Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt: ‘Shakespeare and the Political Way’ by Elizabeth Frazer

Shakespeare and the Political Way book coverWhat do Shakespeare plays like Othello and Measure for Measure tell us about political power? What kind of relationship do we see between violence and political authority in Romeo and Juliet? How do politics and theater interact in Hamlet?

Elizabeth Frazer takes a close look at these questions and others in Shakespeare and the Political Way, a new book from Oxford University Press. Read an excerpt from the introduction below.

Shakespeare’s dramas, in my interpretation, play with rival ideas of the nature of the political way. First, authority to govern is frequently presented as a divine gift, or a metaphysically ordained order. The political way is the way of the wise, Christian, prince. Second, the sign of authority to govern is frequently symbolized, or depicted as, the capacity to use rightful, honorable violence—to prevail in open physical armed combat. The political way is based on physical might. Third, though, the governing art is presented as closer to the occult arts of the magician. The political way is that of the trickster, the machiavellian, or the magus ruler. All of these are put into play against the fourth, radical, idea that political power is a collectively based human property, and political organization a straightforward human product, the kind of thing that people will make, given the resources. The egalitarian idea of political power is that people together could deploy a non-violent power in order to regularize their lives together, to permit production and exchange, and reproduction of human life, to defend territory, to settle social disputes by legal judgement. People acting in concert construct the structures that govern them, and can reconstruct them when that is needful.

Republican thinkers, who focus on the possibilities and actualities of ‘self-rule’, spend a good deal of time thinking about what social relationships would have to be like if this fourth kind of polity were to be possible and actual. Central to ideal inter-citizen relations in this tradition is the idea of friendship. Not kinship, which is unchosen. Not employment or service such as servants render to those who pay or keep them. Not the bondage that means that apprentices and vassals are tied to a lord. Not straightforward commercial exchange. Friendship transcends both convenience and necessity. Friendship is egalitarian—there are levels of inequality that make friendship effectively impossible between two people. The ideal of friendship as the fundamental political relation pervades pacific versions of political order.

Another, less harmonious but still republican, vision of polity centres on freedom and contention. The story is that people, together and separately, seek freedom; and people collectively have a tendency not to tolerate abuse or lack of freedom. If elite governments press down too hard there will be resistance, and people will energetically defend freedom and rights, not to mention welfare levels. This contentious view of politics can be conducive to the sceptical view that ‘agreement’ among people to legitimate, regularize, and comply with governing institutions is only a recognition of the unevadable power of violence. On this view, generalized friendliness across a society is a sham. The ‘sovereign’ who achieves power is the one, or the group, that can successfully dominate a territory and the people and resources within it. So-called assent is more often submission. But, dissent is always possible; and can be organized as oppositional political power.

Shakespeare was not a systematic political thinker. But the questions of who counts in a polity, the legitimation of ruling authority, the possibilities of friendship as the basis of political relations in societies that are fissured by class, race, sex, and religion, the fate of those who are at the margins of the economy, kept there because they are materially valued as dispossessed sources of labour, but not valued as citizens – these are all explicitly thematized in his dramas. The political ideals and the political puzzles that he dramatizes and tackles were explicitly argued over by classical thinkers including Aristotle (384‒322 BCE), and especially Cicero (106‒43 BCE) whose texts were studied in Elizabethan grammar schools. Classical Greek and Latin sources were refracted and challenged by Christian thinkers who developed accounts of the proper relationship between civil and religious authority, and the ideal of the Christian prince—ideas that were very much part of political common sense even for individuals who did not have first hand acquaintance with the works of St Augustine (354‒430 CE), or the work of early modern humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus (1466‒1536). Machiavelli attacked the ideal of the Christian prince—this was one reason for his vilification—but also challenged a picture of social and political harmony that can be associated with readings of Aristotle. His classical sources, with their stories of dearth and riot, and popular claims to participate in the government of the Roman republic, are among Shakespeare’s sources too for his dramas. As we shall see, Shakespeare can be understood also as a key articulator of a developing scepticism—about what we can know, who and what we can trust— which was rigorously set out, in the decades after his life, by Rene Descartes (1596‒1650) and Thomas Hobbes (1588‒1679), among other philosophers.

The political questions that Shakespeare plays with, especially in light of scepticism about the claims of established authorities, and in light of the claims of justice in worlds of exploitation, oppression, and violence, are still the questions of political theory. The problems that we meet in Shakespeare’s dramas are wrestled with by thinkers associated with the developing tradition of republicanism; by those who later developed and promoted the claims of individual liberty and right that we associate with liberalism; by those who focus on how to dismantle structures of exploitation and oppression and achieve the egalitarian justice that we associate with modern socialism; and by the feminist challengers of all forms of hierarchical, sex- or gender-based authority whether conservative, liberal, republican, or socialist. The category republican, and the rival ideas of monarchy, clearly and explicitly were meaningful to Shakespeare. The other three are more modern categories. The study of political thought focuses on conceptual change—on how arguments about authority, say, or sovereignty, cannot be presumed to be about exactly the same thing across contexts and times. I discuss some tricky issues of interpretation in what follows. But the claims of individuals against established social and political authorities; the claims of women against men; and the opposing pulls of the egalitarian social justice later associated with socialism, and the established stable social order ever prized by conservatives, are puzzles that were recognizable to Shakespeare, and which turn up as themes, or as structures, in his plots. I emphasize these problems as puzzles. My aim is absolutely not to ask why, for instance, Shakespeare falls short according to the lights of modern or post-modern feminism, or socialism, or theories of freedom. The point of examining Shakespeare’s treatments of the puzzles of political power is to ask why what seems to have made sense to him did make sense, and to examine how it was that what evidently was taken for granted was so, and why what are presented as problems are problems.

From Shakespeare and the Political Way by Elizabeth Frazer. Copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Frazer and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.