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Shakespeare and the Seven Deadly Sins

Chanin is a college instructor & freelance writer. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing focusing on Fiction & English Language and Literature

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

The Seven Deadly Sins as Understood Through Shakespeare’s Dramas

In 1995 a movie was released entitled Seven starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. According to the leading industry website,, the movie is ranked 26 out of the top 250 movies ever released. This shows that the movie is relevant no matter the era or generation and will continue in that way for years to come. The issue that makes this movie so memorable and so relevant is that it is the story of two police officers trying to find a serial killer that is using the seven deadly sins as his defining modus operandi in that the officers must understand the sins to finally subdue him and capture him. However, the twist is that he has other things in store for the officers.

The concept is not strange to teenagers in that a serial killer uses the seven deadly sins to prove his point, but unbeknownst to them, they are also learning a bit of information from religion and the past. Many high school students would be able to tell from memory what the sins are compared to older counterparts that may know of one or two, maybe even three, but not all seven. The fact that this movie has taught these students about the seven deadly sins can be, for lack of a better term, exploited to introduce and teach the works of William Shakespeare. Within many of Shakespeare’s works, one can find not just sins but a perfect example of each sin. In many cases, the seven deadly sins are all found within a single drama, which would require much more detailed analysis, and much could be lost in the study. By focusing each sin on a specific Shakespearean drama, the student will be more likely to understand the drama and relate it to activities occurring in today's world. In this proposal, I will use the seven deadly sins as discerned in the movie Seven show the relationship between the world today via a currently enjoyed movie and the world of Shakespeare through eight of his different plays, each focusing on a single deadly sin.

Deadly Sin 1: Gluttony

The first deadly sin noted in the movie is the sin of gluttony. This sin is often associated with overindulgence in food, but it can be associated with overindulgence in any item needed for survival (7 Deadly Sins). For Shakespeare, there is no better character that shows the gluttony of a noble man than Richard III as found in The Tragedy of Richard the Third. In fact, it is his gluttonous actions that create his decline into insanity and his eventual demise on the battlefield.

The plan of Richard of Gloucester is told to the audience in his brief speech:

“And if I fail not in my deep intent,

Clarence hath not another day to live:

Which done, God take King Edward to his mercy,

And leave the world for me to bustle in!” (Richard III 1.1.149-152)

In this, the audience realizes that the gluttonous Richard wants the throne for himself, has laid a plot to kill his brother Clarence, and expects the merciful death of his sick brother, King Edward.

In like fashion, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, kills off all of his competitors to the crown and anybody else who is no longer of use to him and his plans. The first victims of this gluttonous serial killer are the children of King Edward. They are in line to the throne before him and, therefore, must die. These deaths are followed by the death of his wife, Anne, Lord Hastings, and the Duke of Buckingham, all of which were used and then thrown away when they were no longer of use. In fact, the death of Buckingham was even worse because his death could be attributed to the fact that Richard did not want to give him the promised land and estate for his help in putting Richard on the throne. When Buckingham requests his “promised earldom” (Richard III IV.ii.102), he is told by King Richard III that he “is not in the giving vein to-day” (IV.ii.116), and it is this conflict that causes King Richard III to require the execution of the Duke of Buckingham. However, it is not until the end of the drama that the gluttonous guilty conscious undoes King Richard III. The night before the final battle, each and every person that he has murdered, or rather had murdered, comes to visit him, professing his loss to Henry the Earl of Richmond. Richard III knows his doom, “O Ratcliffe, I have dream’d a fearful dream! / What think’st thou – will our friends prove all true?” (Richard III V.iii.212-213) and in this sentence it is obvious that he realizes that his overindulgence in or gluttony of power has created this doom.

Deadly Sin of Gluttony

Deadly Sin of Gluttony

Deadly Sin 2: Greed

The second deadly sin in the movie Seven is the sin of greed, based on the concept of a “pound of flesh” within the movie. In Shakespeare, it is more of a material gain that is found in the character of Edmund, the bastard son, of the Duke of Gloucester, in the drama King Lear (7 Deadly Sins; King Lear). In fact, it is his greed that creates not only the demise of his half-brother, Edgar but also the demise of Goneril and Regan, the daughters of King Lear.

Edmond, the illegitimate son of Gloucester, having been away for “nine years” (King Lear I.i.32) believes that he will be overlooked by his father in the area of inheritance when it is time. However, the actions and words of Gloucester seem to develop a sense of equality between the brothers, Edmund and Edgar, “But I have a son, sir, by order of law, some/ year elder than this who yet is no dearer in my/ account” (King Lear I.i.19-21). This would make one believe that the sons are equal, but Edmund will not believe any of it. At the first chance he gets, he tells the audience that “I must have your [Edgar’s] land” (King Lear I.ii.16) and that “Edmond the base/ Shall [top] th’ legitimate. I grow, I prosper: Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” (King Lear I.ii.20-22). In this, he connives to create bad feelings between the father and Edgar with the lie of treason against the father.

In this way, Edmund gets rid of his brother and, through the actions of Regan and the Duke of Cornwall, rid him of his father, and names Edmund the Duke of Gloucester, thus feeding his greed but not satisfying it. By the end of the drama, as Edmund lies dying at Edgar’s had, it is learned that the sisters poison one another in hopes of being the only love of the young Edmund, who has “contracted to them both” in favor of marriage (King Lear V.iii.229). In this, it becomes apparent that Edmund wanted not only the estate of his father, Gloucester, but was working on both the estate of Cornwall and Albany and had hopes for the entire kingdom itself. All of which he believed he was due even though he as nothing but a “bastard” and, therefore, in his mind, not entitled to the riches of his father (King Lear I.ii.10).

Deadly Sin of Greed

Deadly Sin of Greed

Deadly Sin 3: Sloth

The deadly sin of sloth is the third crime scene found in the movie Seven. However, this victim was not dead, although he was not quite alive either. His brain was “mush,” and he had “chewed his tongue off” long before the detectives found him. In essence, the definition of sloth is the dodging of physical labor, which is represented in Shakespeare in the dramas of I King Henry IV and II King Henry IV, in the character of Hal, the son of the King and the next in line to the throne.

In Hal’s world, there is nothing but fun. Even King Henry IV makes this obvious when he states, “Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him [Harry Percy], /See riot and dishonor stain the brow/ Of my young Harry” (I.i.84) and that he wished that he would “have his [Northumberland’s] Harry and he mine” (I.i.90). Considering this is at the very beginning of the play it is obvious to the audience that Prince Harry, or Hal, is a bit on the sloth side of life. Hal associates with people like Falstaff, that are of disreputable personalities. He does not take his life seriously; at least, that is what the audience is led to believe. Hal takes pride in playing games, such as stealing from thieves, as in I Henry IV Act 2, Scene 2 (102-110).

The Prince does have a redeeming quality in that once King Henry IV dies; Prince Hal becomes King Henry V. He denies those with whom he had associated and denounced his slovenly ways:

“Presume not that I am the thing I was,

For God doth know, so shall the world perceive

I have turn’d away former self;

So will I those that kept me company.”

(II Henry IV V.v.56-59)

Thus, the Prince of Sloth changed his ways and became a highly regarded King, eventually bringing peace between England and France.

Deadly Sin of Sloth (Laziness)

Deadly Sin of Sloth (Laziness)

Deadly Sin 4: Lust

Lust is the fourth deadly sin and is found in Shakespeare in the drama Measure for Measure. In the movie, the action of lust ends in the death of the female victim and the insanity of the male victim. When thinking of death and insanity, Shakespeare should also automatically come to mind. In Measure for Measure the basic storyline is that Claudio is to be put to death because his fiancé has become pregnant before their wedding. In the moment of sounding ridiculous, this proclamation has come not from the Duke, Vincentio, but from his Deputy, the pious and “a man of stricture and firm abstinence” Angelo (Measure I.iii.12). Angelo has been given the duty to “enforce or qualify the laws/ As to your soul seems good” (I.i.65-66) which includes the law of no extramarital or premarital sex, hence the conviction of Claudio and his fiancée, Juliet for the pregnancy before the wedding. However, the lust of Angelo will not be cooled. He believes himself to be above the animalistic sexual desires of man, that is, until he meets Isabel. Isabel is the sister of Claudio, who is studying to become a nun, and in such form visits Angelo to plead for her brother and Juliet. Unfortunately, Angelo is more base than Claudio. Angelo is more base because he tells Isabel that to free her brother, if she will “lay down the treasures of your body/ to this supposed, or else to let him suffer - / what would you do?” (Measure II.iv.96-98). When Isabel declines, Angelo tells her that her brother will die for his deeds.

In the end, Angelo must pay for his sins, which include the base request of sex for a life, that he supposedly forfeited anyway, and the marriage to the woman that he pushed aside because her dowry was not large enough. In this, the Duke, though in disguise, brought it all to pass, including the saving of Claudio. However, the lust of one man, Angelo, for wealth and persons is punished by marriage and demotion of position.

Deadly Sin of Lust

Deadly Sin of Lust

Deadly Sin 5: Pride

Pride can be good quality or bad quality. As a good quality, it allows one to feel good about their actions or their beliefs. On the other hand, the fifth sin is the bad side of pride which instills the belief that one’s own actions are better than others and, therefore, that one is better and more important than others. Pride, in the movie, was described as a model that was given the choice of living or dying, but she chose to die instead of living scarred.

Shakespeare shows pride in the character of a King. The King is Richard II, and his overblown pride causes him to banish Bolingbrook, the Duke of York, and Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk. This is the first of his many escapades driven by pride. After the banishment, on the death of his Uncle, the father of Bolingbrook, he “seize to us/ The plate, coin, revenues, and moveables/ Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possess’d” ensuring the demise of his cousin Bolingbrook upon his return from banishment (Richard II ii.i.160-162).

Unfortunately, King Richard II does not continue in his prideful ways for very long, for Bolingbrook returns to claim the estate and assets left by his father. From Bolingbrook's return until the story's end, Richard II slowly declines until he is imprisoned and has nothing left of his own. However, it can be said that Bolingbrook was also representative of pride in this drama. When he first returns, his message is that “his coming hither hath no further scope/Than his lineal royalties, and to beg/ Enfranchisement immediate on his knees” (Richard II III.iii.112-114). But in actuality, he wants not just to be allowed back but to take the crown, which is exactly what he does in Act 4, Scene 1, Richard II speaks:

“Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown;

Here cousin,

On this side my hand, [and] on that side thine.

Now is this golden crown like a deep well

That owes two buckets, filling one another,

The emptier ever dancing in the air,

The other down, unseen, and full of water:”

(Richard II IV.i.181-187).

In this, the pride of Richard II is concluded he has nothing left to be the king of except his own “griefs” (IV.i.193). And Henry IV has become the new King, and it is in his prideful speeches that the final demise and execution of Richard II occur. Henry IV admits, “Though I wish him dead, I hate the murtherer” ( Even though Henry IV did not commit the execution or really even state that it should occur, it was his words in passing that caused the Exton to kill Richard II, and therefore, the prideful guilt of the actions has lain on Henry IV’s head.

Deadly Sin of Pride

Deadly Sin of Pride

Deadly Sin 6: Envy

The drama of Othello is a prime example of the next sin, which is the sin of envy. The serial killer in Seven was envious of the life that the character played by Brad Pitt had with his wife. He had always dreamed of having a beautiful and loving wife, but it never happened. It would seem that envy can be on just about any aspect of life, but most writers put it on relationships between husbands and wives.

In this, Shakespeare was no different. In the story of Othello, which is the greatest story in the world of envy, one would only have to look at Iago to see that envy was a major theme of this drama. It is stated in the beginning when Iago admits to Roderigo that he is upset that Othello named Michael Cassio as his lieutenant. Iago further states that he will “follow him [Othello] to serve my turn upon him. We cannot all be masters, nor all masters/Cannot be truly follow’d” (Othello I.i.42-44). In this, it would seem that Iago is acting falsely due to his envious nature to Cassio. Because of this one action by Othello, Iago plots the destruction of the Moor through false allegations of both Othello’s wife, Desdemona, and Cassio. In the end, the envious actions are brought to light by others, but it is too late for Desdemona, Roderigo, and Othello himself. The envious actions of Iago play out, and even though he losses as well, so do all the others that he believed slighted him.

Deadly Sin of Envy

Deadly Sin of Envy

Deadly Sin 7: Wrath (Anger)

The seventh sin is wrath or anger. In this, the character of Brad Pitt shoots the serial killer in response to the admission of guilt in his wife’s murder, which only becomes known at the very end of the movie. In Shakespeare, the play of wrath would have to fall on the storyline of Hamlet in which the son avenges his father’s death, only to die himself. Hamlet is told by his father’s ghost that his uncle Claudius has killed him [Hamlet’s father] (I.v.40). In this news, Hamlet prepares actors to portray a scene written by him, which is, in essence, the act of his father’s murder (II.ii.594-596).

In this drama, however, Hamlet is not the only character to feel anger and act upon it. Claudius, the uncle and now step-father of Hamlet and King of Denmark, bears a grudge that only the execution of Hamlet can alleviate. After Claudius sees the play and knows that Hamlet knows the truth, he sends Hamlet away to England with two of his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The letter that he sends with the men tells the English government that “the present death of Hamlet” is required. Luckily for Hamlet, he smells the deceit and changes it to the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead, and in the process, he returns to Denmark to continue in his played madness of revenge.

The death of Ophelia is the event that occurs upon the return of Hamlet, and it is the wrath of Laertes, the son of Polonius and the brother of Ophelia, that comes after Hamlet at this point. Laertes had been away and returned to find that his father had been murdered by Hamlet, though it was not on purpose, and that Ophelia had gone mad and killed herself at the rebuke of Hamlet’s love. Thus when he sees Hamlet, he demands a duel to the death. In this, Hamlet agrees, but again the stakes are against Hamlet. He does not drink the poisoned drink from his uncle Claudius; that dose is for his poor mother (Hamlet V.ii.290-291). While he is the first to be stung by the poison on the blade of the sword of Laertes (Hamlet v.ii.302), he is not the last in that Laertes too is poisoned by his own sword (Hamlet V.ii.303) and Claudius is forced to drink his own poisoned cup (Hamlet V.ii.326). In this case, though, Hamlet is not saved, for he dies as well. It would seem that all the people on which to attach his wrath when dead made it unnecessary for him to live either; thus, he dies as the deceptions and lies die with the others.

Deadly Sin of Wrath

Deadly Sin of Wrath

Shakespeare's Use of the Seven Deadly Sins

Within these eight different plays, written in the 16th century, one would automatically assume that they would not be relevant in the modern world. However, that is completely untrue. The fact is that the use of the plays cannot only exemplify the actions of today, but they can also bestow upon the audience and reader ways of looking at the world around them. Leaders within history were men and women just as they are today. The feelings they held for one another are similar in the modern world as well. How many times has young love been compared to the love of Romeo and Juliet? There are even TV shows such as 10 Things I Hate About You that are based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. It is not so much that the dramas of Shakespeare are not relevant today; it is more that people do not really understand how relevant the dramas are within the modern environment. Within these histories, comedies, tragedies, and romances, one can learn more about their current world, such as the seven deadly sins, just as they learn from movies, such as Seven, with the only real difference, other than the author, is the year it was written.


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