Shakespeare as Political Thinker

Shakespeare as Political Thinker

by John E. Alvis

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The authors of this unique collection of essays proceed from a common conviction: Shakespeare's poetry conveys a wisdom about things political commensurate with the beauty of his poetry and drama. The writers assess the Bard's political prudence by addressing such topics in his corpus as: the nature and limits of political life; the origins of Shakespeare's…  See more details below


The authors of this unique collection of essays proceed from a common conviction: Shakespeare's poetry conveys a wisdom about things political commensurate with the beauty of his poetry and drama. The writers assess the Bard's political prudence by addressing such topics in his corpus as: the nature and limits of political life; the origins of Shakespeare's understanding of politics in Christianity, Machiavelli, and the ancients; perfect and imperfect statesmanship; England, Rome, and the best polity; the link between individual character and political regime; and the relationship between poetry, politics, religion, and philosophy.

The essayists analyze Richard II, 1 and 2, Henry IV, Henry V, Measure for Measure, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida, The Merchant of Venice, and the major tragedies, as well as the sonnets. Contributors include such luminaries as Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa, who judge Shakespeare to be a poetic exponent of the great tradition of classical political philosophy stemming from Socrates -- a tradition whose cogency and whose relevance was displayed by Leo Strauss and others. This predominant grain is brought out by the inclusion of some essays -- notably those of Louise Cowan and Robert B. Heilman -- that cut across it.

Taken together, these writers demonstrate that good literature, particularly from masters like Shakespeare, can contain good political thinking. An example of interdisciplinary writing at its finest, Shakespeare as Political Thinker is an impressive treatment of the significance of politics for Shakespeare's characters and for the poet as thinker.

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Editorial Reviews

National Review
This anthology, an expanded edition of a 1981 work, is defiantly untrendy in its contributors' refusal to read back into the Shakespearean canon the political agendas of the present.... Paul A. Cantor's essay on The Tempest is especially noteworthy in discovering important political insights in one of the least political plays.
Presents seventeen contributions from participants in the conference on "Poetry and Politics in Shakespeare" held in Dallas in October 1978. About half of the papers were given there, while the others were written for this volume. Some of the themes explored concern the nature and limits of political life; the origins of Shakespeare's understanding of politics in Christianity, Machiavelli, and the ancients; the link between individual character and the political regime; and the relationship between poetry, politics, religion, and philosophy. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Shakespeare as Political Thinker

ISI Books

Copyright © 2007 John E. Alvis
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ISBN: 978-1-882926-50-3


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. The essays here collected presuppose that the charm exists for the sake of the wisdom. The contributors presume that Shakespearean poetry affords something more determinate and responsible than the personalized fabrication of an imagined world answerable only to the requirements of self-coherence. 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 acknowledgment 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 ensures 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 naïvéte as mere spectators. The serious student of Shakespeare's poetry has occasion to reflect upon his own naïvéte 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 toward 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 beings?

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 toward, 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, and 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 stone 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 misfounded, 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.


Excerpted from Shakespeare as Political Thinker Copyright © 2007 by John E. Alvis . Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

Vickie Sullivan
The penetrating analyses contained in these essays assure that the importance of this path-breaking volume endures. The reissuance of this updated version is an essential resource for all those who look to Shakespeare's poetry for insight into the fundamental human alternatives.
— Vickie Sullivan, Department of Political Science, Tufts University
David Lowenthal
This re-issued, expanded and still unrivaled collection of essays (by scholars drawn from literature and political philosophy, many renowned) demonstrates the unsuspected system and depth of Shakespeare's moral and political thought and magnifies our view of his artistic greatness as well.
— (David Lowenthal, professor emeritus of political science, Boston College, and author of Shakespeare and the Good Life: Ethics and Politics in Dramatic Form)

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