Language…most shows a man.
Ben Jonson

Aristotle’s famous statement that virtue is a mean between two extremes is generally not quoted in its entirety. He does indeed say, “In respect of its substance and the definition which states its essence virtue is a mean”—that is, a mean between two opposed vices. Courage is a mean between rashness and cowardice. But the other, less-noticed part of his definition is also crucial: “With regard to what is best and right [virtue is] an extreme.”[1] That is, one cannot, in Aristotle’s view, be a little bit sober or some of the time courageous; either he has the virtues of temperance and fortitude or he does not.

Today any fictional character with a pulse is called “daring” or “brave” in our “irreverent” popular culture. But Shakespeare’s heroes as well as his villains are as likely, perhaps even more likely, to do the outrageous and the unconventional, not out of a spirit of rebelliousness or cussedness but because of their own imaginative and forceful responses to the extreme circumstances that life has put them in. This is what makes them virtuous.

Ben Jonson said that language reveals character because it “springs out of the most retired and inmost parts of us and is the image and parent of it, the mind.”[2] Shakespeare was adept at illustrating Jonson’s precept for his “great variety of readers,” as his acting colleagues Heminges and Condell addressed the purchasers of their First Folio in 1623. It was by invoking the different shades of the accumulated meanings of words, as well as more recent, subtle changes to those meanings, that he revealed the features of virtue. These talents help account for why Shakespeare retains his relevance and stature four hundred years after his death. For his depictions of virtue not only illuminate the moral dimensions of the early modern period but also speak to the moral dilemmas of our own age.

Looking at a word’s etymology and its historical usage is one of the best ways to understand what the word means in any particular era. At the beginning of the early modern period, Erasmus in his composition textbook De Copia said that etymology, the study of a word’s origins, “is an explanation of the meaning of a word.”[3] He gave several examples, such as pecuniosus, a “moneyed man”—that is, “one who possesses an abundance of cattle,” a meaning derived from the Latin pecus, which meant “cattle.” Jonson himself in his English Grammar (printed in 1641) called etymologie the “true notation of words.”[4]

John Milton wrote in his Art of Logic that notation (etymology) was “the interpretation of a name, that is, a reason given why anything is named as it is.” Milton also quoted Cicero’s remark that “names are truly the signs of things” and gave as one of his own examples the derivation of homo from humo (“soil”): Milton said that the “notation is from the matter,”[5] with the Latin word for “man” being derived from the material from which the Bible says he was created. Milton was not unmindful that traditional etymologies were sometimes fanciful, but he cited many examples in this chapter of his Logic—the kind of work the Renaissance thought necessary for the writer—that were genuine.

Underlying all this discussion is the assumption that there is a real connection between a word and the thing that it denotes. Although it is true, as Juliet says in Romeo and Juliet, that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” names still do stand for realities, in this play as much as anywhere else. It is Juliet’s famous meditation on Romeo’s name, as she stands alone on her balcony—“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo”—that causes her lover hidden in the garden below to reveal himself and to express his love for her. The invocation of the name calls out the person and reveals the boldness of his character.

Of course, the meanings of words change over time, but a nineteenth-century writer on the arts of language, John Stuart Mill, spoke for all those who like to study this topic when he said in his own book on logic, “It may be good to alter the meaning of a word, but it is bad to let any part of the meaning drop.”[6]

The plays suggest that Shakespeare agreed with Mill’s assertions, that to unleash a word’s full potency required that no “part of [its] meaning drop.”

The word virtue derives from the Latin word vir, which means “man”—also a source for English words such as virility. The closely allied Latin word virtus means “valor,” “worth,” and “merit.” In general, the traditional idea of virtue had to do with “power,” the ability to act or to animate—to be the “force,” as Dylan Thomas says, “that through the green fuse drives the flower” as well his own “green age.” This is not a “power” that has the modern political sense of “oppression.” Nor is virtue for Shakespeare principally that schoolboy report card that Ben Franklin recorded in his Autobiography to show how he was behaving (very well, it seems).

The Renaissance writer did not find this root sense of virtue applicable only to men. The rigorous Ben Jonson affirmed both men and women’s shared virtuous identity. When Jonson was composing a picture of “what kinde of creature I could most desire to honor and serve,” he thought it should be possessed of “each softest virtue” who would also have a “learned, and a manly soule” (Epigram 76, “On Lucy Countesse of Bedford,” 11.3–4, 11, 13–14). The countess’s soul was “manly” because it was “virtuous,” “powerful,” a quality that applied equally to each sex.

The dynamic quality of virtue, its power, is attested throughout Shakespeare’s plays. Its connection to valor is indeed frequent. In the most martial of all the tragedies, Coriolanus, the Roman general Cominius says it is commonly held that “valour is the chiefest virtue” (2.2.84).[7] In the same play, when the patrician Menenius seeks to visit his exiled friend (and now enemy of the state) Coriolanus, he is denied entry into Coriolanus’s camp by the watchman, who says, “The virtue [power] of your name / Is not here passable” (5.2.14–15). When Antony returns to Cleopatra after an unexpectedly successful battle against Octavius Caesar, she greets him with characteristic grand hyperbole by saying, “Lord of lords, / O infinite virtue, com’st thou smiling from / The world’s great snare uncaught?” (Antony and Cleopatra, 4.8.16–18). Antony’s “infinite virtue” is his military prowess, although surely Cleopatra has also in mind the power of love in Antony’s life to overcome all considerations of politics and world affairs.

Nor is virtue in this sense of physical strength of purpose confined to men. Cleopatra knows a liar when she hears one: When Octavius Caesar falsely promises her merciful treatment in Rome, she says, “He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not / Be noble to myself” (5.2.191–92); she escapes his plotting by committing suicide through “the joy of the asp.” When, in Julius Caesar, Brutus’s wife, Portia, is troubled by her husband’s distracted behavior after he has been visited by the conspirators against Caesar’s life, she tells him that he has some “sick offense within your mind, / Which by the right and virtue of my place / I ought to know of” (2.1.269–71). In the same scene, she shows the strength of her virtuous loyalty to Brutus—that is, a loyalty informed by decisive action—by showing him the wound she has given herself in the thigh as a “strong proof of my constancy” (2.1.300). Shakespearean virtue is not satisfied with half measures.

Shakespeare frequently shows us that virtue is not so much a static state of character to be achieved as it is a dynamic activity to be continually renewed, an idea Aristotle suggested in his definition of happiness as eudaemonia, “virtuous activity.” Echoing closely this definition, Lucentio at the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew tells his servant that he has come to Padua to study that part of philosophy “that treats of happiness / By virtue specially to be achieved” (1.1.19–20). The animating power of virtue is also seen in Hamlet’s telling the visiting actors that their playacting should show “virtue her feature” (3.2.23)—that is, should bring to life the very picture of the abstraction “virtue,” giving their spectators living pictures of her dramatic representatives choosing between good and evil. It is a tableau that the royal house of Denmark is in need of seeing.

Virtue’s energy can also make it dangerous if it is misdirected. Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet has noticed from his study of nature “the powerful grace that lies / In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities” but also how they may be misused; he then reflects, “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied / And vice sometimes by action dignified” (2.3.19–20). The Montagues and Capulets vividly illustrate this last statement with their obstinate insistence on following a code of revenge for a quarrel whose origins no one remembers. Which leads us to recall Aristotle’s statement that virtue is an extreme with regard to what is “best and right.”

Shakespeare’s plots and heroes neither tolerate tepid compromises of what is best and right nor finally accept as irreconcilable those seeming opposites that so bedevil our public and private lives—love and duty, desire and reason, justice and mercy, family life and career ambition, and that very disastrous separation so commonly heard today between what one “personally” believes and what he or she is publicly willing to advocate. In Shakespeare’s plays the times are nearly always desperate, and persons of character must confront them with a desperate resolve. “Virtue is bold,” says Duke Frederick to a woman who needs his help in Measure for Measure, and “goodness never fearful” (3.1.210).

This notion of the dramatist is different from John Keats’s romantic description (which has become standard) of Shakespeare as one who embodied a “negative capability” that allowed him to manifest a chameleon-like sympathy with his various characters. Thus, the Keats argument goes, whether a Shakespearean character’s actions are moral or immoral, admirable or reprehensible, is largely beside the point; they are part of the world as it is and therefore they command the artist’s and his readers’ interest and respect. Lady Macbeth is not a murderous conspirator but is rather “fascinating” (perhaps because of this very fact), and Falstaff is not a walking vice but is rather humanity writ large. That both Lady Macbeth and Falstaff are colossal characters is of course true, and we should indeed separate their sins from their persons, but surely this should be done within the context of what is most obvious about them.

In a sense, Keats and his followers do not go far enough. The corollary to Shakespeare’s rejection of puritanical notions of behavior—his recognition that cakes and ale are not incompatible with virtue—is his allowing his protagonists maximum freedom and then asking, “By exercising maximum freedom, could they also exercise maximum responsibility?”

As a playwright, Shakespeare paradoxically isolated his men and women even while they were immersed in complex social situations. Forced to rely on their limited personal resources, they are surprisingly, especially in the comedies, able to effect social change. They achieve their own individuation and larger social reform at the same time, frequently in extreme ways: through disguises, concealed identities, and pretending to be members of the opposite sex (Rosalind, Viola, Portia); through trafficking with the supernatural (Hamlet); or through feigning madness (Hamlet), being surrounded by madness (Viola’s in Twelfth Night), or actually going mad (Lear).

It will not do to say these are merely conventions of the theater—of course they are. But great art uses conventional plots and character types to appeal to audiences of its own time and then transforms these devices so that—intentionally or not—they appeal to audiences of every time. As the very quotable Jonson said about his friend, Shakespeare “was not of an age but for all time.” Shakespeare’s romantic and eventful plots were a sign not just of his knowing how to tell a good story but also of the spaciousness of his times, when one might hope like the voyagers in The Tempest to “rejoice / beyond a common joy,” as the old counselor Gonzalo remarks, because in a single journey “all of us [found] ourselves / When no man was his own” (5.1.208–9, 214–15).

In fact, it seems that virtue can be revealed for what it truly is—and not some bourgeois facsimile or politically correct imposture—only when characters are pushed into extraordinary situations where the exigencies of the moment override all ordinary responses. “Great wits are sure to madness near allied / And thin partitions do their bounds divide,” said John Dryden in Absalom and Achitophel. Shakespeare had already made this notion current when his King Theseus remarked with a sudden illumination in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.”

One of Shakespeare’s greatest plays was a five-act illustration of Dryden’s maxim. For the madness of King Lear is not an antic disposition like Hamlet’s, which can be taken on and off as the occasion demands, but the cracking of his human nature, which leads to a number of sobering insights into virtue and vice. With his furious wisdom, for example, Lear berates the hypocrisy with which he sees justice administered in society: “The usurer hangs the cozener,” says the outraged king. “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; / Robes and furred gowns hide all” (4.6.163–65). When regarding the uncovered body—an unorthodox disguise, to be sure—of one of his court’s virtuous (and ostracized) remnants, the Earl of Gloucester’s son Edgar, Lear declares that this “Poor Tom” (beggar) at least does not partake of the adulterated sophistication of civilization: “Thou art the thing itself; / unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, / forked animal as thou art” (3.4.105–7).

This is as intense a situation as any that Shakespeare portrays in his tragedies: Lear, a very old man of eighty years, has descended into madness after irresponsibly bequeathing his kingdom to his two reprehensible daughters, Goneril and Regan, and disinheriting his only loyal daughter because she would not be a sycophant on demand. He is now exposed to the ragings of an apocalyptic storm because he has no home, and he can find consolation only in the compassionate and witty reproaches of his court fool. It is the very extremity of this situation that brings forth from Lear his insights into human nature’s pretensions and vulnerabilities. He is not a model of behavior for others to follow, as he certainly did not practice what he has come to preach. But it is also true that had he not practiced as he did, he would have nothing to preach. “Madness and impertinency mixed!” exclaims Edgar as he listens to Lear rant. “Reason in madness!” (4.6.174–75).

The sententious Polonius—not always a fool—observes much the same thing about the presumed mad Hamlet: “How pregnant sometimes his replies are! A happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of” (2.2.208–11). The greatest of the villains, such as Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear, have a terrifying rationality that allows them to explain in lucid detail their motiveless malignities. They live in what G.K. Chesterton called in Orthodoxy the “clean and well-lit prison” of a single terrifying obsession: for Iago, an envious hatred of Othello; for Edmund, his prayer that the “gods [will] stand up for bastards” even as he acknowledges that he has no real cause for complaint: “Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund / As to the legitimate” son, Edgar (1.2.17–18).

In King Lear, the virtuous Kent may well forthrightly say, “I do profess to be no less than I seem: to serve him truly that will put me in trust; to love him that is honest” (1.4.13–15), but he does so only in disguise after the king has unjustly exiled him from the court for offering the good advice that Lear was too ruled by passions to accept. Truth will out in the plays, but not in conventional circumstances, and not without those who seek truth undergoing significant suffering and metamorphosis.

The advantage of this is the inestimable benefit that virtue is never dull in Shakespeare. “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” says the unjustly exiled Duke Senior when we first meet him in the Forest of Arden in As You Like It. The Duke and his band of “merry men,” we learn, “fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world” (1.1.111–14). The Duke is no romantic about nature—he acknowledges “the icy fang / And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,” but he is grateful that these are “counselors / That feelingly persuade me what I am” (2.1.10–11), as opposed to the obsequious flatterings of courtly fops. Like the blind Gloucester after his eyes are put out at the behest of Lear’s villainous daughters, in the forest Duke Senior is able to “see feelingly.”

Perception is sharpened in the plays by enduring misfortunes, deserved or not. In a reversal of how we usually look at things, the villains end up as bored dullards. The theretofore vainly loquacious Iago’s response at the end of the play about his motives in destroying Othello is a less-than-triumphant “Demand me nothing….From this time forth I never will speak word” (5.2.311–12). The Edmund in King Lear who boasted about how his schemes would make him “grow” and “prosper” can later only feebly declaim that he was loved by two murderous women, “the one the other poisoned for my sake / And after slew herself” (5.3.245–46). And the Macbeth who dared do considerably more than what “may become a man” finds ultimately the ennui of a life “signifying nothing.”

This is the first essay in a two-part series.

Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Spring 2016).

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Ethica Nicomachea, trans. W.D. Ross (London: Oxford University Press, 1915), 2.6, 1107a.

[2] Explorata, or Discoveries, in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, eds. David Bevington, Martin Butler, and Ian Donaldson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 7.567.

[3] Collected Works of Erasmus, ed. Craig R. Thompson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), 24.332.

[4] Cambridge Edition, 7.311.

[5] Columbia Edition of the Works of Milton, ed. Frank Allen Patterson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931–38), 11.221.

[6] John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, 8th ed. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), 479. On the status of etymology in contemporary linguistics and philosophy, see David del Bello’s interesting discussion in Forgotten Paths: Etymology and the Allegorical Mindset (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2007).

[7] All reference to the plays are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 5th ed., ed. David Bevington (New York: Pearson Longman, 2004).

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