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How Unethical Was Shakespeare?

If you have a creative bone in your body, then you can be reasonably certain you have no spine and your soul is made of mortar. I am stumped. All along I had been smiling graciously and occasionally with a degree of complacency whenever I was commended for that flash of insight, that turn of phrase, or an imagination that is not a chattel to any rule books. It turns out that I am a worm, an ingrate and will do anything for money. Even sell my soul. Yes, the same mortar one, because mortar has some price; an abstract conscience doesn’t. In short, if I wish to salvage myself from such purgatory then instead of referring to Dante I ought to be scrubbing myself with some morally-sanctioned unguents. And, naturally, it’s time to wipe that smile off my face when I am called creative.

To show just how serious I am, I do hereby forgive Dr. Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard who led the team of researchers that have made me give up all the pleasures associated with creativity for the past 20 minutes. I say forgive because I think the good professor and her team are rather creative themselves. According to Time.com:

“Creative people think ‘outside the box,’ a gift of psychological flexibility that, it turns out, may also apply to their ethics, according to the latest research from the American Psychological Association. Creative types, in other words, may be more likely to cheat. The same enterprising mind that allows creative people to consider new possibilities, generate original ideas and resolve conflicts innovatively may be what also helps them justify their own dishonest behaviour, said the authors of the new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.”
Forget the fact that the study was conducted using 99 participants (I suppose they did not round the number up to 100 because they could imagine that extra one). Let me try and analyse this a bit.

  • “Creative types” is huge, and it can mean anyone, including people in business and research.
  • Thinking outside the box needs courage and can be dicey – the idea may not work in the real world and collapse like a pack of cards. Does the pack of cards necessarily denote a tendency to gamble and therefore cheat?
  • What exactly does “their ethics” mean? Ethics are values based on a complex system where society decides that certain things are considered good, which is in opposition to bad. Individuals usually internalise these and fine-tune them, depending on where they are and the fluctuations between good and bad. Does it impede creativity? No. Should a creative person rebel against an ideology, chances are that the odds are against her/him. Have we not heard about those sent off in exile for thinking out of the box? Was this not due to ethics rather than a lack of them?
  • Dishonest behaviour is within the realm of creative lives as of any other. How often have such creative people been able to justify their lies? Writers who plagiarise are caught and have rarely come up with any imaginative plausible excuses. Artistic feuds are out in the open with swords unsheathed. Although I would not like to put business innovators in the same category, I’d still say that their malpractices are rarely a secret. The system is geared to protect them. So who is imaginative here?

If you look at the personal lives of creative people, they are in the public domain. They might cheat as much as any other person, and the excuses are not any better. Is Roman Polanski less ethical than Dominique Strauss-Kahn? Did Shakespeare have less integrity than Queen Elizabeth I? 

How did the researchers come to such innovative conclusions? 

"In another experiment, participants were shown drawings with dots on each side of a diagonal line and were asked whether there were more dots on the left or right side. Participants were told they'd be paid 5 cents for each time they said there were more dots on the right side, and 0.5 cents for the left. Though in the majority of the trials it was virtually impossible to tell whether there were more dots on one side or the other, the creative participants were significantly more likely to pick the answer that paid more."
You don’t need to be particularly brilliant to understand this. It works as auto-suggestion. Had the participants been told that there would be a red light flashing, or they could leave early, or they could choose between the Kardashian Sisters and Daniel Craig based on where they found the dots, they’d go for the option they emotively or instinctively desire. Where do ethics come in here? It is puerile to suggest that it was pecuniary considerations that resulted in going for the right pickings, or that creative people will do anything for money.

It is the marketing whiz kids who worry about that. Think about the artists, writers, dancers, singers who were not recognised in their lifetime and lived in poverty. I am not suggesting that the garret or cheap pubs is where you will find them now. They do strike deals, but not necessarily at the cost of ethics. 

And just who is defining ethics here and how? Is it based on a general social-endorsed standard? If someone finds a lock of Michael Jackson’s hair in the bathroom drain of the hotel where he stayed and decides to auction it, then is it ethical? If it is, then we accept that this is a piece of history and it is fine for someone to capitalise on it. If it is not, then whose creativity is working here? 

The research is flawed because it puts people in boxes. Creativity is often about standing apart. Rationalisation is not used to justify one’s position but to dispute another. This means that creative people stick their necks out. 

Such studies are about as exciting as a pole dance. Once the legs have slid down, they have to touch the ground even if they have no feet to stand on. 

Now, please do not say this is…erm…priceless only to prove how ethical you are. And remember, next time anyone offers a penny for your thoughts, just run and hold on to your integrity.

(c) Farzana Versey

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Her thinking in this case is so simplistic.  I worry for students.

 I think about a year ago I was watching Michael Sandel's television program (Harvard education program) and found out a similar situation.  He showed a series of images and let students choose.  I guess his aim was to show students effective way of spending time to succeed in life.  So, I was watching and the choices the students made for each pair of images, I had no problem.  But one pair was a problem.  

One photo was a scene from Opera which I love, and another photo was from a scene from a manga animation which probably came from a Japanese program.  Which would you choose to spend time with?  Something like that.  We all have our own choice and reason.  I respect manga as an art.  It is quite impressive field although it is much newer art than Opera.  We have literary as well as historical novel genre in manga.   Although he didn’t talk ill of manga during the program, I thought by showing those two photos, I thought his approach very simplistic.  One student finally spoke up and he said we cannot make judgment because we have different taste.  Sandel didn't say much to the student’s reaction. He just smiled.  I was glad about that dark haired student who spoke up.

About the above case, I don’t worry for the students much.  But I watched that program in Japan, and Japanese wanting to learn English have been watching. http://www.nhk.or.jp/hakunetsu/harvard.html  It’s hard for Japanese to learn English, but if more of us do, more Japanese will find out Harvard is not what we used to think it is. 


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Keiko: What a wonderful


What a wonderful example. However, I do not think of it as simplistic. Here, if we go beyond choice, then one can draw on similarities, differences, points of identification. I have not been exposed to the manga form, but just as opera tells a story, manga does so too. One is purist in intent and execution; the other is probably not.

How does one choose in this case where the alternatives are clear? It would depend on one’s tastes, the mood at the particular point in time (I do choose comics over serious literature when I am feeling low or sometimes very upbeat). Was Sandel trying to run down manga? Then that is simplistic. Do you think that by using such a contrast, he was pointing out the ordinariness of manga? It is possible, but it reveals a lot about him. He was brainwashing the students. Yet, there are times when such contrasts make us appreciate the ordinary even more because if we can find some connectivity then both are pretty much accessible to us. Think about the Rorschach tests where we see what we think we see.

Isn’t that what learning is about?


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I don't think he was trying to run down opera for sure.  When we choose one of two because we have only 24 hours a day, then we choose what we think more worthy for our time.  Anyway, I think that program revealed ordinariness about him.  I was disappointed, but maybe many professors outside Japan haven't kept up with the high paced world of manga.

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Nothing new under the sun

King Solomon probably had it right.  We're all plagiarizers, even if we sometimes plagiarize ourselves.  The comfort in all this any work we might conceivably plagiarize was probably plagiarized from someone else.

Since everything we can possibly write in the English language consists in some permutaion of a mere 26 letters, it's unrealistic to believe that we've never copied something...either in thought or expression thereof.

Our only hope is that we can arragne those letters in a more intriguing array than those who went before.



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Beyond the sun?

If language is all about arranging 26 letters of the alphabet, then with our two legs all our travel is worth just longer treadmll rides.

Come now, Eric. Plagiarism can be seen metaphysically, but there is also the hard truth about intellectual property. Unless someone gets inside your head or grabs your heart.


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Aesthetic vs. Moral/Ethical Values


Your analysis "opens the door" (perhaps of Pandora's box) to greater awareness of actual and potential "clashes" of values. As I suspect you well know (did you write this partly with "tongue in cheek"?), this is a door that those pillars of society with a vested interest in social order/tranquility typically want to keep tightly closed to avoid unnecessarily stirring up unrest among the "natives" (read "masses"), whereas an artist's first mission is often through his/her art to pry open that same door as part of a different value system of awakening us from our collective stupor and opening our minds to new ways of perceiving reality/life.

Thus, to the consummate artist, aesthetic or artistic "integrity" would almost certainly "trump" any kind of moral/ethical integrity, if the clash of the two requires a choice or ranking, thereby explaining why artists, especially in their own times, are rarely if ever voted "Most Popular Exemplar of the People" (a variation of "Most Popular Boy/Girl" in one's graduating class). Even an ordinary, garden-variety intellectual like me encounters some resistance. In this context, is there any doubt how Shakespeare would have typically resolved any such value conflicts?

For your noble efforts, you realize, of course, that you are going to get a reputation (if not already having gotten it) for being a gadfly at least as annoying as Socrates! The good news is this is a Badge you can deservedly wear with pride and honor!

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The moral aesthete


Much of it was, indeed, tongue-in-cheek, for how does one engage with such rash generalisations?

You are right when you talk about the artiste prying open the door. It is often mission impossible, for such doors are rusty. Doors that are meant to open and close are not even used. We cede every opening to live within configured ideas. They are comforting. Anything new, unless it is a cell phone or a designer label, puts us to test – are we ready for it? Can we understand what it means? Does the new belong to everyone? Will it take away out individualism? Have you noticed that limited edition solitaires are most favoured by those who belong to cliques and think like cliques? 

You write:

“Thus, to the consummate artist, aesthetic or artistic "integrity" would almost certainly "trump" any kind of moral/ethical integrity, if the clash of the two requires a choice or ranking…”

If the artiste is consummate at only the art, then we are dealing with another kind of linearity. However, if such integrity is a way of life that includes art then it is ethical by default, for being true to oneself is an honest form of morality. Decadence, too, if indulged in without recourse to excuses or behind curtains is an ethical stand if it does not exploit another. The heathen might need to run from the lynch mob but the idea of questioning belief is itself an ethical position.

“For your noble efforts, you realize, of course, that you are going to get a reputation (if not already having gotten it) for being a gadfly at least as annoying as Socrates! The good news is this is a Badge you can deservedly wear with pride and honor!”

 Ah, you humour me! Well, have lived with the reputation, but I shall not wear the badge and get tagged. Not unless I have an Hemlock Society that understands my poison…



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Cruel But Kind

Incisive and merciless (as usual), your pre-eminent redeeming virtue being that you are "cruel only to be kind." Even so, fear alone of being in the crosshairs of your sharp pen would give anyone but a fool contemplating "transgressions" within your range and sphere great pause, indeed, thereby contributing to a general "uplift" in moral and/or aesthetic awareness and consciousness.

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...and pause do I...

...too as well. And what would I be without such transgressions?

To wit, (and in other contexts) Shakespeare:

"Why, such is (love's) transgression.
Griefs of mine own lie heavy in my breast,
Which thou wilt propagate, to have it prest
With more of thine: this (love) that thou hast shown
Doth add more grief to too much of mine own."

Consciousness is not a dead-end or a one-way street, even if some of walk over the stones mercilessly!


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Much ado?

This is an amusing exchange elsewhere on this post. Thought it might be interesting to share:


How Unethical Was Shakespeare?

Well, here are my two cents on this insignifcant useless ignorant literally illiterate delusional man with illusion of grandiosity that I grew up seeing my parents being obsessed with this man and collecting and reading and then discussing his books for hours.....I got curious and tried to read those useless idiotic books but I could not find any meaning from his meaningless books whihc never meant anything to me except for some collections in my parents book shelves......

And I am proud that I am not committing any noble lie for this noble legendary laurreate who never became my inspiration even after trying hard.....The reason was this man lacked substance, SERIOUSLY.

My reply:

Your anger, dear, is but in vain, for dost thou not see the Bard trieth hard to please and sustain in those fissured words such secrets, nay treasures, that you might chance upon? But, aye, I shall forsooth back off, for thy hunger, no less noble, seeks substance. Like Shylock a pound of flesh. And thence you would partake of the victuals 'neath the wisdom tree...your anger is your inspiration. Wherefore your anger rises? The same, the same...his grandiosity you mistaketh for the shine was blinding, but in the embers lie the words,the scars. Thy seeketh usefulness...tis too practicable my friend. Go yonder and look at the useless, for standing and staring shall give thee pleasures for the senses and the soul. Heed mine this time, for once. I pray that gold comes with heat. Feel it. SERIOUSLY.

 Jai Bardistan!

(Hail the kingdom of the Bard)