Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor

By Curtis Brown Watson | Go to book overview

EPILOGUE

THIS book has attempted to place Shakespeare's dramatic treatment of the concept of honor in its proper cultural context--the pagan- humanist values of the aristocracy of his age. To define Shakespeare's relation to the Renaissance ethos is not an easy task, nor can one ever arrive at anything like complete certainty as to the validity of his conclusions.

This study has shown that certain moral assumptions were shared by Shakespeare and his audience, and that many leading themes of particular plays, such as the ingratitude of Goneril and Regan to their royal benefactor and aged father, are clarified considerably by appropriate reference to the precepts and axioms of Renaissance moral philosophy.

It may seem that I have unduly stressed the significance of Aristotle and Cicero throughout, since there is little reason to believe that Shakespeare was directly influenced by Aristotle and no evidence to indicate a specific debt to Cicero. But it is enough to know that the English monarchs from Edward to Elizabeth made use of the Nicomachean Ethics as one of their principal moral works; that the numerous Italian dialogues on honor and the duel were directly indebted to Aristotle's definitions of honor, reputation, disgrace, injury, and contempt; and that Cicero's Offices was the grammar school textbook on moral philosophy, for us to assign these two pagan philosophers a place of central significance. Even if Shakespeare's eyes were simply on the flesh-and-blood aristocrat, he could not have missed endless opportunities to witness the actual carrying out of various cardinal aspects of the pagan- humanist ethics derived from these two philosophers. The dueling scenes involving Romeo, Tybalt, and Mercutio, and the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, are unmistakable reflections of the Renaissance code of honor and the duel, a code based on Aristotle. So, likewise, when Lear suffers insult and abuse from the steward Oswald, we should recollect that King Lear was first performed before the King at Whitehall

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