“Hast any philosophy in thee, shepherd?”56 So Touchstone asks Corin, and we ask Shakespeare. One of his confessed rivals gave a negative answer to the question;57 and we may accept that judgment as Bernard Shaw meant it—that there is no metaphysics in Shakespeare, no view as to the ultimate nature of reality, no theory of God. Shakespeare was too wise to think that a creature could analyze his creator, or that even his mind, poised on a moment of flesh, could comprehend the whole. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”58 If he made a guess he kept it to himself, and perhaps thereby proved himself a philosopher. He speaks with no reverence of professed philosophers, and doubts that any of them ever bore the toothache patiently.59 He laughs at logic and prefers imagination’s light; he does not offer to solve the mysteries of life or mind, but he feels and visions them with an intensity that shames or deepens our hypotheses. He stands aside and watches the dogmatists destroy one another or disintegrate in the catalysis of time. He hides himself in his characters and is hard to find; we must beware of attributing an opinion to him unless it is expressed with some emphasis by at least two of his creations.

He is at first sight more of a psychologist than a philosopher; but again not as a theorist but, rather, as a mental photographer, catching the secret thoughts and symptomatic actions that reveal the nature of a man. However, he is no surface realist; things do not happen, people do not speak, in life as in his plays; but in the sum we feel that through these improbabilities and extravagances we are nearing the core of human instinct and thought. Shakespeare knows as well as Schopenhauer that “reason panders will”;60 he is quite Freudian in putting erotic ditties into the virgin mouth of the starved and crazed Ophelia; and he reaches beyond Freud to Dostoevski in studying Macbeth and his “worser” half.

If we interpret philosophy not as metaphysics but as any large perspective of human affairs, as a generalized view not only of the cosmos and the mind but as well of morals, politics, history, and faith, Shakespeare is a philosopher, profounder than Bacon, as Montaigne is deeper than Descartes; it is not form that makes philosophy. He recognizes the relativity of morals: “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,”61 and “our virtues lie in the interpretation of the time.”62 He feels the puzzle of determinism: some men are bad by heredity, “wherein they are not guilty, since nature [character] cannot choose his origin.”63 He knows the Thrasymachus theory of morals: Richard III holds that “conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe; our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law”;64 Richard II judges that “they well deserve to have, that know the strong’st and surest way to get”;65 but both these Nietzscheans are brought to a sorry fate. Shakespeare notes, too, the feudal-aristocratic ethic of honor and gives it many a noble phrase, but he deprecates, as in Hotspur, its bent toward pride and violence, “defect of manners, want of [self-]government.”66 In the end his own ethic is one of Aristotelian measure and Stoic control. Measure and reason are the theme of Ulysses’ speech reproving Ajax and Achilles.67 Reason alone, however, is not enough; a stoic fiber must strengthen it:

Men must endure

Their going hence even as their coming hither:

Ripeness is all …68

Death is forgivable if it comes after we have fulfilled ourselves. Shakespeare welcomes Epicurus, too, and admits no inherent contradiction between pleasure and wisdom. He snaps at the Puritans, and makes the maid Maria tell Malvolio, “Go shake your ears”69—i.e., “You’re an ass.” He is as lenient as a pope to sins of the flesh, and puts into the mad Lear’s mouth a hilarious paean to copulation.70

His political philosophy is conservative. He knew the sufferings of the poor and made Lear voice them feelingly. A fisherman in Pericles (1609?) notes that fishes live in the sea

as men do a-land,—the great ones eat up the little ones. I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale; a’ plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful: such whales have I heard on o’ the land, who never leave gaping till they’ve swallowed the whole parish, church, steeple, bells, and all.71

Gonzalo, in The Tempest, dreams of an anarchistic communism where “all things in common nature should produce,” and there should be no laws, no magistrates, no labor, and no war;72 but Shakespeare smiles this utopia away as made impossible by the nature of man; under every constitution the whales will eat the fish.

What was Shakespeare’s religion? Here especially the search for his philosophy is difficult. He expresses through his characters almost every faith, and with such tolerance as must have made the Puritans think him an infidel. He quotes the Bible often and reverently, and lets Hamlet, supposedly skeptical, talk believingly of God, prayer, heaven, and hell.73 Shakespeare and his children were baptized according to Anglican rites.74 Some of his lines are vigorously Protestant. King John speaks of papal pardons as “juggling witchcraft,” and quite anticipates Henry VIII:

… no Italian priest

Shall tithe or toll in our dominions;

But as we, under heaven, are supreme head,

So, under Him, that great supremacy,

Where we do reign, we will alone uphold …

So tell the Pope, all reverence set apart

To him and his usurpt authority.75

Though, of course, John goes to Canossa in the end. A later play, Henry VIII, only partly by Shakespeare, gives very favorable pictures of Henry and Cranmer and ends with a eulogy of Elizabeth—all chief architects of the Reformation in England. There are some pro-Catholic touches, as in the sympathetic portrayal of Catherine of Aragon and Friar Lawrence;76 but the latter character had come to Shakespeare as formed in the novelle of Italian Catholics.

Some faith in God survives throughout the tragedies. Lear in his bitterness thinks that

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,—

They kill us for their sport.77

But: “The gods are just,” answers the good Edgar, “and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us”;78 and Hamlet affirms his faith in “a divinity that doth shape our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”79 Despite this struggling faith in a Providence that deals with us justly there is, in Shakespeare’s greatest plays, a spreading cloud of unbelief in life itself. Jaques sees in all the “seven ages” of man nothing but slow riping and fast rotting. We hear the same refrain in King John:

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale

Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man;80

and in Hamlet’s scorn of the world:

Fie on’t! O, fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely;81

and in Macbeth’s

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.82

Does any sense of immortality soften this pessimism? Lorenzo, after describing to Jessica the music of the spheres, adds that “such harmony is in immortal souls.”83 Claudio, in Measure for Measure, visions an afterlife, but in somber terms of Dante’s Inferno or Pluto’s Hades:

Ah, but to die, and go we know not where;

To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;

This sensible warm motion to become

A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside

In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;

To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,

And blown with restless violence round about

The pendent world … ’tis too horrible!84

Hamlet speaks casually of the soul as immortal,85 but his soliloquy affirms no faith; and his dying words in the older version of the play, “Heaven receive my soul,” were changed by Shakespeare to read, “The rest is silence.”

We cannot say with confidence how much of this pessimism came from the demands of tragic drama and how much voiced Shakespeare’s mood; but its repetition and emphasis suggest that it expressed the darker moments of his philosophy. The sole mitigation of it in these culminating plays is a hesitant recognition that amid the evils of this world there are blessings and delights, amid the villains many heroes and some saints—for every lago a Desdemona, for every Goneril a Cordelia, for every Edmund an Edgar or a Kent; even in Hamlet a fresh wind blows from Horatio’s faithfulness and Ophelia’s wistful tenderness. After the tired actor and playwright leaves the chaos and crowded loneliness of London for the green fields and parental consolations of his Stratford home he will recapture the strong man’s love of life.

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