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.