully revered, and it provides a useful example for high school students learning to appreciate the value of rhetoric. But the play merits our close attention as well.
In Othello, Shakespeare allows us to see where we stand: Iago is the villain and Othello is the hero. It is certainly a tragedy when Othello murders his innocent wife, and we easily recognize that Iago is one of the most evil characters created—critic Harold Bloom compares him to John Milton’s Satan. Our moral universe is recognizable here.
But in most of Shakespeare’s plays, a moral reading is much less certain. Hamlet’s uncle is guilty, but we have trouble believing that this justifies Hamlet taking revenge. Further, Hamlet commits atrocities against more men than his uncle, but much of the audience still cheers for him even after watching him sin. Did Shakespeare intend this?
Such ambivalence permeates Julius Caesar as well. We begin by assuming that Brutus is the villain, but he is not a villain in the mold of Iago. There are moments when he convinces us (as he seeks to convince himself) that his rebellion is justified. Nor is Julius Caesar a sympathetic hero—it is easy to understand why he is viewed as a tyrant. Even Mark Antony resists an easy characterization as the hero.
What are we to make of all this? For many Christians, the preceding paragraphs summarize the reason they resist reading Shakespeare. If he was so morally ambiguous, he must be suspect. Plays without clear-cut heroes and villains must reflect some sort of latent moral relativism in the author.
It’s certainly possible that Shakespeare was a moral relativist, but the moral ambiguity of his plays should make them more, rather than less, appealing to Christians. While real life occasionally provides examples of clear-cut ethical decisions (whether or not the men on board the Titanic should allow women and children into the lifeboats first, for example), more often than not our ethical quandaries are much more murky. Should I share the gospel with my aunt and uncle again, or should I shut my mouth and listen to their problems? Should I encourage my daughter to continue in gymnastics even though it means practicing three hours each day?
There are real answers to these questions, but they are not easily apprehended. We require clear guidance from the Holy Spirit when we consider them, whereas our conscience tells us immediately how we should behave on board the Titanic. Shakespeare, the consummate artist, can lead us into the more subtle quandaries while wisely resisting the temptation to provide easy answers. Right and wrong are manifested in Julius Caesar, but recognizing them in each instance requires our full attention.
by Jeff Baldwin