Politics and Power
Politics and Power
Shakespeare's approach to both historical and contemporary politics has long been a focus of scholarly study. Critics from Shakespeare's own time to the present have attempted to identify individuals and events from the plays with instances of political intrigue that were known to Shakespeare. Most modern scholarship has been less concerned, however, with finding correspondences between the fictional and actual, focusing instead on Shakespeare's treatment of prevailing trends in social, intellectual, and political thought. Late-twentieth-century commentators have extended the discussion from the explicitly political to a discussion of politics in Shakespeare as the term is applied in one current sense: to unequal power relationships between individuals and institutions.
Commentators remain divided on the question of Shakespeare's knowledge of political history, and even on the issue of whether it ultimately matters if Shakespeare possessed such knowledge. Early critics contended that Shakespeare had little knowledge of classical political history, and tended to speculate that Shakespeare crafted historical political situations in his plays primarily in order to comment obliquely on events that were current at the time he was writing. Most scholarship from the latter half of the twentieth century focuses on Shakespeare's interpretation or adaptation of both current and historical political situations in ways that would have resonance for his late-sixteenth-century audience. It is generally accepted that Shakespeare crafted his plays on many levels to satisfy a whole range of potential audience members, from the poorly educated, often illiterate groundlings, characterized by Shakespeare in Hamlet as "for the most part capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise," to the politically astute courtiers—people whose livelihoods and even lives depended on remaining attuned to the contemporary political scene.
Allan Bloom (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "Political Philosophy and Poetry," in Shakespeare's Politics, by Allan Bloom with Harry V. Jaffa, Basic Books, Inc., 1964, pp. 1-12.
[In the following excerpt, Bloom places Shakespeare within the Elizabethan tradition of politically aware creative writers who consciously conveyed political themes in their works.]
Shakespeare devotes great care to establishing the political setting in almost all his plays, and his greatest heroes are rulers who exercise capacities which can only be exercised within civil society. To neglect this is simply to be blinded by the brilliance of one's own prejudices. As soon as one sees this, one cannot help asking what Shakespeare thought about a good regime and a good ruler. We contend that the man of political passions and education is in a better position to understand the plays than a purely private man. With the recognition of this fact, a new perspective is opened, not only on the plays but also on our notions of politics.
If politics is considered antithetical to poetry, philosophy is thought to be even more so, for poetry deals, it is said, with passions and sentiments, whereas philosophy bases itself on reason. The poet is the inspired creator, whereas the philosopher understands only what is. To this, again, it can only be responded that much of modern philosophy certainly seems to take...
(The entire section is 25596 words.)
Politics And The Tudor Theater
David Bevington (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "Introduction: Some Approaches to Topical Meaning," in Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1968, pp. 1-26.
[In the following excerpt, Bevington summarizes scholars' attempts to link the action of Shakespeare's plays to specific topical events in Tudor England.]
Study of topical relevance in Tudor drama, especially in Shakespeare's plays, has a long history—much of it inglorious. Already in 1880, Swinburne was moved to lampoon the scholarly vogue, practiced ad nauseam by N. J. Halpin, Robert Cartwright, and others, of equating dramatic characters with historical personages. Swinburne's facetious suggestion was that Romeo covertly represents Lord Burghley. The total dissimilarity of the two merely proves that Shakespeare was being obscure to escape the censor. By 1930, Baldwin Maxwell was able to offer a more detailed parody, devastatingly true to type. Falstaff, he offered, is Robert Greene: licentious, surfeiting, on the verge of repentance ("Monsieur Remorse"), with a wife named Dorothy or Doll, ending his life broken and deserted. Most important, Shakespeare had a motive in responding to Green's attack on "Shake-scene." Well might Josephine Bennett write, in 1942, "Modern attempts to discover and interpret Elizabethan topical allegory have produced such...
(The entire section is 15158 words.)
Phyllis Rackin (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "Making History," in Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 1-39.
[In the following excerpt, Rackin examines Shakespeare's treatment of Elizabethan political history.]
The earliest Shakespearean illustration we have (ca. 1595) depicts characters from Titus Andronicus. With its anachronistic mixture of contemporary English and ancient Roman costume, the drawing can stand as an emblem for Shakespeare's peculiar situation in the history of historical consciousness. Despite the ancient Roman setting of the play, the two figures at the left, soldiers, wear Elizabethan military costume and carry halberds. In this they follow the standard practice of medieval artists, who depicted biblical personages wearing the costumes of medieval Europe, and medieval writers, who depicted pre-Christian Romans as knights and ladies going to mass in church. Titus, by contrast, is dressed in a costume that might have been copied from a Roman statue, a "classical"-looking, draped garment that, regardless of its source or authenticity, clearly manifests an effort at historical recreation. In this, he looks forward to the practice of the age to come, when a new historical consciousness would transform the images of the past on canvas and stage alike.
In the scene from Titus Andronicus,...
(The entire section is 3425 words.)
Jack D'Amico (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Rome: Politics and Theater," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 65-78.
[In the following essay, D'Amico examines Shakespeare 's dramatic treatment of Roman politics and history.]
The idea of Rome as a city-stage where western political history is acted out would have been available to Shakespeare in many forms. In the most general sense, Rome was the city whose monuments defined public life and it is not surprising that a city dominated by a "grand display of state architecture" should have become in the Renaissance a center for the revival of theater. In the 1480's Pomponius Laetus and his Academia staged Seneca's Hippolytus on a raised platform in a Roman square and Rome was to become a city of theater in the 1490's and early 1500's under Popes Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, and Julius II. In 1513 Pope Leo X transformed the Campidoglio into a theater for a series of spectacles, including a banquet, a performance of Plautus's Poenulus, a mass, and pageants. All of this spectacle had a clear political purpose: to celebrate the bestowing of Roman citizenship on the Pope's brother Giuliano and his nephew Lorenzo.
For the humanist, theater might be identified with the rhetorical skill looked for in the effective leader and with the triumph, pageant, or banquet that...
(The entire section is 6515 words.)
Berns, Laurence. "Transcendence and Equivocation: Some Political, Theological, and Philosphical Themes in Shakespeare." Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 41-9. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.
Examines the powerful cases of self-justification made by many of Shakespeare's flawed characters in defense of unethical political actions.
Dollimore, Jonathan, and Sinfield, Alan. Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985, 244 p.
Cultural materialist study situating Shakespeare's works historically and examining their political dimension.
Hamilton, Donna B. Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992, 253 p.
Historical study concerned with Shakespeare's knowledge and treatment of the political realities of his era.
Marx, Steven. "Shakespeare's Pacifism." Renaissance Quarterly XLV, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 49-95.
Explores Shakespeare's humanistic approach to questions of war and peace.
Orgel, Stephen. "Making Greatness Familiar." Genre 15, Nos. 1-2 (Spring-Summer 1982): 41-8.
Assesses the pageantry of the Elizabethan theater as one of its chief attractions. Orgel discusses the impact on various classes of...
(The entire section is 255 words.)