Originally published by Chatto & Windus in 1959, this book has long been out of print and largely neglected by Shakespearean scholars. It offers a viewpoint seldom considered: an unusual and exceptionally clear insight into Shakespeare’s philosophy. It does so with freshness, modesty and conviction.

Appreciating the danger Shakespeare faced in writing at a time of major religious intolerance, Vyvyan shows how subtly the plays explore aspects of the perennial philosophy allegorically. In doing so, Shakespeare raises the fundamental question of ethic: What ought we to do?

‘Shakespeare,’ says the author, ‘is never ethically neutral. He is never in doubt as to whether the souls of his characters are rising or falling.’ There is a constant pattern in the tragedies: ‘first the hero is untrue to his own self, then he casts out love, then conscience is gone – or rather inverted – and the devil enters into him.’ Vyvyan shows us this pattern of damnation, or its counterpart – a pattern of regeneration – working out in certain plays, contrasting Hamlet with Measure for Measure and Othello with The Winter’s Tale, where a similar dilemma and choice confront the hero. His intuitive insights also illuminate Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus which focus on the fall, whereas The Tempest explores most fully the pattern of regeneration and creative mercy.

Here is a book, both thought-provoking and persuasive, which will send many readers back to Shakespeare’s plays with fresh vision and clearer understanding. To assist such readers, this edition cross-references the quotations in the text to the relevant place in the play. The text has been completely reset and the index expanded.


Author Details
John Vyvyan, born in 1908 in Sussex, was educated mainly in Switzerland. His first profession was archaeology, and he worked with Sir Flinders Petrie in the Middle East. Illness, which dogged him all his life, ended this kind of arduous field work, and he retired from archaeology to become a Shakespearean scholar and to write. In recognition of his contribution to Shakespearean scholarship in his trilogy, The Shakespearean Ethic (1959), Shakespeare and the Rose of Love (1960) and Shakespeare and Platonic Beauty (1961), he was offered, but unable to take up, a visiting lectureship at the State University of New York. He died in Exmouth in 1975.


‘more perceptive and convincing than a great deal that has ever been written on the subject, close and attentive scholarship, shrewd and ingenious observations.’
A.L. Rowse, Daily Telegraph

‘Original and stimulating, Mr Vyvyan’s thesis is important and serious: serious in the sense that his reading of the plays and his supporting reading into Shakespeare’s climate of ideas is deep, connected and wide.’
Times Literary Supplement

‘Two important insights bind together the central argument of this book … Firstly, and most importantly, the author tells us that in Shakespeare “everything happens in the soul, and what he shows us on the stage … is the embodiment of these psychic events”.

‘The second insight, though cultural and historical in background, is no less decisive; for Vyvyan, throughout the book, traces Shakespeare’s debt to medieval theatre, and in particular the latter’s use of allegorical devices to convey spiritual truths.

‘Once these two basic tenets are properly understood, the ethical pattern within Shakespeare’s plays begins to appear, and Vyvyan draws it out in a clear and insightful manner through an analysis of passages from several key plays …

‘a volume which for its breadth, clarity, depth and insight stands out as a truly masterful study of Shakespeare.’
Valentin Gerlier, Temenos Academy Review