The NYT's Roger Cohen enters the delightful fray over the depaved Richard III--hey, it was Cohen who started this pun duel: "My kingdom for a hearse!"--as demonized by that "Tudor propagandist, William Shakespeare," and nonetheless concludes that "too much smoke swirls around [Dick the Bad] for there to be no fire. And besides, don’t we need our villains in all their ugly, scheming iniquity to give shape to our moral universe?"
Perhaps. Yet I rise in the defense of Shakespeare, who's been maligned of late as one of the moralizers. Here, I am firmly plantageneted in the school of Shakespearean Virtue, which is to say, the bard steered clear of preaching it--as far from it, at least, as Tudor politics and Elizabethan ethics would permit.
Shakespeare was much too fascinated by the twisted absurdities and preposterous hypocrisies of our "moral universe" to give it any shape but poignant description. From that, readers as self-imagined free agents could, if they liked, endeavor to re-scruple the world, but Shakespeare the sublime sociologist knew the absurdities and hypocrisies would in short order return them to the eternal comedy of our tragic terra firma.
His literary assessments gave the lie to human progress and yet amplified Shakespeare as the intellectual apotheosis of it; since 1616 we as a species have struggled to overcome what the poet-sociologist understood our humanity never would.
And if anything proved William Shakespeare right, it wasn't the infanticidal scheming or rampaging terror of Richard III, but the bloodiest century on record--the last one.