Study Guide

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Essay - Politics and Power

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 no account of poetry, but it is not so clear that this is necessarily the case or that a poet cannot also be a thinker.

There is some question whether it would be possible for a man who had not thought a great deal about human nature to write a convincing drama. It is only an assumption that Shakespeare did not have a consistent and rational understanding of man which he illustrated in his plays; only a final and complete interpretation of them all could demonstrate that this is so. On the face of it, the man who could write Macbeth so convincingly that a Lincoln believed it to be the perfect illustration of the problems of tyranny and murder must have known about politics; otherwise, however charming its language, the play would not have attracted a man who admittedly did know. The contemporary antagonism between philosophy and poetry is a child of our age; it might serve most profitably to remind us of another kind of philosophy, one which could talk sensibly about human things, and of another kind of poetry, one which could unite the charm of the passions with the rigor of the intellect.

Shakespeare wrote at a time when common sense still taught that the function of the poet was to produce pleasure and that the function of the great poet was to teach what is truly beautiful by means of pleasure. Common sense was supported by a long tradition which had a new burst of vitality in the Renaissance. Socrates had said that Homer was the teacher of the Greeks, and he meant by that that those who ruled Greece had their notions of what kind of men they would like to be set for them by the Homeric epics. Achilles was the authentic hero, and his glory was that against which all later heroes up to Alexander competed. A man who knew Homer was a Greek. If we follow Herodotus, Homer, along with Hesiod, also invented the gods in the forms in which they were worshiped by later generations. He was the true founder of his people, for he gave them what made them distinctive, invented that soul for which they are remembered. Such are the ambitions of the great poet. Goethe understood this:

A great dramatic poet, if he is at the same time productive and is actuated by a strong noble purpose which pervades all his works, may succeed in making the soul of his plays become the soul of the people. I should think that this was well worth the trouble. From Corneille proceeded an influence capable of forming heroes. This was something for Napoleon, who had need of a heroic people, on which account he said of Corneille that, if he were still living, he would make a prince of him. A dramatic poet who knows his vocation should therefore work incessantly at its higher development in order that his influence on the people may be noble and beneficial.

As Napoleon knew, it is only a poet who can give a people such inspiration.

Poetry is the most powerful form of rhetoric, a form which goes beyond ordinary rhetoric in that it shapes the men on whom the statesman's rhetoric can work. The philosopher cannot move nations; he speaks only to a few. The poet can take the philosopher's understanding and translate it into images which touch the deepest passions and cause men to know without knowing that they know. Aristotle's description of heroic virtue means nothing to men in general, but Homer's incarnation of that virtue in the Greeks and Trojans is unforgettable. This desire to depict the truth about man and to make other men fulfill that truth is what raises poetry to its greatest heights in the epic and the drama. Poetry takes on its significance, in both its content and its uses, from the political nobility of the poet. Poetry is not autonomous; its life is infused by its attachment to the same objects which motivate the best of acting men.

The poet's task is a double one—to understand the things he wishes to represent and to understand the audience to which he speaks. He must know about the truly permanent human problems; otherwise his works will be slight and passing. There must be parallelism between what he speaks of and the most vital concerns of his audience; without that, his works will be mere tributes to the virtuosity of his techniques. In the great work, one is unaware of the technique and even of the artist; one is only conscious that the means are perfectly appropriate to the ends. The beauty of the words is but a reflection of the beauty of the thing; the poet is immersed in the thing, which is the only source of true beauty. And he must know what to touch in his audience. A photograph of a man does not usually convey the character of a man; that is grasped in certain traits which may rarely be seen. The painter can abstract all that is not essential to that impression, and he knows how the eye of the viewer will see the man. Certain illusions are often necessary to see the man as he really is; the sense of reality is transmitted in a medium of unreality. So the poet, too, must know how to play on his audience, how to transform its vision while taking it for what it is. That audience is a complex animal made up of many levels. To each he must speak, appealing to the simple souls as well as to the subtle. Thus, his poem is complex and has many levels, just as does the audience; it is designed first for the conventional order composed of aristocracy and commoners, but more profoundly for the natural order composed of those who understand and those who do not. The poet knows the characters of men from both looking at them and speaking to them. That is why the intelligent man takes him seriously; he has a kind of experience with men that the practitioner of no other art or science possesses.

The poet is an imitator of nature; he reproduces what he sees in the world, and it is only his preoccupation with that world which renders him a poet. He is not a creator, for that would mean that he makes something from nothing; were he to look only within himself, he would find a void—a void destined by nature itself to be filled with knowledge of the essential articulations of things. What distinguishes a good poet from a bad one is whether he has seen things as they are and learned to distinguish the superficial from the profound. In particular, poetry imitates man, and this means—according to the classical tradition which I am elaborating—his virtues and his vices. A man is most what he is as a result of what he does; a man is known, not simply by his existence, but by the character of his actions—liberal or greedy, courageous or cowardly, frank or sly, moderate or profligate. Since these qualities produce happiness or misery, they are of enduring interest to human beings. Hence they are the specific subject matter of poetry. Passions, feelings, and the whole realm of the psychological are secondary. This is because feelings are properly related to certain kinds of action and to the virtues which control such action; they are formless when considered by themselves. Jealousy and ambition have to do with love and politics and gain their particular qualities from the particular objects to which they are directed and the particular men who feel them; therefore, the primary concern of the poet is with the various kinds of human action. The plot, the story of a series of actions which leads to prosperity or misfortune, is the soul of the play and that which guides all else, including the portrayal of psychological affections.

Human virtues and vices can be said to be defined primarily in political terms. Civil society and its laws define what is good and bad, and its education forms the citizens. The character of life is decisively influenced by the character of the regime under which a man lives, and it is the regime that encourages or discourages the growth within it of the various human types. Any change in a way of life presupposes a change in the political, and it is by means of the political that the change must be effected. It is in their living together that men develop their human potential, and it is the political regime which determines the goals and the arrangement of the life in common. Moreover, it is in ruling and being ruled, in the decisions concerning war and peace, that men exercise their highest capacities. There may be situations in which men have no chance to be rulers, but, to the degree to which they are excluded from political life, they are less fully developed and satisfied. In political life, not only are the ordinary virtues projected on a larger screen, but totally new capacities are brought into play. The political provides the framework within which all that is human can develop itself; it attracts the most interesting passions and the most interesting men. Hence, the dramatist who wishes to represent man most perfectly will usually choose political heroes. Because of his artistic freedom, he can paint his figures more characteristically, less encumbered by fortuitous traits, than can a historian.

What is essentially human is revealed in the extreme, and we understand ourselves better through what we might be. In a way, the spectators live more truly when they are watching a Shakespearean play than in their daily lives, which are so much determined by the accidents of time and place. There could be a theater dealing totally with the private life, the cares of providing for a living and raising a family. But men who never got beyond that life would be cut off from their fullest human development, and a theater which acquiesced in that view of human life would be only a tool in increasing the enslavement to it.

This is a popular account of the traditional view of the drama, that which was current in Shakespeare's time; it is more likely that he shared it than that he held anything like the modern view. It is not necessary to argue that he himself had reflected on it; it was in the air, and he would come naturally to think about things in these terms. But, in fact, it seems clear on the basis of the evidence provided by the histories that Shakespeare did, indeed, elaborate his intentions and consciously wanted his works to convey his political wisdom. In these plays, he tried to develop a sensible view of what the English regime is and how it should be accepted and revered by succeeding generations of Englishmen. He was successful in this attempt, for the English do understand their history and what it represents much as he depicted it. Here his intention was clearly political, and his understanding of what is both beautiful and exciting to his audience is based primarily on the concerns of civil society. Is it plausible to say that this was just a series of good stories? They are, indeed, good stories, but they are that precisely because of the kind of interest they evoke. Can one reasonably say that he dashed off the historical plays because he needed money or that he was ignorant of the essential facts of English history because he had never studied? This would be as much as to say that Jefferson, with no consideration of political principle, wrote the Declaration of Independence because he wanted to be well known and that its success is due to its being an excellent Fourth of July oration.

What is so manifestly true of the histories could well be true of the tragedies and comedies, too. Shakespeare's humanity was not limited to England or to making Englishmen good citizens of England. There is a whole series of fundamental human problems, and I suggest that Shakespeare intended to depict all of them and that the man who, per impossibile, could understand all the plays individually would see the consequences of all the possible important choices of ways of life and understand fully the qualities of the various kinds of good soul. But that takes me beyond the scope of this introduction; I allude to it only to indicate the range of Shakespeare's genius. For the moment, it is sufficient to suggest the possibility that, for the other plays, just as for the histories, Shakespeare may have seen politics as, at the least, very important, that he had a pedagogic intention, and that his learning was sufficient to make him aware of the fundamental alternatives, theoretical and practical.

If this is so, political philosophy would be essential to our interpretation of his works. However wrong Shakespeare may have been about the real nature of poetry as discovered by modern criticism, in understanding him we would have to use his framework instead of trying to squeeze him into our new categories. Every rule of objectivity requires that an author first be understood as he understood himself; without that, the work is nothing but what we make of it. The role of political philosophy in Shakespearean criticism would be to give a discursive account of the goals of the passions depicted in the plays. When Sextus Pompeius is given the choice of murdering his guests and becoming emperor of the universe or remaining within the pale of decency and being done away with himself, we are confronted with a classic problem of political morality, one that is presented with detail and precision in Antony and Cleopatra. We must recognize it as such, and we must further have some knowledge of the kinds of men who desire to rule and of what this desire does to them. It is only in philosophic discussion that we find a development of these problems, and from that we can help to clarify the problems of which Shakespeare gives us models. In our day, we are particularly in need of the history of political philosophy, for we are not immediately aware of the various possible understandings of the political and moral phenomena and must seek those which most adequately explain what Shakespeare presents to us.

Shakespeare has set his plays in many nations and at various times in history. This is a good beginning for the investigation of his teaching, for various nations encourage various virtues in men; one cannot find every kind of man in any particular time and place. Just the difference between paganism and Christianity has an important effect on the kinds of preoccupations men have. To present the various possibilities, the typical men have to be in an environment in which they can flourish. The dates and places of Shakespeare's plays were chosen with a view to revealing the specific interests of the heroes. It was only in Venice that Othello and Shylock could act out their potentials; they were foreigners, and only Venice provided them freedom and a place in the city. Only in Rome could one see the course of political ambition free of other goals which mitigate it. It would be a worthwhile project to spend a lifetime studying the settings of the plays in relation to the plots, trying to see what are the typical problems of what time and what nation. All this would be with a view to distinguishing what Shakespeare thought the best kinds of men and what advantages and disadvantages go with what ways of life. We are in need of generations of criticism—naïve criticism which asks the kinds of question of Shakespeare that Glaucon and Adeimantus once posed to Socrates. How should we live? Is it best to be a ruler or a poet? Can one kill a king? Should one's parents be disobeyed for the sake of love? And so on endlessly.

Schiller pointed out that modern times are characterized by abstract science on the one hand and unrefined passions on the other and that the two have no relation. A free man and a good citizen must have a natural harmony between his passions and his knowledge; this is what is meant by a man of taste, and it is he whom we today seem unable to form. We are aware that a political science which does not grasp the moral phenomena is crude and that an art uninspired by the passion for justice is trivial. Shakespeare wrote before the separation of these things; we sense that he has both intellectual clarity and vigorous passions and that the two do not undermine each other in him. If we live with him a while, perhaps we can recapture the fullness of life and rediscover the way to its lost unity.

T. J. B. Spencer (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Social Assent and Dissent in Shakespeare's Plays," in Review of National Literatures, Vol. III, No. 2, Fall, 1972, pp. 20-38.

[In the following essay, Spencer examines the attitudes toward a stable, politically regulated society professed by various characters.]

The politics of Shakespeare are a well-worn subject. They have been discussed, or dismissed, with erudition, surprise, superiority, admiration, indignation, and sorrow. There is a shelf of books and pamphlets on the subject of "Shakespeare's politics," or "Shakespeare and politics." Indeed, a certain amount of courage, or insensibility, is needed to take up a topic on which several distinguished writers and not irresponsible scholars have already broken their shins. I should not have chosen this topic if I had found said what I wanted to be said and if I had not hoped to set the matter in a better perspective at a time when most of us are tempted to make works of literature a substitute for the parson and the statesman. We have learned the importance of the exercise of the imagination as part of the normal and indispensable life of our children, and most educational theory and practice has nowadays liberated them from the persistent inculcation of doctrines of moral retribution. But there are certainly many sensitive and influential literary critics around who, both by precept and example, encourage us in the notion that, for adults, the significance of great literature is that it demonstrates—explicitly or implicitly, symbolically or hieroglyphically, obliquely or even directly—that to be good is to be good and that to be bad is to be wicked.

The politics of Shakespeare are, I say, a well-worn subject. We all know that he has been claimed as an adherent of every form of political doctrine (as he has of most religious creeds, and not exclusively Christianity). Yet, the incitements to an inquiry into his opinions are strong. A large number of Shakespeare's plays deal with stories which involve the claims of the state upon the individual, the widest and most serious problems and dilemmas of right conduct in the face of ambition, injustice, and tyranny; the exercise of power in the government of men, the causes of political failure and success, and the nature of good government and of bad. It has naturally been assumed that, as Shakespeare's writings are so much concerned with political situations, there are political lessons to be learned from them. Some plays are, of course, more political than others, though a determined eye can doubtless find politics (or at least "social content") in any of the plays. At the one extreme we have Coriolanus; at the other—what shall I say?—The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Assent and Dissent

We must begin by saying that, to some of his admirers, Shakespeare's attitude toward the social system has been embarrassingly lacking in candid constructive criticism. The politics of poets are, indeed, occasionally disconcerting. We remember Milton, Wordsworth, Yeats. … Nowadays we feel more willing to forgive a poet his morals than his politics. We are less intolerant of Wordsworth's Annette then we are of his annuity. Some cautious or timorous souls, glad to be able to evade or deny the problem, are tempted to agree with the great A. C. Bradley on Shakespeare: "I think we should feel it extremely hazardous to ascribe to him any political feelings at all, and ridiculous to pretend to certainty on the subject."

It is, nevertheless, a fact that into the mouths of the characters in Shakespeare's plays are put eloquent expressions of attitudes of social assent and dissent. By "social assent" or acceptance I refer to those occasions on which the characters speak in favor of a stable society, with carefully organized and admitted gradations of authority; a society in which everyone keeps to his station in life, obeying orders from his superiors while giving orders to his inferiors. This is what the good Christian, since the time of King Edward VI, has promised when he recited his catechism: "To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters. To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters. … Not to covet nor desire other men's goods. But learn and labor truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call me." It is the attitude that, when vulgarly interpreted, was derided by Dickens:

O let us love our occupations,
Bless the squire and his relations,
Live upon our daily rations
And always keep our proper stations.

Many passages in Shakespeare's historical and fictional tragedies can be quoted as evidence for this kind of social assent. The most famous example is Ulysses's pleas to the assembled Greeks that they ought not to be so quarrelsome. Without due observance of gradations of authority, says Ulysses (that notoriously subtle cheat), a sense of Right and Wrong, and Justice itself, would disappear. With hyperbolical language, which perhaps discredits his opinions, Ulysses claims, like a demented reactionary, that except in this rigid society

Every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite an universal wolf …
Must make perforce an universal prey
And last eat up himself.

By "social dissent" I refer to those occasions when a character speaks out in favor of the underdog, and supports the claims of the victims of an unjust system. A typical straight example of this is King Lear's realization, amid the discomforts of the storm on the heath, that as a ruler he has neglected to care for the impoverished members of society.

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed
Your looped and windowed raggedness,
 defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.

On this side of the question also must be put the dignified speech which Shakespeare wrote for the French king in All's Well that Ends Well, which seems to support the notion of a meritocracy (in contradiction to the sophistries of the supersubtle Ulysses): in strong-minded rhymed couplets, he attempts to prove that Helena, by the intellectual and moral abilities she has by nature, is a fit bride for the young nobleman, in spite of her lowly birth. He claims that what is important is natural merit and that "order" or social position can be accommodated and adjusted to it.

From lowest place when virtuous things
The place is dignified by the doer's deed.
Where great additions swell's, and virtue
It is a dropsied honour. Good alone
Is good without a name. Vileness is so.
The property by what it is should go,
Not by the title. … Honours thrive,
When rather from our acts we them derive
Than our foregoers.

The problem of where exactly Shakespeare stands between these two extremes (or whether he stood anywhere) has caused some perplexity among critics for a long time, especially concerning certain plays. Generally speaking, throughout the nineteenth century and subsequently, Coriolanus has been the occasion of an inquiry into Shakespeare's political views. It was supposed to be (according to Hazlitt) "a storehouse of political commonplaces. … The arguments for and against aristocracy or democracy, on the privileges of the few and the claims of the many, on liberty and slavery, on power and the abuse of it, peace and war, are here very ably handled, with the spirit of a poet and the acuteness of a philosopher."

There have, of course, always been those who were skeptical of the value of a search for Shakespeare's political opinions and his contribution to political thought, on the grounds that there is an essential anachronism in studying Elizabethan literature from the stand-point of later ideas. Likewise, some of the creators of political theory, such as Mazzini and Comte, and the representatives of political action, were themselves not slow to emphasize Shakespeare's limitations. But among the champions of Shakespeare's political wisdom are those who have seen his special merit in his political detachment. Shakespeare was essentially an observer and an artist, incapable of partisanship. Like Homer and Goethe, he was of no party, as he was of no sect or caste; and he shared their splendid impartiality. He knew "what men are, and what the world is, and how and what men aim at there, from the Dame Quickly of modern Eastcheap to the Caesar of ancient Rome, over many countries, over many centuries; of all this he had a clear understanding and constructive comprehension." In the face of Shakespeare's overwhelming political wisdom, allegiance to any party movement or theory of government seemed, somehow, unworthy of him. It was not so much that Shakespeare despised these things as that he transcended them. How could he who saw through all policies and all politics and all politicians be imagined as giving up to party what was meant for mankind? Tennyson, when asked in his undergraduate days at Cambridge what politics he held, replied, with obscure arrogance, "I am of the same politics as Shakespeare, Bacon, and every sane man."

Nevertheless, without entirely disregarding the skeptics about Shakespeare's political wisdom and the admirers of his detachment, a discreet inquirer could, perhaps, discern something of the motions of Shakespeare's mind on the important subject of political responsibility and commitment. Strenuous efforts have been, in fact, made to annex him to the liberal or radical cause. When Wordsworth declared, in one of his Sonnets on National Independence and Liberty in 1802,

We must be free or die, who speak the tongue
That Shakespeare spake,

the allusion was perhaps patriotic rather than political. But when Browning taunted his Lost Leader (generally supposed to be Wordsworth) by reminding him of the excellent company he had abandoned,

Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley, were with us—they watch
 from their graves!

it must be regarded as an audacious assumption of Shakespeare's membership of the left-wing party. Shakespeare was not, of course, a poet of revolution. Nobody in that century in England could be; but surely (declared Swinburne) "the author of Julius Caesar has approved himself in the best and highest sense of the word at least potentially a republican," and "the author of King Lear avowed himself in the only good and rational sense of the words a spiritual if not a political democrat and socialist." In King Lear, wrote Swinburne on another occasion, there was to be found an expression of the most advanced doctrine of the equality of man confronted by nature. This play was "the first great utterance of a cry from the heights and the depths of the human spirit on behalf of the outcasts of the world—on behalf of the social sufferer, clean or unclean, innocent or criminal, thrall or free." England under Queen Elizabeth I (continues Swinburne) was far from being a genuine monarchy, that is, from possessing "a government really deserving of that odious and ignominious name"; and Shakespeare had a sense of social justice, unknown and unimaginable to Dante or to Chaucer, which "could be uttered, could be prophesied, could be thundered from the English stage at the dawn of the seventeenth century." A social revolution, says Swinburne, "as beneficent and as bloodless, as absolute and as radical as enkindled the aspiration and the faith of Victor Hugo, is the keynote of the creed and the watchword of the gospel according to Shakespeare."

This radical Shakespeare, although he appeared fairly frequently and has been honorably received, did not go unchallenged. In fact, almost as if there were another poet of the same name, he made a rather more frequent, and rather more eloquent, appearance on the other political platform. From the early years of the nineteenth century there have been those who discovered, with comfort or with disdain, that Shakespeare's sympathies were aristocratic, conservative, reactionary, undemocratic, tory. There have been those, too, who, less in sorrow than in anger, discovered he was a snob and at worst a toady.

Many of Shakespeare's offensive allusions to the lower orders, such as "the mutable, rank-scented many" in Coriolanus (III.i.66), might be regarded as dramatically appropriate and as giving no indication of the author's personal opinions. Still, the comments on "The wavering commons," "our slippery people," and

The blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,

are not encouraging. We are often told that

A habitation giddy and unsure
Hath he that buildeth on the vulgar heart.

In many of Shakespeare's plays (As You Like It, Hamlet, The Tempest) the power of "the people" is acknowledged to be dangerous to the rulers. This may represent no more than the commonplaces of political sagacity. It is more difficult to explain away the gratuitously insulting picture of the "lean unwashed artificer" in King John (IV.ii.201). The Roman mobs in Shakespeare's plays were (although historically based) represented as little different from his English mobs. Shakespeare had to take the responsibility for his pictures of democracy in action. "The whole dramatic moral of Coriolanus," tartly explained Hazlitt, "is that those who have little shall have less, and that those who have much shall take all that others have left. The people are poor; therefore they ought to be starved. They are slaves; therefore they ought to be treated like beasts of burden. They are ignorant; therefore they ought not to be allowed to feel that they want food, or clothing, or rest—that they are enslaved, oppressed, and miserable." Ernest H. Crosby's pamphlet, Shakespeare and the Working Classes, published about 1900, is a naive and entertaining indictment of the poet as an enemy of the people. Some of Shakespeare's contemporaries, Crosby pointed out, did not share his snobbish prejudices. Robert Greene in The Pinner of Wake-field shows a pound-keeper refusing to accept a knight-hood from the King. Someone else put on the stage the story of Thomas Gresham, who rose from being a simple merchant's son. A third told the story of Richard Whittington. How can one pardon Shakespeare for not showing how merit was possible in the common people? Wolsey was the son of a butcher. But does Shakespeare make more than a passing mention of his humble origin? Joan of Arc was a peasant girl. But does Shakespeare see anything noble in her? "If Joan had been a member of the French Royal Family," scolds Ernest Crosby, "we may be sure that she would have received better treatment."

It is this apparent absence of any progressive political spirit which is behind a good deal of Bernard Shaw's flamboyant animosity to Shakespeare; at least it is one of his excuses. "The reason why Shakespear and Molière are always well spoken of and recommended to the young is that their quarrel is really a quarrel with God for not making men better. If they had quarrelled with a specified class of persons with incomes of four figures for not doing their work better, or for doing no work at all, they would be denounced as seditious, impious, and profligate corrupters of morality."

The Theatrical Value of the Underdog

In the face of these contradictions in the evidence and in the inferences, we need not suppose that Shakespeare was gifted with a self-defensive impartiality or that he was a gay nothingarian. In considering works of art it is best to begin with an analysis of the artistic reasons that may lie behind the artist's decisions.

First, it is an effective theatrical device to elevate the clever underdog in a play; to elevate him, that is, in the eyes of the audience, however much he may be humiliated by the stage situation. Solemn superiority is all very well. But we are, most of us, representatives of the "little man," as Charlie Chaplin (and others) demonstrated. Instinctively we are on the side of those who are pitted against effortless superiority, and we cherish an affection for characters who make the great people put a bit of effort into their effortless superiority. A David always has the advantage of our sympathetic encouragement over a Goliath in any theatrical performance. It is some comfort to the oppressed, when in holiday mood in the theater, to see themselves getting their own back upon "the great."

It is no accident, therefore, nor is it evidence of radical political sympathies, that the plebeians and personages of inferior social status are allowed to be so theatrically strong in Shakespeare's plays. A comparison with the problem of the women characters is instructive. For a long time, Shakespeare was felt to be a kind of anticipator of the feminist movement, so splendidly in advance of their time, in intellect and sensibility, were his Portia, Rosalind, Helena, and so on. But we can see the artistic purpose of this elevation of good women characters in the context of a man-ruled world. It is delightful, for example, to watch the unaffected superiority of Rosalind to her lovable Orlando. The voice of our conscience may speak with Celia: "You have simply misused our sex in your love-prate." But how much we enjoy it! Orlando has been given every masculine merit in the eyes of a young lady: goodness and generosity, an impressive Christian name, courage and a physical prowess that can overcome a terrible man-killing wrestler. But how easily and how gaily a mere girl can put him down! Man and Superman, in fact.

Shakespeare's skillfully artistic use of women characters may help us to understand his artistic treatment of that other category of socially inferior creatures: the uneducated poor, the mob, the citizens, the plebeians; those who cobble or fish for a living, or who tend real sheep or goats. In the battle of wits with their superiors, they generally come off honorably, if not victoriously. They may seem to be talked down, and they may themselves suppose that they have been intellectually outwitted. But the audience is left with an impression of their superiority, in some respects at least. The Cobbler in Julius Caesar is quite a match for those inflammatory politicians, Flavius and Marullus. The play opens with a confrontation between a crowd of commons and those terrible spoilsports. The good-natured holiday crowd are the object of unprovoked and embittered railing:

Flavius. Hence! Home, you idle creatures, get you home: Is this a holiday?

Well, obviously it is a holiday, and a very good one, too; and we have our holiday clothes on, our "best apparel":

What, know you not,
Being mechanical, you ought not walk
Upon a labouring day without the sign
Of your profession?

Clearly Flavius is in favor of that ordered society in which everyone not only keeps to his station in life, but displays it, visibly and exactly, by the clothes he wears.

Speak. What trade art thou?
First Commoner. Why, Sir, a carpenter.
Marullus. Where is thy leather apron and thy rule?
What dost thou with thy best apparel on?

And now Marullus, who is a quick-tempered ass, makes an unlucky choice in singling out a member of the crowd.

You sir, what trade are you?

Second Commoner. Truly, sir, in respect of a fine workman, I am but, as you would say, a cobbler.

Marullus. But what trade art thou? Answer me directly.

Second Commoner. A trade, sir, that I hope I may use with a safe conscience, which is indeed, sir, a mender of bad soles.

Marullus. What trade, thou knave? Thou naughty knave, what trade?

(This plebeian is no longer "sir," we observe; and he will soon be "thou saucy fellow.")

Second Commoner. Nay, I beseech you, sir, be no out with me; yet, if you be out, sir, I can mend you.

Marullus. What meanest thou by that? Mend me, thou saucy fellow!

Second Commoner. Why, sir, cobble you.

Flavius, meanwhile, has kept his temper and sees through the leg-pulling:

Thou art a cobbler, art thou?

Second Commoner. Truly, sir, all that I live by is with the awl. I meddle with no tradesman's matters nor women's matters, but with awl. I am indeed, sir, a surgeon to old shoes. When they are in great danger, I re-cover them. As proper men as ever trod upon neat's leather have gone upon my handiwork.

Flavius. But wherefore art not in thy shop to-day? Why dost thou lead these men about the streets?

Second Commoner. Truly, sir, to wear out their shoes, to get myself into more work.

Corin, the shepherd in As You Like It, thinks that Touchstone has "too courtly a wit" for him to be able to cope with. But the audience feels that he is the better philosopher of the two.

Corin. And how like you this shepherd's life, Master Touchstone?

Touchstone. Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd's life, it is nought. In respect that it is solitary I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious. As it is a spare life, look you, it fits my humor well; but as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach. Hast any1 philosophy in thee, shepherd?

Corin. No more but that I know the more one sickens the worse at ease he is; and that he that wants money, means, and content, is without three good friends; that the property of rain is to wet, and fire to burn; that good pasture makes fat sheep; and that a great cause of the night is lack of the sun; that he that hath learned no wit by nature nor art may complain of good breeding, or comes of a very dull kindred.

Touchstone. Such a one is a natural philosopher …

Again and again poor Corin tries to argue back. In fact, he argues very well. But Touchstone is too quick for him and evades all his good points. Eventually Corin seems to give in. But he then has a come-back:

Sir, I am a true labourer. I earn that I eat, get that I wear; owe no man hate, envy no man's happiness; glad of other men's good, content with my harm; and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.

With such pieces of theatrical effectiveness in mind, we can turn to Coriolanus, and observe the plebeians assess Caius Martius very shrewdly.

Second Citizen. Consider you what services he has done for his country.

First Citizen. Very well; and could be content to give him good report for't, but that he pays himself with being proud.

Second Citizen. Nay, but speak not maliciously.

First Citizen. I say unto you, what he hath done famously, he did it to that end. Though soft-conscienced men can be content to say it was for his country, he did it to please his mother, and to be partly proud; which he is, even to the altitude of his virtue.

Menenius tries to pacify them with his "pretty tale," but the plebeian replies: "Well, I'll hear it, sir. Yet you must not think to fob off our disgrace with a tale." And when Coriolanus stands in the Forum "in a gown of humility," his sarcasms receive their quiet retort from the citizens:

Coriolanus. You know the cause, sir, of my standing here.

Third Citizen. We do, sir. Tell us what hath brought you to't.

Coriolanus. Mine own desert.

Second Citizen. Your own desert?

Coriolanus. Ay, but not mine own desire.

Third Citizen. How not your own desire?

Coriolanus. No, sir. 'Twas never my desire yet to trouble the poor with begging.

Third Citizen. You must think if we give you anything, we hope to gain by you.

Coriolanus. Well then, I pray, your price o' th' consulship?

First Citizen. The price is, to ask it kindly.

A careful theatrical balance, as has often been noted, is preserved between the virtues and vices of different political forces. The "people" are not the curs, hares, geese, rats, fragments, and musty superfluity that Coriolanus calls them, although they are often uncomprehending, easily deceived, and easily aroused. The tribunes are not merely comic or merely despicable figures (as they sometimes are represented in productions of the play), though they easily expose themselves to ridicule and they fall into the temptation to manipulate the plebeians in order to promote what they adjudge to be the right cause. They lose the sympathy of the audience at times, and so does Coriolanus, and his mother Volumnia, too. But Shakespeare does not make the mistake of allowing the plebeians to lose our understanding sympathy.

It may be granted that the plebeians in Shakespeare's Roman plays are a result of his efforts to be historically authentic. It may be granted, too, that, in all probability, Shakespeare, like any respectable landowner and well-established citizen, shared an aversion to the mob as a political force. Twice in my life I have witnessed the mob, one pro-British, the other anti-British; they were equally terrifying. Popular "uprisings" were familiar events in English history. Thomas Nashe wrote in 1598:

The Chronicles of England teach us … sufficiently how inclinable the simpler sort of the people are to routs, riots, commotions, insurrections, and plain rebellions, when they grow brain-sick or any new toy taketh them in the head.

Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, and John Ball in the time of Richard II, Jack Cade in the time of Henry VI, Evil May Day in 1517, the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1537, were not remote from the Elizabethans, Kett's rebellion in Norfolk in 1549 took six weeks to put down. The Northern Rebellion of 1569 was even more serious, and was to a considerable extent a "popular" movement. There was an insurrection in the Midlands in 1607; in May and June of that year, in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire, the rioters destroyed hedges and ditches which had been made to enclose common lands. We know from the legal records that Shakespeare was a careful landowner and apparently a watchful man of business, and he can hardly fail to have taken note of this threat to his financial situation. We may admit that the theme of Coriolanus—the conflict between, on the one hand, privilege and authority, and, on the other, popular discontent—was, in Shakespeare's time, not a dead one. The conflict that was already beginning in Jacobean politics was to reach its culmination under Charles I. But it was not a simple struggle between an oligarchy and plebeians. It was no conflict between aristocrats and mob, as is manifested in Shakespeare's play. In building up his imaginative pictures for stage entertainment, Shakespeare is more likely to have been influenced by memories of his reading about past "troubles" than by prophetic perceptions of the English Revolution of the 1640s.

But all this is a small matter in comparison with the artistic necessities of holding the attention of a theater audience. And for this reason we should be in error if we were to read Shakespeare as we read Montaigne or Bacon or Milton. Indeed, one has only to recall what a sympathetic author in a nontheatrical work could say about "the people" in order to be aware how strong had been the influence of Shakespeare's theatrical context upon his mode of expression on this subject. In Paradise Regain'd, Milton allowed his Christ to say:

And what the people but a herd confus'd
A miscellaneous rabble, who extol
Things vulgar, & well weigh'd, scarce worth
 the praise;
They praise and they admire they know not
And know not whom, but as one leads the
And what delight to be by such extoll'd
To live upon their tongues and be their talk,
Of whom to be disprais'd were no small
His lot who dares be singularly good.
Th' intelligent among them and the wise
Are few.

And Milton's Samson is as contemptuous as is his Christ:

Nor do I name of men the common rout,
That wandering loose about
Grow up and perish, as the summer flie,
Heads without name no more remembered.

The readers of Paradise Regain'd and of Samson Agonistes—a fit audience and few—are not likely to object to this sort of thing. But Shakespeare is composing works for public presentation and for public delight; and therefore an entirely different kind of "social snobbery" is appropriate. We know what kind of "social snobbery" is characteristic of popular entertainment. When in holiday mood, what audiences love to see is the noble earl sitting down alongside the artisan, or the handsome young laborer chatting with the princess, or the faithful servants of meritorious aristocrats—these always pull at the heart strings. Old Adam in As You Like it, for example, one who has loyally served old Sir Rowland and now his worthy son, prepared to give him his lifetime's savings to keep him from harm—how we are touched by such noble servility! And Orlando exclaims on our behalf that, in the old days, there were plenty of such good and faithful servants:

O good old man, how well in thee appears
The constant service of the antique world,
When service sweat for duty, not for meed!
Thou art not for the fashion of these times,
Where none will sweat but for promotion,
And having that do choke their service up
Even with the having. It is not so with thee.

How tenderly we respond to such honorable subservience and warmhearted condescension!

Along with the loyal servants of gracious masters go other kinds of "nature's gentlemen." Shakespeare knows that we in the audience enjoy his representing men actually engaged upon their job in life, performing their allotted task with professional confidence. Consider the Boatswain in the opening scene of The Tempest. He is introduced with brevity and confidence:

Heigh, my hearts! Cheerly, cheerly, my hearts!
 Yare, yare!
Take in the topsail. Tend to the master's
Blow, till thou burst thy wind, if room

The royal and noble passengers come on deck and get in the way of the mariners:

You mar our labour. Keep your cabins. You do assist the storm.

Gonzalo. Nay, good, be patient.

Boatswain. When the sea is. Hence! What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin! Silence! Trouble us not.

Gonzalo. Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard.

Boatswain. None that I more love than myself. You are a counsellor. If you can command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more. Use your authority. If you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long, and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap.—Cheerly, good hearts!—Out of our way, I say.

The vigor and energy with which the Boatswain continues to exercise his skill in the perilous crisis contrast with the foul language of Sebastian and Antonio: "A pox o' your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!" The accusation is wild and unjustified. The Boatswain's language is remarkably free from oaths. He replies to these insults with: "Work you, then." And thereupon Antonio takes up Sebastian's insults.

Hang, cur! Hang, you whoreson, insolent noisemaker … We are merely cheated of our lives by drunkards. This wide-chapped rascal—would thou mightest lie drowning

The washing of ten tides!

In short, the Boatswain, while performing the duties of his calling, behaves with a dignity greater than that of his social superiors. He dominates them by what we should call strength of character, something more important than noble rank.

In tragedy, as in comedy, the shrewd comments of the working man are delightful to the audience when contrasted with the elaborate or disingenuous sentiments of their rulers. It is immediately after Queen Gertrude's pathetic account of the death of Ophelia by drowning that Shakespeare astonishingly introduces a further discussion of the subject by the Sexton and his assistant:

First Clown. Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she wilfully seeks her own salvation?

Second Clown. I tell thee she is. Therefore make her grave straight. The crowner hath set on her, and finds it Christian burial.

First Clown. How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defence?

Their hilarious argument about the casuistic problem of drowning oneself in one's own defence is a burlesque of what must have recently gone on in the coroner's court over the cause of poor Ophelia's death. And the Second Clown suddenly breaks in:

Second Clown. Will you ha' the truth on't? If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out a' Christian burial.

First Clown. Why, there thou sayest; and the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christen.

This looks forward to the Priest's admission that "great command o'ersways the order"; otherwise Ophelia's corpse

should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet.

Every audience for Pericles must have laughed with delight at the Fisherman's retort to his comrade's meditative "I marvel how the fishes live in the sea":

Why, as men do a-land—the great ones eat up the little ones. I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale: 'a plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful. Such whales have I heard on a'th'land, who never leave gaping till they've swallowed the whole parish, church, steeple, bells, and all.

"A pretty moral!," exclaims Pericles aside to us, as we all listen to the Fishermen talking.

Pericles. Peace be at your labour, honest fishermen!

Fisherman. Honest, good fellow? What's that? … Pericles implores their pity: He asks of you that never used to beg.

Fisherman. No, friend, cannot you beg? Here's them in our country of Greece get more with begging than we can do with working.

Second Fisherman. Canst thou catch any fishes, then?

Pericles. I never practised it.

Second Fisherman. Nay, then thou wilt starve, sure. For here's nothing to be got now-a-days unless thou canst fish for't.

To summarize. The search for tendencies of constructive political thought in Shakespeare's plays has led to very contradictory results. On the whole, the attribution to him of a kind of political wisdom or social insight has come from persons who are temporarily more interested in virtue than in art. In considering the significance of paraphrasable statements of social assent or social dissent in the plays, our admiration for Shakespeare's intellectual powers should not entice us into believing him to have been politically wiser than his generation or than his own social position. At least, the plays are imperfect evidence for such a belief, perhaps not evidence at all. When it comes to details, Shakespeare's varying expressions of social criticism or of conservative acquiescence are best seen in relation to his theatrical artistry. For he is not primarily an author communicating with his readers. He is providing material to enable an actor to communicate with an audience. The strong and entertaining expressions of social criticism he provides for his representatives of the lower orders should therefore be seen in relation to his artistic purposes. That is to say, Shakespeare is well aware of the theatrical pleasure we derive from seeing the little man get his own back on the big man, of our satisfaction at seeing, in the theater, uncultivated shrewdness outwitting intellectual superiority, at hearing plain-spoken "home-truths" scoring over sophisticated rhetoric. When we try to discover Shakespeare's commitment, we find that—as we should expect from a full-time lifelong professional—Shakespeare's first commitment is to his art. One does not become the world's greatest poet (as Shakespeare is widely assumed to be) by giving utterance to ephemeral personal prejudices nor by the persuasive phrasing of irresponsibly contradictory political platitudes. Accepting Shakespeare's first commitment to his art (before we search for his commitment to other things), we can generally discern adequate and satisfying artistic reasons for the existence of those clever and ever-quotable examples of social and political opinions in his plays.

John Alvis (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Introductory: Shakespearean Poetry and Politics," in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, Carolina Academic Press, 1981, pp. 3-26.

[In the following excerpt, Alvis posits that Shakespeare deliberately created multiple levels of meaning in his plays, embedding pointed political commentary that would be comprehensible only to a small, cultured, and educated segment of his audience.]

Shakespeare owes his pre-eminence among poets to the power that allows his art to charm spectators but equally to the comprehensiveness of his wisdom regarding human things, a wisdom which invites and sustains inquiries into its grounds. … If Shakespeare composes a supreme fiction, its supremacy rests upon its singular comprehensiveness as an image of truth. The poems and plays propose a series of vantages upon the one preconstituted world to which all men share access according to the varying capacities of their intelligence and heart. Shakespeare's acknowledgement that his images subserve truth—"minding true things by what their mock'ries be"—opens his art to interpretation while imposing the office of critical judgment. Because we know something about the same world he knows, we can interpret his poems and make discriminations between the various claimants to knowledge depicted in his poems. Because we evidently know appreciably less than he knows, the task of interpretation and judgment must proceed under his guidance. Criticism develops as an inquiry, a conversation of non-catechetical query and reply wherein the questioner seeks instruction from his superior even as regards the questions he should ask. For the peculiarly unequal character of this conversation requires that the questioner learn from the poem what questions he should set it to answer. Here too Shakespeare provides guidance.

From the pointed comments which obtrude from time to time in his Prologues, as well as from the remarks regarding dramatic poetry contained in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, one may gather that Shakespeare anticipates two distinct audiences for his work. The distinction seems to amount to rather more than the familiar matter of the disparity between jostling base mechanics and place-keeping gentry. A quibble in one late prologue appears to hold out the hope of a rare "understanding friend" silent among the impecunious clustered at the lip of the stage. Committing the company's playbooks to print insures that the plays can be ruminated under circumstances that permit leisured reflection, even among those not of the leisured class. Yet the availability of printed texts does not remove another sort of distinction between attentive auditors and oblivious groundlings. Experience attests that readers can consume years in blear-eyed confrontation with folio facsimile and concordance without relinquishing their naivete as mere spectators. The serious student of Shakespeare's poetry has occasion to reflect upon his own naivete each time he returns to a play he once may have thought he had grasped. A difference in the reach and depth of attentiveness distinguishes those who are merely spectators from those capable of entering into conversation with the dramatist. Shakespeare's chances of acquiring understanding friends are made better by print only to the extent that his readers possess those virtues of the art of reading that are identical with those recognized for the art of close conversation. The enabling virtue for conversation would seem to be the concern on the part of the listener to understand what the poet is concerned to understand. Shakespeare indicates the more important concerns by giving prominence throughout his poetry to certain recurrent topics.

One of the foremost of these topics is politics. The plays offer a political surface inasmuch as their action is public action. Shakespeare's stage supports only enactments which have a public extension. To first discern the prominence of politics, it suffices to note the arrangements of dramatis personae by reference to social station. We know that the bulk of the characters are public men before we know anything else about them, and we know that their numbers will be ample enough to convey a sense of the richness of public affairs. The surface of action bears out the surface of characterization. The plot of a Shakespearean play usually turns upon a changeover among those who exercise political power (the tragedies and histories) or upon complications arising from political exile or from problematic enforcement of a law (the comedies). Since dramatic poetry almost necessarily requires public settings and social activities, the bald fact that the surface of the plays is political does not carry us far towards conclusions regarding Shakespeare's understanding of politics. However, our flat-footed observation is not without significance. Modern audiences are familiar with dramas which attempt to confine their subject to the inwardly turned experience of individuals or which restrict their scope to a portrayal of...

(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...

(The entire section is 15158 words.)

Elizabethan England

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,...

(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...

(The entire section is 6515 words.)

Further Reading

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.


(The entire section is 255 words.)