Desires Run Not Before Honor by Anthony Esolen

A kind reader brought this article to my attention. In a ruthless act of piracy, I decided to reprint the whole thing here, pretending I had written it. Unfortunately, I forgot to take the real author’s name off the work, and since there is not a single reference to a Space Princess, and not a single use of the word ‘neuroform’, no one would believe I wrote it.  I also don’t know my Shakespeare as well as I know my E.E. “Doc” Smith, so my piratical career has been scuttled before it sailed. Nonetheless, I reprint the whole piece here without further comment, not only because of the tangential relation to recent discussions in this space, but also because anyone who mentions the pagan poet Lucretius (that unheard-of combination of poet, prognasticator,  and metaphysician) deserves whatever additional laurels I can toss at his feet.

Desires Run Not Before Honor
May 19, 2010
Anthony Esolen
It used to be commonplace to say of Shakespeare that his vision of human affairs was so comprehensive as to make it impossible for us to ascribe to him any certain and stable view at all. A corollary to this assertion is that Shakespeare could not possibly have believed anything so definite as a creed; Christianity was a part of the ambience of his time, but his heart was at best only indifferently touched by it. A man so wise and generous as he would not let religious dogmas make life pinched and crabbed and dry.

There is an abundance of evidence to show that Shakespeare was a profoundly Christian playwright—and far more thoroughly concerned with the theology of grace, repentance, and redemption than any of his contemporaries. Here I should like to note one characteristic of his view of the world that seems to spring from his Christian faith—for it certainly does not spring from any recrudescence of paganism in the Renaissance, nor from the worldly laxity that sets in with the fading of western man’s assurance of Christian dogma and morals. For Shakespeare, chastity is as near to an absolute value as it is possible for a virtue to be.

It was not for his predecessors and contemporaries. Consider pagan literature. The Epicurean poet Lucretius, recommending against sexual liaisons that upset the passionlessness essential to wisdom, says that if a man does fall in love, he should pick up a street-strolling trollop to cure himself, hammering out one nail with another, so to speak. Many of Horace’s odes celebrate, in an urbane and half-detached way, the love of the poet for this or that woman, or boy; carpe diem, cries the poet, for time is short.

Renaissance poets were little better. In his poem, “The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne,” Lorenzo de’ Medici recommends that young men and women sing and dance and love one another, for “tomorrow has no certainty.” In Orlando Furioso, Ariosto presents us with a raucously funny scene, wherein a young man, dressed up as his twin sister, steals into the bed of a young princess and, in the poet’s words, scales the battlements and plants his standard at one jab. In Hero and Leander, Christopher Marlowe’s Leander ravishes his beloved Hero, only somewhat against her will, in a scene of remarkably mingled humor and violence. ’

Nothing in Shakespeare corresponds to the reveling in sensuality that we find in these poets (much less in such scabrous writers as Pietro Aretino), and that is all the more remarkable given his earthiness and bawdy humor. But the acid test is not so much his exaltation of chaste young women and faithful wives, though that is never subjected to even a shade of irony, as his surprising admiration for male chastity, and the severity with which he treats sins against it.

First, the sins. In King Lear, Gloucester introduces his bastard son Edmund to the courtier Kent, partly excusing himself for the fault, because there was “good sport” at his making, and “the whoreson must be acknowledged.” Yet Edmund himself will sneer at his father for his breach, and it is Edmund who will betray Gloucester to the Duke of Cornwall, who blinds the old man. The faithful and legitimate son Edgar puts it to Edmund thus: “The dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes.”

In Othello, were it not for the affair between the slick-talking Michael Cassio and the whore Bianca (whom he takes advantage of, and laughs at behind her back), Iago would never have been able to persuade the Moor that his wife had been unfaithful to him. The callow young Bertram, in All’s Well that Ends Well, is prevented from debauching a young woman by the energetic pursuit of his lawful wife, from whose love he has been fleeing. In Richard III, the adulterous love of King Edward for Jane Shore gives the villainous Richard a way to pretend alliance with the Duke of Hastings (also, apparently, in bed with Mistress Shore), whom he will later send to his death. In Measure for Measure, the glib and amoral man about town, Lucio, has gotten a prostitute with child; the Duke will forgive his crime of slander only on condition that he marry the woman, a prospect he regards as worse than hanging.

And male chastity? For many writers it is something of a jest, if conceivable at all. So Ariosto smiles with some modest moral judgment and good humor when his supposed hero, Ruggiero, saves the naked Angelica from being eaten by a notably phallic sea-monster, spirits her away on his flying horse, and then forgets about his betrothed and puts in at the nearest island. Or—to glance at the eighteenth century—Henry Fielding will champion the unusual virtue of his Joseph Andrews (“Who ever heard of virtue in a man!” exclaims the widow Lady Booby, who is fairly out of her mind with lust for him), but with a faint intimation, now and then, of absurdity.

Such an intimation is not to be found in Shakespeare. When, in Macbeth, the legitimate heir to the throne of Scotland, Malcolm, tests Macduff’s loyalty, he pretends to all manner of vices, including “voluptuousness”:

Your wives, your daughters,
Your matrons and your maids, could not fill up
The cistern of my lust, and my desire
All continent impediments would o’erbear
That did oppose my will.

Macduff does not laugh at this. He admits it is a “tyranny,” and that it has been the undoing of many a king. But he tries to make the best of a bad situation, noting that in Scotland “we have willing dames enough.” It is, however, not so with Malcolm, as he will finally assert, once he is sure of Macduff’s own virtue. “I am yet / Unknown to woman,” says the young man, in the same breath with which he will claim that he has never been forsworn and never broken faith. “What I am truly,” he says, “Is thine and my poor country’s to command.”

In The Winter’s Tale, we meet a young prince, Florizel, who is courting the daughter of a rich shepherd. They are dressed up in masquerade to celebrate a sheep-shearing feast. The lass, Perdita, worrying that Florizel’s father will find them out, wonders what he would say if he saw Florizel in such garb. Florizel replies that the gods themselves have taken on “the shapes of beasts” to compass their loves, yet there is a crucial and noble difference:

Their transformations
Were never for a piece of beauty rarer,
Nor in a way so chaste, since my desires
Run not before mine honor, nor my lusts
Burn hotter than my faith.

Perhaps the finest affirmation of male chastity, though, is to be found in The Tempest—the finest, because it is expressed in terms that frankly acknowledge the fire of eros, and the longing for the wedding night. Prospero gives his daughter Miranda in marriage to the prince Ferdinand. But he warns the youngsters against untimeliness, a crucial motif in this play inspired by the season of Advent. Unchastity is, in its refusal to wait for the proper time, a sin against nature, one that will spread the marriage bed with weeds, and no fruitful harvest.

If thou dost break her virgin-knot before
sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be ministered,
No sweet
aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow; but barren hate,
Sour-eyed disdain and discord shall bestrew
The union of your bed with
weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both.

Ferdinand’s response is manly, forthright, and chaste:

As I hope
For quiet days, fair issue, and long life,
With such love as ‘tis now, the murkiest den,
The most opportune place, the strong’st suggestion
Our worser genius can, shall never melt
Mine honor into lust, to take away
The edge of that day’s celebration
When I shall think: or Phoebus’ steeds are foundered,
Or Night kept chained below.

“Fairly spoke,” replies Prospero. “Sit then and talk with her; she is thine own.” Shakespeare is not great because he is free from such lowly things as religious belief and the moral law, but because he makes compelling their beauty.

Anthony Esolen is professor of English at Providence College, a senior editor of Touchstone, and the translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy and other works, as well as the author of Ironies of Faith. His webpage can be found here.


  1. Comment by bear545:

    The curious thing regarding Shakespeare’s championing of male chastity is that he himself jumped the gun, as it were. His first daughter was born six months after his rather hasty marriage to Ann Hathaway.

    Furthermore, there are references to sex in the Dark Lady Sonnets, usually tinged with regret, such as in sonnet 129. But in that sonnet the narrator meditates and ultimately rejects the idea of fornication- with a hint of doing so after the fact.

    • Comment by Jacob:

      Who better to speak on the dangers of sin, than he who has sinned himself.

      • Comment by Ladyhobbit:

        There is evidence that Shakespeare’s marriage was unhappy. He famously left his wife only one item in his will: the second-best bed. It’s pretty hard to think of a positive reason for that. And he spent very little time with her in Stratford until his retirement from the theater. I think Jacob has the right idea.

        • Comment by Mary:

          Have you ever read Connie Willis’s “Winter’s Tale”? I think you might find it interesting.

        • Comment by bear545:

          Actually, the fact that he remembered her at all indicates some fondness for her. His best bed would have been part of his property given to his heir. That he reserved something for his wife indicates he had made some kind of provision for her. Also, while he did leave her in Stratford whilst he went to London, he did return to her in the end.

  2. Comment by James H, London:

    Not to forget that someone has found (or at least imputed) evidence that Shakespeare was at least sympathetic to Catholicism, if not a ‘closet’ Catholic:

  3. Comment by lotdw:

    I am a little wary of any article about Shakespeare’s sexual mores with no reference to perhaps the bawdiest of his plays, Romeo and Juliet – it’s chock full of sex jokes. I’ve also always found it hard to find in Shakespeare many core, consistent beliefs – he tends to be too much in service to convention, which is one reason why Marlowe gets a mention as an opposite case. Still, the author does make some good points, and the one about male chastity being a more or less sole characteristic of Christianity in the West is well taken.

    I want to recopy Sonnet 129, as someone did in the comments over at First Things:

    The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
    Is lust in action; and till action, lust
    Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
    Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
    Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;
    Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
    Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
    On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
    Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
    Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
    A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
    Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

    All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
    To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

    • Comment by Mary:

      The question is whether sex jokes are an offense against chastity. I would say only if they are trying to arouse lust. They’re offenses against charity, of course, if they are intended to offend, or said in indifference to whether they offend.

      • Comment by lotdw:

        I think there’s another important concern in R&J, which is that the sex jokes there, for example the nurse’s, can have the effect of weakening sexual mores – not in the sense of arousing lust, but rather in treating sex in a less serious or sacred way (and hence against chastity).

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      But even in Romeo and Juliet, the poet saw to it that the two young lovers were wed before they consummated their love. No such delicacy surrounds, for example, the liaison of Ulysses and Calypso.

      • Comment by bear545:

        The poet does have another unmarried liaison in Troilus and Cressida, but that is portrayed very negatively. Also, some scholars believe Troilus was Shakespeare’s contribution to the War of the Theatres. In that respect, the play seems to be saying: “Would you guys knock it off? You’re making us all look like fools.”

    • Comment by Ladyhobbit:

      I have two comments about Romeo and Juliet. First, in view of the outcome of the play, shouldn’t we have some doubts as to whether Shakespeare is promoting lust? And as our host indicates, the protagonists marry before consummating their relationship. Second, bawdy jokes are traditional in relation to a wedding. I think they are a reflection of the respect for chastity rather than the opposite.

  4. Ping from Quick link: Shakespeare on chastity » Virtue Quest:

    […] tip to John C. Wright. var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; a2a_config.linkname="Quick link: Shakespeare on chastity"; […]

  5. Comment by Lawrence King:

    I find Esolen’s argument somewhat persuasive. In particular, Sonnet 129 is very much on point. On the other hand, the fact that when Shakespeare wrote that sonnet he was describing the perils of lust does not prove that his overall attitude in his writing was always characterized by that view. The Eagles warned that “these things that are pleasing you can hurt you somehow,” but the fact that they warned of the dangers of casual sex and drug use in this song doesn’t mean they consistently opposed such things.

    And I’m much more nervous about arguments from Shakespeare’s plays. To quote Larry Niven, “There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot.'”

  6. Comment by CPE Gaebler:

    “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
    All in the morning betime,
    And I a maid at your window,
    To be your Valentine.”

    Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,
    And dupp’d the chamber-door;
    Let in the maid, that out a maid
    Never departed more.

    By Gis and by Saint Charity,
    Alack, and fie for shame!
    Young men will do’t, if they come to’t;
    By cock, they are to blame.

    Quoth she, “Before you tumbled me,
    You promised me to wed.”
    “So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun,
    An thou hadst not come to my bed.”

  7. Comment by The CronoLink:

    Forgive my late comment but I must say my eyes have been cleared. Maybe I can forgive Hamlet’s madness and give Shakespeare’s plays a chance again.

    Leave a Reply