You Be the Judge: Shakespeare’s Moral Universe

One of the reasons we read great books is not merely to become more informed about history and philosophy, but to become better decision makers in our own lives. Great books can lead us to ponder life’s deepest questions and help us determine how to live our own lives in the fullest, best way possible. The greatest of writers confront moral questions at the heart of the human condition and enable us as readers to see those more clearly. I will discuss the moral universe of Shakespeare focusing on three of his plays—namely, Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, and Othello. In these plays we see Shakespeare’s commitment to showing the viewer moral consequences. Milton and Dante, two of the other great writers in the Western tradition, also use their works to show the consequences of immoral actions. All three writers deal with the fundamental questions of the human condition. There is, however, a fundamental difference between the approach of Milton and Dante on the one hand and Shakespeare on the other. In Milton and Dante’s works the audience is told what to believe morally and then has the option to either agree or disagree, while in Shakespeare’s works the audience must come up with its own moral interpretation. Milton and Dante’s works include omniscient narrators whose points of view emerge clearly and unambiguously in the text. The audience, of course, is free to agree or disagree about that message, but there is no ambiguity about what that message is.

Traditionally, in the Medieval and Early Modern period, art was seen as an instrument of moral education. Milton and Dante fit that mode. Shakespeare, by contrast, fits into this category more loosely because he does not have a singular moral message to convey. He rather conveys a general moral universe within which actions have consequences. In other words, Shakespeare’s messages are more implicit, while Milton and Dante’s are more explicit. Shakespeare’s plays have no omniscient narrator, and the audience is left as the final judge of what is right and wrong. Dante and Milton use a simple technique: they create a context in which neither the narrator nor the viewer has any doubt about the perspective from which the poet writes. Dante puts the bad people in Hell, for example, and the good people in Heaven.[i] Milton has his own list of enemies—in Paradise Lost, not merely devils and demons, but also Catholics.[ii] Shakespeare’s approach is completely different. He allows both evil and good to emerge from a single situation.

In a way Dante and Milton use the same technique as the Bible. Many of the stories in the Bible include clear good and evil characters where it is obvious what sin is being committed, who is at fault, and what the right thing to do is. Yet in Shakespeare’s plays, particularly in Titus Andronicus, there is no clear moral message but morality is simply discussed, debated, and portrayed from different viewpoints. In a way, one could see the Bible’s stories as cases left open to a judge, namely God, who tells us what is right and wrong in a situation or story. This is, for example, the case of parables in the Bible, which focus on giving moral lessons. On the other hand, Shakespeare’s plays are more like cases before a jury, where the audience is the jury. There is no “judge,” not even Shakespeare. Whether God or fate is the judge of the characters varies between his plays. Even when the hand of God is present in his plays, his will has to be interpreted both by the characters and ultimately by the audience.

It is precisely up to the audience to determine who the heroes and villains are in Titus Andronicus. Titus Andronicus is about two morally ambiguous characters—Titus and Aaron the Moor. At first glance, it seems as though Aaron the Moor is the villain. He orchestrates the torture and death of characters and commits horrible crimes. By contrast, Titus seems like the tragic hero. He is a good king who loses his daughter, his hands, and is brought to ruin. Yet, upon further reflection, one could see how Aaron is the real tragic hero. Titus could be viewed as the rogue elephant who oppresses the Roman people, while also being particularly merciless to foreigners. Rome is portrayed as a sexist, racist place where Aaron finds himself prisoner and only in death is he liberated. The roles of hero and villain are made even more ambiguous by the fact that Shakespeare deals out equally bad consequences to both characters. Often one can determine who the villain is in a play by looking at which character receives his just deserts in the end. Since both Titus and Aaron receive punishment, the audience is able to view Titus and Aaron in either role. It is clear that Shakespeare intended to present moral ambiguity in this play.[iii]

While in Titus Andronicus it is unclear who plays the hero and villain, Macbeth includes not so much two separate roles of hero and villain at all, but a hero who becomes a villain. Macbeth starts out good but becomes evil. Within the play itself Shakespeare shows us that characters’ actions have consequences. Macbeth receives his just deserts and so does his wife, Lady Macbeth. While at the start of the play Macbeth seems like a good man, he gives in to his evil wife, Lady Macbeth, who pushes and convinces him to murder King Duncan so that the Macbeths can rule Scotland. After killing Duncan, Macbeth loses his restraint and goes on a killing spree in a hopeless effort to remain king, despite a prophecy that he will lose the throne. He murders numerous innocent people and the play ends with him not only losing the throne but also his life. Considering his terrible actions, this is just punishment. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth also undergoes a reversal and in the end she too receives just treatment for her actions. Lady Macbeth’s deepest desire was to become queen, and she gets her wish. She wanted her husband to kill Duncan and he did it. She chastises him for being too kind and she gets her wish in his transformation to a coldblooded killer with no remorse. She gets all that she wants, but then she finds that it is her own conscience that ruins her. She sees Macbeth’s newfound cruelty and knows that she is responsible for it. She is responsible for the extermination of his conscience, for the subsequent murders he commits, and for the desolation he causes. Her conscience and guilt drive her to madness and lead to her death. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both receive their comeuppance. It seems clear that there is some moral authority administering justice onto them for breaking moral laws, and thus inviting moral consequences.[iv] Even so, Shakespeare leaves it to the audience to determine who was really morally responsible for the mass murders—Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, or both. With regard to morality, Shakespeare still leaves much to the audience to determine.

Unlike in Macbeth, in the play Othello, Shakespeare presents a clearly defined villain and hero at the outset. Othello is the hero, while Iago is the villain. However if one looks at Othello, it seems as though the consequences are unfair. Since Iago is the villain, one would expect his consequences to be worse than Othello’s. Iago purposefully plotted to enrage Othello so that he would kill Desdemona. Othello, on the other hand, receives a much harsher punishment than Iago— the death of his wife in addition to his own. While one may not necessarily pity Othello because he did in fact murder Desdemona, one can see that Othello did this on false pretenses. Iago is duly punished, but Othello ends up dead in the horrific realization that he has killed his innocent wife. Even though Othello received a harsher punishment than Iago did, as a viewer we still see Othello as more heroic than Iago. This is because Othello was justly jealous, while Iago was unjustly so. In this, we see that the consequences, as in portrayal of the characters, are evident to the viewer even though they may not be evident in the play itself. For example, even though in the actual plot of the play the innocent Desdemona was murdered unjustly and she does not receive her just deserts, in the audience’s perception of her she does. The audience esteems her more than any of the other characters and in that reception of her she gets her fair due. Even if Shakespeare does not always deal out fair consequences in the plays themselves, in this case, Shakespeare ensures that the consequences are still fair by eliciting the appropriate response to each character from the audience.[v]

In conclusion, Shakespeare makes sure that the viewer always observes moral consequences. In Macbeth, Shakespeare incorporates moral consequences directly into the play itself, affirming the audience’s perceptions of each character’s morality. In Othello, Shakespeare leaves little doubt in the mind of the viewer that in one case villainy is well punished and in the other heroism ends in tragedy. In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare offers consequences all around, presenting a case of genuine moral ambiguity allowing the viewer to take sides.

As students, we can appreciate Shakespeare because he presents his plays to us in the same way that life presents itself to us. Life does not come with signs that say “this person is good” or “this person is bad.” It presents itself to us plain and we have to figure out the morality of a situation for ourselves. In a way, watching a Shakespeare play is a good exercise in moral reasoning and watching his plays can help us to make better decisions about our own lives. There is such a richness and variety in his plays—as we have seen in the huge differences between Titus Andronicus, Othello, and Macbeth—variety that can make us wiser than experience alone can possibly make us.

Even the most devout Christian philosophers who have followed the Bible as their primary source of instruction have also found wisdom in supplementary material, such as philosophy and literary texts. For example, the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, a very devout Catholic, drew much of his philosophy from Aristotle, even though Aristotle was by no means Christian.[vi] Anglican writer C.S. Lewis also drew from ancient and medieval philosophy in his writing. He even shifted to writing fictional novels—many of which have themes of good and evil in them for the reader to reflect upon.[vii]

At the same time, these secondary texts cannot replace clear commandments in morality. Biblical parables along with the Ten Commandments, for example, will always have great value because they deliver clear moral lessons that provide direct moral instruction. Without direct moral instruction, we could all easily slip into the realm of moral relativism, justifying any and all of our actions, no matter how morally reprehensible. Some constant framework of what is moral and what is not is needed to live a purpose-driven life—a framework that cannot be supplied by changing views of morality, such as in Shakespeare’s works. In sum, in life we need exercises in ethical examination as well as direct moral instruction in order to live the fullest life possible.


i. Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy, Vol. 1, Inferno (New York: Penguin Classics, 2002).
ii. John Milton, Paradise Lost (England: Dover Publications, 2005).
iii. William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus (New York: Penguin Classics, 2005).
iv. William Shakespeare, Macbeth (New York: Penguin Classics, 2007).
v. William Shakespeare, Othello (New York: Penguin Classics, 2005).
vi. Thomas Aquinas, “Summa Theologica” in Classics of Moral and Political Theory, 5th Ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2011).
vii. Thomas Howard, Narnia and Beyond: A Guide to the Fiction of C.S. Lewis (San Francisco: Ignatius
Press, 2006).

Danielle D’Souza ’17 is from San Diego, CA. She is a prospective major in History with a minor in Government.


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