Can Shakespeare Survive Woke?

The prevailing winds of ideology are sweeping through the cultural world today and stirring up the currents of Shakespeare criticism. A good example is Elizabeth Frazer’s new book, Shakespeare and the Political Way. Her goal is admirable. Although she does not regard Shakespeare as a political thinker in his own right, she does believe that we can learn about politics from studying his plays. Contrary to many traditional commentators from English departments, she does not adopt a strictly aesthetic perspective and treat politics as a sordid subject, well beneath Shakespeare’s lofty concerns as a great poet. As a political scientist, Frazer understands public life as something more than just a field in which narrowly partisan interests contend. Taking a cue from Aristotle, she views politics as one of the broadest and most significant fields of human endeavor. Accordingly, Frazer recognizes that political life is important in the world of Shakespeare’s plays. But so are other ways of life, and Frazer sees that much of the drama in his plays stems from the complex way in which the legitimate demands of politics repeatedly clash with the legitimate demands of other sources of commitment in human life, among them, the family, romantic love, and religion.

Unfortunately, the conception of politics with which Frazer operates is too narrow for her to be open to the wide range of political possibilities Shakespeare explores in his plays. For Frazer, politics is fundamentally democratic politics, and a left-wing, social-justice brand of democracy at that. For Frazer, a good political system must first and foremost be able to tolerate and incorporate dissenting voices. In Frazer’s definition of politics, she clearly is thinking in terms of contemporary democratic politics: “Politics, after all, is preeminently a practice, a world, of speech—counsellors advise, protesters argue and sloganize, debaters persuade, rulers consult and pronounce”. Where Shakespeare might portray an angry mob unleashing its fury, Frazer sees peaceful protesters with their slogans. This is indeed the world according to modern political science, a world in which public opinion is supposed to rule and politics largely becomes the attempt to mold and control it. Frazer views Shakespeare’s political world from the perspective of a poll watcher, trying to make sure that every vote counts.

It is understandable that Frazer thinks in terms of democratic politics—that is, after all, what she has been studying for her whole career. Her orientation to modern politics at least has the virtue of alerting her to Shakespeare’s interest in republican forms of government. For most of the history of Shakespeare criticism, scholars have by and large assumed that Shakespeare uncritically endorsed monarchy, since it was supposedly the only form of government of which he had any experience. Only in recent decades have critics such as Andrew Hadfield taken seriously the possibility that Shakespeare may have regarded republics as a viable alternative to monarchies. In fact, in his choice of political settings for his plays, Shakespeare displays a marked fascination with republican forms of government, from ancient Rome to modern Venice.

Maybe one of the values for us of studying Shakespeare is that he was a pre-modern thinker and thus can offer alternatives to our modern, democratic ways of thought. Studying his plays can help reopen for us the ancient question of aristocracy versus democracy.

Frazer is to be applauded for devoting nearly as much time to republics as she does to monarchies in her book. But even here, she fails to acknowledge that Shakespeare deals with aristocratic republics, in which the common people have at best a limited place in the regime. In Shakespeare’s portrayal, Rome and Venice are basically ruled by senators, that is, by wealthy aristocrats. But Frazer does not take kindly to aristocrats; in her political universe, aristocracy is a sham. After all, all human beings are created equal, a truth apparently as self-evident to Elizabeth Frazer and it was to Thomas Jefferson.

Consider one of Frazer’s most fundamental pronouncements: “If we begin with free and equal individuals, with needs that should be met—as modern thinkers including Shakespeare himself do, up to a point—then final authorities, and their pronouncements and actions should be bounded by people’s assent, as well as their needs. That is, there is an inference from the sovereignty of the individual, to popular (that is shared or aggregated) sovereignty”. Talk about begging the question! Frazer begins with the premise that human beings are free and equal, but that is precisely what is at issue in the debate between aristocracy and democracy. She understands that this is a distinctively modern political position, but then simply assumes, without any argument, that Shakespeare is a modern thinker and therefore he must be fundamentally democratic in his thinking.

But at first sight, Shakespeare appears to take aristocracy seriously. In accordance with the classic principle of decorum, all his tragic heroes are of noble birth (even Romeo and Juliet come from prominent families in Verona). They typically occupy exalted positions in society (kings, queens, princes, generals) and they derive their gravitas as tragic figures from the fact that their stories are more than merely personal; the fate of a whole community rests upon what they do. To be sure, Shakespeare repeatedly distinguishes nobility by nature from nobility by convention. Many of his nobly born characters turn out to be quite ignoble in their actions. But still, Shakespeare’s aim seems to be precisely to distinguish true nobility from false, and he invokes the categories of the noble and the base throughout his plays, especially the tragedies.

Maybe one of the values for us of studying Shakespeare is that he was a pre-modern thinker and thus can offer alternatives to our modern, democratic ways of thought. Studying his plays can help reopen for us the ancient question of aristocracy versus democracy. As loyal citizens of democratic regimes today, we are understandably reluctant to reopen this debate, which we regard as settled because we have no desire to call into question the kind of regime under which we all live comfortably. But can we fully understand the argument for democracy if we do not consider the counterargument for aristocracy?  We may ultimately decide in favor of democracy, but we might be able to compensate for and correct some of its defects if we become aware of the good things we may lose when we reject aristocracy, among them old-style high-mindedness and public spiritedness.

After years of studying politics in Shakespeare, I have concluded that on many fundamental issues, he is closer to the ancients than the moderns, that he has more in common with Plato and Aristotle than he does with Hobbes and Locke. In particular, Shakespeare wrote just before the great invention of modern political science—representative government—was theorized by Hobbes and Locke. When Shakespeare thought about democracy, he had in mind the direct democracy of, say, ancient Athens. If he had doubts about this kind of democracy, one could say in his defense that these doubts were shared by the Founding Fathers of the United States.

They designed a regime, a constitution, with a view to neutralizing the defects of the direct democracy of the “petty republics of Greece and Italy” (Federalist, #9). Instead of having the common people rule directly, the US Constitution allows them to exert their popular sovereignty only indirectly through the forms of representative government. Based on the principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism, the US Constitution moderates the potential excesses of direct democracy. One sees here at work the great hope of modern political science—that we could create a set of political institutions that would make up for the fact that we cannot reasonably expect to be governed directly by the best of human beings (the aristocratic principle).

Here is where Shakespeare parts company with modern political thinkers and returns to the ancients and their intellectual quest for the best regime. For Shakespeare, the fundamental question about any regime is not: “What are the rules?” but: “Who rules?” Shakespeare wants to know of a given ruler: Will he make the right political decision, regardless of whether anyone agrees with him or whether he follows the correct procedures?  But Frazer thinks of all government as representative. She wants a ruler, not just to come up with the right thing to do, but also to get the people to consent to it, and ultimately, for her, consent seems to be more important than wisdom in any political action.

Frazer explicitly rejects the ancient focus on the quest for the best regime as undemocratic: “It might be nice if societies were to be run by wise magicians, or divinely ordained sovereigns with omnipotent capacities, or benevolent dictators. But, who are they? They are only people like those they govern”. So much for Plato’s Republic and Shakespeare’s The Tempest with its portrait of Prospero as philosopher-king.   Frazer cannot imagine that the premise of aristocracy might be true—that some people are by nature better than others and are entitled to rule by virtue of their excellence.

For Shakespeare, King Lear is not just like the people he governs; for all his faults, with his commanding presence he towers above ordinary people. According to the Earl of Kent, Lear’s authority is written clearly on his face for all his subjects to see. I realize how distasteful these ideas must sound to partisans of democracy. Frazer’s democratic biases are so great that they distort her reading of King Lear. Contrary to the way audiences normally react, she sides with Goneril and Oswald against Lear and Kent. Given her focus on politics as speech, she views verbal attacks as just as violent as physical attacks. Thus, for Frazer, Goneril and Oswald become the victims in the play, not as they appear to be, the villains. Goneril is the victim of Lear’s monumental curses; Oswald of Kent’s aristocratic contempt for him as a lowly serving man.

Instead of viewing the individual characters Shakespeare created in the moral context of the play, she sees a generic woman and a generic servant and that leads her to champion their cause as victims of oppression. This is the result of invoking identity politics in literary criticism; you see stereotypes where Shakespeare has created individualized human beings.

In Frazer’s view, because Goneril and Oswald are subject to verbal abuse from Lear and Kent, they are examples of the marginalized figures—women and servants—who suffer under Lear’s regime. Frazer is truly “woke”: she views speeches as the equivalent of deeds, lumping together in one category “Lear’s cruel misogynistic attack on Goneril; the torture and punishment of Gloucester; the execution of Cordelia”. Frazer presents these as all equally examples of “violence.” She ignores the fact that Lear’s condemnation of Goneril is justified in view of what she does to him and others in the play, whereas the blinding of Gloucester and the hanging of Cordelia are clearly presented as criminal and horrific deeds.

This distortion is what happens when you try to give a democratic reading of an aristocratic play and let your ideology trump any other consideration. Contrary to what Frazer thinks, the Earl of Kent is one of the noblest characters in all of Shakespeare. He has the courage and integrity to contradict Lear when he thinks his king is wrong; he continues to serve Lear loyally even at the risk of his own life; and if we had any lingering doubts about how to react to him, we have the fact that Kent earns Cordelia’s respect and love. Meanwhile, Shakespeare portrays Oswald as the archetype of the servile toady; his character is summed up by his attempt to kill a helpless, blind, old man (Gloucester). As for Goneril, her own husband, the morally upright Albany, tells her: “You are not worth the dust which the rude wind / Blows in your face.”

Yet Frazer joins the recent fashionable trend to take Goneril’s side; she goes so far as to accuse Lear of sexually abusing his daughters. Even Frazer feels compelled to quote a contrary view from a female critic: “[Kathleen] McLuskie [says] ‘the hardest hearted feminist’ cannot fail to have sympathy for [Lear’s] pain”. But Frazer cannot leave it at that concession; she immediately adds: “even the softest hearted feminist cannot overlook the clear violence . . . of [Lear’s] attack on Gonoril [sic]”. Here we momentarily get a glimpse of the acceptable range of political opinion for Frazer—it runs pretty much all the way from hard hearted feminism to soft hearted feminism. Frazer is of course entitled to her own political opinions; the problem comes when she imputes them to Shakespeare. Perhaps she should have called her book Shakespeare and My Political Way.

In the spirit of Weberian social science, Frazer offers a “value-free” reading of King Lear. She ignores the moral surface of the play. Looking at Goneril and Oswald, she does not see two manifestly evil characters, who, by the reliable testimony of the decent characters in the play, are viewed as beneath contempt. For Frazer, that is just patriarchy—male, aristocratic prejudice—at work. Instead of viewing the individual characters Shakespeare created in the moral context of the play, she sees a generic woman and a generic servant and that leads her to champion their cause as victims of oppression. This is the result of invoking identity politics in literary criticism; you see stereotypes where Shakespeare has created individualized human beings. Shakespeare looks at all his rulers as individuals, not as types. He wants above all to know if a given ruler is good or evil, noble or base, a wise man or a fool.

Shakespeare’s English history plays explore the question of what makes a good king, what kind of personal qualities he needs and what kind of upbringing might develop them. Someone comfortably born to the throne like Richard II is liable to become complacent and overestimate the security of his regime, thus letting himself become incompetent as a ruler. Someone like Henry IV who wins the throne by his own efforts through an act of usurpation is likely to be competent as a ruler, especially in military terms, but he also is likely to feel insecure because of his illegitimacy and decide to do cruel things to defend his throne. Shakespeare offers Henry V as a model monarch, because he combines elements of legitimacy and illegitimacy. He has the strength to rule effectively and thus is secure enough on the throne to moderate his cruelty with mercy.

Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays provide a portrait of the successful education of a good king, the development of Prince Hal into a decent and wise monarch. It might please Frazer that Shakespeare shows that an integral part of Hal’s education involves getting to know the common people of his realm, or as he himself puts it, he learns to “drink with any tinker in his own language.” But contrary to Frazer, Shakespeare does not suggest that a prince should become familiar with his subjects so that he can take their advice or represent their interests when he becomes king. No: in Shakespeare’s view, the king must get to know his people so that one day he will be able to rule over them as their superior in political wisdom.

One of the oddest features of Frazer’s book is her relative silence on Shakespeare’s English history plays. They are the plays that most emphasize the personal element in politics. Again and again, Shakespeare shows that the character of the king determines the character of his reign. Richard III is an evil man (no value-free political science here), and hence all his efforts to manipulate public opinion and give a veneer of popular support to his regime do nothing to mitigate the villainy of his rule. By the same token, the glory of Henry V’s rule is to be traced to the remarkable complexity of his character. He combines a basic human decency and regard for his subjects with a Machiavellian dark side, his cold-blooded ability to do nasty things like executing his French prisoners at the Battle of Agincourt when the very existence of his army—and hence his regime—is at stake. Henry V works to cultivate the common good of England, while doing whatever he has to do to ensure that the nation survives even in the face of powerful threats from abroad.

Yet Shakespeare ends Henry V by reminding his audience that the king’s premature death led to the collapse of everything he had carefully built up in his lifetime. When his son came to the throne as a child, he proved to be a weak and ineffective ruler and lost all of his father’s conquests in France. England’s fate always lies in the hands of its rulers. The chance event of a king’s premature death can change everything. Shakespeare’s history plays suggest that the English constitution does not provide a lasting solution to the problem of succession and smooth transition between regimes. Even a settled monarchy leaves the issue of the character of the monarch to the luck of the draw. The strongest of kings may leave the kingdom to the weakest of sons.

Modern political science has tried to solve the problem of government by means of institutions and procedures designed to serve as brakes on the disruptive and destructive impulses that typically drive the kind of people who seek to rule. Modern thinkers have also hoped that the need to obtain the consent of the governed would moderate and if need be neutralize the schemes of bad rulers and even would-be tyrants. And yet modern political science has obviously not solved the problem of bad government, and tyrants have emerged from democratic politics with frightening regularity in the modern world. Shakespeare’s plays, including his portraits of the tyrannical soul in Richard III and Macbeth, remind us that ultimately there is no substitute for studying and judging human nature when trying to understand political life.