Poet, Playwright, and . . . Radical?The Politics of Shakespeare’s Plays

Shakespeare.  Undeniably one of the most well-known names in the world.  His plays are performed all over the planet in several different languages, and his collected works are read by millions (if not, in fact, billions) of people.  Thousands of theatre companies around the world are dedicated to his work and he is taught as a basic text in literature classes worldwide. 

But while the Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon is indeed “great,” there is little talk about what makes him great, or for that matter relevant.  To the orthodoxies of Shakespearean studies, he is worth studying today simply because he was “a genius,” end of story.  There is a tragedy in this.  If the explanation stops here, then so many of things that make us identify with Shakespeare are glossed over.  Like everything else in the globalized 21st century, he has been made “safe for consumption,” when nothing could be farther from the truth.  Shakespeare’s plays are full of bawdy sex, brutal violence, and political intrigue that would make Scooter Libby blush. 

In a world increasingly under the shadow of war, poverty and corruption, it is getting harder to not view Shakespeare in a political light.  Such is the case at the Globe Theatre in London.  Its new season titled “The Edges of Rome,” which opened May 5th, is easily the most overtly political in its short nine year history.  With new artistic director Dominic Dromgoole at the helm, the plays being presented, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus, are among the Bard’s most subversive, taking on imperial aggression, economic disparity, and the dangers of absolute power run amok.  Also being presented on the Globe stage are two new plays making their world premiere: Simon Bent‘s study of piracy and class hatred in Republican England in Under the Black Flag; and In Extremis, socialist playwright Howard Brenton‘s adaptation of the classical love story “Abelard and Heloise.”

Whether the radical character of this season is intentional or not, it is most certainly palpable.  The line-up of plays presents a strange and different picture of the Bard than we are used to.  Was Shakespeare himself a radical?  Was he even political?  It is hard to say.  Only the vaguest of details are known about his life.  What we do know is that Shakespeare lived in a time of tremendous political and economic flux.  A time when the old order was being swept aside by powerful new forces and even the legitimacy of the English crown was being questioned.

Out with the Old, In with the New

By the time of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, primitive capitalism had already grabbed a foothold in England.  Columbus had “discovered” the New World in 1492 and with it had opened up new markets for merchants to exploit.  These merchants, as well as the savvier landowners and richer sections of the peasantry, had taken advantage of the new opportunities.  Demand for goods soared, as did profits.  New industries popped, and a new middle class began to prosper.  The centuries-old position of the royalty and aristocracy was immediately threatened by this new class, who were quickly growing in power and influence.  And because the courts and legal institutions were under aristocratic control, the new bourgeoisie was frequently coming to loggerheads with them over trade restrictions and tax laws.

There was another conflict in the works: poor peasants (whose position was one of grinding poverty, but relative security) now found themselves having to pay higher rents than before or produce more crops so that their masters could compete in the new market economy.  Those who couldn’t meet the demand were ruthlessly evicted.  Many were forced to move to the cities in search of work.  The same demand was placed on small artisans who produced for urban merchants.  Labor became more and more collectivized and another new class developed alongside the bourgeoisie: the working class.

Everywhere one looked, the “natural order” of things was being disrupted.  The “Tudor myth” used as a justification of the old order as God’s will was contradicted by the rise of the new bourgeoisie.  Wars of conquest and profit were being waged all over the world.  And the formation of a new proletariat brought the exploitation of both the new and old orders into relief.  It is easy to forget that England erupted into a political and social revolution less than twenty-five years after Shakespeare’s death; a revolution that changed the course of history by disposing of the monarchy and establishing a republic for a short while.  To say that what led to this eruption didn’t affect what Shakespeare wrote is shortsighted, as he was in the middle of a fierce struggle between three classes.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of beautifully written characters from all these classes.  Machiavellian social climbers willing to do anything to get to the top; withered tyrants desperately trying to cling to power; and ordinary people simply trying to survive.  Shakespeare’s view on both the old and new orders is present to any close reading of his plays.  Marxist literary critic Aleksandr Smirnov summed it up well: “Living in the watershed of two epochs — between feudalism which was already dying away and a capitalism which was still in the process of being born — Shakespeare was actively critical of both these orders.  On the one hand, he never wearies of exposing avarice and the power of gold, the cult of ready money. . . . On the other hand, in his histories Shakespeare shows how great was the evil and danger to the country as a whole represented by the wild, unruly feudal leaders. . . .”

The Edges of Rome

Seen in this historical light, Shakespeare’s plays are no longer simply stories about love, honor, or the eternal human condition, but dramas of social forces in conflict.  Juliet can’t marry Romeo because her middle class parents have promised her to a prince (a typical move of people looking to advance themselves in those times).  Hamlet isn’t just warring with himself and his usurper uncle, but is doing so in the midst of political upheaval.  And an outcast King Lear rails against the injustice of the system he has upheld his entire life: “Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,/That thou mayst shake the superflux [immense wealth] to them,/And show the heavens more just” (3.4.35-37).

The same historical perspective can be applied to the plays currently at the Globe.  That this season is titled “The Edges of Rome” is significant.  The Roman Empire was of great interest in Elizabethan England.   Like England, it was a society of immense wealth gained in conquests that engulfed most of the known world; of intense power-struggles between senators and emperors; and of massive palaces built by armies of slaves.  In many ways, Shakespeare’s declining Rome was a warning to England.  We too have much to learn from these plays.

In a time when so many decisions that affect the world are made by the whims of a privileged few, the backroom dealings of Antony and Cleopatra resonate.  As the wealth gap reaches an unprecedented level, the arrogance of twin masters taking out their frustrations on their slaves in The Comedy of Errors is poignant (even if it is funny that they are suffering from a bad case of mistaken identity).  And in a world where arrogant leaders are rattling their sabers at any nation that defies them, we would do well to learn from the sorrow and destruction that come to the conqueror in Titus Andronicus.

But none of Shakespeare’s plays are more political than the Globe’s opening act this season: Coriolanus.  Though not as well known as Hamlet or Macbeth, it is undoubtedly one of his finest tragedies.  The title character is a general in the Roman army, praised for his leadership in the war against the Volscians.  But the war has taken its toll on the ordinary citizens of Rome, who are starving and languishing in poverty.  It’s a situation all too familiar.  The vast wealth of an empire used to enrich the privileged few in military conquest.  The poor starve while huge piles of grain sit unused.  The opening of the play is a scene of mass upheaval, as the citizens march to the capital armed with whatever tools or implements they can find.  Directing their anger at the general and the rich clique he represents, they demand an end to the war and redistribution of grain reserves.  In a stirring speech, an angry citizen points out that the vast wealth of the empire is created on the backs of the poor: “the leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularize their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them.  Let us revenge this with our pikes ere we become rakes: for the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge” (1.1.20-25).

Though he is only onstage for this scene, Shakespeare has given this nameless laborer one of the most intelligent and incendiary speeches in the entire canon.  It is a scathing indictment of any society that accumulates wealth while the masses starve.  All the while, the “hero” Coriolanus, full of contempt for the ordinary people, tries to win them to his side.  It is a rare opportunity for the audience to take part in a debate between classes in conflict over how this world should be run.  To prompt active audience participation, the Globe, in its current production, has extended the stage with platforms that lead into the crowd, and has soldiers and citizens placed throughout the audience, making the debate alive and urgent.

The debate dramatized in Coriolanus is still on in the real world.  To recognize that is precisely what much of the literary elite don’t want us to do.  But it cannot be avoided.  The lessons of Shakespeare are still relevant, and for the Left, their wisdom and inspiration are more needed now than ever before.

Alexander Billet is a playwright, actor, and cultural critic living in Washington, DC.  He has contributed to such publications as Counterpunch and Socialist Worker, and is a former theatre reviewer for The Prince George’s Post.  In the fall of 2004, he studied Shakespearean acting at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.  He is also a member of the National Writers Union/UAW local 1981.  He can be reached at alexbillet@hotmail.com.