Shakespeare and Lying (A Useful Example)

I can’t remember which pope said something to the effect that a thorough reading of Shakespeare constituted a complete education in Ethics. I was struck by that today, reading Macbeth Act iv scene 3.

Ross enters fresh from Scotland and is about to tell MacDuff and Malcolm the horrifying news that Lady MacDuff, MacDuff’s son and houshold have all been put to the sword by Macbeth’s minions. And so this exchange is just a little perplexing:

MALCOLM
What’s the newest grief?

ROSS
That of an hour’s age doth hiss the speaker: Each minute teems a new one.

MACDUFF
How does my wife?

ROSS
Why, well.

MACDUFF
And all my children?

ROSS
Well too.

MACDUFF
The tyrant has not batter’d at their peace?

ROSS
No; they were well at peace when I did leave ’em.

This exchange provides us with an excellent opportunity to ask “is Ross Lying? Is he trying to shield MacDuff from the awful news of the death of all his loved ones?”

I think many students might be inclined to answer – rather quickly,

“Yes, Ross is lying, and in this case there is really nothing much wrong with lying.”

Upon closer inspection we see that Ross is not lying, but that the “peace” he speaks of is the peace of death. His words are not in themselves contrary to the truth although when he spoke them he no doubt understood how his hearers would interepret them in a way that was contrary to the truth.

A lie , however, requires that words be employed which are in fact contrary to the truth– as well as the intention to deceive. Simply deceiving another is not a lie all by itself.

 

 

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About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
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3 Responses to Shakespeare and Lying (A Useful Example)

  1. Ed says:

    As St. Thomas defines lie in II-II q. 110, the intention to deceive is not essential to the telling of a lie. St. Thomas’ definition is “to lie is for someone to will to speak the false.” as can be seen here:

    Sed tamen ratio mendacii sumitur a formali falsitate, ex hoc scilicet quod aliquis habet voluntatem falsum enuntiandi. Unde et mendacium nominatur ex eo quod contra mentem dicitur.

    So, one can lie without intending to deceive.

  2. Margie says:

    This is a good distinction to make especially if you are hiding Jews. 🙂
    Though I often wonder how one is to determine when it is prudent to deceive someone…
    Do you have any thoughts on this, Mr. Langley?

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