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Shakespeare's Politics

  • Elizabeth Frazer


This paper sets out diverse ways that Shakespeare's dramas can be read politically. Critics and political theorists have often concentrated on what Shakespeare said about politics—whether he was broadly republican or monarchist, protofeminist or a patriarchalist—as well as concentrating on his references to political themes of his day. Focusing on political readings of Merchant of Venice and Othello, I argue that, rather, we should pay attention to how Shakespeare plays with numerous styles of political action and role, from statesmanship and the competiton for state office or for sovereignty, to the everyday relations of kinship and friendship that interact with state government and law, and to individuals' struggles against politically established power—patriarchy, class, state law—that constrains or oppresses them. The figure of the Machiavellian political operator, whether acting for good or for ill, is contrasted with the open speaker of truth in public.



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1 In this paper I concentrate for reasons of focus on Merchant of Venice (1595) and Othello (1604), whose political themes are unified by Shakespeare's depictions of a republican mercantile setting. The broader analysis is based on readings also of “the tragedies”—Romeo and Juliet (1593), Hamlet (1602), King Lear (1605), and Macbeth (1606), plus the Roman plays Titus Andronicus (1594), Julius Caesar (1599), Antony and Cleopatra (1607), Coriolanus (1608), and another play that like Merchant is a problematic comedy, Measure for Measure (1604). This problematic division of comedy and tragedy doesn't make significant difference, in my analysis, to how Shakespeare treats and articulates political themes.

2 In Shakespeare's treatments binary alternatives are most likely to turn up as paradoxical antitheses: “fair is foul and foul is fair” (Macbeth, 1.1.11 [Weird Sisters]); the masculine-feminine, west-east scheme that pervades Antony and Cleopatra is persistently problematized—e.g., Cleopatra dies a more stoical death than Antony (5.2.236–41, 305–12). See further Platt, Peter, Shakespeare and the Culture of Paradox (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009).

3 In this view I am following analyses such as Howard's, Jean in “Dramatic Traditions and Shakespeare's Political Thought,” in British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory 1500–1800, ed. Armitage, David (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 129–44, who argues that Shakespeare refracts rather than reflects political thought (129), that his political thought is embodied in dramaturgy (132), while the plots rehearse political action and choice, including asking about settings in which the commons—and, I would add, other members of other hitherto excluded groups, including women, and those who are alien to the polity (pace, in this paper, Othello and Shylock)—act in political roles (134).

4 From the political theory point of view this obviously is odd at a time when historians of political thought are more frequently taking Shakespeare very seriously—notable recent collections include Alexander, Catherine, ed., Shakespeare and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Murley, John and Sutton, Sean, eds., Perspectives on Politics in Shakespeare (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2006); Armitage, David, Condren, Conal, and Fitzmaurice, Andrew, eds., Shakespeare and Early Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Skinner, Quentin, Forensic Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). The question of how politics is treated in Shakespeare's dramas is of abiding interest—for instance as posed by contributors to this special issue; also Spiekerman, Tim, Shakespeare's Political Realism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001) and the earlier culturally materialist readings, e.g., in Dollimore, Jonathan and Sinfield, Alan, eds., Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985). Shakespeare also turns up in thematic theoretical monographs, e.g., Green, Jeffrey, The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

5 See Hadfield, Andrew, Shakespeare and Renaissance Politics (London: Thomson Learning, 2004), vii–viii for discussion and rejection of this view.

6 Othello, 1.3.1–48.

7 Ibid., 1.3.48–76.

8 Hamlet, 1.2.17–40.

9 Ibid., 5.2.315–56.

10 Nuttall, Anthony, Shakespeare the Thinker (London: Yale University Press, 2007), 1.

11 In the helpful analysis of Donahue, Thomas and Espejo, Paulina Ochoa, “The Analytic-Continental Divide: Styles of Dealing with Problems,” European Journal of Political Theory 15, no. 2 (2015): 117 , Shakespeare “presses” rather than seeks to solve political problems.

12 Montrose, Louis, “Shakespeare, the Stage and the State,” in “Politics on Stage,” special issue, SubStance 25, no. 2 (1996): 4667 , esp. 49–51.

13 For example, Hadfield both notes the numerous contemporary allusions, comments, and satirical or ironic judgments on King James's display of wealth, the spending and patronage of the court, and the cultural significance of masques and hunts that can be read in Timon of Athens (attributed to Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton), and argues that although the play may have had a “political charge” for its audiences, it is above all a “moral fable with a political dimension” (Hadfield, Shakespeare and Renaissance Politics, 200–205).

14 See further Kastan, David Scott, “Proud Majesty Made Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37, no. 4 (1986): 460–61.

15 See Arneson, Richard, “Shakespeare and the Jewish Question,” Political Theory 13, no.1 (1985): 85111 for examination of how developing ideas of freedom of contract figure in Merchant of Venice, and the question of what contracts and bonds are normative in social and human relations; see also Halio, Jay L., introduction to The Merchant of Venice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 183 on this theme of bonds and bonding in Merchant. See Adelman, Janet, Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in “The Merchant of Venice” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) for the way these themes of voluntary and involuntary bonds intersect with the question of identity. In what follows I emphasize how the theme of friendship in relation to political society is central to the play.

16 See Mark Matheson, “Venetian Culture and the Politics of Othello,” in Shakespeare and Politics, ed. Alexander, for an account of this theme in Othello.

17 Laswell, Harold D., Politics: Who Gets What, When, How (New York: Peter Smith, 1950).

18 In the tradition from Hobbes to Schmitt: Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Gaskin, John Charles Addison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Schmitt, Carl, The Concept of the Political, trans. Schwab, George (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Freeden dubs this the “finality drive of politics,” doomed to fail but ever recurring, and the “arrogance of politics”: Freeden, Michael, The Political Theory of Political Thinking: The Anatomy of a Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 5, 96ff.

19 The post-Hobbesian tradition from Locke: Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett, Peter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960); Williams, Bernard, In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument, ed. Hawthorn, Geoffrey (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

20 Machiavelli can be associated with this: in particular the themes of kairos and opportunism. Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince, trans. Bull, George (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961).

21 Spiekerman, Shakespeare's Political Realism, 5, 7–9.

22 I say “near” auto-antonymous as the contradictory meanings could well be analyzed as contradictory connotations, rather than pure denotations. By contrast, the auto-antonym “to dust” picks out instances both of taking dust away, and of spreading dust, rather than suggesting these meanings.

23 Othello, 1.3.1–47.

24 Merchant of Venice, 4.1.16–33.

25 Hibbard, George Richard, introduction to Hamlet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 4245 on how Claudius's political double talk belies his corrupt and artful nature.

26 The Prince in Romeo and Juliet is another notable example: he has the duty and the authority to uphold the laws, and threatens the Montagues and the Capulets with death (1.1.77–99), but it takes the plot of Friar Laurence, together with chance, to resolve the action, tragically, but with the promise of civil peace.

27 Zwicker, Steven N., “Irony, Disguise and Deceit: What Literature Teaches Us about Politics,” in British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory, 1500–1800, ed. Armitage, David (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 145–67 for an extended account of how irony contributes to the political significance of Shakespeare's drama.

28 Hamlet, 4.3.20–25.

29 King Lear, 1.4. In a speech that does not appear in Stanley Wells's Oxford Shakespeare edition, but does appear in the searchable Open Source Shakespeare: 4 (accessed March 19, 2016).

30 Timon of Athens, 3.3.27–30 [Servant]. In the Oxford edition, without the interpolation of “acts,” this is labeled scene 7.

31 Antony and Cleopatra, 2.6.117–18 [Menas].

32 Coriolanus, 3.2.48–53.

33 Titus Andronicus, 4.2.148–49.

34 King Lear, 4.6.160; (scene 20 in Oxford University Press edition).

35 Grady, Hugh, “Shakespeare's Links to Machiavelli and Montaigne: Constructing Intellectual Modernity in Early Modern Europe,” Comparative Literature 52, no. 2 (2000): 119–42.

36 Anglo, Sydney, Machiavelli—The First Century: Studies in Enthusiasm, Hostility and Irrelevance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), e.g., 273, 282, 292–94.

37 George Bull, introduction to The Prince, 9.

38 In Coriolanus Martius's soldierly inability to speak poetically or strategically explains his political failure (3.1.324; 3.3.51–55).

39 In the Venetian plays, though, Shakespeare depicts the fortunes of the traders as dependent on the success of the political rule of the republic—Antonio is rueful about the fact that the rule of law must be enforced in Venice, although it will be to his detriment, for the sake of the reputation of the port (Merchant of Venice, 3.3.26–31).

40 We can read Measure for Measure as focused on Isabella's reluctance to leave the seclusion of the convent for the public (and corrupt) setting of the city, the purity of religious life for the compromise and corruption of engagement with law, political authority, and social controversy.

41 Othello, 1.1.67–69, 86–91; 1.2.1–17.

42 Ibid., 5.1.11–28.

43 Ibid., 3.3.189–200, 206–13, 463–79.

44 Matheson, “Venetian Culture,” 77.

45 Othello, 3.3.480.

46 Ibid., 3.3.474.

47 Ibid., 1.3.292–93, 3.3.206–8.

48 Ibid., 1.3.292–93, 3.3.206–8.

49 Matheson, “Venetian Culture,” 76–78.

50 Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet is a good machiavellian, although his plan ends in disaster; Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure a very ambiguous one.

51 Merchant of Venice, 4.1.339–59.

52 Othello, 5.2.167.

53 Ibid., 5.2.231–3.

54 Ibid., 5.2.222–23.

55 Ibid., 5.2.253.

56 Ibid., 5.2.288.

57 Ibid., 5.2.305–15.

58 Ibid., 5.2.327–28.

59 Ibid., 5.2.366–70.

60 van der Zweerde, Evert, “Friendship and the Political,” in “Friendship in Politics,” ed. King, Preston, special issue, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 10, no. 2 (2007): 147–49; see also other papers in that issue and in “The Challenge of Friendship in Modernity,” ed. King, Preston, special issue, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 2, no. 4 (1999)

61 This idea is associated with Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de, On Friendship, trans. Florio, John (London: Dent, 1965); Essays, ed. L. C. Harmer (New York: Dutton, 1980), 1:195–207. On the relevance of Montaigne for readings of Shakespeare in general, see Grady, “Shakespeare's Links.”

62 Merchant of Venice, 1.3.58–67.

63 Ibid., 1.3.103–27.

64 Ibid., 1.3.128–33.

65 Ibid., 1.3.133–34.

66 Ibid., 1.3.33–35.

67 Ibid., 1.3.30.

68 The plot of Portia's testing the strength of her marriage bond with Bassanio by asking him (while she is disguised as the lawyer) to give away the ring also dramatizes the tension between friendship and marriage (4.1.421–50).

69 Othello, 1.3.356, 371–72.

70 Ibid., 1.3.375–79.

71 Merchant of Venice, 1.2.22–24.

72 Ibid., 1.2.1–2.

73 Ibid., 2.5.29–32.

74 Othello, 3.3.297–98.

75 Ibid., 3.3.299.

76 Ibid., 3.1.41–55.

77 Ibid., 4.3.85–90.

78 Ibid., 4.3.93–103.

79 Ibid., 2.1.103.

80 Othello, 3.4.128–29.

81 Ibid., 5.2.130–34.

82 Ibid., 5.2.184.

83 Ibid., 5.2.195–96.

84 Ibid., 5.2.217–21.

85 Ibid., 5.2.250–51.

86 Ibid., 2.1.96–108. Jardine, Lisa, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 120–23 argues that the jokes about women's tongues would have been commonplace, with bawdy overtones, for Elizabethan audiences; in combination with the sexual ambiguity of women like Emilia and Desdemona being played by boys, the whole effect of this aspect of the plot and action, and Emilia's death as punishment for speaking, would provoke laughter, and affirm cultural and social prejudices.

87 Merchant of Venice, 4.1.181–99.

88 Ibid., 3.1.55–69.

89 Ibid., 3.1.67–68.

90 There is a similar moment of near politicization, which does not come off because of the severity of machiavellian distortion, market logic, the workings of women's disempowerment, in Measure for Measure—when Isabella attempts publicly to accuse Angelo to the Duke, whom she understands to be the bearer of sovereign authority. But the Duke is engaged in machiavellian machinations, and the resolution of Isabella's (and other characters') dilemmas and near tragedies are deferred. She is enmeshed still further by power that she cannot understand (5.1.20–122).

91 Kastan, “Proud Majesty Made Subject”; Montrose, “Shakespeare, Stage and State”; Howard, “Dramatic Traditions and Shakspeare's Political Thought”; Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets,” in Political Shakespeare, ed. Dollimore and Sinfield, 25–45, also in Greenblatt, Stephen, Shakespearean Negotiations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 2165 ; Tennenhouse, Leonard, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (London: Methuen, 1986).

92 Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets,” 33, 43–44.

93 Cavell, Stanley, “Othello and the Stake of the Other,” in Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 125–42 emphasizes the corruption in Othello's wish for certainty about, and refusal to know, Desdemona.

Shakespeare's Politics

  • Elizabeth Frazer


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