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Shakespeare’s Elusive Politics

I’m sitting on line to get tickets to John Lithgow in King Lear in Central Park, so maybe I’ve got Shakespeare on the brain, but it really does seem like a bunch of people are saying sweeping and questionable things about the Bard these days, not just Ira Glass. Via Steve Sailer, I see that Noah […]
Shakespeare statue

I’m sitting on line to get tickets to John Lithgow in King Lear in Central Park, so maybe I’ve got Shakespeare on the brain, but it really does seem like a bunch of people are saying sweeping and questionable things about the Bard these days, not just Ira Glass. Via Steve Sailer, I see that Noah Berlatsky thinks we should respect Shakespeare’s art, but be prepared to criticize his politics, because “Shakespeare was a conservative,”

in the sense that he supported early modern England’s status quo and established hierarchy, which meant defending the Crown’s view of divine monarchical right and opposing the radicals, often Puritan, who questioned it.

For all the complexity and nuance of Shakespeare’s plays, his political allegiances were clear. James I was his patron, and Macbeth in particular is thought to be a tribute to the King. It even includes a reference to the Gunpowder Plot assassination attempt at James. That reference is made by Lady Macbeth as part of her effort to convince her husband to murder Duncan. The villainous traitors in the play are thus directly linked to traitors against James.

Macbeth isn’t a one-off to flatter the King, either: Rebels and usurpers in Shakespeare’s plays are always the bad guys. . . . Othello shows that Shakespeare’s sympathies are not just with kings, but with any authority figure, as the sneaking underling Iago attempts to overthrow his noble Captain. It is significant here, too, that (as many critics have pointed out) Iago has no real motive for his animosity. He does not articulate a critique, or even a complaint, about the way Othello exercises power. Instead, he simply says:

I hate the Moor
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

Rebellion against one’s superiors is presented as a matter of misguided jealousy and intrinsic spite. Similarly, the Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who aspires to the hand of a woman above him in social standing, is a hypocrite and a fool. The Puritan political resistance, or the Puritan ideological opposition to hierarchical norms, is never voiced, much less endorsed.

Jack Cade might beg to differ about the lack of voice for leveling rebels, though you would be hard-pressed to argue that Shakespeare ever endorsed his point of view. Nonetheless, I feel like this is far too pat. I have a strong sense that a cherry or two is being picked.

I don’t read Shakespeare as a political polemicist. He wasn’t Brecht or Ibsen. For that matter, he wasn’t Marlowe. But if that’s your standard, then Chekhov would also have to be classified as a conservative, which he most certainly was not.

I think it’s safe to say that Shakespeare accepted the social order as simply a part of his world. He didn’t write in order to change it. Did he endorse it, though? That’s harder to discern – among other things because essentially all the words Shakespeare wrote, he wrote not in his own voice, but for characters to say.

Take Ulysses’s speech from Troilus and Cressida, a frequent brief for the “Shakespeare is a conservative” proposition:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

That’s a pretty emphatic statement on behalf of maintaining the existing social order and structure of authority. But it’s not Shakespeare’s statement. It’s Ulysses’s. Ulysses, a character generally understood from Homer’s time on down as the tricky, political one, the manipulator. Shakespeare’s Ulysses makes the speech as part of an effort to convince Agamemnon to endorse his plan to trick Achilles into returning to the war. It’s hardly surprising that such a speech would help win the favor of the person at the top of the social hierarchy. Moreover, Ulysses is a Greek, and the English in Shakespeare’s time disdained the Greeks in favor of the Trojans, who they considered their legendary ancestors. Why, then, should we assume that Ulysses speaks for Shakespeare in any way?

Berlatsky bases his case more on Shakespeare’s plots than with his words, but his examples strike me as distinctly strange. Malvolio, yes, is a social upstart and an unflattering portrait of a puritan. But is Twelfth Night a play that argues against marrying outside one’s class? Why, then, are we to applaud when Sir Toby makes a love match with Maria? Malvolio never argues for tearing down social distinctions; he’s a snob and a climber. And yet – he’s still a sympathetic figure! At the end of the play, Olivia acknowledges that he has been treated very poorly, as indeed he has, and admonishes her people. That’s one of the extraordinary things in Shakespeare: even villains like Shylock, Edmund, Aaron the Moor, and comic butts like Malvolio, get their moments to defend their perspective on things, their moment to justify themselves – and their moment to earn our empathy. Which is not the same thing as approval.

And what, pray tell, does Berlatsky make, I wonder, of All’s Well That Ends Well? Are we supposed to believe that Helena is the villain of the piece, and that Bertram was right all along in scorning her for her low birth? The play can certainly be read as a caution to the Helena’s of the world to be careful what you wish for, but when every single character in the play, including the King himself, calls out Bertram for being ignoble in character for making so much of the difference in blood, it strains credulity to think that Shakespeare’s art essentially endorses Bertram’s view of the social order.

Meanwhile, sometimes Shakespeare’s rebels are heroes. Brutus is the hero of Julius Caesar, the “noblest Roman of them all” – certainly a more admirable figure than the rabble-rousing cynic Mark Antony. Now, he’s also a pretty conservative figure, though not in the sense that Berlatsky means. He exemplifies a distinct set of ancient, small-r republican virtues that existed in tension with the ideology of absolute monarchy in Shakespeare’s day. But he was certainly a rebel. And certainly a hero. He was a tragic figure, but to compare him to Macbeth is ludicrous.

Another Roman play cuts more deeply against Berlatsky’s argument: Coriolanus. The common people of Rome are portrayed as fickle and shallow, but Coriolanus, an authentic military hero as well as the scion of one of Rome’s leading families – in other words, an aristocrat of merit as well as of birth – is a violent-tempered militarist who would rather kill all his countrymen than admit that he can only properly rule with the consent of the governed, and who winds up getting himself torn to pieces instead. Are we supposed to believe Shakespeare agreed with him? It’s hard to discern where Shakespeare’s sympathies lie in this dark tragedy, but if this is a brief for the worldview described in Ulysses’s speech above – which Coriolanus would surely agree with – it’s a pretty strange one.

The histories would seem to be the strongest ground on which to make the case for Shakespeare’s essential conservatism, but even here we find a noble rebel: Hotspur. Far from being portrayed as evil, he is universally acknowledged to be noble, and guided by high motives rather than base ones. He may be foolish – well, he’s clearly foolish, and hot-headed – but the very king against whom he is rebelling bitterly wishes that he were his son, that’s how much he admires him.

Indeed, the arc of Shakespeare’s history plays tells a very different story about Shakespeare’s politics, inasmuch as he had any, than the one Berlatsky tells. It’s a complicated story, though, so I’m going to put it in a new section.

*     *     *

Shakespeare began his career with a series of history plays – the three parts of Henry VI – that recounted England’s vivid, recent and traumatic past: the War of the Roses. It would be comparable to a young Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill starting their careers with a massive three-part epic about the American Civil War. There’s a sitting Lancastrian king, Henry VI, of somewhat dubious legitimacy, and a rival faction – the Yorkists – with fairly comparable claims on the throne, aiming to supplant him (and eventually succeeding in doing so). Because it isn’t clear who is the legitimate ruler, the land bleeds. A fourth play, Richard III, completes the sequence, with Richard serving the function of the “scourge of God,” eliminating, one by one, everyone tainted by a century of usurpation, until the field is clear for Henry Tudor, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, to kill Richard, take the throne, marry the last survivor of the rival house, get crowned Henry VII, and end all dispute.

This isn’t particularly good history, of course; it’s Tudor propaganda (though, also, really effective drama). And if that were all Shakespeare wrote it would make Berlatsky’s case fairly well. But that wasn’t where Shakespeare stopped. Instead, some years later, he set out to pen a new tetralogy, the prequels to these early plays. And the politics that emerge from the “Henriad” – the sequence from Richard II through Henry V – are quite different, and far more interesting, than the politics of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays.

Richard II is, I would argue, Shakespeare’s most overtly political play. It’s rarely produced, because it isn’t one of his most dramatically effective. But it deals with precisely the kind of question that Berlatsky suggests Shakespeare avoided: what do you do when the legitimate monarch is a ninny? Not someone weak and vacillating, unwilling to exercise authority – someone who acts tyrannically and has horribly bad judgment. What do you do?

Shakespeare’s answer is, basically: I don’t know. Henry Bolingbroke is plainly a usurper; nobody thinks Richard is an illegitimate king. Just as plainly, everybody who is anybody in the kingdom is hoping that usurpation works – Richard, from the moment he leaves England to suppress a rebellion in Ireland, loses essentially all of his support, and never gets it back. As Richard himself comes to realize, and articulate, there is no concrete manifestation of the supposed charism of divine right. It’s all just “ceremony.”

Richard II was a dangerous play to write, because it exposed the hollowness of monarchy’s pretensions to right. Supposedly, it was used to precisely the political effect that any monarch might have feared, with a revival being staged in conjunction with the Essex rebellion, and Queen Elizabeth herself crying, “I am Richard II – know ye not that?” (Though, there are more recent questions as to whether this episode has come down to us in a distorted form). Whether Shakespeare intended it to cause or stir or not (I doubt it), and whether or not it actually did, what it manifestly shows is a writer grappling with a genuine political stumper that struck at the heart of his world’s political order. That’s not something Berlatsky’s Shakespeare would do.

The next three plays, depicting the rise of Henry V from youthful wildness to sober military chieftain, continue to follow this central question: what is a king, really? Henry IV, Hal’s father, knows his rule is illegitimate, and spends his years of rule crushing rebellions by the same people who put him in power, yearning to go on a crusade to try to win divine favor to overcome the stain of usurpation, and fretting about whether his son will lose it all. In his last breath, he suggests to that son that he get himself involved in a foreign war; nothing would do better to distract the people and disarm his domestic opponents. This, Henry V duly does, invading France on a trumped-up pretext (the scene with the clergymen who bless the venture is breathtaking in its cynicism, and hilarious).

But Henry V is, very clearly, the picture of a good king – of some sort. He cleans up his act, and stays clean. He ruthlessly cuts off and punishes his old friends when they break discipline and threaten order, even having one of them hanged. He prays to God, sincerely. But he knows, all along, that he’s operating without any guarantee of divine favor, precisely because his father was a usurper. He is constantly trying to push responsibility onto somebody else, somebody more worthy – he tells his clerical advisors that if the war in France is unjust, it’s their fault, because they advised him he had right on his side – and is brought up short when one of his own men, whom he chats with around the fire while reviewing his troops in disguise, bluntly tells him that the king is the one who will have to answer for all the death and destruction the war will bring. It’s too heavy a burden for a mere man, who doesn’t embody the nation.

And so King Harry sets out to embody the nation in a novel way, not by developing a second, political body in the form of the nation, but by developing a second ear, a second voice. When he was still the prince, he learned to “drink with any tinker in his language,” and now, on the field of battle, he proclaims himself a Welshman, unites English with Irish and Scots, and then claims France as well, wooing his bride in a fractured French. He wanders among the troops at night in disguise as one of their number, and proclaims that anyone who fights with him will be made a gentleman, no matter how lowly born.

This is a new kind of politics, one we can recognize: one based on popularity, the common touch, an identification between ruler and ruled that is personal, not based on a theory of divine right. It’s an incipiently democratic politics, very far from the ideology of divine right. And it’s a largely sympathetic portrait. Shakespeare’s King Henry V isn’t a populist riling up a mob like Mark Antony does at Caesar’s funeral. He’s just a good politician – better than his notoriously political father ever was. He may kill his friends – he may commit war crimes, for that matter – but we can’t help but like him, because he seems like one of us.

*     *     *

Of course, at the end of Henry V, Shakespeare reminds us that it all went to shit when he died (and that he already wrote four plays showing us just how bad things got, in France and then in England). His son, Henry VI, didn’t have his father’s personal qualities, or maybe nobody could have held together the kingdom, and incipient empire, that Henry V bequeathed.

A vision of politics that says that legitimacy is important, and that without it it’s harder to rule peacefully, may well be called conservative – but if so, we’re setting the bar for conservatism pretty low. (Am I supposed to believe that anyone who denies, or even qualifies, Mao’s dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” is now a conservative?) What you can’t say is that Shakespeare wrote plays that blithely assume a world in which right ultimately triumphs, authority must be respected, and the most important thing is for everybody to know his place, and stay there. The very plays that grapple most directly with these questions portray a very different vision – a much more realistic, pragmatic and complex one than Berlatsky implies.

Steve Sailer ends his piece by citing Robert Conquest that “everybody is conservative about what they know best,” and saying that Shakespeare must have been a conservative because he knew so much about so much. I’ll buy that. The thing about knowing so much about something, though, is that it makes it ever harder to be definitive; the more you know, the more you know about how little you really know. That’s my kind of conservatism, and I’m happy to say it was Shakespeare’s. But a vast imaginative sympathy that crosses all lines of social distinction, and a healthy skepticism, even cynicism, about the designs of power, sounds like a pretty good description of my kind of liberalism as well.



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