The Ground of Nature: Shakespeare, Language, and Politics

Paul A. Cantor, “The Ground of Nature: Shakespeare, Language, and Politics,” St. John’s Review, Summer 1983, 19-24


“In recent years, several critics, myself included, have been trying to call attention to the importance of politics as a subject in Shakespeare’s plays. This attempt to expand the scope of Shakespeare criticism has met with considerable resistance. Sceptics have argued that Shakespeare was not at all interested in politics, he was interested only in character or psychology, or in presenting certain religious beliefs, or in developing a tragic worldview, and so on. Generally the counterarguments have taken the form: “Shakespeare was not interested in politics, he was interested in X,” where X is some subject thought of as excluding political concerns. But most recently a new challenge to a political approach to Shakespeare has begun to loom on the horizon. Instead of offering an alternative subject as the focus of Shakespeare’s interest, this approach denies that his plays are about anything at all, that is, about anything other than themselves. Remaking Shakespeare on the model of twentieth-century literature, this approach views his works as fundamentally self-reflexive, not attempting to represent anything in the real world but instead calling attention to their own fictiveness as works of art. According to this view, any attempt to study politics as a subject in Shakespeare would be hopelessly naive, based as it is on an antiquated and outmoded mimetic theory of art.

I am referring of course to the most fashionable of current schools of literary criticism, deconstruction. Originally applied primarily to nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, this form of analysis is gradually being extended to the interpretation of all historical periods, including the Renaissance. According to this view, Shakespeare’s plays are written in language, and language is a self-contained system, an endless play of signifiers. Hence if Shakespeare’s plays are about anything, they are about language itself.”

St. John's Review (Full Text) [pdf]