A Study in Conscience

By Travis Copeland

Education demands not only information but formation, the formation of character.

There is no more exquisite display of the intricacies of human character than Shakespeare’s plays. His histories delve back into England’s past while engaging the complex, perennial aspects of life. On encouragement by a colleague, I have as of recently been working slowly through Shakespeare’s works and encountered these things for myself. His comedies have been a delight, but his histories and tragedies are more burdensome. Still, they shine through for their immense truths, buried between the intrigue and death. Shakespeare depicts the timeless necessity of studying history, and he couples it with an intimate assessment of human character. 

In Act I, Scene iv of Richard III, Shakespeare draws our attention to the importance of one particular aspect of human character, a strong conscience. The wily and disingenuous Richard, who is vying for the English throne, sends two murderers to kill his brother Clarence, to clear the way to power. They enter while Clarence is sleeping, and the overseer hands over the keys, insisting that no further knowledge of the situation be given him, so that he is “guiltless from the meaning.”  As he exits, the murderers discuss stabbing Clarence while he sleeps, saying, “he shall never wake until the Judgment Day.” 

In this scene Shakespeare gives both warning and wisdom about human conscience. The mention of Judgment Day and fear “of being damned” strikes to the heart of the second murderer. Judgment looms over him; he says that he feels the “dregs of conscience.” Attempting to set it aside, Shakespeare muses through the murderer about mankind’s conscience. 

“It makes a man a coward: a man cannot steal but it accuseth him; a man cannot swear but it checks him … ’Tis a blushing, shamefaced spirit that mutinies in a man’s bosom. It fills a man full of obstacles.” The murderer feels the obstacle and, for the moment, it is keeping Clarence alive. Even a promise of wealth, as a result of completing this vile act, is no match for a good conscience and the brooding final judgment. He goes on: “it is turned out of towns and cities for a dangerous thing, and every man that means to live well endeavors to trust to himself and live without it.” Moving beyond the moment, he muses on conscience’s impact and ability to transform life and society. It is feared by civilizations, when it arises to correct or to defend the unpopular and true, and it is sent away like a vagabond. Anyone who wishes to prosper in the world must fight against it. To follow your conscience is to be humbled before the world.

Villain, thou know'st no law of God nor man;
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.

Richard III I.ii

This mutiny of conscience nearly stops the murderers’ daggers, and Clarence pleads as he awakes for them to dwell on justice further. Not persuaded, the first murder stikes and kills, while the second, “like Pilate,” washes his hands “of this most grievous murder.”

As the scene concludes and the play moves forward, the reader is left with the question: why does Shakespeare spill so much ink considering and displaying the significance of conscience? Furthermore, what does this have to do with education or life? Conscience is the sense of responsibility and acknowledgement of truth and goodness in the facing of changing circumstances; it is the handmaiden of wisdom. Rooted in humility, conscience acknowledges an ultimate authority outside of the self. Although we cannot say exactly why Shakespeare included conscience this way in this scene, we can agree with him that conscience is integral to the preservation of all human life, and by those who pursue power, such as Richard III, it is often and too easily set it aside. The second murderer acts as King Richard should have acted, and every person wishing to do and be good should likewise heed their conscience’s warnings. Conscience is a gift, even when it stays personal success or advancement, for it bases life in the pursuit of holy and wholesome things, which are ultimately rooted in enduring truths. 

Conscience is an essential and worthy pursuit of education and a meaningful life, but it can be painful. The second murder is troubled by the humility and rigidity of conscience; perhaps Shakespeare himself was as well. Yet a strong conscience and a sense of responsibility to being good and doing good should be an essential aim of education, character development, and a well-lived life. An education experience which forgoes this pursuit or development in the student fails to be a true, proper education. Teaching the painful acknowledgement of conscience, heeding its dire warnings, and elevating its voice are extremely important. There is nothing our nation, our society, and our schools need more than maturing students with a strong conscience that constantly corrects and redirects toward ultimate good, for conscience is essential to education, to life, and to a just, enduring republic.

Travis Copeland holds a bachelor’s degree in history and humanities, and is studying for a postgraduate history degree. He teaches at Thales Academy, a community of classical schools in North Carolina. When not writing and teaching, Travis enjoys poetry, gardening, and conversation with good company around good food.

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If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other content, like this author profile of Tacitus or this “Great Conversation” piece on the history of medicine. And be sure to tune in to our weekly podcast, Anchored, where CLT founder Jeremy Tate interviews leading scholars and activists on questions of education and culture.

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