The time is out of joint. O cursed spite That ever I was born to set it right! (Hamlet I.v. 189-90)
Attempting to draw comparisons between writers' reactions to aspects of their societies is always a difficult task given the peculiarities of genius and the often personal nature of writer's responses to aspects of their cultural contexts. When the comparison is between writers separated from each other by time, culture and language - as is the case with Dante (1265-1351), Chaucer (1340-1400) and Shakespeare (1564-1616) - the difficulties are multiplied manifold.
However, a focus upon how these three giants of European literature represent a particular aspect of their cultural and social contexts would lead to insights, not only into their societies, but into how artists manipulate contextual material for their own aesthetic or critical purposes. Examining their treatment of the theme of social corruption in three representative texts, we will see that all three writers were engaged/removed to different degrees with regard to their social contexts.
It will be argued that, of the three writers, the Florentine Dante is the most directly engaged with the theme of corruption in his society. Although he should not be seen as a "holier-thanthou" moralist, nonetheless Dante is preoccupied with particular instances of social and political corruption in his era to a much more marked degree than either Chaucer or Shakespeare. This sense is heightened, of course, by Dante's representation of himself as a character in Inferno from his Divine Comedy.
While Chaucer similarly figures as a character in his The Canterbury Tales his treatment of corruption lacks the localized political intensity of Dante's. Instead, he represents the corruption of his time on both an individual level (lust), as well as on a continent-wide level with the corrupt practices of agents of the Church in The Pardoner's Tale. Shakespeare, for his part, is the most disengaged of the three writers from direct condemnation of the social corruption of his day. In part, it will be seen, this remove may be a product of his writing in a different medium; overt social criticism tending not to make for popular theatre. His representation of corruption in Hamlet is as a metaphysical idea; that corruption exists in the mind and perception as much as in any objective reality.
With respect to Dante's Inferno, some indication of the degree to which Dante's text is involved with the social corruption of his time may be seen in his Letter to Can Grande in which he describes his text: "The title of the work is "Here begins the Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Florentine by birth, not by character" (Dante viii). Dante clearly envisions himself as being both connected and separated from the city of his birth. This fact was to profoundly influence his representation of corruption for, unlike both Chaucer and Shakespeare, Dante was greatly involved in the political and social controversies of his era. Indeed, these events affected Dante on a personal level for they caused him to become a refugee from his own city; one reason for his evident ambivalence noted in the above letter. As one critic notes of Dante's context:
. . . at Florence, toward the end of the thirteenth century, it was impossible for a young man to live a life devoted to peace. . . . If not by choice, then by force of events, Dante was caught up in the flow of events. He belonged to the Bianchi (the Whites), one of the rival factions within the Guelf party, and after the Neri (the Blacks) took power in 1301, Dante and others were exiled. . . . (De Gennaro 16)
An appreciation of this aspect of Dante's life history is integral to any understanding of his representation of corruption in Inferno for Dante is bitterly critical of the political corruption which he saw in his native Florence while, contrary to what many readers might expect, understanding and compassionate to what many - particularly in Dante's own time - might regard as social or moral corruption.
We see this in Dante's treatment of the adulterous couple Paolo and Francesca in Canto V of Inferno. Caught in the whirlwind of their desire in the eight circle of Hell, these lovers are shown to be as much victims of their passions as the perpetrators of any moral crime. Certainly they are not figures of moral corruption, for Dante is moved to tears by their story: "Francesca, what you suffer here / melts me to tears of pity and of pain". Similarly, in Cantos XV and XVI Dante represents what many in his own time saw as the moral corruption of homosexuality with a compassion that is truly moving. Note, for example, the admiration with which he speaks to his teacher Brunetto Latini in Canto XV:
you taught me how man makes himself eternal. And while I live my tongue shall always speak of my debt to you, and of my gratitude. (Inferno XV. 85-87)
These men's sin of sodomy is, significantly, not regarded as a sign of moral corruption by Dante: "Repulsion, no, but grief / for your condition spread through my heart" (Inferno XVI. 52-3). Contrast this with his representation of Ciacco, the glutton, in Canto VI. Ciacco is being punished "by such torture" that "disfigures [him] beyond all recognition". He is the embodiment of the corruption that afflicts the Florence of Dante.
Dante, the refugee, is understandably harsh in his denunciation of the social and political corruption of his native city:
"Your own city," he said, "so filled with envy its cup already overflows to the brim. . . . for pride, envy, avarice are the three sparks that kindle in men's hearts and set them burning. (Inferno VI 49-50, 74-75)
Chaucer, in his work The Canterbury Tales, represents the corruption of his time and place on both a personal and moral level as well as on a political one. Where Dante is compassionate and understanding of "sins" of lust, Chaucer may be seen to be much more critical. Contrast his representation of Lust, in "The Pardoner's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales, with Dante's above:
. . . in would come the pretty little dancing-girls . . . the last are real agents of the devil at kindling and blowing the fires of Lust, which follows upon Greed. For Holy Writ is my witness that lechery springs from wine and drunkenness. (Chaucer, 165)
This being said, it would be a mistake to assume that Chaucer regarded the corruption of his era in the same way as his Pardoner does. Indeed, it should be noted that the Pardoner is himself, in a sense, the personification of a peculiar form of religious and political corruption that was widespread in Chaucer's day.
The sale of religious relics of saints and apostles, pieces of the Cross, and of indulgences pardoning purchasers from sin was a widespread scandal of Chaucer's day. The Pardoner is both a hypocrite and a cynic in his approach to his occupation: "All my preaching is about avarice and like evils, so that they'll give their pence freely - to me, that is. My only purpose is gain - I'm not interested in correcting sin. When they're dead their souls can go a-blackberrying for all I care" (Chaucer, 163).
Moreover, Chaucer clearly indicates that this corruption is not limited to the Pardoner. While the relics he carries are obvious fakes, it is likely that the "patent with the bishop's seal for my own protection" is not. The fact that the Church should approve - by permitting the trade to continue, if not openly licensing it - the work of such a figure of greed and cynicism suggests that the corruption that he embodies reflects a more widespread corruption in the Catholic Church of Chaucer's time.
In contrast to both Dante's and Chaucer's texts, Shakespeare's Hamlet is notably lacking in instances that may be noted as representations of corruption in Shakespeare's own time. Rather, Shakespeare's representation of corruption is of a more metaphysical condition. This may be seen in Hamlet's exchange with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern where he describes how the world becomes fundamentally corrupt as a result of his own belief: "there is nothing either good or bad but that thinking makes it so" (Hamlet II.ii. 255-6). Corruption, in this analysis, becomes not an objective fact but instead a product of one's perspective:
. . . this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire - why it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. (Hamlet II.ii. 308-313)
The revelation that his father was murdered by his uncle unsettles Hamlet's mind. Whereas previously he was simply disturbed by the thought of his mother's hasty marriage to her brother-in-law, now he perceives corruption everywhere. For example, he now considers all women to be tainted with sexual corruption. At one point he attacks Ophelia - whom he professed to love at one point in the past - for her beauty which, in his mind, means that she must be promiscuous: "the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness" (Hamlet III.i. 111-13). Political corruption in the state thus leads to sexual corruption in Hamlet's mind: "rank corruption, mining all within,/ Infects unseen" (Hamlet III.iv. 148-9). The corruption that has put Hamlet's "time . . . out of joint" is more metaphysical than actually physical. Political corruption at the royal court thus implies corruption in the state as a whole, as well as corruption on the level of personal relations.
Shakespeare's representation of corruption as a manifestation of perception is perhaps a useful means of understanding all three writers in this regard. Clearly, Dante's perception of what is a corrupt practice and what is not is a manifestation of his own compassion (towards those guilty of sins of the flesh) and his political convictions (with regard to political corruption in Florence). Similarly, Chaucer's concentration upon the corruption within the Church may have been influenced by his own position at the Royal Court; which suggests he would have been unlikely to criticize political corruption with the same passion as Dante. Finally, Shakespeare would probably have avoided political criticism given the demands of his dramatic medium for action and passion. Thus, he represents corruption as a metaphysical concept which contributes to his creation of the brooding, melancholy character of Hamlet. In this analysis, all three writers envision corruption in their social contexts according to their own inclinations and for their own purposes.
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