I once met a philosopher who remarked that the world of honor seemed foreign to him. Since he was English, I was momentarily taken aback, but my eventual reply focused on the importance of honor in Shakespeare’s plays. My answer was qualitative, in that I highlighted a couple of plot lines. But a quantitative measure would have added a sort of undeniability. So since that exchange I resolved do a word-search of “honour” in Shakespeare’s corpus. I played around a little with that today, and thought I’d share what I found.

"Tattooed Shakespeare" by Mathew McFarren

“Tattooed Shakespeare” by Mathew McFarren

According to OpenSourceShakespeare.org, “honour” and its inflections (“honourable,” “dishonour,” etc.) appear 888 times in Shakespeare’s writings. Inflections of “contempt” show up 54 times, “contemn” 12 times; forms of “shame” appear 390 times, and “sham’d” nine times.

How does that stack up with other moral terms?

Let’s start with “just,” which includes the inflections “justice,” “unjust,” “justly,” etc.: 392 occurrences. Keep in mind this includes numerous (I’m too lazy to count) uses of the homonym “just” as in “My mother told me just how he would woo.” The word “anger,” which we’ll generously categorize as a response to injustice alone, appears 58 times (I had to look for it exactly, to avoid “danger” and such from being listed). “Angry” appears 102 times, “anger’d” eight times. “Guilt” and its inflections show up 139 times.

Thus, it seems like honor-based terms are at least twice as common in Shakespeare’s corpus as justice-based ones. This ignores virtue terms such as “coward” (147 inflected uses), “glory” (93 instances), and “dignity” (44), which, in context, usually concern honor.

The word “fair” wasn’t a moral term in Shakespeare’s day. Almost all its uses mean the same as “lovely” or “beautiful.” Some form of “kind” appears 513 times, but many of those occurrences are the non-moral “kind” synonymous with “type.” I would estimate about 450 of instances of “kind” refer to kindness and unkindness, etc., and I’d guess that kindness was the second-most frequently invoked moral quality.

What about terms concerning authority or loyalty? Very surprisingly to me, “loyalty,” “disloyal,” etc. showed up only 75 times. “Obedien-” and its inflections only 89 times. “Faithful,” 50 times. A careful analysis would have to pick through all the uses of “faith” to separate out the moral uses meaning trust, which I can’t do right now.

How about “sin” in general? I count 157 uses of “sin,” two uses of “sinned,” four of “sinn’d,” eight of “sinner,” four “sinners,” and one of “sinning” (“I am a man/More sinn’d against than sinning”). I suppose there are more inflections of “sin,” but it’s fair to say that even all sin combined isn’t as topical as honor is in Shakespeare.

Again, I realize this is obviously the crudest possible way to approach the question of honor in Shakespeare (a more scholarly treatment is Norman Council’s When Honour’s at the Stake (1973/2014)). But sometimes numbers speak louder than words.