Holding a Mirror up to Nature:
Shame, Guilt, and Violence in Shakespeare
by james gilligan and david a. j. richards
cambridge university, 250 pages, $29.99
Holding a Mirror Up to Nature opens with the story of Walter Manstein, “a distinguished-looking man in his late forties” with a successful career as a publisher. On the night of their twentieth wedding anniversary, Manstein strangled his wife to death with the leash of her pet dog. After years of estrangement, he had hoped for a reconciliation, and instead had been met with scorn. “Twenty years, what a waste!” Then Manstein, wracked with guilt, tried to kill himself by driving his car into a reservoir. Instead, he survived and became a patient of one of this book’s co-authors, clinical psychologist James Gilligan. “I searched my mind,” Gilligan writes, “to understand how someone with so much to live for could do something so unthinkable. And then I realized I had just met Othello.”
Manstein’s crime is one of several terrifying and compelling stories Gilligan cites, and it is indeed eerie to discover how closely real-life crimes can correspond to Shakespeare’s tragedies. “Since I cannot prove a lover,” Shakespeare’s Richard III proclaims, “I am determined to prove a villain.” Gilligan finds a modern-day counterpart of Shakespeare’s “deformed” malcontent in the story of a young patient whose face had been disfigured by a gasoline fire. When his advances were rejected by a co-worker, the young man resolved to poison her and ended up accidentally killing two other people. In like vein, Gilligan recalls patients who gouged out other people’s eyes, like the Duke of Cornwall in King Lear, and who cut out other people’s tongues, like Tamora’s sons in Titus Andronicus.
In their efforts to explain such acts of horrific violence, Gilligan and his co-author, law professor David A. J. Richards, side with Rousseau over Freud. “Contra Freud, it is not ‘instinct’ that causes violence toward one’s own species.” If anything, the opposite is true: “Violence is caused by the inhibition and frustration of our natural, healthy instincts.” Most civilizations and cultures, the authors argue, do not prevent violence but rather cause it: “shame ethics” (characteristic of “patriarchy”) lead us to hurt others, whereas “guilt ethics” (characteristic of Christianity) lead us to hurt ourselves.
Gilligan and Richards believe that Shakespeare shares their dim view of“guilt culture.” But this is by no means self-evident. Guilt tends to appear in Shakespeare’s plays as a salutary force, potentially leading to repentance. At the end of As You Like It, the nefarious Oliver admits to having tried to kill his brother Orlando and repents of his “unnatural” behavior: “I do not shame / To tell you what I was, since my conversion / So sweetly tastes.”
In The Winter’s Tale, after ordering what he believes was the execution of his innocent wife, Hermione, Leontes is struck by guilt. He vows to visit her grave daily and spends the next sixteen years in “penitence” and “saint-like sorrow.” When Hermione turns out to be alive and is restored to him, Shakespeare paints the scene as cause for “joys” and “exultation.” Guilt in these scenes is not self-destructive, but integral to reconciliation.
The premise of Holding a Mirror Up to Nature is that Shakespeare’s plays can help us understand how and why men sometimes respond to acute feelings of shame with acts of violence. This thesis is promising, and Gilligan and Richards—eminent in their respective fields of clinical psychiatry and law—are well placed to expound it. Unfortunately, their conceptual framework leads them astray. Their working definitions of shame, guilt, and the distinction between shame culture and guilt culture are not up to date, but draw on discredited claims dating back to Freud.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud insists that guilt has nothing to do with anything that we have actually done. Instead, both guilt and shame are forms of anxiety (Angst). These emotions register the possibility of retaliation if we were to indulge in antisocial behavior and act as a check on our aggressive impulses. Shame, the more primitive emotion, is fear of physical punishment by an external authority. Guilt, by contrast, is refined and preemptive: “The father” is internalized as “the superego.” “Civilization” is the process of repression by which shame becomes guilt.
The concept of a distinction between “shame culture” and “guilt culture” first appeared in Ruth Benedict’s bestselling study of Japanese society, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, published just after World War II. A few years later, the classicist E. R. Dodds applied Benedict’s conceptual framework to the history of ancient Greece. Greece as Dodds sees it changes from a shame culture in the archaic period to a guilt culture in the classical. Both Benedict and Dodds, whom Gilligan and Richards cite here as touchstones, take their premises from Freud’s speculation about shame and guilt in Civilization and Its Discontents. Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, this formulation of the distinction between shame culture and guilt culture has fallen out of favor. Freud’s account of our inner moral lives has a certain internal coherence, but it does not correspond to our actual human social lives.
Most immediately, the emotions in question are not what Freud claims they are. Psychiatrists such as Helen Block Lewis have shown that guilt is not the double-minded anxiety we experience when we become angry at those we love and feel tempted to harm them. Guilt is better understood as the remorse we feel upon recognizing that we have, in fact, hurt someone else. Shame arises when we find ourselves unexpectedly overthrown, defeated, or exposed. Guilt starts to trouble us when we sense that we have misused our power at the expense of someone else. Shame is the experience of the victim; guilt, of the perpetrator.
Meanwhile, the labors of anthropologists such as Milton Singer and classicists such as Douglas Cairns have established that repression is not the measure of “civilization.” Internalized standards of behavior exist in even the most primitive societies. The crux is instead the substantive question of what a society’s moral standards demand. Within shame culture, power is the greatest good. It is better to be cruel than weak. Within guilt culture, by contrast, compassion is the highest moral imperative. It is better to take pity on others than to tyrannize over them—better to help the less fortunate, even at the cost of sharing their vulnerability, than to stand aloof.
These theoretical deficiencies lead Gilligan and Richards to misread Shakespeare. The “tragic flaw” of guilt culture, they write, is that it leads to self-harm, much as shame culture leads to harming others. This claim about guilt culture is incorrect, both per se and as applied here to Shakespeare’s plays. Gilligan and Richards cite Othello, Enobarbus, and Lady Macbeth as examples of characters driven to suicide by guilt. Lady Macbeth’s suicide occurs off-stage, however, and her motives are left mysterious.
Enobarbus does feel guilty for betraying Antony, and he does die, but Shakespeare gives no indication that he kills himself. Othello does kill himself, but his final speech has become notorious for his lingering sense of self-regard. As T. S. Eliot writes, “What Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavoring to escape reality; he has ceased to think about Desdemona and is thinking about himself.”
As psychiatrist Andrew P. Morrison explains, “A crucial factor that commonly underlies suicidal impulses is the presence of deep, unremitting shame.” Throughout Shakespeare’s Roman plays, what drives characters such as Brutus, Cassius, Antony, and Cleopatra to commit suicide is not overwhelming guilt, but instead their fear of shame. “This mortal house I’ll ruin,” Cleopatra vows. “Shall they hoist me up / And show me to the shouting varletry / Of censuring Rome? Rather a ditch in Egypt / Be gentle grave unto me!”
Coriolanus’s suicidal outburst in Antium, an early version of “death by cop,” is likewise prompted by shame. He cannot bear to be described as a “boy of tears.” Suicide for Shakespeare is not so much self-punishment as what Gilligan and Richards call “apocalyptic violence,” an expression of a desire to destroy the world, if only subjectively, rather than live on within it in defeat.
Holding a Mirror Up to Nature is a missed opportunity. It is also representative of a broader problem. The simplest way to understand the history of Shakespeare studies is that Shakespeare’s status as a beloved cultural authority makes him a prize recruit for intellectual fads and political agendas. In the nineteenth century, Romantic poets and critics in Germany and England adopted him as their standard-bearer in their revolt against French neoclassicism and Christian morality. Ever since, assessing scholarly interpretations of Shakespeare has entailed some degree of double vision. The root of the problem is that Shakespeare, like most of the Englishmen of his day, comes across as conservative, Christian, and patriotic, whereas most of his critics want him to be progressive, secular, and cosmopolitan. So, they find themselves obliged to come up with ingenious explanations why he does not in fact mean what he most obviously seems to mean. Or, safely aboard the USS Bien Pensant, they denounce him as an example of the vices of the past: racism, sexism, and so on.
A saving remnant of sorts continues to do valuable work, situating Shakespeare within the larger context of intellectual history. Not everyone wants to align Shakespeare studies with “the current thing.” The center of gravity of the discipline, however, tends to be pulled hither and yon by the changing internal dynamics of the political left.
Shakespeare critics of the baby boomer generation tended to focus on class conflict. The New Historicism of that era saw Shakespeare’s plays as an opportunity to explain how impersonal economic and political forces keep the proletariat in its place. Where is the promised utopia? Why has it not arrived? Powerful figures use mass media such as commercial theater to inculcate false consciousness among those who might otherwise rebel. Artists such as Shakespeare are unwitting vehicles for the transmission of “ideological state apparatuses.” With the seeming triumph of liberal capitalism at the end of the Cold War, Shakespeare critics of Generation X lost faith in the march of history and drifted toward anodyne reports on physical objects such as theaters and books: the New Materialism. As might be expected, however, such trivia soon lost their novelty. People want to know why something matters, not just what it is. Postmodernism created a teleological vacuum, and in recent years identity politics has leapt into the breach. Shaken by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, Shakespeare critics of the Millennial generation have weaponized Shakespeare studies against “structural racism” and “white supremacy.” In fairness to these critics, Shakespeare does show some interest in race. But it is not his primary concern. Othello is a great play, but it is not his only play, and the opportunity to talk about racism is not the only reason it is important. There is more to being human than ethnicity.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, essays on Shakespeare and ethics by the philosopher Stanley Cavell opened up a new conversation within Shakespeare studies that continues to prove lively and illuminating. For those of us who had grown weary by that time of slogging through the minutiae of social, economic, and political history, Cavell’s interest in the timeless “big questions” of philosophy was like a window into another world. His focus on the tension between “avoidance” and “acknowledgment” speaks to the desire to understand our own inner life that draws us to Shakespeare in the first place. Shakespeare is not merely a window into early modern English politics; through his “myriad-minded” representation of pride, wariness, and vulnerability, Shakespeare anticipates a rich philosophical tradition of Hegelian and post-Hegelian reflection on interpersonal “recognition” (Anerkennung).
Holding a Mirror Up to Nature could have combined this kind of philosophical approach to Shakespeare and ethics with ongoing research on Shakespeare and the history of emotions, as well as the so-called “religious turn” in literary and philosophical studies after 9/11. The questions Gilligan and Richards take on are much closer to the heart of Shakespeare’s plays than Millennial “anti-racist pedagogy.” Shakespeare does not share the preoccupations of present-day identity politics: Unfashionable though it may be to say so, Shakespeare cares much more about the tension between Christianity and the supposed moral imperatives of what he calls “honor” than he does about race, gender, or sexuality.
Unfortunately, Gilligan and Richards seem unable to think beyond their progressive pieties, which they ascribe as a matter of course to Shakespeare. “Morality” is bad per se and should be “transcended.” Violence is never justified or necessary. Democracy is better than aristocracy or monarchy. Systems are to blame, not individuals. Christ is admirable, but Christianity (understood as an institution) is hypocritical and destructive. In light of the Scientific Revolution, Christianity (understood as a faith) is no longer believable.
“Hamlet,” the authors claim, “existed at a time in the history of the Western civilization—the time of the scientific revolution—which resulted in the death not only of God . . . but also of good and evil.”Historically speaking, the idea that Shakespeare’s sensibility was in any sense shaped by the Scientific Revolution is wildly implausible. He was dead before Francis Bacon’s “new philosophy” became influential. But it is important to the authors that Shakespeare stand on the proper side of the “cognitive earthquake” that divides “the medieval from the modern mind.”
For Gilligan and Richards, Shakespeare, in short, believes the same things as does a paid-up member of today’s cultural elite. Shakespeare’s English history plays show that “violence simply engenders more violence” and that “the only solution to the problems created by autocracy and aristocracy is democracy.” Henry V is an honor-crazed war criminal, Falstaff is a harmless rogue, and Henry VI is a peace-loving, Christ-like martyr. Nothing in this familiar set of characterizations poses any challenge to a center-left liberal sensibility. Yet each entails a profound misreading of Shakespeare’s plays.
True, Henry V threatens all sorts of horrific repercussions if the citizens of Harfleur do not surrender, including “what we now call ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity.’” But Gilligan and Richards are wrong to describe these threats as “actions.” Later in the play, Henry issues strict orders to his men not to take advantage of the French: “we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language.” He executes his former drinking companion, Bardolph, for robbing a French church. Would this same king plausibly have countenanced wholesale rape and pillage? What Gilligan and Richards do not consider is that Henry’s threats are most likely a bluff. And if so, the ruse is an act of mercy. By frightening the inhabitants of Harfleur into submission, Henry is able to take the town without any casualties on either side.
As for Falstaff, Gilligan and Richards are proud to say they do not “idealize” him. They recognize that “his lack of a guilt-sensitive conscience does manifest itself in his willingness to commit property crimes (as opposed to violent crimes, i.e., injuring or killing people).” “Like a little child, he acts as if the world owes him a living.” In contrast to the “murderous” Henry, however, the fat knight is “relatively harmless.” This portrait of Falstaff as a “shameless” naïf fails to mention what in the eyes of Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have been his most grievous crime: his abuse of the King’s conscription powers. Falstaff takes bribes to allow the rich, who would have been healthier and better trained, to escape military service and instead leads hapless, unprepared peasants—“pitiful rascals,” “exceeding poor and bare”—to their deaths.
When other commanders raise concerns about his recruiting, Falstaff shows no sign of remorse. “Tut, tut; good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better.” Later on, Falstaff acknowledges again the human cost of his corruption: “I have led my ragamuffins where they are peppered. There’s not three of my hundred and fifty left alive, and they are for the town's end, to beg during life.” In his conversation with the soldier Michael Williams about the possibility of casualties, Henry V is defensive, but he does not scoff. He shows some genuine concern for the state of his soldiers’ souls.
Henry VI is a more complicated case. Gilligan and Richards do not understand his moral failure, because they do not understand the premises of Shakespeare’s representation of history. Like most of us today, they think of peace as normal and war as the exception. As Paul Jorgensen has shown, however, Shakespeare and his contemporaries had a keener sense of the fallenness of human nature. Until the second coming of Christ, peace is rare and at best temporary, like a sunny day in an English spring. To a center-left liberal sensibility, the understanding that war in one form or another is the expected state of human affairs is deeply alien. But it was once pervasive. And if we accept this premise, as it seems Shakespeare does, then Henry IV’s advice to his son makes sense: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels.” Better wars abroad than civil wars at home.
Despite the lessons of history, Gilligan and Richards seem also to think that democracy by its very nature will bring an end to state-sponsored violence. Certainly, Shakespeare does not think so. Every instance of anything like democracy, in his Roman plays as well as in his English history plays, proves catastrophic. As other characters repeatedly explain to Henry VI, the only way to keep the peace in England is for him to exercise his authority as monarch, using force and the threat of force to keep restive noblemen such as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in check. Gilligan and Richards see such violence as incompatible with guilt culture. But that is because they have no sense of Christian just war theory or, more generally, the importance within Christian ethics of the concept of equity, that is, the adjustment of general rules to accommodate particular cases. Violence may not be ideal, but it is sometimes the “least worst” solution.
Henry V’s conversation with the soldier Michael Williams strongly recalls Augustine’s reply to Faustus the Manichaean, wherein he argues that the “real evils in war” are not physical deaths or injuries but “love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, lust for power, and such like”—damage to souls, not to bodies. “It is generally to punish these things, when force is required to inflict the punishment, that, in obedience to God or some lawful authority, good men undertake wars.”
In Hiding from Humanity, Martha Nussbaum argues that legal punishment should aim to evoke guilt rather than shame. Guilt is “potentially creative, connected with reparation, forgiveness, and the acceptance of limits to aggression,” whereas shame is “a threat to all possibility of morality.” Much to the contrary, Gilligan and Richards argue that preventing violence requires moving beyond guilt as well as shame. “Morality,” they claim, “which is usually considered the ultimate means of preventing violence, is actually the cause of both forms of violence: shame ethics, of violence toward others . . . guilt ethics, of violence toward the self.”
What Gilligan and Richards mean by “morality” in this formulation is obscure, but it seems to be in keeping with the distinction the philosopher Bernard Williams draws between “morality” as positing sets of rules and “ethics” as considering specific instances. “Ethics” on this account is superior because it is more flexible. The insight is nothing new. Aristotle makes a similar argument for preferring “equity” over “justice.” By declaiming against “morality,” however, rather than “justice,” and insisting that morality must be “transcended,” Gilligan and Richards find a way to invoke, even if only indirectly, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and a much more radical ideal of antinomianism, an individualism “beyond good and evil.”
The claim that “morality” can ever be “transcended” is questionable. In more intelligible language, Gilligan and Richards call for “love” and “forgiveness,” modeled on what is known in legal circles as restorative, rather than retributive, justice. If this is what they mean by “transcending morality,” then Gilligan and Richards have arguably done nothing more than restate the aims of Christianity, the same credo that they take throughout as their paradigm of guilt culture.
The key difference is that Gilligan and Richards do not address the thorny question of the will. Should love and forgiveness be unconditional? Can “cognitive development” take the place of heartfelt penitence? Shakespeare for his part is keenly aware that sinners do not always choose to repent. Hence the uncomfortable endings of his “problem plays.” It is probably not a coincidence, moreover, that the characters in question are either Jewish, as in the case of Shylock, or caricatures of Puritans, as in the cases of Malvolio and Angelo. Like his pagan Greeks and Romans, these more modern characters represent a departure from the kind of Christianity Shakespeare sees as salutary.
Holding a Mirror up to Nature would be more interesting if it took these kinds of complications into account. But that would require hewing more closely to Shakespeare’s own sensibility, a point of view very different from the authors’ and one that they would no doubt decry as “reactionary” if they ever encountered it in the wild. By the end, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Gilligan and Richards introduce a myriad of odd theoretical swerves, arbitrary redefinitions, awkwardly off-base claims about history, and Procrustean misreadings in order to forestall an obvious, but for them unacceptable, conclusion: Shakespeare is Christian, he sees Christianity as the best possible solution to the problem of shame-driven violence, and he may be right.
Patrick Gray is the inaugural Director of the Center for Arts and Letters at the University of Austin.