When the Greek Plutarch retired from his civil servant post in the Roman Empire, he began his study of the lives of the great or noble statesmen of both Greece and Rome by writing first of all about Lycurgus and Numa, the legendary men who gave to Sparta and to Rome their distinctive laws. Centuries later, Lord North inserted the lives of the “one who built Rome, and the other the city of Athens” at the forefront of his translation of Plutarch’s Lives. So when his compatriot Shakespeare read the life of Theseus and then of Romulus, he absorbed the suggestion that the origins of politics are colored by some conflict (often familial) that enabled lawmakers to appear.Shakespeare began his own authorial career with an overt treatment of the politics of kingdoms and family, with his triple-play treatment of Henry VI. When he came to ponder directly what is politics, however, he turned not to the law and the lawmaker, but to Theseus and the city most associated with beauty and the arts, Athens.Theseus alone among the founders of classical antiquity’s great cities appears in Shakespeare’s plays. In a Midsummer Night’s Dream, he is not Plutarch’s man of action and the sword, but a bridegroom whose attempt to establish a political rule over and above the ancient customs of Athenians seems to be necessitated—and aided—by poetry. The law the founder invokes to establish a city is shaped first by a vision of what type of city it is to be. Who, however, owns that vision?The story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is of Theseus being confronted by competing claims of authority to shape that vision and of learning how to arbitrate between them. He learns through Aegeus that the ancient custom of Athens gives to the father absolute authority over his children as shaper of their character, will, and desires—as an artist does his handiwork. But Hermia, Aegeus’ daughter, makes a counterclaim by refusing to marry her father’s pick Demetrius, because she is mutually in love with another man, Lysander. Aegeus refuses to accept the validity of the lovers’ natural attraction for each other—and the idea that nature itself has an authoritative claim on human beings—so he petitions Theseus to put Hermia to death rather than allow her to marry Lysander. Aegeus in fact blames poetry, “lover’s verses,” for his daughter’s “bewitchment.” Theseus initially upholds Aegeus’ claim, telling Hermia that it is not nature—what her eyes tell her—but what authority tells her is good, that is good. The lovers do not accept this account, seeing only the claims that nature has. Accordingly they flee to the woods outside of the city, pursued by Demetrius and his spurned lover, Helen.Strange things happen to the four lovers in the woods, which afterward they describe to Theseus as a vision or a dream. In the woods Lysander stops loving Hermia and falls in love with Helen, as does Demetrius, with Helen believing neither and blaming Hermia for concocting a cruel sham. But Lysander returns to loving Hermia and Helen grows convinced of Demetrius’ love. They do not know, but we the audience know, that fairies have been at work here, upsetting, correcting, and directing the behaviors of the lovers towards this eventual outcome.In the wake of their story, Theseus pauses before the claims of nature, and sanctions Hermia’s marriage to Lysander and Helen’s to Demetrius. He abolishes the ancient custom of Athens by establishing his own superior political rule, itself brought on by a new vision of the city. Paternal fiat will no longer be the dominating influence of Athenians’ lives. Rather, with a nod to nature, the law, which transcends a given family to bring many families together in concord, plays the role of authoritative shaper.With A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare gives us the beginning of politics.1 He shows us the founding of a city and the founder as a ruler who cannot be an arbitrary father. In so doing he highlights the perpetual political tensions rooted in the competing visions of individuals, families, and rulers over defining the good way of life and what each is owed to achieve it. Which are the best laws and the best character to form in a people? And with what eyes can this be seen?Shakespeare himself is often described as offering a vision for all of civilization, which he does by addressing these questions through his histories, tragedies, and comedies.A Midsummer Night’s Dream reveals the necessary origins of such a project. The city or civilization seems often inhospitable or tyrannous to the young and especially the in-love, who seek to flee law’s unnatural barriers by leaving the city for the seemingly free and apolitical life of the forest. But love changes outside of the city: The men become passionate and quarrelsome, and the women who love them find that friendship is impossible, violence is everywhere, and nature’s sweetness turns to a bouquet of poison. Nature is not always kind. It is, at best, indifferent. And yet sometimes the laws within the city are tyrannous and the young (and old) need to escape them. The question is how to judge between what laws and what passions—authority and nature—are to be favored when we cannot see, as we can see fairies on a stage, the causes of sudden and inexplicable changes of behavior.The political question that posed itself to Theseus manifested itself in a question about authority, and it asked who ought to determine what the eyes ought to be seeing. The question is about knowledge and about human choice in light of our necessarily limited knowledge. The poetic question is also about knowledge, and about vision or representation. What ought the poet show and what conceal, and when, and to whom? Shakespeare’s preoccupation is famously with representation, and not only in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (where we wonder whose is the dream). But this begs the question: To what end? What is the knowledge for?Benedick, the witty match to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, offers an answer to the political question, when he declares in the final moments of the play: “Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.” It’s a corollary statement, following from an equally emphatic declaration: “The world must be peopled.”Earlier in the play, Benedick overhears Balthazar the servant sing a most curious verse to an wholly male audience at the prince’s request, one which urges ladies “to be blithe and bonny” upon learning that the definition of a man is as a “deceive[r] ever, / One foot in sea, and one on shore, / To one thing constant never.” The song falls after an exchange between Leonato, the Governor of Messina, his brother, his daughter Hero, and Beatrice, on Hero’s filial duty to consent to marry Don Pedro should he propose it.Commenting on the eventuality of the prince’s proposal, her uncle Antonio says to Hero: “Well, niece, I trust you will be ruled by your father.” Here is the familiar question of paternal power versus an individual’s inclination and choice. Beatrice immediately interposes, reminding her cousin Hero: “Yes, faith; it is my cousin’s duty to make courtesy, and say ‘Father, as it please you’: but yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another courtesy, and say “Father, as it please me.’”Don Pedro does propose to Hero, but in appearance only—winning her in fact for his courtier Claudio, who is much in love with her. But Claudio, though he knows the plan, will not believe that the prince is faithful to his word. Like Bottom the Weaver, whom the fairies turned into a half-donkey in A Midsummer Night, Claudio interprets things as he sees them—he can trust only his sight, and thus is suspicious and jealous of what he cannot see and touch, most especially of words and emotions. But he forgets his jealousy immediately upon Hero’s declaration of love in his ear, and her kiss. For the moment, all appears well ordered and aligned in the city of Messina: filial piety and natural inclination coincide. But the prince cannot leave nature well enough alone. He wants the glory of conquering that ungovernable part of nature that had allowed Hero’s inclination to mirror her father’s will: chance. Forgetting the gravitas of his political role, like a college frat boy bent on hijinks, the prince aims for his coterie to snatch the distinction of being “the only love gods.” And they are successful: Through well-timed subterfuge, they break the barrier of words between Benedick and Beatrice, revealing to each a mutual attraction.What follows the prince’s victory is nearly Thucydidean in stature. Having usurped Cupid’s role, the prince and Claudio are immediately deceived by their physical senses heightened by hasty (and jealous) judgment. Due to the machinations of Don Jon, illegitimate brother of the prince, the prince and Claudio believe they witness Hero keeping a sexual tryst on her wedding eve. (What they actually see is Hero’s maid.) In the most public and cruel manner possible, Claudio repudiates Hero during their wedding, and she appears to die from shock. Though Hero has not died, they report that she has.Chance, in the form of ignorant and silly men of the law stumbling upon Don Jon’s henchmen bragging about their deception, enables the truth to come to light. The prince, the father, nature, and the lovers are each shown to be but uncertain guides and guarantees toward civic peace or personal happiness—even Leonato believes the prince’s accusation rather than his daughter; he does not know his own.It is Conrad, however, one of Don Jon’s conspirators, who most expresses anger that the well-laid plans of gentlemen can so quickly be upset by petty officials of the law, by fools. He is so outraged at the low agency by which their plot was overthrown he cannot help but vocalize it: “you are an ass; you are an ass!” he memorably yells at the Constable, Dogberry, while Dogberry laments that the sexton has departed and cannot therefore “write [him] down an ass.” Dogberry is the comedic counterpart to Claudio, he literally speaks ill—in malapropisms, because he does not comprehend the meaning of words. He wants words to manifest themselves; he wants “to be written down.” For all that, he is a decent man who carries out his duty, ordering the watch to be vigilant, and stumbling through the formal procedures of bureaucracy as necessary.Love or nature thus appear triumphant in Much Ado About Nothing. Evil is discovered and thwarted, and the natural pairings are allowed to occur. Much ado appears to have been made over a lady’s apparent unfaithfulness to her beloved, but the mistake seems to be the necessary trial of lovers that fill the storybooks. The title of the drama seems to confirm this—the events depicted here, despite the kerfuffle, are essentially nothing. But it has not been nothing for Hero, or Benedick, or Beatrice. Hero was left for dead, and Benedick, to prove his integrity is more than words to Beatrice, swore to shed his friend Claudio’s blood. Beatrice herself declared she would eat Claudio’s heart “in the marketplace.” What type of life can be built on these memories? The drama should have ended as terribly in blood as did the story of another falsely accused woman by a jealous man—why, unlike Othello, does it not?2The clumsiness of Dogberry for one prevents such a tragedy. Despite having no understanding of the words they invoke the lowest executers of the law, by keeping watch by moonlight, vindicate Hero’s innocence even against her father’s accusation. Outside of the helpful boundaries law erects and well-ordered institutions maintain, love is not triumphant. It is rather a suspect device upon which alone to build a city. Even familial love is uncertain, because good words are told less often than passionate ones, and we can both distrust what we see and mistake a representation for the truth. Perhaps happiness is thus less dependent on a passionate attachment or love than the young typically believe.Perhaps, from the point of view of the flourishing city, the coincidence of reason and choice, private love and happiness is less important for the legislator than crafting laws that enable it with justice to “be peopled,” as Benedick put it. And therefore the running around for love is an unserious to-do over nothing when the laws function well enough to counter destructive tendencies.Benedick might know of what he speaks—he cannot, as he says, show his love in rhyme; he can only come up with “baby” for “lady.” He would rather woo in plain speaking, where intention and meaning do not hide or obscure themselves. For as poetic as his corpus of drama is, Shakespeare himself appears to do something similar in the wooing or the directing of his audience. As public works or images, his plays when performed tell a straightforward tale whose teaching can be grasped even by a Bottom or a Dogberry, at face value. His representations are not meant to lead well-intentioned citizens astray, or to undermine the social fabric that binds together in a community.Beauty and love and marriage in his comedies thus seem to go together as often as ugliness, evil, and death do in his tragedies. Kings, his dramas teach, ought to rule wisely and justly, moderating the insular and arbitrary tendencies of individual families. Men and women must congregate together and craftsmen must attend to their work for the city to flourish in concord; more personally, women must be spirited but modest and men valiant but public spirited. The passions of each must be moderated into civilizing energies. Fools are to be suffered gladly. Time and the seasons make right injustice, which occurs even to good people and must be borne in patience, in order that some greater benefit accrue.Such is the public or civic face of Shakespeare’s poetic project. Being a responsible craftsman of images, Shakespeare exercises much more caution in expressing his reservations about whether nature and the law can be reconciled as harmoniously in life as they can be in mere representations of life. If human beings are so easily mistaken in seeing and hearing, and so easily lead astray by false words, how reliable can their emotions and passions be—that is, their natural inclinations—as the guide to happiness?Shakespeare turns to this question in his Sonnets, specifically as it relates to the natural inclination of love and attraction and the role of beauty. He seems arrested by the common conflation of beauty and goodness on the one hand, and the public assumption that in inspiring love, beauty and love necessarily produce a constructive public good. Over the course of 154 sonnets, Shakespeare works out what might be called the psychology of love, examining and highlighting ever-different aspects of the public expectations and the private expressions, and vice-versa, of love. Strung together, the sonnets create a type of cyclical narrative, but one that goes beyond the popular autobiographical narrative fastened on by literary critics, of a young man and a dark lady and the poet, and a homo- and hetero-love triangle gone frustratingly wrong or at least confusingly sideways.It is from the initial or obvious viewpoint of the city or the public that Shakespeare begins. Popularly categorized as the “Procreation Sonnets,” the first 18 sonnets address a fair youth; wondering, upbraiding, exhorting, cajoling, pleading with him to invest his beauty in a legacy, to perpetuate his image through the procreation of children. This is what love “ought” to do. “From fairest creatures we desire increase, / That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,” is the first verse of Sonnet I’s encapsulation of the sentiment. Not to recreate his beauty through children is robbery of himself and of the public treasury of the future, not to mention a transgression against very nature, who “carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby / Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die” (Sonnet XI). The poet wonders what motivations keep a person from loving and coupling and procreating. From the viewpoint of certain death and bodily decay over time such inaction seems inexplicable, the height of selfishness and yet counterproductive to selfishness too: “Who lets so fair a house fall to decay?” (Sonnet XIII).Lyric poetry is an interior meditation—it gives us a mind alone with itself, but its act gives the reader a solitary script to say. It is intensely private (though, contradictory, not exclusively private in its outcome). It is the tradition of the sonnet genre also to be an intellectual exercise, a writer’s project invented to amuse and challenge his own capacity for inventing artworks. Thus while Shakespeare’s lyric poetry is certainly not devoid of drama, it is not a drama, and it would be false to force his sonnet sequence into the vise of a numerical storyboard—autobiographical or otherwise—that simply is not there. Following the conventional arrangement of the Sonnets, however, there is a broad framework: the first 126 sonnets, introduced by the Procreation Sonnets, are arrayed around that young man. The remaining 28 concern a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman, save for the two final, rather Anacreontic sonnets. These dramatis personae give Shakespeare the vehicles through which to conduct his exercise.The reluctance of a beautiful youth to procreate opens up to the poet the possibility that the civic or public function of love might not be its more compelling motivation to individuals. Such a love can be separated out from (romantic) love as a private experience of aesthetic fascination, or love as sexual desire, neither of which preclude some combination of the two (Sonnet XX). That the aesthetic of human beauty, with its easy capacity to become a fetish, is the more interesting or fascinating to Shakespeare the poet is obvious from the sheer number of sonnets absorbed with the aspect or countenance of the young man. Beyond whatever explicit sexual pull may or may not be going on, throughout those 126 sonnets is an insistent probing of the problem of being able to see a fair aspect while being unable to touch, to know, the heart or mind concealed by that body. It is the problem that physical bodies pose to the transposition of pure ideas, the “impediment” to the “marriage of true minds”: the problem of knowledge (Sonnet CXVI).Eyes, “draw but what they see, know not the heart,” (Sonnet XXIV). Elsewhere, in the Merchant of Venice is raised the question, “where is fancy bred, / Or in the heart, or in the head?” The song answers that it is “engend’red in the eyes/ With grazing fed.” It reveals too that “fancy dies/ In the cradle where it lies.” The eyes very much do have it in life. Appearances and the concern with appearances cannot be only superficial—rather their importance at the level of private individuals rising to the public state cannot be overestimated. As Theseus reminds, the question is ever who is determining, and who ought to determine, what the eyes ought to be seeing.Complicating the transaction of love and knowledge is the lover or viewer or artist himself. The object of fascination and affection may or may not be decent, good, and virtuous, free from the more sinister aspects of emotional manipulation, whimsical, joyous, thoughtful, and sympathetic (each iteration of which individual sonnets explore); Shakespeare discovers that essentially such things matter very little to the lover. He himself chooses to chameleonize the “aspect” of the young man into every aspect of life—from being the wellspring of virtue, the instigator of vice, and the inspiration of every artist, to being the mover of time, the seasons, the elements, music, the economy, and the law. He sees him as he wills, over and above what the beloved wills. Hence love and affection can be exploited, parodied, and satirized as much as it can be lauded and exaggerated. As the consummate artist himself, Shakespeare employs all of the above, now parodying Petrarchan praise (Sonnets XXI and CXXX), revising Christian morality (CXXIX and XCIV) and quizzing Platonic conventions (XCV) in the process.This is not to say that love is predominantly passive or speculative—or even, that it ought never to be celebrated. When the “turn” away from the beautiful youth to the “Dark Lady” happens in Sonnet CXXVII, the energy of love as physical attraction, sexual desire, pursuit, enjoyment, lust, jealousy, self-loathing, despair, and uneasy resignation is tangible. There seems to be a fungibleness to love, to physical attraction as well as desire. It unsettles the poet, as does the atmosphere of promiscuity. “Why should…mine eyes, seeing this, say this is not, / To put fair truth upon so foul a face? / In things right true my heart and eyes have erred,” he frets in Sonnet CXXXVII. Frantic at his ignorance how to navigate the disjuncture between reason and passion, he shrugs his shoulders and borrows the rhetoric of sophistry: “I do believe her though I know she lies, /That she might think me some untutored youth,” but since both know his believing is a pretense, “Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, /And in our faults by lies we flattered be,” (CXXXVIII).Love is not free from its seedy underside. Twice over, with the youth and the mistress, the Sonnets’ poet traces steps from idealization to infatuation, to disillusion and grief, with surgical clarity anatomizing his obsession even while in its grip. There’s tragedy in this juxtaposition of emotional movement and intellectual clarity: the poetic speaker never recovers from either of his attachments, and in his final address to the youth (Sonnet VI) as to the mistress (CXLVI) there is talk of dirt, and worms.“Love is too young to know what conscience is,” (Sonnet CLI). This is not the same vision uplifting the Fifth Act of the several Shakespearean comedies. It feels more sinister even than the events precipitating Benedick’s sober conclusion in Much Ado, that man is a giddy thing. As John Berryman humorously yet earnestly commented, “When Shakespeare wrote, ‘Two loves I have,’ reader, he was not kidding.” And here is the difficulty for Shakespeare, as an artist first but a thoroughly civic-minded one. How to get out of the Anacreontic narrative about the unquenchability of love as attraction and desire that formally ends the Sonnet Sequence but internally begins it anew (Sonnets CLIII, CLIV)? How does one show the mixed nature of things, the good and the bad, both truthfully and responsibly so as not to scandalize or terrorize the Bottoms and Dogberrys, not to mention the slightly more sophisticated Claudios among us?Just as the two concluding sonnets take us back to the Procreation sonnets and the vocabulary of life, procreation, and perpetuation so the Sonnet Sequence takes us back to Shakespeare’s plays and the narrative of human concord within cities with law. Experiencing the catalogue of emotions depicted in the Sonnets has not purged the poet’s “perjur’d eye,” but crafting the investigation of the emotions into a poetic exercise makes the poetry itself “a bath and healthful remedy/ For men diseased.” Such is for private men in their private lives—something else is needed at the level of citizens, more definitive and easily visible if not “touchable.” Fancy is born and bred in the eyes and then the head.In Much Ado About Nothing, the “fancy” or vision or tale the men tell themselves when the women are not present is that men can have their cake and eat it too, they can partake of two elements (in sea and on land) simultaneously and be no one thing but many. They can be “constant never” and yet escape from being “writ down an ass.” They also tell themselves that they can usurp the natural hierarchy of things, dethrone Cupid, and master chance, and there will be no ill consequences. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the women tell themselves that the men they love can be believed to be faithful and trustworthy, that freely offered human vows are a more certain path to happiness than those compelled by patriarchal authority or enforced by the laws of the city. In both, the story that the city and its rulers give out as true is that the city can conciliate both fathers and lovers, because perpetuation through procreation is the desire of both fathers and cities, and procreation is the natural purpose or the cause driving love and attraction between the beautiful youth. The city also makes a claim about the law, that it is sufficient to form the character of a people, that it is just, that it does not falter.These are all dreams, though not necessarily false dreams. No genius is needed to see that these rulers can be short-sighted, the fathers arbitrary and mistaken, that lovers falter, and that the law is not so much grand and omniscient as it is a stumbling in the moonlight by fools—and yet still salutary. Such is what bare nature gives us. The poet Shakespeare knows, however, that it is neither wise nor helpful to the city only to demean the laws and institutions upon which it is necessarily built. He knows also, that these types of images are not sufficiently beautiful to attract the affections of the eyes, the heads, and the hearts of citizens.Beyond how we experience the bumbling agency of the law is an awesome and godlike instrument that makes a just life possible. The rule of good laws in fact enables many people to live together in concord. And it’s the city’s law that makes firm the love of individual citizens, which in turn produces and protects its future citizens. And despite its errors, love is joyous and sweet. Indeed, the mutual happiness of individuals and their city is the beautiful human monument, more lasting than bronze, that ought to be everywhere imitated and celebrated.The world as we experience it in daily life might truly be something more like brass, easily tarnished. A long tradition of learned men held that it is the task of the poets to take this brazen world nature sets forth and deliver out of it a golden one. The genius of Shakespeare touches many things, and illuminates that tradition. Through the device of public plays and private sonnets, Shakespeare makes use of his poetry to show the world both as we know it to be and as we would hope for it to be, in need of law but also poetry. Poetry he shows to be a gentle councilor to princes and to each human heart, a corrective to nature’s eyes when prudently employed as also a support to the law. Whether Shakespeare believed he was himself a new type of Theseus pales in importance to what he did: In making of his poetic enterprise such a civic endeavor, he gifted us something golden to treasure not just in one reading, but for all time.
1I am indebted to Dr. Leo Paul de Alvarez of the University of Dallas for the argument that not only is A Midsummer Night’s Dream about kingship and the founding of a city, but equally importantly, about the types of images or poetry the king must use to establish his city. For the political implications of Shakespeare’s poetry, my own thoughts were first introduced, then deepened and enriched by over a decade of conversations with Drs. Tom West and John Grant, both now of Hillsdale College.2Sarah Chism Junker is owed the credit for this insight, which she challenged me with over the course of a memorable summer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2013.