Introduction: Shakespeare and Politics

It is necessary that there be as many forms of human characters as there are forms of regimes. — Plato, Republic, 544d

The centerpiece of this website at present is a set of 25 lectures given by Professor Paul Cantor on Shakespeare and politics, covering eight plays in this order: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth. This website is a work-in-progress. For the moment, in terms of bibliography, filmography, and other resources, it centers on the eight plays covered in the lectures, together with a few other plays that are particularly important to understanding Shakespeare as a political thinker. We plan on expanding the range of the site, making material on other Shakespeare plays available. We thus make no claim that the site as currently constituted offers a comprehensive treatment of the subject of Shakespeare and politics. We are not trying to deny the importance of other plays to this topic. As it is, many of the books in the bibliography deal with some of these other plays, and we hope to devote more attention to them in the future.

There are many ways to approach Shakespeare’s plays. One can study his genius as a poet: his supreme command of the English language (which he helped to shape) and the unequaled power and subtlety of his verse. One can analyze his skill as a dramatist: his ability to craft compelling plots and to create complex characters and probe their psychological depths. And one can explore the many insights into the nature of the human condition that Shakespeare’s plays embody, his reflections on such universal human concerns as love, marriage, friendship, the family, aging, and death. Without in any way questioning the validity and importance of these and other approaches, this website concentrates on the subject of Shakespeare and politics. We hope to reveal the centrality of politics among Shakespeare’s many concerns and the way that his thinking about political subjects affects his understanding of all aspects of human life.

The importance of politics to Shakespeare is evident simply in his choice of subjects for his plays. His ten history plays concentrate on political matters. Dealing as they do with a variety of English kings, they raise a whole series of political issues—war vs. peace, the role of religion in politics, legitimate vs. illegitimate princes—ultimately centering on the questions: what does it take to be a good king and where do the majority of kings go wrong?

Of Shakespeare’s ten tragedies, four are set in ancient Rome, and take up equally political themes, including the difference between a republic and a monarchy. Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth continue Shakespeare’s exploration of the nature of monarchy and such issues as legitimate succession and the threat of usurpation and tyranny. Othello, set partly in Venice, shows Shakespeare’s interest in a modern republic and how its political principles differ from a monarchy’s. Even Romeo and Juliet, which, with its focus on romantic love, seems at first to be Shakespeare’s one purely domestic tragedy, still focuses on two noble families in Renaissance Verona and includes a prince who may have stepped right out of the pages of Machiavelli.

On the surface, Shakespeare’s comedies seem much less political, and more focused on domestic life, especially such subjects as romantic love and the eternal battle between the sexes. Perhaps these plays are able to achieve happy endings precisely because they tend to abstract from the rough-and-tumble world of politics, and carve out a kind of utopian space, in which the issues that normally divide human beings into bitterly opposed factions can be ignored or at least downplayed. But even some of Shakespeare’s comedies take up political issues; these tend to be precisely the more complicated ones, with darker dimensions that make their comic endings more difficult to achieve and give their resolutions a seemingly forced character. The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure both deal with serious political problems, including the tension between religion and politics, and both push comedy so far in the direction of tragedy that Shakespeare must use all his talent as a dramatist to end these plays on a happy note.

In Shakespeare’s last plays, sometimes called his romances, he seems to be trying to transcend tragedy by transcending politics, and yet The Tempest, in creating its utopian space, may be interpreted as investigating the possibility of a philosopher-king—in itself a very political subject, one at the heart of Plato’s Republic. And even as it moves beyond tragedy, The Tempest nevertheless recapitulates political themes from some of Shakespeare’s most tragic plays, including the fratricidal strife in Hamlet, the betrayal and deposition of a ruler in King Lear, and the usurping tyrant in Macbeth.

Given the prominence of politics in Shakespeare’s plays, how are we to interpret his interest in the subject? Attempts to relate his plays to the political movements and theories of his contemporaries have generally had a reductive tendency, turning the most extraordinary works of literature ever written into mere mirrors of the political commonplaces of Shakespeare’s day. Decades of historicist scholarship presented Shakespeare as the passive spokesman for something called the Elizabethan World Picture, leaving his understanding of politics indistinguishable from that of second-rate and justifiably forgotten English thinkers and ideologues. Scholarship in the past few decades has raised the more intriguing possibility of a subversive side to Shakespeare’s portrayal of politics, noting that many of his characters challenge political orthodoxies in ways that subtly suggest that the playwright may have endorsed or at least sympathized with these unconventional views. Still, the unorthodox Shakespeare of so-called new historicist or cultural materialist scholarship often turns out to be merely the inversion of the orthodox Shakespeare of old historicist criticism. Either approach is, after all, historicist and sees Shakespeare as trapped within the ideological horizons of his own time period. From this perspective, Shakespeare is concerned only with issues that preoccupied his contemporaries. He was forced to operate within political categories that he absorbed from his immediate intellectual environment, beyond which he could not possibly have seen.

800px-Giovanni_Paolo_Panini,_An_architectural_capriccio_with_figures_among_Roman_ruinsAccording to this view, for example, Shakespeare’s Roman plays do not really deal with ancient Rome but are about his own England. His Romans have been called Elizabethan Englishmen in disguise. If the plebeians clamor for grain at the beginning of Coriolanus, Shakespeare is supposed to be thinking of an event closer to home, the Midlands Insurrection of 1607. This agrarian uprising threatened the interests of the landholding class in England, and perhaps Shakespeare, as a wealthy landowner himself by this time, was worried about this kind of agitation. Such speculations tend to divert our attention from the broader issues that Shakespeare might be raising to narrow biographical readings of his plays. Fortunately, there is an alternative to such attempts to view Shakespeare within the narrow geographic and historical confines of Renaissance England. In recent years, scholars have increasingly come to treat Shakespeare as a genuine political thinker in his own right, perhaps even a major political philosopher, worthy to stand comparison with Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Nietzsche, and other great minds who have meditated on the human condition in relation to politics.

One of the most impressive aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is the way they range all over time and space, from an ancient Roman republic in Coriolanus to a modern republic in The Merchant of Venice and Othello, with all sorts of monarchies in between. Shakespeare seems to have been interested precisely in the variety of regimes under which human beings have lived. Given his experience as an Englishman, he of course devotes a good deal of effort to understanding monarchy as a distinct form of government. Yet contrary to historicist approaches, Shakespeare is not confined to thinking in terms of kingship as his only operative political category. He seems to have gone out of his way to look at ancient Rome and modern Venice, and thereby to give serious thought to the republican alternatives to monarchy, considering the ways in which encouraging fuller participation in political life might energize a commonwealth and promote the common good. Perhaps Shakespeare ultimately hoped to offer a model of how to incorporate republican elements into monarchy, drawing upon the classical idea of the mixed regime. His plays about Henry V seem to endorse the idea of a king getting to know his people, developing a popular touch to make it easier to rule them and to do so justly.

In short, Shakespeare seems to have understood the concept of the regime (Greek: politeia) as developed by Plato and Aristotle—the idea that different forms of political organization encourage different forms of human development. Not every human possibility is equally available under every regime; it is difficult to be a Christian saint in pagan Rome (and as Hamlet shows, it is equally difficult to be a classical hero in Christian Europe). A monarchy will inevitably discourage certain forms of political activity (particularly those that challenge monarchy), while a republic may cause the very same activities to flourish. Shakespeare is generally praised for the immense variety of human types he portrays in his plays. Perhaps one of the keys to this success is the variety of regimes Shakespeare covers in his plays—from ancient pagan republics to modern Christian monarchies. When Horatio tells Hamlet: “I am more an antique Roman than a Dane,” he is saying something about the variety of regimes and their connection to human diversity. He is claiming to be free of the immediate confines of his Danish environment, free to pursue an ethical alternative (suicide) forbidden in his own community but actually encouraged in ancient Rome (as Shakespeare shows in Julius Caesar). In order to imagine a Horatio (note the Roman name), Shakespeare had to share his character’s imaginative freedom and be able to see beyond the limited horizons of his own community.

The Renaissance was a sustained attempt to recover and revive classical antiquity within the Christian civilization of Europe, and Shakespeare’s Roman plays constitute one of the great achievements of the Renaissance in the way they explore Roman ways of life as an alternative vision of human excellence. By the same token, precisely by using ancient Rome as a point of comparison, Shakespeare is able to highlight the new human possibilities opened up by the development of Christianity. The way Christianity alters the terms of politics, especially by introducing a transpolitical perspective on human life, is at the core of several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth. The tension between classical and Christian values, which these plays expose, provides the basis for a distinctively Renaissance form of tragedy.

Venice_1963Politics is at the center of Shakespeare’s plays. But this does not mean that we should approach his plays in the spirit of narrow, partisan politics. Politics was an intellectually liberating subject for Shakespeare because it freed him from thinking solely in terms of the categories of the community in which he happened to live. Like all great political thinkers, Shakespeare extended his philosophical horizons by extending his political horizons. Contemplating a wide variety of regimes—the varying customs and beliefs that have prevailed in different communities over time—allowed Shakespeare to explore ways of life quite alien to the wide but nevertheless limited range of humanity that was available to him in Renaissance England. Could Shakespeare have imagined a Coriolanus or a Mark Antony if he could not have imagined ancient Rome? Could he have imagined a Shylock or an Othello if he could not have imagined the distinctive political community of Venice?

Treating Shakespeare as a serious political thinker cannot exhaust the depth and breadth of his achievement, but it does allow us to grapple with some of the most important concerns in his work. And this approach by no means entails neglecting Shakespeare’s other interests. Indeed, one might argue that Shakespeare had to understand politics before he could understand the limits of politics and what lies beyond the political realm. Shakespeare’s tragic vision may ultimately rest on his appreciation of the necessity of politics in human affairs, together with his sense of its incompatibility with other legitimate realms of value, such as love and the pursuit of truth. Although concentrating on the subject of Shakespeare and politics may seem at first to narrow our appreciation of his genius, in the end this approach leads us into a wide-ranging exploration of the full range of his interests and achievement.