Crime and God's Judgment in Shakespeare

Crime and God's Judgment in Shakespeare

Robert Rentoul Reed
Copyright Date: 1984
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Crime and God's Judgment in Shakespeare
    Book Description:

    Divine retribution, Robert Reed argues, is a principal driving force in Shakespeare's English history plays and three of his major tragedies. Reed finds evidence of the playwright's growing ingenuity and maturing skill in his treatment of the crime of political homicide, its impact on events, and God's judgment on the criminal.

    Reed's analysis focuses upon Tudor concepts that he shows were familiar to all Elizabethans -- the biblical principle of inherited guilt, the doctrine that God is the fountainhead of retribution, with man merely His instrument, and the view that conscience serves a fundamentally divine function -- and he urges us to look at Shakespeare within the context of his time, avoiding the too-frequent tendency of twentieth-century critics to force a modern world view on the plays.

    Heaven's power of vengeance provides an essential unifying theme to the plays of the two historical tetralogies, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Macbeth. By analyzing these plays in the light of values held by Shakespeare's contemporaries, Reed has made a substantial contribution toward clarifying our understanding of the plays and of Elizabethan England.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6441-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
    (pp. 1-11)

    The present book treats divine retribution both in Shakespeare’s English history plays and in several of his major tragedies, each of which has satisfied the precondition that the retribution is a principal force—and sometimes the main force—behind the play’s tragic inevitability. In the histories, God’s judgments are motivated principally (but not entirely) by the biblical doctrine of inherited guilt; in the tragedies, by the immediate guilt of a living man. The purpose of my introduction is to respond to those critics, most of them recent, who have repudiated the presence of divine punishment in the histories—in particular,...

  4. ONE The Structure of Shakespeare’s Eight-Part Epic
    (pp. 12-42)

    Of Shakespeare’s themes in the history plays and the tragedies, none is so commonly enunciated as is the theme of political homicide, prompted by self-interest, and God’s ultimate judgment upon the perpetrator or his heirs. This theme is fundamental to the structure of the two historical tetralogies, binding the two into an intelligible whole, while it informs, independently, each of the two Richard plays; it is, moreover, a central theme of at least three important tragedies. The homicide, because it is committed against a man of high status, inevitably shapes much of the subsequent action, customarily in the form of...

  5. TWO The Justice of God: Medieval and Renaissance
    (pp. 43-65)

    Shakespeare’s plays provide examples of three types of punitive retaliation: the revenge of justice; the revenge of honor; and the revenge of passion. Of these three, only the first is granted a wide social acceptance, for only it comes under God’s laws. The second is condoned if the subsequent injury is not in excess of the motive, and the third, being animalistic, has no societal acceptance whatsoever. The second category—the revenge of honor—is often a topic of burlesque in Shakespeare’s plays, as it is in the Fluellen-Pistol confrontation or, in comedy, during the Cesario-Andrew duel; but when honor...

  6. THREE Thomas of Gloucester: The Sword of Retribution
    (pp. 66-88)

    To the reader of Shakespeare’sRichard II,the repeated mention of “Gloucester” or “Woodstock” is apt to evoke nothing more than the name of a nobleman who has been murdered. In his 1946 edition of the old playWoodstock(ca. 1591), A.P. Rossiter is mindful of the difficulties to which a reader or spectator ofRichard IIis subjected if he has no prior knowledge of the enmity between Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, and his nephew King Richard: “The whole matter of the death of Gloster, with the king’s complicity and Mowbray’s part, must have equally been involved in...

  7. FOUR Richard II and the Delay of Providence
    (pp. 89-102)

    Despite the fact that Gloucester’s murder gave impetus to a long and bloody period of English history—the Age of Retribution—it is invariably the murdered Richard II, and not Gloucester, who comes to mind. This calling to mind, as we find it in theHenry IVplays, is understandable. Richard was the second king of England who came to the high office by means of unqualified primogeniture, and hence was held to be appointed only by God.¹ Theoretically, he could not be removed from that office by any mere human. Gloucester, despite his powerful political leverage, was the sixth...

  8. FIVE The Later Gloucesters: Humphrey and Richard
    (pp. 103-128)

    Among the titles of English peers, none has been more ill omened than that of Gloucester. When King Edward IV, in the last of theHenry VIplays, presents the dukedom of that title to his brother Richard, he is met with a sharp retort: “Let me be duke of Clarence .../ For Gloucester’s dukedom is too ominous” (3 Hen 6,II. vi. 106-107). Richard is mindful of the unhappy fates of two former Gloucesters: Thomas of Woodstock and, more recently, Duke Humphrey. Indeed, of Duke Humphrey’s sudden demise, almost certainly by means of murder, Edward Hall has written: “The...

  9. SIX Prince Hamlet and the Double Mission
    (pp. 129-164)

    Three of Shakespeare’s tragedies, although with significant variations in emphasis, are constructed on the formula central to the two historical tetralogies: the crime of homicide, its significant repercussions, and God’s judgment upon the criminal. In one of these tragedies,Julius Caesar(briefly discussed in chap. 1), the theme of judgment is so explicit and hence overt that I shall give detailed attention only toHamletandMacbeth,in which, by contrast, the theme is complex. An advantage of chapters onHamletandMacbethis that both plays attest to the greater ingenuity with which Shakespeare was ultimately to handle the...

  10. SEVEN Macbeth, the Devil, and God
    (pp. 165-198)

    The playMacbeth,in terms of its source materials, is a conspicuous link between Shakespeare’s English history plays and the Christian tragedies. Like the histories, it is a medieval British play and, like them, it draws its principal historical materials from Holinshed’s Chronicles. What sets it in almost diametrical contrast to the history plays is the tone that derives from Shakespeare’s concentration on Scottish demonology and, most important, on the effects of that multifaceted demonology as it shapes Macbeth’s responses to it; for this tone, often intuitive and hence implicit, places an unabridgeable distance between the reportorial style basic to...

    (pp. 199-204)

    The playMacbeth,in its recurrent reminders of the punitive justice of Heaven, together with its stress on a demonic presence in Scotland, provides a broad insight into the values contributed by the outer world, as treated by Shakespeare, to the comprehensiveness of vision that typifies his mature art. Nor can we ignore, in seeking a judgment on this contribution, the two historical tetralogies, in which Heaven’s power of vengeance, as illustrated in both the words of the actors and the events that give credibility to these words, provides a highly essential unifying theme. Nor do I exceptJulius Caesar,...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 205-220)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 221-225)