Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.
That passage is from Shakespeare’s Tempest, V.i 25 – 28, spoken by Prospero. Eleanor Prosser, in her essay “Shakespeare, Montaigne, and The Rarer Action“1, saw a strong parallel with Montaigne’s essay, “Of Crueltie” (in the Florio translation that Shakespeare likely read).
Here is the passage from Montaigne (the spellings are in the original; bold is mine):
Methinks Virtue is another manner of thing, and much more noble than the inclinations unto Goodnesse, which in us are engendered. Mindes well borne, and directed by themselves follow one same path, and in their actions represent the same visage that the vertuous doe. But Vertue importeth and soundeth somewhat I wot not what greater and more active than by happy complexion, gently and peaceably, to suffer itself to be led or drawne to follow reason. He that through a naturall facilitie and genuine mildnesse should neglect or contemne injuries received, should no doubt performe a rare action, and worthy commendation: be 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, should doubtlesse doe much more. The first should doe well, the other vertuously: the one action might be termed Goodnesse, the other Vertue. For it seemeth that the very name of Vertue presupposeth difficultie, and inferreth resistance, and cannot well exercise itself without an enemie.
In each the value of virtue is found in the struggle: one is more virtuous if they are capable of overcoming greater obstacles. However, there is a subtle but important difference between them, according to Prosser.
For Montaigne, virtue is the ability to control ones temptations; virtue is about mastery of the actions you take via the resources of reason against the forces of the emotions; the greater the temptations that one controls, the greater the virtue. For Shakespeare, virtue is the active choice of patience over vengeance. This, of course, presupposes the ability to control the initial temptation. But it includes an additional action-step, a turning back onto the emotions themselves.
Here are the three ways to look at it. The first is Montaigne’s conception of goodness. The second, his conception of virtue. The third is Shakespeare’s conception of virtue. (Again, this is my reading of Prosser’s reading…)
- You simply don’t feel as injured by the situation as someone else might have. In this case, you’re patient, but the patience comes easier for you. That would be a kind of good natured quality, an easy going personality, that is certainly admirable, but Montaigne wouldn’t call it virtuous.
You do feel injured by the situation, and further more, you have a passionate negative emotional response to it. But, your reason and will-power stop you from acting on those passions.
You feel injured by the situation, you have a passionate negative emotional response, however, not only do you stop yourself from acting upon those passions, you actively turn the passions themselves into patience. Feeling pain is not the same as the emotional response to that pain. This last view is closer to what Prosser see’s in Shakespeare’s version of virtue.2
I’m reminded of those lines from Blake’s Proverbs of Hell3 (italics are mine):
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
I agree with him, but one can read the last line in (at least), two ways. The first is the hedonistic belief that one should simply act upon ones desires. The other is admitting that you can solve the problem by changing your desires, which is closer to what I think Blake had in mind here. (“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees./He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star,” and “Shame is Pride’s cloak.”) And even if Blake didn’t have this in mind, Shakespeare likely did.
We have a 3-stage process:
- Emotional response to that injury;
- Actions based upon that emotional response.
You have a choice at both the second and third stages. (That does not make either of them an easy choice!)
Patience is more than holding back the floodgates of passion, it is the positive action of turning the tide in the opposite direction. The first takes strength. The second, strength and wisdom.
Now go lift something heavy,
- Prosser, Eleanor. (1965). “Shakespeare, Montaigne, and The Rarer Action.” in Shakespeare Studies: an Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews. ↩
- I believe Montaigne would agree with (Prosser’s version of) Shakespeare on what virtue means. Or, perhaps, we’re all reading way too much into both of them! ↩
- See William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. ↩