Steven Pinker has published a thought-provoking essay titled “Shakespeare: One of the First and Greatest Psychologists”.
Pinker focuses specifically on the scene in which Isabella pleads to the puritanical interim authority Angelo to spare her brother Claudio’s life in Measure for Measure (which is currently playing in a Seattle Shakespeare production directed by Desdemona Chiang):
Isabella compares the administration of an idealized divine justice with the all-too-fallible human justice. She reminds us that humans are capable of meting out patently cruel and pointless punishment judgments with complete confidence they are doing the right thing.
Aside from Shakespeare’s ceaselessly relevant “universality,” Pinker points to how uncannily spot-on he is with regard to the findings of contemporary psychologists:
Worse still, we humans are the last to notice our own limited nature. In seven words, Shakespeare sums up a good portion of the findings of modern psychology: “most ignorant of what he’s most assured.”
A recurring discovery of social and cognitive psychology is that human beings are absurdly overconfident in their own knowledge, wisdom, and rectitude. Everyone thinks that he or she is in the right, and that the people they disagree with are stupid, stubborn, and ignorant.
People reliably overestimate their own knowledge, and misjudge their own accuracy at making predictions. A common theme of both Shakespeare and modern social psychology is the human species’ overconfidence.
On the Bard’s use of his psychological insight to intensify the drama:
These two perspectives — that of the perpetrator or scientist, and that of the victim or moralist — color every analysis of human behavior. And here, we see Shakespeare suddenly flipping from one to the other for dramatic effect.