Symposium Introduction

“Turning away,” writes bell hooks in All about Love: New Visions, “we risk moving in a wilderness of spirit so intense we may never find our way home again. I write of love to bear witness both to the danger of this movement, and to call for a return to love.” In Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare, Regina Schwartz echoes hooks in calling for a return to love, particularly in the realms of political thought and philosophy, by turning to the dramatic offerings of the beloved Bard.

Schwartz, an English professor who specializes in early modern literature, also teaches classes to law students. She notes in her introduction that in the many tomes on justice lining her shelves, she finds few references to love: “While whole sectors of our culture are preoccupied with love—novels, film, painting, music, poetry, religion—it has been marginalized or even exiled from other spheres—from political, economic, legal thought, and largely, even from philosophy” (3–4). Yet Schwartz, with her expertise in the Hebrew Bible and Milton’s Christianity, recognized a loss in these “preoccupations with distribution, duty, and rights”: an erasure of the rich Jewish and Christian tradition that understood justice precisely as love, justice embedded in the Hebrew Bible’s commands to love both neighbor and stranger and in the New Testament’s further command to love one’s enemy.

In secular modernity, the way back to biblical wisdom is perhaps a narrow road. Schwartz’s tactic here is to highlight another source of this wisdom in the venerated plays of William Shakespeare, whose drama, she writes, “often depicts justice as love” (16). Shakespeare’s plays emerge from an era uniquely marked by both a religious worldview and also the beginnings of the secular age as we know it. Shakespeare, then, is a door through which we secular sorts might find our way back to an understanding of justice as love-for-the-other.

The book divides this emphasis into five categories: experience, law, power, economics, and forgiveness. Schwartz offers carefully honed readings of four of Shakespeare’s plays—King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet, as well as creative readings of as many biblical narratives, including the story of Moses and the Law, Jonah’s call to Nineveh, and Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers. These readings of the dramas and the scriptures are contextualized in a wide-ranging engagement with other thinkers: Plato and Aristotle, Moses Maimonides and Rowan Williams, Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Luther, Emmanuel Kant and Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv.

Importantly, Schwartz also contextualizes her scholarly work in a story of her own. The book begins with a personal narrative about her mother’s final years, the lengths to which Schwartz had to go to secure robust care for her, insisting to doctors and hospital ethicists that her mother’s quality of life should be understood not in terms of cost-benefit charts but by the love she could give and receive. By introducing the book in this way, Schwartz reminds us that the question of love’s displacement from conceptions of justice has inescapable real-world consequences. It arises from lived life. It indelibly marks lived lives.

These material concerns also surface at points when the book nods toward contemporary crises: Shakespeare’s handwritten revisions to the earlier play Sir Thomas More, including a passionate response to anti-immigration riots in 1517 London, “have reached across the centuries to rebuke the present” (48). Similarly, Hamlet’s “anti-revenge plot,” in Schwartz’s reading, suggests the forgotten power of forgiveness within a contemporary frame of retributive justice. In a world of caged asylum-seeking children and grossly disproportionate minority incarceration, such visions remind us that another way is possible.

Our symposium’s panelists open up a multidisciplinary conversation about Schwartz’s book, several of which note the challenge defining love presents: at points the book points to love as an act of care-for-another, while at other points love seems to be importantly emotional. Nicholas Wolterstorff commends Schwartz’s engagement with love and justice in the biblical tradition but wonders whether love is precisely as equivalent to justice as the book seems to suggest: is love always a response to human need? Might there be other ways of loving, and other ways of doing justice? Vittorio Montemaggi also wonders about the slippage between love and justice, noting that the book suggests a “medieval” idea of human and cosmic love as continuous. Rather than rejecting this capacious understanding of love as both feeling and doing, Montemaggi wonders whether it might be possible to extend it even further to love as human being.

Montemaggi also highlights Schwartz’s inclusion of personal narrative as a distinguishing methodology: this emphasis on personal experience, he argues, is the book’s ultimate authority on love. Practicing this methodology herself, Julia Lupton recounts her experience of a “moving lecture” by James Clifford about sculptures of saints culled from churches and reinstalled in a medieval Verona castle-turned-museum. Lupton anchors her reading of Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare in the experience of this lecture and its accompanying images, highlighting the role of interpretive context in readings of ancient art. Thus Lupton contrasts Schwartz’s “unabashedly religious” reading of Romeo and Juliet with Paul Kottman’s “resolutely secular” one.

Michael Shapiro similarly focuses on the readings of the plays, offering an overview of the book’s interpretations before detailing his own fuller reading of The Tempest to extend Schwartz’s and supplement her treatment of Hamlet as an “anti-revenge play.” And finally, Penelope Geng highlights the book’s contribution in bringing original readings of Shakespeare to questions of contemporary urgency. Focusing on King Lear, Geng wonders about where the book’s arguments might be extended by a fuller engagement with the scholarship on “the culture of neighborly justice in English common law culture.” Noting the evolution of scholarly conversations and recent reevaluations of their ethical weight, as well as the passionately engaged style of writing Schwartz models, Geng ends with a future-oriented question we all might do well to ponder: What does Schwartz—and what do we—hope to see from this and the next generation of scholars?

What might it look like for scholars to unabashedly embrace love?



Meant for Love

Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare is a critique of modern liberal ways of thinking about persons and society and a critique of present-day Western society as shaped by those liberal ways of thinking. The critique is incisive and powerful. Its power comes not from brash and aggressive rhetoric but from the lucid and winsome presentation, in gracious prose, of the alternative to the liberal way of thinking and acting that is to be found in Hebrew and Christian scripture and in certain of Shakespeare’s plays—and that was embodied, as we learn from the moving opening pages of the book, in Schwartz’s own mother.

Schwartz quotes Michael Sandel’s statement of liberalism’s understanding of the self: the self is a “separate, individual person, each with [his] own aims, interests, and conception of the good life . . . freed from the sanctions of custom and tradition and inherited status, unbound by moral ties” and capable of steering his course with freedom. In short, the self is understood by liberal thinkers as an autonomous agent primarily concerned to pursue what it perceives as its own good. Rights are commonly understood as protectors of autonomy. Justice, if not tied directly to rights, is commonly thought of as the fair distribution of benefits and burdens. Contracts are prominent in how individuals interact with each other in societies shaped by liberalism. And prominent thinkers in the liberal tradition insist that wrongdoers ought to be punished with a severity proportioned to the gravity of their wrongdoing. Wrongdoers deserve retribution.

By contrast, at the core of biblical thought about persons and society is love. Instead of each pursuing what we perceive to be our own good, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, even if the neighbor be an enemy. To do that is to act justly. The law of love, writes Schwartz, “is identical with justice” (19).

We are to love because we are needy, each and every one of us. Need calls for love. The widow, the orphan, and the stranger, singled out in the Hebrew Bible as those to whom we owe love, “are not people we would describe as autonomous individuals claiming the right to respect—although they are that—so much as people in need. The model seems to be of humans, not as brutish, self-interested, aggressive, and competitive (the model Hobbes bequeathed), nor as autonomous and choosing their course freely (the Kantian legacy), but as needing: as hungry, dispossessed, lonely, mourning, lacking protection. To be just is to love these people; that is, recognize and provide for their needs” (20). Whereas it is typical of liberal thinkers to regard love as an emotion, lacking in significant power, and hence of no particular social significance, love in biblical thought is action of a certain sort, namely, helping, caring.

And as for responding to wrongdoing, what Scripture teaches, says Schwartz, is that victims are to renounce revenge and retribution, and instead engage the wrongdoer in an interactive process of reprimand, repentance, and forgiveness, aimed at restoring the broken relationship.

Schwartz interprets King Lear as a dramatic presentation of the power of loving the stranger, and Romeo and Juliet as a dramatic presentation of the power of loving the enemy. The Merchant of Venice she interprets as a dramatic presentation of the tragic consequences of allowing contractual arrangements to replace love in our interactions with each other. And Hamlet she interprets as an anti-revenge, anti-retribution, tragedy.

Here I must forego presenting even the highlights of Schwartz’s analyses of these dramas. I realize that to do so is to invite the suspicion, on the part of the reader, that her analyses are plodding and tendentious: Lear is an illustration of the thesis that love for the stranger can be powerful, Merchant is an illustration of the thesis that tragedy lies in the wake of allowing contracts to replace love, etc. Her analyses are anything but plodding and tendentious. They are subtle, considerate of alternative interpretations, compelling even when they were, for me, surprising.

Schwartz is measured and discriminating in her critique of liberal thought and practice; they merit praise along with critique. She remarks, “The advances made by liberalism are impressive—its values of impartiality, utility, and measure are a leap forward from a world of private bonds infected by hatreds, prejudices, and injustice. Religious and ethnic minorities and women have suffered horrifically and without recourse before the new values of liberalism were put in place” (121). What she is asking, she says, is whether “by throwing away the value of affective bonds we have thrown away the baby with the bathwater. . . . Now that our sublime liberal values are in place, perhaps we can afford to admit to their shortcomings, and to put love back on the map of human justice” (121).

I agree with Schwartz in her critique of liberal thought and practice. And as for her interpretations of Shakespeare, I, as someone who is not a Shakespeare scholar, or even a literary scholar, can do nothing but admire and be illuminated. That leaves me with a few quibbles about her understanding of the relation between love and need, and between love and justice, in Hebrew and Christian scripture. I call then “quibbles” because they do not detract from my admiration of Schwartz’s achievement in this book.

I question whether love, as understood in Scripture, is as tightly connected to need as Schwartz suggests. She takes note of the fact that over and over, when the Hebrew Bible speaks of love and justice, it singles out widows, orphans, and strangers for special mention. She observes that such people were especially needy in that society and that it was their neediness that called for love and justice—as does the neediness of those who are needy in our society. She mentions some in our society that I would never have thought of: “one who offends unknowingly,” “one who engages with naïve trust in unfair transactions” (22). I agree that need calls for love. My question is whether love is confined to meeting needs.

There are different kinds of love. There is the love of being attracted to something for its worth—to a poem, for example. And there is the love of being attached to something—to one’s pet, to one’s house. Though Schwartz does not take time to single out from love’s various forms the particular form she has in mind, clearly it is love as beneficence—love that promotes a person’s good for the sake of that person. Of course, such love is often mingled with love as attraction and with love as attachment.

I think we sometimes bestow a good on a person even though that person is not in need of that good. We want the person to flourish beyond the satisfaction of her needs. A lovely small purse catches my eye as I am walking through the store. The thought comes to mind of buying it for my wife. She doesn’t need another purse. But I think she will very much enjoy this one. So I buy it for her.

And then there is the matter of our love of God. In spite of the prominence of such love in Scripture, it plays no role in Schwartz’s discussion. Obviously our love of God is not a response to God’s neediness. Of course, one might insist that our love of God is just a different kind of love from our love of the neighbor—that it consists exclusively of love as attraction and of love as attachment with no tinge of love as beneficence. It appears to me, however, that Scripture takes for granted that we can advance God’s good. “Hallowed be thy name,” we pray. When human beings hallow God’s name, rather than taking it in vain, they are not responding to a need on God’s part. But are they not advancing God’s good?

Though Schwartz never flat-out says that, when love and justice are understood as they are in Scripture, then to love is to secure justice, it appears to me that that is in fact her thought. She writes, for example, “when justice is understood as love” (14), “this understanding of justice as love” (20), “the biblical understanding of justice as loving the fellow” (24), and “the justice of love” (83). Of course, strictly speaking, love and justice cannot be identical. Love, as Schwartz understands it, is action of a certain sort, and justice is a social condition of a certain sort. Her thought is that love yields justice—that to love is to do justice.

In the Western tradition, the relation between love and justice is commonly understood as inherently conflictual: if one acts out of love, one is not acting as one does because justice requires it, and, conversely, if one acts as one does because justice requires it, one is not acting out of love. Some writers make the even stronger claim that acts of love are sometimes unjust and that doing justice is sometimes unloving. The main thesis of my Justice in Love is that, when love and justice are properly understood, they are not conflictual. That thesis also underlies and animates Schwartz’s discussion in Loving Justice.

My way of articulating that thesis was to develop an understanding of love and of justice such that treating the neighbor justly is an example of loving the neighbor—an instance of loving the neighbor. There are other ways of loving the neighbor than rendering justice to the neighbor. But love never wreaks injustice. By contrast, Schwartz’s way of articulating that thesis is to hold that, on the biblical understanding of love and justice, love just is doing justice.

I doubt it. A trivial example of the point is that when, out of love for my wife, I give her that small purse, I am not treating her as justice requires. Let’s have a more significant example. One of the most incisive and powerful passages in Schwartz’s book is the extended passage in which she presents what Scripture teaches as the role of forgiveness in life. God’s forgiveness of the wrongdoer is the paradigm of forgiveness. Divine forgiveness is an act of love that goes beyond what justice requires. The wrongdoer cannot claim that he would have been wronged by God had God not forgiven him—that he would have been treated unjustly. So too, then, for our forgiveness of each other: forgiving the one who has wronged me is an act of love on my part that goes beyond what justice requires.

There is one passage in which Schwartz appears to share this view. She writes: “Forgiveness is the outpouring of love precisely to one who does not deserve it. Forgiveness, like love, exceeds desert” (116–17). If forgiveness exceeds desert, does it not exceed what justice requires?

In the course of her discussion in chapter 5 of “The Forgiveness of Love,” Schwartz highlights the evils of punishment as commonly practiced in our society and compellingly presents the central role in Scripture of reprimand, repentance, and forgiveness, while remaining silent on the matter of whether punishment is ever a good thing. I was left with the impression that she regards punishment as always wrong, and that she interprets Scripture as teaching that. If that is indeed her view, I dissent. Though Scripture quite clearly teaches that retributive punishment is always wrong; but I do not find it teaching that punishment as such is always wrong. I discuss what seem to me acceptable forms of punishment in part 3 of Justice in Love.

One small point in conclusion. Schwartz writes, “Forgiveness is not even on the radar screen” in present-day liberal societies. And then she asks, “How could our ‘corrective’ system be more responsive to the moral value of forgiveness?” (116). The situation is not quite as bleak as Schwartz presents it. The increasingly popular movement of so-called restorative justice gives a prominent role to apology, forgiveness, and the restoration of relationships.

  • Regina Schwartz

    Regina Schwartz


    Response to Nicholas Wolterstorff

    I was three chapters into my book, the introductory chapter critiquing the dominant theories of justice, the chapter on the love commands of Leviticus 19 that define love as apprehending and tending to the needs of others, and the chapter on the limits of contractual justice, so vividly depicted in the perverse contract in The Merchant of Venice that demands a pound of the lender’s flesh if his loan cannot be repaid, when a notice came across my email that Nicholas Wolterstorff was speaking on love and justice at the University of Chicago. Here was a distinguished philosopher engaging precisely what I was obsessed with, the relation between justice and love. I introduced myself, sent him my written work on the subject and was fortunate to join him and others at the Center for the Advanced Study of Culture in Charlottesville where I completed my book; his philosophical rigor was an immense help as I sought to sharpen my argument.

    That rigor is evident again in his response. We have been in the friendliest of arguments about our small difference, sharing, as we do, our critique of liberal thought on justice, and seeking to rehabilitate the centrality of love. We agree that “need calls for love.” He questions whether love is confined to meeting needs, and he goes on to distinguish love as attachment and love as attraction from loving as caring for needs. I have little doubt that love has a host of usages: I love the color red, I love Mozart, I love my son, I love travelling, I love ice cream, I love teaching—these are attractions and attachments of a very different order and we use the word liberally for them all, and more. The issue here, however, is what does love mean in biblical “love commands” that define justice. I want to focus on that not only because it is such a challenging, radical version of justice, but also because it had such wide influence, embraced by Western religious thought. Not a few lines in Leviticus, but a huge and enduring tradition is encoded.

    Those incredible lines in Leviticus that spawned this beautiful tradition deserve our pause. x

    Wolterstorff turns to buying his wife a purse that she doesn’t really need as an act of love (interesting, that he did not resort to a biblical example). But from the perspective of humans as needing, one might be tempted to interpret the event otherwise: the need being expressed by this act could be Wolterstorff’s, for the love his wife gives him, or indeed, the need of his wife, to be buoyed by the reminder that her husband loves her. When Saul gives his armour to David, it is because the slight youth needs protection against the mighty Goliath. When Judith dresses and anoints herself to seduce Holofernes, it is to rescue the needy Israelites against this aggressor.

    Shakespeare has addressed “need” explicitly in King Lear; arguably, the entire play centers on need, from the haunting image of man as a poor forked bare animal to Lear pelted by the storm:

    O reason not the need! Our basest beggars

    Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

    Allow not nature more than nature needs,

    Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. . . . But, for true need—

    You Heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.

    You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,

    As full of grief as age, wretched in both. (II.iv.263–72)

    It looks as though Lear is saying humans are entitled to want many things they do not need, that they should not have to justify these wants on the basis of need. But the context of this speech inflects it: he is asking his daughter to house him and his retinue and she is refusing; he is on the rapid descent from ruler to the abject subject of his cruel daughters’ whims, and will soon be locked out of shelter in a storm. He is begging his daughter to take care of him in his dotage. “Reason not the need”—indeed! He will soon discover, through painful experience, the needs of others, and this new recognition of the needs of others will, in turn, enable him to see what he could not when he was only self-interested, and to reconcile with his cast-out daughter.

    Wolterstorff and my small differences come to definitions. He wants to reserve the meaning of justice to what one deserves; he writes, “If forgiveness exceeds desert, does it not exceed what justice requires?” By narrowing the definition of justice to desert, biblical justice, i.e., giving to those in need without measure, or forgiving someone for an injury they have confessed, would not be justice for him at all. When we are asked to let “justice roll down like the waters” it would have to mean something like giving everybody what they deserve, instead of the unlimited generosity of giving. Would that kind of justice flow like the waters instead of being carefully measured?

    I have long wrestled with punishment in the Bible (see The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism). Refusing to endorse human retribution, God reserves retribution for himself and he unleashes it often: at the flood, the giving of the law, the exile, and throughout the prophets, with terrifying threats and horrific curses. How do we reconcile this with the love commands? I do not want to deny this atmosphere of punishment, in both testaments, against unbelievers. But we do need to ask whether the book of Amos, with its threats and curses, or the book of Jonah, with its forgiveness for terrible wickedness, is “the last word,” that is, which upends the other? Jonah, enacting the extraordinary love command in the form of forgiveness, is a response to the excesses of Amos.

    The prophet Jonah is rebuked and instructed by a forgiving God, one who forgives the wickedest city on the earth, the very capital of the Babylonian Empire responsible for the destruction of ancient Israel and the exile of its survivors. Who included the book of Jonah? Who said this story of loving the stranger could be included, the story of tending to his moral failings and inspiring him to reform? In light of this remarkable critique of retributive justice, how could Hamlet and The Tempest endorse it?



Perchance to Dream

Constituting Humanity in Regina Schwartz’s Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare

Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare is a refreshingly compelling book. By performing the terms of its title, it offers us the opportunity to reflect deeply on urgent matters. Regina Schwartz loves justice and lives Shakespeare, and by expressing this in the form of a brilliant and unconventional monograph she helps us see that there is no justice without love; and that Shakespeare, in living among us in and through his work, is a trustworthy companion with whom to explore vital questions. What is love? What is justice? What is life? What is the relationship between them? In short: what does it mean to be human?

These are of course timeless questions; and Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare might also in due course come to be seen, in offering us effective tools for engaging with these questions, as somewhat timeless. The book, however, is written very much in and for the present. It addresses us now: to point out to us blatant limits in our (Western) culture; to reveal to us debilitating blind spots in our (liberal) moral vision; and thereby to encourage us actively to tap into the life-giving potential of intellectual, ethical, and spiritual recognitions that, as Shakespeare and our continued enjoyment of his plays remind us, are deeply rooted, if currently largely dormant, in our individual and collective being.1

As such, Schwartz presents us with a corrective to the darkly engrossing confusion that, according to the culminating reading of her book, increasingly besets Prince Hamlet (103–17).2 The attempt to define human being, in its active present-ness, as oriented towards justice-by-retribution, leads to insanity and to the proliferation of death; it escapes the control of the agent from which this attempt at justice originates, and ultimately engulfs them too. Schwartz’s book, on the other hand, offers us a tangible vision of what it might mean to define human being, in its active present-ness, as oriented towards justice-in-love. Here, too, things are necessarily beyond the control of any agent from which the movement towards justice originates: because the movement of love is by nature infinite: the more you give, the more you have, and in doing this you realize that love is actually not yours to give but that which most fully constitutes you as human.3

In loving you realize that human action, ultimately, does not originate in any individual agent but occurs in an intricate network of interrelations by which each one of us is who she or he is. To love is to participate in this network justly, allowing it to grow organically in our mutual care for each other. As Schwartz argues, human beings are not autonomous individual beings with rights, but essentially interrelated beings with needs.4 To love is to fulfil our natural, inherent obligation to respond to others’ needs; and it is thereby to be just, to allow human action and interaction to unfold as it is most properly meant to unfold. Any other account of justice—whether based on notions of rights, law, contract, fairness, distribution, retribution, economics, reason, desert, merit, power, or any combination of these5—if not governed by love falls short of who we truly are. Short of love, short of recognizing that the self is defined by the giving of self in care for others’ needs, there can be no justice. The tragedy of Hamlet is thus the tragedy of any understanding or system of “justice” that, on the basis of a conception of morality grounded in the preservation and not the giving of self, believes that justice can somehow simply be a matter of calculation, quantification, the balancing of competitive claims. Ultimately, according to Schwartz, this is also the tragedy of the world we live in.

The latter, for Schwartz, is not an abstract notion. Her urgent, living sense of our predicament is presented in close connection to her personal experience. Indeed, her book is as much memoir as it is philosophical reflection, political theory, or literary interpretation. The rhetoric is bold and provocative throughout, communicating the confidence not so much of the scholar who has worked things out as of a human being who has seen things for herself. Having had the pleasure of collaborating with Schwartz, and of writing an essay with her on themes close to those of her book,6I had the privilege of learning in person from this particular kind of methodology before doing so in and through the book.7 My reading of Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare is thus inevitably informed by personal experience too, in the light of which Schwartz’s book carries for me an even more particular, compelling force.

Readers of Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare who are looking for strict definitions and watertight arguments, or theoretical, historical, and scholarly contextualization of conventional academic kinds, will be disappointed. This is simply not that kind of book. The authority it has is not that of the rigorous but impersonal and detached scholarship we so regularly prize in the academy. It is that of deeply passioned reflection, itself extremely rigorous in its consistently piercing acumen, growing out of the direct experience of living in a world broken by the absence of love, and of living in it in the company of Shakespeare.

We might agree or disagree with the particular ideas or readings offered us by Schwartz, or with the particular form of her writing. We are in any case called to respond to these things with equal personal engagement and human depth. Anything short of this would be to reduce Schwartz’s methodological parameters to our own, thereby certainly misunderstanding the work and thus, on the book’s own terms, failing in love and therefore also in justice. As Rowan Williams says in his foreword to the book, “At a time when we are assailed by a variety of temptations to moral short cuts, to impatience with the full depth of what it is to be ‘seen’ in human beings, [the book] is timely, humane and radical” (viii). An often unacknowledged manifestation of the impatience spoken of by Williams is the widespread scholarly tendency to be suspicious of what actually matters most. By excluding love and the personal from academic discourse, scholars often mimic what Schwartz diagnoses as a defining characteristic of our politics, economics, and culture more broadly: the idea that love is not as effective or powerful or “serious” as justice, and that ultimately the two ought to be divorced. With its compelling focus on love, Schwartz’s book powerfully challenges this on both a conceptual and a methodological level.

It might seem easy to find counterfactuals to Schwartz’s claims about love, especially insofar as these are related in the book not only to “our” world but also to that of Shakespeare and to that of the Bible. Indeed, our current distancing from love is often seen as one of the “achievements” of our contemporary culture with respect to earlier ones, which for all their talk of love were broken by violence, injustice and the absence of love perhaps even more than our own. A salient example of this is addressed directly by Schwartz herself in the book: the slaughter described in Exodus 32:25–35. The breaking of the very law that, according to Schwartz, enshrines the inextricability of justice and love—that same law that will eventually then come to inform Shakespeare’s plays—is responded to with a veritable massacre. Schwartz distinguishes these killings from killings that stem from an arbitrary use of the law for political ends (26–32): the latter reveal the moral shallowness of attempts to bend justice to one’s own purposes; the former reveal an uncompromising commitment to justice as universal and therefore all-encompassing. This is not in itself a satisfactory argument (who can ultimately judge which particular account of justice is truly “universal”?), and it would in any case seem to be contradicted by Schwartz’s own illuminating discussion, later in the book, concerning the value of rebuke in relation to forgiveness, as opposed to the damage caused to individuals and society by the harm of punishment (85–101).8

It is certainly the case that the biblical language of justice and love has all too often been brutally betrayed across the centuries, in the world inhabited by Shakespeare as well as in our own. Schwartz recognizes this, as well as the “impressive” achievements made possible by the “values of liberalism”—“impartiality, utility, and measure”—including the ability to protect the rights of women and of minorities (121). Yet she disarmingly asks us to consider seriously whether in distancing ourselves from love in the name of a more rigorous and universal “justice,” we might have “thrown away the baby with the bathwater” (an image that is itself strongly suggestive of the violence of our world) (121).

The burden of proof, according to Schwartz, is on those who might wish to argue that we are not impoverished by distancing ourselves from binding love to justice and justice to love. I believe Shakespeare would agree. As shown by Schwartz’s perceptive readings of King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet, worlds that are inhospitable to such binding are also inhospitable to the flourishing of humanity in its fullest and richest sense. Thus the civil peace and restoration of just order at the end of Romeo and Juliet is ultimately effected by love (50–61); thus in the Merchant of Venice the music of the spheres is inaudible in a world in which justice pays lip service to love but ultimately subordinates human interrelation to economic transaction (71–84); and thus in Hamlet and King Lear we see worlds torn apart by extreme attempts to instantiate justice not as love but as calculation, in the form respectively of retribution and distribution (the two, Schwartz’s readings suggest, are mirror images of each other) (103–17, 38–50).

At the end of King Lear we also see worlds healed by love. The worlds of Lear and Cordelia are transformed in their mutual recognition, acceptance, and care for each other. “Lear is as much constituted by Cordelia’s forgiveness as Cordelia is by her father’s blessing” (44). I found the word “constituted” in this sentence one of the most powerful and thought-provoking of the book. It provides one of the strongest statements in support of a central idea in the book: love is not just a feeling but an action; an action by which the human being fully manifests humanity (20 and passim). That Lear and Cordelia might be seen to be “constituted” by love at the end of the play both confirms this idea and stretches it very close towards another one, not embraced explicitly as such in the book. In the form of a question: what if love were not just a feeling or even also an action but, most fundamentally, what we are?

As Schwartz reminds us, Shakespeare’s world is one in which the music of the spheres, even if inaudible,9 is still meaningful. And, as she also suggests, it might be possible to recognize in Shakespeare the “medieval” idea that human love is at one with cosmic love, the very fabric of the universe and the ultimate nature of all movement and interrelation (51–53; see also 16 and 67–69). As someone accustomed to working with Dante more than with Shakespeare, I cannot help but wonder (anachronistically) what the overarching movement of Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare would look like if it more explicitly and extensively addressed the question of love not only in terms of what we do, or feel, or think, or see, or say, but—at one with all these and bringing them together—in terms of who and what we are.10

Take physic, pomp,

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,

And show heavens more just. (King Lear, 3.4.33–36)11

My action, if configured as love, is heaven’s own just action. The distinction between heaven and earth is collapsed. Our ordinary perception of the material order, and our place within it, is destabilized in favour of prioritizing my care of others as at one with the ultimate fabric or “fiber” of reality.12 Is there a case to be made for saying that Shakespeare’s way of binding justice and love can help us destabilize not only, as Schwartz argues, the individualistic self-centeredness characteristic of our culture, but also its materialism—its prioritizing of matter over all else, including life and love?

Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare begins with, and is predicated upon, a moving account of Schwartz’s love for her mother, and her mother’s love for her and for all she came into contact with, even when physically debilitated by illness (1–5). Later in the book, this love is connected to broader family history and yet broader traditions of Jewish wisdom (63–69). The first and grounding chapter of the book is called “The Experience of Love” and, indeed, the authority of Schwartz’s book is that of the experience of love itself, as embodied in particular human lives, themselves connected through history by traditions of wisdom and love. This is an all-encompassing authority, which can subsume everything unto and into itself, stronger than suffering, illness, time, death.

We can choose whether to believe in this authority or not. The material evidence would certainly seem to be stacked strongly against it. To say that love might, in fact, be the ultimate fabric of reality can indeed seem ludicrous. To believe in love as the truest and most real dimension of our universe might indeed seem to carry no more authority than a dream. Yet, arguably, it is precisely the authority of such kind of “dream” that keeps Hamlet alive when he is considering whether “to be or not to be.”13 And, as we are reminded by Prospero—who, as Schwartz tells us, is (like Shakespeare) “the master artist who creates a world through his vision and the magic of conjuring, i.e. theater” (114)—there is ultimately no difference between “revels,” world, life, stage, vision, dream . . .

Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare is, perhaps, best seen as offering a compelling, sharp, and loving case for recognizing, with Shakespeare, that the dream of justice might be more within our reach than we normally care to think.

  1. I am profoundly grateful for conversation with Christian Coppa on this point, and on Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare more broadly.

  2. For reflection on the present and the “now” in Hamlet, see esp. 106–7.

  3. This is the conceptual core and structuring principle of the book. It is first expressed as early as the dedication, which in citing Romeo and Juliet 2.2.134 thus both anticipates and, in its inherent interrelationality, already enacts what the book argues for.

  4. See, especially, 7–9, 19–26, and 119–21.

  5. Throughout the book, Schwartz critiques all of these.

  6. Vittorio Montemaggi and Regina Schwartz, “On Religion and Literature: Truth, Beauty, and the Good,” Religion & Literature 46.2–3 (Fall 2014) 111–27.

  7. I am profoundly grateful for the influence that this has had on my work. See also Vittorio Montemaggi, Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology: Divinity Realized in Human Encounter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 255–56. For my own reflection on the importance of love and first-person perspective in scholarship, see Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology, xi–88.

  8. See also John Hughes, “The Politics of Forgiveness: A Theological Exploration of King Lear,” Modern Theology 17.3 (2001) 261–87.

  9. The music of the spheres is, however, heard by Pericles in recognizing Marina after his sufferings. See also Piero Boitani, The Gospel according to Shakespeare, translated by Rachel Jacoff and Vittorio Montemaggi (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 41–55.

  10. The concern with “who” or “what” human beings are permeates King Lear.

  11. Discussed in Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare, 42–43.

  12. See also Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare, 16.

  13. See also Robin Kirkpatrick, “The Pace of Praise: Might Theology Walk Together with Literature,” Religion & Literature 47.3 (Fall 2016) 1–24.

  • Regina Schwartz

    Regina Schwartz


    Response to Vittorio Montemaggi

    Reviews of a new book are often marked by the same peril that an encounter with a new person holds: the wish that she be what she is not (and frustration that she is not to one’s wish), projections about who she is (and willful blindness to who she truly is). Having experienced this as an author—why didn’t she write the book I would have written?—I am especially grateful that Montimaggi has read the book I wrote. When he writes that to love is to participate in a network of interrelations justly, with mutual care for one another, he gets to the heart of the project. He also understands the motive of the project: seeking to correct the blind spots of liberal understanding of justice, indeed reviving ancient understandings of justice to make our world more just. I can only be grateful to be so understood.

    Montemaggi endorses the dimension of the book drawn from experience, contrasting this to scholarship. I do see these as inseparable. The book flowed not only from the experience of my extraordinary mother, but from the reading that endorsed the intuitions she fostered: I was, after all, teaching courses on the demanding history of concepts of justice from Plato to Rawls (and his critics) at the Northwestern Law School and in the humanities, fully engaging in detail many works of political thought and literature on justice. I have spared the (public) reader cumbersome marches through this literature to get to the point, and to try to illustrate that point through Shakespeare’s plays (admittedly, my work of political and literary theory may not be strictly historical). I find it striking that religious thinkers engage “love as care” deeply and repeatedly—Augustine, Aquinas, Aelred of Rievaulx, Bernhard of Clairvaux, Jean Calvin, and virtually every theologian since (including Paul Tillich, Hans Urs von Balthassar, Karl Rahner, and more recently Jean-Luc Marion and John Milbank)—while political thinkers largely ignore love, relegating it to the soft arenas of music or literature, and not the serious business of lawcourts or boardrooms where justice is hammered out. They usually ground justice in measure and proportionality: a long line of illustrious thinkers, including not only Aristotle, but also Kant and more recently Rawls have shown us the way to fair distribution.

    What is missing with these dominant preoccupations with measure? Why do they seem so minimal—not wrong, but insufficient? One reason is that they have distanced themselves from the understanding of justice as care, as love. The whole model of measure rests on scarcity: we must divide up a short supply fairly. But love knows no measure; is not finite. As Juliet says to Romeo, “the more I give to thee, the more I have.” And her understanding of infinite love is not only the wellspring of a devotion unto death, but a desperate lesson about justice to her torn community. This religious vision of justice is daring; it is easier to think in terms of limited supplies, weighing costs and benefits, as the law does. But love does not depend on contracts; indeed, contracts are only necessary where love, and its companion trust, fail.

    I want to repeat here what Calvin said about loving the neighbor, as it is so representative of the literature on neighbor love in the early modern period, and so different from current ideas about justice. He grounds this justice in a divine obligation, but it need not depend upon this religious understanding to be a caution to the world of cost and benefit we inhabit.

    God (to try the love which we bear him) offers us such persons as have no means to recompense us. For behold the true proof that we serve God, is that we serve our neighbors when they have neither pleasured nor helped us afore, or when it shall seem that we have lost both our labor and our cost, & yet notwithstanding cease not to employ our selves still. . . . Whensoever we see any poor men in adversity or mistreated, (as when some are in necessity for want of worldly goods, some are wrested and wronged by other men, some stand in need of counsel, and others lack help:) then doth God mean to try our charity, then putteth he us to the touchstone: and if we shrink aside when the poor cryeth, and give no ear to him: thereby we show that we are neither zealous nor willing to serve God.

    Despite the centrality of such values to Western religious thought, our governments, our economies, and our legal systems have carved out only a little place for love, decidedly at the margins, and called it charity. As Timothy Jackson puts it, charity, love, agape, concern for the well-being of the other—these are considered supererogatory in the tradition of political thought, over and above the call of duty. But surely justice is not only our duty, but our very purpose: love the neighbor is fundamental. I will close by addressing Montemaggi’s insight that what we do is an index of who we are. When we attend to the needs of others, when we care for them, we become other-oriented in our actions and our very being.

Julia Lupton


Contrasting Readings of Romeo and Juliet

Figure 1: Museo Castelvecchio, renovation by Carlo Scarpa, 1958–1974; photograph by James Clifford. Reprinted courtesy of the photographer.


In a recent visit to UC–Irvine, anthropologist James Clifford gave a moving lecture on the renovation of Verona’s medieval Castelvecchio into a modern museum by the Venetian architect Carlo Scarpi. Scarpa took sculptures of saints harvested long ago from local churches and placed them on floating pedestals surrounded by luminous space. The arrangement solicits new forms of intimate encounter in four dimensions by viewers accustomed to scanning galleries overpopulated by the remains of the past. In Scarpa’s stunning dispositions of figures in space, conversations are initiated among statues and we become “bodies among bodies,” contributing our own presence to “compositions designed to create individual contact.”1 Scarpa succeeds in restoring the forms of attention and adoration cultivated by worship in a new post-secular setting that is simultaneously demanding and serene.

Figure 2: Cover featuring still from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968).

Verona, of course, is the city of Romeo and Juliet, and when I attended Clifford’s lecture, I had just finished reading Regina Schwartz’s Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare. The cover of Schwartz’s book features a still from Zeffirelli’s 1968 film, the moment at the Capulet Ball when the lovers exchange a “palmers’ kiss” with their outstretched hands. The poem they compose together trembles with the memory of chapel statuary enlivened by votive candles and the promise of merciful intercession. Although Romeo and Juliet remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, most Shakespeare scholars disdain the work as juvenile schlock penned by a playwright still learning his craft. Schwartz is an exception to the rule, along with Paul Kottman, whom Schwartz does not cite and to whose reading I will return shortly. Schwartz reads Romeo and Juliet as a drama that reconciles erotic and social love through the accomplishment of the difficult task of loving one’s enemy, a feat achieved by the lovers inside the play and by their bereft families at the drama’s end.

In Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare, Schwartz reads the plays of Shakespeare as experimental renditions of the difficult justice of neighbor-love. In Schwartz’s project, Shakespearean drama institutes a kind of third testament that moves beyond epochal divisions and confessional debate to articulate “biblical teachings” common to Jews and Christians (and perhaps Muslims, though she doesn’t go there) as well as Catholics and Protestants, and available to theater-goers regardless of their beliefs (117). In Romeo and Juliet, this means taking seriously the religious imagery that lights up the first encounter between the two lovers, in which they compose a sonnet through a dialogic give and take of erotic approach, modest withdrawal, and imagistic invention, culminating in the kiss of the final couplet:

Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

Romeo: Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take. (1.5.101–2)2

Schwartz reads these and other lines in the play as evidence of a “religion of love” (51), enunciated in Romeo’s “new baptized” condition in the balcony scene (2.1.93), anointed in the sacramental character of their marriage, and consummated in their overcoming of death in the crypt (59). Above all, Romeo and Juliet enact Jesus’s commandment to love your enemy, a radicalization of the injunction to neighbor-love launched in Leviticus 19:18, a touchstone of Schwartz’s inter-testamental project. Romeo and Juliet’s romance is a secret truce and holy covenant between warring neighbors. The young lovers inherit an enmity already in decline, a conflict that is disastrously reopened in the lived time of the play when Romeo kills Juliet’s kinsman Tybalt, and healed when Juliet freely forgives Romeo for this murder. Romeo and Juliet overcome animosity in their love for each other, and this conciliation is then assumed by their families after the death of the lovers. For Schwartz, the play’s political rendering of love accords with Aquinas, for whom “self-love, neighbor-love, and God-love are on a continuum” (61). This reading of Romeo and Juliet is not in itself original, but its normative character is also its value: in affirming a reading true to the play’s immanent ethical movement, Schwartz offers a kind of ordinary language account of the play, bolstered by formal theology (Aquinas) and the Protestant praise of marriage (John Jewel), but not dependent on them since what she really provides is the intuitive meanings and motions that the play gives graciously, of its own accord.

Most of the available counterarguments to Schwartz’s affirmative reading would pursue some form of irony, parody, secular profanation, or ideology critique in order to neutralize the play’s conspicuously religious language. Such readings may succeed in reconciling the play to the anti-idealism of contemporary criticism, but they implicitly spoil the responses of most audiences to the play’s gifts of passion and exultation. An exception is the 2012 reading of the play by Paul Kottman.3 Whereas Schwartz sees the play as reconciling erotic love and social love, Kottman insists on the freedom and self-actualization that each lover finds in the act of being acknowledged by the other. This freedom means that the lovers start to separate from each other in the very act of mutual recognition; they begin to “break up,” Kottman argues, as soon as they have kissed. This freedom also means that the crises and conciliations of the city remain largely irrelevant to the intersubjective drama unfolding between the lovers; Juliet’s freedom can’t simply be freedom from the family, let alone a freedom whose main function is to reconcile civic factions. Schwartz sees their marriage as a sacrament (Romeo and Juliet are “a civilly disobedient couple who perform a liturgically correct marriage” [52]), whereas Kottman sees their wedding as an act of willful self-determination: “Romeo and Juliet marry to underscore that their mutual self-recognition means taking matters into their own hands” (24). Schwartz treats the lovers’ suicides in the crypt as a “triumph over the separation of death” (59), while for Kottman, every exchange between the lovers, including their final one, exercises “their capacity for active separation . . . the fact that claiming their separateness, even in its sorrowful effects, is the essential happiness of their individual lives” (29).

Above all, Kottman’s account is resolutely secular, while Schwartz’s is unabashedly religious. This difference makes itself felt in the two scholars’ very different readings of the Friar’s long plot summary near the end of the act 5, often cut from performances as redundant and tedious (5.3.228–68). Describing the speech as “a summation of disjointed facts and accidents,” Kottman writes that “we know full well what the Friar’s account ignores—practically everything that matters to us!” (4). Schwartz could not disagree more:

The tale that the Friar tells the assembled mourners, of steadfast love and holy marriage, of ready forgiveness and mutual suffering, changes the parents’ hearts, improbably ending their endless strife. The telling of the narrative gives it political force. It is as if Shakespeare offers a play within the play to show us—almost didactically (is this why Zeffirelli left it out?)—the transformative ethical power a play can have on an audience, here, of assembled mourners. (60)

This is a great save of a weak piece of dramaturgy, which has threatened to become as dilatory as the old friar himself, who literally trips on tombstones as he approaches the crypt (5.3.121–22). In Schwartz’s deft analysis, the final crowding of the city into the narrow space of the tomb is no tedious coda, but a consummate summoning to neighbor love exacted by the play from all of us, like a medieval drama that incorporates the whole city and even the cosmos into its salutary action. Yet I also find myself sympathetic to Kottman’s equally affirming but distinctively modern reading of the play. According to Kottman, we are left unsatisfied by Shakespeare’s attempt to connect the fate of the lovers to the healing of the community, “poor sacrifices of our enmity” (5.3.303; cited Kottman 60), and we must wrangle instead with the fundamental discord between what the two lovers have achieved subjectively and any change their deaths may have wrought on the community they leave behind. For Kottman, unlike Aquinas, there is no easy passage from the one and the two to the many.

Figure 3: Museo Castelvecchio, Verona. Photo by James Clifford.


Can Schwartz and Kottman be reconciled? I come back to Scarpa’s exhibition hall in the Museo Castelvecchio in Verona. The saintly icons have been transplanted from the churches that first gave them meaning and purpose, yet they are startlingly refreshed and ensouled by their placement in modern exhibition spaces that remains achingly faithful to their medieval foundations. Are the two statues that face each other across the room inching towards the kiss of sacramental incorporation that will join both them and their families in a covenant of love (Schwartz), or are they already moving apart into spheres of freedom birthed by their mutual recognition—freedom through and from each other, but also freedom from all substantive grounding in kinship rituals and inherited traditions (Kottman)? Scarpa, and Shakespeare, give us both. I stand bemused in the glowing space between those statues, inspired by Schwartz’s post-secular and inter-testamental reading of Shakespeare for love and justice, but challenged by Kottman’s insistence on the vertiginous modernity of Shakespeare’s free relation to received wisdom.

  1. James Clifford, “Carlo Scarpa. Articulation Theory. Indigeneity. (Working With/In History),” lecture at UC–Irvine, November 8, 2017.

  2. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1595), in The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition, edited by Gary Taylor et al.,

  3. Paul Kottman, “Defying the Stars: Tragic Love as the Struggle for Freedom,” Shakespeare Quarterly 63.1 (2012) 1–38.

  • Regina Schwartz

    Regina Schwartz


    Response to Julia Lupton

    In Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare, Schwartz reads the plays of Shakespeare as experimental renditions of the difficult justice of neighbor-love. In Schwartz’s project, Shakespearean drama institutes a kind of third testament that moves beyond epochal divisions and confessional debate to articulate “biblical teachings” common to Jews and Christians (and perhaps Muslims, though she doesn’t go there) as well as Catholics and Protestants, and available to theater-goers regardless of their beliefs (117). (Lupton)

    Again, whether my reviewers hone in on justice, love, law, the Bible or Shakespeare, all of these descriptions are perceiving the ambitions of the project and I am deeply grateful for being understood. I admire the visible post-secular gallery Lupton creates for my book, and assent to placing it in that context. Her comparison of my post-secular reading to a more “secular” reading of Romeo and Juliet deserves further response.

    If there truly were a secular/religious divide, then would we continue to value neighbor love, caring for one another and sharing responsibility for needs of others? Or would this be cordoned off to a religious sphere, available as an explicitly biblical ethic that only religious people adopt? Or would we have to say some ethics are common to religious and secular spheres, or that some ethics even travel from one sphere to another, and are lost and gained in the movement? Or, if Shakespeare is seen as absorbing and reflecting the religious milieu in which he lived, would his plays be irrelevant to nonbelievers? Or would Shakespeare, if regarded as an archly secular thinker and writer, have nothing to say to religious people? None of this sounds right.

    As Lupton notes, the idea of justice articulated in Loving Justice is “available to theater-goers regardless of their beliefs.” In the “contrasting” secular reading Lupton invokes, Romeo and Juliet are seeking freedom. Is freedom a secular category? If so, how do we understand the Exodus, at the very center of a religious sensibility? Without freedom in the Christian narrative, Jesus would be murdered, not sacrificed. How can there be meaningful freedom, and not just isolation, without ties? Carmen embraces “liberta” in Bizet’s opera, but has only instrumental relations, and her infidelity is grounded in care for no one beyond herself. An earlier stage of feminism embraced her so-called freedom, but her ruthless manipulation undermines their goals. By now, modern liberal freedom has been roundly critiqued as not just seeking self-actualization, but self-interest. In contrast, the ties that bind Romeo and Juliet are so strong that all the efforts to separate them—efforts which are indeed insistent and Kottman is so right to stress them—ultimately fail. No one and nothing can pry apart their mutual devotion: “even death can’t part us now” is the astute lyric from its musical retelling, West Side Story. Their bond does not impede their freedom—from parental control, from the state, and from the social expectations that oppress them. Instead, this bond is the best expression of their freedom; beyond the freedom from, they achieve freedom for (one another). Their subjectivity is mutually constituted, their recognition is mutually achieved.

    Kottman’s insightful essay, to be sure, is not about liberal freedom but Hegelian subjectivity and while Hegel has been taken up by avowedly secular thinkers, his own thought was steeped in religion. I am pleased to discover Kottman, belatedly, and applaud the project he engages: “Rather than see drama solely as the depiction of the values, rituals and practices of a particular culture or social-historical world, philosophical dramaturgy also tries to depict the threshold of social-historical life, our becoming human—showing how human (socio-historical, cultural, institutional) values and practices take shape or crumble through the performance of certain actions” (Paul A. Kottman, “The Duel,” in Early Modern Theatricality: Oxford Approaches to Literature, ed. Henry S. Turner [Oxford University Press, 2014]). His emphasis on the audience’s engagement with theater at the deepest level of subjectivity is so welcome at a time when scholarship can impose distance between ourselves and the past.

    In my hope that Loving Justice will not only speak to a secular audience but a religious one lies a deeper hope that we call into question the secular/religious divide. I want to see a two-millennia tradition on justice welcomed into ongoing debates on justice raging in contemporary political thought. Thought is thought, and labelling it “secular” or “religious” can be surprisingly divisive, with tragic consequences for ethical life. What is at stake when we separate the secular from the religious can be making a whole world of thought irrelevant to another whole world of thought. Lupton, in her subtlety and depth, does not do that, of course, but I wanted to highlight the dangers of a trajectory she is so careful to avoid.

Michael Shapiro


The Tempest as an Anti-Revenge Play

Regina Schwartz sees Shakespeare as heir to a biblical tradition in which the basis of justice is love, that is to say, feelings of empathy and acts of compassion toward fellow human beings, both those to whom we are bound by emotional, personal, communal, or familial ties, and those whom we might call neighbors or even strangers. She contrasts this biblical tradition of “loving justice” with theories of justice based on merit, fairness, and utility, as well as with theories developed by Kant and others, in which justice is based on pure rationality, that is, on a sense of duty rather than on “inclination,” i.e. emotion, empathy, and compassion. Kantians see altruism as something to be imposed or self-imposed on human nature by acts of will, rather than as something that flows from the deepest parts of our humanity, from “our natural goodness” (68). In Schwartz’s view, such acts of will are less reliable than the promptings of the heart (to speak in metaphor) as a basis for acting ethically or justly.

I have some reservations about these formulations. First, one does not need to be a Hobbesian or Machiavellian to question how far we can trust in “natural goodness.” Traditional post-biblical Jewish thought, for example, postulates that every human harbors a predilection toward good and a predilection toward evil, respectively a Yetzer tov and a Yetzer ra. The human struggle is to act upon the former and resist the latter. Sometimes, or for some of us, this struggle may be easier or harder, and for some blessed souls, good inclinations regularly prevail. But since human nature comes in various sizes and shapes, some of us need to prompt or fortify good inclinations with such things as duty, habit, and precept.

My second reservation is related to the first. The dichotomy between duty and spontaneous altruism breaks down when love itself becomes a commandment or law, as Schwartz notes it does, in the Book of Common Prayer, the writings of Martin Luther (15), and the words of Jesus (19–20). Schwartz realizes that “a command to love” may seem “jarring” (22) and “bizarre” (23), and I am not sure I see much difference between the Kantian sense of duty to act morally and justly and a commandment to love others so that one will act morally and justly toward them. Schwartz invokes Emanuel Levinas to resolve the problem:

To obey love is to act on our responsibility for the other, to heed that responsibility. Love is to be obeyed, performed, in action. Hence love and duty are not separable after all. (23)

But “obey” connotes duty or obligation, an implicit admission that “natural goodness” alone may not necessarily result in acts of loving-kindness. In her afterword, Schwartz seems to place more reliance on “affective bonds” than on natural goodness as underpinning for altruistic behavior.

Schwartz argues convincingly that several of Shakespeare’s plays explore the interdependency of love and justice, and do so from biblical perspectives, both Hebrew and Christian. The plays she selects all take place in worlds where love itself is misconceived to such a degree that it cannot serve as a basis for justice. In Romeo and Juliet, for instance, the love between the title characters is an island of selfless devotion in a world where love is defined instrumentally by various characters as the path to narcissistic self-regard (Romeo vis-à-vis Rosalind), social advancement (Lord and Lady Capulet), women’s fulfillment through motherhood (Nurse), male sexual gratification (Mercutio), and the reconciliation of political factions (Father Lawrence).

Although Schwartz’s placing of the play under the rubric of loving one’s enemy is extremely illuminating, Romeo and Juliet are not enemies when, in the dramatic shorthand of the Elizabethan stage, they fall deeply in love at first sight. Indeed, they do not know until after they meet that the person they have just fallen in love with is, by the “logic” of the feud, a sworn enemy. But that knowledge, delivered to each of them by Juliet’s Nurse, does not alter their love. Nothing does. As Schwartz argues, Juliet first separates Romeo from his familial identity and then forgives him for slaying her cousin. In a swift trajectory, they move from their initial physical attraction at the ball to a total commitment to each other in their second exchange later the same evening, minutes later in real time. The totality of their commitment is revealed and confirmed by their literalizing what is usually understood as a romantic hyperbole: “I cannot not live without you.” The prologue to the play refers to them as star-crossed lovers, suggesting that their meeting and its tragic aftermath are predetermined by fate, thus relieving us of the need to judge their rash but glorious love so we can marvel at its speed and intensity, so we can see them, as Shakespeare puts it, “like fire and powder, / Which as they kiss consume” (2.5.10–11). Schwartz maintains that the sacrificial aspect of their suicides is stressed in the friar’s long recitation summarizing what we already know, a speech usually cut as redundant. She reads this speech and what follows as gestures toward “social healing,” although some viewers and readers might consider the “tragic waste” of the lovers too high a price for the healing of this particular world.

For Schwartz, the failure of love and justice to connect in The Merchant of Venice is largely due to what she calls “contractual thinking,” the idea, stimulated by the new market economy, that human relationships can best be regulated by mutually agreed-upon agreements. Unfortunately, without a foundation of mutual love, such agreements can be used by either party to gain advantage over the other. Shylock, with his “Jewish” obsession with the literal terms of his bond, is a caricature of justice whereby he uses the law to exact revenge. Portia’s commitment to “mercy” is equally flawed.

Portia’s famous “quality of mercy speech,” in Schwartz’s reading, celebrates the relatively new courts of equity, created for aristocratic landowners to defend themselves against the Crown’s oppressive use of common law. Mitigating justice with mercy, she argues, is a far cry from dispensing a justice already infused with mercy. But the play reveals an even deeper flaw in the Christians’ conception of mercy. She asks Shylock’s intended victim, “What mercy can you show,” and Antonio’s “mercy” turns out to be the fleecing and humiliating of Shylock and his forced conversion to Christianity. Moreover, the Duke threatens to reinstate the death penalty he had just rescinded if Shylock refuses to accept these terms. In short, by endorsing neither Shylock’s “Jewish” justice nor Portia’s “Christian” mercy, the play seems to be casting a plague upon both their gondolas, and perhaps also on fortune-hunting wooers like Bassanio and Lorenzo.

In King Lear, another play set in a corrupted world where justice and love do not intertwine, Shakespeare explores the commodification of love. For example, in the opening scene, Cordelia says she loves her father “according to my bond; nor more nor less” (1.1.92). Her attempt to clarify this “untender” (1095–976), legalistic, but empty, contractual formulation makes it worse:

You have begot me, bred me, loved me; I

Return those duties back as are right fit,

Obey you, love you, honor you. (95–97)

Reacting against her sisters’ outright hypocrisy, she makes her love for her father sound like a commercial exchange: you did three things for me, I do three things for you. Her conception of love seems further commodified when she says she will give half her love to her father and half to her husband, as if love were a quantifiable substance that could be so divided. Later in the play, when she and Lear are reconciled, she sums up her love for her father in two repeated monosyllables, “No cause, no cause” (4.7.76). How her understanding of love evolves we do not see, as she is offstage for most of the middle part of the play, and the play focuses, as Schwartz points out, on Lear’s and Gloucester’s growing understanding of love rather than on Cordelia’s. Nonetheless, Schwartz captures Cordelia’s implicit if concise repudiation of her earlier quantification of love with a concise allusion to her “measureless giving” (40).

In King Lear, Shakespeare seems to be to be testing the strength of a range of “affective bonds,” not only familial ties based on love, but also social bonds based on mutual loyalty, such as those between masters and servants. Oswald is a disloyal servant, because instead of loyally serving his masters, he profits by abetting their self-corruption. His polar opposite, Lear’s faithful servant Kent, calls him “a bawd in the way of good service” (2.2.17). Kent himself, though banished by King Lear for speaking truth to power, returns in disguise to minister to his master’s needs, while Cornwall’s nameless servant is killed in 3.7 when he tries to prevent his master from gouging out Gloucester’s second eye. And as Schwartz points out, Lear, cold and wet on the heath, comes to realize his previous disloyalty to his subjects, and he expresses empathy for the homeless and the hungry, the “poor naked wretches” (3.4.29) of his former kingdom.

In Hamlet, Schwartz traces the absence of love-infused justice, when forgiveness is sidelined if not totally eclipsed by “wild justice,” Francis Bacon’s term for revenge. I would not go so far as to label Hamlet an anti-revenge play, though I do think it explores the ethics of vengeance. As Schwartz suggests, the play addresses the tension between the heroic imperative to avenge a father’s death and the Christian admonition to turn the other cheek. Shakespeare’s contemporaries lived in a world where private duels to avenge injury or insult, though officially outlawed, were nonetheless common, and they also knew from both Hebrew and Christian scriptures that vengeance belongs to the Lord. Shakespeare interrogates the ethics of revenge by inviting us to compare Hamlet with three other avenging sons: Laertes, Fortinbras, and Pyrrhus (the son of the slain Achilles who murders King Priam in the Player’s recitation of Aeneas’s tale to Dido about the Fall of Troy). These three foils all act rashly, deceitfully, cruelly, and with callous disregard for “collateral damage.” In contrast, despite the high body count, by the time Hamlet kills Claudius his alleged delay appears restrained and circumspect, though he accuses himself of being a bad and cowardly son.

For me, Shakespeare’s true anti-revenge play is The Tempest. Although we have not (yet?) found a principle source, there exist many analogous works involving exiled rulers conspiring to regain lost political power. At the end of many such works, the question for the restored Duke (and the playwright) is whether his enemies should be exiled or executed. The Tempest is virtually alone in suggesting they might be forgiven—or perhaps “conditionally forgiven” to use Schwartz’s apt term for pardoning one’s enemies only on condition that they own up to their crimes and are truly contrite. Without confession and genuine remorse, as Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure, “pardon is still [always] the nurse of second woe” (2.1.184).

Shakespeare explores the idea of conditional forgiveness at the end of The Tempest with greater subtlety than Schwartz allows. She is correct that Prospero, shamed by Ariel’s display of compassion for the suffering Gonzalo, releases his enemies from the afflictions he has imposed on them, acknowledging that “the rarer action / Is in virtue than in vengeance” (5.1.27–28). But he does not treat all four of his enemies in the same way. He forgives Gonzalo, the least guilty of the conspirators, for when Prospero and his daughter were put out to sea to die, Gonzalo supplied their boat with food, water, and the book of magic, which is the source of Prospero’s power. He also forgives Alonzo, the King of Naples who supported the palace coup led by Prospero’s brother, Antonio, and rightly so because Alonso has followed what Schwartz describes as the traditional Christian path to forgiveness. He recognizes his sin, feels contrition, and apologizes. His brother Sebastian and Prospero’s brother, Antonio, do not. All three had been rebuked, a potent element in Schwartz’s discussion of forgiveness, when Ariel, Prospero’s familiar spirit, now in the guise of a harpy, addresses them all as “three men of sin” (3.3.53), whose only pathway to redemption is “heart sorrow / And a clear life ensuing” (81–82), that is, true remorse and penitence. Alonzo had received an even more powerful rebuke than Ariel’s denunciation, a rebuke in the form of affliction. That is to say, his rebuke is the apparent death of his son and heir, which he takes as just punishment for what he believes is the murder of Prospero and his daughter. Accepting his guilt and feeling true remorse, he asks Prospero to “pardon me my wrongs” (5.1. 120–21).

The other two conspirators in the attempted murder of Prospero and his daughter, Antonio and Sebastian, deny their sinfulness and do not repent. Schwartz seems to suggest that Prospero forgives them anyway, and while he uses the word twice, I think the text suggests much less than even conditional forgiveness. Here are Prospero’s two speeches to his brother, Antonio:

            (1) Flesh and blood,

You, brother mine, that entertained ambition,

Expelled remorse and nature . . . I do forgive thee,

Unnatural though thou art. (75–79)


(2) For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother

Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive

Thy rankest fault, all of them. (132–340)

To my ear, Prospero’s language conveys more resentment than pardon. Moreover, instead of restoring a moral order based on mutual trust, he holds Antonio and Sebastian in check by blackmail, threatening to inform Alonzo of their treacherous attempt to murder him and Gonzalo while they slept, an attempt which Prospero knew of and foiled.

Despite a few minor disagreements, I think Schwartz’s book demonstrates that Shakespeare drew on a deep knowledge of the Bible to do some hard thinking about the linkage of justice and love. Perhaps he was moved to do so as he saw around him what many see today: an increasing commodification of human values with dire consequences for the poor, the stranger and the Other in our midst.

  • Regina Schwartz

    Regina Schwartz


    Response to Michael Shapiro

    I am grateful for the engagement of such a distinguished Shakespeare scholar, and delighted that his readings of Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, Hamlet, and The Tempest are so in sync with my own. He accurately characterizes the contribution I see these plays making to our thought on justice: Romeo and Juliet’s love is an island of selfless devotion in a sea of self-advancement. Cordelia repudiates her earlier quantification of love with measureless giving. The Merchant of Venice shows that “mitigating” justice with mercy is a far cry from genuine love/mercy. Hamlet challenges the imperative of revenge with the religious response of turning the other cheek.

    I appreciate his adding more layers to my reading of The Tempest as critiquing revenge, agree that Prospero responds variously to his various wrongdoers, and that in the toughest case, he forgives despite his rage, that is, according to Montaigne’s tough advice:

    he who being toucht and stung to the quicke with any wrong or offence received, should arme himself with reason against this furiously blind desire of revenge, and in the end after a great conflict yeeld himselfe master over it.

    Since Shapiro agrees so much with my thesis that Shakespeare is indebted to the biblical tradition of neighbor love, I am left to wonder where we differ?

    He seems to object to the notion of “natural goodness,” a belief that humans are naturally disposed toward helping others, that this gets warped and even destroyed by forces that bear upon them—at home, at school, in the workplace. He cites a Talmudic belief that instead humans are disposed toward good and toward evil so guidance is needed to choose aright. Allow me to respond with the Bible: in Genesis, man (like all creation) is created good and story by story he departs from this originary goodness until he clearly needs the law. The law is to love the neighbor as thyself. This love is carefully defined: to care for the needy, and widows, orphans, and the poor are singled out as especially deserving such care. A close look at the command in Leviticus 19 yields more: that humans all are vulnerable, all have needs, and we are obliged to care for them.

    This is a command, not a suggestion, meant to remind us of what is best in us and how we are obliged to act in order to achieve a just social order. I would, of course, resist Shapiro’s tendency to equate the biblical vision (and Levinas’ debt to it) to Kant. The first two see the obligation to care for others as love; this is a love that should be nurtured, schooled, even commanded. Kant’s distrust for inclination is of another character altogether: “Every duty is a necessitation, a constraint . . . what is done from constraint, however, is not done from love” (Metaphysics of Morals).

    My best guess is that it is difficult to prove what is basic in human nature, that we have conflicting data, with neurobiologists testing babies and finding that they have sympathy for hurt children before they can speak, with physical anthropologists tracing our aggression to pre-human ancestors, with history telling us the story of human terror, with history also telling the story of unspeakable goodness, from extraordinary sacrifice to daily acts of parental nurturing. Hence, we can spin out conflicting theories. What matters is the pay-off: where does each assumption about human nature lead? If we assume people are grasping and self-interested, competitive and violent, we must use our social institutions to reign them in. We set the bar low: we need to curb aggression, punish it, and protect ourselves, but giving and forgiving are not on that map. If we assume that humans have the capacity to give, to care, to take responsibility for the well-being of others, then our social institutions will promote and reward those behaviors, even make them normative. When much more is expected, more can be achieved. “When human love one another they are not engaged in the project of hurting—of taking away another’s dignity, of undervaluing his worth, of violating his rights, of ignoring duties toward him, or breaking promises to him” (Loving Justice, 14).

    We know that both the legal and economic language of the early modern period was filled with biblical neighbor-love language. It has dropped out in our secular time. Strangely, Shapiro reads Shakespeare with the same lenses I do: King Lear describes a loveless world, but instead of seeing that as a horror we should deplore, he (implicitly) sees it as the world we live in. He concludes his remarks on that dark note.

    Far from being naive about the commodification of values that lead to grasping and suffering, I am seeking to call attention to the failures of our current political and legal system to redress these. We can do better. We can love one another. No doubt, for some, this is easier than for others: Montaigne sees the “natural facilitie and genuine mildness” that enable some to cope with their injuries without a retributive impulse as rare, terming it “goodness” but rarer still is the furious wronged person, whose impulse is retributive, and yet masters that impulse to still forgive. Where there is forgiveness, there is healing, instead of the endless cycle of injury. No wonder Romeo and Juliet has such cultural power, repeated as the Jets and Sharks, the Palestinians and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, and wherever we want strife to give way to healing.

    • Michael Shapiro

      Michael Shapiro


      The Tempest, Revenge, and other matters

      There is considerable accord between Schwartz’s reading of these play and my own, I am happy to note. The differences are revealing and seem to me to grow out of our differing assumptions about the depth and extent of the inherent human propensity for love and compassion, and about how we think Shakespeare understood these terms. I tend to see Shakespeare as as less fully committed than she does to the idea of natural goodness.

      For example, Schwartz and I agree that King Lear is a play that tests bonds of love, but I would suggest that the play also tests bonds of loyalty, bonds based on the social order inscribed in the world of the play, that is, on mutual obligations of service, such as those between master and servant, rather than on familial relationships based on family and marriage. Kent’s true identity is to serve Lear, even when Lear himself abrogates their bond by expelling Kent from his court and Kent continues even in disguise to enact his true identity as Lear’s servant. By contrast, we have the servant Oswald, whose sense of service is to follow orders, however corrupt they may be, to flatter his masters by unquestioning obedience, to become a bawd in the way of good service. Kent’s higher sense of loyalty is encapsulated in the moment when Cornwall’s first servant refuses to carry out Cornwall’s immoral command to remove Gloucester’s remaining eye. He acknowledges his obligations to the master to whom he owes his life’s support and whom he has faithfully served until now, but asserts that he has never served his master better than at the present moment by refusing to enact this vile command. It is not love that moves him to protect Cornwall from self-defilement, I would suggest, but his understanding of the mutual obligations of master and servant, the tacit laws that binds this society together.

      Similiarly, in The Tempest, Schwartz and I both admire the ethical power of Prospero’s forgiveness of Alonzo, who in fact has repented, returned the dukedom to Prospero, asked Prospero’s pardon, and agreed to the marriage of his son to Prospero’s daughter. But as I noted earlier, Prospero does not forgive two others complicit is the plot to murder him and his daughter. Nor should he do so, as they have not repented and therefore are capable of repeating the original offense. Indeed, having learned that he must protect himself against such betrayal, he holds them in check by threatening to reveal their earlier attempt to assassinate Alonzo–in other words, by blackmail. Prospero here falls short even of what Schwartz calls “conditional” pardon, for it would be naive of him to trust any verbal formula of penance they might conceivably offer. In this case, unilateral disarmament, based on love and trust, could well prove suicidal.

      Schwartz and I may differ in our assessment of innate human propensities for good and evil. I cannot imagine a society without laws to protect its members from those who act out of greed or hate but I readily acknowledge the extent to which the making and enforcement of such necessary laws must be informed by mutual respect for fellows humans, in short, by Love. The need to balance Law and Love in our own day is nowhere more graphically illustrated than by immigration policies that require officials to separate parents and children and to then place the children in cages and detention camps.



Love, Law, and Literature

Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare ignites an overdue conversation between “Shakespeare and law”—a subfield within early modern studies—and ethics, jurisprudence, and biblical scholarship. Schwartz begins by asking big questions related to justice and interpersonal obligation: “What is the good that humans strive to attain? . . . What do we owe one another?” (6–7). The answers have to do with love (“there can be no justice without love”) and this is where Shakespeare comes in (7). His plays show just how essential love is to a just society. The great tragedies, in particular, warn audiences that the absence of love results in personal and political catastrophe. For Schwartz, Shakespeare’s concentrated effort to write about love and justice elevates him to a rarefied group of philosophers—including Plato, Maimonides, Søren Kierkegaard, Simhah Zissel Ziv (a nineteenth-century rabbi), and Emmanuel Levinas. Drawing on her wealth of knowledge of the Hebrew and Christian texts as well as contemporary jurisprudence, Schwartz examines the way Shakespearean drama offers audiences a model of the human that takes and gives love with equal urgency.

From the start, Schwartz acknowledges the difficulty of her thesis: “Love is regarded as a ‘soft’ subject, fit for the arts and fine for private life, but not for the tough business of the public sphere, of making hard choices, negotiating power, and forging contracts” (4). The marginalization of love from justice studies is not an accident, but the inevitable result of the dominance of utilitarianism, which translates interpersonal interactions into legal contracts, debts, and payments. For Schwartz, this is the foundation for a morally and spiritually bankrupt life. Shakespeare offers a way out of that universe. Plays such as King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet contain life lessons on loving and forgiveness in the face of personal injury, and attending to these lessons in Shakespearean drama challenges that lofty strand of modern liberalism which supposes the self to be a sovereign agent, unmoored from the obligations of tradition, custom, even family, one “capable of steering his course with freedom” (119). To some, this model of the self sounds . . . well, not terrible. Does it not empower an individual to embrace her agency and volition? Schwartz sees things differently. For one thing, the hyper-individualistic self is a gross misrepresentation of reality (for what self lives independent of her community?) and, for another, it provides the logical rationale for a utilitarian “economic model of justice” (11), a branch of jurisprudence that sanctions the quantification, exchange, and division of love and justice. While Western culture has lived with this capitalistic model of justice for millennia—Schwartz finds early traces of it Aristotle’s writings on harm distribution (89)—it has come to dominate intellectual and jurisprudential circles in recent years (81).

To showcase the originality of Schwartz’s reading of Shakespeare, I want to zero in on chapter 3, “The Power of Love,” which was for me an outstanding chapter followed closely by her reading of The Merchant of Venice (chapter 4, “The Economics of Love”). Specifically, I wish to discuss the Lear portion of that chapter (the chapter’s second half focuses on Romeo and Juliet). According to Schwartz, Lear is a play in which “justice will be reframed under the horizon of love” (45). The love that Lear learns to embrace is different from empathy (42), which exists in the realm of pure feeling. Love exceeds empathy in that love stimulates acting and reacting. In the early section of the chapter, Schwartz draws an interesting connection between Kierkegaard’s insight on love as an “activity which must be practiced in order to exist” (42) and the biblical command to love fellow beings—expressed in Leviticus 19:18, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (42). Next, the chapter examines Lear’s apprehension of “the misery of Others” in his iconic speech “Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are, / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm . . .” (42). “With its emphasis on the houseless heads, the unfed sides, the naked wretches, Lear intones the biblical understanding of justice as caring for the vulnerable, giving to those in need” (42). The scene illuminates Shakespeare’s rejection of Aristotle’s geometric distribution and Rawls’s arithmetic distribution that presuppose that goods are in scarce supply and the challenge is to apportion them” (47).

What readers take away from this reading will depend, in part, on how convincing they find Schwartz’s analysis of Lear’s capacity to love and whether one believes Lear achieves the form of active love articulated in Kierkegaard and Leviticus. What should we make of the ending? The play closes with the image of a vengeful, grieving, and maddened patriarch, who informs the stunned assembly that he has “killed the slave that was a-hanging thee [Cordelia].” He who is hurt hurts back. The finale scene, therefore, would seem to hint at the elusiveness of the praxis of love and justice. I yearned to hear more about how we might reconcile Lear’s misanthropy (not to mention misogyny) with the image of the loving Lear. But this question aside, I am grateful to Schwartz for shifting the standard reading of Lear, which views it as Shakespeare’s most hopeless play. Liberated from the religious sensibility of nineteenth-century readers, today’s critics tend to position the play as an uncompromising exploration of human suffering at the hands of other humans and within unjust institutions.1 Yet such a pessimistic reading ignores the play’s scenes of regeneration, forgiveness, and love, which are powerfully conjured up in Schwartz’s analysis.

One area that is not much touched on in Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare is the operation of the concept of love and justice beyond theology and ethics. For example, I felt I could have benefited from hearing more about the culture of neighborly justice in English common law culture. Jamie K. Taylor, a literary historian of medieval England, has recently observed that in the late thirteenth century, there was a “turn toward centralized, royal legal administration,” but that this effort to centralize royal legal administration was strongly resisted by popular culture at large. As evidenced by medieval romances, sermons, and other cultural documents, “neighborly justice” and “neighborliness” remained quintessential to the English imagination.2 How did Tudor and Jacobean legislators, lawyers, and magistrates approach the biblical mandate of loving the neighbor?

Early modern law and literature, like many historical fields, is evolving to stay relevant to a new generation of students and critics. The attraction of this field (at least, for some of its practitioners) is its intellectual ties to the fields of ethics and social justice. The sources and subjects of study are different, but at the end of the day, scholars in these fields are trying to understand how our culture constructs power, harm, injury, and forgiveness. What I have learned from reading Schwartz’s book is that it is not enough to study those concepts in the abstract. To write with conviction and intensity, it is necessary to tap into one’s emotions. Feelings are empowering as well as focusing. Schwartz’s critique of the economic theory of justice, for example, partly derives from her personal battle against medical ethicists who sought to define a life by its monetary value (5, 8). What I find exciting about Schwartz’s work is the fearless way she harnesses her scholarly expertise to deprive oppressive narratives of their cultural mystique and institutional power. This leads me to ask: what does she hope for law and literature scholarship moving forward? What does she hope to see from this and the next generation of scholars?

  1. For example, in a brilliant but bleak reading, David Loewenstein concludes that the play presents an agnostic world of meaningless suffering: “Shakespeare imagines a dark, pitiless world without God or gods in an age in which providential thinking dominated religious culture.” Loewenstein, “Agnostic Shakespeare? The Godless World of King Lear,” in Shakespeare and Early Modern Religion, ed. David Loewenstein and Michael Witmore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 155.

  2. Jamie K. Taylor, Fictions of Evidence: Witnessing, Literature, and Community in the Late Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2013), 101, 102.

  • Regina Schwartz

    Regina Schwartz


    Response to Penelope Geng

    I am grateful to Penelope Geng for her thoughtful reading of Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare, especially her emphasis on the central ethical questions the book raises, including what do we owe one another.

    She focuses on King Lear which is so vital for my thinking. It is a play of utter terror: father against daughter, daughters against their father, brother against brother, sister against sister, wife against husband, crimes of the old against the young and of the young against the old.

    The play enacts the capacity of human nature to act completely from self-interest without any regard to ties of responsibility: a father disowns his daughter when she refuses to flatter him, daughters mercilessly expose their elderly father to the elements to steal his power, a brother is willing to falsely accuse his brother, expose him to certain death, in order to steal his inheritance, a sister is willing to poison her sister to steal a husband. How could it be worse? Putting out Gloucester’s eyes for defending his king: that makes it worse. “Who is it can say ‘I am at the worst’? . . . The worst is not so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.'” Edgar’s worst is not ours: killing the innocent Cordelia. That is worse. The play is unrelenting and I do not want to mitigate its horror. King Lear is a fully articulated vision of what a loveless world looks like—a world without any care for one another. Human relations, the nation, the cosmos—all are broken.

    A world so unethical that it drives its protagonist mad—

    Lear (to Edgar as mad Tom): Now all the plagues that in the pendulous air

    Hang fated o’er men’s faults light on thy daughters!

    Kent:                                   He hath no daughters, Sir.


    A world so unrelentingly cruel that imagined comfort only opens to deeper wounds.

    Cornwall:               Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?

    Gloucester (just blinded): All dark and comfortless. Where’s my son Edmund?

    Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature

    To quit this horrid act.

    Regan:                               . . . Thou call’st on him that hates thee; it was he

    That made the oveture of thy treasons to us . . .

    Into that dark world, Shakespeare has put not just exceptions to towering self-interest and rapacious greed, but, extraordinarily, beacons of light. The devotion the banished Kent shows to his master, the loyalty the falsely accused Edgar shows to his father and the complete forgiveness Cordelia shows to her father as she risks her life to rescue him, are as extreme in their self-giving as their opposites. All three are adept at apprehending and providing for the needs of another, even one who has wronged them: Kent protecting his master from his plotting daughters, caring for him when he is exposed in the storm; Edgar leading his blind father, protecting him from despair, Cordelia seeking to restore sanity to her maddened father as well as his lost power. The kinds of vulnerability King Lear serves up—homelessness, hunger, blindness, gullibility, and subjected theft are all, interestingly, enumerated where the love commands are offered. Leviticus does not depict our fellow man as autonomous, freely choosing his course; rather our fellow man is someone who does not have enough, so we must feed him (“Who gives poor Tom anything?”), someone who is away from home, and so we are obligated to house him (“Mine enemy’s dog, / Though he had bit me, should have stood that night / Against my fire.”) The fellow is also depicted as someone who can be exploited, lied to, robbed, someone who can be slandered, hated, and someone from whom such hatred can be hidden (as the cruel daughters lie to Lear, the scheming Edmund lies to all, and those daughters and Edmund rob their parents and siblings). How like the world of King Lear this all sounds!

    Lear has every right in such a world to be “misanthropic” and as for killing “the slave that was a’hanging thee,” we don’t know if it was retributive or if he was trying to save his daughter. In any event, even an instance of retribution does not undo the exquisite care he bestows upon his once estranged daughter, the genuine mutual love they achieve that is light years from the first scene.

    Are human beings needy, needful of care? “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art” exposed to the storms of life. King Lear shows a world that requires neighbor love in order to not fall apart.

    I was delighted that Geng sees the book as a contribution to the important field of early modern law and literature, not having imagined that reception. I wrote the book for the educated public in general, for political theorists in particular, for those with little prior experience or perhaps interest in Shakespeare. I was happy to learn from Geng that I may have something to offer to the early modern specialists. What, she asks, do I hope to see from their work? The answer is the same for all of the humanities: deep ethical engagement. We are living at a dangerous time, when our technological know-how is so strong that it threatens to outrun our ethical knowledge, a time when self-interest threatens the well-being of our communities and when the obligations we have to one another are backgrounded to assert our rights and privileges. But knowledge is not neutral: it can be put to uses informed by goodness or by terror. As students of economics and engineering dip into humanities courses, scholars need to recover the past with a purpose: it is incumbent upon us to approach ethical questions explicitly. No less than the well-being of mankind and the globe is at stake.

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