Picture of Gabriel Egan G a b r i e l   E g a n  .  com

"Shakespeare, materialism and the evolution of morality" by Gabriel Egan

Rene Descartes was wrong, and Shakespeare could have told him so. Cartesian mind/body dualism would have struck Shakespeare as manifestly inadequate, not least because it denies the embodied nature of thought that the prevailing early modern humoral theory incorporated (Paster 2004). The mind/body problem has analogues in a number of related questions that have long exercized philosophers. Do ideas arise from matter or is matter created by ideas? How does money work as a tangible object with mysterious unseen power? Is language like money in its combination of a substantial element (audible words, tangible writings) and insubstantial meanings? Does the real economy, the economic base, generate the way we think and feel--the superstructure including culture--or is the economy a manifestation of our ideas and feelings about production and value?

    David Hawkes argues that the materialist approaches to these questions--those that give priority to the tangible, substantial, and visible side of each duality--have been around the longest, since classical times at least, and that they represent the commonsense view of the world. "To the entirely unreflective eye", he writes, "it appears that matter is all that exists, for only matter is perceptible" (Hawkes 2011, 239). Hawkes finds approaches that privilege the material to be at best mistaken and at worst utterly destructive of human values. Materialism reduces everything to matter, and so does capitalism, which rose to prominence in the same historical period; both dehumanize people. Materialism, according to Hawkes, "is capitalism in philosophical form" (Hawkes 2011, 255).

    The alternative to a materialist view in which matter causes ideas is an idealist one in which ideas cause matter. This view has few overt adherents any more, although religious faith may be cast in this form with God as the originating Idea of the universe. Rather than settle for either materialism or idealism, Hawkes takes the Marxist escape route of calling them a dialectic. He attributes to Karl Marx and Georg Hegel the perspective that sees

such paired contradictions as the one between ideas and matter as mutually determining. They thought that each pole of the dichotomy brought the other into existence, a doctrine known as 'the interpenetration of opposites'. It would be impossible to conceive of 'matter' unless we also held the opposite conception of 'idea'. It is thus a 'reductionist' fallacy to claim either pole of the dichotomy determines or creates the other. (Hawkes 2011, 243)

This approach invokes the post-structuralist idea that each term in a binary opposition depends on the other for its existence, so that, for example, there is no rationality other than by distinction from madness and vice versa, no nature without culture and vice versa, and so on. Since the point under discussion is metaphysical, not linguistic or cognitive, this post-structuralist claim is not strictly relevant here. More importantly, Marx did not treat the ideas/matter duality as a dialectic. He did not claim that consciousness and social being are mutually dependent with each bringing the other into existence, but instead was quite explicit about the one-way traffic: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness" (Marx 1970, 20-21). Marx was a materialist, which does not mean that he denied the existence of ideas but that he thought matter capable of generating ideas and not the reverse.

    The matter/ideas and body/mind dualities might seem superficially akin to other dualities that early moderns openly discussed, such as flesh/spirit or body/soul. According to Hawkes, Christianity kept idealism dominant over materialism until at least the Renaissance, not least because of the religion's preference for the activities of the mind over those of the body: ". . . the religious imposition of idealism . . . often took the form of a puritanical denial of fleshly pleasure" (Hawkes 2011, 240). However, in Shakespeare at least the flesh/spirit relationship is not only not a dialectic, it is not even a duality. Rather, his characters' conceptual model is of a container (the body) and its contents (the soul), with the latter analogous to air. In Clarence's dream of drowning, water pressure prevents the usual release upon (and literally by) expiration:

[CLARENCE]         . . . often did I strive
To yield the ghost, but still the envious flood
Stopped-in my soul and would not let it forth
To find the empty, vast, and wand'ring air,
But smothered it within my panting bulk,
(Richard 3 1.4.36-401)

Released from its containing body, the soul of the recently deceased person was imagined to be floating in the air above those nearby, as when Bolingbroke remarks to Mowbray after their interrupted trial-by-combat that "had the King permitted us, | One of our souls had wandered in the air, | Banished this frail sepulchre of our flesh" (Richard 2 1.3.187-9). Likewise Romeo comments after a fatal sword-fight that "Mercutio's soul | Is but a little way above our heads" (Romeo and Juliet 3.1.126-7). Early modern ideas about the soul are relevant here because Hawkes conflates the soul with the mind and consciousness even though the scholars he is trying to refute do not. According to Hawkes, "all of the materialisms currently prominent in literary studies", including evolutionary psychology and cognitive theory, "share one fundamental assumption . . . that the human subject, mind or soul is an illusion" (Hawkes 2011, 250). Evolutionary psychologists would scarcely spend so long studying the mind if they thought it merely an illusion, but many of them might well dismiss the existence of the soul.

    Hawkes likens the selfish-gene principle underlying evolutionary psychology to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political economy's supposed individual, later labelled homo economicus, who behaves in her own best interests in order to maximize what is good for her. The use of this simplified and abstracted human individual enabled political economists to derive principles and formulae for modelling the wider economy, and although the Latin name was not used the idea underpins Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1776c; 1776b; 1776a), David Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1821) and John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy (1871b; 1871a). Even in this early form the homo economicus abstraction was not as over-simplified as some of its critics claimed (Persky 1995), but it did rest upon the assumption that an individual's best interests can be reasonably simply defined. This has turned out to be untrue, not least because the determination of best interests entails indeterminacies of time such as the notion of 'discounting the future'. Sometimes it is better to "haue one byrde in hande, then two in the Bushe", as a 1579 book of sayings had it (C 1579, O4v), and sometimes it is not.

    Knowing just how much to discount the future so that two birds then are worth one now is a tricky judgement with frequently surprising outcomes. Under pressure from loss of hunting habitats polar bears have recently been seen cannibalising their young (Stirling & Ross 2011), which appears to be a shockingly unnatural development. From the genes' point of view, however, even eating one's own descendents can make sense when the future is heavily discounted, as when early death is imminent. In most organisms, genes push copies of themselves into the future by sexual reproduction and individuals are made to behave as if they have an investment in helping, or at least not harming, their offspring. But in times of crisis such as starvation an individual eating its offspring might be a better strategy for the genes, especially if the offspring need parental support and would die in any case without the parent. In such circumstances, preserving oneself and so securing a chance to reproduce later when the crisis has passed may take priority over the welfare of existing offspring. It might be objected that across the species we find parents actually sacrificing their lives for their offspring rather than eating them. Indeed, the particular circumstances favouring infanticide are probably rare and parental sacrifice may often be a better strategy. One cannot derive a simple rule of parent-child relations without considering the material conditions of existence from the genes' point of view.

    Happily, among the more intelligent species various strategies of reciprocal altruism--helping not only one's relatives but also acquaintances and even strangers--are highly effective ways for genes to promote their reproduction. This point is widely missed by those who think that focussing on selfish genes validates the ruthless competitiveness of the capitalist marketplace. Hawkes's essay, for example, overlooks reciprocal altruism, as does John Dupré's critique of evolutionary psychology in which the index entry for all kinds of 'altruism' points to just three pages (Hawkes 2011, 253, Dupré 2001). Reciprocal altruism requires brains able to keep track of who has helped whom and by how much and who has yet to repay oustanding debts, and it explains the evolutionary usefulness of emotions such as anger, gratitude and guilt (Hamilton 1963; Trivers 1971; Dawkins 1976, 166-88; Trivers 1985; Pinker 1997, 402-07). In the theologically grounded morality of Shakespeare's time, the injunction to reciprocity embodied in the Christian Golden Rule--"do to others as you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7.12)--was supposed to govern relations within the family, the wider community and with strangers. Subtly implied in the Golden Rule is the retributive principle that others will repay in kind whatever behaviour is shown them, good or bad. These others are most obviously individuals around oneself now, but Shakespeare imagined and dramatized selfish behaviour that seems advantageous to the individual when looked at synchronically, but when considered diachronically, and in particular transgenerationally, the behaviour is revealed as disadvantageous. Shakespeare was aware that if one's behaviour is inherited by one's children, one faces a kind of Golden Rule played out over time and hence, in crude but I think defensible terms, heredity encourages goodness.

    In the most benign form of this conceit, the inheritance of personal qualities gives a child an impudent retort to parental complaint, as when Richard 3 refuses to listen to his mother:

DUCHESS OF YORK Art thou my son?
Ay, I thank God, my father, and yourself.
Then patiently hear my impatience.
Madam, I have a touch of your condition,
That cannot brook the accent of reproof.
(Richard 3 4.4.155-9)

Earlier in the play Shakespeare uses a much more potent form of this conceit when Lady Anne curses Richard Gloucester by wishing him to have a child as monstrous as himself:

If ever he have child, abortive be it,
Prodigious, and untimely brought to light,
Whose ugly and unnatural aspect
May fright the hopeful mother at the view,
And that be heir to his unhappiness.
(Richard 3 1.2.21-25)

John Jowett thought that Anne's reference to deformity "glances only indirectly at" Richard's own condition (Shakespeare 2000, 1.2.21n) whereas Antony Hammond was sure that Anne is "describing Richard's own birth" and wondered whether she realizes that she is doing this (Shakespeare 1981, 1.2.23n). Without speculating about the contents of Anne's mind, we can say for sure that 160 lines earlier (about eight minutes of stage time) Richard called himself "deformed, unfinished . . . half made up" (1.1.20-1), so the audience hears Anne cursing Richard with having a child like himself.

    Shakespeare returned to this kind of curse when he had King Lear pronounce one on his daughter Gonoril:

[LEAR]                    If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother's pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel--
That she may feel
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child.
(History of King Lear 4.268)

As a parenting strategy, Gonoril's selfishness defeats itself and the Golden Rule is upheld, not synchronically but diachronically over the generations.

    Later Lear realizes a layer of further potential reciprocity: what if he is subject to the same curse he made upon Gonoril? That is to say, might not Gonoril herself be a deserved punishment to him just as he wishes her child to be a deserved punishment to her? The sight of Edgar prompts this thought:

What, has his daughters brought him to this pass?
(To Edgar) Couldst thou save nothing? Didst thou give them all?
FOOL Nay, he reserved a blanket, else we had been all
LEAR (to Edgar)
Now all the plagues that in the pendulous air
Hang fated o'er men's faults fall on thy daughters!
KENT He hath no daughters, sir.
Death, traitor! Nothing could have subdued nature
To such a lowness but his unkind daughters.
(To Edgar) Is it the fashion that discarded fathers
Should have thus little mercy on their flesh?
Judicious punishment: 'twas this flesh begot
Those pelican daughters.
(History of King Lear 11.56-68)

Lear comes to realize the error of his ways, and in this regard we may usefully contrast him with the childless King Richard 3. Richard has hopes to start his own line of monarchs, but his imagery of generation runs precisely counter to the principle of transgenerational correction I have been sketching. Richard seems to think that by reproducing he will undo his crimes rather than be called to account for them:

QUEEN ELIZABETH Yet thou didst kill my children.
But in your daughter's womb I bury them,
Where, in that nest of spicery, they will breed
Selves of themselves, to your recomfiture.
(Richard 3 4.4.353-6)

The childless Macbeth is much like Richard in brutally hacking his way to the throne only to find that it gives little joy without a child to pass it on to. Indeed, we may suppose that these kings are able to be brutal because they are childless: had they to face the transgenerational consequences of passing on these traits they would learn that selfishness is self-defeating. The facts of life militate against anti-social behaviour so that goodness, like freedom, evolves (Dennett 2003).

    The last plays of Shakespeare's career are especially concerned with relations between the generations. In The Winter's Tale, Paulina presents the new-born baby Perdita to Leontes and remarks on its likeness to him:

PAULINA                                  It is yours,
And might we lay th' old proverb to your charge,
So like you 'tis the worse. Behold, my lords,
Although the print be little, the whole matter
And copy of the father . . .
. . .
And thou good goddess Nature, which hast made it
So like to him that got it, if thou hast
The ordering of the mind too, 'mongst all colours
No yellow in 't, lest she suspect, as he does,
Her children not her husband's.
(The Winter's Tale 2.3.96-108)

Paulina means to show Leontes that he was wrong to suspect that the baby is another's child. But having asserted that the baby is like its father, Paulina must hope that Perdita is unlike her father in one quality at least: that she is not yellow (the colour of jealousy) lest she think that her children are not her own. This is of course absurd, since the uneven burden of sexual reproduction affords women at least the certainty that the children they give birth to are their own.

    Even if inheritable, Leontes's jealousy could not be transmitted down the female line, as Paulina appears to recognize as she says this. The Variorum edition of the play cites a number of critics who regard this absurdity as intentional illogic on Paulina's part, meant to show Leontes his own illogic (Shakespeare 2005, TLN 1029-30n). On the other hand one might argue that this is unintentionally inflammatory and that having his attention drawn to the certainty of motherhood Leontes might feel the pain of paternal uncertainty all the more keenly. From the point of view of natural ethics Paulina seems to have put her finger on a problem, since transgenerational relations cannot visit Leontes's disorder upon him in the way that they can revisit Gonoril's ingratitude upon her. The longer version of this essay explores Shakespeare's meditation upon the mechanics of heridity, especially in relation to incest, in his late plays.

    Objections to literary critics using the insights of neoDarwinist approaches such as evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are commonly based on misunderstanding of the neoDarwinist ideas themselves, despite their being widely accessible in populist explanations. In departments of Literature it is still commonly supposed that selfishness in a gene--which is merely a metaphor for how molecules behave--explains and validates selfish behaviour in individuals. In fact, among humans, almost the precise opposite is true: selfish genes explain our often surprising altruism. Shakespeare of course had little understanding of the real mechanics of reproduction, but he was an astute critic of human behaviour and like his contemporaries he grasped that traits of behaviour are as inheritable as traits of physical appearance. In dramatizing parent-child conflict, Shakespeare showed that reciprocity founded on the mildly retributive principle that others will repay one's behaviour in kind operates not only within a generation but also between the generations. Together with recent work on his fascination with the mechanics of human tolerance (Sokol 2008), this gives us further reason to celebrate Shakespeare's plays as progressive and optimistic about human nature.


1All play quotations are from Shakespeare 1989.

Works Cited

C, H. 1579. The Forrest of Fancy. STC 4271. London. Thomas Purfoote.

Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The Selfish Gene. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Dennett, Daniel C. 2003. Freedom Evolves. London. Penguin.

Dupré, John. 2001. Human Nature and the Limits of Science. Oxford. Clarendon Press.

Hamilton, W. D. 1963. "The Evolution of Altruistic Behaviour." American Naturalist 97. 354-56.

Hawkes, David. 2011. "Against Materialism in Literary Theory." The Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies: Tarrying with the Subjunctive. Edited by Paul Cefalu and Bryan Reynolds. Basingstoke. Palgrave Macmillan. 237-57.

Marx, Karl. 1970. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Ed. and trans. Maurice Dobbs. New World Paperbacks. 106. New York. International Publishers.

Mill, John Stuart. 1871a. Principles of Political Economy. Seventh edition. Vol. 2: Book Three (Exchange, Continued;) Book Four (Influence of the Progress of Society on Production And Distribution;) Book Five (On the Influence of Government). London. Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer.

Mill, John Stuart. 1871b. Principles of Political Economy. Seventh edition. Vol. 1: Book One (Production;) Book Two (Distribution;) Book Three (Exchange;) Appendix. London. Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer.

Paster, Gail Kern. 2004. Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage. Chicago IL. University of Chicago Press.

Persky, Joseph. 1995. "Retrospectives: The Ethology of Homo Economicus." Journal of Economic Perspectives 9. 221-31.

Pinker, Steven. 1997. How the Mind Works. New York. W. W. Norton.

Ricardo, David. 1821. On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Third edition. London. John Murray.

Shakespeare, William. 1981. King Richard III. Ed. Antony Hammond. The Arden Shakespeare. London. Methuen.

Shakespeare, William. 1989. The Complete Works. Ed. Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett, and William Montgomery. Electronic edition prepared by William Montgomery and Lou Burnard. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Shakespeare, William. 2000. Richard III. Ed. John Jowett. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Shakespeare, William. 2005. The Winter's Tale. Ed. Robert Kean Turner, Virginia Westling Haas, Robert A. Jones, Andrew J. Sabol, Patricia E. Tatspaugh. The New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare. New York. The Modern Language Association of America.

Smith, Adam. 1776a. An Inquiry in the Nature and Causes of Wealth of Nations. Vol. 3: Book Four (Of Systems of Political Oeconomy) Continued; Book Five (Of the Revenue of the Sovereign or Commonwealth). Dublin. Whitestone, Chamberlaine, W. Watson, Potts, S. Watson et al..

Smith, Adam. 1776b. An Inquiry in the Nature and Causes of Wealth of Nations. Vol. 2: Book Two (Of the Nature, Accumulation, and Employment of Stock;) Book Three (Of the Different Progress of Opulence in Different Nations;) Book Four (Of Systems of Political Oeconomy). Dublin. Whitestone, Chamberlaine, W. Watson, Potts, S. Watson et al..

Smith, Adam. 1776c. An Inquiry in the Nature and Causes of Wealth of Nations. Vol. 1: Of the Causes of Improvement in the Productive Powers of Labour, and of the Order According to Which its Produce is Naturally Distributed Among the Different Ranks of the People. Dublin. Whitestone, Chamberlaine, W. Watson, Potts, S. Watson et al..

Sokol, B. J. 2008. Shakespeare and Tolerance. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Stirling, I. and J. E. Ross. 2011. "Observations of Cannibalism By Polar Bears (Ursus Maritimus) on Summer and Autumn Sea Ice at Svalbard, Norway." Arctic 64. 478-82.

Trivers, Robert. 1971. "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism." Quarterly Review of Biology 46. 35-57.

Trivers, Robert. 1985. Social Evolution. Reading MA. Benjamin-Cummings.