Macbeth Power Corrupts Essay

Events, characters and language are all closely related. So I'll explain how an event contributes to characterization and then explain how language furthers those ideas. There are a number of characters in the play, but here I'll focus on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

If you need more than what I've provided here, think of what it means to "characterize" someone. We do it with our friends and peers all the time. For example, if the kid...

Events, characters and language are all closely related. So I'll explain how an event contributes to characterization and then explain how language furthers those ideas. There are a number of characters in the play, but here I'll focus on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

If you need more than what I've provided here, think of what it means to "characterize" someone. We do it with our friends and peers all the time. For example, if the kid in class who brags about getting a good score on a test because he's naturally really smart. However, you saw him using a cheat sheet under his desk. Therefore, how he acts during a tough moment gives us significant insight into his character. In addition, the fact that he brags and lies further supplements our assessment of his character.


In act one (I) scene two (ii), King Duncan gets a report on the recent war. The focus of the report is on Macbeth and how brave and ferocious a warrior he is. Specifically, the servant tells Duncan that Macbeth was slaughtering others and "he unseam'd [one of them] from the nave to the chaps." In other words, Macbeth impaling opponents with a sword and then running the sword all the way up the chin. Based on this event and the language used in describing it, the reader understands that Macbeth is capable of extreme brutality given the appropriate situation; he has the ability to be physically powerful.

Once Macbeth becomes king, he then abuses his state power by murdering any person he deemed a threat, including women and children. Because Macbeth will kill anyone simply for the sake of maintaining his power, the reader can draw inferences into the composition of his character (characterization).  

Lady Macbeth

Once Macbeth is King, Lady Macbeth is the queen. The potential power she has is obvious; she is emotionally and physically close to Macbeth, thus able to influence his decisions.

Before Macbeth became king, he had to assassinate King Duncan. Duncan was a close friend, perhaps even a father-figure, to Macbeth and Macbeth has doubts about killing him. Lady Macbeth then takes on a more masculine role and challenges Macbeth. In I vii, "when you durst do it, then you are a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man." In other words, she challenges his masculinity by saying that he is not a man until he has killed the king. When these words come from a person who is so close (especially during the Elizabethan period when genders dictated specific behaviors) they wield great power.

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) the discussion this month will focus on “The Corrupting Influence of Power in Shakespeare’s Plays". Lord Acton famously maintained that “power tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Shakespeare’s plays qualify as so many imaginative investigations into the consequences of possessing power. From one perspective his dramas depict the effects of possessing power upon the soul of the person thus endowed. At the same time the plays portray the transitive effects of exercising power upon those who find themselves subject to the possessors of means to benefit or to harm. For both those who apply their power and those subject to the wielder thereof, Shakespeare’s works display the exercise of power to have consequences that bear upon one’s understanding of liberty and responsibility.The lead essay is by John E. Alvis, professor of English and director of American Studies at the University of Dallas, and the other participants are Sarah Skwire who is a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc., David V. Urban who is a professor of English at Calvin College, and Michael Zuckert who is Nancy R. Dreux Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.

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John E. Alvis, “”The Corrupting Influence of Power in Shakespeare's Plays" (July 2016)



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The Debate

Lead Essay: John E. Alvis, “The Corrupting Influence of Power in Shakespeare's Plays" [Posted: July 5, 2016]

Responses and Critiques

  1. Sarah Skwire, "Power and Innocent Blood" [Posted: July 6, 2016]
  2. David V. Urban, "Power and Corruption in Shakespeare's Plays" [Posted: July 7, 2016]
  3. Michael Zuckert, "More Like Aristotle than Acton" [Posted: July 8, 2016]

The Conversation

  1. John E Alvis, "Power, Character, and Disorder" [Posted: July 11, 2016]
  2. David V. Urban, "Reason and Grace" [Posted: July 12, 2016]
  3. David V. Urban, "Matters of Conscience" [Posted: July 14, 2016]
  4. Michael Zuckert, "Shakespeare’s Moral Universe" [Posted: July 18, 2016]
  5. Sarah Skwire, "Ethical Leadership and the Temptations of Absolute Power" [Posted: July 18, 2016]
  6. John E. Alvis, "Reason and Grace: A Response" [Posted: July 19, 2016]
  7. David V. Urban, "Renouncing Power" [Posted: July 25, 2016]
  8. John E. Alvis, "Acton’s Axiom and Shakespeare: Two Further Plays for Consideration" [Posted: July 26, 2016]
  9. Michael Zuckert, "Tyranny in The Winter’s Tale, Part I" [Posted: July 27, 2016]
  10. Michael Zuckert, "Tyranny in The Winter’s Tale, Part 2: Lord Acton redux" [Posted: July 29, 2016]
  11. Sarah Skwire, "Do the Sonnets Hold the Key?" [Posted: August 1, 2016]
  12. David V. Urban, "The Tempest's Antonio, Conscience, and Adam Smith" [Posted: August 1, 2016]
  13. David V. Urban, "The Corrupting Effects of Gonzalo's Hypothetical 'Man of System'” [Posted: August 1, 2016]
  14. John E. Alvis, "Can Power in the Right Hands Prevent Tyranny?" [Posted: August 2, 2016]
  15. David V. Urban, "Henry V: Corrupt beyond the Machiavellian Norm?" [Posted: August 2, 2016]

About the Authors

John E. Alvis is presently professor of English and director of American Studies at the University of Dallas, where he has taught literature and political thought since 1969, John E. Alvis is the author of Shakespeare’s Understanding of Honor (Carolina Academic Press, 1988), Divine Initiative and Heroic Response: The Political Plan of Zeus in Homer and Virgil (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), and Nathaniel Hawthorne as Political Philosopher: Revolutionary Principles Domesticated and Personalized (Transaction Publishers, 2012). He is editor of Areopagitica and the Political Writings of John Milton (Liberty Fund Press, 1998) and, with Thomas G. West, Shakespeare as Political Thinker (Carolina Academic Press, 1979), revised ed. ISI Press 2005. He has authored plays on famous statesmen and political issues, one on Alexander Hamilton, one on Woodrow Wilson, a third on Shakespeare’s Thomas More.

Sarah Skwire is a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. Her research and writing focuses primarily on the intersections between literature and economics. Recent publications have included an essay with Steven Horwitz on Bastiat's broken-window fallacy and the zombie apocalypse, an essay on why libertarians should read more romance novels, and a consideration of equality, theology, and law in the writing of 17th-century Quaker Margaret Fell. Skwire’s work appears regularly in The Freeman and on the blog of the Fraser Institute. She also writes for the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, and her work has appeared in Reason and Newsweek. She has appeared on Stossel and the Imaginary Worlds podcast, and lectures for the Institute for Humane Studies, Students for Liberty, and other organizations.

David V. Urban is a professor of English at Calvin College. He co-edited Visionary Milton: Essays on Prophecy and Violence (Duquesne University Press, 2010) and co-compiled and co-edited John Milton: An Annotated Bibliography, 1989-1999 (Duquesne University Press, 2011), and has a book manuscript, The Parabolic Milton: The Self and The Bible in John Milton's Writings, under consideration. His articles on Milton, Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy, Fugard, C. S. Lewis, Hawthorne, Melville, Chekhov, the Bible, and other topics have appeared or are forthcoming in Studies in Philology, Journal of Markets and Morality, Milton Quarterly, Milton Studies, Calvin Theological Journal, Christianity and Literature, Leviathan, Connotations, Appositions, Australian Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, Resuscitating Paidea, and various edited collections. He has a B.A. in English (Phi Beta Kappa) from Northwestern University, an M.Div. (summa cum laude) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Michael Zuckert is Nancy R. Dreux Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He has published many books and articles, including several on Shakespeare's politics.

Additional Reading


LEAD ESSAY: John E. Alvis, "The Corrupting Influence of Power in Shakespeare’s Plays" [Posted: July 5, 2016]↩

Lord Acton famously maintained that “power tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[1] Shakespeare’s plays qualify as so many imaginative investigations into the consequences of possessing power. From one perspective his dramas depict the effects of possessing power upon the soul of the person thus endowed. At the same time the plays portray the transitive effects of exercising power upon those who find themselves subject to the possessors of means to benefit or to harm. For both those who apply their power and those subject to the wielder thereof, Shakespeare’s works display the exercise of power to have consequences that bear upon one’s understanding of liberty and responsibility. So what do we find once we survey some of Shakespeare’s plays with a view to trying out Acton’s proposition?

Of the many forms in which power reveals itself—in politics, in families, between lovers, in the relations linking human beings to supernatural powers divine or demonic—suppose we confine our inquiry to the political. Do the political plays of Shakespeare support Acton’s cautionary regarding the corruption worked by possessing and deploying power? If so, do any of these dramas suggest means of limiting corruptive tendencies in the powerful? Do these dramas depict any characters who manage with absolute power nevertheless to avoid being corrupted thereby?

We could begin with Macbeth, a play in which political power is gained in abundance and at least imagined to have been gained to an absolute degree. Macbeth arrives suddenly at the apex of political authority, first, on the strength of his military prowess and soon thereafter by his assassinating the reigning monarch. Macbeth is remarkable among Shakespeare’s rulers because of what we might term the “purity” of his will to power. Men who desire political sway typically desire it in order to gratify other desires that, to be attained, depend upon acquiring force sufficient to oblige others to comply with the powerful person’s wishes. Macbeth, however, appears to seek power as an end in itself. Early on he admits to himself that he has no spur to motivate him but “only vaulting ambition.”

“I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself
And falls on the other.”
[Act I, Sc. VII, 24]

Later in the play, Malcolm will test Macduff by listing some of the gratifications that he would indulge in himself if he had royal prerogatives. Macduff will accept much in the way of corruption but draws the line at Malcolm’s pretending he would destroy “human concord.”

“But I have none: the king-becoming graces,
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,
I have no relish of them, but abound
In the division of each several crime,
Acting it many ways. Nay, had I power, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth.”
[Act. IV, Sc. III, 91-100]

Macbeth reaches this point when he wills to spill “all nature’s germans.”

“I conjure you (the three witches), by that which you profess,—
Howe’er you come to know it,—answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodg’d and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders’ heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of Nature’s germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.”
[Act IV, Sc. I, 50-61]

Macbeth does not anticipate the self-destructive effects of getting what he wills, for he suffers the consequences of his corruption in diminishment of strength, first, within himself. He deprives himself of sleep and troubles himself with fears of the living and even of the dead (Banquo’s ghost) and of the yet to be born (Banquo’s royal descendants). He loses his wife to her own paralyzing fears. He thinks he has lost—that is damned—his immortal soul. At last he loses power to intimidate when his troops come to detest him more than they fear him. Then he loses crown and life at the same time to a surviving son of the legitimate king he had killed. For those subject to the power of a ruler beset by ambition and fear, the consequences are what often must attend a quest for absolute power: looking to the ruler, constant fears of violent death at the hands of another; looking to those who are ruled, destruction of civic friendship, now giving way to a general distrust. Macbeth installs in every prominent family spies so as to detect disaffection. One consequence thereof: no one can know whether within his own household he deals with friend or enemy.

Yet the play Macbeth may seem the most reassuring of Shakespeare’s political dramas because the playwright has endowed a nemesis he terms “Nature” with means of “self-correction” sufficiently ample to make tyranny short-lived. Still, on second thoughts do we not realize that Shakespeare has created an incompetent aspirant to effective tyranny? His sophomoric version of the Machiavellian opportunist-immoralist serves to provide a handbook instructive in what not to do. To make himself secure in his new access to political power, Macbeth could learn from the example of the ambitious Agathocles commended by Machiavelli. Had he done so he would have made better use of the occasion fortune had provided by responding to the opportunity with an Agathoclean thoroughness. That would have meant slaying Duncan’s sons together with Macduff and Banquo while all were yet guests within Macbeth’s castle. Within his own walls he has available a retinue adequate to encompass the several killings, as we know because the other houseguests fear to confront him though they are not deceived by the flight of King Duncan’s sons. (These sons, too, know their lives now lie vulnerable, their fate confined as one says in “an augur hole.”) Macbeth trusts too much the way of the fox, when circumstance had called for the naked power of the lion. From Machiavelli he could also learn better to deploy lupine cunning in sustaining himself once he comes into possession of the throne. He would supplement his cadre of spies with dependent lairds, securing their loyalty by redistributing lands and honors. Macbeth does not know how to employ faction for a truly effective corruption of a society. He does succeed only in absolute self-corruption. He inures himself at last against residual promptings of conscience, natural affection for his wife, and, by the end of the play, has extinguished every concern for his status in God’s reckoning. But to be rationally assured of the operation of a moral reaction, a self-cleansing nemesis, Shakespeare would have had to show it operative against a tyrant more cunning by half than Macbeth. Macbeth’s merely partially tyrannical measures in service of power-seeking corrupt (him) absolutely, but his limited intelligence prevents his actually attaining absolute power.

With his depiction of Cleopatra, Shakespeare imagines absolute power possessed by hereditary right. In the same play Antony’s power comes by way of a triumvirate that, as such, obviously puts limits upon his authority. Yet it appears his power over the eastern empire may not be subject to any “constitutional” restrictions, although Octavius Caesar claims Antony has obligations under their partnership. Cleopatra has been invested with a sacerdotal authority-- in which Antony is said at one point to share inasmuch as the couple dress themselves in garments associated with two divinities. Evidently Antony can either “enfranchise” or more thoroughly subject some kingdoms at will. Given the Roman conquest of Egypt, Cleopatra must owe some obedience to Antony, but she speaks as though she were sovereign and clearly does command her Egyptian fleet.

Corruption in consequence of the couple’s having extensive power is uncertain if only because the world presented in Antony and Cleopatra lacks a standard for measuring integrity. Antony behaves in the manner of a tyrant at times. Cleopatra’s tyranny extends to trying out upon her subjects “easy ways to die” (not confining experimentation to prisoners condemned for capital crimes as Shakespeare had read in Plutarch). Otherwise, it appears we have little indication of the character of her rule. Antony’s corruption registers in his inattentiveness to military obligations. Here the cause lies in his love. His doting upon Cleopatra is lamented by his officers and becomes the cause of his losing to his rival Octavian the decisive sea battle of Actium. If the standard by which Shakespeare guides our judgment consists in the self-command needed for generalship as well as for effective political rule, then both rulers suffer corruption. Yet judgment awaits a clarification inasmuch as the erotic preoccupations of the lovers seem not more afflicting to the people they rule than the partisan political scheming of the grand Roman power brokers. With the demise of the republic vanishes any sense of a common good to be served by political virtue. As Shakespeare presents it, political life has become altogether personal. Thus between Egypt and Rome there’s not much to choose. In fact the most sodden moments are those spent by the triumvirs in their attempt at Bacchic carousing aboard Pompey’s galley. So personal have become political as well as military allegiances that the question must arise: is not the personal loyalty between lovers to be considered on a par with the no less personal bonds connecting generals to their subordinates and colleagues?

If loyalty in love attests incorruption as satisfactorily as loyalty between superior and subordinate, is it not true that as Antony loses power he becomes more loyal to Cleopatra and vice versa? Does that support Acton’s Law by affirming its transposition, i.e., declining in power may overcome corruption? Of course one could say that in matters of love between the sexes one must add some criteria to produce a satisfactory judgment. Must one judge lovers by their wisdom in knowing and their generosity in pursuing the true good of the beloved? During their heyday of cultivating the “no life comparable” by supplementing lovemaking with auxiliary stimulants of drinking, feasting, and self-display, the lovers do not appear to ennoble one another. But once loss of power becomes certain, each seems more disposed to self-sacrifice on behalf of the beloved, thus honoring the example set by the beloved.

Toward the end of Antony and Cleopatra two epochal changes appear imminent. Christianity supplants classical paganism, and feudalism follows upon the demise of that Roman Empire, which in the play is just being consolidated by Caesar Augustus. All the political dramas set in the post-Roman era portray men and women who profess belief in a personal God who uniquely among personal beings possesses absolute power, and no Shakespearean character supposes any person other than God can be trusted with such. But when Acton, or anyone, speaks of power being absolute we understand that what is at issue is absolute within a particular nation. In Shakespeare’s England (depicted not later than the reign of Henry VIII) monarchs approach absolute power, at least in the opinion generally voiced by their subjects. Richard II offers us an interesting case of a ruler who by natural endowment or by his situation vis-à-vis other men is weak but who thinks himself unlimited by constitutional provision. He comes near to regarding himself as a god among men. Yet Shakespeare shows the effectual truth to be that Richard, like all English kings, owes such authority as he has to a “social contract” between barony and monarch, a tacit covenant stipulating that the king honor every nobleman’s hereditary rule over a particular territory within England in exchange for these noblemen agreeing to regard the monarch as rightful ruler over all England. Supplementing this agreement we find a theo-political aggregate of beliefs which are assumed to confer upon the monarch supernatural support. He is “God’s anointed,” enjoying a preeminence that has its counterparts on every step of a hierarchy of being mounting upwards from inanimate matter, to living beings, to man and angels, ending in God. So reliant upon these convictions is Shakespeare’s Richard that he can half-believe himself entitled to order the very earth of his island-realm to deny sustenance to rebels.

“Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.
For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.”
[Act III, sc. II, 54-62]

Yet one must say “half-believe” because Richard cannot but be aware that lacking a standing army he relies for coercive power upon the willingness of the well-affected among his barons to gather and equip their retainers and tenants. God saves the king only insofar as the king can secure loyalties of well-born men, fealties ever subject to change. Nonetheless Richard’s presumptuous attachment to the notion of his having in God his providential sponsor causes this king to neglect whatever actual force he might otherwise have summoned from his native allotment of prudence and courage. His own corruption he has worked by wasting his revenues upon extravagant patronage of flatterers. Then, his official resources thus reduced, when he comes to make war in Ireland he breaks the tacit contract by expropriating the patrimonial property of one high-placed heir to a Dukedom (Bolingbroke) who in revenging himself will succeed in usurping the throne. Thereby with Richard, Shakespeare has given us to witness corruption inflicted by indulging merely an irresponsible supposition of absolute power on the basis of a generally held belief.

Shakespeare’s Richard II has also instructed us in the cure (though no more than partial) of corruption by way of a monarch’s extracting knowledge from his enduring privations. Richard arrives at such wisdom as he can attain—as well as some courage--not until he has experienced loss of office, wife, possessions, friends, and honor, and while suffering imprisonment with expectation of imminent death by violence to be dealt him by the usurper. His access to virtue almost coincides with his last fatuous expression of vestigial presumption, when he responds with indignation to the report that his horse had stepped more proudly with the usurper in the stirrups than when previously the animal had borne his anointed royal owner.

Richard: “Rode he on Barbary? Tell me, gentle friend,
How went he under him?

Groom: So proudly as if he disdain’d the ground.

K. Rich.: So proud that Bolingbroke was on his back!
That jade hath eat bread from my royal hand;
This hand hath made him proud with clapping him.
Would he not stumble? Would he not fall down,—
Since pride must have a fall,—and break the neck
Of that proud man that did usurp his back?
Forgiveness, horse! why do I rail on thee,
Since thou, created to be aw’d by man,
Wast born to bear? I was not made a horse;
And yet I bear a burden like an ass,
Spur-gall’d and tir’d by jauncing Bolingbroke.”
[Act V, sc. V, 81-94]

Belatedly Richard comes to self-knowledge, saying, “I wasted time and now doth time waste me.” This, in turn, evidently prompts the spasm of courage that enables the deposed king to kill one of his assailants before dying himself. At this moment for once, Richard succeeds in regarding not himself but (impersonally) the sacred office here being subjected to violence. Hitherto he had not shown himself capable of viewing royalty as something the possessor holds in trust, one imposing moral obligations, not, so he had been given to think, that simply confers privileges.

To put Acton’s aphorism to a different sort of test we might do well to consider an instance of absolute power voluntarily renounced. For this The Tempestoffers occasion to reflect upon ademonstration not to be found among the other plays. Prospero differs from all Shakespearean characters by virtue of his having supernatural powers at his disposal. If one estimates the range of these powers by his own catalogue of previous demonstrations, Prospero has somehow achieved feats comparable to those Christians attribute to the Son of God. He claims to have brought back the dead to life: “graves have oped at [his] command”; he calms seas and bedims the noon sun. We observe Prospero baffling demons, damning or saving men, and putting souls through a kind of penitents’ purgatory. His factotum Ariel is named after an angel. By means of his magic Prospero could live the life of Plato’s philosopher, or Socrates’s philosopher-king, or inclining to a more modern ideal, he could live out the career of a Baconian sage mastering empirical science. That’s to stay within the range of the upright. If inclined to demonic satisfactions his means to absolute dominance could realize wicked projects hatched by whatever Satanic minds with whom he might care to compete.

Yet he comes to denigrate this “rough” magic and at play’s end professes to have ceased to practice it.

“ … I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ’twixt the green sea and the azur’d vault
Set roaring war: to the dread-rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt: the strong-bas’d promontory
Have I made shake; and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have wak’d their sleepers, op’d, and let them forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure; and, when I have requir’d
Some heavenly music,—which even now I do,—
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And, deeper than did ever plummet sound,
I’ll drown my book.”
[Act V, sc. I, 41-57]

Instead his “every third thought,” he says, will be his grave. His other two thirds are presumably divided between ruling his now-restored Dukedom of Milan, and, perhaps, arranging to further that education of Miranda and Ferdinand he had begun on the island. I don’t suppose an exegesis that would reduce all Prospero’s powers to those practiced by Shakespeare as artist would make much difference to resolving the mystery of why this renunciation. Prospero/artist could enjoy doing what the artist does without care for anything other. Or, if supreme happiness consists in freedom to alter one’s way of living—changing from decent to demonic and back again at will, knowing one will enjoy the freedom of savoring every variety thereof-- if thus to be master of change should constitute felicity, then retaining his magic should enable Prospero to provide for himself unbounded freedom. Whatever else it may be, freedom is power. Prospero could turn Acton’s maxim on its head.

But presumably knowing all this, Prospero chooses to put himself and those dependent upon him back into a world not new to him who has experienced its evils, its transiency, and who knows, as well, that the peace he has patched will hold only so long as it is willed by men not thoroughly or permanently purged by Prospero’s efforts on the island. (Witness the plotter Antonio’s last sarcastic words and Caliban’s untrustworthy promise of repentance.)[2] If we could know why Shakespeare imputes this choice to the one mind with which he has invested best claim to wisdom, we might put Acton’s principle to a more definitive test.


[1.]The Acton-Creighton Correspondence (1887), Letter I </titles/2254#Acton_PowerCorrupts1524_24>.

[2.] See:

Caliban: O Setebos! these be brave spirits, indeed.
How fine my master is! I am afraid
He will chastise me.

Sebastian: Ha, ha!
What things are these, my lord Antonio?
Will money buy them?

Antonio: Very like; one of them
Is a plain fish, and, no doubt, marketable.

Prospero: Mark but the badges of these men, my lords,
Then say, if they be true.—This mis-shapen knave,—
His mother was a witch; and one so strong
That could control the moon, make flows and ebbs,
And deal in her command without her power.
These three have robb’d me; and this demidevil,—
For he’s a bastard one,—had plotted with them
To take my life: two of these fellows you
Must know and own; this thing of darkness I
Acknowledge mine.
[Act V, sc.I, 260-76]

And also:

Caliban: “Ay, that I will; and I’ll be wise hereafter,
And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass
Was I, to take this drunkard for a god,
And worship this dull fool!”
[ Act V, sc. I, 294]



1. Sarah Skwire, "Power and Innocent Blood" [Posted: July 6, 2016]↩

John Alvis begins his intriguing discussion of absolute power in Shakespeare’s plays with reference to Lord Acton’s observation that “power tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In reply, I would like to begin by suggesting an alternate quotation from the much-neglected political theorist Abigail Adams, who noted that “arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken.” I turn to Adams because, while I agree with Alvis that Shakespeare’s plays are deeply interested in the problem of the corrupting influence of power, they are even more interested in the problems that arise for ordinary people as a result of the instability of power and the resulting “game of thrones” that is played among rulers.

Given that the majority of Shakespeare’s life, from birth to middle age, was spent living under the stable reign of the famously long-lived Elizabeth I, it may seem strange to think of him as a writer with profound concerns about political instability. But the memories of the aftermath of the death of Henry VIII—Edward’s six-year reign followed by Jane Grey’s nine-day reign, and Mary’s five years on the throne, all surrounded by tumult and dissent—were still fresh in the historical memories of the English. The fact that a new monarch could easily mean a new state religion and renewed persecutions of those who failed to hew to the official faith added to these worries. And with the unmarried and childless Queen Elizabeth’s persistent refusal to name an heir, the people of England were rightfully worried about their future throughout her reign, no matter how stable, wealthy, and peaceable this Elizabethan Golden Age can seem from a distance.

What this meant for Shakespeare as an Elizabethan Englishman was a steady flood of political pamphlets written in support of or in opposition to various potential candidates for a successor to the Queen and an equally steady flood of worries about the ways in which successions could go wrong.

The plays naturally reflect and reflect upon this cultural preoccupation.

We could begin nearly anywhere, but perhaps the most succession- and stability-obsessed of Shakespeare’s plays are the Henriad, or Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of history plays. These plays, beginning with Richard II (est. date of composition 1595-6), taking us through parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV (1597-8), and culminating with Henry V (1598-9) can at times seem like a thought experiment in the ways that the reigns of kings can end badly. Richard II begins amid accusations of treachery and murder, and concludes with the imprisonment of the increasingly ineffectual King Richard II; the usurpation of his throne by Henry Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV; and Richard’s eventual murder at the hands of one of Henry IV’s ambitious nobles.

The Henry IV plays take us into a reign troubled by treason and uprising, haunted by the spectre of Richard’s murder and the usurpation, and presents us with a king terrified of the vision of the future offered by his legitimate heir, the reckless Prince Hal. And while Hal defies expectations and redeems himself when he assumes the throne and becomes Henry V, his reign is cut short by an early death and leaves England to suffer all the familiar woes of a country “ruled” by an infant king.

The Henriad then, in four plays, gives us a discussed abdication, a usurpation, a murder, a death with a legitimate but chancy heir, and an early death with an infant heir. If we add in the tragedies and others we can add several more murders, insanity, many deaths in battle, and a variety of other ends to assorted fictional and historical reigns.

But Shakespeare is not saying, with Richard:

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits. (Richard II, 3.2.155-62)

No matter how much sympathy Shakespeare may have with the kings who undergo these sad fates—and he has great sympathy for Henry V’s early death after such greatness, and even for Richard II’s descent into maudlin irrelevance—he never loses sight of the costs that these turbulent reigns and the turbulent transitions between them exact on the populace.

We can begin, of course, with the costs of war, heartrendingly depicted in the deaths of the “boys and the luggage” in Henry V, and in the discussion of the effects of war on France at the end of the same play.[3] Similarly, Macbeth’s attempts to obtain and maintain power do not merely destroy him; they destroy the innocents around him. The slaughter of Lady Macduff and her children are only the most potent example of this collateral damage. The play as a whole gives us an image of a world turned upside-down by Macbeth’s bloody push for absolute power. Horses eat each other. Night turns to day. Falcons are killed by owls. Similarly, Hamlet’s Denmark is haunted by ghosts and filled with spies and poison. Lear’s England is threatened by French power and riven by internal dissent. Alvis is right to observe that all of that is very bad for the sovereigns who oversee these horrors. But how much worse must it be for the ordinary people who live within it?

Consider Ophelia, driven mad by the political machinations that surround her. Or Lear’s Fool. Or even Claudio and Juliet from Measure for Measure, who are nearly destroyed by the legal changes brought about by a change in power that seems to happen for no reason but the passing whim of a Duke. Or Falstaff’s soldiers whom he recruits only from the most ordinary Englishmen who are most desperate to stay at home and whom he calls “food for [gun]powder.” These are the people most threatened by the lust for absolute power. While Shakespeare’s plays do not generally make these people their primary focus, these are the people who get our sympathy.

Many things make the desire for absolute power terrifying. The corruption it creates in the soul of the holder of power is one. That absolute power is so fragile and that so much blood is shed when it splinters is another. That the blood is so often innocent blood is most horrifying of all.


[3.] The Duke of Burgundy's speech in Henry V, Act V, sc. II, 33-67:

“What rub or what impediment there is,
Why that the naked, poor, and mangled Peace,
Dear nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful births,
Should not in this best garden of the world,
Our fertile France, put up her lovely visage?
Alas! she hath from France too long been chas’d,
And all her husbandry doth lie on heaps,
Corrupting in its own fertility.
Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart,
Unpruned dies; her hedges even-pleach’d,
Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair,
Put forth disorder’d twigs; her fallow leas
The darnel, hemlock and rank fumitory
Doth root upon, while that the coulter rusts
That should deracinate such savagery;
The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet, and green clover,
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility;
And as our vineyards, fallows, meads, and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country,
But grow like savages,—as soldiers will,
That nothing do but meditate on blood,—
To swearing and stern looks, diffus’d attire,
And every thing that seems unnatural.
Which to reduce into our former favour
You are assembled; and my speech entreats
That I may know the let why gentle Peace
Should not expel these inconveniences,
And bless us with her former qualities.”


2. David V. Urban, "Power and Corruption in Shakespeare's Plays" [Posted: July 7, 2016]↩

John Alvis's essay calls us to consider the intriguing subject of how Acton's famous maxim manifests itself in Shakespeare's plays.  As a rule, absolute power does not fare well in Shakespeare's plays.  None of Shakespeare's characters exhibit the unmitigated power exercised by Marlowe's Tamburlaine in Tamburlaine the Great,[3] who, devoid of conscience and undefeated by external challenges, conquers vast territories, defeats countless enemies, and dies of natural causes at an advanced age.  The closest Shakespearean analogy to Tamburlaine is Richard III, a Machiavellian character who rises to the British throne through lupine cunning (including pretense of piety) and the brute power of the lion and who, I aver in response to Alvis, has an even stronger "will to power" than Macbeth.  But even the seemingly conscienceless Richard is eventually tortured by nightmares of his murdered victims;[4] soon after, deserted by many of his forces during the Battle of Bosworth field, he is killed by the rebel leader, Richmond.[5]  Richard's outcome is typical for Shakespeare's characters who seek absolute power.  They corrupt themselves while seeking and obtaining it, but their forays into absolute power are ultimately defeated by factors internal and external to themselves.  

Richard III's ascension and downfall can be compared to those of Macbeth, whom Alvis addresses at length. Like Richard III, who arranges both the murder of his brother Clarence and the murders of his nephews the young princes,[6] Macbeth breaks a taboo by murdering his sleeping guest, King Duncan, in his efforts to gain Duncan's throne.  Alvis postulates that Macbeth is insufficiently Machiavellian to effectively secure power, pointing out Macbeth's failure to kill Malcolm, Danalbain, Macduff, and Banquo when he kills Duncan.  But Macbeth, conscience riddled before he murders Duncan and even more so just afterward, is in no emotional shape to commit additional premeditated murders that night or in the short time after while his guests remain with him.[7] Perhaps we can say that Macbeth at that point is not yet corrupted enough to secure absolute power.  His rash murder of the framed guards the next morning shows both his continued moral descent as well as the incompetence Alvis mentions.[8]  But it is only later in the play, when in Act 3 he orders the assassinations of Banquo and Banquo's son Fleance (who escapes)[9] and then in Act 4 when he orders the slaughter of Macduff's family,[10] that Macbeth reaches absolute corruption even though, as Alvis observes, Macbeth's "limited intelligence prevents his actually attaining absolute power."

Macbeth's descent into absolute corruption runs parallel to his rejection of conscience, a rejection Alvis notes.  Late in Act 1, just after speaking of his "Vaulting ambition," which Alvis notes, Macbeth is ready to repent of his bloody aspirations, telling Lady Macbeth, "We will proceed no further in this business" [Macbeth 1.7.31.]  She then insults his manhood, goading him on to murder.  In the next scene, while preparing to kill Duncan, Macbeth sees a vision of a bloody dagger, but instead of relenting, he tells himself that it leads him to his deed.[11]  Conscience plagues him immediately after the murder as he recounts to Lady Macbeth hearing Malcolm and Danalbain praying in their sleep. He is so incapacitated that she must take over and place his bloody daggers with the guards.[12]  But Macbeth continues to reject conscience, ordering more murders to secure his throne.  After Banquo's murder, conscience torments Macbeth again through his vision of Banquo's ghost,[13] but he does not repent; rather, he arranges for the aforementioned murder of Macduff's family, sealing his absolute corruption and confirming Macduff's resolve to kill the usurping king.  We can compare Macbeth's final rejection of conscience to King Claudio's similar rejection in Hamlet.  Conscience stricken while watching the play whose events parallel his murder of his brother, King Hamlet,  Claudio (another of Shakespeare's Machiavellian rulers) forgoes his opportunity for genuine confession and instead embraces total corruption by resolving to murder Prince Hamlet,[14] an unsuccessful plot that ends in his own and many others' deaths.

I will speak more briefly to Antony and Cleopatra.  Clearly Antony's attempts at absolute power are limited, as Alvis notes, by "[h]is doting upon Cleopatra" and his resultant "inattentiveness to military obligations," an inattentiveness Alvis specifically calls Antony's "corruption."  There is an ironic dynamic at work with Antony's corruption and power.  On one hand, Antony's power is what gives rise to his relationship with Cleopatra, whose penchant for powerful men was established with Julius Caesar.  On the other hand, Antony's corruption through ungoverned affection for Cleopatra brings about his defeat to Octavian at Actium, ensuring that he will not gain absolute power.  Alvis rightly observes that Antony fails to demonstrate "the self-command needed for generalship as well as for effective political rule," a self-command he had exhibited so glowingly after Caesar's murder in the earlier play.  The character in Antony and Cleopatra who does demonstrate such self-command is Octavius, whose cold calculation foils Antony's emotional weaknesses.  And, of course, Octavius becomes Caesar Augustus by the end of the play, attaining absolute power.  But Shakespeare's Octavius, though a calculating politician, is not thoroughly corrupt, and one would be hard pressed to charge the historical Augustus Caesar with absolute corruption.  His reign was not proper material, it seems, for another Shakespeare Roman play.        

In his discussion of Antony, Alvis asks whether "declining in power may overcome corruption?"  This question applies even better to Richard II than Antony, as Alvis's analysis of Richard II suggests.  Alvis effectively discusses Richard's corrupting arrogance and weakness for flattery, as well as his turn to virtue upon his deposition.  Quoting Richard's famous statement, "I wasted time and now doth time waste me," Alvis observes that Richard "Belatedly ... comes to self-knowledge."  Richard's belated self-knowledge recalls the situation of another deposed Shakespearean ruler who had been seduced by flattery, King Lear.  After his arrogant disowning of his beloved daughter Cordelia, his duplicitous daughter Regan points out, "he hath ever but slenderly known himself" [King Lear 1.1.292-93.].  It is only after his humiliating downfall that Lear repents of his mistreatment of Cordelia as well as his negligence of the unsheltered, admitting, as he is pelted by the storm, "O, I have ta'en / Too little care of this!" [King Lear 3.4.32-33.].  As with Richard, Lear's decline in power paves the way for the honest self-reflection that significantly reduces his corruption.

Richard's pious dignity leading up to his premature execution contributes mightily to the pall his death casts on the reigns of both his usurper, Bolingbroke (Henry IV), and Bolingbroke's son Henry V.  Corrupted by Richard's usurpation and slaying, the new king Henry IV concludes Richard II by announcing his imminent pilgrimage to the holy land,[15] a venture that has been called a Machiavellian display of piety,[16] and just before his death in Henry IV, Part 2, he cries, "How I came by the crown, O God forgive" [Henry IV, Part 2  4.5.218.].  Henry's reign is plagued by civil war that prevents him from effectively exercising absolute power, and in his final scene, just before his aforementioned plea for forgiveness, Henry advises Prince Hal "to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels," [Henry IV, Part 2   4.5.213-14.] advice that the newly crowned Henry V takes to heart when he leads a united England to victorious war against France in Henry V

Although Henry V can be viewed as Shakespeare's most noble monarch, the case for his corruption is compelling.  Matters of conscience concern him at key moments in the play, and he at least partially assuages his conscience as he proceeds forth with problematic action.  Significantly, his claim against France is dubious.  After hearing Canterbury's absurd justification for attacking France,[17] Henry asks him, "May I with right and conscience make this claim?" [Henry V, Act I, sc.II, 96]  Canterbury precedes his remaining justification with, "The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!" [Henry V 1.2.96, 97.]  Henry ascents to the war only after he deflects responsibility first upon Canterbury and then afterward upon the French Dauphin, who offends Henry with a gift of tennis balls.[18]  Although the English people enthusiastically support the war, I suggest, in light of the thousands of French slain in an unjust war, that the absolute power Henry attains as ruler of England and France is attained at the cost of his corruption.  As several scenes in Henry V display, he becomes habitually self-justifying,[19] and even if he believes his own self-justifying rhetoric, Shakespeare wants us to challenge it. 

A mitigating factor against Henry V's absolute corruption, ironically, is his continued pangs of conscience regarding his father's usurpation of Richard.[20]  In solitary prayer before the decisive victory at Agincourt, Henry, even as he prays for victory, tells God, "I Richard's body have interred new, / And on it have bestowed more contrite tears / Than from it issued forced drops of blood." [Henry V]  Henry has also commissioned continual prayer and regular masses for Richard's soul.  After his massive victory at Agincourt, Henry publicly credits God for England's triumph.[21]  It would be easy to charge Henry, like his father, with Machiavellian religiosity, but the solitary nature of his aforementioned prayer argues against such an accusation.  Nonetheless, Henry's war is deeply problematic, and Shakespeare's chorus concludes Henry V by stating how after his premature death his gains in France were lost by Henry VI and his various associates.[22]  I do not believe that Shakespeare portrays Henry V as absolutely corrupt, but he does portray the futility of absolute power, whose collateral damage is enormous. 

The case of Prospero in The Tempest is remarkable, as Alvis notes, for its example of "absolute power voluntarily renounced."  Prospero's absolute power over his island is complex on a number of levels.  Most significantly, early in the play, he tells his daughter, Miranda, "I have done nothing but in care of thee." [The Tempest 1.2.16.]  This statement, I contend, reveals the core motivation for all his controlling actions on the island prior to and throughout the play, and his genuine love for Miranda, while perhaps inappropriately justifying some of his corruption, also works to prevent the vengeance he might otherwise indulge in.  A charge often leveled against Prospero is his mistreatment of Caliban.  I do believe Prospero likely overreacted to Caliban's romantic advances toward Miranda by charging him with rape and enslaving him.[23]  But Prospero's response is that of a protective father.  He is far from absolutely corrupt, and his addiction to control is made understandable by both his love for Miranda and his previous usurpation by his trusted and beloved brother, Antonio.[24]  Prospero's relative goodness is seen early in the play in relation to the evil of Antonio, who, aided by King Alonso and Alonso's brother Sebastian, usurped Duke Prospero 12 years before.  Antonio exemplifies one whose corruption is more total than his power; he shows no remorse for his treachery against Prospero, whom he believes dead; he mocks the very idea of conscience; he goads Sebastian into attempting to murder the sleeping Alonso.[25]  Shakespeare even indirectly mocks Antonio's corruption as he satirizes the corrupting effects of seeking power--even over a small island--through the comically ineffectual attempted murder of Prospero by Caliban and his drunken companions, Stephano and Trinculo.[26]

Prospero's giving up his absolute power on the island is predicated upon both his love for Miranda and forgiveness.  Through his power--largely by controlling Ariel--Prospero is able to secure for Miranda engagement with Prince Ferdinand, Alonso's son.  But in the process of this arrangement, Miranda exercises independence, challenging or disobeying her father on several occasions,[27] foreshadowing the fact that, as he gives her to Ferdinand, Prospero must relinquish the absolute control, however benevolent, he has exercised over her.  Even more momentous is Prospero's willingness to forgive Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian when they are completely at his mercy, even though only Alonso repents.[28]

But forgiveness for Prospero goes both ways.  He knows he is not above reproach, as his epilogue's confession makes clear and as he suggests in his admission regarding Caliban: "This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine." [The Tempest 5.1.275-76.]  I disagree when Alvis calls Caliban's repentance "untrustworthy."  Rather, in his repentance Caliban ironically becomes an example Prospero imitates.  Caliban promises to "seek for grace," [The Tempest 5.1.295.] which is exactly what Prospero does in his epilogue minutes later.  Speaking to the audience, Prospero says,

Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant, 
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
[The Tempest Epilogue 13-20.]

In giving up absolute power, Prospero seeks freedom from corruption, appealing to the One who, to quote Alvis, "uniquely among personal beings possesses absolute power," and humbly asking  others to appeal to God's mercy on his behalf.  The man who held absolute power over his small realm gains freedom because he realizes his powerlessness, his corruption, and his need for grace.


[3] Marlowe, "Tamburlaine the Great," in The Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. A.H. Bullen (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885). Vol. 1. </titles/1687>.

[4.] See Richard III 5.3.118-206.

[5.] See Richard III 5.5.

[6.] See Richard III 1.3.324-56 and 4.2.1-82.

[7.] See Macbeth 2.2.

[8.] See Macbeth 2.3.97-115.

[9.] See Macbeth 3.1.76-143 and 3.3.

[10.] See Macbeth 4.1.144-54 and 4.2.75-81.

[11.] See Macbeth 2.1.33-64.

[12.] See Macbeth 2.2.8-60.

[13.] See Macbeth 3.4.38-108

[14.] See Hamlet 3.3.36-72 and 97-98 and 4.3.62-72.

[15.] See Richard II 5.6.45-52

[16.] Irving Ribner, "Bolingbroke: A True Machiavellian,"  Modern Language Quarterly 9.2 (June 1948): 177-84.

[17.] See Henry V 1.2.33-95 and later 98-100.

[18.] See Henry V 1.2.9-32 and 260-97.

[19.] See also Henry V 2.1.79-83, 4.1.120-184, and 5.2.265-71

[20.] See Henry V 4.1.282-98.

[21.] See Henry V 4.8.105-120

[22.] See Henry V Epilogue 9-12.

[23.] See The Tempest 1.2.344-47.

[24.] See The Tempest 1.2.66-151.

[25.] See The Tempest 2.1.200-92.

[26.] See The Tempest 3.2 and 4.1.194-262.

[27.]The Tempest 1.2.455-83 shows Miranda directly challenging Prospero several times;  3.1.16-59 shows her secretly disobeying him at least twice.

[28.] See The Tempest 5.1.106-34.


3. Michael Zuckert, "More Like Aristotle than Acton" [Posted: July 8, 2016]↩

John Alvis has put to Shakespeare the question: Do you, bard of Avon, agree with Lord Acton’s famous adage about power?  It is an interesting question to pose to Shakespeare, for of all the writers we know of, he seems to portray the widest variety of human types, as well as to see most deeply into the human soul.  Who better than Shakespeare to render a judgment on Lord Acton’s pronouncement?

A judgment by a Shakespeare would be of value, for it is not as though Acton’s adage is self-evidently correct.  Consider the views on Acton’s topic taken by two of Shakespeare’s most important predecessors.  Aristotle had a more positive view of the potential effect of wielding power, for he saw it as necessary to the rounding off and completion of practical virtue.  Aristotle would, on the whole but not universally (see his treatment of the ancient monarchy), agree with Acton that absolute power is a problem, thus his favoring of the aristocratic republic or the polity as the best regimes in most circumstances.  But he would take a more nuanced position on the inherent tendency of power to corrupt.  It can ennoble as well, and the actual effects of power-holding are apparently more circumstantial than Acton allows.  Thus Aristotle does not seem to share Acton’s libertarian-leaning politics.

At almost the opposite extreme lies the other Shakespeare predecessor of interest here—Machiavelli.  The Florentine would take issue with Acton’s apparent presumption that human beings are or tend to be incorrupt save for the temptations of power.  Human beings are by nature corrupt, if by corrupt we mean indisposed to play nicely with one another on their own.  As Machiavelli says in one place:  “it is very natural to desire to acquire”[29] —more than others and at the expense of others.  Machiavelli might almost but not quite reverse Acton’s saying:  being subject to and even exercising power is needed to make men incorrupt, if by incorrupt we mean better suited to live together in social life.

John Alvis is either a bit uncertain or a bit cagey in extracting Shakespeare’s judgment on Acton’s claim.  Indeed, his very last words are these:  “If we could know why Shakespeare imputes this choice [to return to the ‘real world’ without his magical powers] to the one mind with which he has invested [the] best claim to wisdom, we might put Acton’s principle to a more definitive test.”  Shakespeare, in Alvis’s judgment, does not put Acton’s principle to a “definitive test,” and thus the issue remains unsettled.  This conclusion to Alvis’s treatment of Shakespeare’s Prospero holds, I believe, for his essay as a whole.  He finds Macbeth a poor test because Macbeth, not following Machiavelli enough, never achieves absolute power to provide a good test.  Antony and Cleopatra are also inconclusive because we cannot find a proper standard to gauge their corruption just as we cannot judge the degree of power they hold.  Richard II is also inconclusive, for he believes himself absolute by virtue of his constitutional and divinely ordained power, but is in fact anything but because of his dependence on the barons and his personal weakness and poor judgment.  Alvis does notice one pattern in the plays that might indirectly partially confirm Acton’s assertion:  several of the character are made less corrupt by their loss of power.  They became wiser, more moderate, more loyal to others.

To generalize a bit on Alvis’s conclusion and to push his analysis further: Shakespeare shows us such a range of human types that it is not possible simply to affirm or deny Acton’s principle.  Shakespeare partakes of both the perspectives of Aristotle and of Machiavelli on the issue, but, I would say, he is ultimately more Aristotelian.

To be more concrete, let us begin where Alvis does, with Macbeth.  Alvis seems to see Macbeth as a poor test of Acton’s thesis for, among other reasons, he sees Macbeth as thoroughly corrupt before he takes power.  He sees “Macbeth [as] remarkable among Shakespeare’s rulers because of what we might call the ‘purity’ of his will to power.”  He cites Macbeth’s admission that he has no motive for supplanting Duncan but “only vaulting ambition.”  I would not, however, identify “ambition” with “will to power”; the latter is abstract and particularly objectless in a way the former is not.  Ambition has an object—honor.  By appealing to his desire for honor, Macbeth is raising a certain claim to justice, a claim with a special resonance in Macbeth’s Scotland.  Desire for him is the desire to have one’s worth duly recognized and rewarded.  Macbeth’s worth has been demonstrated and partially recognized early in the play where he is credited by Duncan for dominating the battle against the many enemies of the sitting king.  His worth is partially recognized when Duncan promotes him to Thane of Cawdor, but at the same time Duncan admits that this reward is not commensurate with Macbeth’s desert.  Yet, at nearly that very moment in a move that demonstrates Duncan’s incompetence as king, he promotes his son Malcolm to the status of successor to the throne, a recognition that his son does not deserve on the basis of the standard of excellence most widely recognized in Macbeth’s Scotland, military prowess. 

Macbeth may not have a public-policy agenda as extensive as Hillary Clinton’s, but he has a claim of justice lying beneath his admission of ambition: he is more deserving of rule than Malcolm or than Duncan, for that matter, if we understand justice to require the commensuration of highest honor with highest worth.  Shakespeare may not agree with Macbeth about military prowess as the highest claim of worth, but he no doubt does agree that honor is a respectable and valid aim of rule.  Aristotle surely does agree.  Honor can be a good and incorrupt aim, for it may lead a ruler to attempt to rule in such a way as to deserve honor, that is to say, to rule in a way that benefits his subjects and thus earns their esteem.  Ambition is not corrupt in itself and it does not seem that Shakespeare means to show that honor achieved through attaining power is necessarily corrupting.  A clearer case of one who is corrupt before attaining power is Richard III.  It is difficult to say that possessing absolute or near absolute power made him worse; it merely gave him the opportunity to do more mischief.

Alvis’s account of Macbeth omits mention of the role of the witches, who do, after all, play a large part in both Macbeth’s acquisition and fall from power.  Likewise, he ignores the role of Duncan’s selection of Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland: “That is a step/on which I must fall down, or else o’er leap.”  [Macbeth, Act I, sc. IV, 48-49]. The witches’ prophecy brings Macbeth to believe he can be king.  The elevation of Malcolm makes him realize there is no noncriminal path for him to take to his destination.  Once he faces that necessity he develops qualms, but not over the injustice of the deed.  He fears “the consequences”[30] —in this world not the next—of the murder.  In a word he fears he will be caught and punished.  Macbeth’s ambition is not so neutral a thing as first described: he seeks honor but is not committed to achieving it honorably.  In attaining power, then, Macbeth is not corrupted but more nearly reveals what he has inwardly been.  Creon in Sophocles’s Antigone had stated that only in rule does a man’s “soul” became knowable, for in ruling, a man is no longer trammeled by fear of punishment as is the case for most men.  Macbeth is not one who is corrupted by power but one who reveals what he already is—an unjust man. 

Although Macbeth is but one case, it is not clear that Shakespeare shows any individual who became corrupted through possession of power.  Does he show any who are made better through holding power?  There is of course the difficult and complex case of Prospero.  But on balance he seems to have become better not through wielding power but through losing power.  When Duke of Milan, he spent his time and attention on his studies to the neglect of his dukedom and his duties.  It is only when supplanted and exiled that he comes to take seriously his responsibility for the welfare of those over whom he rules.  On his island and with his small polity he becomes less corrupt in the sense of more responsible.  But as Alvis rightly says, Prospero remains an enigma.

Perhaps a more straightforward case is Theseus in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  At the beginning he is a tyrant in both his domestic and political actions.  He approaches his marriage to Hippolyta as the reward due to one who has triumphed in war.  He acts to impose severe penalties on various of his subjects when they seek to act freely in choosing their marriage mates.  He suppresses their freedom in firmly maintaining the prerogative of the fathers to control their children’s marriages.  By the end of the play he is quite transformed.  He no longer treats Hippolyta as a mere spoil of war but as a loved and loving companion.  By the end of the play he no longer supports or imposes the tyrannical laws that thwarted the lovers’ desires.  The exercise of power has made him better.  Just how is a complex story that cannot be recounted in the space available here.

Even this brief sketch shows that Shakespeare is closer to Aristotle than to either Lord Acton or Machiavelli.  Much of what he shows about men in power is Creonic.  Often he may remind one of Machiavelli, but the examples of at least two—Prospero and Theseus—strongly suggest otherwise.  These are rulers who do not live down to Machiavelli cynical theory.  As I suggested earlier, Shakespeare’s view appears closest to Aristotle’s: not so deterministic or antipolitical as Acton, not so harsh on human nature as Machiavelli.


[29.] See for example, Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, First Book, chap. V:

On that occasion there was much discussion as to which was the most ambitious, he who wished to preserve power or he who wished to acquire it; as both the one and the other of these motives may be the cause of great troubles. It seems, however, that they are most frequently occasioned by those who possess; for the fear to lose stirs the same passions in men as the desire to gain, as men do not believe themselves sure of what they already possess except by acquiring still more; and, moreover, these new acquisitions are so many means of strength and power for abuses.

In Niccolo Machiavelli, The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, tr. from the Italian, by Christian E. Detmold (Boston, J. R. Osgood and company, 1882). Vol. 2. </titles/775#Machiavelli_0076-02_234>.

[30.] Macbeth says:

“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly; if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.” [Act I, sc. VII, 1-7].



1. John E. Alvis, "Power, Character, and Disorder" [Posted: July 11, 2016]↩

I’ll respond to all three of these thoughtful commentaries on my attempt to apply Lord Acton’s celebrated axiom to Shakespeare. But I’ll not respond to everything the three have said, but only to what I think may advance the question: what does Shakespeare understand regarding the effects of exercising power.

First, as Zuckert points out for good or for ill, the exercise of power is necessary to reveal character. I’ll call this (after Zuckert) the Creonic principle. In accord with that principle Theseus, most clearly, and Prospero less clearly, improve in their exercise of power. So, Shakespeare disagrees with Acton if Acton’s principle were taken to mean access to power simply (=always) corrupts. Acton, however, said it “tends” to do so. He knew the tendency could be counteracted, as have I suppose all who inveigh against power unchecked. Besides God, perhaps, as Aristotle says, the best mode of rule would be that of a good and wise man without any hindrance whatsoever.[31] (Not even rule of law? Yes.) Does Plato’s Socrates disagree with Aristotle, since he says he (sometimes) thinks himself monstrous?[32] If he only means in dreams or some such libidinal recess from goodness, no problem; we’ll risk that. But Prospero is Shakespeare’s best test case. I don’t know if he feels passion at the crisis when he says he must “still his beating mind” (The Tempest, Act IV, sc.I, 163) or whether this is just another demonstration he thinks needed to further the education of Ferdinand. Anyway, the problem here is not his counter-example of becoming better by gaining (?) power in the insular condition. The mystery lies in determining whether with renunciation of magical power he becomes better or worse. Actually Prospero gains political power (restored Dukedom) but becomes thereby not less but more dependent upon the will of others.

I think Machiavelli would say of us four, and maybe of Aristotle as well, “Your mouths are full of milk. The four of you attempt to evade the question of Shakespeare’s own tutelage from (not against) my wise precepts. To use Shakespeare to refute me, I maintain, you would be obliged, first, to show a full-blooded pupil of mine, not the Macbeth of half-measures and effeminate conscience, nor the Richard Crookback who begins to lose his self-command the moment he ascends the throne.”  He would add: “Don’t worry about corruption if by that you mean merely moral corruption. But you should take care not to allow your mastery to corrupt, self-mastery as well as command over others. And, in any event, don’t worry regarding your access to absolute power because neither you nor anyone will ever have it. A man need worry only that he may lack power sufficient to achieve and keep whatever he desires.”

Wouldn’t Machiavelli’s objection throw us back to the question with which Glaucon-Adeimantus challenge Socrates in The Republic: why be just, as distinct from being just only to the extent that to appear so enhances one’s power? Wisdom is prudence, and prudence consists in modifying principle to suit circumstances. But is it not necessary so to modify principles held to be (morally) good if the application of the good policy undermines one’s power?

Skwire is right to point out that Shakespeare shows not so much that self-corruption suffered by rulers is the consequence of their acquiring power, but rather that the more baneful result is harm dealt the (relatively) innocent. Hence we should be aware that the corruption of which Acton speaks is in Shakespeare’s plays corruption of the state itself. Does this not teach us that we should do whatever is possible to make power not less potent but more responsible? But have I just made a distinction without a difference? Power made responsible is power diminished. So the question becomes how to confer such power as rulers need to make citizens restrain their desire to have power without responsibility, yet confer it in such manner that those who govern others govern themselves as well. Then, doesn’t that mean there must be something in the constitution of the realm that can hold the king accountable? Shakespeare’s British history plays speak frequently enough of a “Parliament ” for us to know he wants us to be aware of its existence.[33] But Shakespeare never depicts this legislative body in action. We may wonder why he does not. And the pertinent question for Acton would be whether Shakespeare indicates this legislative body has any authority—or does Shakespeare imagine it to be merely advisory. This provokes the question of whether Shakespeare has made us mindful of any institution that can make the king accountable?

Skwire is also right to make us aware that Shakespeare’s England suffers as much from instability as from overweening kings. To my mind the besetting weakness of Shakespeare’s England is that the monarch lacks a standing army. This insufficiency of power is most obvious in Richard II where, faced with one rebellion in Ireland and another at home, the king finds himself reduced to begging armed assistance from one of his nobles in order to confront another. Is it then the case that on the basis of our reading of the plays we should attribute to diminishment of central power all the civil disorders the playwright has depicted?  Must we therefore almost reverse Acton and conclude that diminishing power corrupts the state and that diminishment approaching an absolute degree corrupts so thoroughly that civil society disintegrates? Isn’t this most apparent in the four plays depicting the reign of Henry VI and concluding with Richard III? Yet, so to conclude may go too far, since I should not suppose Acton fails to realize that too little power causes difficulties comparable to an excess thereof.

David Urban notes the morally salutary effects of losing power in the case of Richard II and of voluntarily renouncing power in the case of Prospero. He stresses the connection between regeneration and Christian piety he thinks displayed by several characters in The Tempest, the repentant political enemies of Prospero, Caliban, and Prospero himself. I agree that the question of what authority Shakespeare attributes to Christian teaching must be addressed and that Prospero’s rejecting vengeance and forgiving those who have wronged him argue for a morality distinctly Christian. Two problems occur to me. First, Prospero’s forgiveness relies on provisions he has arranged—restoration of his ducal powers now supported by marital alliance with the king of Naples. Second, if he professes Christian belief Prospero seems ambiguous in his practice. He does not pray. As for doctrine, he attributes his relenting to “reason” rather than to grace. And he is a mortalist: “our little life is rounded with a sleep.” (The Tempest, Act IV, sc. 1, 157). True, when speaking as the play’s Epilogue he refers to the Lord’s prayer in asking plaudits from the playgoers. (The Tempest, Epilogue, 16). There are many indications throughout the plays that Shakespeare is aware he writes for Christians. In our discussion we can profitably pursue the issue of Shakespeare and Christian doctrine since that matter bears upon our inquiry into what may be the limits upon absolute power. 

Urban has pertinent comments on Henry V that we might take up in an approach to the question just mentioned. The Chorus of the play commends Henry Monmouth as “the mirror of all Christian kings.” (Henry V, Act II, Chorus, 6). Would it be worthwhile to consider what would be required of such a king and to examine the thought and policies of Henry V with a view to discovering whether Shakespeare himself shares the enthusiasm of his Chorus? This would also bear upon the issue raised by Zuckert vis-à-vis the playwright’s affiliations with political philosophers. How would one go about considering the claim that Shakespeare can best be understood from an Aristotelian perspective? Then we have not spoken of Hobbes. But are there not grounds for thinking that Shakespeare’s plays keep audiences aware of what Hobbes will describe as a “state of nature” ever impending? I mean a condition in which every man is at war with every other man.[34] Accordingly, I would propose sharpening our leading question by assuming Acton’s cautionary regarding absolute power to be borne out by some of the plays. But now at issue is what theological-moral-political precepts afford guidance in seeking to make power responsible?


[31.] Aristotle on the good and wise ruler, see The Politics, Book III </titles/579#Aristotle_0033-01_467> in The Politics of Aristotle, trans. into English with introduction, marginal analysis, essays, notes and indices by B. Jowett. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1885. 2 vols. Vol. 1.

[32.] In "Gorgias" Polus calls Soicrates "monstrous". See, The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions by B. Jowett, M.A. in Five Volumes. 3rd edition revised and corrected (Oxford University Press, 1892). </titles/766#lf0131-02_head_026>.

[33.] In King Henry VI Part III see the exchange between the King and Exeter on using force against Parliament:

K. Hen.: Be patient, gentle Earl of Westmoreland.

Clif:. Patience is for poltroons, such as he:
He durst not sit there had your father liv’d.
My gracious lord, here in the parliament
Let us assail the family of York.

North.: Well hast thou spoken, cousin: be it so.

K. Hen.: Ah! know you not the city favours them,
And they have troops of soldiers at their beck?

Exe.: But when the duke is slain they’ll quickly fly.

K. Hen.: Far be the thought of this from Henry’s heart,
To make a shambles of the parliament-house!
Cousin of Exeter, frowns, words, and threats,
Shall be the war that Henry means to use.

[Act I, sc.I, 61-73]

[34.] Thomas Hobbes on “the condition of a War of every man against every man”, in Hobbes’s Leviathan reprinted from the edition of 1651 with an Essay by the Late W.G. Pogson Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909). CHAP. XIX.: Of the severall Kinds of Common-wealth by Institution, and of Succession to the Soveraigne Power.


2. David V. Urban, "Reason and Grace" [Posted: July 12, 2016]↩

In "Power, Character, and Disorder," John Alvis responds to me in part by writing that Prospero "attributes his relenting to 'reason' rather than to 'grace.'"  Here, it seems that Alvis sets up a false dichotomy between reason and grace, a dichotomy contradicted by many writers in the tradition of liberty, a dichotomy I suspect Alvis himself does not really affirm. 

The scene to which Alvis refers takes place within this exchange between Prospero and his spirit servant, Ariel:

Prospero:   Say, my spirit,
How fares the king and’s followers?


Confin’d together
In the same fashion as you gave in charge,
Just as you left them: all prisoners, sir,
In the line-grove which weather-fends your cell;
They cannot budge till your release. The king,
His brother, and yours, abide all three distracted,
And the remainder mourning over them,
Brimful of sorrow and dismay; but chiefly
Him, that you term’d, sir, ‘The good old lord Gonzalo:’
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds; your charm so strongly works them,
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.


Dost thou think so, spirit?


Mine would, sir, were I human.


And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion as they, be kindlier mov’d than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ’gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel.
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves.

(The Tempest, 5.1.6-31)

Significantly, it is the spirit Ariel who urges Prospero to refrain from wrath against his enemies, upon which he speaks the above words concerning his "nobler reason 'gainst my my fury / Do I take part."   The play's context makes clear that Prospero's "nobler reason" was inspired by the grace urged and represented by Ariel, called by Maurice Hunt "a grace-giving Spirit" who "shar[es] tenderness with Prospero so as to soften his heart."[35]

And the idea that grace often works hand in hand with reason is commonplace in the Christian tradition of liberty.  Consider first Dante's Divine Comedy.   Early in the Inferno, the character Dante, lost and hopeless in the dark woods, meets with Virgil, who represents reason but who, like and even more explicitly than Shakespeare's Ariel, is an instrument of grace.  During their initial encounter, Virgil tells Dante that he has been sent by God in response to the prayers of Mary, Lucia, and Beatrice.[36]

Dante, of course, was inspired by Aquinas, and I commend readers to Aquinas's Summa Theologica, part I, question 12, article 13, which says in part: "... human knowledge is assisted by the revelation of grace. For the intellect’s natural light is strengthened by the infusion of gratuitous light; and sometimes also the images in the human imagination are divinely formed, so as to express divine things better than those do which we receive from sensible objects, as appears in prophetic visions; while sometimes sensible things, or even voices, are divinely formed to express some divine meaning."[37]

And Calvin puts forward a similar position when, explicitly drawing upon Augustine, he writes, "It is a faculty of the reason and the will to choose good with the assistance of grace."[38]

Finally, consider the opening chapter of Isaiah, in which God calls to Israel, "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool" (1:18).[39]  Here the Author of Grace explicitly appeals to his audience's reason in a way that resembles Ariel's plea to Prospero.


[35.] Maurice Hunt, "Shakespeare's The Tempest and Human Worth," Ben Jonson Journal 20.1 (2013): 58-71 at 65.

[36.] See Canto 2, lines 49-117, in The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. The Italian Text with a Translation in English Blank Verse and a Commentary by Courtney Langdon, vol. 1 (Inferno) (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1918). English version.

[37.] Aquinas, Thirteenth Article. WHETHER BY GRACE A HIGHER KNOWLEDGE OF GOD CAN BE OBTAINED THAN BY NATURAL REASON? in The “Summa Theologica” of St. Thomas Aquinas. Part I QQ I.-XXVI. Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Second and revised edition (London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1920). Vol. 1. </titles/1979>.

[38.] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion II.ii.4. In the edition on the OLL the phrase is "It is a power of reason and will to choose the good, grace assisting”. See, John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1846). 2 volumes in 1. </titles/535#Calvin_0038_905>.

[39.]The Parallel Bible. The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments translated out of the Original Tongues: being the Authorised Version arranged in parallel columns with the Revised Version (Oxford University Press, 1885). </titles/2361>.


3. David V. Urban, "Matters of Conscience" [Posted: July 14, 2016]↩

I would like again to address Shakespeare's depiction of how matters of conscience limit the extent of corruption and corrupt exercises of power.  Significantly, the conscience-stricken rulers I discuss in my original response--Richard III, Macbeth, Claudio, Henry IV, Henry V, and Prospero; we could also add Lord Angelo in Measure for Measure[40] --experience their internal torture within an explicitly (or Prospero's case, implicitly) Christian context.  Some 150 years later, however, Adam Smith argues forcefully that conscience operates powerfully even within persons of no belief in God: 

The man who has broke through all those measures of conduct


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