One of the most ingratiating aspects of Shakespeare’s works is the playwright’s seemingly limitless affection for his characters. No matter what their vices or crimes, no matter how misguided or even brutal they may be, Shakespeare invests virtually every one with humanity, often manifested through expressions of forgiveness. Such reconciliation occurs at the end of many plays in different genres, contributing both to the catharsis that is essential to the tragic experience and to the joy that is part of the comic form.
In Romeo and Juliet, for instance, the final moments of the play find the surviving members of the Capulet and Montague families mourning the deaths of the title characters. First, Friar Lawrence recounts the events that have transpired, at last taking blame on himself:
Miscarried by my fault, let my old life
Be sacrific’d some hour before his time,
Unto the rigor of severest law.
(V, iii, 266–269)
The Prince, however, refuses to condemn the Friar: “We still have known thee for a holy man” (V, iii, 270). This line suggests a theme that pervades Shakespeare’s canon: that decent people may, in moments of crisis, be capable of indecent acts, and that therefore we must judge people by their entire lives, not by instances of weakness. Moments later, the two families join in mutual penance, although we note that a measure of competition may remain after Capulet offers his hand in friendship, and Montague offers to go one step further by building a statue: “But I can give thee more” (V, iii, 298). Despite this small bump, however, the path of reconciliation seems clear.
Such is also the tone at the end of Julius Caesar, when the forces of the