Writing at Salon, Colin MacDonald urges us to dispense with the “myth” of the conservative Shakespeare, the Shakespeare who endorsed the divine right of kings and genuflected to his royal patrons. To MacDonald, a poet who has Lear say, “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings!” must be an “egalitarian,” and a “radical” one at that. It doesn’t occur to him that Shakespeare drew from a political tradition that harmonized hierarchy with charity. The Bard must have felt the Bern, because the only alternative is that he was a Cheney Republican.
MacDonald’s essential thesis is half right: It is a mistake to read Shakespeare as a “conservative,” but that’s because it’s a mistake to squeeze him into any of our limited contemporary molds.
Shakespeare’s Roman plays focus on transition points in Roman political history. Coriolanus is set at the time when the tribunes, representing the populus, have just been established. Julius Caesar describes the end of the Republic and the rise of Caesarism, while Antony and Cleopatra dramatizes the decadence of early empire and Titus Andronicus the savagery of the late.
Paul Cantor has argued that Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra are companion plays, contrasting the early Republic with the early empire. It’s a stark contrast. Named for Mars, Gaius Martius Coriolanus is a Roman’s Roman, a no-nonsense soldier with no patience for peacetime politenesses, a superhero who gains his honorific by conquering the city of Corioli single-handed: “Alone I did it,” he boasts, castigating his army as a gaggle of timid geese.
There are battles in the Orientalized atmosphere of Antony and Cleopatra, but the stage is more often filled with drinking parties and luxuriant eroticism. Antony sets the tone in the opening scene: “There’s not a minute of our lives should stretch without some pleasure now. What sport tonight?” What might Antony have done if he’d had access to Netflix!?
Elizabethans often used Roman history to debate the ideal constitution, and Shakespeare seems to be playing the same game: Sturdy Republican virtues dissolve into syrupy imperial decadence. But we miss the point if we read Shakespeare as a nostalgic Republican. Rome cannot survive without the steely haughtiness of Coriolanus, but it’s not clear it can survive him either. Defender of the res publica though he is, Coriolanus hates the public. The seeds of the Republic’s collapse are already sprouting in this most Republican of men.
As Shakespeare shows it, republic and monarchy each have their pluses and minuses, but, with rare exceptions, political actors in every regime act out of cold, calculating interest. And the exceptions are far from promising. Brutus is truly an honorable man, but he doesn’t survive his plot against Caesar.
Shakespeare’s two English history tetralogies (Richard II, two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V; then three parts of Henry VI and Richard III) also portray a political transition from medieval sacral kingship to modern politics. Richard II relies on the “balm” of royal anointing, which cannot be washed away with “all the water in the rough rude sea.” But what gives the usurper Henry Bolingbroke the right to rule? Is his sovereignty based on anything more than force? Bolingbroke’s successor, Henry V, recognizes how precarious his position is but hopes that employing monks to do penance at Richard’s grave will propitiate God’s wrath against his dynasty.
Before he dies, Henry IV hints at what’s coming. Knowing that his son’s legitimacy will be challenged, he urges him to create a distraction. He tells Prince Hal to keep the other nobles occupied with fighting a common enemy, or, in Shakespeare’s own idiom, to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” He can restore some of the hollow crown’s lost radiance by invading France.
By the time we reach the end of the second tetralogy, all memory of sacred kingship has vanished. In a soliloquy in the last part of Henry VI, Richard Gloucester (the future Richard III) boasts, “I can add colours to the chameleon, change shapes with Proteus for advantages.” Centuries before The Prince was published, Richard is already prepared to “set the murderous Machiavel to school.”
Once again, the English plays can be taken as a “conservative” defense of medieval sacramental kingship, but Richard II shows how brittle that system was. Being a man of the theatre, Shakespeare discerns that modern politics is theatrical politics, a politics of staging and spectacle and carefully managed role-play. But Richard II is already a theatrical king, willing to disrupt the reassuring repetitions of ritual for stagy self-dramatization. As much as he relies on his “balm,” he has wiped it away long before he says (theatrically) that his own tears remove it.
Shakespeare contributes most to our politics by feeding our political imagination, and he nourishes political imagination best when we read him as the shrewd chronicler he is, rather than press him to be a pundit with a platform.