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Shakespeare's Purpose in Subverting the "Moral Universe" in Hamlet, Measure for Measure, and the Henriad.

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Introduction

5/8/07 7:39:27 PM Michelle Wendt Intro to Shakespeare Fall 2003 Professor Tomkins Shakespeare's Purpose in Subverting the "Moral Universe" in Hamlet, Measure for Measure, and the Henriad The inverted "moral universe"i in Shakespearean drama was a demonstration of the increased reality that ancestral and collective foundations were losing their sanctified nature. Key upheavals were taking place and the world of Shakespeare was evolving from a time where "the earth was still the center of the universe,ii" towards a life of societal instability. Like all playwrights, Shakespeare's ideas for plot were partly a reflection of the world in which he lived. The enlightenment was a time where religion was giving way to science and economic gain. It would be unreasonable for such a reflective dramatist to omit the implications and limitations of the times in his work. The regulations and boundaries for human conduct are not always clear, especially in times of fluctuation. While I would not maintain "moral universe" is a dominant theme in Shakespeare's work, I do argue that it is a somewhat significant current running through many of his plays. To define any one "moral universe" in the work is folly, each play deserves many separate definitions. Collective morality goes through an alteration according to the circumstances of each group of characters. Situational ethics play a role in determining the behavior of Shakespeare's characters, especially in the history plays. ...read more.

Middle

The Henriad is the clearest illustration of situational ethics in the works of Shakespeare. In his plays, the act of killing a king or subverting a king's power (A Midsummer Night's Dream) destabilizes the universe. In addition, each character feels justified in his or hers own actions. There is a lack of a conventional biblical "moral universe" in Henry IV, I and II; the persistent motif in these plays is that most of the characters are bent on servicing their own ends. The reality that an archbishop would consent to a revolt against the ruler is an obvious indication that the state of the" moral universe" is on its head. This might not have happened had Henry IV been a ruler by divine right. As the head of state, he set the tone of the universe. Since he interrupted the lines of succession; he left himself open to more of the same when his own past came back to haunt his rule. The constant uprisings are also taking place in Shakespeare's sector. During the performance of the plays, Elizabeth was fending off rebellions of her own. The characters in the Henriad also are deficient in morality. As in Measure for Measure, most of the characters are flawed, not just the hero. Both Hotspur and Henry fail to see their moral shortcomings. Integrity crumbles because the idea on which it is based is shallow. ...read more.

Conclusion

Humanity was moving away from absolutism to relativism and nihilism. Situational ethics played a strong role in his work in the lives and choices of his characters. Instead of using magic as the weight to unbalance the universe, he used morality and ethics as literary devices to throw his created worlds into chaos. When the "moral universe" was out of order, the rules of society became indistinct. Shakespeare forced certain characters to undertake journeys for enlightenment to restore the "moral universe." His function in destabilizing the "moral universe" was to emphasize the unnaturalness of the actions of his characters. i Term "moral universe" introduced by Professor Tomkins, Fall 2003 ii Donahue conversation iii Simms lecture Effect of the Reformation on the Renaissance in England iv Tom Bishop http://www.shaksper.net/archives/1998/1276.html SHAKSPER, the international electronic conference. v A Critical Look at Situation Ethics by WayneJackson. vi How moral is war, consider who gains, a few titled men are the only people who will actually benefit along with a host of knights, who fight for glory and pay in their protected Armour. But the reality is that the serfs will be the one to pay- their lands taxed, their farms and villages burnt and the men killed. All because they live in the region of certain lords, they will fight, no matter what the cost. Their situation remains static no matter who wears the crown, until they get a king who knows how to avoid war, restore a collective moral universe, and rule as a political leader instead of a barbarian. (Wendt) vii Tomkins lecture, November 2003. ...read more.

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