Charles Murray, Meet the Bard of Avon

March 12, 2012

Editors:  Please sub for this updated version. (546 words)

Declining social order; rampant promiscuity; conventional morals in shambles; illegitimacy and venereal disease all too common: A description of much of contemporary America according to social scientist Charles Murray’s in his recent book “Coming Apart.”  Murray’s makes a credible case that the problems of poverty and social dysfunction trace to illegitimacy and divorce. A later column will critically review Murray’s thinking and evidence.  Today’s point:  these evils are nothing new.  They were prominent in Elizabethan England as evidenced in William Shakespeare’s comedy “Measure for Measure.”

I had the great pleasure of spending a weekend discussing this play and other works with a group of literature, political science and economic scholars at a conference supported by the Indianapolis-based Liberty Fund. Interesting things happen when academics from varying disciplines compare notes.

Shakespeare’s black comedy is set in Vienna and is filled with ribald reference not fit for a family newspaper. Its ruler, the Duke, notes that although “we have strict statutes” on sexual morality they are “more mocked than feared.” So the Duke does what any self-respecting politician does—leaves town and turns the dirty work over to an ambitious underling.

Angelo, the Duke’s deputy, begins to actually enforce the laws. He arrests, convicts and schedules the beheading of a certain Claudio, who by his own admission impregnated his girlfriend Juliet. When Claudio’s sister, the virtuous soon-to-be nun Isabella entreats Angelo for mercy, Angelo is love-struck. He proceeds to offer a pardon for Claudio in exchange for Isabella’s virginity.

The play ends with the returning Duke ordering a large dose of marriage all around. Claudio and Juliet are allowed to marry, Angelo is compelled to marry the jilted Marianna, the sordid Lucio is forced to marry the prostitute aptly named Mistress Overdone, and the Duke takes the still-virgin Isabella to be his own wife.  All presumably ends well.

Now no one in the USA is proposing forced marriage much less the death penalty for premarital sex.  Yet there is much to learn from Shakespeare’s play, for a central theme is the trade-off between enforcing social penalties and offering mercy.  If illegitimacy and divorce yield undesirable results then some kind of social penalty seems in place. To fail to ever impose any penalty makes “pardon the nurse of second woe.”

In my parents and grandparents day the penalty for being an unwed mother or divorced was not so much legal as social.  It was shameful and offenders were often shunned. Some twenty years after her death my father revealed in hushed tones the dark family secret that an aunt had . . . been divorced. Such social censure seems cruel and strange to us today. An unwed mother or a divorced friend needs our help not our condemnation — and this is an ethic we fully embrace.

Shakespeare also points out the problem of leaving morals to politicians: hypocrisy.  “Shame on him whose cruel striking, kills for faults of his own liking.” Can anyone take Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton seriously when they proclaim the virtues of stable family life?

So if neither law nor public hectoring nor social sanctions can do much to restore stable family life where is our civilization heading? We quite rightfully don’t have a Duke who can engineer marriages and we certainly don’t want to place scarlet letters on unwed mothers. Perhaps we can note that despite its problems Elizabethan England did evolve politically, commercially and socially. The prevailing sexual mores of Shakespeare’s times did change. What will happen in our time?  It is an issue worth further examination.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.


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