Shakespeare the Political Thinker

A philosopher insists that Shakespeare doesn't belong in his camp. No matter: What does the Bard tell us about the demands of political rule?

By Nathan Pippenger

Via Andrew Sullivan, I see this exchange, wherein Simon Critchley discusses whether Shakespeare was a philosopher:

He wasn’t, I think in just about every important sense. If a philosopher is someone who is trying, through the use of reason, to find a kind of intelligibility which grounds our experience of that which there is, that very general sense of philosophy as a project that is trying to uncover the true nature of reality, a metaphysical project, then Shakespeare isn’t a philosopher. Shakespeare is someone who leaves us in the dark as to what that reality might be. What we get instead is an experience of ambiguity and opacity. We look at these plays and we are left—not confused—but having been presented with a conflict between different positions where we are not told what to think. Whereas with philosophy, we’re generally told what to think.

This seems to me more or less correct as a description of Shakespeare, and of philosophy too (of course, there are exceptions—many philosophers intentionally avoid using phrases like “the true nature of reality”). But in some ways, asking whether Shakespeare “counts” as a philosopher misses the more interesting question: Is his drama philosophically interesting?

Here, I think the answer is an unqualified “yes.” (To be clear, I’m not suggesting Critchley would disagree—after all, his interview is about his new book on Hamlet.) And there’s no question, in my mind, about the fruitful links between Shakespeare and political theory. The tremendously fun and engrossing literature that reads Shakespeare through a political-theory lens often echoes most of Critchley’s points. Shakespeare doesn’t tell audiences what to think; he’s not trying to uncover the true nature of the “objects” of reality; he is a master of ambiguity and conflict. As Critchley points out, Shakespeare can be difficult because he presents us with complexity: “Reason is on display, arguments are happening back and forth, but it’s not clear what you should think at the end of the play—I think at the end of any of Shakespeare’s plays.”

This nicely captures the ambiguity of, say, Henry V—who delivers some of the most moving military speeches in all of Shakespeare (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother”) but who, in the midst of battle, abruptly orders the murder of his defenseless French prisoners:

But, hark! what new alarum is this same?
The French have reinforced their scatter’d men:
Then every soldier kill his prisoners:
Give the word through.

This moment of chilling brutality has flummoxed many readers and directors, especially those who would prefer to portray Henry V as a patriotic English hero. Equally troublesome, as the object of our political evaluation, is his son Henry VI—who is so pious and peaceful that he proves feckless against the dangerous usurper, Richard III. Prospero’s rule over the island in The Tempest is praiseworthy in some respects and disturbing, even cruel, in others. Coriolanus confronts audiences with an unresolved clash between the heroic individual and the demands of popular rule. Julius Caesar raises, but does not answer, deep questions about freedom, tyranny, and social order. I could go on. The plays stage many of the classic questions of political philosophy, only to end with answers that are at best provisional and partial. It is possible, I think, to detect in Shakespeare a suspicion of political piety and an overarching sympathy for decisive rulers—those who, when faced with danger or the threat of disorder, are willing to get “dirty hands” in order to maintain peace. It’s true that this sympathy doesn’t rise to the level of an explicit philosophical argument, but it’s no stretch to link it to some of the philosophical arguments circulating in Elizabethan England, including those about Machiavelli’s The Prince. Shakespeare would have had access during his career to English translations of Machiavelli, and he was familiar enough with the contours (or at the least the reputation) of Machiavelli’s thought to give these lines to the villainous Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III):

I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.

The connotation here is negative, but don’t let that mislead you into thinking Shakespeare was repulsed by The Prince. He may simply have been employing the trope of the scheming “Machiavel,” derived from a bastardized version of The Prince’s teachings and popular among a set of moralizing Elizabethan readers. Look a bit more closely: The rulers who succeed in Shakespeare—who avoid being killed by their enemies, who secure peace for themselves and the communities they lead—are leaders of action. In contrast, the last words of the pious, feckless Henry VI—after Richard has stabbed him—are “God forgive my sins, and pardon thee!”, to which Richard responds:

If any spark of life be yet remaining,
Down, down to hell; and say I sent thee thither.

(It was a tough job, being an English monarch.)

The rule and ruin of Henry VI, in Shakespeare’s portrayal, is not a philosophical treatise. But neither does it need to be: It is an illustration of a king whose deep decency, whose unwavering devotion to peace, leads to utter disaster for his kingdom. The political-ethical problem here is more than enough for philosophers to chew on, which is one reason why I would have been tempted to answer the question Critchley was asked (“To what extent was Shakespeare a philosopher?”) with another question: What does it matter?

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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