Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 279
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 25596
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,
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
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
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!
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 relationships within one family. Shakespearean drama passes beyond the private lives of particular men and beyond the incompletely public life of families. Every Shakespearean character lives within a political regime governed by laws and shaped by distinctive institutions. How a character acts and how he perceives his deeds is affected, sometimes crucially affected, by his participation in the corporate life of a city or a realm. We might infer from his political focus that Shakespeare conceives the political context as a necessary condition for displaying, and hence also for understanding, human nature. Quite apart from the instinct of sexual love that brings man to woman or the need to exchange affection that keeps men and women together and extends to kindred, and perhaps apart from the innate sociability that causes men to congregate on any terms, Shakespeare presents human beings seeking their completion within associations that maintain community by combining affection and compulsion. Shakespeare provokes his serious readers to consider in what sense this propensity to live in political community is natural to human beings. Is it natural merely in the sense of instinctual, habitual, or given; or is it natural in the sense of proper to the realization of the essential? The omnipresent political bearings of the plays invite, one may say, this first question of political philosophy. To pursue it at all satisfactorily, one is obliged to consider other questions relating to the view of human nature that appears to underlie the poetry. Politics does not exhaust Shakespeare's subject. We see political life transacted within horizons that enfold other human activities; principal among these are sexual love, friendship, divine worship, the interactions of kinsmen, personal combat, and, in rare instances, the pursuit of private contemplation. We may discern the place of the political theme within Shakespeare's subject by gauging the weight of politics in relation to the other ends the dramatist allots to his characters. The estimate depends upon an assessment of what for Shakespeare constitutes a human life. Do his plays and poems imply a view of what essentially defines human being?
The subject which for Shakespeare subsumes all others and which appears to be the distinctively human province is the activity of making choices. His characters deliberate toward choice, implement their decisions, and reflect upon the consequences of having chosen one possibility in preference to another. Every play builds towards, then moves from, an important act of choice which stands as a fulcrum transferring momentum of complication to momentum of resolution. The same holds true for the non-dramatic works. Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece center upon moments of decision; the sonnet sequence imparts a sense of dramatic urgency by reflecting upon the eligibility of alternate courses of action. Will the young man marry or guard his bachelor autonomy? Can the poet-lover resolve the division of his affection and liberate himself from his dark lady? It appears that for Shakespeare the distinctively human mode of being—though not necessarily man's highest mode of being—reveals itself in acts of choice. Men are what they elect to do.
Election "makes not up," as Burgundy reminds us, upon just any conditions. If they are not predetermined, Shakespearean characters are yet predisposed to certain choices by the bent of their personalities and by the influence of circumstances. Their decisions never occur in a void but always within a world partly of their own making, partly not. With his first appearance a Shakespearean personage bespeaks an ordination to a certain purchase upon life compounded of his individual proclivities modified by sexual identity, blood heritage, and circumstances of social station. He also finds himself born into an order of authoritative opinion supported by political power. His neighbors share a public creed, declaring themselves hospitable to a given view of human and divine affairs and unfriendly to others. Prior to any volition, therefore, Shakespeare's characters are men or women; are attached by birth to a set of kinsmen; are born Englishmen, Italians, Romans, Greeks, or Danes; possess as their birthright a station and occupation; are pagan, Christian, or Jew. Every character thus shares a public world with other citizens or subjects, even though he takes his place within the particular sector of that world claimed by his individuality. A Shakespearean character can be seen as a gathering of motives, feelings, and thoughts which by their dual origin constitute a meeting ground where individual personality conjoins with political formation.
Considering that the era during which the plays were conceived was a time when fundamentally opposed conceptions of civil society contended for dominance, we should not be surprised to discover that Shakespeare's poetry conducts an inquiry into issues connected with political formation—an inquiry commensurate in scope with that pursued by political philosophers. If we take note of the principal alternative views upon this theme available to an educated man of the Renaissance, we may suppose that Shakespeare found himself confronted with a choice between three rival teachings. We can imagine him standing at a juncture from whence three roads diverge. One way leads back to classical antiquity and the foundations of political philosophy in the thought of the Greeks. The route terminates in Athens, but to arrive there one goes via Rome. Another way would take the poet to Jerusalem (Davidic or Christian) and a view of the city conceived under the auspices of scriptural religion. The third fork leads to a state shortly to be named, in one of its imagined versions, New Atlantis, a novel regime built on a conception of political community avowedly modern and opposed to classical and Judaeo-Christian traditions by a purpose that envisions the relaxation of the moral standards upheld by classical and scriptural education for the sake of releasing energies required for the effort of liberating human beings from such naturally imposed limitations as scarcity, insecurity, and bodily ills.
A review of the intellectual sources evident in the plays or readily accessible to the playwright allows us to extend the figure. We may imagine several guides posted on the three roads to solicit travelers. Stationed about midway, we should say, on the route to Athens, Virgil invites traffic towards Rome, and somewhat beyond, Plutarch urges the traveler who has toured the Roman Republic to continue his journey on to Greece. Further on the peregrine dramatist can discern Aristotle and, vague in the distance near the vanishing point, he can just distinguish Plato. Commanding intellectual authorities also mark the route to the Holy City. Close to the crossroads Hooker, Fortescue, More, John of Salisbury might be posted, in the distance Aquinas and various schoolmen, then Augustine. At a further distance Paul and the Evangelists would beckon, while most remote, like Plato poised at the horizon, there might stand the austere figure of Moses, author of the Pentateuch. The third road is under construction. A knot of unrecognizable workers set paving stones for the thoroughfare that will carry men to the modern city. They move to the orders of two master engineers who are known to the traveler. Machiavelli and Bacon urge him to join in the direction of the highway project.
Shakespeare could know these political guides through their writings. He incorporates Plutarch verbatim in his Roman plays, constantly alludes to Virgil's Aeneid, quotes Paul and the Evangelists, refers to Aristotle and Plato, and appears to adapt a portion of one of Plato's dialogues. Concerning his knowledge of the later Christian writers we know little, but scholars think he collaborated on a play about More (he mentions More in Henry VIII) and there is some evidence that Shakespeare knew John of Salisbury's chief political work, the Policraticus. In any event he would know something of the principles that inform the writings of these thinkers from sermons or from the retail work of Elizabethan literary middlemen. Concerning his acquaintance with the early architects of modernity we can hardly be certain, but there are three references to Machiavelli by name, and, if Shakespeare was not Bacon, he presumably knew something of Bacon's early thought. Just how much Shakespeare may have read in authors other than Plutarch is a matter of conjecture. However, one does not require a listing of his personal library to sense a kinship of the philosophical themes evident in the plays with the concerns of the writers in these three rival traditions. The themes are decisively political. They turn upon the questions that motivate all political thought: what is the best life for man and what public arrangements are most conducive to this life? We might reasonably hope to find in Shakespeare's plays some guidance for our own inquiries into the three traditions and hence some direction for our own attempts to reflect on this perennial question. Yet one does not find direction if one does not seek it, and few contemporary authorities on Shakespeare seek political guidance from his writings. Literary critics who attribute wisdom to Shakespeare's art—a group by no means co-extensive with those who ascribe excellence—are rather inclined to say that his wisdom "transcends" politics altogether. Their opinion is mis-founded, I think, but perhaps not inexplicable.
It may be that the political inquiry which animates Shakespeare's plays can capture the interest of only those modern readers who, after a conscious effort of self-displacement, can think themselves back to the juncture of the three roads. For most readers of Shakespeare the rivalry between the three traditions is no longer alive. If they know of it at all, they think of it as a past controversy which has been settled in favor of modernity. But if they know the rivalry merely as something past, we may suspect they do not really know it. I do not mean to say that every member of the contemporary audience considers himself a partisan of the project begun by Machiavelli and Bacon and completed, at least in principle, in the modern technological state. Yet in one disabling respect modern readers of Shakespeare come to his plays as more or less unwitting captives of a technological regime which encourages a view of politics essentially technological in its conception of ends.
A thinker distinguished for his prottacted inquiry into the grounds underlying modernity finds the distinctive character of machine technology in its "challenging" or "setting upon" nature. To the challenger bent on setting upon its resources, the physical world reveals itself as a "standing-reserve" awaiting the challenger's demands. Presently regnant doctrines of political order comport with the peremptory bearing of technology. Modern politics envisions the state as an engine for exploiting the standing-reserve of nature and distributing the gains thereof. This conception of political life as an enterprise in human mastery directed against a grudging but indefinitely malleable cosmos once had to earn a hearing in opposition to the teaching of classical philosophy and scriptural religion, a teaching which located the end of civil society in the cultivation of character. The success of the modern premise in securing custodianship over public education has caused modern readers to be put at an unsympathetic distance from older poets whose political understanding was formed by the classical or scriptural traditions. Ancient, medieval, and Christian-humanist moralists were aware of the powers of moral suasion possessed by poets generally, and especially by dramatists. They could see that every dramatic performance was a political event inasmuch as every play disposes its audience to share its author's view of human character and human ends. By virtue of its influence over the moral education of the citizen, dramatic art was once considered to be subject to the comprehensive educative art of the legislator. Its potential of co-operating with, or, for that matter, of subverting the shaping effect of the laws was once thought inseparable from its essence: its making of compelling images of human beings enacting moral choices. Men are disposed to imitate what the artist disposes men to admire. Of necessity, then, the charming images presented in plays compete with the imperative voices of the laws. Even if it should aim at encouraging law-abidingness, each work of the dramatic poet conveys through its imagined life possibilities of conduct which offer alternatives to the regime the audience has come to know through the laws. Within the understanding of politics that prevailed prior to modernity, poetry is in principle political because it pursues indirectly the end of character formation which political constitutions pursue directly through their legislative instruments.
Modernity leaves unchanged the educative property of drama. The modern reader can sense that Shakespeare's plays move their audiences to respond with love or disgust to the actions wrought on the stage. He can guess that the habits of moral discrimination promoted by Shakespeare's guided spectacles may cohere to provide a sort of wisdom. However, because modern readers tend uncritically to accept the moral confinement of modern politics, they incline to think of this wisdom as having nothing to do with politics and are therefore predisposed to overlook the centrality of politics, in its ancient sense, to Shakespeare's subject.
To perceive the political character of Shakespeare's plays, one may be compelled to recover a vantage upon political things that sees the essential political act less in terms of power and more in terms of education, manners, morals, religion, and ethics. Such a recovery might begin by reviving the ancient and Socratic understanding of regimes as images of certain dominant types of the soul. According to this conception, particular cities encourage the development of distinct human characters and reflect in their institutions, laws, educative customs, and arts their sponsorship of a particular view of human nature and of the best life. A reading of the dramas informed by this pre-modern view of the political can better inderstand the oligarchic excesses of Shakespeare's Venice, the timocratic drive of Shakespeare's Rome, and the shaping effects of royal rule upon the character of life in Shakespeare's England. The recidivist critic must soon realize, however, that the Socratic and Aristotelian analysis of regimes is not altogether sufficient as a model by which one may approach Shakespeare's thought on man and the city. The view underlying the ancient classification of regimes comports well enough with the plays' emphasis upon varieties of ways of life, but in at least one important respect the classical types do not fit the world portrayed in the plays. The distance between Christian Venice and pagan Rome cannot be accounted for simply by referring to the differences Aristotle noted between oligarchic and timocratic constitutions. Shakespeare also depicts a kind of politeia which Aristotle does not envision at all. Duke Theseus and Richard II are both autocrats, yet classical notions of monarchy will not prepare us for the most important difference between a Theseus who governs by natural virtue and a Richard who rules by appeal to his people's endorsement of a special political theology thought to derive from scriptural religion. One must supplement the ancient classification of constitutions with an understanding of the way regimes derive their form from communal opinions concerning divinity and divine law. In the plays set before the advent of Christianity, human lives take shape from individual propensities responding to the laws of cities. In the plays set within Christian times, Shakespeare's characters consult not only their native inclinations and the laws of their state, but, concurrently, certain transcendent prescriptions decreed by the scriptural God. To follow Shakespeare's reflections upon human beings and citizens, one must reflect upon the political consequences of Christian belief. The political subject necessarily embraces the religious subject.
A reader who comes to the plays equipped with some awareness of the pre-modern horizons of politics will likely find more significance in the dramatic settings than an audience which does not relate politics to character formation. One who has retrieved an older understanding of the varieties of regimes may see in the diversity of settings an indication of Shakespeare's attempt to explore the alternative conceptions of the best civil life offered, respectively, by classical antiquity, Christianity, and modernity. For example, the classical method of distinguishing regimes by reference to the ethical type that a regime fosters may provide a rationale for the sequence of plays set in Greece. The Grecian dramas appear to rehearse the range of forms one encounters in the Platonic-Aristotelian classifications of constitutions. Troilus and Cressida presents a heroic timocracy, Timon an ancient oligarchy, Pericles ancient monarchy and tyranny, A Midsummer Night's Dream monarchy and the origins of antique democracy. From the same vantage the Roman plays and The Rape of Lucrece appear to coalesce in another sequence wherein Shakespeare considers in Republican and Imperial versions a regime animated by the conviction that the best life equates with the attainment of superlative public honors. The Roman poems seem also to present a community that seeks to arrange its affairs virtually without reference to the divine. The absence of gods serves to intensify the Roman's dependence upon securing the approval of other men. By relating setting to the understanding of the regime as a way of life, we may get a new purchase upon the dramas Shakespeare assigns to his Englishmen and Renaissance Italians. England and Venice appear to serve as locales for inquiries into the problems specific to Christian societies and, at the same time, to offer public situations appropriate for confronting some of the issues posed by modern politics. The ten dramas set in England and, especially, the continuous action of the two tetralogies, depict the transition from a Christian monarchy based on assumptions of divine providence to a more modernly conceived sovereign for whom authority depends exclusively upon the ability of the prince to cultivate a reputation for piety while finding his final guidance in principles consistent with the anti-Christian statecraft of a Machiavelli. Richard II stands at the beginning of this transition, Richard III at its completion. Henry V is the necessary bridge between the Christian Richard II and the imperfect Machiavellian, Richard III. In its corporate deeds and standards the English people reflect the change evident in their rulers. The last of Shakespeare's English plays, Henry VIII, resolves a problem central to the first, King John, and marks the appropriate culmination in the development implicit in the entire sequence. With Henry VIII the Christian church becomes formally subordinate to the English king. Shakespeare's England comes to resemble Shakespeare's Rome, with the addition of a queasy conscience.
Venice offers the most distinctively modern setting. The mercantile Venetian republic represents modernity in three respects. It dedicates itself to capital venture (distinguished from the capital consumption of Timon's Athens); it encourages the mingling of races and religions; it seeks to promote the utmost liberty compatible with laws promoting speculative commerce. More than any other Shakespearean regime, Venice depends upon luck. Venetian tragedy (Othello) turns upon a moment of extraordinary bad luck, whereas Venetian comedy (The Merchant of Venice) finds its resolution through a number of instances of wondrous good luck. Venice appears to be extraordinarily dependent upon chance because it lacks corporate means for resolving conflicts bred by its three dominant civic attributes. The city is incompletely modern to the degree that its technical resources are rudimentary compared with the science and inventions enjoyed by subsequent modern commercial regimes. Yet, with respect to achieving a providence over human affairs it is difficult to see that a more competent technology should lessen rather than increase the Venetian dependence upon fortune.
An often repeated half-truth has it that Shakespeare portrays all his dramatic personages, whatever their nominal differences of country, as Elizabethan Englishmen. The truth tacit in this observation is that Shakespeare presents perennial modes of the soul which appear virtually the same in all ages and express their typicality in a perennial idiom. Athenian craftsmen share a common manner of speech with Roman shoe-makers and London workingmen. Similarly, men who exercise authority will settle into styles of thought, gesture, and diction appropriate to persons of consequence and therefore can be expected to manifest common traits regardless of their local habitations as Athenian notables, Roman senators, or English dukes. An inordinate preoccupation with exactitude would dwell upon pedantic historicity at the expense of obscuring these continuities of human nature. Yet Shakespeare does make discriminations of essence between regimes. His Romans may wear hats and refer to clocks, but they do not bare their heads for a king, nor do they measure time by reference to the birth of Christ. The distance between the Roman republic and the English monarchy becomes evident from a comparison of the Roman plays with the English histories and proves demonstrably consequential for Shakespeare's portrayal of two distinct ways of life. When we pass from Rome to Britain we perceive a difference in the terms of public existence which coincides with differences in the conception of the supernatural, of death and the afterlife, of the grounds of moral and political obligation, of the ends of ethics, and of the hierarchy of human virtues. Shakespearean characterization thus seems to proceed from an understanding of human being as manifested in perennial types accommodated to the usages of regimes and further specified by personality.
Shakespeare's depiction of a variety of constitutions invites us to inquire into the problem of their comparative rank. From observing the diversity in the ways men conduct their public affairs, we are led to think about what political arrangement best consists with the requirements proper to man's essence. The play's parallel emphasis upon the continuity of human types across national boundaries and historical epochs may provide bearings for an approach to the question of the best regime. According to a venerable teaching of traditional political philosophy, the city writes in larger characters the logos of the individual soul, and the proper constitution of the individual soul establishes a standard for judging the constitutions of regimes. Shakespeare's dramas appear to develop an elaborately detailed rendition of this ancient theme. We may apprehend something of the standard in regard to which the various regimes can be ranked by considering Shakespeare's portrayal of the range of human types and, within that range, those models which seem to constitute his version of the complete soul. Each of his general types distinguishes itself from the others by its emphasis upon one aspect or possible disposition of the soul. The political subject of the plays and their implied standard for political well-being begins to emerge when we take into account the types of the soul which figure most centrally and consider the hierarchy that seems to obtain among them.
Shakespeare's commoners emphasize the embodied character of human being. Although they resemble blocks and stones only from the partisan viewpoint of ambitious men who fail to capture their will (a Marullus or a Buckingham), they do confine themselves, for the most part, to confronting the world on grounds dictated by bodily necessities and localized affections. Their speech moves purposefully when it employs fleshly expressions but staggers when it attempts abstractions. They are unreflective; general ideas come upon them with the jolt of novelty. Their desires also bespeak a short tether. Left to their own initiatives they display few aspirations, preferring, usually, to rest secure in possession of modest and homely gratifications. Shakespeare's common men do not ordinarily desire to rule simply for the sake of ruling, although they may invoke the power of their numbers to come by the means of subsistence or safety. They tend to be more aware of their obligations than their rights. The commoner is the creature of his generally benign but ever transitory emotions. He values warm fellowship over austere singularity and holds ingratitude the worst of crimes. Consistent with their closeness to the body, Shakespeare's ordinary men are not far-sighted, although they can be shrewd. Consequently, they are fairly immune to visionary schemes yet prove vulnerable to rhetoricians who may appeal to their passions and immediate interests. Demagogues can capture their will but fail to hold it for any dependable duration. Whether pagan or Christian, Shakespeare's populace inclines towards the sentiments favored by Christian teaching. Pity, kindliness, humility, forbearance, mercy, patience, ingenuousness comport easily with the native temperament of these bodily men. The same qualities make the populace remarkably deliquescent. Because their virtues grow from feelings rather than from settled convictions they give way to opposed vices under the pressure of opposite emotions. Within rather extensive limits the commoners allow their affections to be directed by emotional provocations deployed by patricians or lords.
Shakespeare's plebs, servants, and citizens display the liveliness of vigorous senses rather than the spirited dispositions of men who live for honor. Spiritedness requires the persistent self-awareness that dominates the consciousness of minds who enjoy or aspire to privileges of rank. Shakespeare's nobles constitute a second order of human character distributed across the lines demarking specific political arrangements, a perennial estate of the soul comprised of men and women whose conduct brings to prominence the soul in its spirited, we may say, its self-determined aspect. If the commoner inhabits a world of immediate satisfactions, the Shakespearean notable lives by and for his aspirations. He desires more amply than the commoner, and the good he most intensely desires is almost beyond the comprehension, certainly beyond the reach, of the populace. The aristocratic soul receives definitive expression in characters such as Coriolanus, Hotspur, and Henry Monmouth, men who consider bodily enjoyments and security insipid compared with the all-sufficing delights afforded by public recognition. English lords, Italian grandees, and optimates of Greece and Rome contend with their fellow noblemen for public attention, while their ladies compete for titles in husbands and sons.
In his quest for honor the spirited man will espouse virtually any means to win admiration. The usual paths to celebrity are conspicuous wealth, birth, position, beauty, valor, or services rendered to the state. These may be combined with more peculiar claims to distinction; a noble may want to be known as a lover, a subtle diplomat, a mirror of fashion and manners. Whatever their accomplishments, Shakespeare's nobles expect that virtue will be ratified by fame. The fallen Wolsey can even announce his desire to become renowned for scorning renown. But the most favored proof of honor is the ability to check and overbear the will of someone else. Hence the aggressive baiting and high-stomached irascibility that mark men of birth. A meeting between Shakespeare's aristocrats signals a commencement of hostilities between the meeting parties or leads to their alliance against some other noble. English peers vie for court positions, wealth, warriorly supremacy, the favors of ladies, the ear of the king; Roman patricians quarrel with plebians if they lack matter for controversy among themselves. Their ingenuity in discovering causes for factional agitation recalls the famous maxim propounded by Madison: "so strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions. …" The inclination towards virulent factionalism that Madison ascribes to mankind at large Shakespeare confines to the higher classes wherein considerations of prestige are the first concern. Spiritedness overlaps national boundaries but takes on a specific political character when channeled into particular politically sanctioned activities. Every Shakespearean regime features a range of spirited men, but regimes differ in the avenues to honor which each publicly encourages.
A third dimension of the soul becomes evident when we consider a grouping of figures who strive primarily neither for the bodily ends of the commoner nor for the honor desired by the aristocrat. Characters such as the Princess of Aquitaine, Theseus, Edgar, Kent, Cordelia and the chastened Lear, Duke Vincentio, Belmont's Portia, Viola, Hermione, and Prospero all appear to live for the sake of guiding others to conduct consistent with an elevated understanding of human nature which only the guides themselves possess. Most of these sponsors of the commonweal voice convictions concerning the ultimate character of human being. They seem to be more reflective than Shakespeare's other personages. Whether they possess official political power or not, these prudent men and women suggest Shakespeare's view of the statesman. They represent the soul in its activity as an ordering principle embodying the powers of speculative and practical intelligence which offer at least the possibility of governing the soul in its two other aspects of unreflective sentiment and self-conscious but insufficiently reflective spiritedness. The superior person understands the other orders and possesses an impressive degree of self-knowledge, whereas the other orders understand neither him nor themselves. Because these natural aristocrats of the spirit are depicted always in their relatedness to others as lovers, children, parents, liegemen, or rulers, one hesitates to identify their common excellence simply with contemplative intelligence. Hamlet, Prospero, and Vincentio give themselves on occasion to solitary study, but from the difference in their plight it appears that statesmanship requires putting speculative virtue in the service of practical ends. Hamlet is tragic precisely because he cannot make this transit, whereas the comic Prospero and Vincentio are comically fortunate because they successfully accommodate the contemplative to the practical life. Speculative virtue of itself does not seem sufficient to encompass wisdom regarding human things and, as the examples of Hamlet and Prospero suggest, the withdrawal that accompanies the speculative life may even work at odds with the intelligence required to order human affairs. The sort of intellectual excellence Shakespeare attributes to the superior human being consists of a blending of theoretical principle with intuitive tact responding to particulars. The plays do make us aware of a more exclusively contemplative possibility available to the speculative poet, but this awareness is conveyed by reminders of the presence of the dramatist overseeing his creations rather than embodied in any of the staged characters. The consequence of seeing the limits of politics by reference to this fourth estate of the soul may be felt in many of the plays.
Our survey of Shakespeare's range of perennial types should note two other human dispositions which fall outside the array of bodily, spirited, and prudent men. Besides these three orders Shakespeare depicts lovers and saintly characters. The lovers appear everywhere except in Republican Rome. All other regimes afford the possibility of a private enclave within the public life reserved for men and women who desire to cultivate erotic friendship with a particular beloved while oblivious to the wide world. Erotic love in Shakespeare embraces all the colors of passion ascending from feral lust (Goneril, Regan, Tarquin, Angelo, Demetrius and Chiron) to romantic vertigo (Hermia and Lysander, Helena of All's Well, Viola, Bassanio, Orlando, Valentine and Proteus, Desdemona, Romeo and Juliet) to glamorous exaltation (Antony and Cleopatra), to high courtesy and spiritual mutuality (Berowne and the Princess of Acquitaine, Benedick and Beatrice, Ferdinand and Miranda, Theseus and Hippolyta, Florizel and Perdita). Whatever its species, love can present a special problem for the polity because it points up one of the limits of politics: the city, as city, cannot satisfy the lover. The most the city can hope for is that it may harmonize erotic attachments with citizenship by encouraging marriage. Marriage gives love a public character and provides lovers with public interests which suffice to tame somewhat the uncivil privateness of erotic energy. Shakespearean comedies end in marriage for the sake of the community as much as for the happiness of the lovers. Desire and romantic hyperbole diminish by several gradations with the domestic contract. Once marriage prospects seem firm, the Princess can set Berowne his task of emptying bedpans; once Ferdinand is publicly espoused to Miranda, he can begin to cheat her at chess.
Two other dispositions have the effect, like erotic love, of making the city seem contemptible and altogether insufficient as a guide to the most eligible purposes of life. The ontological disgust of a Timon, Thersites, or Hamlet cannot keep company with a city that falls short of an association composed of human beings incapable of ingratitude, pretense, or frailty. Hence the type of the soul exemplified by these misanthropes appears unsuited for life in any human city. It is difficult to see these men as other than nihilists since they envision no positive purpose for themselves. While rejecting the corporate ends pursued by other men they can offer no alternative focus that might sustain spiritual integrity. Thus, they tend, like Hamlet, to identify felicity with death, finding their completion only in the most definitive negation. The malcontent affords a contrast with Shakespeare's other apolitical type, the saint, who does embrace a positive alternative to public life. Shakespeare's pious human beings—notably Henry VI, Vienna's Isabella, and (possibly) Katharine of Aragon—seek their end in a sanctity which imposes public obligations but which cannot be fulfilled by any arrangement of the public order. Given his otherworldliness, Henry VI presumably cannot find his happiness in kingship even were his temperament more spirited. Pious men and women fix their attention upon another world which promises felicity through intimate relatedness to a personal God. Only Christians are pious in this sense; Shakespeare's pagans know nothing of an afterlife or of communing with their gods in this existence. The possibility receives dramatic treatment only in the touchingly comic episode of Bottom's enchantment which, although comic, apparently disturbs Theseus to such a degree that he manages to exclude Peter Quince's ballad of "Bottom's Dream" from the court masque. Bottom "discourses wonders" but precisely on that account is "no true Athenian" (IV.ii.26-27). Religion in Shakespeare's pagan world is either inertly nominal (in Rome) or a constituent ingredient of the politeia (Athens). In the Christian regimes of Venice, Vienna, England, Denmark, and the Italian cities, religion may be in tension with politics and, thus, may offer an alternative to political life. An important theme of the histories is the attempt of the English monarchy to make Christian piety amenable to political purposes. The failure of this attempt is a major cause of the disorder that plagues England, whereas the partial successes of Henry V and Henry VIII appear to secure an imperfect harmony though probably at the expense of justice. The histories may suggest that the problem of subordinating Christian piety to political authority is insoluble in England and, perhaps, anywhere.
From his portrayal of the scale of human types we may gather some intimation of Shakespeare's understanding of the best life available to man. If the characters possessed of prudential wisdom and care for the commonweal constitute for Shakespeare authoritative models of excellence, then we may suggest an answer to the question of the best regime as well as a resolution of the problem of political power. The best regime would be that order of public affairs which produces this highest sort of character; power and authority would belong by natural right to those who can make best use of it. If the superior soul includes as a dimension of his excellence the kind of virtue that comports with the exercise of political power, then that soul ought to rule. This appeal to theoretical right bears out the cumulative argument of the plays. At the same time, the histories and tragedies record the usual adjustments of natural rights to be expected from a world which offers resistance to any theoretical standard.
Shakespeare seems to acknowledge this tension between sound principle and the limits imposed upon its application by confining his portrayals of the best regimes to the comedies. One way of defining the difference between the comedies, on the one hand, and the histories and tragedies, on the other, is by reference to the relaxation of limiting conditions upon natural right which obtains in the comic actions. We can appreciate the political significance of this relaxation if we consider the plight of the naturally superior man when he must work within a tragic context. Edgar may enjoy a de jure claim to authority equal to the claims of Theseus, Duke Vincentio, Portia and Prospero; but chance favors the comic group. Edgar does not possess the power de facto which the members of the comic group possess by happenstance or by preternatural art. Moreover, several other limitations upon success are artfully ignored in the comedies. Men do not die and time seems never to run out, although both death and insufficient allowances of time would destroy the complicated web spun by the comic architects. By making artifice conspicuous in the comedies Shakespeare appears to limit their connection with the given world. Finally, even with the benefit of their artfully liberated premises we may feel that the resolutions achieved in the comedies are still decidedly provisional. The good government of Theseus lays down no foundations whereby good government may continue after he is gone, yet it has undermined one of the important laws of the city. His is a victory for youth, but in a real world there would remain accounts to be settled with Egeus and the other fathers who may think the prerogatives of age have been rather presumptuously dismissed. The providence of fairies does not seem to offer a trustworthy court of appeal for resolving public problems. The massive artifice paraded in A Midsummer Night's Dream serves to remind the audience of the play that real political resolutions require an art similar, it may be, in its purposes but necessarily different in detail and execution. Prudential tact enables such a recognition. Shakespeare assumes this capacity in his understanding friends and nurtures the virtue by presenting comedies which require delicate adjustments of perspective to be grasped. We begin to understand the comedies after we learn how and when to say hold, enough!
Theseus, Vincentio, Portia, and Prospero stand for the highest reach of excellence that is ordinarily available to human beings. Their excellence has a political character in that they are pre-eminently suited to the task of harmonizing diverse human beings through the arts of speech, law, and deliberation. Because they understand human nature they are capable of guiding others in such a way as to realize what is best in their characters, to moderate (though they cannot and do not seek to transform) what is worst, and to provide for their incorporation in a decent polity. The comic heroes take cognizance of the laws, institutions, and customs that prevail in the countries of their habitation but do not take their bearings from the usages of a particular regime. Rather, they seem to locate their ways and aims by reference to standards known through natural reason. Neither do they appear to be religious souls, although they take care not to offend against the pieties of their fellow citizens. They apparently regard religion as they regard political institutions, making intelligent use of pious beliefs by putting these in the service of ends they have determined on the grounds of the naturally just and reasonable. Shakespeare's superior men are political but not simply the products of their cities. We see them finally as superior human beings, not as good Athenians, good Viennese, good Italians, good Venetians. If they are fundamentally reverent towards some higher Being (and this I think is not certain) they are not adherents of a distinctly pagan nor of a distinctly Christian view of divinity. In principle these characters point to the fulfillment of human beings within the limits of politics. Their lives are the fulfillment, and their political activities show the way men should be ruled. However, the limits of politics, as such, begin to emerge when we take account of the special character of their achievement and when we begin to appreciate how difficult, if not impossible, would be the extension of their achievement to historical regimes.
The comic statesmen do not found utopias. Prospero enjoys the disposal of an impressive techne which, presumably, he could employ for such a purpose. But if Gonzalo's idea of establishing the perfect commonwealth occurs at all to Prospero, he chooses not to pursue the project. Just barely and by prodigious efforts, he does manage to arrange conditions that could promise a decent public life for Milan and Naples (if, that is, we leave out of account the fact that the two cities are separated by a distance comparable to the distance separating either place from Prospero's isle). By similarly remarkable and presumably unrepeatable efforts, Theseus and Vincentio secure moderate expectations of decency for their cities. It is not clear that Portia's modestly benign association of wealthy friends can extend its sway from Belmont to Venice. Not only do the exemplars of statesmanship found no ideal polity; it could be said that, allowing a doubtful exception in Theseus, they found nothing we could properly call a complete and actual political entity. They introduce no comprehensive public modes and orders as a Moses, Cyrus, David, Romulus, or Theseus (Plutarch's or Machiavelli's) would. They invent no constitutions, nor do they introduce new religions. They do not shape a distinctive way of life for a people, nor do they work toward installing a new national purpose. Shakespeare comes close to depicting a national founding in his portrayals of Henry V and Henry VIII, but these political creators seem not to possess a wisdom commensurate with the epic scope of their enterprise. We may doubt that the English kings understand as deeply as the comic statesmen do. That the architects of communal decency in the comedies disavow Utopian projects further commends their prudence and suggests that Shakespeare casts a cold eye on schemes that would promise from political contrivances something on the order of salvation.
Yet at one remove from actuality, the comedies do suggest a special sort of political founding. We may say they present us with a distilled image of the political act, an image which offers a paradigm through which we can grasp the essential character of political virtue and in terms of which we may evaluate the fully articulated regimes embodied in the non-comic plays. Insofar as they offer a touchstone for assessing the health of political constitutions the comic societies resemble the paradigms of the best city worked out discursively in such works of political philosophy as Plato's Republic, More's Utopia, John of Salisbury's Policraticus. Shakespeare's model differs from those offered by the treatises in that it aims at a more modest reconstruction of the given in accord with an end which, in comparison with, say, Socrates' project for setting philosophers over the city, is also much more modest. Shakespeare's paradigmatic regime requires only that those who possess authority also possess a high degree of practical wisdom and devotion to promoting the public good.
We may doubt that Shakespeare envisions the likelihood of discovering even these relatively modest conditions realized in actual historical regimes. Beyond the little group of Theseus, Vincentio, and Prospero we are hard put to think of any prominent character dedicated to fostering the good of the polity in preference to any other end. I have earlier mentioned Edgar as an example of such a will, and one might add Cominius and Henry IV. Edgar has the will and prudence but lacks the authority; Cominius has the will but insufficient authority and, in view of his support of Coriolanus for consul, may be doubted to possess the requisite prudence; Henry, once crowned, possesses some authority but not enough, and his prudence, if not his will, is doubtful. The intriguing but obscure images of potential statesmen such as Alcibiades and Richmond are—intriguing but obscure. Shakespeare elects not to portray the reign of Richmond as Henry VII, although the first Tudor appears propitiously at the end of Richard HI, and enjoys an honored memory in Henry VIII. Both Caesars are rendered enigmatic but unprepossessing; Elizabeth receives occasional tributes but not a dramatic presentation that might make intelligible the high portentousness which attends the announcement of her birth in the last of the histories. Both Rome and England, the most carefully articulated of Shakespeare's historical regimes, seem to fail in the attempt to produce a decent political life, if by decency we understand the lively concords and just arrangements of diverse souls and of the various social orders achieved at the conclusion of some of the comedies. It may not be merely adventitious, therefore, that no Shakespearean comedy of the political sort is set in England and no comedy of any sort in Rome. We may wonder whether it be not a principle of Shakespeare's political understanding that the very enlargement of the scope of politics in England and Rome precludes a complete political life and imposes austere limits upon statesmanship. The complete public life and fully competent statesmanship may be possible only within communities small enough to allow for face-to-face contact between rulers and ruled.
The differences between the various historically certifiable regimes reduce to different conceptions of what should be honored. Shakespeare appears to share Aristotle's view that "roughly speaking, honor is what politics is concerned with." In the absence of prudent men endowed with official authority, the crucial political consideration turns upon the relationship between the numerous bodily men and the relatively few but powerful spirited souls. The decisive issue seems to be the disposition of the spirited class. Men of spirit will, in any event, seek honor; but a society takes its distinct form by promoting a certain path to honor in preference to others. It thereby provides for a national character and, at the same time, brings upon itself a distinct set of problems. Because Rome believes that "valor is the chiefest virtue" and identifies nobility with the manliness exhibited, first, in war, and, analogously, in contention of any sort, the republic finds itself vexed by continual intramural battles between patricians and plebians. The two orders recognize their community only when they must come together in the face of an external threat. For Shakespeare, Rome ceases to be as a distinct ethos when Octavian's epoch of "universal peace" calms the world. Because the Venetian republic honors opulence generated by mercantile venture it promotes the freedom and cosmopolitanism that enable a wide-ranging and vigorous commerce. The city then discovers that to defend itself it must engage foreigners who value courage and generalship more than wealth, or that to meet its need for capital to support their ventures the citizens must accommodate men who do not share their religion. Moreover, the habits required for successful commercial venture do not keep good company with Christian benevolence. Either charity suffers from the exigencies of commercial calculation or commerce suffers from charity.
The principle that underlies the British ethos is more difficult to formulate. Shakespeare's Englishmen yearn for distinction as fervently as do his Romans, Athenians, and Venetians; but it is not so clear what they commonly hold to be deserving of honor. When we attempt to say what Englishmen revere, we may note first their attachment to their own. They revere their island. The soil of England is dearer to the Englishman than the soil of Rome or Athens to Romans or Athenians (it sounds anomalous to speak of the soil of Venice). The sense of esteeming what is properly one's own extends to language. Only Englishmen love their native tongue, whereas no Shakespearean Athenian speaks of his reverence for Greek, no Roman of his devotion to Latin, no Venetian of his delight in Italian. The affectionate consciousness of place and racial identity evident in the Englishman is only faintly echoed by Shakespeare's Romans and Frenchmen and hardly at all by anyone else. This sense of belonging to a place can be detected in the pagan Britishers of Cymbeline and Lear but seems more pronounced in the England of the Christian era. Shakespeare's Englishmen espouse Christian doctrine, yet they seem to conceive themselves as constituting an enclave of pagan nobility within Christendom. In his famous patriotic testament Gaunt does not clearly distinguish "Christian service" from a manly valor that recalls pagan Rome. Shakespeare's greatest Englishman can admit (or boast?) that if it be a sin to covet honor he is the most sinful of souls. From the teachings of Christianity it would seem to be a grave sin not only to covet but even to desire earthly glory, not to speak of making aggressive war for the sake of honor. Yet Henry Monmouth's English soldiers are edified rather than shocked by their king's honest battle speech. They are not shocked, perhaps, because, as it seems to be with all Englishmen, they cannot believe that Christianity truly interdicts the life of conspicuous outdoing cherished by every English gentleman. Intermittently, however, and usually after setbacks have diminished their chances for gaining greater worldly prestige, they experience doubts. A Shakespearean Englishman is compounded of native spiritedness troubled but rarely controlled by an imperfect Christian conscience. He lives chiefly to enhance his position within a social hierarchy determined by secular considerations of blood, landholding, valor, and royal favor while, in the interstices of this fevered court life, in moments of disgrace or near death, he hopes for heaven. Shakespeare's England does not suffer so intensely as his Rome from conflicts between the few and the many. Its equally grave public disorder proceeds rather from the opposition of nobles to king and king to Church. Beneath these institutional conflicts one may sense the remote source of the social unease in the moral fissure caused by the rivalry of two incompatible views of human purpose and human excellence. Christian conscience undermines Anglo-Saxon resolve to dominate, whereas the native will to power constantly erodes integrity of conscience. The English soul wars against itself to no conclusion while the natural virtues of prudence and justice become the principal casualties of the national psychomachia. We are reminded of C. S. Lewis's conclusion regarding the tragic predicament of Arthur's Camelot: the effort to found a decent earthly city is caught between the upper millstone of Galahad and the nether of Mordred.
Shakespeare's apparent skepticism regarding the possibility of realizing his model of the decent regime should not be interpreted as an indifference to the task of understanding the diverse characters of imperfect historical constitutions. If happy polities are all alike, each unhappy regime is unhappy in its own particular way, and it is important to grasp the particular causes of a particular defect. More positively, even defective regimes offer some access to the good life, if only by emphasizing unduly one necessary dimension of the soul. They exhibit the virtues of their defects. Oligarchic Venice and Athens promote beauty and leisure as the by-products of their love of wealth; timocratic Rome produces noble instances of courage from its cultivation of war and general belligerence; England torn by a divided allegiance to counsels of Christian perfection contending with recipes for secular success breeds men who are aware, however imperfectly, of transcendent standards. The dramatist can maintain a reverent care for his images of human imperfection because he sees in the most imperfect of them some qualities which could be incorporated in an image of the whole. Shakespeare's portrayals of incomplete polities resemble Aristotle's accounts of partisan regimes. Aristotle's oligarchs, democrats, and aristocrats are partisans in the negative sense that they unjustly equate a part of political good with the whole, but also in the positive sense that they do recognize a constituent dimension of the natural whole. Somewhat similarly, Shakespeare's readers may come to understand the natural whole of politics—the best practicable or least indecent regime—by working through the sequence of partisan regimes that takes shape over the entire course of the Shakespearean canon. The essays presented in this volume suggest some ways for beginning such an inquiry.
Considered in terms of its capacity for fulfilling human nature, politics, as such, reveals a further limitation. All Shakespearean personages are political in the sense that they live out the consequences of having been born into and nurtured by a particular regime. In a different sense, few characters are political. Most do not rise to the life of political endeavor, electing instead to serve ends which cannot in and of themselves produce the public weal but only, at best, contribute to it if directed to that purpose by superior men who do espouse politics as their existential justification. Still other characters live outside politics (the great naysayers) or claim to live beyond the political (the otherworldly Christians and the early Prospero). We wonder how it stands with the creator of these dramatic personages. Where does Shakespeare, as poet, locate his own activity with respect to politics? Is Shakespearean wisdom and Shakespearean art a political thing or something beyond politics?
The ending of A Midsummer Night's Dream suggests a movement from the play's world to the real world of the audience, as though the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta were one with an actual wedding party. The concluding plaudite of The Tempest announces a similar blending of the fictive with the actual wherein Prospero seems to embrace the audience in his design for achieving modest civil concord. His plea for indulgence and prayer may encourage the audience to feel capable of entering into partnership with Prospero and perhaps with the dramatist who has been so closely associated, if not identified, with the magus. These post-dramatic flourishes make emphatic a possibility of interchange between art and life which one may sense in the performances of all Shakespearean plays. The plays invite their audiences (in theatres or studies) to continue the action of the plays by applying the moral principles affirmed in the fiction to their own existence. Insofar as these principles are political, Shakespearean drama performs a political function. Somewhat like Prospero, Vincentio, and Theseus, the dramatist arranges spectacles that may have a beneficial effect upon the public life. However, although the art is political in content and in effect, the wisdom which informs the art may suggest a life beyond politics. Shakespeare's wisdom certainly does not appear to owe its final character to the fact that he is an Englishman. Although his plays do encourage patriotism in Englishmen, he does not encourage his understanding friends to revere England as the best conceivable nor even, it seems, as the best practicable ordering of human affairs. Shakespeare's wisdom includes but goes beyond the wisdom available to any citizen as citizen. We may doubt that Shakespeare's wisdom exists, like Prospero's, for the sake of a political end or indeed for the sake of any end beyond itself. Reflection upon the character of the soul's seeking simply to know may lead us to conclude that a life devoted to that end is truly a life beyond politics. To know what extends beyond politics, it helps to know the full scope of the political realm. Shakespeare's poetry assists us in understanding what surpasses politics by allowing us to grasp how far politics extends in the determination of human lives.
Robert B. Heilman (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Shakespearean Comedy and Tragedy: Implicit Political Analogies," in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, Carolina Academic Press, 1981, pp. 27-39.
[In the following essay, Heilman examines the contrast in Shakespeare's plays between the implicit acknowledgment that a larger social and political order imposes obligations and restrictions on the individual and the sympathetic presentation of assertive individuals disregarding or defying that larger order.]
Political subject matter is everywhere in Shakespeare's tragedies and histories. One can detect political implications even in some comedies. I could imagine dealing with Love's Labor's Lost under the rubric "The Politics of Young Love," and with The Taming of the Shrew as "The Politics of Matrimony." Both touch on the problems of a polity that comes into being syncretically and makes its constituents face diversities that could beget disruptive turmoil. Lest this seem, however, an over-handsome formulation of issues in a community too restricted to be a political entity, I will treat the two plays not as exemplars but as mild analogies of the political. Love's Labor's Lost and The Taming go comfortably together because they are complementary treatments of the matrimonial relationship. While participation in it rests on passion, some passions need, if not to be reduced to passivity, at least to be curbed or realigned. In Katherine the energy that has gone into an anti-social self-assertiveness—in our day Kate would go for any public disruptive tactics that would draw a television camera to tickle her ego—undergoes a redirection that makes it more adjusted to cooperation. Here, a male figure sees what is needed. In Love's Labor's Lost, a female figure, seconded by three others, sees what is needed. The four young scholars have suddenly fallen out of love with their learning and in love with four French charmers, and they want to marry them on the spot. But the charmers impose a year's delay, and what is more, a year of tasks that in spirit resemble the monastic triennium from which the lovers have apostatized (or defected, to use the political metaphor). Now what Berowne and his fellow-lovers have in common with Kate the shrew is the desire to impose emotion on others, to have feeling force action, to have hysteria make history. All learn the same lesson: a limiting of the will, a curbing of the ego—necessities for a bearable and durable life for all the members of the community. What the characters have experienced is not unlike a lesson in politics.
So Shakespeare has a strong sense of the claim of the larger order upon the individual. But he has no less strong a sense—and we may not notice this as readily—of the individual's tendency to assert himself in forgetfulness, disturbance, or even defiance of the order. More than that, Shakespeare's imagination tends to make the best case that can be made for the individual who wants to do it his own way. Such case-making leads readers at some times to come up with greater sympathy for the self-indulgent or self-asserting than the text as a whole warrants. Surely readers of Love's Labor's Lost tend to do two things: one, to applaud the quarter of scholars when they flee study hall for love, and two, not to notice that the girls really send the hasty lads back to a kind of study hall. And how fashionable it has become to suppose that Kate is not a shrew at all but a superior person who is victimized by a surly papa and a naughty little sister, who is driven to tantrums as tactics of the undervalued, and whose gestures of submission to Petruchio are a brighter woman's ironic triumph over a lout. Since the text can give a small push or two to such readings, these comedies can lead us in to the ways in which Shakespeare, in the politics of his art, can habitually give sympathetic understanding to individuals whose political direction is not entirely exemplary.
I want to widen out the context a little, first by a brief allusion to the spiritual journeys of Father John Dunne of the University of Notre Dame. Father Dunne's quest for understanding, if I do not misunderstand him, involves an imaginative entry into the writings—myths, autobiographies, confessions—about and by figures outside Christianity, such as Buddha and Mohammed, and his full experiencing of "the way, the truth, and the light" as it is presented in those documents. Though the journey implies a return, the spirit that returns may not be the same, for the journey also implies an openness to the illuminations that may be encountered in these alternative visions of spiritual reality. Father Dunne accepts these disparate accounts as having a true role to play for the seeker grounded in another faith. My next allusion is anti-climactic, for I drop from the spiritual to the professorial. My own essay on comedy, The Ways of the World, is a report on the wide applicability of Anthony Burgess's definition of comedy: "acceptance of the world, of the fundamental disparateness of all the elements of the world." Acceptance is best defined negatively: it avoids the rejective styles of abuse, satire, and radical reform. Unless I am mistaken, there is an analogy between the theological journey which accepts the value of experience in alien domains, and the comic method which accepts the diversity of human conduct—i.e., that disparateness which we see as such because of our sense of the norms essential to order.
These different manifestations of openness to diversity, of the acceptance of disparateness, provide the largest possible context for Shakespeare's habit—and habit I take it to be—of seeing what can be said for virtually all characters, even those of whom it might be said that nothing could be said for them. Likewise he imagines what they can say for themselves, and how they can put their best foot forward, even a better foot than they might seem to have by their foot-locker. He can imagine the steadfastness with which they look at that better foot as if they stood solely upon it, and, as they thus give themselves the best possible standing, become plausible enough to stir some fellow-feeling in us. He almost makes cases for them. For instance, when I first gazed in awe at the exploding universe of Shakespeare interpretation, one standard view of Iago was that he was a career army man who had been deprived of preferment expected and due. His lines on this in I.i are credible enough to be convincing, even with professors whom we might expect to admire Cassio's theoretical training and hence to reject Iago's contempt for what he calls "prattle without practice." Such interpreters of Iago would presumably find Coleridge's "motiveless malignity" a rather fanciful imposition upon the positive facts alleged by Iago. To the positivist mind Iago has to have a police-department motive, and unjust failure of promotion seems quite impressive. Well, the point is only that, in imagining character, Shakespeare almost automatically includes the self-image by which men and women put the best possible light on the actions that they take.
One might say, "But of course, self-justification," and thus see only a commonplace phenomenon of personality. Shakespeare tends, however, not so much to let the self-justification become purely that as to allow the possibility that it may contain some justice. Shakespeare is not very much on the lookout for Tartufferie. For him, the case-maker may have something of a case. What is more, the case-maker may manage a very subtle style. He may not so much use words that glamorize a role as enact a role that has in it something honorable or admirable and thus deflect attention, perhaps even his own, from all that he is up to. To adopt or even seek a comforting or reassuring role may in itself reflect a moral or quasi-moral subtlety in the personality. Edmund, for instance, is less gross than Goneril or Regan; he craves a philosophic buttress for his scheme to get on, whereas their aggressive self-interest is more blunt. It hardly seeks a doctrinal base.
Since a tragic hero is more complex than a melodramatic protagonist, whether virtuous or villainous, it is to be expected that tragic heroes go beyond the single role, carrying at least a two-suiter of motives. Oedipus, for instance, is both the crudely passionate aggressor and the principled and responsible detector of evil aggressions. The Shakespearean tragic hero almost always instinctively seeks another role than that of tragic hero. Tragic heroism imposes an ultimate burden or strain that humanity, it seems clear, prefers to evade. The final phase of tragic experience is the recognition of what one has been up to—the anagnorisis, in the traditional term adopted for this more specialized meaning, or self-knowledge (that very familiar phrase at which one hesitates a little because for all of us it is more easily said than done and is therefore in danger of sounding glib). We do not shrink from the hubristic aggression—the violence which is the actional symbol of inner arrogance—nearly as much as we resist the acknowledgment of what we have done. The acknowledgment is the final surrender of, or at least a major blow to, the amour propre that wants to escape judgment by self and others. Pride may go on after a fall. We resist, postpone, or translate into waffle-language the statement hardest for us to make: "I did wrong"—the statement that rounds out the tragic role (or tragic rhythm, as Francis Fergusson called it, defining its phases as purpose—passion—perception).
I have said that the Shakespearean tragic hero instinctively seeks another role than that of tragic hero. As my friend Leonard Dean put it some years ago, the tragic hero has to live in a tragedy, but he tries as long as he can to live in a melodrama. The role he craves is that of melodramatic hero. Tragedy is the realm of good-and-bad; melodrama the realm of good-or-bad. As melodramatic hero one can push out of sight one's misdoing by claiming either as much good for oneself as one can or as much bad for one's adversaries as one can. Thus he can be a unified person, not a disconcerting mixture of well-intentioned man and hubristic wrongdoer.
The Shakespearean imagination, I have said, has a strong grasp of humanity's case-making instinct—either in the rhetorical form in which words give the best possible coloring to deeds, or in the dramatic form in which a man's assumption of a creditable role defines him as favorably as possible. Shakespeare's awareness of the human passion to pare down or modulate self-confrontation has a strong influence on the major tragedies, that is, on the characterization in them. It is not that Shakespeare doubts the emergence of moral enlightenment or recovery, but that he has a keen eye for the human resistance to paying the moral price. I have only lately come to see that this perception of his is a regular element in his tragic imagination, and hence to believe that it affords a way of approaching some of the problems that the tragedies appear to offer. The major heroes exhibit different combinations of the capacity for self-seeing and of that resistance to it which I am designating by the somewhat short-hand term of "case-making."
Lear is the best rounded of the tragic heroes—best rounded in the sense that his powerful drive for selfexculpation is most fully balanced by his eventual coming to understand what he has done. On the one hand he seeks a self-protective melodramatic role: the role of innocent victim of Goneril and Regan, and also of righteous judge of them—really a double self-saving. As early as Act I, on the other hand, he is able to say of Cordelia, briefly and fleetingly, "I did her wrong." It then takes him hundreds of lines of violent censure of Goneril and Regan—in this he enacts a role of implicit self-exoneration—before he comes slowly around to the series of lines in Act V in which he can acknowledge that he must beg forgiveness of Cordelia. Begging forgiveness is the ultimate confessional and humbling act.
Othello does not come around nearly so fully. This may reflect a time-situation almost at the polar opposite of that in Lear. Lear's great error is a sudden action that opens the play, and hence Lear has maximum time to come to understanding. Othello spends more than half a play working up to his great error; he does not kill Desdemona until halfway through Act V, so that a minimum of time is left for his understanding what he has done. Shakespeare may be thinking that in so short a time no man can really come around adequately from the self-justification which is his instinctive first stage after the discovery of disaster. This hypothesis is consistent with the distribution, among speakers and things spoken, of the barely 250 lines from Desdemona's "second death" to final curtain. It takes 110 lines for Othello simply to realize the truth; Emilia dominates these with her attacks on Iago and Othello, and most of what Othello says is dull reiteration of Desdemona's alleged misconduct. When Othello at last sees that he has killed an innocent woman, there are just under 140 lines left in the final scene. Othello speaks not quite half of these—a meager space in which to articulate complex alterations in attitude or movements of personality. A few of his lines have to do with the facts, a few directly express grief for Desdemona, a few more attack Iago. In still more lines Othello calls himself names, refers sardonically to himself, seeks a weapon, accuses himself of a drop from past heroism to present pusillanimity, sees Desdemona as sending him to hell at the Day of Doom, and calls for theatrical punishments upon himself. These points, which occupy about two-thirds of Othello's lines, have rather the air of self-censure by one who has been tricked into a bad mistake. In one short speech he insists that he did "all in honor," and finally there is the famous death speech which mostly calls attention to his political and personal merits. He serves as his own character witness. It is true, of course, that he sentences himself to death, yet it is almost as if it were a penalty for a tactical or strategic mistake. At the same time he continues to think well of his honor. What he never gets said is that what his honor amounted to was arrogant and ruthless egotism, and that he committed a terrible wrong. In him, that is, we see the vigorous action of Shakespeare's sense of the ego's persistent reaching out for the formula that will put the individual in the best possible light.
While Lear and Othello both act, one in literal haste and the other in moral haste, Hamlet is the most famous resister of haste in all literature. While Lear and Othello both come to know, as their natures make possible, what they have done, Hamlet wants to know what he is doing before he does it. These differences go along with one interesting ground of resemblance. Othello does not claim outright to be an innocent man, but he does present himself as free of the wrong emotions that would make him guilty of first-degree murder. Lear inferentially claims to be innocent as long as he can, that is, to be an innocent victim of ungrateful daughters. Hamlet passionately desires to remain innocent. Perhaps he is nagged by doubts of his innocence; such doubts would help account for the denunciatory and self-righteous elements in his style (these elements are also strong in the rhetoric of Hamlet senior, and in Lear's language as long as he clings to his role of wronged parent). Be that as it may, Hamlet's longing to feel innocent is his form of the pursuit of self-esteem which Shakespeare regularly detects in his tragic characters. Other heroes act wrongly and then clutch at innocence; Hamlet so clings to innocence that he hardly acts, even to effect a retribution that he makes seem virtually judicial. He does not bring himself to it; rather he brings it about, and in a way, I suggest, that might be devised by wily innocence plotting unawares. He carries out a series of antics—outcroppings, in part, of inner pressures—that generate enormous tensions; tensions generate Claudius' plotting of a "final solution"; the final solution generates chaotic brawling; in this, deaths are generated less by ordered intention than by scrambled contention and hot unscheduled lunges. Retributory homicide is accomplished without the guilt of planned murder, retaliation without loss of innocence. Besides, the plotting of a final solution makes larger and more solid the guilt of Claudius. The more substantial the guilt of the wrong-doer, the more substantial the innocence of the agent of right.
Hamlet's pursuit of a self-image is unique among these heroes. Lear's and Othello's ways of claiming a sympathetic esteem embody more familiar patterns—Lear's "I don't deserve such unfair treatment," and Othello's "I am better than I look." In Macbeth we find a different situation and, in the erring hero, a different style of salvaging an honorableness that can be a bulwark against denigration by self and others. … Since it does not contain a peccavi, this section loses the advantage of a self-correction, which makes the voyeur in everyman feel like a moralist.) Macbeth's way of thinking well of himself, and of encouraging others to think well of himself, differs from the methods of the other tragic heroes: theirs are rhetorical, his is dramatic. They verbalize their cases; Macbeth enacts a role that can elicit fellow-feeling, applause, or admiration. It is not that Macbeth plays tricks to mislead moral pursuers; rather he instinctively follows a course that in its way is creditable enough to deflect attention from what is less creditable. The role that Macbeth creates and enacts is that of a strenuous, come-what-may, fear-quelling fighter against hostile no-mercy forces who hem him in and must kill him. (There is also something of this in Richard III.) He is so completely in the role of hemmed-in hero that his mind is wholly empty of any awareness of why he is hemmed in. Shakespeare focusses all attention on Macbeth agonistes, the heroic warrior against odds. Macbeth shows no fear when he calls on the witches and sees their apparitions; when they give him apparently bad news, he does not fold but takes fierce, indeed savage, action. He must go on, despite his wife's illness and death; despite thought of how wretched life is now when he receives only "deep" curses and what he sardonically calls "mouth-honour"; despite a desperate feeling of emptiness; and despite news of thanes fleeing him and hostile armies approaching. "I'll fight till from my bones my flesh be hack'd" (V.iii.32). Birnam Wood moves toward him—the miracle which has to seal his fate, but still he can cry, "Blow, wind! come, wrack! / At least we'll die with harness on our back" (V.v.52). In one small sense he can even see himself as a victim, yet a victim who will fight rather than merely suffer: "They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly, / But, bearlike, I must fight the course" (V.vii.1-2). It's what "they" have done, without any glimpse of what he has done. He will not "play the Roman fool, and die / On mine own sword" (V.viii.1-2). When he meets Macduff and finds that he was born by Caesarean section—a pretty tricky fulfillment of the prophecy of death by one not "of woman born"—he backs off only a moment from the fight that the witches' Apparition has predicted will be fatal for him. Then he comes back: "I will not yield, … / Yet I will try the last … / … Lay on, Macduff, / And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'" (V.viii.27-34).
We may say that Shakespeare knows that a man who does evil may be brave, assumes the palpableness of the evil, and concentrates on the more interesting problem of dramatizing the bravery. Or since Macbeth's way of meeting his troubles is an enactment of a hero's role, and since the hero in him has stolen the stage from the villain in him, we might say that Shakespeare lets Macbeth get away with it. However this may be, it is clear that in Macbeth Shakespeare is more than usually fascinated by the devices that men use—men of punitive, revengeful, or ambitious violence—use to think well of themselves or present themselves as worthy of respect or sympathy from observers. The devices are not conscious tricks; rather they represent an instinctive working of emotions. Shakespeare seems to fall into so thorough an imaginative participation in these self-extolling or self-creating devices that his characterizations can take on some ambiguity. Some commentators write as if, in the beleaguered latter part of his life, Macbeth had transcended his past and were now only a figure of heroic valor. Richard II so manipulates the divine right that is his theoretical strength, exploits the pathos of his practical situation, and converts himself into a poetical contemplator, as to elicit from some readers a fond sympathy and almost an ignoring of the royal incapacity, the combination of weakness and willfulness that invites a takeover by any aspirant stronger on talent than scruple. Again, is Timon a truly generous soul who is a victim of ingratitude and whose only mistake is an excess of a virtue, or does he err much more seriously by unconsciously believing that friendship can be bought and by mistaking his rash payments for pure generosity? If it is the latter, Timon is practicing what we may call timony—that is, a secular simony, the purchase of good offices. Yet to some observers he seems truly generous, a pathetic victim of panhandlers. As is his wont, Shakespeare has imagined the best that can be said for him, and thus made him ambiguous.
Now let me try to knit up or together several lines of thought that may seem tangled. The emerging fabric should have constant implications for political life, though for the time I leave them implicit rather than make them explicit. I started by suggesting an analogy among a kind of theological imagination, a theory of comedy as the acceptance of diversity, and the Shakespearean habit of finding the best that can be said for characters whose flaws are quite evident. My Shakespeare examples, it is true, have been mostly in the realm of tragedy, though I did start out with Love's Labor's Lost and The Taming of the Shrew. My dominant use of the tragedies reveals no desire to push a paradox—that one can use the spirit of comedy as a perspective for discussing tragedy; rather it enables us to see a common element in tragedy and comedy. That tragedy and comedy are related is an old truism; but people who utter it may speak with solemn vagueness rather than with useful precision. Let me try a concrete formulation of an attitude shared by tragedy and comedy: neither envisages the eradication of evil but rather acknowledges the inevitable imperfection of things, especially the imperfection of human conduct (and, as we have seen, Shakespeare's acceptance includes his extremely active understanding of what may be said for imperfect beings, or what these erring creatures may say for themselves). Clearly I am attributing to both forms a solid reality sense, which I need hardly note is an essential foundation of political life. Now the risk in such an attribution, indispensable as the reality sense is, is that it may seem to invest both generic forms with an anything-goes or whatever-is-is-right or even a wrong-always-triumphs version of despair. But this conclusion, though we must not ignore it, does not really follow. To have a sense of the un-regenerate as a constant is not to deny the influence of the regenerative; to be aware of the fallen nature of man—I beg the fact or the nature of the fall—is not to declare that man never can be, or is, upright. In tragedy, what survives anti-moral conduct is moral awareness; it may have to struggle to regain its power in the human soul or in the human community, but it is never replaced by a general yielding to the non-moral that for a time seems to call the shots. In comedy, what survives is the social order; the essential processes are the embrace of better values by the more capable, the restoration of good sense in those who have acted foolishly, and the general application of amiable tolerance in place of retaliatory and reformist pressure. But these survivals that are characteristic of the two genres and that are essential to the enduring of a free society make no guarantee that there will not be further out-breaks of destructive arrogance or disruptive folly. Neither form ever says, "This will never do" or "We will change all that"; what each form says is, "This is the way it is," one with an "alas," the other with a smile.
Tragedy, we may say, invokes a sense of honor; comedy, a sense of humor. A sense of honor means the acceptance of imperatives that one may not ignore or violate; a sense of humor means an acceptance of disparates rather than an application of conformitarian or egalitarian imperatives. Both honor and humor involve risks. The code of honor of course runs the risk that honor may mean contentious self-magnification rather than self-subduing obligation. The humorous acceptance of disparates raises the nice problem of the borderline beyond which acceptance may seem to go much too far. Two Shakespeare comedies approach the borderline problem rather adventurously, coming up with different solutions that cause difficulties to many readers. One is the extraordinary grace shown to Angelo in Measure for Measure; the other is the rejection of Falstaff in 2 Henry IV. Each play makes a decision that many readers would not make.
In Measure for Measure Angelo, an acting duke committed to reform, is so eager to purify Vienna that he invokes the death penalty against Claudio because Claudio got his fiancée Juliet pregnant. When Claudio's sister Isabella begs for his life, Angelo feels so strong a sexual desire for her that he promises to free Claudio if she will sleep with him. Isabella is horrified, but later agrees to this as part of another plot: substituted for her on the nocturnal assignation is Mariana, a girl whom Angelo had once jilted for dowry-failure. But after this sexual pay-off for his promised mercy, Angelo orders Claudio killed anyway. Happily the Duke whom Angelo is temporarily replacing is a full-time deux ex machina masterminding defensive actions: Claudio is saved, Angelo's vices are publicly revealed, and he is sentenced to death. But Mariana and Isabella both plead for him, and he and Mariana become one of three couples that constitute a final rich matrimonial harvest. The problem is that Angelo has been guilty of judicial harshness, lust, blackmail, and treachery, but by way of the penalty that seems required he has no more than a brief fright. In effect, the play accepts the actions of Angelo as if they were not vices but follies like pretentiousness or boastfulness. One way of reflecting our difficulty with this situation is calling this play a "dark comedy." As a matter of fact, the way things are handled is very much like that in the modern form which we regularly call "black comedy": its hallmark is the acceptance of the unacceptable. The fact that we have to come to terms with is that comedy always has within it the seed of black comedy; acceptance can easily drift into over-acceptance. There is no wholly objective line that bounds the realm of the acceptable. Measure for Measure is useful in its focusing attention on this problematic indeterminateness.
In Angelo Shakespeare seems to go as far as he can to see what can be said for a character of rather ample questionableness. In effect, we are still to feel the character to be "one of us" if his motives, however unlovely, fail to result in the injuries that he is willing to inflict on others. In Falstaff, on the other hand, Shakespeare seems uniquely to depart from the principle that we have seen him frequently use: here, as it were, he seeks out what can be said against a character who is so widespread a favorite that anything short of adulation seems almost indecent. Yet I doubt that Shakespeare is really doing a turnabout. It depends partly on where we start. Even if we think that Shakespeare thinks of Falstaff as primarily a clown and entertainer, still Falstaff gets a pretty large slice of the military pie, and then adopts a style there, and in his relations with creditors, that makes it difficult to think of him only as an innocuous funny man. But suppose Shakespeare, as I suspect he does, thinks of Falstaff as primarily a sponger, a cheat, and a racketeer whom we would hate to have to rely on in any situation at all. Then we can see Shakespeare as indeed applying his standard method of finding everything that can be said for him: Shakespeare has given him credit for so much amiable jesting, easy wit, parodic skill, and general showmanship that he has charmed most observers out of their usual sense of what is socio-politically admissible. For the new Henry V, whose youth has been rather clouded by his crony-hood, to continue an intimacy with Falstaff would be a ruinous symbolic act; this should be clear to sentimental Americans if they will bother to recall their immense and often savage displeasure at any peccadilloes in any White House attaché or habitué. Shakespeare accepts what the King has to do, even at the cost of the King's looking unfaithful and ungrateful, and he also accepts the fact that Henry V may do what he has to do not very gracefully or winningly. In Falstaff Shakespeare accepts the fact that irresponsibility and rascality need not be repulsive but can be allied with vast seductive charm; he also accepts the fact that there is a point at which charm can no longer bail out irresponsibility and rascality. The situation is analogous to that in tragedy: all that wins our admiration and sympathy for tragic heroes cannot save them from the outcomes implicit in their deeds. Whoever objects to the discarding of Falstaff by Henry V should also object to the fact that Macbeth is done in by a coalition of more conventional political types, and that suicide deprives the world of so glamorous a charmer as Othello. And if we seek a consistency within Shakespeare's comic practice that condemns Falstaff but rescues Angelo, it may be this: that Falstaff is essentially corrupt, but because he is great fun we ignore his corruption as long as it is not politically significant; while Angelo, who of course is no fun at all, undertakes evil acts which represent, instead of an essential corruption, the faulty resistance to temptation which marks all humanity.
Looking at the new Henry V, Shakespeare sees that a king may have to be royal rather than loyal. Not that being royal means per se being disloyal, but that the royal imperative is to be loyal to community rather than crony, or, in another idiom, to polis rather than pals (incidentally the reverse of the moral formula enunciated by E. M. Forster some years ago, presumably for political commoners rather than political leaders). Looking at royalty—that is, political leadership—in numerous plays, Shakespeare can use, with equal ease, either a tragic or a comic perspective. And in both modes he sees reality as a mixed, ambiguous affair: the catastrophes of tragedy do not mean a total loss of sustaining values, nor the Act V satisfactions of comedy an elimination of the dissatisfied and the disruptive. On the one hand, the sufferings of tragedy are counterbalanced by the survival in consciousness of the distinction between good and evil. Things do not get blurred, meaningless, or contemptible; in other words, as someone said long ago, the opposite of tragedy is not comedy but cynicism. In comedy, on the other hand, the comfortable accommodations reached in later scenes do not guarantee or even hint at happiness for all forever. We stop at a moment of gratifications and peace, but its continuance, if not denied, is not predicted. Trouble and troubling characters are still alive and around, and even in the luckier ones, human nature still holds on. Despite a recent tendency to invest the dramatic romances with an aura of the transcendental or the paradisaic, even there, I think, we see more a temporary surfacing of good nature or good sense than the creation of a utopia or even the establishment of a truly better world. What I am getting at, in other words, is that the opposite of comedy is—to employ a term now made widely available by the writings of Eric Voegelin—the gnostic illusion.
If we can set tragedy off against cynicism, and comedy against gnosticism, we can see these generic modes as having in themselves some significance in the context of political order. It is just possible that in this context there is a symbolic significance in the writing of tragedy and comedy. Perhaps it would be saying too much to propose that the writing of tragedy and comedy is essential to a healthy political order. But the moods out of which these forms come, and which they may nourish, are desirable in, if not actually indispensable to, political order, for ominous threats to that order would lie in cynicism and gnosticism, i.e., on the one hand the sense that anything goes because all is corruption, and the opposite sense that all corruption must be eliminated and intramundane salvation be accomplished, obviously by whatever compulsions are requisite. Tragedy and comedy are different modes of reconciliation to imperfect actuality: tragedy sees wrong-doing instead of corruption, sees the cost, and sees the spiritual survival; comedy sees folly, messiness, and even scheming as incurably persistent, but not finally triumphant over the decency and good sense and even wisdom that humanity is capable of in its better parts and at its better moments. Comedy also sees that not all differences are differences between right and wrong.
Suppose we could imagine a polity in which all members were equally equipped with a tragic sense. That is, they would recognize their wrongdoings as wrong-doings, as their own, as voluntary, as of a moral quality not to be upgraded by causes and conditionings that the doer can allege, and as imposing a responsibility to be borne and exercized. Highly improbable, it need hardly be said. But were it possible, this situation would define a political order in which the institutional arms and organs could be minimized; we might even approach the deinstitutionalized community projected hauntingly on the screen of the ideal by anarchist visions. At least an immense machinery of justice would seem gratuitous. Still to be taken care of, however, would be all matters of policy. Here, perhaps, the comic spirit would be useful. The acceptance of fundamental disparateness is a definition not only of humor and of comedy but of politics, at least of democratic and pluralistic politics as opposed to ideological politics, which is humorless and gnostic and therefore dictatorial. Ideological politics is always a melodrama: our own virtue against others' evil that must be done away with. Carthago delenda est, with Carthago as the symbol of all that is different (there is a version of this in antiSemitism; "Jew," Arthur Miller has said, "is only the name we give to the stranger"). American political activity always starts as a melodrama: campaigns for office are strictly noncomic affairs of good guy vs. bad guys. Election over, the winners soon discover, if they do not already know it, that what they face is not so much bad guys as it is complex and diverse claims that have to be met by various styles of compromise and accommodation. They move from melodrama to the comic spirit: acceptance of the disparate. (This politicization of the literary is also a secularization of Christian charity.) The problem, as we noted earlier, is always the limit of acceptance, the point at which the disparate calls for distinctions rather than undifferentiating embrace, the point at which even those behind glass walls have to risk throwing a stone or two. Comic practice may provide a model: it does not assume a plurality of options to mean an equality among the options. It does not go for compulsory homogenization; one result is that it lets cream rise to the top. In effect, it judges: some courses, some situations, some individuals are more admirable than others. Prospero is the superior person in The Tempest, Hermione in Winter's Tale, Imogen in Cymbeline; and to go outside Shakespeare for a great example, Mirabell and Millamant in Congreve's The Way of the World. In comedy all survive, all get something; but the higher the quality of the individuals, the greater the achievement, be it in measurable things, in way of life, or simply in the esteem which we accord to the exemplary. In dealing with the difficult issue of quality and equality, comedy provides a theatrical symbolization of a basic political problem.
The mark of the achieved quality may be the denial or rejection of apparent advantage or profit. Prospero's abjuring of his magical powers, whatever it may signify in Shakespeare's own spiritual or poetic history, is implicitly a piece of political theory: man may work a political miracle now and then, but he is wise not to count on a regular intervention of the miraculous. In the long run, political life is a gamble with human nature, to be understood and dealt with as best one may by the more limited tools normally at hand. Timon exemplifies the worst way of dealing with human nature, and he brings out its worst side, for he denies it nothing that it wants or thinks it needs. His experience is a cautionary tale of the relationship between politician and public as we often see it now. The politician believes that he can win the love, and votes, of his district only by handouts, the universal yes, and the district comes to believe that the handouts alone symbolize quality. The receivers become corrupt, and the blessed giver bankrupt; his corrupted pupils can interpret this insolvency only as a willful termination of the largesse which has become for them the criterion of merit and truth. The eponymous practitioner of timony took to a rather tedious misanthropy. The disappointed public man of our day (not to mention the market-eyed publicist fighting, he says, for our right to know) also turns moralist and writes a best-seller exposing vice in government men and agencies. Lear, however, did not make a quick quid exposing Goneril and Regan in print. He died too soon to enjoy that ultimate anodyne for, or spinal block against, the harsh pain of the peccavi—that anguish of self-acknowledgment which Shakespeare understood so well that he could not always make his characters fully capable of it.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15158
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 absurdities at the hands of over-zealous devotees, that a scholar who desires a reputation for sanity hardly ventures to touch the subject."
Maxwell and Miss Bennett were reacting to a particularly energetic wave of publishing in the 1920's, inspired in part by the team of Manly and Rickert at Chicago. Triumphantly this school of criticism proclaimed its all-embracing theory of political usefulness in the Tudor drama. "What research is making continually clearer," wrote Miss Rickert, is "that in the sixteenth century the play and the masque did the work of the modern newspaper in guiding opinion" ["Political Propaganda and Satire in A Midsummer Night's Dream," Modern Philology 21, 1923]. Acting companies adopted the political viewpoint of their noble patrons, and churned out plays that were, despite their guise of entertainment, little more than propagandistic weapons of a continuing factionalism at court. The drama performed editorial rather than newsgathering functions, and was in fact a "review" in the style of Punch, caricaturing everyone in public life.
At its extreme, such an approach was perhaps an un-avoidable abuse of the philological quest for source and background illumination. By no means all of its hypotheses were insane, and its contributions to factual knowledge were considerable. Nevertheless, the bulk of this scholarship has been written off as bizarre ingenuity, akin to Baconian or Oxfordian ciphering in its search for answers to a nonexistent mystery. More serious, the approach implies a debased and contentious view of Elizabethan dramatic art. Too often it has reduced even Shakespeare to the ignoble status of polemicist and mere copyist from life. Hamlet's assertion that dramatists should offer "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time" (a phrase Shakespeare might well have expunged if he could have foreseen its critical consequences) has become twisted into a creed of banal usefulness that denies the integrity of the artist. As Brents Stirling has shown, these critical heresies threaten to engulf the present-day student of Shakespeare's political meaning. If he defends the theory of didacticism in Renaissance art, the student must not look upon "message" as the sole or dominant aim of artistic expression. Most of all he must avoid the common temptation to argue that Tudor politics are relevant to modern ideologies, from Marxism to rightist totalitarianism.
On the other hand, romantic hostility to topical meaning is capable of producing its own distortions, especially when applied retroactively to the civilization of the Renaissance. Our world tends to overemphasize the separation of politics and art, partly because of our distrust of everincreasing state power over the minds of men. Yeats spoke for many modern intellectuals when he said, "We have no gift to set a statesman right," even if Yeats did not always follow his own advice. Auden, too, in eulogizing Yeats, argued that poetry "makes nothing happen." Both men were speaking in a romantic tradition exemplified earlier by Shelley, who insisted that a poet "would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither." Ben Jonson, however, who attempted to set many a stateman right, would have rejected the implied dichotomy between usefulness and poetic vision. He assumed, as did his contemporaries, that art could be both universal and didactic, and he did not hesitate to set forth his conception of right and wrong for his own time. Even if we view the decline of didacticism as necessary to the flowering of great Renaissance art, we should not pretend that didacticism was eliminated entirely in the late Elizabethan period. For this reason, it is a romantic exaggeration to suppose with A. F. Pollard that "no period of English literature has less to do with politics than that during which English letters reached their zenith; and no English writer's attitude toward the questions, with which alone political history is concerned, is more obscure or less important than Shakespeare's." One can applaud Tucker Brooke's efforts to rescue Shakespeare from the narrow topicalists and still object to his wishful depiction of Shakespeare as "that entrancing, brilliant moss-back" who "must have been one of the last men in London with whom an up-to-date Elizabethan would have thought of discussing politics, or religion, or geography, or current affairs."
Shakespeare, Jonson, and the best of their contemporaries did of course transcend mere pamphleteering. Yet their remarkable success in doing so cannot be measured without an awareness of the polemical norms of their day. Art as a weapon of propaganda was a commonplace in the sixteenth century, taken for granted by the politically active noblemen who provided the financial support for many of England's writers. During the formative midcentury years, religious politics was virtually the whole substance of drama, inevitably creating a tradition both of political commentary in the drama and of various dramaturgic techniques by which ideology could be given maximum propagandistic effect. Without this background it is not easy to assess the nature of Shakespeare's problem as a writer of history plays. The historical materials he used were habitually employed in topical controversy comparing Queen Elizabeth with her incompetent predecessors John, Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI. Shakespeare's use of these materials did not make him a polemicist, but it did oblige him to be conscious of latent meanings for his audience and for his government. Furthermore, there is no good reason to believe that Shakespeare and Jonson wished to shun the political preoccupations of their generation. However universal their vision, however much emancipated from the literal equations of some allegorists, they chose the political or courtly arena as a means of dramatizing their ideals about man in society. In a thriving commercial theater they fortunately achieved a fair degree of independence from ideological servitude, and they used their independence to look beyond the narrowly political. Hamlet's espousal of the "abstract and brief chronicles" is of course infinitely more than topical; it offers a transcendent rationale for the artist's depiction of life as he sees it. Without the providential demise of "pure" political drama during the years of Shakespeare's youth, later Elizabethan drama would have been indeed sterile and utilitarian. Yet even if a study of Tudor political drama must accordingly be anticlimactic in structure, looking forward with relief to the emancipation of the artist from a constricting view of his social function, it nevertheless is paradoxically true that contemporary political awareness contributed greatly to the highest literary achievement of English civilization. Shakespeare and Jonson did not use their freedom to eschew political responsibility but rather to speak as public moralists. They still believed in the power of art to guide and reform. Political dramaturgy was an inescapable and major portion of their heritage, and as in so many things their generation managed to transform stern realities into momentary splendor.
Shakespeare's dominance on the Elizabethan dramatic scene ordinarily requires that he be treated at length or not at all. He is certainly the universally known poet on whom most criticism (good and bad) has centered.…
Shakespeare's political ideas emerge from the comparison as those of an eminently thoughtful man who catered neither to a complacent view of official policy nor to the firebrand rebelliousness of a man like the Earl of Essex. Among his contemporaries Shakespeare was, in fact, an unusually brave, sensitive, and humane defender of a middle position rapidly losing credence in the extremist temper of Elizabeth's last years. The burning issues of the 1590's were relevant to Shakespeare's career as a dramatist, not in terms of individual identities but of principles.
Apart from setting the political ideas of late Elizabethan drama in a broad perspective, this study attempts to achieve literary insight into the growth of dramatic forms. My emphasis is not on social and political history for which plays might be used as illustrative documents, but on the plays themselves. Techniques of characterization, for instance, were intensely affected by the Elizabethan dramatist's quest for ways to transform historical models into artistic abstractions or social types. The escape from the narrow didacticism of polemical portraiture was necessarily achieved in the context of a political tradition. Handling of viewpoint and use of chorus or of choral characters are matters for which a determining of political auspices is often vital. The artist's conception of the genre in which he writes is frequently the product of his political intent. These are literary questions for which a knowledge of historical background is a subservient but essential need.
In order to avoid the pitfalls of many topical interpreters of Tudor plays, with their grasping at coincidental similarities between drama and historical event (analogies often constructed on internal evidence alone), we would do well to survey two approaches to topical meaning; first, the considerable amount of external evidence concerning political activity in the drama, and second, some of the hypotheses advanced to explain the "secret" meaning of extant Elizabethan plays. The approaches are too often worlds apart. Yet the reliable external evidence, however cautiously it must be applied to the plays, is significant and pervasive throughout the Tudor period. The habit of analogizing, in drama as elsewhere, was universal. As Miss Campbell, M. M. Reese, and others have abundantly illustrated, history was studied and restudied for the light it cast on contemporary events. In Herodotus' account of the Greek wars against the Persians, for instance, Elizabethans could see a mirror of their own struggle with Spain. They eulogized Queen Elizabeth at her coronation festivities as Deborah the woman judge, or as Alexander, Diana, Phoebe, and Arthur. Mary Queen of Scots was flatteringly compared to Aurora, the Muses, Helen, Ceres, Juno, Lucrece, Pallas, Jove, Clio, Diana, Venus, Penelope, and the Virgin Mary; by her enemies she was likened to Circe, Clytemnestra, Dalilah, Jezebel, Medea, Pasiphae, Calypso, the Sirens, Medusa, and Duessa. The commonest source for such analogies were the Bible, English history and legendary history, and classical mythology and history.
In drama, this habit of mind is discernible in the earliest accounts of medieval street pageants and courtly disguisings. A pageant celebrating the reconciliation of Richard II with the City of London (1392) compared Richard to Solomon, Troilus, Absalom, and Christ; in a particularly pointed allegory he was depicted as Ahasuerus, with Queen Anne as the godly Queen Hester who could appease her husband's unjustified wrath toward his people. The advice was sharply critical, for the Londoners knew they had won their argument and could welcome Richard back largely on their own terms. Lydgate wrote a pageant for Henry VI's entry into London (1432) celebrating the king as Aristotle, Euclid, Boethius, David, and Solomon. Henry VII's progress to York, Hereford, Worcester, and Bristol in 1486 brought forth encomiums to a resurrected Solomon, Noah, Jason, Isaac, Jacob, David, Scipio, and of course Arthur. Lydgate's courtly disguisings of 1425-1435 similarly gave Biblical and mythological dignity to politically important embassies. Mummings were so potentially dangerous that they had to be prohibited at times (for instance, in 1417 and 1418). According to some chroniclers, a mumming provided the occasion for an attempted overthrow of Henry IV in 1400. Politically motivated disguisings continued into the Tudor period, as at the marriage of Prince Arthur to Katharine of Aragon (1501).
Well before the Reformation, Henry VIII encouraged political drama dealing with the international power struggle. On the occasion of the visit of Emperor Charles V in 1522, to cement an imperial alliance, the signatories witnessed a play by young gentleman that expressed Henry's viewpoint in the negotiations. According to Edward Hall's Union, a group of allegorical figures named Friendship, Prudence, and Might, representing the signatories, undertook to tame a wild horse representing King Francis I of France. In November 1527, after a characteristic shift in diplomatic ties, John Ritwise and the children of Paul's performed a Latin play before Henry and the French ambassador, needling the emperor and the Spaniards. Cardinal Wolsey is the hero of this piece of open propaganda. With St. Peter's authority, Wolsey unites England and France against the enemies of the church, bringing the emperor to his knees and freeing the two sons of the king of France. Also in the production are Religion, Ecclesia, and Verity, opposing Heresy, False Interpretation, Corruptio Scriptoris, and the heretic Luther and his wife. Wolsey and Henry are "Fidei Defensor." Hall reports drily that wise men smiled at the cardinal's vanity. The next year saw a companion piece performed before Wolsey on the release of the pope from captivity.
Not all political dramas of this early period favored the administration so tamely. John Roo wrote a play (1527) about Lord Governance, "ruled by Dissipation and Negligence, by whose misgovernance and evil order Lady Public Weal was put from Governance; which caused Rumor Populi, Inward Grudge, and Disdain of Wanton Sovereignty to rise with a great multitude" to restore Public Weal. Hall, a member of Gray's Inn, gives a first-hand account of this Christmas performance before lawyers who were evidently up in arms about Henry's "amicable loan" of 1525. Roo claimed that the play had been written at the end of Henry VII's reign, but Wolsey was sufficiently offended to send Roo to the Fleet and rebuke the young gentlemen who had acted in the play. In 1537, at a May-Day play in Suffolk, the actors told "of a king, how he should rule his realm," and "one played Husbandry and said many things against gentlemen, more than was in the book of the play."
With the Reformation, political drama took a more violent turn. A comedy appeared at court in 1533-1534 "to the no small defamation of certain cardinals." Even the pope heard that Henry "feist jouer ou permisi estre jouées des farces dedans Londres fort ignominieuses." Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, tells a grisly episode of Henry delighting in his own thirst for blood. In June 1535, Henry traveled thirty miles to Windsor one evening, walking ten of those miles "with a two-handed sword, and got into a house where he could see everything. He was so pleased at seeing himself cutting off the heads of the clergy," that "he sent to tell his lady [Anne Boleyn] that she ought to see the representation of it repeated on the eve of St. Peter."
Anti-Catholic drama and its opposite were staple in the reigns of Edward VI and Mary, and of the early Elizabeth. Official fear of political drama and its two-edged potency was bound to increase, however, and Elizabeth's attitude was complex. Her sensitivity, combined with her fascination for allegorical subtlety, inevitably altered the method of political allusion. She was especially alert to the question of her marriage or establishing a successor to the throne. Did she merely drive political allusion into more tortuous and obscure forms of expression, or did she succeed in persuading her courtiers that the subject was too dangerous to mention? The question is central to Lyly's plays among others, and will be debated at length in the ensuing chapters. We cannot doubt, however, that Elizabeth suspected a never-ending commentary in most plays she saw. In July 1564, Guzman da Silva wrote to his Spanish master, King Philip, about a comedy he had seen in Elizabeth's presence: "I should not have understood much of it if the Queen had not interpreted as she told me she would do. They generally deal with marriage in the comedies." Similarly in March 1565, de Silva witnessed with Elizabeth a debate between Juno and Diana, representing marriage and chastity. After Jupiter had given his verdict in favor of marriage, "the Queen then turned to me and said, 'This is all against me.'" In 1567 de Silva wrote, "The hatred that this Queen has of marriage is most strange. They represented a comedy before her last night until nearly one in the morning, which ended in a marriage, and the Queen, as she told me herself, expressed her dislike of the woman's part." Late in her reign, John Harington could report that Elizabeth "utterly supprest the talk of an heir apparent, saying she would not have her winding sheet set up afore her face." Yet she still expected at this date to receive unwelcome advice in her plays. After witnessing a play in 1595 appearing to favor Essex, Elizabeth retired with the comment that "if she had thought there had been so much said of her, she would not have been there that night." And Lord Burghley wrote in a letter that same year, "I think never a lady besides her, nor a decipherer in the court, would have dissolved the figure [explicated the allegory] to have found the sense as her Majesty hath done."
Were Elizabeth's endless suspicions justified, however, in each case? Burghley's testimonial suggests rather that Elizabeth was a reader of deep meaning beyond the talents of highly accomplished decipherers in her court. If a comedy ending in marriage offended her, how could any comedy hope to please? Her remarks to the Spanish ambassador may well have been calculated to titillate Philip; she could depend on de Silva to repeat what she had said, and was not likely to offer an undiplomatic gambit. Philip long fancied himself as one of Elizabeth's wooers, and she was strategically in need of flirting with him. What we are left with is evidence that feeling did run high concerning the marriage question and that allegorical lock-picking was a courtly pastime amounting to a disease. No writer in Lyly's situation could overlook it, as his many disclaimers prove.
There are, to be sure, palpable instances in which courtiers did offer allegorical tributes to their queen, begging favors that were sometimes granted. These entertainments were not regular plays, however, but took the form of masques or pageants on the queen's progresses. At Kenilworth in 1575, the festivities planned by Leicester included a show "in which tale, if you mark the words with this present world, or were acquainted with the state of the devices, you should find no less hidden than uttered, and no less uttered than should deserve a double reading over." Leicester's audacity in urging his suit of marriage appears to have backfired, however, prompting a rejoinder in the entertainment at Woodstock that argues against unequal marriages for princesses. Later, in 1595, Arthur Throgmorton asked permission to present before Elizabeth a "masque of the nine muses," upon which occasion the sponsor planned to beg a royal favor. Thomas Churchyard tells of a sumptuous show by Sir Walter Ralegh and others "in which book was the whole service of my L. of Lester mentioned that he and his train did in Flaunders." When Elizabeth visited Burghley in 1593 "she was welcomed by a dramatic device in which it was suggested in the plainest terms that Burghley's mantle of councillor should be allowed to fall upon his son Robert." At Essex's pageant before the queen in 1595 "there was much guessing as to the meaning of the allegory."
This topical method, however, applies solely to private masques and shows, which were by nature occasional pieces, paid for by an aristocrat with the specific aim of cajoling or placating the queen. Regular plays, on the other hand, whether for adult or juvenile companies, were financed by a theatrical audience. The patron offered nominal protection in return for sporadic services; he did not commission the work. For these reasons it is unsafe to assume that plays like Endymion, Love's Labor's Lost, Troilus and Cressida, or The Merry Wives of Windsor fostered individual campaigns of flattery and begging on behalf of certain courtiers, as did the courtly entertainment. And in fact no Tudor document exists to demonstrate such a condition of performance. Conceivably, the goals of public repertory and of courtly flattery might be merged, allowing Shakespeare, for example, to fashion A Midsummer Night's Dream for a noble wedding with the added expectation of a successful run at the Theater. Such a play could combine a covert meaning for its aristocratic auditors and a broader meaning for the public. At the private theaters, hidden meaning (like that suggested for Endymion) might appeal even to a select paying clientele. Such conditions of performance are, however, purely conjectural. It cannot be overemphasized that the wealth of external evidence on topical relevance in the Elizabethan period relates chiefly to lost plays or to the tradition of masques and entertainments.
Apart from aristocratic struggles for the queen's favor, the subjects most often urged in topical interpretations of late Elizabethan drama are dynastic: the Scottish succession, Essex's challenge of the queen's authority, the threat of Spain. There is no dearth of evidence showing that such inflammatory issues were publicly aired, and that the authorities were disturbed. The drama was by no means the only outlet for extremist sentiment. The Lord Chief Justice, in the Star Chamber, November 1599, reported of Puritan activity that "the fashion of it has been to scandalize the queen, censure councillors, and write against all authority, and the purpose is to disgrace those in authority and cause disobedience and sedition, and bring all to confusion." In that same year, preachers spoke impertinently of the government, tolled bells for Essex, or prayed for him by name. Allegorical allusion served as an all-weather vehicle for purposes of disclaiming responsibility for seditious talk. In March 1600, the Bishop of Worcester, preaching at court, made many insinuations on behalf of Essex: "As he was understood by the whole auditory and by the Queen herself, who presently calling him to a reckoning for it, he flatly foreswore that he had any such meaning."
Basic to covert criticism of the government was the historical method of Robert Parsons, a seditious Catholic whose diatribe of 1584, known as Leicester's Commonwealth, likened Elizabeth to Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, weak kings who had been supplanted by successful and sane usurpers. Leicester, in this analogy, epitomized the parasitical frivolities of Gaveston and the Spencers, Mowbray, or the Earl of Suffolk. Elizabeth and her courtiers could hardly be unfamiliar with the analogy, and its implications. Her closet counselors were anxious not to be viewed as favorites. As early as 1578, Sir Francis Knollys fretted that if Elizabeth did not heed wise counsel, she would soon find herself surrounded by sycophants willing to "play the parts of King Richard the Second's men." Lord Hundson employed the same phrase, saying "I was never one of Richard II's men." It was in such a taut context that Elizabeth remarked of Essex's rebellion (February 1601), "I am Richard II. Know ye not that?" Essex's followers had ordered a revival of a play on Richard II, by the Chamberlain's men, on the very eve of the abortive rebellion. Whether the play was Shakespeare's cannot be ascertained, but it seems likely. The analogy does not implicate Shakespeare and his company, who were exonerated by the queen's examiners, but it surely indicates the extraordinary atmosphere in which the play was written and performed. Sir John Hayward, whose History of Henry IV appeared in 1599, was not as lucky as the Chamberlain's men, probably because of his ill-timed dedication to Essex himself. Although Hayward argues respectably enough that deposing a sovereign is unlawful whatever the provocation, the detailed exposure of Richard's weaknesses was deemed seditious and Hayward was sent to prison.
If Shakespeare's company successfully avoided prosecution for intentional slandering of the queen, despite their use of a Richard II play, where then are the dramas that actually did revile public authority and support Essex? Topical interpreters have claimed many, but again the external evidence of sedition relates to plays no longer extant. We know only that the government was continually alarmed, and purportedly even took countermeasures by directing its own propaganda in the theaters. The Earl of Derby may have been promoted by such a motive when he was reported, in 1599, to be "busy penning comedies for the common players." William Cecil threatened, apropos of a Star Chamber case having to do with cozening, that "he would have those that make plays to make a comedy thereof and to act it with those names." Personal libel against men in authority was viewed as a danger to the state. As the Privy Council wrote in 1601 to certain justices of the peace of Middlesex: "We do understand that certain players, that use to recite their plays at the Curtain in Moorfields, do represent upon the stage in their interludes the persons of some gentlemen of good desert and quality that are yet alive, under obscure manner but yet in such sort as all the hearers may take notice both of the matter and of the persons that are meant thereby." Acting could apparently convey meaning not specified in the text. Middleton's pageant The Triumphs of Home and Industry (1617) was not derogatory to Spain, but one of its actors, overdressed as a Spanish dandy, persisted in kissing his hands to the unpopular Spanish ambassador Gondomar, who was in the audience. According to a Spanish eyewitness, perhaps biased, the laughter thus provoked was unmistakable in meaning. Abuse of the Scots by "the comedians of London" was so flagrant in 1598 that an English agent in Scotland wrote Burghley, "It is wished that the matter be speedily amended, lest the king and the country be stirred to anger." Even in Ireland, in 1603, it was common knowledge "that the very stage-players in England jeered at him [James] for being the poorest prince in Christendom." Neither of these witnesses, however, was on the scene in London.
Since we lack the plays specifically implicated in these allegedly vivid abuses, we are hard pressed to judge the merits of the charges. Council members and magistrates were, like Elizabeth, predisposed to see plays in the most controversial light possible. We are still left, therefore, with an inadequate means of demonstrating intentional topicality in the extant drama of the 1590's. On the other hand, we have many eloquent testimonials from those who felt they were being unfairly accused of conspiratorial purpose. Samuel Daniel, in 1605, was brought before the Privy Council to answer charges of having shown a sympathetic picture of the Essex rebellion in his Philotas. Fortunately he was able to show that his first three acts had been read by the Master of the Revels and Lord Mountjoy in 1600, before the rebellion occurred. Michael Drayton's changes in depicting Richard II in his England's Heroical Epistles (1599-1600) reflect Elizabeth's touchiness and perhaps Hayward's troubles with the law; the Epistles were dedicated to the Earl of Bedford, an Essex supporter. Fulke Greville, on the advice of friends, burned his Antony and Cleopatra (ca. 1600) because there were things in the play "apt enough to be construed, or strained to a personating of vices in the present Governor, and government." His Alaham (ca. 1600) had also awakened the suspicions of the Cecil clan. Ben Jonson's Sejanus inevitably produced a confrontation with the authorities. In the dedication to Volpone (printed 1607), Jonson commented acidly that "application is now grown a trade." Satire of needless deciphering appears too in his Poetaster and in Epigrams 92. Nicholas Breton lamented, "Who doth not find it by experience That points and commas, oftentimes misread, Endanger oft the harmless writer's head?"
Thomas Nashe was brilliantly caustic on the subject, in his play Summer's Last Will and Testament and in several pamphlets. Authors, he said, are like men at a Persian banquet: "if they roll their eye never so little at one side, there stands an Eunuch before them, with his heart full of jealousy, and his bow ready bent to shoot them through, because they look farther than the laws of the country suffer them." Again, "Let one but name bread, they will interpret it to be the town of Bredan in the low countries." If a writer fails to qualify and disclaim sufficiently, "out steps me an infant squib of the Inns of Court … catcheth hold of a rush, and absolutely concludeth it is meant of the Emperor of Ruscia, and that it will utterly mar the traffic into that country if all the pamphlets be not called in and suppressed, wherein that libelling word is mentioned."
External evidence, then, indicates overinterpretation as much as conspiracy. Clearly the possibilities of allusion were on everybody's mind. Yet the evidence does not provide a clear mandate for discovering court scandal in Love's Labor's Lost or particular reference to Essex in the history plays. The best that can be said for modern decipherers is that they are playing a venerable game, such as was practiced by Elizabethan courtiers and magistrates and by Elizabeth herself. In order to obtain perspective on proper rules for conducting such inquiries, let us examine some theories of topical identification, noting the frequently wide divergence between hypothesis and the reliable evidence already summarized.
A constant theme of the decipherers is the relationship of Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights to the Earl of Essex. However far afield or utterly unrelated some of the theories may seem, they almost invariably reveal their origin in a consistent myth. It explains Shakespeare's entire dramatic production. His admiration for Essex is supposed to have begun early and to have been soon fostered by his closeness to the Earl of Southampton, one of Essex's men throughout most of the period. Southampton was Catholic; Shakespeare, according to the myth, sympathized with the old religion; Essex was tolerant of it (as he was of Puritanism). Both young nobles were inveterate playgoers and friends of the players. Essex was unquestionably the darling of the London populace, or at least a rowdy section of it. Both young men were chevaliers, anxious for glory, hawks in their advocacy of war. They were enemies of the Cecil faction, which Essex unfairly accused of favoring the claims of the Spanish Infanta and opposing James of Scotland. Essex believed in a union of the British Isles, brought about by James's accession to the English throne and a tolerant peace in Ireland. Essex has been interpreted as something much better than a rash malcontent: he was a true "liberal," champion of the common man, of modern economics, the supremacy of Parliament, religious toleration—a man ahead of his time and a martyr for the causes of science, reason, and liberty that were to triumph in the ensuing century. These, according to the theory, were Shakespeare's politics as well, and as the crisis mounted he threw more and more of his dramatic energy into the earl's defense.
Nor was Shakespeare the only Essexian dramatist on the scene. Marlowe's Tragedy of Dido, according to one interpreter, compares the Carthaginian queen's maneuvers to keep Aeneas at court with Elizabeth's reluctance to send her favorites (Essex most of all) on dangerous expeditions. The implied flattery of Essex as the founder of his country's true destiny is momentous. In Tamburlaine, Marlowe supposedly satirizes Philip II for his arrogant claims of universal dominion and his maltreatment of other princes. Thomas Heywood, in his Royal King and Loyal Subject (debatably dated in 1600) portrays an Earl Marshal faithful to his sovereign but hated by the counselors who ultimately drive him into trial for treason and banishment. This typical story of ingratitude is of course parallel to Essex's disgrace, and hence the idealized ending must be a plea for Essex's restoration.
Shakespeare's fascination for the earl supposedly began with his earliest dramatic efforts. An incidental reference in The Comedy of Errors to "the salt rheum that ran between France and [England]," joined to some comic discussion on Spain and the Netherlands, conjures up the expedition of Essex and Biron on behalf of Henry IV (III, ii, 118-145). The Taming of the Shrew is offered as an elaborate allegory berating Burghley (Baptista Minola) for auctioning off his daughters. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in a "transparent veil," attacks Essex's foe Robert Cecil in the false friend Proteus. Proteus' father and uncle are Burghley and Sir Nicholas Bacon. The unsavory Thurio is Lord Rich; Silvia and Valentine are of course Penelope Rich and Sir Philip Sidney. The affair takes place not at Milan but at Leicester's camp in the Netherlands, and the idealized ending describes the bliss that Sidney might have found with his true love. 1 Henry VI derives important details from the siege of Rouen in 1591-1592; accordingly Talbot's patriotism and his betrayal by the lords at home owe something to Essex's situation. In 2 Henry VI the unflattering account of Eleanor Cobham does no credit to the powerful Lord Cobham who later sided with Cecil and the Admiral's men.
Love's Labor's Lost has exercised the ingenuity of investigators more than any other of Shakespeare's early plays, partly because its names of Navarre (Henry IV), Berowne (Biron, Henry IV's general), Dumaine (Du Mayenne, brother of the Guise), Longaville (Longueville, Governor of Normandy), and perhaps Armado (Armada) and Moth (Marquis de la Mothe, Henry's amiable diplomat) were unquestionably names in the news during the early 1590's. In 1591 Essex banqueted with Navarre, Biron, and Longueville. Mayenne, however, was fighting bitterly on the other side, in the Guisian wars. Furthermore, in 1593 Navarre turned from the Protestant faith. To allude frivolously to these matters after 1589, when Henry III had been killed by a crazy monk and Navarre had inherited his unstable throne, Shakespeare would have had to be contra-topical. Yet still-prevalent theories assert that the play attacks Burghley in 1591 for urging one of his daughters on Southampton, or Oxford for his affectation of foreign mannerisms, or above all the "school of night," whose members had quarreled with the Essex faction around 1593-1595. Other figures drawn into the supposed satire include Nashe and Harvey, Florio (Southampton's tutor), Lyly, the Fantastical Monarcho, Antonio Perez, Philip of Spain, Don John of Austria, Chapman, and Bishop Cooper.
Saner criticism has given its attention to the court of Henry of Navarre at Nérac in 1578, where Henry was visited by Catherine de Medici, with her daughter Marguerite, to settle the sovereignty of Aquitaine. The famous escadron volant accompanied the queen and boasted a series of conquests. The social atmosphere was like that of Shakespeare's play. Navarre wrote love letters. Navarre's court had a reputation as a "safe" place to educate Protestant English gentlemen who wished to travel. Another visit occurred in 1586 at St. Bris, but without l'escadron volant. European politics had not yet rendered such a setting woefully out of date and trivial. Social gossip from this never-never land would have suited admirably an imitative Lylyan comedy in the late 1580's, possibly for boys.
Equally fruitless have been the various attempts to link A Midsummer Night's Dream with various state weddings: Stanley-de Vere, Berkeley-Carey, or Thomas Heneage and the Countess of Southampton (the Earl of Essex's dowager-mother). To be sure, Shakespeare does seem to have had in mind the spectacular entertainments of Kenilworth (1575) and especially Elvetham (1591) in his recollection of "a mermaid on a dolphin's back" and "certain stars" that "shot madly from their spheres," when Cupid was unable to wound "a fair vestal thronèd in the west." Elizabeth had participated in such a flattering device. Nor have critics erred too greatly in detecting a distant compliment to Elizabeth in Theseus.
To suppose a closer and more political involvement of Elizabeth is, however, extremely hazardous. Miss Rickert has argued, in a classic article of the lock-picking type, that Elizabeth should be identified as in other literary works with the Faerie Queene, or Titania. Her crossing the will of Oberon alludes then to Elizabeth's refusal to accede to the will of her father, Henry VIII. (Oberon is of course Titania's husband, not father, but some changes were needed to disguise a controversial topic.) Henry VIII had settled the royal succession after his own children on the issue of Lady Katharine and Lady Jane Grey. Lady Katharine had married the Earl of Hertford in 1561, much to Elizabeth's displeasure; their son was Lord Beauchamp, whom Elizabeth had declared illegitimate and refused to recognize as heir. Politicians of the 1590's, desperately looking for an English heir as alternative to James VI of Scotland, made much of Beauchamp's so-called "Suffolk claim." He is the "changeling boy," and Shakespeare's endorsement of his right is central to the playwright's presumed crusade for an established succession.
Accordingly, Elizabeth (Titania) is punished for her obstinacy in not settling the succession by receiving the attentions of an unwelcome lover (Bottom the Weaver). Who else but the aspiring, unlovely James VI? James had in fact courted Elizabeth, and his own poems compared himself to Pyramus. In August 1594, in a pageant at the christening of his son Prince Henry, a lion was to have drawn in a ship of state but was withheld for fear of frightening the ladies. James was notoriously timid and could not bear the sight of a drawn sword. He was laughed at in England for his countrified manners and his "humour for a tyrant"—his preoccupation with divine right. Elizabeth was deeply offended with James in 1595, and the Scottish king for his part was considering a plan to enter England in concert with Philip of Spain. Thus, Shakespeare had a motive and a license to discredit James in the person of Bottom, while he urged the Suffolk claim. Only later, after sensing that the Suffolk claim was no longer tenable, did Shakespeare come around to Essex's view that James was at least preferable to a Catholic claimant.
Although the allusions to Prince Henry's christening and to Elvetham may have been conscious, the rest of the allegory is clearly unacceptable—not merely because it darkens one of Shakespeare's brightest comedies, but because it implies outrageous treatment of Elizabeth. If she was increasingly sensitive to any mention of the question of succession, how little would she have enjoyed viewing herself punished for her stand, and grossly in love with James whom she then abhorred? Shakespeare's supposed concealment of the allegory will not serve, for if Elizabeth with her mastery of decipherment could not read the message it would fail of its purpose. The record seems clear that the play did not offend.
Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice have also been explicated as part of the Essex-Southampton program. Although Shakespeare drew upon Brooke's Romeus and Juliet for his source in Romeo, his immediate inspiration was purportedly the Danvers-Long feud of October 1594. The Danverses were Essex roisterers who managed to escape prosecution for murder only with the aid of Southampton. Thus Shakespeare wrote "not in vacuo but in an actual environment the events of which stimulated his imagination along with his reading and his memory." Perhaps also he mirrored the major rival factions at court, with Capulet as Burghley, Montague as Leicester, and Romeo as Essex, who had incurred the Prince's (Elizabeth's) wrath for secretly marrying Sidney's widow in 1590. The Merchant of Venice is supposed to have grown out of the conspiracy of Roderigo Lopez, the Jewish physician charged with a plot to murder Elizabeth and the Portugese pretender Don Antonio, in the interests of Spain. Essex brought the charge against Lopez and was an intimate of Don Antonio. Elizabeth herself appears in the play as the merciful Portia, Essex as Bassanio. The play reflects the excitement of the Cadiz expedition of 1596. More farfetched still is the reading of Shylock as Philip Henslowe, the tightfisted entrepreneur who extracted many a pound of flesh from his underpaid writers, and who married an illegitimate daughter to Edward Alleyn (Lorenzo). Thus the play was a major attack in the Chamberlain's men's war on the Ceciloriented Admiral's company, who had had so much success with The Jew of Malta.
Not surprisingly, Shakespeare's histories are the heart of his supposed campaign for Essex. King John, for instance, does in fact tone down the anti-Catholic virulence of its chief source, The Troublesome Reign of King John. The Essex theory supposes that Shakespeare's reasons for doing so were partly his own tenderness for the old faith and partly his deference to the platform of Southampton and his leader. (Essex, though no Catholic, preached tolerance.) Shakespeare also virtually eliminated the role of "Essex" as one of the rebellious barons in his source. Both Shakespeare and the author of Troublesome Reign purportedly modeled Faulconbridge on Sir John Perrot, an illegitimate son of Henry VIII. Perrot was in danger of his life in 1591 for having spoken contemptuously to the queen, and died in the Tower in 1592. Essex took his part. This allegiance of Shakespeare to Essex would have predated his meeting with Southampton.
We have already seen the analogy, familiar to the Elizabethan mind, that Elizabeth was Richard II and Essex Bolingbroke. Extremists of the Essexian persuasion would have us believe that Shakespeare wished to see the earl on the throne, and that Essex's military and pragmatic virtues are reflected not only in Boling-broke but more especially in his son. A more temperate but still highly debatable interpretation is that Shakespeare sympathized with the earl and his platform, but feared the rashness of the passionate young nobleman and did not approve of the dangerous tendency beginning in 1599 toward insurrection. Either reading supposes that Shakespeare's censures of Richard II are highly critical of Elizabeth, as in Robert Parsons' infamous analogy. Miss Evelyn Albright goes so far as to assert that Bolingbroke's claims to his Lancastrian titles reflect Essex's own line of descent from Thomas of Woodstock. She believes too that Shakespeare had actually read Hayward's History of Henry IV in manuscript, and borrowed from it censorious anachronisms such as the forced "benevolences" and the general agitation over taxes. "Benevolences" were not known by name in Richard II's time; hence Hayward and Shakespeare were simply describing the condition of England after 1592.
Miss Albright sees correspondences to Essex and Elizabeth in every aspect of Shakespeare's treatment of Bolingbroke and Richard. The allusions to Richard's deafness to counsel and love of flattery capitalize on often-repeated charges against Elizabeth. Essex, like Bolingbroke, complained of "letting of the realm to farm." Essex openly courted the commons, vailing "his bonnet to an oyster-wench." Essex's Irish expedition was popularly regarded as political banishment. Other analysts have suggested further corroborative details. The names of Percy, Blount, and Vernon, among others, glorify the ancestors of several prominent members of the Essex group. The reference in 1 Henry IV to the ebbing and flowing of the moon (I, ii) implies the uncertainty of Elizabeth's favor. Gower's mention of "a beard of the general's cut" (Henry V, III, vi) signals the famous "Cadiz beard" worn by so many rufflers after the expedition of 1596. Henry V's mercy to the citizens of Harfleur, unsubstantiated in history, reflects Essex's mercy to the citizens of Cadiz.
This line of reasoning has never won much support, chiefly because the plays themselves are so eloquent on the dangers of faction and instability. External considerations also militate against the theory. If Shakespeare's intent was visibly inflammatory to his audience, why did the Chamberlain's men escape censure in 1601? Why would the authorities have allowed the plays to go on at all, instead of excising a few scenes like that of Richard's deposition? Its offense was probably not the treatment, but the subject itself in such dangerous times. Shakespeare very probably did not know Hayward's work when he wrote Richard II, for Hayward testified that he began the history one year before its publication in 1599. Shakespeare has long been thought to have spoken admiringly of Essex in the chorus to Act V of Henry V, but the tribute may instead have pointed to Charles Blount, Lord Montjoy, Essex's far more victorious successor in Ireland and a constant favorite of the queen's. The choruses give evidence of having been composed after the quarto of 1600. Essex was dangerously in disgrace almost from the moment he began his Irish campaign. Mountjoy in 1603, holding titles of "Lord Deputy" and "General," was safe and popular. If Mountjoy was intended, we lose the one supposedly tangible proof in all his plays of Shakespeare's devotion to Essex.
It is as easy to argue that Shakespeare voiced disillusionment and fear of Essex in his histories. Similarity to Hotspur emerges from the aftermath of the Cadiz expedition, when Essex "claimed the ransom of his prisoners for himself when the Queen demanded them." Essex was a rash warrior headed for disaster, a devotee of honor. Another line of analogy is to speculate on Shakespeare's boyhood recollection of the Northern Rebellion of 1569, prominently featuring the names of Northumberland and the Percies and conducting its operations more or less in Shakespeare's back yard. This approach may contain some merit in suggesting Shakespeare's sources, although it must be granted that thirty years is a long time back for a theater audience to recall.
All of Shakespeare's festive comedies have yielded Essex clues. One of Malvolio's innumerable supposed counterparts in Elizabeth's court was Ambrose Willoughby, an enemy of Southampton, who as squire of the presence in 1598 felt he ought to keep the earl quiet at bedtime, scuffled with him, and was thanked by the queen for his zeal. Twelfth Night thus stands on the side of Essex's roisterers and opposed to the cold sobriety of Burghley's faction. A passage in Much Ado about Nothing alluding to "favorites, Made proud by princes, that advance their pride Against the power that bred it" (III, i, 9-11) has suggested Essex's troubled relations with the queen-although whether in hostility to the anti-Essex faction barring the earl's entry to Elizabeth upon his return from Ireland in 1599, or in hostility to Essex's own challenge of the queen's power, is a matter for the individual reader to decide. As You Like It, according to one literary sleuth, "undoubtedly" tells of Essex's banishment from the court in the person of Duke Senior. The tragedy of Julius Caesar also idealizes Essex in the insurrection of Brutus against tyranny and illegitimate rule.
Hamlet offers a rich field for topicality, as for other critical approaches, and reveals perhaps most clearly the basic error of the lockpicking sleuth. One starts with the assumption that Hamlet provides "abstract and brief chronicles of the time" (since Shakespeare tells us so) and one searches the annals for a young nobleman whose father has disappeared under suspicious circumstances and whose mother has married the suspected criminal. In other words, one takes a legend of archetypal significance and sees if it will apply to real life. It needs no ghost come from the dead to predict that the legend will so apply, for that is the strength of its fiction. The error is essentially comparable to that imposed on Bolingbroke and Essex: Shakespeare was fascinated with the recurring phenomenon of rebellion in English history as it applied to virtually every generation before his time. Any contemporary reenactment of the pattern was bound to resemble the artist's creation.
In Hamlet's case history, three theories have dominated. The first is of Leicester and Amy Robsart, back around 1560. Leicester himself had died in 1588. But a rumor supposed that Leicester (then Sir Robert Dudley) had done away with Amy in order to marry Elizabeth—the "seeming virtuous queen." The guilty lovers hushed up the affair as best they could ("a forgèd process of my death") and may even have fixed the jury ("great command o'ersways the order"). Such bald criticism of Elizabeth could not have been staged until 1603. This preposterous theory received short shrift from H. H. Furness, who objected that Shakespeare had no motive to attack the dead Leicester, that the audience would not have cared for Shakespeare's opinion on this old scandal, that Cecil would not have permitted it even after 1603, that Shakespeare had probably allied himself with Leicester's players, and that Hamlet was surely staged while Elizabeth was still alive.
A closer correspondence, but just as uninviting, concerns James of Scotland—Essex's white hope for the succession. James's mother Mary had been deeply involved in the scandal of James's father's death, and had married Bothwell, the supposed murderer of Darnley. Bothwell was a heavy drinker, like Claudius. Rizzio (Polonius), the meddling counselor, had been murdered in the presence of the queen (though not by James) and had been disposed of "hugger-mugger" by means of a staircase. James, in 1600-1601, was a melancholy, retiring, and vacillating prince (his sanity was doubted by some), interested in learning. Shakespeare was at this time deeply committed to the Essex strategy of Scottish succession. Alternatively, Hamlet's hesitation in killing Claudius might reflect Elizabeth's delay in executing Mary of Scots. Significantly, these theories are not even discussed by J. E. Phillips in his thorough book on literary treatments of Mary.
The only interpretation still given serious attention is that Hamlet reflects the plight of Essex himself, or, more broadly, Shakespeare's gloom occasioned by Essex's disgrace. Essex's family history contained the necessary closeted skeleton. Rumor had it that Dudley (Leicester) had poisoned Essex's father to live in sin with Essex's mother, Lettice Knollys (who, parenthetically, is supposed to have been the "little western flower" of A Midsummer Night's Dream). Essex was moody, brilliant, unstable, a procrastinator, ill-fated, a hater of women (especially the queen), one who affected black in his costume. He scorned Burghley, whom many critics have seen as a model for Polonius. Burghley was charged with being a master spy and tyrant's ear, a prosy busybody, tedious in his loyalty to the Establishment, hostile to the stage and stingy to poets, wealthy and frugal, affected in style and famous for his worldly-wise precepts left for his son Robert, complacent to studied insolence. Again, it should be argued that historical fact is perhaps merely reflecting Shakespeare's art rather than the reverse. If Hamlet were Essex, the Chamberlain's men would have been deeply involved in sedition. Fortinbras says of Hamlet, "For he was likely, had he been put on, To have proved most royal." The espousal of Essex as heir apparent was treason, before or after his death.
Traces of Essex have been found everywhere in the play. The "little patch of ground" calls up the siege of Ostend in the summer of 1601. Laertes' demagogic summons to the mob reflects Essex's public appeals at St. Paul's cross in 1601. Other speculations have run to the extremes of ridiculousness. If Hamlet is Sir Philip Sidney (why not?) then Horatio is Herbert Languet, Marcellus is Fulke Greville, Bernardo is Edward Dyer, and Francisco is Gabriel Harvey. Old Norway is Sir Francis Knollys, the poison is Leicester's Commonwealth, and the incestuous marriage naturally is that of Katharine of Aragon. Sober consideration requires one to ask, however, whether the political situation in Hamlet is even remotely parallel to that of Tudor England, or whether Shakespeare deliberately chose a constitutional framework that could not be analogized. Even if Hamlet is presumptive heir to the Danish throne, did an elective system make it possible for Claudius to be king legally? The English throne, however much subject to disputed succession as in the case of Henry VIII's will, would not countenance the displacing of a mature crown prince by his uncle. Perhaps topical politics are simply irrelevant to Shakespeare's most popular play.
Essex's ignoble end can be used to explain the mood not only of Hamlet but of Shakespeare's problem comedies. Troilus and Cressida bequeaths a plague to both factions; Shakespeare had never liked the Cecils, but was bitterly disillusioned by the extremists in his own cause. Essex's sulkiness and irresponsibility can be seen in Achilles, whose relationship to Patroclus is not unlike that of Essex to Southampton. Shakespeare speaks through Ulysses, deploring the frivolity and divisiveness of his own tarnished heroes. Shakespeare had in mind Chapman's dedication of his Homer "to the most honored now living instance of the Achilleian virtues eternized by divine Homer, the Earl of Essex." Alternatively, one can read Shakespeare's Trojan debacle as still pro-Essex, lamenting the demise of a noble band ground under by superior force and guile. Shakespeare blames not Elizabeth for the death of his champion, but the Cecils.
All's Well that Ends Well can also be considered critical of the Essex camp, for Bertram's dutifulness toward his mother and his reluctance to marry call back memories of Southampton and Elizabeth Vernon. If Parolles is Pearse Edmonds, a minion of Southampton's and hence a rival of Shakespeare, the motivation for Shakespeare's soured disposition becomes clear. In Measure for Measure, however, we catch a brighter glimpse despite the play's moral complexities. With James's accession to the English throne, Essex's party was obviously back in favor as reward for its martyred leader's efforts in behalf of the Scottish succession. The Chamberlain's men received the title of King's men in recognition not only of their talent but of their pro-Scottish dramatic activity. Shakespeare did not even bother to eulogize Elizabeth—a fact noticed unfavorably by his countrymen. Elizabeth had been guilty of Essex's death and Southampton's imprisonment. The figure of the Duke in Measure for Measure is supposedly Shakespeare's first tribute to his new ruler, who like Vincentio shunned crowds of people and scoffed at Puritans like Angelo. James was notoriously sensitive to slander; hence the punishment of Lucio. Shakespeare probably read Basilikon Doron and set its theories into practice as homage to a new hero.
Even later plays have been related to Essex and Scotland. Macbeth, according to Henry Paul and others, was written especially for performance before James, as a defense of the new king against the attacks of the private theaters. Purportedly the play reflects the hysteria of the Gunpowder Plot, Scottish witch trials, and James's theories on divine right and on curing of the king's evil. As in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare voices his gratitude for an end to dynastic uncertainties. Such an interpretation tends, unfortunately, to read much of the play as flattering intrusion rather than as relevant thematic material, or to minimize Shakespeare's independent political philosophy concerning obedience due an evil king. King Lear supposedly recalls Mary Stuart's treatment of Darnley, repulsing him when he rode with a train to follow her, giving orders to the Earl of Murray's wife not to receive him, depriving him of servants, and turning him out in inclement weather to seek refuge in a hovel on the wild heath. Coriolanus attacks Ralegh for his contempt of the plebeians, in contrast with the popular Earl of Essex. The earl is portrayed directly in Timon of Athens' Alcibiades, or in Timon himself.
The investigation of this book ends, however, with the deaths of Essex and Elizabeth. If space permitted, the story might well go on into the ample material available on Jacobean political activity in the drama. Yet the year 1603 serves as a convenient stopping point, for an era was ending in drama as in politics. No longer did the stage represent the many voices of political conflict. In the impasse brought about by James's confrontation with the Puritans, drama gravitated to the court and so lost its popular base. Although plays still appeared at public theaters after 1610, most drama became attuned to upper-class opinion only, and came to be despised by the average London citizen. Plays reflected the movement toward civil war only negatively, in their satires of shopkeepers and Puritans and in their increasingly patrician pursuit of refined emotion. Even Shakespeare laid aside his history plays. We are interested in the years of debate 1603, when even the more moderate Puritans were still clamoring to be heard through drama.
I hope it is by now apparent that I am skeptical of topical identification of historical personages and particular events. Let me assure the reader at the start that I offer few if any new historical equations of this sort, and tolerate few of those already proposed. Even less am I concerned with non-political identifications supposedly arising from personal or literary feuds, such as Justice Shallow and William Gardiner, Slender and William Wayte, Malvolio and John Marston or William Ffarington, Falstaff and Florio, Fluellen and Captain Roger Williams, Holofernes and Chapman, Thersites and Marston, Hamlet's Lamord and Sidney, Endymion's Sir Tophas and Stephen Gosson, Fair Em's Mandeville and Robert Greene. [I believe] that politics is germane to a remarkable percentage of Tudor plays, but in terms of ideas and platforms rather than personalities. Even the allusions to kings or queens, although obviously referring in many cases to the reigning monarch, pertain to the office instead of the man. Granting then that we are dealing with a drama of conventional type rather than of historical verisimilitude, the Tudor drama is nonetheless sharp in its delineation of issues. How should men come to authority? By what means are the various pressure groups of which Tudor society is composed to obtain their wishes from the central authority? What role are church officials to play, or nouveau riche courtiers, titled nobility, merchants, apprentices? To what extent may the populace demonstrate about just grievances? How far may powerful counselors enforce their "advice" on the monarch? What voice is Parliament to have in naming a successor in the absence of an undisputed hereditary heir? Who determines policy about war with Spain, the execution of Mary Stuart, exposure of Catholic plotting, influx of cheap immigrant labor, rent inflation, pensions for disabled soldiers?
These are questions on which every Englishman wished to be heard, and conversely on which the government, when it was not divided among various factions, wished to implant its own formula. The impulse for debate and criticism was no less than that for official propaganda. Not that the two concepts were always opposed to one another. At its best, Tudor political playwriting supported Tudor policy in essence while maintaining a noble spirit of free discussion. Again, this is a framework in which our investigation properly ends with the death of Elizabeth.
It will appear that I have used the term "politics" broadly, though I hope not loosely. To me it connotes the wide range of activity in which men argue over the structure and method of decision-making in government. It embraces economic and social conditions, but only in the context of formulating and administering law. Interclass marriage is not in itself a political issue, but attitudes toward dueling and private revenge can bear importantly on conceptions of the state's authority to punish crime. Satire as a neoclassical genre does not concern us, but as a controversial weapon for reviling public authority it became centrally involved in an Elizabethan debate on law and order. In matters of religion we are interested not in doctrinal controversy but in the ever-present implications of political and dynastic revolution. Such an approach necessarily eliminates or minimizes some of the finest plays of the Tudor period. I hope no reader will presume that I offer a complete reading of even the most avowedly political play, much less of the masterpieces with which the century ends. I apologize for the distortion that sees more matter for discussion in Respublica than in Doctor Faustus, but I trust that, if read in correct proportion, this book tells a story which the Tudor period itself would have recognized as central to its literary and political development.
George K. Hunter (lecture date 1981)
SOURCE: "Political Theater in Shakespeare—and Later," in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Fall, 1981, pp. 1-14. .
[In the following excerpt from a lecture, Hunter examines "the explicitly political subject matter" of Shakespeare's plays as well as their exploration of unequal power relationships between individuals, societies, and institutions.]
Political is a word that has recently had a rush of blood to the head, or perhaps I only mean a pump of adrenalin to the heart. In either case the effect in language is rather like that in physiology—a sudden increase in energy coupled to a certain loss in discrimination. Formerly "politics" applied to a narrow and specialized area of human activity. Now phrases like "the politics of gender" or "the politics of parenthood" tell us that politics is to be understood as a condition rather than an activity, a condition from which none of us can hide. Those misguided enough to think that they are excused or who allege that they do not intend anything political are due to be found guilty of Bad Faith. The denial of political involvement is, we are told, the most usual and insidious means of exercising a political role.
Of all the institutions to which this enlarged sense of politics as the expression of an inescapable power relationship can be applied none might seem to be more obvious than the public theater, an institution designed to express and convey particular attitudes to life, or even to impose on minds, when they are particularly open to suggestion, the obligation to go back into the world believing this or that. Sometimes, of course, the theater is clearly political in the older and narrower sense, as is obvious enough in Middleton's A Game at Chess or in Gay's The Beggar's Opera. The most modern drama in England (that of David Hare, Edward Bond, Trevor Griffiths, et al.) often seems to aspire to the condition of a party political meeting—or as close to that as an audience that has paid for its seats will allow. But such aspirations seem to be exceptional. Shakespeare's theater seems not to have been affected by them. Can we say that it was, however, political in the newly enlarged sense? I seem to have implied that we must say so; but the reasons for and the consequences of that assumption need to be explored.
When critics talk about politics in Shakespeare they are usually talking about content—about the political activity that he dramatized, and about its relation to real-life politics, whether in Tudor England or (as in one notable case) in twentieth-century Poland. It is undeniable, of course, that Shakespeare is recurrently concerned with the issue of power, its attainment and its loss. His plays are full of politicians (in the older sense). Bolingbroke, Macbeth, Coriolanus, show us, for example, his acute understanding of specialized political activity. But presenting politicians is not the same thing as being political. The political views expressed in the plays are always strongly dramatized and therefore, to that extent, strongly neutralized. We hear opinions for and against the citizenry, for and against a patriotic war, but always expressed by people who might be expected to hold such views. By bringing his politicians to the bar of their humanity Shakespeare might seem indeed to be subverting their political views.
It is not difficult to deny Shakespeare's plays a political stance in terms of their explicitly political subject matter. It is not so easy, however, to deal with the epithet in terms of its wider modern usage. It is important to remember that for the Elizabethan public theater mere existence was a political condition, for the theater was engaged then in a power struggle with those who wanted it closed, or rather abolished. To attend the theater in those days was therefore a clearly political act, a statement of preference, an expression of how you wanted it to be. And this was true even if you went to the theater to meet a girl or show off a new suit of clothes. An ideology is implicit in such choices, and can be expressed now even if it could not be understood then. I trust that I may be allowed here to follow the procedure of the literary critic rather than that of the historian, to distort the past by turning the implicit into the explicit. The preference expressed by going to the theater implies a viewpoint that we may choose to define as liberal; it stated (or rather permitted) an understanding that life offers a plurality of judgments to all men, offers the possibility of sustained relativism in judgment and even of unresolved contradictions in sympathy, offers in short that suspension of absolute judgment that we call fun or play. As I say, it would have been virtually impossible for an Elizabethan to defend such preferences as doctrine or ideology. But it is the modern mode to assume that views that no one actually holds may yet be structually significant; and it may be interesting to explore the mode, which clearly is applicable to theaters no less than to people.
It is a commonplace that the Elizabethan theater allowed kings and clowns in the same space. The point is usually made in terms of dramatic structures and classical decorum—and that is presumably how Elizabethans thought about it. But the point is a political as well as an esthetic one. When kings meet clowns, is it proper, we may ask, that they should be shown mainly in terms of their differentiation in function or rank or mainly in terms of their common humanity? Shakespeare and his fellows show both these relations to be equally true; they acknowledge both positions, but do not seem to notice the political pressure to choose one rather than the other. Explicit politics in the plays, necessarily the politics of differentiation, is always accompanied by a commentary which reminds us that kings have blood the same as other men's. Hot pursuit of the political contradiction is not seen as any part of the dramatist's function, and separate bases for opposing viewpoints are allowed to co-exist as they do between people in real life. History shows us national values at stake and in dispute, but Shakespeare's histories always move by the casual interaction of people with people. We see King John not only in terms of his claim to the throne and his relationship to the nobles, but also in his personal relationship with his mother and with the resurrection of his elder brother as a bastard. In a famous speech Prince Hal describes a plan to use his tavern acquaintance to improve his political prospects; but Henry IV, as seen or read in its entirety, leaves the relationship between political plans and private connections much more open. On the night before Agincourt King Henry is as puzzled as we are by the incommensurateness between personal contact and public function. In all these cases political interpretation of the scene is exposed, but accompanied by material that is resistant to its formations. This may make it seem, from a modern point of view, a neutered kind of politics, for it complicates values beyond the reach of ideology. But pluralism is also a political position, and clearly enough the pluralism of the Elizabethan theater was widely seen as deeply subversive. Allowing that social distinctions are less than absolute may be judged a first step to communism, and the theater certainly showed this, even if it did not justify it. A recurrent complaint against the theater of that time was that it constituted a haunt of so-called "masterless men," persons who were evading the systems of control, the sentence of probation that serious house-holders thought appropriate to the condition of their juniors or inferiors. When such "masterless men" congregate together in an unsupervised situation then (so the assumption ran) social order, respect for superiors, the habit of obedience, loyalty, right thinking are all under threat, and when such persons enjoy themselves and laugh, what can they be laughing at but people better than themselves?
Much of what the householders imagined was no doubt factually true; yet to push the subversion of laughter into an ideology of social subversion, or to translate the merry anarchy of the theater into political anarchism is obviously to cross the borderline between the "politics" of function (the new politics) and the politics of social change (the old politics). Interestingly enough, modern ideologues share with Elizabethan householders the assumption that the politics of situation and the politics of action are necessarily connected. The modern extension of the word's meaning is indeed designed to make it seem natural that self-consciousness about the first should lead to responsibility for the second. And so the Elizabethan authoritarians supposed. But Shakespeare's plays live entirely on one side of the borderline; they are quite passive in respect of the political possibilities they contain. Shakespeare allows easily, as I have noted above, the implicitly subversive notion that kings are men like other men. But he declines the political next move—to say that kings are only men. His explicitnesses stay within safe range of the ordinary, the expected; the fun, the play, the openness, eddy around entirely conventional bases of belief. This is an art of saying to the sundry manifestations of Mr. Average, "You are right," without ever being inhibited from adding, "And you might also think.…" Thus the hearty chauvinism of Henry V asks for patriotic identification, but also opens up un-resolved worries about the way wars start, the cost of leadership, the relationship between war and crime. The picture is a powerful one whether viewed from this side or that. You may think of the worries as simply the necessary price you have to pay for national survival; or alternatively you may regard them as the real events that lie behind the royal glamor. At the very beginning of Shakespeare's career Thomas Nashe could describe enthusiastically what Shakespeare had done for the patriotic image of Talbot, in the First Part of Henry VI: "How it would have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that … he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new-embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at the least." But at the same time as I Henry VI shows Talbot's triumph it also shows the pointlessness of his military success, the lowering presence of the political forces that Talbot cannot control and which ensure that he is bought and sold. Here, as so often in Shakespeare, romance and realism provide a double perspective on a single event. The multiple viewpoints allow (perhaps even demand) alternative ideological responses; but the plays themselves evade definition in ideological terms. This is, no doubt, one of the secrets of their perpetual youth; for it is our perpetually renewed conspiracy with them that keeps them young. What one can say rather categorically is that Shakespeare's plays do not seek any confrontations with their audiences. Whatever explicit comment we choose to extract from the play, we have chosen it. We come to the theater with certain assumptions; the play itself cooperates with these but neither affirms nor contradicts. Shakespeare smiles encouragingly with eyes fixed on distant horizons as if he were the Mona Lisa of ideology.
Robert Headlam Wells (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: An introduction to Shakespeare, Politics and the State, Macmillan Education, Ltd., 1989, pp. 1-9.
[In the following excerpt, Wells maintains that Shakespeare's works are topical, not in the sense that they contain direct references to contemporary events, but in their treatment of general social and political issues.]
'He was not of an age, but for all time.' These famous words have been echoed by countless Shakespearean critics in a sense in which their author, Ben Jonson, probably did not intend them to be understood. It is true that, in praising Shakespeare's plays for their timeless quality, Jonson is expressing the neoclassical belief, summed up by his 18th-century namesake, that 'Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature' (Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare. But it is unlikely that a satirist as topical as Ben Jonson would have shared the view—still widely held—that Shakespeare was 'interested in politics only insofar as they afforded him an opportunity of identifying himself with human characters undergoing the tugs and stresses of public life' (Palmer, Political Characters of Shakespeare. Shakespeare's knowledge of human nature and his skill in portraying the mechanisms of self-deception are not in dispute.
But to argue that he shows an indifference to political questions in the histories and tragedies is to ignore the topicality of these plays. They are topical not in the sense of alluding to contemporary events but in the sense that they reflect and embody subjects of current debate. These plays are essentially political. They are, as Jan Kott says, about 'people involved in history' (Shakespeare Our Contemporary).
Contrary to the impression which E.M.W. Tillyard gave in his influential Shakespeare's History Plays (1944), the twenty-year period when Shakespeare wrote most of his plays was not one of intellectual uniformity, but a time of social unrest and energetic political controversy. It was ironically in the years following England's triumphant success in her first great naval battle that the country suffered the worst economic depression it had known since the Tudors came to power. The national euphoria generated by the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was short-lived. The combined effects of inflation, of crippling taxes made necessary by the continuing war with Spain, of a series of appallingly bad harvests and of new outbreaks of plague had a devastating effect on national morale. In 1596 starving workers rioted in Oxfordshire. In the following year a Norfolk grain barge was seized by the populace. In Canterbury in the same year carts loaded with grain for export were hijacked.
The boundaries with which historians demarcate their particular periods of specialisation are always to some extent arbitrary. Yet Elizabethans themselves clearly sensed that an age was coming to an end. 'All our beauty, and our trim, decays,' wrote John Donne in 1597, 'Like courts removing, or like ended plays.' The sense of national insecurity which is such a characteristic feature of the time is reflected in the emergency legislation of the 1597-8 parliaments. What is significant in this legislation is not so much the measures which were passed—they were largely designed to ameliorate the lot of the urban poor—as the role taken by the House of Commons in formulating them.
In the long-standing struggle between Elizabeth and her parliaments over the question of royal prerogative the queen had been under constant pressure from the Commons to acknowledge their right to initiate legislation. For Elizabeth it was a losing battle. But although she was increasingly unsuccessful in her attempt to exclude the Commons from what she regarded as 'matters of state' (that is, religion, foreign policy, monopolies and the problem of the succession), the House was careful not to upset a balance of power which was vital to national security. For example, when Peter Wentworth, a leading figure in the Puritan campaign for parliamentary reform, launched a particularly virulent attack on the royal prerogative in 1576 it was not the Privy Council but an embarrassed House of Commons which decided to remove him from the chamber and let him cool off in the Tower.
Like Catholic plots, the more extreme forms of Puritan agitation had the effect not of undermining but of consolidating parliamentary support for the crown. By the 1590s, however, both of these threats had lost much of their force and as the need to close ranks on religious and foreign policy became less urgent, so demand grew in the Commons for the right to initiate legislation. It is significant that when it became clear in 1597 that drastic measures were needed to remedy the country's social and economic problems, it was the House of Commons and not the government which framed the new bills. This legislation marks, in J. E. Neale's words, 'a significant advance in the "winning of initiative" by the House of Commons, which was to be the outstanding theme of the Jacobean Parliaments, and in course of time was to effect a constitutional revolution' (Elizabeth I and her Parliaments, Vol. II).
However, although the Commons was undoubtedly beginning to replace the Privy Council as the centre of power in Elizabethan England, there is no real analogy between the disputes of the 1590s and 1600s between crown and parliament and the conflicts of the 1630s when, for the first time, there began to emerge a truly radical Puritan opposition. Friction between Elizabeth and James and their parliaments took place within the context of a conservative desire on both sides to preserve the existing order. One of the issues which had caused the Elizabethan Commons most frustration was monopolies, a question on which Elizabeth stubbornly refused to yield her prerogative. Originally designed as a form of protective patent, monopolies had by the end of the century become in effect a system of perquisites handed out to officials and courtiers whom the queen wanted to reward. The issue came to a head in 1601 when the Commons angrily demanded a wholesale reform of the monopolies system. Yet when Elizabeth capitulated, the Commons made no attempt to capitalise on its victory. Instead of using its advantage to press for further constitutional reform, it offered the queen a deputation of thanks.
With Elizabeth's death the uneasy relations between crown and parliament became even more strained as James declared his belief in the divine authority of kings and the Commons reasserted its right to formulate policy. Matters came to a head once more in 1604-5 when debate on the question of purveyance (the requisitioning of provisions for the royal household) became so heated that for a time all London waited eagerly for news of the day's parliamentary exchanges. When a bill for the restraint of purveyance was drawn up by parliamentary committee James declared that this was an intolerable invasion of his prerogative. The authors of the bill, John Hare and Lawrence Hyde, replied in equally uncompromising terms. So inflammatory were their attacks on the king that Hare and Hyde were compared with the tribunes of republican Rome (Zeeveld, 'Coriolanus and Jacobean Politics'). As one contemporary observer wrote, 'Hyde yielded many reasons why we should not yield more unto the King than we did; with many invectives, and so far put the house in distaste, as that expectation grew of the sequel. And if your lordship had heard them, you would have said that Hare and Hyde had represented the tribunes of the people' (Birch, The Court and Times of James the First, Vol. I).
But once again a potentially explosive situation was defused. James, recognising the need for conciliation, remained clam in the face of these attacks and eventually Hyde was persuaded to moderate his language in what amounted to an apology to the Lords.
In James' first parliament power was undoubtedly shifting towards the Commons but mounting pressure for constitutional reform should not be interpreted as a demand for the kind of republican constitution which Shakespeare portrays in Coriolanus. Hare and Hyde may have been popularly compared with the tribunes of republican Rome but, unlike Sicinius and Brutus in Shakespeare's play, their constituency was not the populace as a whole but the House of Commons. What Hare and Hyde were demanding was not sovereignty of the people but increased legislative rights for the House of Commons. Only with the pamphlet debates of the middle years of the 17th century does popular demand for individual rights and liberties begin to be articulated. Although Shakespeare writes about societies in crisis it would be wrong to see the assassinations, the coups and the revolutions he portrays as reflections of a contemporary democratic radicalism. In Shakespeare's lifetime not even the most vociferous critics of the monarchy advocated universal suffrage. To have done so would have been illogical. In the 1590s and 1600s conservatives and radicals almost without exception appealed in their writings to a view of the universe and of human nature which would have made the kind of revolutionary egalitarianism that appeared in the 1640s and '50s unthinkable. The fact that Elizabethan writers do not share our axiomatic belief in democracy does not of course mean that they accepted without question establishment doctrines of authority. To avoid anachronistic readings of Shakespeare the modern student must begin, as Elizabethans themselves did, with the debate on human nature.
The Renaissance inherited from the Middle Ages a theory of cosmos which had its origins in ancient Greek philosophy. Of the various metaphors commonly used to express the order and rationality of the universe, the most familiar is the Chain of Being. This prototypal image of multiformity reduced to unity is rarely absent from medieval and Renaissance discussions of world order and was not finally abandoned as a model for social and personal harmony until the middle of the 18th century. But the Chain of Being was not simply a static symbol of world order; for Renaissance humanists it was a dynamic image expressive of the individual's potential for either amelioration or degeneration. Classical and Christian writers both describe the prelapsarian world as a time when human passions were naturally held in check by reason. However, at the Fall humanity lost its natural temper with the consequence that it now occupied a unique position in the universal scheme of things, still retaining elements of a former god-like reason yet sharing with the beasts a propensity to obey natural impulses. But if human nature was susceptible of improvement, it was only through the discipline of civilised life that the effects of the Fall could be repaired.
Although … this traditional view of human nature was subject to radical criticism from both religious and secular thinkers in the 16th century, political pamphleteers continued on the whole to base their arguments on familiar premises. In debating the relative merits of monarchies, aristocracies and democracies Elizabethan writers appealed to the principle of analogy. The essential unity of the universe was apparent from the fact that the same principles of order operated on every plane of existence. Just as one god ruled the universe, so it followed by analogy that one man must rule the state; or to turn the analogy round, as reason should control man's lower faculties, so the inferior members of society should be governed by a single figure of authority. But while conservatives claimed that absolute monarchy was the only natural form of government, writers anxious to limit the powers of the crown argued in support of a mixed constitution which embodied all three types of government, though even the latter argument claimed to be based on the laws of nature. One point on which both critics and apologists of the Tudor monarchy were agreed, however, was the uncertainties and dangers of democracy. Critical as Shakespeare is of rulers who abuse the trust placed in them as guardians of social order, he makes it clear that democracy is no answer to the problems of a society divided against itself. Exploited the plebeians undoubtedly are in a play like Coriolanus but, as Elizabethan writers never tire of reminding us, an innately feckless and indecisive populace is not to be trusted with political power.
Irrespective of whether or not it was accepted that the principle of monarchy was sanctioned by an indubitable law of nature, in practice national welfare in Reformation England was closely dependent on the wisdom and astuteness of the king or queen. It is not surprising, therefore, that much political discussion in the 16th century was concerned with the character of the ideal ruler. To the medieval mind a king was to be seen as God's deputy on earth, ruling with the same loving care that a father showed for his family and expecting in return the obedience and respect of his subjects. Such a view of kingship was highly convenient to the Tudors, faced as they were with the problems of a disputed right to the throne and, after 1534, of establishing a semblance of national unity on the emotive question of religion. But while pro-establishment writers continued to appeal to the medieval conception of kingship, it was clear that qualities other than benevolence and integrity were necessary for survival in the dangerous world of Reformation politics. In Shakespeare's most successful ruler, Henry V, can be seen a new and at times ruthless political realism which owes much to the writings of Machiavelli.
Elizabethan political thought represents an amalgam of medieval theories of society modified by the particular problems of a Reformation state. The simile so widely employed by 16th-century writers in which the state is compared to a living organism, all of whose parts contribute to the welfare of the whole body, was traditional. However, the doctrine of absolute obedience to the crown which is such a distinctive feature of Tudor political theory was something new. After the chaos of the Wars of the Roses a return to powerful monarchy was welcomed by a rising trading class, for whom social stability was a paramount concern. With the break from Rome in 1534 the need for strong central government became even more imperative. Having rebelled against established authority itself, the Henrician regime had to guard against counter-reform by measures designed to minimise the threat of rebellion. In an age when religion aroused stronger feelings than any other public issue, the most effective way to do this was to emphasise the sin of disobedience. That the state's publicly proclaimed doctrine of non-resistance received such widespread acceptance is a measure of the success of the new monarchy. However, that is not to say that its official propaganda went unchallenged. From the 1530s onwards a small but steady stream of dissident writers had reasserted the medieval belief in the rights of subjects to rebel against unjust authority. By the 1590s, when the threat of invasion from Catholic Europe had largely been averted, moderate opinion became increasingly sceptical of the idea, so forcibly expressed by Shakespeare's Richard II, that kings are sacrosanct. As van Baumer writes, 'Before 1588 the cult of authority was fashionable in England. After that date it became to a certain extent an object of ridicule, and was cultivated by only a minority' (The Early Tudor Theory of Kingship).
Assertions by some of Shakespeare's characters of the inviolability of kings must, of course, be seen in their dramatic context. In a similar way we cannot assume, when the same characters declare their belief in an avenging deity who punishes usurpers for the sin of disobedience, that these views are necessarily Shakespeare's own. Theories of history were undergoing radical change in the 16th century. While the English chronicle sources on which Shakespeare relied for much of his historical material showed only a limited interest in political questions, the so-called 'new' historians were concerned less with the workings of providence than with the practical lessons to be learned from a study of the past. That providence performs an active role in human affairs is something which is taken for granted by many of Shakespeare's characters. But in claiming, as some critics have done, that Shakespeare endorses their belief in an avenging deity who with relentless logic punishes the wicked and rewards the virtuous, there is a danger of reducing the plays to doctrinaire theological tracts. If there is one thing which clearly emerges from Shakespeare's dramatisation of history, it is the complexities of political life and the intractability of its problems.
New interest in the human factors involved in history may be seen as one aspect of a larger tendency in the 16th century to challenge traditional theological assumptions about the basis of human societies. This involved a re-evaluation of the meaning of natural law. For the conservative Elizabethan the foundations of social justice lay in hierarchical order. The fact that this principle was so widely accepted does not mean that Elizabethans were incapable of serious speculative thought. Hierarchy was a principle inscribed in the very structure of the universe; it was an axiomatic law of nature no more open to question than the circular revolutions of the planets. Yet it was precisely these things which were being questioned in the later 16th century. As the astronomers Brahe and Kepler were redrawing the map of the heavens, thinkers like Montaigne began the work of demolition which was ultimately to leave the beautiful, orderly, rational structure of the medieval cosmos in ruins. With the collapse of the old world-view, theories of natural law underwent a radical transformation. Originally signifying that system of duties and mutual obligations which defined man's place in the divinely instituted order of the universe, natural law was beginning by the 1650s to be taken to mean the inalienable rights of free and equal individuals.
However, traditional patterns of thought die hard. If Elizabethan writers were clearly conscious of the fact that they were living at a time of intellectual transition, we should be wary of attributing to them exactly those ideas which they found most threatening. Two hundred years after Shakespeare's death poets like Pope and Thomson could still appeal to the universal Chain of Being as a model for social order and expect to be understood by their readers.
Shakespeare's own position in the debate on the meaning of natural law is notoriously difficult to determine. So finely balanced are the rival points of view which form the dialectic of his plays that it is often assumed that, being primarily concerned with human character, he was indifferent to political and philosophical questions. But the balancing of one point of view or set of interests against another should not necessarily be interpreted simply as a desire for impartiality. One of Shakespeare's most characteristic techniques is to present us with evidence whose apparently self-contradictory nature makes it seem impossible for us to make a rational judgement on the character or problem concerned. An obvious example of this technique is the portrayal of characters like Antonio and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice. Antonio and Jessica stubbornly resist our natural wish to slot them into neat categories of good and evil, not just because we possess insufficient information about them but because the facts we are given cancel each other out. The same principle is true of more abstract problems, such as the question of natural justice in King Lear. In this play the characters themselves are for the most part unambiguously good or evil. What makes it so difficult to adjudicate between their mutually contradictory views of nature and the gods is that the evidence on either side seems to be so finely balanced. On one level these techniques have the effect of reproducing in the audience the dilemmas experienced by the characters on stage as they attempt to make sense of their world; on a broader level they reflect with unique fidelity 'the very age and body of the time, his form and pressure'.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3425
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 two modes coexist: the Elizabethan soldiers attend their Roman general on a stage where past and present confront each other as, perhaps, at no other time in history. The very term "Renaissance" indicates how thoroughly Shakespeare's world was conditioned by its relationship to the past. The study of history was highly esteemed throughout the period. In rediscovering the world of antiquity, the Renaissance humanists gave shape to their own. Cicero's tribute to history as "the light of trueth, the witnesse of tymes, the Mistresse of lyfe, the Messenger of antiquitie, and the lyfe of memorye, preservinge from oblivion deedes worthye of memorye, atchieved thorough longe processe of tymes" was endlessly quoted. The English humanist Sir Thomas Elyot made history the center of his educational program: "Surely if a noble man do thus seriously and diligently rede histories," he declared, "I dare affirme there is no study or science for him of equal commoditie and pleasure, havynge regarde to every tyme and age" The Boke Named the Governour, 1531 edition]. When Roger Ascham, who had been tutor to Princess Elizabeth, came to write his own treatise on education, he also commended the study of history, which, he wrote, "could bring excellent learning and breed staid judgment in taking any like matter in hand" [The Schoolmaster, 1570]. Matthew Coignet emphasized history's power to provide vicarious experience: "We do gaine more by reading [histories] in our youth; then by whatsoever is either attributed to sence, or experience of old men, or to suche as have beene in farre voyages [Politique Discourses upon trueth and Lying, 1586]. Moreover, the lessons of history, better than those of life, were taught "without hasarde, expense, or daunger." History taught "the preceptes eyther of politicke lawes, or of the art of warre." Its examples "inflame us to vertue"; and the fear of its testimony could act as a deterrent from wickedness: "There is no doubt but manye tyrauntes have refrayned the executing of a number of mischiefes they have determined, for feare of the sporte which a historie would staine them with."
The power and scope of history seemed boundless. For Elyot, history comprehended "all thinge that is necessarie to be put in memorie"—Pliny's Natural History, holy scriptures, Homer's epics, and the fables of Aesop all included. For Sir Walter Ralegh (1614), it began with the creation, giving "so fair and piercing eyes to our mind, that we plainly behold … that great world as it was then, when but new to itself." The best of human knowledge, history could triumph over mortality itself: "among many other benefits, for which it hath been honoured, in this one it triumpheth over all human knowledge, that it hath … triumphed over time, which, besides it, nothing but eternity hath triumphed over.… it hath made us acquainted with our dead ancestors; and, out of the depth and darkness of the earth, delivered us their memory and fame." History, it seemed, could raise the dead, inspire the living, reveal the secrets of statecraft, teach the details of military tactics, expose the deceits of fortune, and illuminate the ways of providence. It could even cure the sick: Coignet reports that "Alphonus sayd of Qu. Cursius, that he was soner healed by his history, then his Phisitions."
Nowhere was this interest in recovering the past and shaping the present by its models more lively than in England. There were obvious local reasons for the Elizabethan preoccupation with history. The Wars of the Roses, which had occupied much of the preceding century, destroying families, devastating the land, and disrupting ancient allegiances, made the study of recent English history a pressing concern for a nation that wished to preserve the peace and political stability of the present and to avoid the mistakes that had led to the insecurity of the past. As Edward Hall reminded his readers, "What noble man liveth at this daie, or what gentleman of any auncient stocke or progeny is clere, whose linage hath not ben infested and plaged with this unnaturall devision" [The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre & York, 1548]. Moreover, the Tudors, a new dynasty whose founder had won his crown in battle, sponsored official histories that constructed a myth of ancient descent and providential purpose in order to authenticate their questionable claim to the throne.
For subjects as well as sovereigns, the emergent nation-state made the study of English history a matter of pride and interest as well as an essential source of self-definition. Living in a time of rapid social, economic, and political change, Renaissance readers looked to the past for the roots that would stabilize and legitimate their new identities. The ideology of the "Ancient Constitution," for instance, emerged during this period to assert the antiquity of English liberties in order to legitimate a new political consciousness. Individual social status was also rationalized historically: having a history, in fact, was exactly equivalent to having a place in the status system, a connection that was implicit in the rage to acquire coats of arms (i.e., historical genealogies) and explicit in the prefatory letter to Hall's Union, in the rhetorical question, "What diversitie is betwene a noble prince & a poore begger … if after their death there be left of theim no remembrance or token."
Many factors, ranging from an individual need to assert an identifiable continuum after a period of political chaos to official court constructions of the past, encouraged an intense popular interest in English history. Warner's Albion's England (1586) had seven editions in a period of twenty years. John Stow's Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles, published in 1565, had ten by 1611. Other historical works, ranging from verse narratives like the Mirror for Magistrates to Raphael Holinshed's massive prose Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland to Shakespeare's English history plays, enjoyed comparable popularity among a large and varied audience.
Despite the widespread interest in history and the overwhelming chorus of praise for the benefits its study could confer, there was no clear consensus about its nature and purpose; for this was a period of transition, when radically different conceptions of history and historiography were endorsed, often by the same writer. Three great innovations, all originating in Italy, were changing English historiography during the second half of the sixteenth century—a new interest in causation, a recognition of anachronism, and a questioning of textual authority. Like all great ideological shifts, however, these were gradual, affecting different writers at different times and with different degrees of intensity and self-consciousness. Thus, the adoption of newer ideas and methods did not always mean the immediate abandonment of older ones, even when the two were logically opposed and mutually exclusive, and many of the older ideas persisted, even after the end of the century.
The most obvious of these changes was the gradual separation of history from theology: explanations of events in terms of their first cause in divine providence were giving way to Machiavellian analyses of second causes—the effects of political situations and the impact of human will and capabilities. Medieval chronicles, often written in monasteries, were informed by the religious perspective that viewed all human actions under the aspect of eternity. The first cause of all things was the will of God, the alpha and omega who contained past, present, and future in one eternal, unchanging presence. The secular events recorded in the chronicles were simply set down in the order of their occurrence, usually with little or no attempt to discover or supply the causal links that might have transformed them into a connected story unfolding in human time. Living in a universe governed by the absolute, unchanging, but finally inscrutable will of God where the sacred history revealed in the Bible was the only sure truth, medieval chroniclers had little impetus to probe the material, human causes of secular historical change. The medieval model for describing the progress of human life in time was the wheel of fortune, an endlessly recurrent cycle of rising and falling, designed to show the transience of all earthly glory. Only at the hub, the still center that represented the will of God and the intersection of time with eternity, could true meaning be found.
The new "politic historians" of the Renaissance still made reference to the will of God as the first cause behind historical change; but, impelled by a new concern with the life of this world, they described historical causation primarily in terms of "second causes," that is, of human actions and their consequences; and they evaluated actions more in terms of their expediency, less in terms of their morality. Sir Walter Ralegh multiplies examples of royal misfortunes to demonstrate that "ill doing hath always been attended with ill success," for "the judgments of God are for ever un-changeable": Henry VI suffered a "great storm" of misfortunes in punishment for "his grandfather's grievous faults," and so did Richard II for the crimes of his grandfather, Edward III. But Ralegh could still write, "To say that GOD was pleased to have it so, were a true, but an idle answer (for his secret will is the cause of all things)." In more extreme versions, the new doctrine meant that "all things roll and run at a venture, and … there is no other cause of good and evill accidents of this life, but either fortune or els the will of man"; but for the most part the histories cheerfully mingled providential and Machiavellian explanations, with no apparent sense of contradiction.
Holinshed's Chronicle, for instance, in describing the defeat of the Earl of Huntington's rebellion against Henry IV, starts with a detailed, circumstantial account of the tactical errors that caused the defeat. It relates that the earl "set fire on diverse houses in the towne, thinking that the assailants would leave the assault and rescue their goods" and describes the failure of the ruse when the earl's own men, "hearing noise, and seeing this fire in the towne, thought verelie that King Henrie had béene come thither with his puissance, and thereupon fled without measure, everie man making shift to save himselfe." Thus, Holinshed explains, "that which the lords devised for their helpe wrought their destruction; for if the armie that laie without the towne had not mistaken the matter, when they saw the houses on fire, they might easilie have succoured their chéefeteins in the towne." His explanation is detailed and circumstantial: the chieftains in town "were assailed but with a few of the townesmen ["the bailiffe of the towne with fourescore archers"], in comparison of the great multitude ["twentie thousand men"] that laie abroad in the fields." But it is also providential: "But such was the ordinance of the mightie Lord of hostes, who disposeth althings at his pleasure" [Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1587].
[In Shakespeare's History Plays, 1962] E. M. W. Tillyard cites Hall's Union as the chief source of the providentialism he finds in Shakespeare, but even Hall was capable of mingling first and second causes in his accounts of historical causation. The misfortunes of Henry VI, he writes, were attributed by some to Henry's lack of wit and "coward stommack," by others to "the stroke & punishment of God" because "the kingedome, whiche Henry the .iiii. hys grandfather wrongfully gat … could not by very divyne iustice, longe contynew in that iniurious stocke." Hall clearly seems to favor the providential view that "God by his divine prouidence, punished the offence of the grandfather in the sonnes sonne." He attributes the charge of cowardice to Henry's enemies and associates the charge of foolishness with the "vulgare opinion" and "wisedom of this world" that is "folishenes before God." Nonetheless, it is significant that even Hall is able to entertain rationalistic explanations of historical causality along with the providential ones he prefers. Despite the far-reaching implications of the conflict between the two views of historical causation, Renaissance historians often resolved it by the simple expedient of explaining the same course of events on both levels, often without even going so far as Hall does to acknowledge that they conflicted.
Another major innovation in English Renaissance historiography, also introduced from Italy, was awareness of anachronism. Like the new interest in second causes, this new conception of temporality was implicated in the process of secularization, in the movement from a vision centered on the timeless province of God to the humanistic consciousness that assigned new importance to the transitory material life of this world. Even the words that distinguish the profane from the holy—"secular" and "temporal"—indicate how thoroughly that distinction is involved in the distinction between the timeless and the historical. In the Middle Ages, a person who entered a monastery was said to leave time behind (relinquere saeculum). The Renaissance experience of secularization was, quite literally, a movement into time. Regarded under the aspect of eternity, the changing pageant of earthly human life is illusory because events are seen from a perspective that transcends time. Collapsing time into space, a medieval tapestry could represent various stages of the same event, and a medieval painting could bring together images of biblical personages or saints with those of contemporary donors. Renaissance painters continued the practice of bringing the living and the dead or two temporally separate representations of the same person together in one picture, but their settings became increasingly specific in place and time. As Wylie Sypher explains, they learned to use light as "a local and secular effect, changing with the hour and cast from a given source" [The Ethic of Time: Structures of Experience in Shakespeare, 1976].
Typically, medieval writers of history display no sense of anachronism: for them, all history is present history: Theseus and Alexander the Great are knights, and the customs, clothing, and manners of the historians' own times are uncritically ascribed to other times and places. Caxton refers to Vergil as a "grete clerke," and Gavin Douglas speaks of "Sir Diomed" and the "nuns of Bacchus." It was not until the Renaissance, with the new recognition that the past was genuinely different from the present, that historians questioned the authenticity of venerable records that had been accepted for centuries despite their use of a vocabulary and references to objects that were unknown at the time of their supposed origin.
The Donation of Constantine, for example, had been accepted for centuries when it suddenly came under attack from a number of scholars working independently in the fifteenth century. Purportedly written in the fourth century for Pope Sylvester I, this document gave him and his successors temporal power over Italy. Of the various arguments that exposed the document as a crude forgery, Lorenzo Valla's was the most extensive, citing the many anachronisms in language and details that showed it was a later fabrication. Some of Valla's arguments are purely philological ("Who ever heard 'tiara' [phrygium] used in Latin?"); but most often they combine philological with antiquarian evidence to provide an elaborate demonstration that the writer of the document was unfamiliar with Constantine and the world in which he lived:
He says, "of purest gold and precious gems". The ignorant fellow did not know that a diadem was made of coarse cloth or perhaps of silk.… [but] imagines that it is of gold, with a gold band and gems such as kings now usually add. But Constantine was not a king, nor would he have dared to call himself king, nor to adorn himself with royal ceremony. He was Emperor of the Romans, not king. Where there is a king, there is no republic. But in the republic there were many, even at the same time, who were imperatores [generals]; for Cicero frequently writes thus, "Marcus Cicero, imperator, to some other imperator, greeting": though, later on, the Roman ruler, as the highest of all, is called by way of distinctive title the Emperor.
As Valla's biting rhetoric reveals, his interest in exposing the anachronisms in the Donation was more than academic. Marshaling evidence of historical change to discredit papal authority, he anticipates a crucial strategy of Reformation polemic. Luther used Valla's arguments in his struggle with the pope, and John Foxe used them in his Actes and Monuments. The recognition of anachronism, in fact, was a basic premise of Reformation thought. No longer seen as an institution unchanged from its beginnings, the contemporary church was contrasted with the church as it had been before centuries of Roman Catholic corruption had polluted it. A great impetus for the close scrutiny of historical records was the reformers' desire to purge the church of those corruptions and restore Christianity to its original pure form. In so doing, however, they helped to render all textual authority problematic. Once biblical interpretation became a subject of passionate dispute, the Bible was no longer taken as simply "given" as the eternally present word of God; rather, it came to be seen as a historical document, the product of a particular time and place. Translated into the vernacular, subjected to different interpretations from rival Christian sects, the Bible became an object of contestation in which alternative words contended to translate the meaning of the original text and alternative interpretations contended to explicate it. In "a situation where Catholics and Protestants each worked to undermine the foundations of the other," philology "complicated the authority of the sacred text, shook its absolute status by calling attention to the specific circumstances of its production." In such a context, the writings of secular authorities could hardly escape the same skeptical questioning that formed the basis of theological debate.
A major impetus for the Elizabethan interest in history was the often-reiterated faith of the humanists that the past could provide lesons for the present and models for the future. Looking to the past to understand the present, Tudor historians focused on historical figures and situations that provided instructive analogues for contemporary persons and predicaments. Elyot advised that English princes should "studiously" read Caesar because "thereof may be taken necessary instructions concernynge the wars against Irisshe men or Scottes, who be of the same rudenes and wilde disposition that the Suises and Britons were in the time of Cesar." The history of King John, the theme of the first English history play (John Bale's Kynge Johan, ca. 1539), was a popular subject in the sixteenth century, but the story of Magna Carta was usually omitted (as it is in Shakespeare's play on John). Instead, sixteenth-century accounts emphasized John's quarrel with Rome, celebrating his defiance of the pope and depicting him as a prototype of Henry VIII. It was not until the seventeenth century, when royal authority was once more subject to question and attack, that the story of Magna Carta became historically significant.
As long as humanist historians retained their faith that human experience was always and everywhere the same, they could look to the past for sure guides to the conduct of present affairs. But the progress of Renaissance historiography and theory of history was characterized by an increasing sense of alienation from the past, of its ineluctable otherness, even while the desire to know and recover that past remained intense, lending a deep poignancy to the entire historiographic enterprise. Historical fact was now open to question, and historical truth was now debatable. Records were subject to loss or distortion, witnesses could be biased, and all things were vulnerable to the ravages of time.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6515
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 appealed to the populace. Quintilian and Horace mined drama for the oratorical techniques needed by a public speaker and Cicero identified political life with public life, or the life of a noted man, for there is in Latin no other word for politician. In Book III of On Duties Cicero compares his forced retirement with the leisure enjoyed by Scipio: "he would leave the massed gathering of men and withdraw into the haven of his own company" while in his own case Cicero says: "what work in keeping with my position is there for me to do either in the Senate or in the Forum: Once I lived with great crowds around me, in the forefront of Roman publicity" Conversely, in Cicero's scathing Second Philippic, Antony is pictured as a public buffoon touring in the company of an actress, drunk at a wedding and publicly sick: "But here, in the Assembly of the Roman People, was a man holding public office … flooding his own lap. Cicero also describes how Pompey (who built the first permanent theater in Rome) was attacked by the actor Diphilus who delivered certain lines "amid the cheers of the whole audience … For indeed the verses do look as though they had been written for the occasion by an enemy of Pompey." Properly, or improperly, Roman public life and performance was often linked.
Pompey's theater itself brings together politics and spectacle in yet another way. Pleased with what he saw in Mitylene, Pompey returned to Rome with plans for a theater which was built adjacent to a temple and to which there was added a portico for public meetings to forestall senatorial objections to the use of public funds for such a project. This meeting place for the Senate, with its statue of Pompey, would become the setting for that great scene of Roman history, the assassination of Caesar. Cassiodorus in his Variorum liber (1472) describes this once splendid structure: "The ancients built this place holding so many people to create a stupendous spectacle seeming to hold dominion over the entire world."
Shakespeare's Globe, with its wooden pillars painted to resemble marble, can be seen as part of the Renaissance attempt to recreate such theaters. When the Earl of Essex paid Shakespeare's company to perform Richard II in 1601, he must have believed that a play reenacting the deposition of a king would assist, or at least mirror what he hoped would be a successful rebellion acted out in the streets of London. The performance, we assume, was not to be blamed for his failure. As Paul Cantor has pointed out in Shakespeare's Rome, it is in the Roman plays that Shakespeare examines the two regimes, empire and republic, that so occupied the Florentine humanists and became the focus of the debate over Rome. In North's translation of Plutarch (The Parallel Lives) and in Livy's History, Shakespeare would have found ample evidence of political life and theater being equated in ancient Rome. His first Roman play, for which there is no known source, establishes certain key elements in the representation of Rome as a city where politics and theater meet in ritual, rhetoric, and spectacle.
Shakespeare's open stage with its pillars holding up the heavens, its facade, trying house, upper stage, and trap permitted great flexibility in the representation of place. Augmented by language, props, costume, and imagination, his stage could become a place of imperial triumph, or republican debate.
The opening of Titus Andronicus is dominated by rituals that link the tomb and the Capitol (or "this passage to the Capitol" I, i, 12). Titus has returned to Rome in triumph "laden with honor's spoils" (36) and "bound with laurel boughs" (74). Ten years of war against the barbarous Goths, the sacrifice of his sons, who will be honorably interred within the monument of the Andronici, and the public display of the captive Queen Tamora and her sons to "beautify" the triumph merge in a public ritual commemorating the defense of Rome. But Titus, "great defender of this Capitol" (77) returns to a city divided between Saturninus, the elder son, and his brother, Bassianus, who vie for support amongst the patricians. Meanwhile, Titus's brother Marcus, the Tribune, reports that "the people of Rome" (179) have elected Titus Andronicus emperor. Quickly the stage where the ritual of public service was to be acted out becomes the setting for discord. The funeral before the tomb, a public ceremony (or "funeral pomp") that forms part of the triumph over those barbarians who threaten the city's order, becomes itself "barbarous" when Tamora's son, Alarbus, is sacrificed, dismembered, and burned in what the Goths deem "cruel, irreligious piety" (130).
The triumph itself is public spectacle which brings military power and its trophies back to the city and to those political institutions which the commander and his sons defend. Though Titus defers to the eldest son, Saturninus (224), consecrating his triumph and its symbols of conquest (249) to the new Emperor, he cannot control his own family. Saturninus's proposal to marry Lavinia "in the sacred Pantheon" turns brother against brother and Titus against his sons. Ritual and ceremony give way to the uncontrolled drama that unfolds in the streets with sudden reversals and the unexpected rise of Tamora from captive to Empress. The essential elements of the Theatrum mundi of political life in Shakespeare's Rome are present: the military triumph, the funeral before the tomb, and the political dissension in the Capitol. The places of ritual fail to contain the violent forces set loose within the city. The Rome of Titus Andronicus falls toward the trap, the forest, and the pit where rape, mutilation, and betrayal overtake a city whose public rituals no longer sustain civic life. Spectacle divorced from viable political institutions and a true sense of community does not have the power to maintain political order within Shakespeare's Rome.
The triumph and a funeral also dominate the conflict between imperial Caesar and the republican conspirators in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, but in this play oratorical skill as a form of political performance assumes greater importance in the public drama played out within the theater that is Rome. Julius Caesar begins with two public spectacles, Caesar's triumph after the defeat of Pompey and the running of the Lupercalia, both of which are interpreted within the play as forms of political theater. The commons who "make holiday to see Caesar, and to rejoice in his triumph" (I, i, 30-31) must be instructed by the Tribune Murellus, who contrasts Pompey's triumphs, which brought "tributary" foreign captives to Rome, with Caesar's triumph over Romans, the sons of Pompey, or "Pompey's blood." Caesar's victory in the civil war is interpreted as a threat to the commons and their political representatives, the Tribunes, who seek to pluck some feathers from Caesar's ambitious wing (72).
To Cassius the triumphant Caesar has become a Colossus who dominates the political scene, while his opponents, "petty men / Walk under his huge legs, and peep about / To find ourselves dishonorable graves" (I, ii, 136-38). These opponents clearly regard the offer of a crown to Caesar and his refusal of it as a piece of political theater staged by the would-be tyrant to gauge public opinion. His apparent swoon after the commons applaud his third rejection is seen as pure performance by Casca: "If the tag-rag people did not clap him and hiss him, according as he pleas'd and displeas'd them, as they use to do the players in the theater, I am no true man" (258-61). In the complex world of political theater that Rome has become, Caesar wants the citizen-audience to hiss the rejection of the crown he plays out before them. Audience displeasure would please him and open the way to acceptance of the crown and to a change in the political institutions of the city. If his subsequent swoon is real, it shows disappointment that his "act" of rejection has been applauded.
Shakespeare counterpoints this theater of public spectacle with the theater of conspiracy that develops in the private space of the household, or the garden. In public the conspirators, much like Caesar, must "act" so as to conceal their true intentions:
Bru. Good gentlemen, look fresh and merrily;
Let not our looks put on our purposes,
But bear it as our Roman actors do,
With untir'd spirits and formal constancy.
(II, i, 224-27)
While Caesar plays to the crowd, the conspirators must control appearances in preparation for the assassination, which they perceive as a form of public ritual, a sacrifice of the mere man who would be a god to the higher values of Roman freedom and republican liberty (I, iii, 76; II, ii, 76; III, i, 105). Plutarch underscores the irony of the assassination in the public meeting place (portico) built adjacent to the theater of Caesar's arch enemy Pompey. Though Shakespeare shifts the setting to the more famous political stage of the Capitol (I, iii, 36), he retains reference to Pompey's porch or theater as a place where the conspirators will meet before they go to visit Brutus (I, iii, 126, 147, 152). The identification of the assassination with a place that brought together theater and politics resurfaces with the description of Caesar's body lying at the base of Pompey's statue ("That now on Pompey's basis [lies] along" (III, i, 115 and III, ii, 188). At the moment of the assassination, Casca thinks of the historical significance of the deed and Shakespeare underlines the metadramatic character of this scene:
How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In [states] unborn, and accents yet unknown!
(III, i, 111-13)
The assassination will be "acted over," or reenacted as a memorial to the original "scene," but it will also provide the historical script for other political actors who will imitate this exemplary act of tyrannicide. But the immediate context also requires a shift to the arena, or marketplace of public opinion where the "reasons" for the assassination must be effectively represented, "Or else were this a savage spectacle" (223).
The shift to the "rostra" of public opinion becomes a contest between two perceptions of the assassination. For the conspirators, the violence has the quality of public ritual which serves public order, while for Antony it is an act that pollutes the earth and will unleash the dogs of war (cf. II, i, 166; II, ii, 76; III, i, 105 & 254). Brutus had desired to "carve him as a dish fit for the gods, / Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds" (II, i, 173-74)—to make the assassination of Caesar a sacrifice rather than a bloody hunt. In keeping with this desire to represent tyrannicide as public ritual, the funeral ceremony must proceed, with Antony allowed to speak, or perform as a son in the order of the funeral.
Caesar contrasts the "lean and hungry" Cassius who "reads much," is a "great observer" and "looks / Quite through the deeds of men" with Antony who loves plays, hears music, and smiles (I, ii, 194-204). And Brutus argues that Antony is not to be feared because "he is given / To sports, to wildness, and much company" (II, i, 188-89). But Antony's identification with theater becomes a thing to be reckoned with when as politician-actor he plays the role of one "meek and gentle" before the conspirators, "Shaking the bloody fingers" of these gentlemen he calls "butchers" after they have exited and he addresses the body of Caesar (III, i, 198-255). The conspirators are taken in by a man whose ability to play a part merges with his oratorical skill and his sense of politically effective public spectacle. Antony gains control of the funeral, a public occasion which, for the Romans, had many of the characteristics of theater. Following North, Shakespeare uses the term "pulpit" for the rostra from which Brutus and Antony will speak and we know that in Renaissance engravings of the theater of Marcellus the stage itself was identified as "pulpitum." Antony requests that the body be shown in the market-place, where in the pulpit he will "as becomes a friend / Speak in the order of his funeral" (III, i, 229-30). Though Brutus speaks first and observes decorum in a prose speech that adheres to the plain style, it is Antony's oratorical-theatrical performance from the "public chair" (III, ii, 64) which controls the audience. The theatrical skill of that speech, the weeping, the use of Caesar's body, the will, and the "mantle" rent by the daggers, effectively transforms the private grief of a "plain blunt man" into a political counter-attack that grows out of a masterful use of speech, gesture, and funeral props. In a city that had always identified political life with public performance, the spectacles staged outside the Capitol begin to replace the city's republican institutions.
Toward the end of the play we return to the triumph. For a defeated Roman to be led in triumph by another Roman is a disgrace that the man of honor cannot accept.
Cas. Then, if we lose this battle,
You are contented to be led in triumph
Through the streets of Rome?
Bru. No, Cassius, no. Think not, thou noble Roman,
That ever Brutus will go bound to Rome;
He bears too great a mind.
(V, i, 107-12)
As in Act I, the triumph as a demonstration of military conquest over external threats to the city and its political institutions is replaced by the triumph of one Roman faction over another, of one concept of government over another. In the empire, political power articulated through spectacle allows the charismatic leader to bypass the Tribunes and Senate. In this new form of government, the Capitol as a stage for political debate will be replaced by the high spectacles staged by Antony and Cleopatra.
As we have seen in Titus Andronicus, the ceremonial character of a triumph, or funeral, implies order; as a part of that performance the oratorical skill of a leader is aimed at control. If Rome is the stage where the drama of politics unfolds, success on that stage requires knowledge of the audience-citizens, of what they applaud or hiss, as well as self-control, that ability to mask intentions which Casca identifies with the actor's skill. One thinks of chapter 18 of The Prince where Machiavelli discusses the importance of a ruler appearing to have certain virtues which men admire.
In 1607-08 Shakespeare was working on the last of his Roman plays, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, thinking about the problems posed and faced by a strong military leader in the young republic, and on the very different problems that emerged as Rome made its final transition to empire under one man, Octavius Caesar. The question of what virtues a military leader has, as opposed to those the successful politician must appear to have, dominates Coriolanus. Of Caius Martius, later Coriolanus, it can be safely said "That valor is the chiefest virtue and / Most dignifies the haver" (II, ii, 84-85). In this man who enters Rome in triumph crowned with an oaken garland after the defeat of the Volscians, Shakespeare dramatizes a sharp division between valor and policy. The play opens with a demonstration of oratorical skill by Menenius Agrippa, whose fable of the body quiets rebellious citizens in Rome's streets. Coriolanus, however, scorns not only the populace and their political representatives, the Tribunes, but the theatrical-oratorical skill that Menenius uses to control them. The battlefield is the theater for Coriolanus, only there do we see him speaking persuasively. Recalling Coriolanus's youthful exploits against the Tarquins, in defense of the newly founded Republic, Cominius says, "When he might act the woman in the scene, / He prov'd best man i' th' field" (II, ii, 96-97). However, when required to "speak to the people" and show his wounds to be confirmed as consul, Coriolanus feels womanly shame over what he takes to be a political performance: "It is a part / That I shall blush in acting" (144-45). Coriolanus cannot, however, act the part; he turns on the populace as though they were the enemy,
I would they were barbarians, as they are,
Though in Rome litter'd; not Romans, as they
Though calved i' th' porch o' th' Capitol!
(III, i, 237-39)
At home he explains his behavior as truth to self,
Would you have me
False to my nature? Rather say, I play
The man I am.
(III, ii, 14-16)
The ensuing debate between Coriolanus and his mother turns on the difference between a truth to self that allows no "acting," for whatever political ends, and a use of appearance that serves valor. Oratorical skill in the theater of politics is, Volumnia says, no more dishonorable to "your bosom's truth" than the use of "gentle words" and dissembling to take a town in battle (59). Volumnia prompts her son like a director, describing the role he should act before the populace, "with this bonnet in thy hand … Thy knee bussing the stones" (73-75). But such a transformation in his appearance requires a violation of Caius's body, and his manhood, for it will make him a "eunuch." Preparing to act his part he says "Away, my disposition, and possess me / Some harlot's spirit" (111-112). These lines reflect something of the Puritan's scorn for playing. The soldier is emasculated in this public performance, as though his body were possessed by a loose woman. Like a cheap street actor, Coriolanus says he will mount the political stage in the market-place and "mountebank their loves"—cheat, that is, for the affection of the populace and, we infer, cheapen himself as he delivers a political salespitch. Both ritual and institutionalized political debate require a community of values that is absent from the world of this play. Coriolanus imagines the theatrical-political stage as a setting for the inherently false exchange of commodities. His military, masculine identity must, in his imagination, give way to the role of prostitute, or eunuch, once he begins to perform on the political stage. In the role of mountebank, prostitute, or eunuch, Coriolanus must appear to be other, and less than the man he is, thus betraying, or being false to his nature. Coriolanus cannot find a point of agreement between the role he must play and the man he needs to be.
Coriolanus becomes an exile because he cannot reconcile the part he plays on the battlefield, the sense of honor he identifies with the family, and the "theatrical" demands of a political life that requires him not only to sell his soul but cheapen his body. Unlike Machiavelli's Prince, who must control appearances at all times, Coriolanus feels violated on the political stage. And yet Shakespeare shows us Coriolanus making his way in disguise to the Volscian city of Antium (IV, iv, 1), after we see the Roman spy Nicanor speaking to a Volscian. Like an Odysseus, Coriolanus can use disguise and oratorical skill, but can only do so outside of Rome. As he approaches the city, his ability to perform and his authority as a military leader both desert him.
As leader of the Volscians against Rome, Coriolanus breaks when confronted by his wife and mother:
Like a dull actor now,
I have forgot my part and I am out
Even to a full disgrace.
(V, iii, 40-43)
When he gives up his plan to destroy Rome, Coriolanus speaks of the gods looking down on "this unnatural scene" (184). The scene is unnatural for a variety of reasons: because the mother moves her son to play a tragic role, because the Roman hero is poised to attack Rome, and because the city exiled its own most effective military leader. In a healthy republic, ritual and political debate might serve to reconcile conflicting loyalties to self, family, the state, and the gods. The republic represented in Shakespeare's Coriolanus has neither the laws and customs, nor the individuals who might articulate a community of values. Though Menenius speaks of all citizens as parts of one body politic, the organic metaphor and the differentiation of functions it implies draws attention to the absence of a unifying spirit in the city and its leaders. Whether inside or outside the walls of Rome, Coriolanus is only able to perform with a sense of oneness when on the battlefield. Coriolanus the military commander approaches Rome as a director of the last scene, a scene that will mirror his invasion of Corioli. But as son and father he quickly becomes the audience-spectator who is moved to turn away from the gates of the city. As Jan Kott has pointed out, Coriolanus is a tragic-ironic victim of his own sense of nature and the role assigned him by history:
Coriolanus has realized that he has been cheated in the distribution of parts. He wanted to play the role of an avenging deity, while in the scenario of history it was only the role of a traitor. All that is left him is self-destruction.
To turn from Coriolanus to Antony and Cleopatra is to move from the city as republic enclosed within its walls, defending itself against neighboring Italian cities, to a state which over-arches the whole of the Mediterranean. The political and social confrontations acted out in the streets of Rome or at the Capitol are replaced by a complex series of wars and political maneuvers. Meetings take place in private, at the house of Pompey, Lepidus, or Caesar, or on a galley at Misenum. Senators, Tribunes, and people are no longer a part of the scene and even military conquest has become ambiguous, as we see in Ventidius's remarks about the danger of being too successful as a captain under one of the great men, for "ambition, / (The soldier's virtue) rather makes choice of loss / Than gain which darkens him" (III, i, 22-24).
For Antony and Cleopatra the world of love offers an alternative stage (I, iii, 78), where love-play reverses the roles assigned by the political directors in Rome:
Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed;
Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst
I wore his sword Philippan.
(II, v, 21-23)
One shudders to think of what Cicero might have done with this scene of a passed-out Antony being dressed in female mantles while his Egyptian lover wears the sword which overthrew Brutus and Cassius at Philippi.
But it is not merely that the private and public roles have been reversed as the bed becomes the new stage; for politics in the empire now works through the kind of extravagant spectacle Enobarbus describes in the famous first meeting between Antony and Cleopatra at Cydnus, when "The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne" (II, ii, 191) created a scene that controlled not only the people but Antony and Rome.
As represented by Shakespeare, Roman political life in the empire centers on a struggle to integrate personal ambition and public spectacle. In Antony and Cleopatra the public spectacles which dominate the play shift attention away from Rome as the center stage for political life toward an eastern world which combines ambition and performance in new ways. The Roman is apt to find performance on this new stage undignified, or to appear ludicrous when he would perform there. Caesar contrasts Antony's part in the crowning of Caesarion in Alexandria ('I' th' common show-place, where they exercise" [III, vi, 12]) with the unceremonious return of his sister, Octavia, to Rome (III, vi, 42-55). The public marriage that was supposed to "cement" the private accord between Octavius and Antony merely drives Antony back to his "Egyptian dish." Conversely, Antony appears ridiculous to Enobarbus when, after the defeat at Actium, he challenges Octavius to single combat:
Yes, like enough! high-battled Caesar will
Unstate his happiness, and be stag'd to th' show
Against a sworder!
(III, xiii, 29-31)
The great stage of Roman public life becomes, in this instance, a showplace, with Antony's challenge reduced to a descent into the arena of gladiatorial combat. As a result of this and other foolish performances by Antony, Enobarbus begins to consider abandoning his captain, though when he does so the magnanimity of Antony breaks the tough soldier's heart ("This blows my heart," IV, vi, 33). The tragic fate of Enobarbus is the first indication that Shakespeare perceives political life in the empire as a contest for minds or hearts. No longer confined to the Capitol, or Forum, the state of Rome must play to many civilizations, races, and languages. In this international scene the triumph becomes more than a ceremonial reintegration of military power within the city. When power extends the confines of the city ever outward, the triumph is itself a part of a new contest for loyalty, a part of what we would call propaganda. How a victory, or defeat is generally perceived becomes as important as the battle itself. The triumph restages the event, representing the defeated in "tableaux vivants" that will speak to the populace and through history to future generations.
After the defeat at Alexandria Antony threatens to kill Cleopatra and thus "blemish Caesar's triumph." He then threatens Cleopatra with something worse than death, describing how she will be taken and shown to the "shouting plebeians" and made to follow Caesar's chariot "like the greatest spot / Of all thy sex" (IV, xii, 33-39). For Antony himself, suicide is a welcomed escape from what he imagines as the humiliation of being led in triumph, of being shown, or "window'd in great Rome" as he says of Eros who would see his master bound, with neck bent, subdued and branded as base in a public ceremony of humiliation (IV, xiv, 72-77). Suicide, therefore, offers both an honorable escape and a way of defeating the conqueror. The public triumph is particularly important for Octavius who, unlike Antony, controls fortune but cannot inspire affection, or loyalty. Act V becomes, therefore, a contest between Octavius and Cleopatra, a contest in which he seeks not merely to capture her but to overcome everything she and Antony represent. In the theater of the empire the contest is for something more than space—it is for fame, reputation, and eternal glory. Octavius is aware that Cleopatra's suicide "by some mortal stroke" would defeat him "for her life in Rome / Would be eternal in our triumph" (V, i, 64-66). Once Cleopatra is sure that she will be led in triumph (V, ii, 109) hoisted up to the "shouting varlotry / Of censuring Rome" (56) she is determined to escape and defeat her opponent. She does so, in part, by leaving behind an imaginative picture of Antony restored to the status of colossus (V, ii, 82), no longer the mangled shadow he thought he was. And the scene she acts in her monument, a scene played on Shakespeare's stage, defeats the scene she imagines awaiting her in Rome, where she and her followers will be held up to common scorn and parodied in a puppet show, or a play:
The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels: Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' th' posture of a whore.
(V, ii, 216-21)
A boy squeaking out these lines in the Globe would remind the audience of the complex ways in which theater as part of a city and of cultural history represents political life. Cleopatra fears the power of Rome's quick improvisers to transform her world into something that can be used for popular, vulgar consumption; she fears becoming part of the propaganda which literally binds or hoists her body to the view, lifts her to debase, frames ("window'd") to distort her image (or posture). As Rome extends its political and military dominion, the stage is taken over by the masters of improvisation who can market the latest scandals from the most exotic reaches of the empire, turning them into marketable commodities. It is important that foreign rulers be conquered (and sacrificed as were Tamora's sons) but more important that the victor impose the Roman image on foreigners, particularly those who have their own allure. The comedians must show the conquered Queen in ways that will play to the audience and to the interests of the ruler.
We are a long way from the Rome of Cicero, where a quick comedian might turn a line against a powerful man like Pompey. But Shakespeare's play itself is not a part of some Roman triumph, it mirrors (or windows) Cleopatra's death as staged by the Queen herself:
Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have
Immortal longings in me.
(V, ii, 280-81)
On his stage we are permitted to see the full panorama of politics as drama in Rome and to see Rome and the great globe itself as the stage where scenes of political theater are acted out. In Titus Andronicus we witness the collapse of a political system whose rituals cannot sustain order. In Antony and Cleopatra the tomb becomes a private space within which Cleopatra creates her own ritual of consummation. The political stage of Rome is left to Octavius and his army:
Our army shall
In solemn show attend the funeral,
And then to Rome.
(V, ii, 363-65)
The high order of the final "great solemnity" is perceived by Octavius as a triumph over a famous pair. To them the "story" that is history will extend pity, while to Octavius will come the glory that belongs to one who "Brought them to be lamented" (361-63). As a part of that story, Shakespeare's historical drama extends pity and glory in its own way to those who performed upon the great stage that was the Roman world.
Shakespeare's Roman plays provide, as we have seen, a variety of perspectives on how the theatrical-political world of Rome will be "acted over / In states unborn, and accents yet unknown." From solemn ritual to the parody of the quick comedian who brings Cleopatra that asp whose "biting is immortal," Shakespeare uses the varied accents and devices of his theater to reenact the uniquely theatrical character of Roman political life. His stage is not dominated by the man of military power who presides over the solemn funerals and suicides that set the tone for the conclusions of these plays. A man such as Octavius (or a Fortinbras in that other world of Elsinore) steps forward to occupy center stage only as the play ends. There is a hollowness to their triumph which may be related to the fact that for Shakespeare the energy of Roman life is almost wholly focused on the competitive drama that dominates the political stage. The dedication of life to something beyond that stage seems lacking. At best the tomb is identified with a family's honorable past, or with the special kind of immortality that is created by Cleopatra in her more Egyptian funeral-suicide.
In Shakespeare's Rome public life and political life are synonymous; to be a noted man or woman is to perform in the theater of Rome and to participate in those rituals, debates, and spectacles that define ambition and become the means of controlling destiny. The battlefield is, of course, a theater apart which warrants a study in itself. And the private world is there, glimpsed in the scenes set in a garden, a bedroom, or a study. But on the whole, private life in Shakespeare's Rome is a kind of backstage where the exchange between a man, the actor, and a woman, his prompter, unfolds as preparation for the scene to be acted out at the Capitol, or in the streets. In private the debate is over how, or when to step onto the stage; public life dominates the private sphere and the inner world as well. Aside from Antony, the Roman does not consider any other stage as an alternative to the political-theatrical world of triumph, debate, and suicide.
After the varied performances designed to extend political influence, we return to the wider context of the audience. Beyond the spectators within the plays, who witnesses the drama of political life in Shakespeare's Rome? Do we have the sense that Shakespeare's Romans act out their political destiny before gods who weep or laugh at the human spectacle? On the whole, Shakespeare represents Rome as a stage played before men, before present or future generations. It is history or the "story" that will perpetuate those acts that arouse pity, or bestow glory, and it is the reenacting of these events by quick comedians, or by those who would imitate great deeds, that creates immortality or infamy. If the Roman political world represented by Shakespeare is played out before the gods, they are gods who remain silent.
There are, to be sure, prophecies and portents, as seen most notably in Julius Caesar where storms, auguries, and the dreams of Calphurnia must be interpreted by Caesar: "What can be avoided / Whose end is purpos'd by the mighty gods?" (II, ii, 26-27). But if the gods prompt, their script remains enigmatic. Human will is the cause (71) that directs the noble Romans of Shakespeare's plays to that stage where their political destiny must be enacted, as Caesar is moved toward the steps of the Capitol. The same is true of the conspirators as they prepare for the last scene at Philippi. Cassius abandons the Epicurean belief that the gods remain aloof from human affairs: "now I change my mind, / And partly credit things that do presage" (V, i, 77-78). But he can only partly credit those dark portents which cannot overcome his will: "I but believe it partly, / For I am fresh of spirit, and resolv'd / To meet all perils very constantly" (89-91).
The most explicit reference to a divine audience looking down upon the theater of Roman political life comes from Coriolanus:
O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold! the heavens do
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at.
(V, iii, 182-85)
From the perspective of the gods, Shakespeare's Roman actors arouse laughter because as players on the political stage they are trapped in roles they neither fully understand, nor control. The Roman actor cannot adopt the perspective of the gods, those immortals who stand apart and judge the political life itself with other standards. The political role seems a given which the hero, driven by will, ambition, honor, or pride, cannot escape, and the values that place that role center stage are not often subjected to a radical critique. Public life appears laughable to beings who look down on a hero who is and is not the child of the city. These contradictions, which might arouse tears in a human audience, come together in Act V of Coriolanus. At a public place in Corioli, Aufidius and the conspirators cut to pieces a man who enters playing the role of triumphant warrior, but who is then mocked in the ensuing debate as a traitor who played the false woman ("but at his nurse's tears / He whin'd and roar'd away your victory") and who finally reverts to the name Coriolanus won in triumph over the very Corioli he now leads (V, vi, 70, 96-97, 115). We have seen the same conflict between military triumph, the rites of the family, pride, and statecraft acted out in the opening scene of Titus Andronicus. Historical perspective may place us in the position of gods who can laugh at this destructive cycle, but we can also feel the tragic dismemberment of the body politic, the eruption of tribal rage in Coriolanus with the repeated blows of "Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him." But this violent moment does not release us from the ambiguities of political life on the stage of Shakespeare's Roman plays. "Let's make the best of it," says a most politic Second Lord as he seeks to balance the nobility of Coriolanus against his notorious impatience.
To the extent that we, like the gods, are remote from the tomb, the triumph, and the Capitol, we may laugh at, or make the best of the acts of tyrannicide or assassination that become final memorials on the political stage that is Rome. If we see that political world as center stage for western man, then the contradictions built into it may move us to something closer to tears. From the tomb of the Andronici to the tomb of Cleopatra, these plays create a stage that brings the individual to a monument dedicated to the city and to the gods that preside over that city, whether it is Rome itself, or the spirit of political life that extends outward from Rome in space to Egypt and in time to our age. In triumph or assassination, debate or suicide, the performers on this stage must finally define for themselves the roles they will play. The monuments and institutions that frame this world create a unique perspective in which political life is life itself. Power, fame, and the memorials of history go to those who perform most notably on that stage. In other plays, such as The Tempest, Shakespeare will allow his audience to look behind the set at the mechanism used to create political perspective, as with Ariel's speech as the Harpy. Or he may tear the set itself to open up other, more distant perspectives beyond the cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces of the political world. But in the Roman plays, that set defines the world, exerting its pull even on a Cleopatra who, having staged her death in splendidly triumphant fashion, yet hesitates to exit ("What should I stay—"). If she does hesitate, the Roman world of Octavius may have triumphed by making even her Egyptian monument a part of that scenic design which is focused on the perspectives of the political world, not the beyond. That perspective is replicated on the stage of the Globe by Shakespeare and those "quick comedians" who make Rome the focal point for a union of theater and politics that remains central to the western tradition.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 255
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 theatrical presentations of the political activities of members of the nobility and royalty.
Shaw, Howard. "Patronage in the Reign of Elizabeth I." History Today XXI, No. 8 (August 1971): 559-66.
Examines the impact of the Queen's dispensation of offices, pensions, leases, monopolies, and titles in order to consolidate her political power. Shaw includes a discussion of the Queen's patronage of theater groups, including Shakespeare's own.
Watson, Donald G. Shakespeare's Early History Plays: Politics at Play on the Elizabethan Stage. London: Macmillan, 1990, 177 p.
Examines Shakespeare's treatment of contemporary political issues in his early history plays.
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