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THE SHAKESPEAREAN ETHIC


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Originally published by Chatto & Windus in 1959, this book has long been out of print and largely neglected by Shakespearean scholars. It offers a viewpoint seldom considered: an unusual and exceptionally clear insight into Shakespeare’s philosophy. It does so with freshness, modesty and conviction. Appreciating the danger Shakespeare faced in writing at a time of major religious intolerance, Vyvyan shows how subtly the plays explore aspects of the perennial philosophy allegorically. In doing so, Shakespeare raises the fundamental question of ethics: What ought we to do? ‘Shakespeare,’ says the author, ‘is never ethically neutral. He is never in doubt as to whether the souls of his characters are rising or falling.’ There is a constant pattern in the tragedies: ‘first the hero is untrue to his own self, then he casts out love, then conscience is gone – or rather inverted – and the devil enters into him.’ Vyvyan shows us this pattern of damnation, or its counterpart – a pattern of regeneration – working out in certain plays, contrasting Hamlet with Measure for Measure and Othello with The Winter’s Tale, where a similar dilemma and choice confront the hero. His intuitive insights also illumine Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus which focus on the fall, whereas The Tempest explores most fully the pattern of regeneration and creative mercy. Here is a book, both thought-provoking and persuasive, which will send many readers back to Shakespeare’s plays with fresh vision and clearer understanding. To assist such readers, this edition cross-references the quotations in the text to the relevant place in the play. The text has been completely reset and the index expanded. John Vyvyan, born in 1908 in Sussex, was educated mainly in Switzerland. His first profession was archaeology, and he worked with Sir Flinders Petrie in the Middle East. Illness, which dogged him all his life, ended this kind of arduous field work, and he retired from archaeology to become a Shakespearean scholar and to write. Studies such as The Shakespearean Ethic, Shakespeare and The Rose of Love (1960) and Shakespeare and Platonic Beauty (1961), led to the offer of a visiting lectureship at the State University of New York. He died in Exmouth in 1975.

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