Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

This is a line that sounds really good but doesn’t really follow the previous thought – at least in my understanding of “conscience.” Maybe conscience here is more like consciousness? That the awareness that one mess might so easily lead to another, even bigger, mess might just be a factor of being a conscious thinking being. That makes some sense to me. 
However, if conscience is conscience as I normally think of it, that is, a sense of morality, of doing right by someone or something, of goodness, somehow. And yes, awareness of our actions, too, how they might not be good choices – well, in that case: Yes, conscience does keep many of us from doing many things, some of which might be called cowardly in certain societies, particularly ones with HONOR at the center. I think of that study of honor and revenge in Southern men. (Listen to a show on it on You are not so Smart) They found that in cultures with a high honor code, participants were much more likely to exhibit vengeful behavior.  It points to an interesting cultural conundrum that puts conscience and cowardice in the same boat, that makes conscience the enemy of bravery, that makes conscientious objectors chickens rather than brave people standing up for their beliefs, for another morality. Curious. 
And then many months later after I first wrote in response to this line, I discover this: Zachary Lesser’s take on this line in his discussion of the Q1. In it, I learn that my sense of conscience – as in consciousness – has been an explanation many scholar’s before me have used. But Shakespeare uses conscience in its moral sense in other places in the play – so there’s a whole world of religious sense of conscience and morals and this line becomes a lever to pry open a world of worlds behind the various editions of the play. Listen to the Free Library’s Podcast to hear more details. 


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