Assume a Virtue

Let’s look at what we said last week from another angle: Shakespeare.

Queen: Oh Hamlet,
Thou hast cleft my heart in twain.

Hamlet: O throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half.
Good night, but go not to mine Uncle’s bed,
Assume a virtue, if you have it not. Refrain to night
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence. Once more goodnight,
And when you are desirous to be blessed,
I’ll blessing beg of you.


Assume a Virtue

Hamlet’s take

Hamlet is a complex (awesome) play. I had the chance to work through it one summer with a wise director and talented actor friends. I wrote my college thesis on it the next year. What made me love it so much?

Hamlet. The prince of Denmark is the philosophical soul whose most foundational beliefs are suddenly challenged. His world is shaken. I think every philosopher can find himself in him, later if not sooner.

Hamlet’s problem is the confrontation with his mother’s evil:

Why she, even she
(O Heaven! A beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn’d longer) married with mine Uncle,
My father’s brother… O most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to Incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.

Hamlet is angry because his mother has turned from her seemingly virtuous ways and committed incest with her brother-in-law. It makes him question whether there can be any virtue at all.

No one in the court dares to stand against so obvious a shame. The vice is tolerated. And this hypocrisy breaks Hamlet’s heart.

So when he has the opportunity to speak to her alone, he resolves to “wring [her] heart… if it be made of penetrable stuff; if damned custom have not brazed it so that it is proof and bulwark against sense.” Her habit of incest might prevent her from seeing the wrongness of what she’s doing.

When it becomes clear that her heart has been wrung—so hard that it is “cleft in twain”—he takes the next step. Now that she has come to know her state, she must act according to that knowledge. This is why he urges her to “assume a virtue, if you have it not.” As George MacDonald wrote in his annotated edition of Hamlet:

To assume is to take to one: by assume a virtue, Hamlet does not mean pretend—but the very opposite: to pretend is to hold forth, to show; what he means is, ‘Adopt a virtue’—that of abstinence—’and act upon it, order your behaviour by it, although you may not feel it. Choose the virtue—take it, make it yours.’

Aristotle’s take

Is this advice good? Can you really act virtuously when you’re not virtuous? Aristotle believed so. He made the distinction between the continent man—one who does the right thing, not out of habit or pleasure in doing the right thing, but simply because it is the right thing—and the virtuous man—one who does the right thing by habit and because it brings him pleasure to do the right thing.

He believed that, in order to gain a virtue, you have to practice it. “The virtues… we acquire by first having actually practised them, just as we do the arts.” (Ethics, Bk 2, Ch 1) He compares becoming brave to become a harpist. You have to practice and practice in order to be good enough to be called a harpist. In the same way, you have to do just acts many times, practicing in small and large ways, before anyone would call you just.

So it seems Hamlet’s advice to his mother is good. It is the next step in attaining a virtue she doesn’t have.

I’ll blessing beg of you

At that time, it was common for a son to ask his parents’ blessing, especially as they were saying goodnight. Here, Hamlet postpones that request. It is a sign that all does not sit right between them as mother and son.

But it is also a sign of hope that things can be right again.

5 thoughts on “Assume a Virtue

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