Is conscience "but a word that cowards use"? An analysis of conscience in William Shakespeare's "Richard III" and "Hamlet"

Bachelor Thesis, 2016

40 Pages, Grade: 1,1


Table of Contents


1.What is Conscience?
1.1 The Elizabethan Concept of Moral Responsibility
1.1.1. The Doctrine of the Three Souls
1.1.2. The Passions
1.2 Discourse of Conscience
1.3 Conscience in Theater

2. Conscience as a Phenomenon
2.1 Conscience in Richard III.
2.1.1. Richard‘s Character
2.1.2. A Material Intruder to the Body
2.1.3. Rejecting Conscience and Richard‘s Trial
2.1.4. Clarence‘s Trial
2.2 Conscience in Hamlet
2.2.1. Claudius
2.2.2. Hamlet‘s Internal Conscience
2.2.3. Moral Ambiguities
2.2.4. Stricken by Melancholy and Conscience
2.2.5. Stained Conscience to Perfect Conscience
2.3 Conscience and Cowardice

3. Conclusion


All quotations from the Richard III. and Hamlet are, with the exception of specific references to other editions, taken from the Arden editions. Quotations from other works of William Shakespeare derive from the editions listed in the bibliography.


“Conscience is but a word that cowards use,

devised at first to keep the strong in awe.

Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.“1

In this famous quote from Richard III., William Shakespeare has his protagonist disregard the concept of conscience as a mere ,word‘, an invention of no further consequence to a brave person. Meanwhile Hamlet complains that “conscience does make cowards of us all“2 and thereby infers a strong significance of conscience to mankind. These popular, though seemingly contradictory statements raise the question just what exact understanding of said moral concept Shakespeare wanted to relay to his audience. What was conscience to him, his audience and his contemporary writers? Was conscience seen as ,but a word‘, a cowardly excuse for inaction or as an innate concept dwelling in every man? What were the underlying principles of his set of moral values?

To better comprehend this system, we have to look at Shakespeare‘s work as a whole. Upon that task, Richard Moulton elucidates the character of such a system insofar as it includes “not only the aspect which the individual shows to the universe, but also the aspect which the course of events in the universe shows to the individual. Varieties of character, and variations of fortune or fate, are elements which must combine to give the idea of a moral order in the world.“3

Both the author and his contemporaries had an interest towards both the specific moral phenomenon of conscience as well as toward the intricacies of the human persona and its inner moral values. That much is evident by the many references to conscience in these and other of Shakespeare‘s plays which follow up on the number of treatises published on the subject around 1600. Some of the most important works in that regard are William Perkins‘ three treatises A Case, A Discourse and The Whole Treatise of Conscience (published 1592, 1597 and 1606), William Ames Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof and the expositions on melancholy by Robert Burton and Timothy Bright. What precisely is it then that they are looking at?

In the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) ,conscience‘ is mainly understood as “consciousness of morality or what is considered right“, and both “the internal acknowledgement or recognition of the moral quality of one's motives and actions“ as well as “the faculty or principle which judges“4 that quality. Our modern understanding of ,conscience‘ has thus clear ethical boundaries inside our own mind frame, which is also the most relevant connotation for my investigative treatment of Richard III. and Hamlet. But while other meanings listed, such as “conscientious observance, reverence, regard“, “internal conviction“, “inmost thought“ or “tenderness of feeling“5, are by now antiquated or extinct, these too are still present in the minds of Shakespeare‘s original audience.

Due to that, approaching Shakespeare‘s plays nowadays with only our modern set of values, will not do the plays justice since the understanding of significant terms, such as conscience, has notably changed through the centuries. And since the development of our modern moral standards has some of its origins in Shakespeare‘s time and even in his work, I will focus for this paper on the works and ideas on conscience relevant in the Elizabethan Age. In order to better understand this progress of defining ,conscience‘, this paper sets out to analyze both the different presentation of the concept of conscience and its properties in Richard III. and Hamlet. It is an attempt to unravel some of the seeming contradictions in how different consciences‘ are affecting the mindset and action of the characters in each play.

Therefore in the first chapter I will look at said Elizabethan concept of moral responsibility and its display in coeval philosophical work, the theatrical stage in general and Shakespeare‘s work in particular. Its fundamental concept has derived from the idea of the three souls which are combined with inner and outer wits to influence man‘s inner reason and thus his actions as is has been described in Aristoteles‘ Nicomachean Ethics and De Anima. This construct is augmented by classical to medieval beliefs about God‘s providence which have been introduced through the tradition of sermons and morality plays. On that basis I will give a short overview of the works that dominated the discourse of conscience in the century surrounding Shakespeare, before I have a closer look at the display of conscience on the Elizabethan Stage.

The second chapter will focus on the the application of the theories discussed to the plays Hamlet and Richard III. In the story of Richard of Gloucester‘s rise and fall, conscience is seen as an externality, almost a character in its own right and similar in appearance and language to the morality plays. Conscience here stands between its unwanted but grudgingly acknowledged outside presence through the play‘s lesser characters and complete and open disregard on Richard‘s part, who refuses to admit to conscience‘s hold over him until the very end. Playing the role of bodily intruder and witness in a heavenly trial, conscience has still archaic features. Less so in Hamlet, where it enjoys an inward quality. I will discuss the difference between the two villains, Richard and Claudius, in mindset and behavior and relate them in turn to the turmoils of the young Danish prince. Seeking to demonstrate the relevance conscience has to his inner thought processes and the following procrastination, I will analyze the patterns in his speech as well as those imposed on his mind through the morally ambiguous wishes of his ghostly father. The role of conscience in Hamlet lies within his inner deliberations, acting simultaneously as a wise advisor and malicious tormentor, but also in giving him leave to act in the end after having revised its preliminary guidelines.

I strive to show the diversity of what is implied by ,conscience‘ in Shakespeare‘s work, specifically in Richard III. and Hamlet, and thus prove their relevance in the discourse of conscience leading up to the present day.

1.What is Conscience?

“Conscience is of a divine nature, and is a thing placed by God in the middest betweene him and man as an arbitratour to give sentence and to pronounce either with man or against man unto God.“6

The definition of conscience given by the Cambridge theologian William Perkins is already a clear classification on what he believes it to be and how to classify it. His works on conscience were among the most influential of his time and therefore provide a good starting point for research on the concept of Elizabethan moral philosophy as well as on which mechanisms - both physical and spiritual - people held responsible for the thoughts and actions of man. Shakespeare‘s contemporaries believed in a strong correlation between the mind, the body and the soul, where a malfunction of one aspect always also affected the others.7 “A man is nothinge but his mynde: if the mynde be discontented, the man is al disquiet though al the reste be wel, and if the minde be contented thoughe all the rest misdoe it forseeth little“8, explains Cardanus the doctrine. Because the moral concepts were thus often linked to the physical body, I will start by giving an overview of the general notion for a better perception of overall mindset.

1.1 The Elizabethan Concept of Moral Responsibility

1.1.1. The Doctrine of the Three Souls

Moral philosophy in Elizabethan times was a conglomerate of ideas. The foundation of the common belief was build on Aristotle‘s ideas, which were extended by the more recent medieval tradition of the sermonizing popular theater.

Despite the antiqueness of it, the doctrine of the tree souls was still valid in the late 16th century. According to that, the faculty of the soul is divided into three parts: the vegetal soul (Vegetabilis), the sensitive (or sensible) soul (Sensibilis) and the rational soul (Rationalis). The first, the vegetal soul, is existing in all living beings, plants, beasts and men alike, and is responsible for growth and reproduction. Sensibilis additionally “controls the life of beasts; beside the vegetal virtues, it imparts ‘feeling’, movement of the body, and an inclination to possess the good and to withdraw from evil“9, while the rational soul is only residing in mankind and adds a mental capacity to the other two that includes the powers of reason and will. In his translation of Bartolome‘s De Proprietatibus Rerum, Batman explains the order of the three more accurately:

The Philosopher lykeneth the soul that is called Vegetabilis, to a triangle. For as a triangle hath three corners, this manner soule hath three vertues, of begetting, of nourishing, and of growing. And this soul Vegetabilis is lyke to a triangle in Geometrie. And hee lykeneth the soul Sensibilis, to a quadrangle square, and foure cornered. For in a quadrangle is a line drawne from one corner to another, before it maketh two triangles, and the soule sensible maketh two triangles of vertues. For where ever the soule sensible is, there is also the soule Vegetabilis, but not backwards. And hee lykeneth the soule Rationalis to a circle, because of his perfection and conteining.“10

Despite the soul having a threefold devision, it is still considered one complete entity capable of a multiplicity of operations11, which has metaphysical qualities as well as concrete corporeal ones when it works - and changes its workings - through the organs of the body. In his Anatomy of Melancholy Robert Burton explains:

This reasonable soul, which Austin calls a spiritual moving itself, is defined by philosophers to be « the first substantial act of a natural, humane, organical body, by which a man lives, perceives, and understands, freely doing all things, and with election. » Out of which definition we may gather, that this rational soul includes the powers, and performs the duties of the two other, which are contained in it, and all three faculties make one soul, which is inorganical of itself, although it be in all parts, and incorporeal, using their organs, and working by them.12

It is not clear however, whether he considers the soul as directly operating upon the body of its host or whether there is another existence, which he calls ‘spirit‘, through which the souls performs its actions and is described by Burton as “a most subtile vapour, which is expressed from the blood, and [which is] the instrument of the soul, to perform all his actions; a common tie or medium between the body and the soul, as some will have it; or as in Paracelsus, a fourth soul of itself.“13 Whether the soul is thus an independent agent or whether it has to rely on an intermediary - in any case it has need of the bodily organs to conceive the information necessary for acting at all.

This knowledge it gained foremost by the sensible soul through the so called ,inner and outer wits‘. The outer wits are the five outward senses touching, hearing, seeing, smelling, and tasting. The inner wits consist out of the common sense (“the Center, to which doe flow the formes which are sent unto it from other sences“14 ), the imagination (“wherein are graven the form of things which are offered unto it by the Common sence to the end knowledge may remaine after they are vanished away“15 ), and the memory, the “storehouse and treasure which yet can represent unto the common sense the forms which are consigned to her“16. The terminology for the interior senses slightly differs from author to author. Imagination is also called fantasy, memory can be found as recordation and Batman even names with feeling, imagination, wit, reason and understanding all in all five senses as belonging to the informing part of the sensible soul.

However, Coeffeteau also does describe five instances as working upon the mind. In accordance with the teaching of St. Thomas of Aquinas he names understanding (knowing and judging) and will (desiring, intellectual capacity) as the two last completing and dominant powers inside our mind, although he places them under the authority of the rational soul and therefore as solely available to humankind. It is here also, where William Perkins locates the conscience, explaining conscience to be “nothing els but a part of the understanding, whereby a man knowes what he thinkes, what he wills and desires, as also in what manner he knoweth, thinketh, or willeth, either good or evill.“17 The natural conscience as the embodiment of man‘s rational powers is thus found through right conduct as determined by reason and urged by the will.18 Since the mechanisms of the moral decisive process as commonly conceived in the Elizabethan age are quite well summarized by Coeffeteau, I will offer here his somewhat lenghty explanation:

As soone as the Exterior sences, busied about the Objects which are proper for them, have gathered the formes of things which come from without, they carry them to the common sence, the which receives them, judgeth of them, and distinguisheth them; and then to preserve them in the absence of their objects, presents them to the Imagination, which having gathered them together, to the end she may represent them whensoever need shall require, she delivers them to the custody of the Memory; from whence retiring them when occasion requires, she propounds them unto the Appetite, under the apparance of things that are pleasing of troublesome, that is to say, under the forme of Good and Evill; and at the same instant the same formes enlightned with the Light of the understanding, and purged from the sensible and singular conditions, which they retaine in the Imagination, and instead of that which they represented of particular things, representing them generall, they become capable to be embraced by the Understanding; the which under the apparance of things which are profitable or hurtfull, that is to say, under the forme of Good and Evill, represents them unto the Will: the which being blind referres it selfe to that which the understanding proposeth unto it: And than as Queene of the powers of the soule she ordaines what they shall embrace, & what they shall fly as it pleaseth her; whereunto the Sensitive Appetite yeelding a prompt obedience to execute her command, from the which it never straies, so long as it containes it selfe within bounds and order prescrib‘d by Nature, quickneth all the powers and passions over which shee commands, and sets to work those which are necessary to that action, and by their meanes commands the moving power, dispersed over all the members, to follow or fly, to approach or to recoyle, or to do any other motion which it requireth.19

If for whatever reason the desiring appetites of Sensibilis or passions are not properly subjected to understanding, the above explained natural order of the thought process is diverted from the laws of reason. Since the passions are an “enemy of reason in battle over supremacy in man“20 and the outcome of that ,battle‘ severely influences the decision man makes concerning conscience, it is necessary to quickly discern what the passions are and in what way they affect man‘s moral judgement.

1.1.2. The Passions

“If Shakespeare be allowed, as I think he must, to have made his characters distinct, it will be easily inferred that he understood the nature of passions.“21

Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between concupisciple and irascible passions, naming Love, Hatred, Desire, Aversion, Joy or Pleasure, Sadness or Grief as representatives of the first and Hope, Despair, Courage, Fear and Anger as those of the latter category.22 They resulted, according to Hardin Craig, “not from any imperfection in the faculties of the soul, which stood supreme, and, as a divine element, incorruptible, but from physiological conditions which cloud or interfere with the normal operations of the soul,“23 if they go contrary to our reason. Still, Thomas Rogers warned the reader in his Anatomy of the Mind that as “water which is alwayes standing, and never runneth, must needs bee noysome and infectious: so that man, which is never moved in mind, can never eyther be good to himselfe or profitable to others“ - hence the passions, guarded by reason, are important to mankind and are only to be dispraised in combination with bad intentions.24 If corrupt however, they blind the moral judgement. In reference to Plato‘s chariot metaphor, Perkins states that “unstaied and unmortified affections [that is: the passions], which if they have their swinge, as wild horses ouerturne the chariot with men and all, so they overturne & over carrie the iudgement & conscience of man.“25 Therefore conscience was considered powerful when joined with reason and without much influence from the passions, but weak, if overruled by them.

1.2 Discourse of Conscience

Naturally, the intensity of passionate energy is not the only determent of conscience. A number of treatises were published which analyzed the phenomenon in great depth. Those works might have not been read by the overall society, but since most writers were of clerical background, they doubtlessly also included their convictions in sermons to be reproduced orally. Shakespeare himself did not use philosophical essays to transport his ideas to the general public. Nevertheless he is part of a larger discourse which his ideas have to be weighted against. After having explained the practical correlation between the physical body and conscience on the basis of classic beliefs, I will now give a brief overview about the theoretical nature conscience itself was imagined to have.

What is conscience then? William Perkins calls it “a knowledge ioyned with a knowledge“26 whereby he counts man‘s own internal awareness of what he thinks and knows, added to his knowledge about what intelligence God receives from the same thoughts. Because “as conscience knowes our thoughts, wils, & actions, so it testifies thereof unto God, either with us, or against us.“27 Perkins considers conscience a heavenly element and witness in man, “appointed of God to declare and put in execution his iust iudgement against sinners“28 by judging itself good or evil thoughts and actions. When Aaron says in Titus Andronicus “I know thou art religious,/ And hast a thing within thee called conscience“29, he recognizes this permanent connection between man‘s inner conscience and God as a direct spiritual manifestation in the real world, not only as an abstract concept. Queen Elinor alludes to the same, when in Shakespeare‘s King John she tells the very same “so much my conscience whispers in your ear,/ Which none but heaven, and you, and I, shall hear“ (1.1.42-3).

Because of its nature as link between God and mankind, conscience is not only the voice of internal knowledge, but it also holds the function of a tormentor, condemning the guilty souls to an early pre-death purgatory - not through any outside agents, but through the knowledge of wrongdoing inside the offender.30 Robert Burton reflects:

Our conscience … grinds our souls with remembrance of some precedent sins, makes us reflect upon, accuse and condemn our own selves… This scrupulous conscience … tortures so many [who] … accuse themselves and aggravate every small offense.31

On stage, it is the pain caused by a turmoiled conscience that forces villains and (tragic) heroes alike to confess their thoughts and actions to the audience. In Hamlet, Claudius lays open his past actions in the prayer scene32, in the hope of being absolved and thus stopping his conscience from tormenting him.33 Reed Jn. observes a troubled conscience in Hamlet himself, claiming that his “over-developed conscience is violated by something that he has done or, equally possible, by something that he has failed to do“ so that “informed by his conscience of his ,guiltiness‘, he falls into excessive and, in his case, unwarranted self-accusations.“34 But his case I will argue in chapter two.

The torments delivered by conscience have been described directly or through metaphors and images. One of the most prominent is the ‘worm of conscience‘ as a representative of sin.

It is not only Evill in respect of trouble and vexation but of sinne … A Desperate Conscience (fully representing all sinnes, together with their exceeding great and unpardonable guilt, and Gods feareful wrath abiding upon Sinners…) is Gods most powerful meanes to torment the Reprobate; like unto a worme, that most sharply biteth and gnaweth their hearts for ever…35

The same metaphor William Ames uses, also occurs in both Hamlet and Richard III.. The riddle Hamlet utters before the ‘Mousetrap‘ (”A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.“ (4.3.26-7)), and that Claudius claims not to understand, can be interpreted as Hamlet telling the king outright, that he is hoping to catch Claudius with and by his gnawing conscience.


1 Richard III., 5.3.309-10.

2 Penguin Classics, Hamlet, 3.1.82.

3 Moulton, The Moral System of Shakespeare, 7.

4 OED, "conscience, n." I.1a.

5 OED, "conscience, n." I.5,II. 7, 8, 9.

6 William Perkins, A Discourse of Conscience, 6.

7 cf. Perkins, Whole Treatise, 109.

8 Girolamo Cardanus, Comforte, Aiii verso. cited in Campbell 17.

9 Ruth Anderson, Elizabethan Psychology and Shakespeare ‘ s Plays, 9.

10 Batman uppon Bartolome, Bk. 3, Ch.7.

11 Anderson, 10.

12 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 146.

13 Burton, 130.

14 Coeffeteau, A Table of Humane Passions, 5.

15 Coeffeteau. 6.

16 Lily Campbell, Shakespeare ‘ s Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion, 66.

17 Perkins, Whole Treatise, 44.

18 Perkins, Whole Treatise. 19.

19 Coeffeteau cited in Campbell, 67.

20 Campbell, 67.

21 John Dryden in Campbell, 40.

22 cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, in Campbell, 69.

23 Hardin Craig, Shakespeare‘s Depiction of the Passions“, in M. Baldwin, 22.

24 Thomas Rogers, Anatomy of the Mind, in Campbell 97.

25 Perkins, Discourse, 86.

26 Perkins, Whole Treatise, 44.

27 Perkins, Whole Treatise. 44.

28 Perkins, Discourse, 2.

29 Titus Andronicus 5.1.74-5.

30 cf. Timothy Bright, Treatise of Melancholy, cited by R. Reed Jn. in Shakespeare for Students, 95.

31 Burton, 312.

32 Hamlet, 3.3.36-72.

33 cf. William Ames, Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof, F2.

34 Robert Reed Jn. in Shakespeare for Students, 95.

35 Ames, G3verso.

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Is conscience "but a word that cowards use"? An analysis of conscience in William Shakespeare's "Richard III" and "Hamlet"
University of Göttingen
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Shakespeare; conscience; Hamlet; Richard III
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Imke Fischer (Author), 2016, Is conscience "but a word that cowards use"? An analysis of conscience in William Shakespeare's "Richard III" and "Hamlet", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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