The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

Reason versus Passion

Shakespeare’s contemporaries regarded human beings as possessing many conflicting qualities. Two of these characteristics, however, were judged to be especially powerful influences on our behavior: first, we have the capacity to reason; second, we are vulnerable to instinctive drives and passions. The inner war between these two forces creates much of the unbalance in ourselves and our lives. Therefore we should not be surprised that much of Shakespearean drama reflects his characters’ attempts to resolve that conflict.

One of the most delightful examples of a figure undergoing such difficulty is the bachelor Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Atfirst, he announces his disdain for all love; in the long-standing tradition of comic drama, however, his antipathy masks a deep-seated desire that he does not acknowledge, but which we recognize whenever his counterpart, Beatrice, takes the stage. Benedick disparages her, but here is a case where hate and love reflect each other. The more Benedick rails, the more we want him to marry Beatrice, even when he denounces her with customary fury:


She speaks poniards,

and every words stabs. If her breath were as terrible

as her terminations, there were no living near her,

she would infect the north star. I would not

marry her, though she were endow’d with all

that Adam had left him before he transgress’d.

She would have made Hercules have turn’d spit,

yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too.

(II, i, 247–254)

Later he rationalizes his attitude toward women while simultaneously downplaying his desires:

-295-

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The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction xi
  • Acting 1
  • Appearance versus Reality 9
  • Clerics 23
  • Commoners 35
  • Cynicism 45
  • Divine Right 53
  • Fate 63
  • Fathers and Daughters 71
  • Fidelity 81
  • Fools 89
  • Forgiveness 99
  • Gender 107
  • Generations 117
  • Honor 127
  • Innocence 135
  • Intoxication 143
  • Justice 151
  • Language 161
  • Love and Romance 171
  • Machiavels 187
  • Madness 199
  • Male Friendship 211
  • Marriage 219
  • Money 229
  • Mortality 237
  • Nationalistic Pride and Prejudice 245
  • Nature 255
  • Order 263
  • Politics 273
  • Power 285
  • Reason versus Passion 295
  • Revenge 305
  • Supernatural Phenomena 315
  • The Tragic Flaw 325
  • War 335
  • Conclusion 345
  • Further Reading 347
  • Index 349
  • About the Author 362
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