Sin: Shakespeare got it right

Sin: Shakespeare got it right

Susan Moore

B. A. Santamaria's remarks on sexual licence in his discussion of contemporary obliviousness to Hell ("Viewpoint", AD2000, February 1992) referred me immediately to Shakespeare. In Measure for Measure there is an intimate connection between intemperance and injustice. They are seen as the first bars to order and harmony in the State; their fruits are unequivocally described as sinful; and it is the business of rightful civic authority to eradicate them both together.

Fundamentally, of course, the play is about justice, defined in Biblical terms: "[W]ith what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you." Shakespeare's immediate focus, however, is intemperance, and in particular illicit sex, the most difficult vice to correct. Measure for Measure dramatises the difficulties confronted by a Viennese ruler, Duke Vincentio, when he decides to curb sexual licence in a succession of sinners: at one extreme pimps and bawds, and at the other a young gentleman, overcome by lust, who scarce confesses that blood flows in his veins.

By revealing in a shocking, public way the fruits of excessive or defective sexual appetite, the Duke is able to restore freedom to Vienna. Early on, for example, he encourages an engaged couple to repent of having gone to bed before the marriage ceremony; later in the play, he exposes more intractable sins in more intractable sinners. By means of a fiendishly clever plan which leads his subjects to believe he is out of the country, Vincentio reveals to all the world unsavoury secrets which fail to shame the incorrigible but which bring to their knees everybody else. Only in this way can the sexual ills of the populace be combated - that’s how bad things have become.

In Measure for Measure, there are no lovers who go to hell, as Dante's Paolo and Franscesca do. But hell's existence is no more in doubt than heaven's. The setting for much of the drama is a convent. So that "morality and mercy" can be dispensed in all of Vienna, the Duke stays at home disguised as a friar, and is therefore privy to an array of previously hidden secrets requiring correction. Appropriately, the play's central arguments are conducted in religious language. "Bits and curbs" are needed to control "natures which pursue a thirsty evil" like "rats that ravin down their proper bane." When "vice makes mercy, mercy's so extended that for the fault's love is th'offender friended." As a result of sexual error, "back-wounding calumny the whitest virtue strikes."

One would have to look very hard to find anything in modern literature dramatically equivalent to this. Even in prize-winning fiction containing clear allusions to Christianity and an obvious awareness of the cost of illicit sex, there is little overt consciousness of sin. Beautiful and intelligent young women stop sleeping with ridiculous or brutal young men, or turning to despair to female lovers. Young men who share houses with unsuitable girls have as much trouble leaving them as if they were married. But decency, or even common sense, are not to be confused with chastity.

In outstanding late-twentieth century literature which dramatises the consequences of bold impurities of heart - A.S. Byatt's Possession, Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger, Shirley Hazzard's Transit of Venus, Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Saul Bellow's Herzog, Isaac Singer's multiple collections of short stories - major characters extricate themselves, or are extricated, from unsanctified passionate alliances or marriages of convenience. But their authors do not unequivocally indicate, through their tone, the weakness inherent in these couplings. Instead, they resolve their plots in ways which deprive their heroes and heroines of happiness. In effect, their works are cautionary tales; but they are a long remove, in moral assurance, from Measure for Measure.

Typically, the finest contemporary novels written by not-quite-Christians, characters who are, on the whole, morally attractive suffer greatly for sexual error. They come to know the disastrous effects of premarital affairs, adultery (actual or planned), homo- and bi-sexuality, and tepid marriages. They do private penance for abortion. They bring up illegitimate children under conditions of extreme privation. They sense, but don't fully repudiate, what Paolo and Francesca dramatise in Hell: that lust may include love, and that its distinguishing mark is an unbalanced absorption in the delights of the flesh. But although they experience guilt for their own wrongdoing, and even an awareness that they should be punished for it, they don't completely abjure it; and no clear authorial voice does, either.


What is missing from literature of this type is utter remorse for grievous sexual fault. Pain there is, in abundance; but not the need for forgiveness which is the necessary prelude to full penitence. In major twentieth-century fiction and drama written by non-Catholics, perhaps the clearest instance of appropriate recoil from sexual sin can be found in Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner, which depicts incest. But this novel was written forty years ago; and it dramatised the consequences of behaviour which would be clearly rejected today by artists who do not reject fornication or adultery.

It is therefore not too difficult to understand why books written with literary flair, which do not disclose any obvious awareness that love affairs are morally unacceptable - works like Peter Carey's, which take it for granted that illicit sex is a fact of life, a legitimate expression of the need for personal fulfilment in relatively pleasant people - nonetheless receive unqualified critical acclaim. Nor is it puzzling that novels which have no claim, on stylistic grounds, to fame or fortune, and which depict graphic sex with obvious crudity and relish (the James Bond series is an obvious example), sell extremely well. A world which no longer knows what chastity is, or why it matters, is in no position to exercise reliable literary judgment.

Just as talented novelists and dramatists now take it for granted that more or less honourable people hop in and out of bed for perfectly good - if not quite impeccable - reasons, so do literary critics, reviewers, and senior school syllabus committees. The sexual ideal which, in effect, is honoured everywhere in the modern world is no longer chastity but sensual fulfilment - so long, of course, as this fulfilment doesn't involve depravity, a term reserved for such extreme forms of sexual perversity as child abuse. Is it any wonder, then, that the forms of sexuality depicted in R-rated videos and foul pornographic works like American Psycho, which educated pagans do find offensive, are allowed to flourish?

Unless a society knows the difference between legitimate and illegitimate expressions of sexuality, how can it possibly curtail the influence of books and films which thrive on sexual exploitation? How can it want to?

A terrible irony about the dark times in which we live is that many non-churchgoers object to the wide availability of works which graphically depict sexual depravity. Some even think, and say, that they should be banned. But such people run the risk of being jumped on by the media, mocked, and vilified, as the Reverend Fred Nile has been. Because there is no general recognition that sex, like all other human activities which can be ethically assessed, resides on a moral continuum, and that this entire continuum, not just its extreme end, has got to be thoroughly scrutinised by everyone who claims to know anything about good and evil, we have thus far been unable to do anything significant about the ubiquitousness of extreme sexual vice.

Recently in Australia respected intellectuals who have not previously ventured in a big way into sexual territory have begun making public statements about the state of the nation's health. In Time magazine - not just in Quadrant which he edits, and which has a much smaller circulation - Robert Manne discusses the now established connection between the wide availability of pornography and crime. In The Bulletin, Lauchlan Chipman, another longtime contributor to Quadrant, comments on the moral obtuseness responsible for modern failures to distinguish between criminal violations of the sexually innocent and the sexually profligate.

These and other efforts by distinguished Australians without declared religious affiliations restore a measure of sanity to public life are, of course, welcome indeed. But it will take a long time to undo the damage caused by the revolution that began in full earnest in the '60s, having taken its impetus from flagrant sexual transgression traceable to a much earlier day.

Dr Susan Moore is a Research Fellow in the Education Policy Unit of the Institute of Public Affairs, Sydney, and a regular contributor to journals and newspapers.

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