Open University

The Character Issue


by David A. Bell

Stephen Greenblatt has a terrific essay on "Shakespeare and the Uses of
the New York Review of Books. It offers much food for
thought on
contemporary politics, including some sharp observations on the use of torture, but
what struck me most was this line: "in Shakespeare no character with a clear moral
vision has a will to power and, conversely, no character with a strong desire to rule
over others has an ethically adequate object." Greenblatt speculates that this "tragic
vision" may be connected to the absence of democratic institutions in Shakespeare's
day, although he quickly adds that "Shakespeare's own skepticism seemed to extend
to the popular voice."

I would suggest that the key "absence" in Shakespeare's day was not so much
democratic institutions as republican ones--i.e. institutions specifically designed to
rein in ambitious, unscrupulous politicians and prevent them from doing harm.
America's founding fathers knew Shakespeare well (Adams and Jefferson even went to
visit his birthplace together in 1786, and cut a chip off a chair in the house as a
souvenir), and saw the Constitution precisely as a response to the ethical issue
Greenblatt identifies. To put it simply, they knew that the sort of person who strives
hardest for power will quite likely suffer from numerous ethical flaws, and they
therefore designed institutions that would limit the resulting damage.

This is a point far too often forgotten in the endless discussions of "the character
issue" that accompany every presidential campaign. The media generally seem to
operate under the assumption that our presidents should be kind, selfless, virtuous
boy scouts, and then react with horror when, time after time, these men are revealed
to be crafty, ruthless, selfish bastards of one sort or another. As if any other sort of
person were likely to get to the White House! Barack Obama is the current media
candidate for presidential sainthood, but if he really wants to get elected, he had
better prove himself to be just as crafty and ruthless a politician as, say, Franklin

Of course "character" matters in politicians, but we need to keep a key distinction in
mind: character is not the same thing as private morality. Roosevelt did plenty of
immoral things, including his betrayals of his wife. But he also showed himself
capable of striving for and achieving high moral goals in the life of the nation, and in
this, he displayed real character. George W. Bush, by contrast, seems pretty
scrupulous in his private life, a quality that has done nothing at all to prevent the
multiple catastrophes of his presidential leadership.

So in the upcoming campaign, please, let's not equate "character" with being a boy or
girl scout, still less with being "meek." As Greenblatt reminds us, the character
Shakespeare most memorable defined as "meek" was Duncan, in Macbeth. And we all
know what happened to him.

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