Character in the Corpus: Courage

Courageous literature

One of the most famous passages of literature, Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, is, in fact, a reflection on the nature of courage:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles, And by opposing end them […] Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Literature is a realm for reflection; Hamlet’s ruminations verbalise and thereby actualise mental processes, a process that fiction is able to render more authentically through interior thought, meaning fiction offers particularly useful blueprints for the exploration of abstract concepts, such as courage.

It is no coincidence that Hamlet explores the courage of the mind by adopting the metaphor of a soldier in battle. The literary canon is populated with many soldiers. Such narratives dominated classical and medieval literature, and soldierly stories continue to captivate the reading public and feature prominently on educational syllabi.

Soldiers were traditionally held to be the ideal narrator: a man of war was authentic – as both eyewitness and one who speaks in plain language. Yet, although these stories of war endure, what makes present-day narratives different from their forebears can be traced as a shift in tone with respect to the attitudes and behaviours we have towards courage.

The Golden Mean

Courage’s changing fortunes are indicative of the fact that courage is double-edged and therefore a virtue that requires moderation. Aristotle, who also uses soldiers to discuss courage in his Nicomachean Ethics (1115b4), even incorporates it into his discussion of literary texts:

Courage, located somewhere between cowardice and recklessness, recognises real dangers and responds appropriately to them. It is appropriate to feel fear in battle; if you did not, you would be prone to act rashly, endangering your own and your comrades’ lives.

Poetics, Aristotle

For Aristotle, courage sits at a ‘golden mean’ between boldness (tharsos) and fear (phobos), and that it is a virtue intelligence that allows someone to exercise these characteristics according to the situation in which an individual finds him or herself (1116a13).

What placing this account within the Poetics demonstrates is how literature is of particular relevance to honing virtue literacy reasoning. In situating courage thus, Aristotle places courage as a response that is moderated, perceptual, and proactive. In this, courage encapsulates the main ingredients of virtue literacy and virtuous behaviour as it enables us to act in a way that comprises virtue reasoning and deliberation.

A feature shared by literary texts is the ‘clustering’ of virtues: when one virtue appears, it is more likely than not that others co-occur. This means that even short passages of literary texts provide a lucrative resource for exploring virtue and, furthermore, often means that these are passages in which differing virtues are being adjudicated. Usefully, in the A-level corpus, courage similarly clusters with other virtues both in competition and in collaboration. In fact, Maya Angelou states courage is a precondition of all virtues: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”


The question of exactly how fiction can inform an exploration of courage can also be found in that quotation by Aristotle, specifically in relation to his discussion of fear. Fear is one of the emotions elicited by art in Poetics, which includes the example of the audience at a tragedy experiencing it. Although not the same as the fear experienced by the characters, it is instructive and thereby suggests art has a place in fostering courage.

One reason fiction is perhaps successful at fostering virtue literacy is its transportative quality: its ability to take readers away from the here and now; to simulate emotional and cognitive responses. Recent cognitive research has explored this through empathy and how the way we experience fiction mirrors the way we encounter similar experiences in real-life (see the previous Character in the Corpus article on empathy for more on this).

Authors continue to draw on this mirroring. Take for example Stephen Crane’s eponymous tale of courage, The Red Badge of Courage,in which “his face had been twisted into an expression of every agony he had imagined for his friend.” Empirical studies (e.g., Staats, Hupp, Hagley 2015) have also noted a correlation between courage and empathy and, in particular, the power of art to promote moral critical thinking around courage and empathy (Waage, 2020).

Between Texts and Over Time

Courage is the least frequent of all the Framework’s example virtues in academic discourse, despite the fact that 13 of the Framework’s 28 example virtues are most frequently found in academic discourse and often significantly so. What is also exceptional about courage is that fiction, alongside journalism, is marked as a genre particularly lucrative with respect to its representation.


This is a trend reflected in the Google Books corpus, which shows that courage is consistently found more frequently in fiction. Curiously, its twentieth-century peak in 1918 coincides with the end of World War I, indicating that the contours of the graph below go some way to tracing broader societal concerns. Nevertheless, whilst it may be tempting to see the overall decline in usage over the past two hundred years as indicative of a shift in courage’s cultural reception (as discussed above) and relevance, broader linguistic expansion may account for much of this decline.

Denotation and Connotation

Courage seems particularly useful for opportunities to practise virtue understanding in the classroom because of its shifting meaning. Over time, although the term has weathered the storm of semantic shifts, i.e., its denotation, it has experienced major shifts with regards to its cultural reception, i.e., connotation.

It might be worth saying a few words here about the distinction between denotation and connotation. Connotation can be understood via a branch of linguistics known as Pragmatics, which assesses meaning in context. This means that meaning is successfully derived only when we understand who is speaking, where, etc. It is a distinction crucial to any form of literacy, for it is this nuanced understanding of a language’s contextual sensitivity that enables fluency.

Over time, the connotations of courage have changed owing to cultural shifts in the way we think about and discuss combat, for example. Virtue, derived from the word for man, and denoting strength, traces a similar shift etymologically, whereby words change from gendered associations and from literal to metaphorical applications.

What is notable with the texts of the A-level corpus is that many of the instantiations of courage are in relation to female characters. In essence, literary texts use female characters to explore the broadening understanding of courage, one that complements the broader conception of courage as a virtue across various domains of life beyond the battlefield.

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