nietzche & shakespeare

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

this is quite long...taken from the journal of philosophy and literature

Coward Conscience and Bad Conscience in Shakespeare and Nietzsche
Sandra Bonetto
County Laois, Republic of Ireland

George Bernard Shaw once observed that the whole of Nietzsche was expressed in three lines that Shakespeare puts into the mouth of one of his greatest villains, Richard III 1 : "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" (5.6). More specifically, perhaps, these lines invite a comparison between Shakespeare's repeated association of conscience with cowardice in Richard III, 2 and Nietzsche's negative evaluation of bad conscience, notably in On the Genealogy of Morals. 3 The aim of this article is to offer such a comparative analysis in order to demonstrate that Shakespeare's coward conscience anticipates Nietzsche's understanding of the bad conscience (das schlechte Gewissen) as "the consciousness of guilt" (GM, II, p. 67), including its involvement with the notions of debt, sin, punishment, and God.


Nietzsche devoted the Second Essay of his Genealogy to the discussion of bad conscience, its origins, and related matters, notably guilt (Schuld) and its relation to duty (Pflicht) and debt (Schuld). The German term Schuld denotes both guilt and debt, and both senses are inextricably linked in Nietzsche's analysis. The bad conscience as consciousness of guilt is also [End Page 512] the consciousness of a debt owed—to another individual, society, and above all to the Christian God. The debt owed to God is one that can never be repaid, so that Christian morality necessitates guilt as "eternal punishment" for man's original transgression (see GM, II, pp. 91–92). Thus, Nietzsche argues, the descriptive equivalent of bad conscience, in the language of Christianity, is sin—"this is the priestly name for the . . . bad conscience" (GM, III, p. 140). In other words, sin is essentially a debt contracted with God. This is evident, for instance, in the substitution of the word "sin" for "debt" (ophéilema) in the formula of the Our Father as found in St. Luke. Even in the more general description, e.g. in the passage of St. Matthew where Jesus is explaining the implications of the petition "Forgive us or debts as we forgive our debtors," where the expressions paràptoma (fault, error) and armatia (aberration, failing, defect in relation to a norm or whole) are the more common terms used to denote sin, the sense of debt is implicit—we only accept our failure in relation to the Christian norm or whole if we accept that we "owe it to God" to live up to that norm in the first place. Moreover, the notion of debt brings with it the debtor's fear of failing to repay the creditor, so that a fear of punishment results from the sense of not living up to the contractual relationship with God.

According to Nietzsche, the basis for the bad conscience and guilt, which he further defines as "anger directed against the self" (GM, I, p. 45), is cruelty, a natural human disposition that is displayed unabashedly in punishment. Bad conscience, he argues, is cruelty turned inward and essentially amounts to self-punishment or "psychical cruelty"—a form of subliminal suffering we impose on ourselves. Speaking of the "psychology of conscience," Nietzsche emphasises therefore that conscience "is not 'the voice of God in man'—it is rather the instinct of cruelty that turns back after it can no longer discharge itself externally" (GM, "A Polemic," p. 312). Bad conscience, or sin, is cruelty directed backwards, at oneself. In short, Nietzsche holds that the bad conscience, experienced by us as the "bite" or "sting" of conscience (morsus conscientiae; Gewissensbiss), results from the internalisation of instincts, notably the instincts to cruelty. Rather than acting on natural impulses, man has come to stifle and repress them: "Hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction—all this turned against the possessors of such instincts: that is the origin of the "'bad conscience'" (GM, II, p.85).

Anticipating Freud's theory of repression and pre-empting his psychological interpretation of conscience as superego (Über-Ich), Nietzsche argues, "all instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn [End Page 513] inward—this is what I call the internalisation (Verinnerlichung) of man" (GM, II, p. 84). And he regards this internalisation as "the greatest event so far in the history of the sick soul—we possess in it the most dangerous and fateful artifice of religious interpretation," an interpretation based on "the exploitation of the sense of guilt" (GM, III, p. 140). Indeed, "man has all too long had an 'evil eye' for his natural inclinations, so that they have finally become inseparable from his 'bad conscience'" (GM, II, p. 95).

When the external discharge of natural instincts and inclinations is no longer morally, socially and legally acceptable, these instincts are suppressed, but they do not vanish. They require another outlet. So this is what Nietzsche means when he tells us that the bad conscience is "the serious illness that man was bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change he ever experienced—that change which occurred when he found himself finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace" (GM, II, p. 84). For, as he states elsewhere, "under conditions of peace, the warlike man attacks himself." 4

In this context, Nietzsche discerns a direct link between pleasure and the infliction of cruelty: "to see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more" (GM, II, p. 67). The instincts of hunting, cruelty, hostility and destruction that characterized man's pre-historic lives had to be suppressed when he entered into society. As a result, he turned all this violence in toward himself, made himself a new wilderness to be struggled against and conquered. In so doing, man developed an inner life and bad conscience. Nietzsche characterizes the war man wage against his own instincts as "man's suffering of man, of himself" (GM, II, p. 85). Because 'socialized man' is denied the overt expression of his natural instincts, he begins to find enjoyment in suffering from himself (see GM, III, pp. 127–28).

For Nietzsche, this self-imposed suffering is nothing less than a "madness of the will":

the will of man to find himself guilty and reprehensible to a degree that can never be atoned for; his will to think himself punished without any possibility of the punishment becoming equal to the guilt; his will to infect and poison the fundamental ground of things with the problem of punishment and guilt as to cut off once and for all his own exit from this labyrinth of "fixed ideas"; his will to erect an ideal—that of the "holy God"—and in the face of it to feel the palpable certainty of his own absolute unworthiness. Oh this insane, pathetic beast—man! What ideas [End Page 514] he has, what unnaturalness, what paroxysms of nonsense, what bestiality of thought erupts as soon as he is prevented just a little from being a beast in deed!

(GM, II, p. 93)

Nietzsche maintains that the bad conscience (or sin) is an "illness" and, consequently, that every guilty person is "sick." The cure he proposes is the elimination of the concepts of sin and punishment from the world—"may these exiled monsters live somewhere else henceforth, and not among men. . . ." 5 However, while the "bad conscience is an illness," it is "an illness like pregnancy is an illness" (GM, II, p. 88). This implies that a little bad conscience can help us to overcome ourselves, or give birth to more life affirming values. But we should not settle down with a nagging bad conscience as a kind of Ersatz cruelty. For this will invariably lead to self-consummation by ressentiment and an addiction to the pleasure of suffering from and enjoyment of being at odds with oneself.

Nietzsche, in short, rejects the entire concept of punishment and hence reflects negatively on bad conscience, which metes out punishment in the form of guilt. Punishment, he observes, "does not cleanse the criminal, it is not atonement; on the contrary, it pollutes worse than the crime does." 6 Instead, Nietzsche speaks of justice as "love with seeing eyes." 7 Real justice involves a greatness of soul that considers all forms of punishment petty, and which does not feel lessened by showing mercy. The strong are merciful, but from a position of strength, not weakness. This echoes Shakespeare's assertion in Measure for Measure: "O, 'tis excellent to have a giant's strength / But it is tyrannous to use it like a giant" (2.2).

Moreover, Nietzsche believes that "the sting of conscience teacheth one to sting" (Z, "The Pitiful," Sec. 25, p. 86). In other words, the more repressed our instincts, and hence the more punitive our bad consciences are, the more pronounced is our desire to see others punished. Bad conscience nourishes feelings of resentment, envy and revenge. As Shakespeare put it in King Henry VIII: "Men, that make / Envy and crooked malice nourishment / Dare bite the best" (5.3). The man of ressentiment cannot stand to see others happy while he suffers from himself. As Iago, the man of resentment par excellence, who represents the levelling jealousy of all superior attainment, says of Cassio: "he hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly" (Othello, 5.2). And just as Iago is responsible for the downfall of the 'noble Moor,' Christianity, the slave morality based on resentment, is held responsible for perverting all 'natural instincts' [End Page 515] and 'noble values' into their opposites. Indeed, "the Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad." 8


In Richard III the association between conscience and cowardice is repeatedly emphasised and may even be said to constitute one of the main themes of the play, culminating in Richard's (remarkably Nietzschean) statement, "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" (5.6).

Richard regards conscience as a device by which the 'cowards' (the weak) defend, avenge, and assert themselves against the stronger. It is 'but a word' used for this very purpose. Richard, like Nietzsche, rejects the traditional Christian understanding of conscience as the "voice of God in man," an interpretation that derives from Socrates' δαιμονιον (see Apology, 31d), and regards it instead as a human construct created for its usefulness as control-mechanism. And it is associated with cowardice because it is motivated by weakness, not strength, insofar as it fetters the strong from pursuing the kind of action the weak are incapable of.

Thus, pre-empting Nietzsche, Shakespeare posits that conscience may not be an innate moral sense but a human invention that functions as a form of psychological punishment (or psychical cruelty) engendering feelings of guilt, manifest in Richard III in the internalisation and repetition of various condemnatory voices (conscience is polysemous, not monosemous): "My conscience hath a thousand several tongues and each condemns me as a villain" (5.5).

I maintain that Shakespeare, like Nietzsche, was interested in uncovering the motive forces behind generally accepted moral ideas and values. In the case of 'coward conscience,' he addresses the 'dark side' of conscience insofar as he explores its negative effects on the individual.

This becomes particularly apparent not only in Richard's comments on conscience, but also in the 'discussion' of conscience by the two murderers send to kill Clarence. It is worth quoting their exchange at length:

First Murderer: The urging of that word 'judgement' hath bred a kind of remorse in me.

Second Murderer: What, art thou afraid?

F.M.: Not to kill him, having a warrant, but to be damned for killing him, from the which no warrant can defend me . . . [End Page 516]

S.M.: How dost thou feel thyself now?

F.M.: Some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me.

S.M.: Remember our reward, when the deed's done.

F.M.: 'Swounds, he dies. I had forgot the reward.

S.M.: Where is thy conscience now?

F.M.: O, in the Duke of Gloucester's purse.

S.M.: When he opens his purse to give us our reward, thy conscience flies out.

F.M.: 'Tis no matter. Let it go. There's few or none will entertain it.

S.M.: What if it come to thee again?

F.M.: I'll not meddle with it: it is a dangerous thing: it makes a man a coward: a man cannot steal but it accuseth him; he cannot swear, but it checks him; he cannot lie with his neighbours wife, but it detects him; it is a blushing shame-faced spirit that mutinies in a man's bosom; it fills one full of obstacles; it made me once restore a purse of gold that I found; it beggars any man that keeps it; it is turned out of all towns and cities for a dangerous thing; and every man that means to live well endeavours to trust to himself and to live without it.


Conscience makes man a coward insofar as it forbids him to follow his natural inclinations, especially when they run counter to accepted social and moral norms, and thus stifles his "courage"; it is described as a "blushing shame-faced spirit" which fills one full of "obstacles." In addressing two of the Ten Commandments ('Thou shalt not steal' and 'Thou shalt not covet they neighbour's wife/possessions'), Shakespeare explicitly refers to the Christian moral law and implies that it has, at best, a tenuous hold on individual agents because conscience—as the instrument whereby that law is said to manifest itself to the individual ("the voice of God in man")—seems to prevent action only insofar as the prospect and fear of punishment prohibits it, not because the action itself is deemed wrong or immoral by the agent. He does so by addressing how this fear is often overcome, if not actively sought out (notably in the case of criminals; see GM, II, p. 81), when it is outweighed by self-interest.

Shakespeare thus makes two important points in relation to our understanding of conscience in anticipation of Nietzsche's later views: firstly, conscience may not be the "voice of God in man," but may rather have its origins in the internalisation of a social and moral order, with which the individual often finds himself at odds. Secondly, action (as [End Page 517] well as non-action) is generally motivated by self-interest. The subsequent conversation between the murderers and Clarence highlights that even those who claim to believe and consequently appeal to the Christian moral law flout it when self-interest is at stake. Clarence, appealing to another of the Ten Commandments, tries to persuade the murderers that they should relent and not kill him, because their souls will be damned by God: "Erroneous vassals, the great King of Kings / Hath in the table of his law commanded / That thou shalt do not murder. Will you then / Spurn at his edict, and fulfil a man's? / Take heed, for he holds vengeance in his hand / To hurl upon their heads that break his law" (1.4). The murderers reply respectively, reminding Clarence of his part in the Wars of the Roses:

F.M.: And that same vengeance doth he hurl on thee / For false forswearing, and for murder too. / Thou didst receive the sacrament to fight / In quarrel with the house of Lancaster.

S.M.: And, like a traitor to the name of God / Didst break that vow, and with they treacherous blade / unripped'st the bowels of thy sov'reign's son . . . How canst thou urge God's dreadful law to us / When thou hast broke it in such dear degree?


It becomes apparent that Shakespeare here also addresses the theme of moral hypocrisy, which pervades the entire play and leaves none of the main characters untouched. Moreover, he suggests that morality is a matter of interpretation. Clarence states that, if he is to be punished for the murder of the Plantagenet, God "doth it publicly / Take not the quarrel from his pow'rful arm / He needs not indirect or lawless course / To cut off those that have offended him" (1.4). To this the First Murderer replies: "Who made thee then a bloody minister / When gallant springing brave Plantagenet / That princely novice, was struck dead by thee?" (1.4). In other words, who determines who acts on behalf of God as an instrument of His will? Perhaps the murderers, acting on Richard's orders, are the instruments of God's revenge as much as Richard's ambitions? The problem of (religious and moral) interpretation is thus evident. Indeed, given the blood on virtually everyone's hands in this play, we must ask: who actually believes in God and an afterlife? If the prospect of everlasting punishment in hell is not sufficient to deter people from breaking God's law, why believe in it? Many of the dramatis personae in Richard III are guilty of murder and thus equally [End Page 518] "sinful" of breaking God's law. Consider also Richard's statement about Clarence in this regard: "simple, plain Clarence / I do love thee so / That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven . . ." (1.1). Would the true Christian believer, which Clarence professes to be, not welcome death and ascension to the Eternal Kingdom? Of course, we might reply, if he truly believed in it! What is implied is the fact that most of us do not actually believe in God (and all that such a belief would entail) or else our actions would reflect such a belief. Rather, the characters in Richard III frequently act as though God did not exist.

If there is no "divine background" that informs our actions, it follows that our consciousness of guilt resulting from contemplated or performed deeds is really a matter of interpretation, a matter of perspective. The First Murderer ultimately interprets his action as "a bloody deed, and desperately dispatched / How fain like Pilate, would I wash my hands / Of this most grievous, guilty murder done" (1.4), whereas the Second Murderer says: "So do not I," and refers to his colleague as a "coward" (1.4). The First Murder's conscience "bites back" and results in guilt as punishment. The Second Murderer, on the other hand, is not troubled by his conscience. Guilt and remorse as punishment are really forms of self-inflicted cruelty depending on the individual's interpretation of himself in relation to his actions in the context of generally accepted social and moral norms.

As noted above, Nietzsche identifies bad conscience with what he frequently terms the "bite" or "sting" of consciences (GM, II, p. 81). This "consciousness of guilt" is further described as "a kind of evil eye" and a "species of gnawing worm." We find the same association of bad conscience with the image of a "gnawing worm" in Richard III: "The worm of conscience still beknaw thy soul" (1.3), is one of Queen Margaret's "quick curses" directed at Richard. To be afflicted by coward conscience in Shakespeare, or to be "conscience-stricken" or "worm-eaten" in Nietzsche (GM, III, p. 125), thus means being punished through feelings of guilt, which, "like the bite of a dog into a stone," Nietzsche regards as a "stupidity." Instead, he advises:

Never give way to remorse, but immediately say to yourself: that would merely mean adding a second stupidity to the first.—If you have done harm, see how you can do good.—If you are punished for your actions, bear the punishment with the feeling that you are doing good—by deterring others from falling prey to the same folly. . . . 9 [End Page 519]

Shakespeare gives repeated expression to similar sentiments: "Bid the dishonest man mend himself; if he mend, he is no longer dishonest" (Twelfth Night, 1.5); "Cease to lament for that thou canst not help / And study help for that which though lament'st . . ." (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 3.1).

Bad conscience also tell us something about the character of the agent and his intended or performed deed—as Nietzsche said: "The bite of conscience: a sign that the character is no match for the deed." 10 However, "the deed is everything" (GM, I, p. 45), which echoes Shakespeare's "joy's soul lies in the doing" (Troilus and Cressida, 2.2). Similarly, conscience is cowardly in Shakespeare when it makes the agent shrink from an action (consider e.g. Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy) or retrospectively makes him regret his deed. Coward conscience either prevents one from embarking on a certain course of action (in the case of Hamlet, due to excessive reflection on the consequences of action) or punishes one for having acted in a certain manner. However, Nietzsche urges us "not to be cowardly in face of our actions! Let us not afterwards leave them in the lurch! . . ." 11 Similarly, Richard states (in response to Catesby's plea to "withdraw" from the field of battle): "Slave, I have set my life upon a cast / And I will stand the hazard of the die" (5.7).


It is interesting to explore what Nietzsche refers to as the "involvement of the bad conscience with the concept of God" (GM, II, p. 91) in Richard III: in no other Shakespearean play is God evoked more often—seventy-three times, to be exact—than in this one. 12 Indeed, the play is rich in religious (i.e. Christian) allusions (see 1.1), notably Richard's frequent oath "by Saint Paul," "by holy Paul," or "by the Apostle Paul" (see 1.1; 1.2; 1.3; 3.4; 5.5), a figure particularly despised by Nietzsche (see GM, p. 340). Indeed, what Nietzsche says of Paul can equally be applied to Richard: he speaks of faith but acts from instinct alone. Richard's actual behaviour flagrantly contradicts the traditional Christian values: he is neither meek, nor humble; he rejects the Christian understanding of brotherly love: "I have no brother; I am like no brother / And this word 'love' which greybeards call divine / Be resident in men like one another / And not in me: I am myself alone" (Richard, Duke of York, 5.7).

Richard pretends to be religious when it suits him—"he wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat" (Much Ado About Nothing, 1.1). As he says: [End Page 520] "I clothe my naked villainy / With odd ends stol'n forth of Holy Writ / And seem a saint when most I play the devil" (1.3). We, the audience, know that it is a sham when Richard presents himself 'holier than thou' to the people for coronation. The Mayor's exclamation "see where his grace stands 'tween two clergymen," and Buckingham's assertion, "two props of virtue for a Christian prince . . . and see, a book of prayer in his hands / True ornaments to know a holy man" (3.7) can only make us laugh. For this "Christian prince," as Richmond rightly proclaims, has "ever been God's enemy" (5.5). The superficial Christian attitude adopted by Richard in order to conceal his 'true nature' as a means to achieve his end—the crown—and gain public approval thus exemplifies the "modern man" of Nietzsche's day (and Kierkegaard's): the seemingly pious believer who does not behave as if he believed in God at all. This is "devotion's visage"—the mere outward appearance of religiosity and morality hiding the reality of nihilism. Yet, as Robert Spreaight has pointed out, Shakespeare's Richard III "illustrates the ambiguity of a character who cannot escape from his inherited beliefs however flagrantly his behaviour contradicts them" (Spreight, pp. 52–53). While Richard acts as though "God is dead"—the traditional religious-moral interpretation has lost its meaning for him and is merely useful in furthering his ends—he is unable to fully divest himself thereof. Like the First Murderer, he discovers that he still has "some dregs of conscience" (1.4) within him, even though he believes that conscience is nothing but a word invented by cowards. Ultimately, Richard is unable to rid himself of the internalised norms prescribed by the Christian moral interpretation—he lacks the courage and belief in himself to come to the conclusion that the norms themselves are wrong. Consequently, he feels guilty. His conscience 'bites back' and turns out to be "a more formidable foe than Richmond" (Spreight, p. 49):

O coward conscience how thou dost afflict me:
The light burns blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh . . .
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself . . .
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all 'Guilty! Guilty!'
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul will pity me; [End Page 521]
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity for myself?


Here, Shakespeare clearly represents coward conscience as the "consciousness of guilt," in the sense of something that afflicts the individual, like an illness. Indeed, it becomes apparent that the very loud curses of Margaret—the bad conscience in persona, hovering through the castle like a shrieking ghost, regurgitating the past by reminding everyone what they owe her, and "hungry for revenge" (4.4)—have become internalised by Richard, and now his own conscience repeats them, condemning him "for a villain." Richard, so "determined to prove a villain" (1.1) at the beginning of the play, turns against himself. Now he suffers, and guilt is his sole source of suffering; as such, he exemplifies Nietzsche's "new type of invalid," the sinner (GM, III, p. 141). Thus, in his soliloquy before the battle of Bosworth Field, Richard is "the sinner breaking himself on the cruel wheel of a restless . . . conscience" (GM, III, p. 141). However, "man's sinfulness is not a fact, but merely an interpretation of a fact," according to Nietzsche. Indeed, "that someone feels "guilty" or "sinful" is no proof that he is right, any more than a man is healthy merely because he feels healthy" (GM, III, p. 129). As we are told by Hamlet: "There's nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (2.2). Initially, Richard interprets himself to be guilty, not because he actually believes he is guilty—he does not relent his past actions, since he can find no "pity" in himself (not even for himself)—but because the "quick curses" of others have come to inform his interpretation and moral evaluation of himself. That is, he has internalised the various condemnatory voices, which now inform his conscience and denounce him "as a villain." He wants to "stand the hazard of the die" (5.6), but the "gnawing worm" tortures him. In the light of Richard's earlier realisation that "conscience is but a word that cowards use / Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe" (5.6), the wheel has come full circle because Richard begins to believe in his guilt. Richard is incapable of overcoming the traditional, Christian moral order he rejects and despises. But, the imaginative, the daring, the bold, the courageous, the curious, the brave, must be free of the "slave morality" by which their natural instincts and talents are stifled. Richard turns out to be weak and cowardly. He is not a "strong and well constituted man" who "digests his experiences (his deeds and misdeeds included) as he digests his meals, even when he has to swallow some tough morsels" (GM, III, p. 129). [End Page 522]


Richard clearly does not conform to either Shakespeare's or Nietzsche's ideal type of human being, who, to paraphrase Shakespeare's Pericles, would "neither in his heart nor outward eyes / Envy the great nor the low despise" (2.3). For Nietzsche, this would be Aristotle's "great-souled man" or the type of Shakespeare's Brutus, the "noblest Roman of them all" because he, unlike the other conspirators, did what he did not "in envy of great Caesar" (Julius Caesar, 5.5). Shakespeare outlines his ideal perhaps most succinctly in Sonnet 94:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show
Who moving others are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow—
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards to their excellence.
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet
Thought to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet
The basest weed outbraves his dignity;
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

As Walter Kaufmann rightly notes, "Shakespeare's evildoers do not merely flout convention, they become ignoble and base." 13 And this is precisely what happens to Richard. His potentially noble qualities—strength of will, courage, wit, and ambition—have been perverted by resentment and bad conscience. Here we have a 'lily' that has met with 'base infection' and ends up smelling 'far worse' than any weed.

Richard, in short, is not a "man with a soul of high order" (GM, I, p. 28), but is rather a man of resentment who can find no joy in the world. Consider his remarks in Richard, Duke of York, the play that precedes Richard III in narrative sequence:

Since this earth affords no joy to me
But to command, to check, to o'erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And while I live, t'account this world but hell, [End Page 523]
Until my misshaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.


Richard's 'will to power' is not "the enthusiastic drive to enhance vitality to act on the world," 14 but rather a reaction to it. In his 'No' to life, Richard is certainly most seductive: just as he wins Lady Anne to be his wife over the dead bodies of her husband and father-in-law, "having God" and "her conscience" against him (1.3), he wins the audience over many other dead bodies by what Coghill calls "his fellow-conspirator wit in soliloquy." 15 We know that Richard's piety is put on, that he is "an enemy of God" when he evokes the name of the Almighty, and that he is motivated by resentment and the spirit of revenge.

"Resentment itself," Nietzsche says, "if it should appear in the noble man, consummates and exhausts itself in an immediate reaction, and therefore does not poison" (GM, I, p. 39). But Richard is poisoned by resentment—his discontent is announced in the very first line of the play, and is evident in Richard, Duke of York. He is not a 'noble man'—he plots and schemes, pretending to be something he is not: a "Christian prince." His instinct is "for devious paths to tyranny," and he is eaten by "the worm of vengefulness and rancour" (GM, III, p. 123). Ultimately, Richard is the all-too human monster consumed by ressentiment and power-hunger. And, according to Nietzsche, this kind of power makes stupid. Richard's resentment is borne of impotence, but it is also obsessed with power. It is not the same as self-pity; it is not merely awareness of one's misfortune (i.e. Richard's deformity and lack of status in the "piping time of peace" (1.1) following the Wars of the Roses) but involves a kind of personal outrage, an outward projection, an overwhelming sense of injustice. Richard's resentment is obsessive, strategic, prudential and also ruthlessly clever. And irony is the chief weapon of his resentment. Richard's high-spirited wit suggests that he is not so pained by his deformity as he is contemptuous of the social and moral code that thwarts his war-like nature and political ambition, and condemns him to "amble nimbly in a lady's chamber" (1.1). But, as he tells us, he is "not made for sportive tricks" (1.1). We sympathise with Richard because we recognise in him the nobility of a strong character under unfavourable circumstances (Nietzsche's definition of a 'criminal'); we reject him not only on account of his foul deeds, but also because of his inability to 'overcome' himself. The very ideas that Richard had mocked earlier end up destroying him, for he finally begins to believe in conscience [End Page 524] and revenge. Richard had used them for his own devices at the beginning of the play. Now, he says "I shall despair" (5.5), thus fulfilling the prophecies of the ghosts that come to visit him on the eve of Bosworth Field, wishing him to "despair and die," as well as Margaret's earlier hope that the "worm of conscience" may yet "beknaw" his soul. Indeed, Richard even suggests that he may be a curse on himself when he states ". . . lest I revenge. Myself against myself?" (5.5). Richard has cursed himself both by his deeds and by finally coming to believe in the idea of sin and retribution. He shifts from believing, as the First Murderer does, that conscience is a "blushing, shame faced spirit that mutinies in a man's bosom . . . every man that means to do well endeavours to trust to himself and live without it" (1.4), to seeing it as something that can "afflict" and "condemn" (5.5) him.


Shakespeare and his contemporaries were caught between old and new ways of determining the realities upon which moral values rest. When the secularism and humanism of the Renaissance—with its anthropocentrism and emphasis on this world rather than some heavenly beyond, and the concomitant waning of the "medieval distrust of sexual relationships, the grudging Pauline concession that it is 'better to marry than burn'" (Spreight, p. 20)—superseded the theocentric Middle Ages, moral values began to be re-examined. And Shakespeare was often critical of the religious and moral values and sentiments of his time. As Sen Gupta notes, with reference to Henry IV: "When Falstaff ridicules Puritanism by describing his sins in scriptural phraseology, he does it with so much grace and with such inverted appropriateness that we feel that here, if anywhere, we hear the voice of Shakespeare himself, inveighing against the cramping effect of religion and morals." 16

According to Solomon and Higgins, Nietzsche greatly admired Shakespeare's "willingness to probe the full range of human character without compromising his vision to pacify moral sensibilities. In this respect, Nietzsche identifies with Shakespeare, whom he took to share many of his own insights about the tragic dimension of human experience" (Solomon and Higgins, p. 144). Indeed, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche implies that the Bard recognised much that the West's great philosophers failed to notice. The present exploration of coward conscience, which, it was argued, pre-empts much of what Nietzsche had to say about the bad conscience, is a case in point. Shakespeare was willing to explore the [End Page 525] negative or "dark side" of conscience by positing that it may not be "the voice of God in man," but rather a psychological form of self-punishment for perceived violations of a given religious, moral, and socio-political order. In doing so, Shakespeare anticipates both Nietzsche and Freud: if conscience is not innate, it follows that it is a human construct. As such, its negative manifestation in the form of guilt, understood as self-punishment, is explored in terms of its negative effects on the individual. Moreover, in Richard III the theme of moral hypocrisy plays an important role. All of the main characters are guilty of professing one thing and being or doing another. Adherence to the Christian moral law is tenuous at best. And this, of course, raises another profound question: if a moral standard is not actually followed or meaningfully informs action, wherein lies its use? Does the superficial Christian attitude adopted by the main characters, notably Richard himself, not hide the reality of nihilism? Or at least an ambiguity that reveals the interpretative and perspectival nature of morality and law? Nietzsche urged us to "come clean"—"God is dead," so let's move on and create better values than the one's we have long discarded. Richard's tragedy is that he sets out on a course that he is incapable of seeing through, because he begins to believe in guilt and sinfulness—"the bite of conscience—a sign that the character is no match for the deed."


Anonymous said...

Thank you, that was extremely valuable and interesting...I will be back again to read more on this topic.