“It was William of Occam,” writes Richard Weaver in his seminal work, Ideas Have Consequences, “who propounded the fateful idea of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence.” Weaver compares this development in the intellectual history of Western man to Macbeth’s ominous meeting with the Weird Sisters: “Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred late in the fourteenth century….” The eventual result of the “evil decision” made on this “blasted heath” of the mind was an alteration in the moral and spiritual orientation of Western culture:

The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses.[1]

It is appropriate that Weaver should choose a scene from Macbeth to dramatize his understanding of Western man’s philosophical crisis. Shakespeare lived at the time when the metaphysical or, better, anti-metaphysical implications of nominalism were beginning to exert a practical, if obscure, influence over the actual life of European society. One of the defining features of great poetry is an extraordinary sensivity to the spiritual currents of the age—to disturbances in the fabric of a culture’s moral consciousness. It is therefore not surprising that the greatest poet of the English language should manifest an awareness of the nominalist assumptions that had begun to permeate the web of daily life by the end of the sixteenth century. The poet, of course, provides no disquisition on this issue any more than he does on other philosophical topics; nominalist attitudes and utterances are attached to particular characters involved in a variety of dramatic situations and actions. The extent of our sympathy for these characters is also various, as is the extent to which the deeds and declarations of such characters seem to be validated or rejected by the overall course of the play. A consideration of a number of Shakespearean characters who seem associated with nominalism, however, suggests that the playwright recognized the corrosive effect of this philosophical outlook as it suffused the traditional culture of Christendom. The power of dramatic poetry, along with other literary forms, to provide a concrete, imaginative vision of the consequences of ideas is especially significant and ironic in this context; for it is precisely the capacity of literature to embody truth that is denied by Occam’s contemporary successors, the postmodernist literary theorists. Shakespeare thus furnishes a double refutation of the current crop of nominalist critics: the fictional substance of his plays dramatizes the moral consequences of nominalism, and the very existence of plays as transcendent structures of meaning open to interpretation by readers and audiences undermines the reductive nominalist premise about the nature of reality.

First, it must be pointed out, that even the moderate realism represented by St. Thomas Aquinas did not attribute substantial being to abstractions in the way that Plato regarded the ideas or forms as the essential realities of the universe. Universals only have existence in particular entities, just as color only exists in this or that colored object. “Similarly,” St. Thomas writes, “humanity, as it is understood, does not exist except in this or that human being: but in order that humanity might be grasped without individual peculiarities, the concept of humanity itself must be abstracted and so it follows that under the aspect of universality, humanity as it is perceived by the understanding attains the likeness of a nature, and not of individual principles.”[2] The important point here is that, although the universal does not exist independently, it does exist in particulars, and the mental abstraction “humanity,” or “human nature,” has an actual basis in the individuals that it unites as a class. For Occam, universals are constructs of the mind with only a conventional relationship to individual entities.[3]

The work of William of Occam (ca. 1285- ca. 1349) would hardly seem to be the stuff either of drama or of far-reaching changes in mankind’s moral consciousness. Occam’s principal contribution to Western philosophy is a proposition about the relationship between extramental realities and the way in which they are known by human beings. The entire range of the former, of things existing independently of the mind, comprises exclusively singular or particular things. Universals, or general concepts, are nothing but a species of intellectual fiction: the mind’s way of organizing the knowledge of particular things derived from sensory experience. According to Occam, these conceptual abstractions fall into two classes:

Nonetheless, one should know that there are two kinds of universal. One kind is naturally universal, in that it is evidently a sign naturally predicable of many things, in a fashion analogous to the way smoke naturally signifies fire, a moan the pain of the sick, and laughter an inner gladness. Such a universal is nothing except a notion of the mind, and so no substance outside the mind nor any accident outside the mind is such a universal…. The other kind of universal is so by established convention. In this way a word that is produced, which is really one quality, is a universal, because clearly it is a sign established by convention for the signifying of many things. Hence just as a word is said to be common, even so it can be said to be universal; but this does not obtain from the nature of the thing, but only from agreed upon convention.[4]

The effect of this view is to deprive the external world of any inherent meaning apart from human convention; that is, apart from what is convenient for men and women to attribute to it. Similarly, language ceases to be part of the general human patrimony and becomes a collection of blank counters, with only such meaning as it pleases individual human beings arbitrarily to grant it (“non…ex natura rei, sed ex placito instituentium tantum”). “The question of what the world was made for now becomes meaningless,” Weaver observes, “because the asking of it presupposes something prior to nature in the order of existents.”[5] “Meaning” can only mean in a general sense: isolated particulars have no meaning by themselves because they have no universal referent. But if universals, or general concepts, are only a function or intention of the individual mind (and minds, like every entity, are by nominalist definition also individual or singular), then all meaning can only be conventional, agreed upon, arbitrary. Nothing has instrinsic meaning, or meaning in itself.

To be sure, one can hardly surmise that Shakespeare, even with his wide-ranging interests, spent much time reading the crabbed Scholastic Latin of Occam’s treatises. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, nominalism had seeped into the popular mind as a result of its role in the Reformation. Luther’s early theological studies were mainly based on the nominalism of late Scholasticism. Although he rebelled against Scholasticistic theology, its nominalist faction, nonetheless, shaped the way he thought about religious questions. When Occam confined universals to the thought processes of the individual mind, he effectively severed reason and faith and laid the groundwork for a purely empirical view of the natural world. Although Luther and most of the Protestant Reformers shared the humanists’ scorn for Scholastic theology in all its forms, nominalism obviously anticipates Luther’s debunking of the “whore,” reason and his insistence on faith alone—sola fide—as the only means of salvation. In his most important theological treatise, On the Bondage of the Will (De Servo Arbitrio, 1525), he excoriates Erasmus (an inveterate enemy of Scholastic nominalism) for failing to recognize the futility of any rational speculation about the transcendent nature of divine ideas:

The Diatribe is deceived by its own ignorance in that it makes no distinction between God preached and God hidden, that is, between the Word of God and God Himself. God does many things which He does not show us in His Word, and He wills many things which He does not in His Word show us that He wills. Thus, He does not will the death of a sinner—that is, in His Word; but He wills it by His inscrutable will.[6]

Likewise, the draining of the physical world of innate universal significance can be regarded as an anticipation of the Abyss opened up by Calvinism between grace and nature. The Reformation was, among other things, a rebellion against the perceived corruption of a Church too entangled with worldly material concerns; however, one effect of the zealous effort to purify religion was eventually to diminish the influence of divinity on daily life by depriving the material realm of any innate spiritual significance. In other words, the Reformation contributed to the gradual secularization of Western culture.

The conflict in Shakespearean drama is not infrequently a testimony to the growing sense that familial and communal institutions are losing their sacred character or religious sanction. “Now, God in His own nature and majesty is to be left alone,” writes Luther; “in this regard, we have nothing to do with Him, nor does He wish us to deal with Him. We have to do with Him as clothed and displayed in His Word, by which He presents Himself to us.”[7] In Protestant theology, the only sacred or Godly thing available to man on earth is the Bible, the Word of God—a word that tells us nothing about God’s true nature, but rather presents His arbitrary, inscrutable will. Not surprisingly, the Reformation reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two, and many of the ceremonies of everyday life began to lose their “religious” or quasisacramental character.

It is particularly significant that holy matrimony, deemed a sacrament of Christ by the medieval Church, was denied sacramental status in Protestant doctrine. The most explicitly nominalist speech in all of Shakespeare’s plays is made by Juliet Capulet, and it is a direct challenge to traditional ideas of marriage and family. In the famous balcony scene, after she has first met Romeo, who has come in disguise to the ball in her father’s house, Juliet cries out her sudden passion for this scion of the enemy Montague clan, while he overhears her in the garden:

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name:
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet….
’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself [8] (II.ii.33-36, 38-49).

Umberto Eco certainly sees the nominalist overtones of these lines—hence the title of his novel, The Name of the Rose, set in 1327 and having as its hero a certain William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar who has a “friend from Occam” and who follows Occam and Michael of Cesena in resisting the new constitution mandated for the Franciscans by Pope John XXII.[9] It is evident that, for Eco, nominalist epistemology is a step in the direction of postmodern liberation from the constraints of political and religious hierarchies. What interests Shakespeare is not, of course, an epistemological theory in itself, but its effect in the moral lives of his characters. The idealized erotic transport of the two young lovers comes in direct conflict with the conception of family ties that prevailed not only in medieval Verona, but also Shakespeare’s England. When Juliet yearns for Romeo to abandon his name, she is effectively asking him to abandon his identity. In traditional communal societies, a man is the son of his father, the kinsman of all his other relatives, the subject of his prince. To assert that Romeo Montague would suffer no substantial alteration if he were to become John Doe implies a radically new, individualistic understanding of personal identity. Shakespeare thus shows that attitudes toward sexual love and marriage emerging during the Renaissance parallell developments in the religious sphere, where the Reformation maintains that salvation depends on an individual’s encounter with Christ rather than his participation in the sacramental life of the Church. Marriage conceived as essentially a contract between two persons rather than as a sacrament, a religious institution, similarly opens the way for a modern, individualistic conception of sexual relations. The relevance of nominalism is manifest: if the only substantial realities are particular things, and universals are mere names—labels attached to items grouped together for mental convenience— then the immediate pressing desires of individuals are obviously more important than abstract notions like family honor and obligation.

Shakespeare’s greatness as a dramatist is perhaps most marked in his ability to define moral issues in the words and actions of characters who affect audiences in complex and paradoxical ways. Romeo and Juliet are quite obviously sympathetic characters and their love is, in many respects, a powerful, affirmative experience. No audience has ever doubted that Romeo’s feeling for Juliet is the “real thing,” in contrast to the melancholy infatuation that he has affected for “Rosaline,” who is literally no more than a name in the play. In the same way it is clear that the moral force of Juliet’s personality grows along with her love for Romeo. What is more, this ardent love stands in sharp contrast to the gnawing, irrational hatred of the prolonged feud between the Capulets and Montagues, which has plagued Verona for generations. Shakespeare’s “star-cross’d lovers” (prol. 6) are the most attractive characters in the drama, and they command our good will and concern.

But it is a witness to the triumph of the Romantic revolution over the course of the past two centuries that the sympathies of most audiences and readers lie so completely with the young lovers. The play probably seems more sentimental to modern men and women than it did to Shakespeare’s contemporaries because we are not shocked by the impiety of Juliet’s call to abandon family name and honor, because we are not truly horrified at the prospect of a secret marriage carried out against the will of parents and extended family. Almost everyone in modern Western society—whatever his considered opinion about a specific situation—makes an unreflecting assumption in favor of the individual as opposed to society or family, and takes it for granted that the purpose of marriage is the gratification and fulfillment of the two particular persons, rather than the achievement of social and religious goals of paramount concern to the family and wider community of the spouses.

Engaging as Romeo and Juliet are, however, there is a striking parallel between the heedless abandon of their erotic passion and the ferocity of the hatred between their two families embodied in Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt. Love can be as irrational and destructive as hate. Friar Lawrence, who vainly hopes to end the feud between the Capulets and Montagues by means of the love of Romeo and Juliet, recognizes the explosive potential of sexual desire:

These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder
Which as they kiss consume (

The tragic conclusion of the play is in part the result of chance, of sheer bad luck; but, as in all true tragedy, it is essentially an expression of the character of the protagonists: the impetuous ardor of Romeo and Juliet, which makes their story so gripping, also deprives them of the virtues of patience and humility and leads them inexorably to destruction. After Juliet has first met Romeo, she sends her nurse to discover his name and adds this fateful comment: “If he be married, / My grave is like to be my wedding-bed” (I.v.134-35). When Romeo learns that he has been banished from Verona for slaying Tybalt, he refuses to accept Friar Lawrence’s argument that the Prince has treated him with mercy:

’Tis torture and not mercy. Heaven is here
Where Juliet lives, and every cat and dog
And little mouse, every unworthy thing,
Live here in heaven and may look on her,
But Romeo may not (III.iii.29-33).

Recognizing the frenzy of these words, Friar Lawrence reproves in the suicidal Romeo “The unreasonable fury of a beast” (III.iii.131). When Romeo says that Juliet’s presence is heaven, he is putting her in the place of God: this attitude is not only blasphemous; it also suggests that his love cannot be contained within the limits of mortal life. Hence Shakespeare turns the indecent Elizabethan pun on “die” as slang for orgasm into the central meaning of the plot: the language of these lovers is haunted by death throughout the drama. Romeo asserts, moreover, the imperious ethics of nominalist individualism when the Friar attempts to reason with him on the basis of proverbial wisdom: “Thou canst not speak of what thou dost not feel” (III.iii.64). Universal ideas are of no force in the face of immediate, particular emotion.

The pattern established in Romeo and Juliet is a familiar one in Shakespearean drama: the guardians of traditional order— princes, parents, priests—have neglected or betrayed their trust and allowed the institutions they rule to become oppressive and vulnerable to rebellion. In Romeo and Juliet parents have produced a world inhospitable to love by making the institution of the family a vehicle of unruly pride and hatred. We sympathize with the lovers, although their love is finally anti-social and destructive, because the society itself is in some measure unnaturally constraining and corrupt. In the second tetralogy of history plays, comprising Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V, we observe the corruption of traditional authority on a national scale. Richard II is the legitimate, anointed king: to defy him is sinful for the individual and threatening to the lawful order and hence the safety of the state. He is, however, a poor ruler: inept, self-serving, and malicious. He uses his great office to favor his friends, murder his enemies, and extort money and goods from everyone— in the moving words of the dying John of Gaunt, he turns “This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, / This other Eden, demi-paradise, / …to a tenement or pelting farm” (Richard II II.i.31-68). Richard believes that the institution of royalty maintains itself. The opposite of a nominalist, he believes—or wishes to believe—that a name is a talisman possessing not merely meaning but even power. When he learns that his own indecisiveness and delays have caused twelve thousand troops to desert him, he recovers his confidence by remembering who he is:

I had forgot myself, am I not a king?
Awake, thou coward majesty! thou sleepest.
Is not the king’s name twenty thousand names?
Arm, arm, my name! a puny subject strikes
At thy great glory (III.ii.83-87).

Richard II is memorable for the poetry spoken by its tragic protagonist. His successful rival, Henry Bullingbroke, who usurps his throne and become Henry IV, is by contrast a man of few words. When Richard is finally brought to abdicate, he delays handing over his crown in a lyrical speech of nearly thirty lines; Bullingbroke’s reply is a single curt line: “I thought you had been willing to resign” (IV.i.190).

But the tetralogy is not a simplistic account of the triumph of action over words, of ruthless political pragmatism over an idealistic conception of anointed majesty. The first and second parts of Henry IV are largely concerned with Henry’s struggle to endow with legitimacy—that is, with meaning and purpose—a dynasty founded upon force. This goal only seems to be accomplished by his son Prince Hal in Henry V when he becomes the titular hero of that work. His success as a ruler depends upon overcoming and rejecting the temptation of the irresponsibility and vice that destroyed Richard II. In the two parts of Henry IV, Hal’s temptations are all epitomized and embodied in the figure of Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most delightful rogues.

The meaning of Falstaff for Prince Hal and for the tetralogy as a whole is best revealed on the field at Shrewbury towards the end of I Henry IV. As the decisive battle approaches, the usually braggart knight lets Hal see how fearful he is of real danger, eliciting this curt remark: “Why thou owest God a death.” With the Prince offstage, Falstaff delivers this famous soliloquy:

’Tis not due yet, I would be loath to pay him
before his day. What need I be so forward with
him that calls not on me? Yea, but how if honor
prick me on. Yea, but how if honor pricks me
off when I come on? how then? Can honor set
to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the
grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in
surgery then? No. What is honor? A word. What
is in that word honor? What is that honor? Air.
A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a’
Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear
it? No. ’Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But
will’t not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction
will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it,
honor is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my
catechism (V.i.126-41).

What Juliet says about the name, “Romeo Montague,” Falstaff says about the abstract term, “honor.” It is only a name, only a word, mere air. It has no substantial existence. What this means in practical terms is manifest in Falstaff’s conduct. Prince Hal has helped Falstaff to a commission to raise a company by impressing (i.e., drafting) civilians into military service for the King. “I have misus’d the King’s press damnably,” Falstaff gleefully confesses. “I have got, in exchange of a hundred and fifty soldiers, three hundred and odd pounds” (IV.ii.12-14). His method is to impress none but comfortable, timid young men and those about to be married, who are quite willing to bribe their way out of service. For them he has substituted ragged derelicts, who are willing to join up for a meal. When he finally has to face battle, Falstaff avoids the wrath of the Scot Douglas by feigning his own death, and even Hal, who has just killed Hotspur, believes him truly dead. When the Prince exits the stage, Falstaff leaps up and takes credit himself for finishing off the rebel lord Hotspur. Falstaff’s comment is justly famous: “The better part of valor is discretion, in the which better part I have sav’d my life” (V.iv.119-21).

Sir John is, of course, one of Shakespeare’s most popular and pleasing creations, but he is not a good man. When Hal, having succeeded to the throne as Henry V upon the death of his father, rejects Falstaff in II Henry IV (V.v.47-71), he disappoints a good many sentimental theatre-goers, but he does the right thing. Falstaff is a man without principle; that is, he is a man with no belief in universals. If honor is not in some sense a real virtue, existing independently of the mind of the individual, then a man has nothing to guide his actions but fear and appetite; and Sir John is shown to be bound by these impulses in the passages that we have examined. Prince Hal, now the King on whose judgment the entire realm depends, recognizes that his boon companion from the tavern cannot be trusted with government. Richard II lost his crown to Hal’s father by encouraging just such favorites.

Shakespeare dramatizes the moral and political significance of nominalism most powerfully in King Lear. In this play, as in Romeo and Juliet and the Henriad, the legitimate guardians of traditional order selfishly abuse their authority and allow unruly passions to disrupt the peace of the community. The issues at stake are acutely defined in King Lear, because the entire conflict turns on the interpretation of the word “nature,” specifically as it applies to human beings. In accordance with scriptural and classical precedent, the culture of Christendom has traditionally defined man as a rational animal: this is his nature, or the kind of being that he is. Insofar as they are rational creatures, human beings are made in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Gen. 1.26). Hence St. Thomas Aquinas gives a typical definition of natural law:

Among the others, however, a rational creature is subject to divine providence in a certain more excellent manner, insofar as it becomes itself a participant in providence, taking care both for itself and for others. In this way eternal reason is imparted to it, and it thereby has a natural inclination for appropriate actions and goals. Such participation in the eternal law on the part of a rational creature is called natural law.[10]

Human beings thus differ from lower non-rational creatures in being subject to a natural law that is, in some measure, voluntary rather than necessary: free will is an essential element of rationality. Men thus have an “inclination for appropriate actions and goals,” not a determination; as a result it is possible for them willfully to violate the law of their nature, especially since they are fallen creatures whose nature is to some extent corrupt. Therefore, human nature is an ideal conception, not fully realized in any individual man or woman. In other words, nature is precisely the kind of universal that nominalism casts into doubt, because it would be exceedingly difficult to gather strictly empirical evidence of the independent or objective existence of the moral nature epitomized in the Ten Commandments from the behavior of actual human beings.

Now in Shakespeare’s time the continuing predominance of the traditional conception of natural law is abundantly illustrated in sermons, treatises, and popular literature. Perhaps the best example is the substantially Thomist account of natural law in the first book of Richard Hooker’s defense of the Church of England against the puritans, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. It was at this time, nonetheless, that a rival, “naturalistic” understanding of human nature was gaining influence in the work of such diverse writers as Machiavelli and Montaigne. Its culminating expression would appear 35 years after Shakespeare’s death in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), but Shakespeare captures the sense of it in Edmund’s soliloquy at the beginning of the second scene of King Lear:

Thou, Nature, are my goddess, to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition, and fierce quality,
Than doth within a dull, stale, tired bed
Go to th’creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? (I.ii.1-15)

It is important to notice that Edmund is not—at least at first—a wholly unsympathetic character. He is both a younger son and illegitimate. By the law of primogeniture as well as legitimacy, his older half-brother Edgar will inherit his father’s title and estates; and while it seems that the Earl of Gloucester has acted responsibly by Edmund and made provision for him, it is also clear that Gloucester chiefly values his bastard son as evidence of his own youthful sexual exploits, as when he introduces him to the Earl of Kent: “Though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair, there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged” (I.i.21- 25). Gloucester is not a malicious man, but he is arrogant and irresponsible, thinking that the natural law that supports his claim to respect for his fatherhood, his years, and his position as a nobleman does not really apply to him. In this careless attitude he mirrors the folly of his master the King, who thinks that he can divide his kingdom among his daughters and their husbands and “retain / The name, and all th’addition to a king” (I.i.135-36). We sense that Goneril and Regan, like Edmund, have been sorely tested in patience by the arbitrary whims of a self-centered old man, used to having his way. When the enraged Lear disinherits and banishes Cordelia, who had been his favorite daughter, because she fails to profess her love for him as fulsomely as her sisters, Regan shrewdly observes, “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (I.i.293- 94).

If the vices and follies of Gloucester and Lear furnish an opportunity for Edmund, Goneril, and Regan, the wickedness of the children is by no means excused by the imprudence of their fathers. As Goneril’s horrified husband, the Duke of Albany, observes, his wife and his sister- and brother-in-law seem to behave with instinctive cruelty and violence, “Like monsters of the deep” (IV.ii.50); but Edmund, as we have seen, has a theory of human nature by which he justifies his behavior. The norms of morality and the common decencies of life are but “the plague of custom”— not a reflection of the natural law, arising from the inherent features of human life. For Edmund, as for Thomas Hobbes decades later, the essential feature of human nature is not reason, but desire: “So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire for power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”[11] Investigating human nature Hobbes finds not law but lawlessness: men are naturally at war with one another, and in this state “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[12] From Edmund’s perspective the reliance of others, unaware of the reality of nature, on traditional piety is an added advantage:

A credulous father and a brother noble,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms
That he suspects none; on whose foolish
My practices ride easy (I.ii.179-82).

In this view, Edgar’s noble “nature” is merely a personal quirk with no warrant in a universal ideal of human nature, and hence his “honesty” can only be foolishness, because he cannot expect it of someone else whose nature differs from his own. Edmund thus embodies the moral consequences of nominalism: if concepts of good and evil, like all universals, exist only in the mind of the individual, then they are finally a matter of opinion, and only a fool will pitch his standards higher than his neighbors.

When Lear, angered at Goneril’s insistence that he reduce the number of his followers, calls upon nature to avenge him, he conceives of nature in terms opposite to Edmund’s:

Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility,
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honor her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatur’d torment to her.
…that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child! (I.iv.275-83, 287-89)

Lear counts upon a unified hierarchy of nature encompassing all of creation from the spiritual down through the material level. His curse assumes that Goneril’s unnatural behavior towards him ought to result in a disruption of her own being at another level, because the obligation of filial piety is as much a part of nature as the process of procreation.

What Lear fails to perceive at this point is that the fulfillment of the demands of human nature requires the active consent of the will. Later in the play, confronting both Goneril and Regan, who demand the dismissal of all his followers because he no longer needs them, Lear begins to realize that natural law, as it applies to men and women, requires an acknowledgement of human dignity that transcends physical necessity[13]:

O, reason not the need! our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s (II.iv.264-67).

In retrospect these lines are touched with irony. Locked out of the castle on a barren heath in the midst of a terrible storm, abandoned by all but a few loyal retainers, Lear recognizes that he, too, has failed to attend adequately to the natural dignity of all his subjects:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just (III.iv.28-36).

The lesson that Lear learns, too late to avert the terrible catastrophe at the close, is that the nature on which he depends in some measure depends on him: “The rule of voluntary agents on earth,” writes Hooker, “is the sentence that Reason giveth concerning the goodness of those things which they are to do.”[14] Lear’s dividing up of his kingdom and disinheriting his daughter in the opening scene provide a signal example of a man surrendering to the impulse of passion rather than following “the sentence of reason.” What is weakness in Lear becomes habit in his daughters, Goneril and Regan. Edmund erects vice into a theory: the law of man’s nature is passion; right reason shrinks into mere guile at the service of desire.

King Lear thus dramatizes, in terms of a struggle within families and between generations, the conflict over the meaning of the word “nature” and, indeed, over the meaning of words as such. Is the nature of an individual what makes him unique or what unites him to others of his “kind”? Is “nature” physical and particular or spiritual and universal? Do terms like “honor” and “justice,” as well as “nature,” refer to objective realities in the order of things, or are they merely subjective mental conveniences? Shakespeare highlights the issue in an ironically ambiguous use of the word, “nature.” When Edmund has deceived Gloucester into believing that Edgar has wounded his brother for resisting a plot against their father, the credulous Gloucester promises to remove the blot of illegitimacy from Edmund and make him his heir: “Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means / To make thee capable” (II.i.84- 85). According to the OED the term, “natural child,” referred to “legitimate” offspring throughout the Middle Ages and into Shakespeare’s time, with the last instance of this usage recorded in 1741. This sense of the term is now obsolete; instead a “natural child” now means “illegitimate” child. The first recorded instance of this usage is 1586, about twenty years before the composition of King Lear.[15] Gloucester, of course, thinks that Edmund’s natural filial piety should qualify him as a natural child in the older, now obsolete sense of the term. In reality, Edmund is a “natural child” according to modern usage—a bastard in every sense of the term. It is a distressing measure of the extent to which the mentality of Edmund has captured modern culture that we routinely think it “natural” to surrender to unbridled desire, while rational self-restraint is somehow “unnatural.”

This kind of attention to Shakespeare’s language reveals an acute awareness in the playwright to the ways that subtle changes in ideas work to change the assumptions and behavior of entire societies. Far from being the prisoner of the regnant “ideology” of his historical period, he is an astute critic of both the established order and the forces threatening to undermine it. The most active defenders of the natural law— King Richard II, King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester—are often those who take their privileges for granted and neglect their responsibilities. Shakespeare’s most explicit nominalists, Juliet and Falstaff, are largely sympathetic characters; and even Edmund and Goneril and Regan have reason to resent their fathers. For the most part, however, Shakespearean drama favors the traditional social order with its basis in natural law. Lear is truly “a man / More sinn’d against than sinning” (III.ii.59-60), and no provocation of his or Gloucester’s can justify the horrors inflicted upon them by their rebellious children, much less what is done to Edgar, Kent, and the saintly Cordelia. Hence it is difficult to credit W.R. Elton’s assertion that “Edmund’s challenge shatters traditional absolutistic [sic] confidence in the universality of God’s law,” much less Elton’s notion that “Shakespeare’s work, therefore, marks a transition between absolute natural law bestowed by God, and relativistic natural law, recognized by man,” which “led to a more tolerant perspective.”[16] Edmund certainly marks a “transition” in European ideas of morality, but it is doubtful that Shakespeare approved of what was embodied in Edmund, or that “tolerant” is an adequate term for the phenomenon. Nominalism, which begins as an epistemological idea, eventually breeds moral consequences: if universal terms are only subjective mental conventions, then universals such as the natural law cannot apply to all men, at all times, and in all places. The result is moral relativism, which means that those with sufficient power can alter the law to suit their convenience. The practical consequence is the final scene of King Lear, in which the aged, despairing monarch carries the dead body of his faithful daughter onto the stage, eliciting this exchange between Kent and Edgar:

Kent. Is this the promis’d end?

Edg. Or image of that horror? (V.iii.264-65)

Books by Shakespeare and R.V. Young may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

This essay is reprinted with the gracious permission of The Intercollegiate Review  (Fall 1997).


  1. Ideas Have Consequences (1948; rpt. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 2-3.
  2. Summa Theologiae I.85.2 ad 2, 3rd ed. (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1961): “Similiter humanitas quae intelligitur, non est nisi in hoc vel in illo homine: sed quod humanitas apprehendatur sine individualibus conditionibus, quod est ipsam abstrahi, ad quod sequitur intentio universalitatis, accidit humanitatis secundum quod percipitur ab intellectu, in quo est similitudo naturae speciei, et non individualium principiorum.”
  3. In the latter half of this century many scholars have asserted that Occam was not in fact such a radical nominalist as to deny universals any reality or correspondence to reality, but the precise orientation of his thought is less significant for present purposes than its effect on subsequent generations. Cf. Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy (New York: Doubleday, 1963), III, 58.
  4. Summa totius logicae I.14: “Verumtamen sciendum, quod universale duplex est: Quoddam est universale naturaliter, quod scilicet naturaliter est signum praedicabile de pluribus ad modum proportionaliter, quo fumus naturaliter significat ignem et gemitus infirmi dolorem et risus interiorem laetitiam: et tale universale non est nisi intentio animae, ita quod nulla substantia extra animam nec aliquod accidens extra animam est tale universale. …Aliud est universale per voluntariam institutionem. Et sic vox prolata, quae est vere una qualitas, est universalis, quia scilicet est signum voluntarie institutum ad significandum plura. Unde sicut vox dicitur communis, ita potest dici universalis; sed hoc non habet ex natura rei, sed ex placito instituentium tantum.” The Latin text is taken from Ockham: Philosophical Writings, ed. and trans. Philotheus Boehner, O.F.M., rev. Stephen F. Brown (Indianapolis / Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1989), p. 34.
  5. Ideas Have Consequences, p. 5.
  6. The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnson (Old Tappan,NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1957) p. 170. For various viewpoints on the role of nominalism in the Reformation, see, e.g., A.G. Dickens, The English Reformation (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), pp. 64, 85; Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1958), pp. 187-91; and Lewis W. Spitz, The Protestant Reformation, 1517-1559 (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), pp. 79-81.
  7. The Bondage of the Will, p. 170.
  8. All quotations of Shakespeare are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al, 2nd ed. (Boston / New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997).
  9. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (San Diego / New York /London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), pp. 17-18, 498-99.
  10. Summa TheologiaeI-II.91.2: “Inter cetera autem rationalis creatura excellentiori quodam modo divinae providentiae subiacet, inquantum et ipsa fit providentiae particeps, sibi ipsi et aliis providens. Unde et in ipsa participatur ratio aeterna, per quam habet naturalem inclinationem ad debitum actum et finem. Et talis participatio legis aeternae in rationali creatura lex naturalis dicitur.”
  11. LeviathanI.xi.2, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1994), p. 58.
  12. Ibid. I.xiii.9, p. 76
  13. For a different interpretation of this passage cf. R.S. White, Natural Law and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 208-09
  14. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity I.viii.4, intro. Christopher Morris (London: J.M. Dent, 1907), I, 177
  15. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), s.v. “natural,” IIIa,c
  16. “Shakespeare and the Thought of His Age,” in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Stanley Wells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 28. Elton’s grotesque over-simplification of the movement of European thought emerges on p. 31: “Between and innovating Renaissance empiricism and an obsolescent Scholasticism, Shakespeare’s plays move critically.” It is distressing to think that many undergraduates will derive their principal introduction to the ideas in Shakespeare’s plays from this confused and all too typical account, given its appearance in a student handbook.

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