From London to Paris to Alexandria, Virginia—to say nothing of Central Park—there is no shortage of drama in politics at the present moment. One cannot help but wonder what the great Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon would make of it—or, more to the point, how he would memorialize it on the stage.
Wondering what he thought, however, is probably the best we can do. While we know much of Shakespeare’s life, we know little of his opinions. Many of his plays are political, to be sure. His feeling for politics was so strong that one political figure in Britain believed his plays must have been written by someone who had personal experience of politics.1 This was the wrong conclusion. A keen feeling for politics runs through Shakespeare’s plays because man is a political animal and Shakespeare’s understanding of men meant he understood politics, too.
The reason we know little of Shakespeare’s politics is that he was a master playwright. He does not lecture. His characters speak, and we can only guess which of them, if any, speak for him. But some themes recur; and some messages in the action of his plays are too powerful to miss.
Such themes are most abundant in the four plays written at the height of Shakespeare’s powers. In Polonius’s classification, they are tragical-comical-historical. They are about the state in moments of stress, and about individual men acting politically. In these four plays, six themes emerge: the importance of order; the perils of regicide; the qualities of the king; the dangers of ambition; the volatility of crowds; and the risks of ungoverned power.
Renaissance Europe was a place of creativity and uncertainty. An old order based on the church was dying; the new, political, order had not been borne. Political ideas were still expressed in religious language. Life was precarious: the poor risked starvation; the great risked losing the favor of the king; everyone was at risk of plague, disorder and war. In this world, the greatest wish was for order.
This sense of changing eras is felt in Hamlet. Hamlet’s father settled territorial disputes by single combat in full armor; Claudius sends Ambassadors, an innovation in the Elizabethan world. Hamlet arrives in Elsinore from a Protestant university; the ghost comes from a Catholic purgatory.2
The nearest Shakespeare comes to a lecture on politics is Ulysses’ speech in Troilus and Cressida to the Greek council of war, which is debating how to stop Achilles’ sulking. Ulysses’ theme is that “degree”—authority and hierarchy—is essential for society.
O when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick. How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogeniture and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres laurels,
But by degree stand in authentic place?
This view was common in Elizabethan world: an order based on natural harmony, sometimes compared to the cosmic order, was necessary for all social organization. Reciprocal obligation binds people together as cosmic forces bind the planets. It is this social hierarchy that keeps the peace:
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy; . . .
Social order in turn provides political order. In Asia this creed is called Confucianism: Order through a system of mutual obligations, reinforced by ceremony. Without the social order conflict would be universal: “Each thing meets in mere oppugnancy.” This, taken to extremes, ends in the war of all against all.
Without this political/social order there would be no moral order:
Force should be right; or rather right and wrong.
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their name, and so should justice too.
Fifty years later Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan (Chapter 13), “To this war of every man against every man, this is also consequent that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice.” As Troilus and Cressida itself shows, in ungoverned war there is neither honor nor justice, for order is a prerequisite for both.
For Shakespeare monarchy is the natural form of government. Men look instinctively for a king. Brutus tells the crowd that he has killed Caesar to preserve the Republic; they respond by calling for him to be made Caesar. Jack Cade, leader of an uprising in Henry VI, wants to set himself up as king. In The Tempest, the decent, elderly Gonzalo sets out a fantasy Utopia (“no riches, poverty . . . all men idle, all/And women too, but innocent and pure/ No sovereignty”). But he has to imagine himself as King to realize the project.
The plays deliver the same message. When order is restored, it is by the arrival of a new ruler—Fortinbras in Hamlet, Malcolm in Macbeth, Edgar in King Lear— or the restoration of an old one, as in the return of the Duke in Measure for Measure or of Prospero to Milan in The Tempest. After the assassination of Caesar, order returns only at the end of Anthony and Cleopatra when the triumvirate becomes a monarch. In Henry IV Pt II the crowning of the new king ends the disorder of Eastcheap.
If the order is monarchical, then deposing or killing the king is the worst of all crimes. Regicide brings civil war. Foreign wars may be glorious, but civil war is the worst thing that can happen to a country. When Shakespeare wrote the histories, the Wars of the Roses were a hundred years in the past, but memories lived on, as they do today of World War I.
The history cycle begins with Richard II, deposed and murdered by Bolingbroke. Richard is feckless and self absorbed, unsuitable for his office and neglectful of his duties, but this does not justify his overthrow. Bolingbroke is ambitious and power-hungry. When he forces the King to abdicate the Bishop of Carlisle warns him:
And if you crown him, let me prophesy:
The blood of England shall manure the ground . . . .
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin, and kind with kind, confound. (IV, i, 125-132)
Bolingbroke has the bishop arrested.
His reign as Henry IV is disturbed by rebels claiming the throne. He suppresses them, but never sleeps easy. When his son, Henry V, sails for France he executes three noblemen in the pay of France. Their leader, the Duke of Cambridge, is another who has a claim on the throne. Later on, the night before Agincourt, Henry prays:
Not today, O Lord,
O not today, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown. (IV, i, 289-291)
Henry V’s success in France brings a period of quiet to England, but he dies young. Henry VI, comes to the throne as an infant. He grows up weak and subject to periods of mental illness. During his reign the rebellions become a civil war. The three parts of Henry VI recount the loss of France and then the battles, murders, and horrors of the Wars of the Roses, whose Original Sin is Bolingbroke’s seizure of the throne.3 Peace and order are restored only when Henry VII defeats Richard III and unites the houses of York and Lancaster. Regicide not only causes trouble; it causes a long cascade of trouble.
Julius Caesar is a play about regicide. Caesar is not a King—the charge leveled against him by Brutus and the others is that he wants to become King, ending the republican order. Elizabethan audiences will not have troubled themselves about these distinctions. Renaissance palaces contained busts of the 12 Caesars, with Julius Caesar as the first of the line. His murder was a regicide.
Julius Caesar is a play that starts without a hero: Caesar has an aura of greatness, but he is aging and pompous; Brutus is high-minded but ambiguous. Caesar’s murder changes that. Caesar dead becomes a force, dominating the play, worthy of the comet that greets his death. The plotters try to conjure a gentleness upon their imminent deed, but they cannot; murder is a bloody business. And the deed lacks a clean ending, as regicide always does. The second half of the play is about Caesar’s spirit, summed up by Brutus: “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet.” He and Cassius die with Caesar’s name on their lips. Their suicides are Caesar’s revenge.
In Rome, as in England, regicide brings civil war. In Hamlet the something that is “rotten in the state of Denmark” is that Claudius has killed his brother, the king. The story, seen through the eyes of his mourning son tells of the corruption and ruin of the state.
As the play unfolds, we discover a world where nothing is as it seems. Claudius wants Hamlet to remain at the court, “in the cheer and comfort of our eye”; but what he means is, under surveillance. In Elsinore everyone spies on everyone: Polonius on his own son and daughter, he and Claudius on Hamlet; Claudius recruits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as informers. Claudius’s sure-footed handling of state business hides his guilt and his fears. When Hamlet played in communist Poland the audience instantly recognized this world.4
Hamlet trusts no one and at one point pretends to be mad. This does not fool the King (“Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little, was not like madness”). Then, knowing that the King is listening, he pretends to be: “proud, revengeful, and ambitious”, aiming to unsettle him.
Hamlet is none of these things. He is not mad, or proud in the sense of the chief of the seven deadly sins. Nor is he obviously ambitious. As for revengeful, that spites his character.
Escape from the false world of Elsinore comes to Hamlet with the arrival of the players. They are licensed to pretend and can therefore speak the truth. When the play within the play exposes Claudius’ guilt, he loses control; his fall takes with him Hamlet and the whole of the court. With that the state is dissolved.
If regicide is bad, so is abdication: Anthony (in Anthony and Cleopatra), Lear who divides his kingdom, the Duke in Measure for Measure who hands his responsibilities to a deputy, Coriolanus, who refuses the rituals to become Consul, and Prospero, years before The Tempest, all forsake their duty. That too brings disaster.
In a monarchical order the King is all-important. The history plays show us kings who are weak or violent; Henry V presents an ideal.
Ideals are dull. Some notable critics, Auden, Yeats, and Harold Bloom, agree in finding Henry unattractive. Henry suffers by comparison with Falstaff, a kind of anti-ideal, and the man he rejects when he becomes King. Henry cannot match Falstaff’s human qualities: the wit and lust for life. Falstaff wins the love of many, including, it is said, Queen Elizabeth. But he is a Lord of Misrule, not a King. Henry’s first speech as King tells us of his transformation:
I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane,
But being wake I do despise my dream. . . .
Presume not now I am the thing I was.
To be a King means, first, the transformation he has undergone. But it is through Henry V that Shakespeare really develops the ideal King, brave and ruthless in war, yet a man among other men. He leads from the front at Harfleur and goes among his men (as in many epics, including the Iliad, which Shakespeare read in Chapman’s translation) without becoming one of them.
The Chorus to Act IV sets the scene:
O now who will behold
The royal captain of this ruined band
Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent,
Let him cry: “Praise and glory on his head”
For forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them “Good morrow” with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him:
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him plucks comfort from his looks
that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.” (IV, 0, 28-47)
Except that it does not happen like that. The King does not go out to encourage his men. He wants to be alone, to think and to pray. He does not seek out his soldiers. They approach him, but do not recognize him, alone and in a borrowed cloak. And they speak their minds. The most important encounter is with some common soldiers. One of them asks him what his commander thinks of their situation:
KING HENRY: Even as men wrecked upon the sand that look to be washed off the next tide.
BATES: He hath not told his thought to the King?
KING HENRY: No, nor is it meet that he should. For though I speak it to you, I think the king is but a man as I am. The violet smells to him as it doth to me: the element shows to him as it doth to me…. His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man…he sees the reason of fears as we do…yet no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.
BATES: He may show what outward courage he will, but I believe, as cold a night as ‘tis, he could wish himself in the Thames, up to the neck. And so I would he were, and I by him, so we were quit here.
KING HENRY: By my troth, I speak my conscience of the King. I think he would not wish himself anywhere but where he is.
BATES: Then I would he were here alone. So would he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men’s lives saved.
KING HENRY: Methinks I would not die anywhere so contented as in the King’s company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.
WILLIAMS: But if the cause be not just, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in battle shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, “We died at such a place”—some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black day for the king that led them to it. (IV, I, 97-144)
Then Williams reverts to Bates’ theme that, as common soldiers they are likely to die; but the King will be ransomed. Henry rejects this; Williams calls him a fool, and offers to box his ears. They leave agreeing to meet after the battle, if they live, to settle the matter. They exchange gloves so that they can identify each other.
On his own, the King prays for courage for his soldiers:
O God of battles, steel my soldiers hearts.
Possess them not with fear. Take from them now
The sense of reck’ning, ere the opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them.
When his thoughts turn to his responsibilities, they echo the cries of the dead in Williams’ account of the last day:
Upon the King,
Let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our care-full wives,
Our children, and our sins lay on the King.
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness.
The result of his night encounters changes Henry’s tone when he speaks to his men before Agincourt. At Harfleur it was:
On you noblest English….
And you, good yeomen, whose limbs were made in England
I see you strain like grey greyhounds in the slips
At Agincourt he is familiar, even humorous:
Old men forget, yet all shall be forgot
But he’ll remember, with advantages
What feats he did that day.
And it is not “you” but “we” and “us”:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today who sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother, be he ne’er so vile
After the battle Henry arranges for Captain Fluellen, a partly comic Welshman, to find Williams, who had challenged him the night before. The king reveals himself as the man Williams proposed to fight. Fluellen points out that by challenging the King, Williams is guilty of a capital offence. When the King asks him what he has to say, Williams does not beg for mercy but says instead that he meant no offence. He did not know the King, at night, and in a borrowed cloak. If anyone was at fault it was the King for being incognito; on that basis he asks for the King’s pardon. The King responds by returning his glove to Williams filled with silver crowns. Williams is to wear it as an honour in his cap. He tells Williams to make friends with Fluellen. (Fluellen offers Williams a shilling, which he refuses).
This is a kind of fairy tale, but it is Shakespeare’s picture of a good King and a good subject. A good subject is direct and honest, polite to the King but neither afraid of him nor servile; the King is just but also humorous, and he treats any subject thus comporting with respect.
We have two other glimpses of model kings. One is Caesar, more monarchical in death than in life, where, though verbose, he is still shrewd (about the lean and hungry Cassius), still constant as the Northern Star, and still courageous. The other is Hamlet, though he never becomes King, but no one would dissent from Fortinbras’ judgment that “he was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royally”; and through the soliloquies we know more of him than of any other character.
Hamlet is the least obvious of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, neither a king nor a soldier. Falstaff’s popularity is easy to understand: He overflows with wit and lust for life. Hamlet is as much beloved and as human. We feel pity for Lear, horror at Macbeth, regret for Othello. Hamlet’s death stirs a more personal feeling of loss. It is strange that someone so far from the conventional man of action makes so strong an impression. The puzzle in Hamlet is supposed to be that the Prince has not revenged himself by the end of Act I. But it is not a puzzle; that is how Hamlet is. What he does must be right; and it must feel right to him.
Brutus also hesitates:
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream” (II, i, 63-6)
So does Macbeth:
I dare do all that may become a man.
Who dares do more is none. (I, vii, 46-7)
Both would have done better to listen to their hesitations. Hamlet is an honest man in a false world. He may say to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that “Denmark’s a prison,” but he is the one free man in it. He is as much his own man as Falstaff; he thinks for himself. He questions everything, including what the ghost tells him. He acts only when he knows it is right. In a rare moment of intimacy, Hamlet tells Horatio why he trusts him:
Horatio, thou art e’en as just a man
As ere my conversation coped withal” (III, ii, 52-53)
And he goes on to describe how he thinks a man should be. It is a picture of himself, as he wants to be, and as, in the end, he is:
For thou hast been. . . .
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hath ta’en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core (III, ii, 60-68)
This is a King: justice, the cardinal virtue of Kings, exercised with independence, and an equilibrium between head and heart. Of all the court, only Hamlet obeys Polonius injunction:
This above all—to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man. (I, iii, 78-81)
Hamlet is striking for his absence of ambition, which is a negative quality in Shakespeare. Macbeth falls because of “vaulting ambition”; Caesar’s supposed ambition is the justification of his murder. Claudius, trying to pray, speaks of, “The effects for which I did the murder/My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.” Ambition in this sense is suspect; it is a rebellion against “degree”, the system of rank according to birth. It is as though not being ambitious is an important quality in a king.
Henry, on the eve of Agincourt thinks of the responsibilities of office:
What infinite heartsease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
Tis not the balm, the sceptre, and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world –
No, not all of these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep as soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body filled and vacant mind
Gets him to rest.
Such thoughts are common in Shakespeare’s kings. Richard II reminds his companions that he too is a man:
For you have but mistook me all this while;
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends—subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king? (III, ii, 174)
Henry VI, fatally weak as a king but touching as a person, contemplates his defeat at Towton and speaks about how much better it would have been to be a shepherd, concluding:
Ah what a life were this! How sweet! How lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep
Than doth a rich embroidered canopy
To kings that fear their subjects treachery?” (Henry VI pt 3, II, v, 41)
The only Shakespearian king whose private thoughts are not about the burdens of office is Richard III. Here they are as he expresses them earlier in the same play:
Why, I can smile and murder whiles I smile,
And cry, “Content!” to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions. (III, ii, 82-85)
And then, after murdering Henry VI:
I have no father; I am like no father.
I have no brother; I am like no brother.
And this word ‘love’ which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me! I am myself alone. (V, vii, 80-84)
London in Shakespeare’s day was a city of 200,000, mostly poor and uneducated. Crowds were fearful things. With no police and no media except word of mouth, crowds could fall prey to rumors and become dangerous. The nobility protected themselves with armed guards; the rest could find themselves at the mercy of the crowd. In Henry IV, Rumour “painted full of tongues” explains:
Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, Jealousy’s conjectures, . . .
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still discordant, wavering multitude,
Can play upon it.
Plays were about high society: palaces, princes, and kings. The common people do not have a large part in Shakespeare’s plays. Sometimes they are humorous; sometimes, like Bates and Williams, they are straightforward and admirable. As a crowd they are dangerous. An early glimpse of Shakespeare’s talent comes in his first play, Henry VI Part II. This comes suddenly to life in the scenes of the Kentish rebellion led by Jack Cade, a mixture of comedy and cruelty:
CADE: There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny, the three-hooped pots shall have ten hoops, and I will make it a felony to drink small beer. All the realms shall be in common, and in Cheapside shall my palfry go to grass. And when I am king, as king I will be—
ALL: God save your Majesty!
CADE: I thank you good people—there shall be no money, all shall eat and drink at my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may be agreed like brothers and worship me, their lord.
BUTCHER: The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. (Henry VI Part I, IV, ii, 66-76)
Later Cade is confronted by the King’s representatives. The crowd sways this way and that, first taking the King’s offer of pardon, then returning to Cade, finally deserting him. Cade is caught and killed trying to eat grass in a private garden: “I, that never feared any, am vanquished by famine, not by valour.” (Cade is dangerous and ridiculous, but Shakespeare gives him some dignity in death).
In Julius Caesar, after the assassination, Anthony tells a messenger from Octavius that his master should stay away: “Here is a mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome.” As he speaks, Anthony begins to see what he will do:
But stay awhile—
You shall not back till I have borne this corpse
Into the market-place. There shall I try
In my oration how the people take
The cruel issue of these bloody men. (III, i, 290-4)
In the duel of rhetoric that follows the crowd is first persuaded by Brutus, but then Anthony offers up the greatest piece of oratory in literature. “I am no orator, as Brutus is”, says Anthony; and he is right. He is much better. His style is softer, more personal (“He was my friend, faithful and just to me”). In contrast to Brutus’ formal logic Anthony builds an emotional case, with pauses and interruptions to involve the crowd. Towards the end he shows the crowd, first Caesar’s cloak and then his body:
You all do know this mantle. I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on.
’Twas on a summer evening in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii.
Look, in this place ran Cassius dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Caska made:
Through this, the well-beloved Brutus stabbed …
This was the most unkindest cut of all,
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab
Ingratitude, more strong than traitor’s arms
Quite vanquished him: then burst his mighty heart; . . .
O now you weep, and I perceive you feel
The dint of pity. These are gracious drops.
Kind souls, what weep you when you but behold
Our Caesar’s vesture wounded? Look you here,
Here is himself, marred as you see, with traitors. (III, ii, 168-95)
The last lines begin with softly: “weep” and “vesture wounded”; the harsh vowels that follow, “marred” and “traitors”, are a shock and a climax.
The crowd then responds:
‘O most bloody sight’
‘We will be revenged!’
‘Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!
Let not a traitor live!’
Anthony concludes (to himself):
Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot:
Take thou what course thou wilt” (III, ii, 253-4)
The crowd’s course is to murder Cinna, a poet who happens to share a name with one of the conspirators. When he protests that he is a poet, the crowd responds:
Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses (III, iii, 30)
(A piece of black humor from the playwright)
One more crowd deserves mention. The British Library holds the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, revised by six different hands. One single scene, written by “Hand D,” is identified by scholars as Shakespeare’s. Thomas More addresses a crowd on behalf of the King, to persuade them not to drive foreigners out of London:
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ports and coasts for transportation. . . .
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and the strong hand should prevail,
How orders should be quelled—and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an agèd man. (Addition II hand D, 83-92)
Here is a moving picture of refugees; it could be Syria today. But More is not appealing for sympathy for the foreigners. He argues instead, as Ulysses does, that the order in the state is essential for the protection of the citizens. If the crowd [read: populists] takes over, everyone suffers.
The wars in Shakespeare’s plays are mostly civil wars. In only two plays do foreign wars play a central part. One is Henry V, a patriotic play of famous victories. The other is Troilus and Cressida.
What is this play about? The Prologue tells us: beginning in the style of an epic:
In Troy there lies the scene. From isles of Greece
The Princes orgulous, their high blood chafed,
Have to the port of Athens sent their ships,
Fraught with the ministers and instruments
Of cruel war. Sixty and nine that wore
Their crownets regal from the Athenian bay
Put forth towards Phrygia, and their vow is made
To ransack Troy, within whose stout immures
The ravished Helen, Menelaus’ queen,
With wanton Paris sleeps.” (I, O, 0-10)
Then, in the middle of this overblown, though magnificent, language come three notes of bathos. First, continuing from the passage above:
—and that’s the quarrel.
The epic conflict turns out to have an ordinary, even sleazy, cause. Then, after more over-gorgeous lines, the Prologue explains that he has no idea what is going to happen in the play but he is there,
to tell you, fair beholders, that our play
Leaps o’er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils,
Beginning in the middle, starting thence away,
To what may be digested in a play.
Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are;
Now good or bad, ‘tis but the chance of war. (I, 0, 27-31)
“Beginning in the middle” is in the tradition of the epic: They begin in medias res.5 In English, however, it sounds mockingly casual. The rest is even more casual: What is going to happen? “’Tis but the chance of war.” The high sounding introduction ends aimlessly.
As in wars, there are times when there is more talking than fighting. The Trojans debate whether they should return Helen to Menelaus and make peace. Hector, their greatest warrior, wants to give her back; Troilus his impetuous youngest brother speaks for fighting on. Paris is on Troilus’ side: To give Helen up would be to admit a wrong; defending her is a cause that ennobles those who die in it. Hector wins the argument, but then, for no clear reason, he gives in to his brothers. Troilus, joyful, agrees:
She is a theme of honour and renown,
A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds (II, ii, 199-200)
The play goes on to show that the opposite is true. Troilus is making the classical, circular argument of countries at war. Lives have been lost; to honor their sacrifice more must be lost. Paris goes back to Helen and the others go off to fight. Helen is worthless; the Trojans, excepting Hector, are shallow; but Hector allows himself to be overruled.
The Greeks are no better. In case we might miss this, Shakespeare introduces Thersites, listed in the Dramatis Personae as “a deformed and scurrilous Greek.” He acts as a chorus on the Greek side commenting on their faults. His opening sally sets the tone:
Agamemnon, how if he had boils—full, all over, generally? . . . And those boils did run? Then would come some matter from him. I see none now.
The joke is in “matter” which means both pus and also substance. Not in good taste, perhaps, but Thersites has a point.6 Agamemnon is an old windbag. Thersites’ summary of the play, more informative than that of the Prologue, is: “All the argument is a whore and a cuckold.”
The first point of Troilus and Cressida is that a world without order, our first theme, is a world of pure power—and power without limits is self-destructive, as is appetite—ambition—without limits.
Its second theme is that betrayal of love complements betrayal of honor. Troilus and Cressida yearn for each other in Act I, and are brought together in Act III where they kiss and swear faithfulness:
If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth,
When Time is old and hath forgot himself,
When water drops have worn the stones of Troy
And blind oblivion swallowed cities up,
And mighty states, characterless are grated
To dusty nothing, yet let memory,
From false to false, among false maids in love
Upbraid my falsehood. When they have said, ‘as false
As air, as water, wind or sandy earth,
As fox to lamb, as wolf to heifer’s calf . . .
Yea let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood,
As false as Cressid (III, ii, 173-186)
This is exactly what they do say. From Medieval times on, Cressida is a byword for faithlessness, though Shakespeare being Shakespeare, his Cressida is more complicated than that:
TROILUS: What offends you, lady?
CRESSIDA: Sir, my own company.
TROILUS: You cannot shun yourself.
CRESSIDA: Let me go and try. (III, ii, 142-144)
Self-destruction is part of her make up, but she is also a victim of war. Sent in an exchange to the Trojan camp, she does what many women do in wars to survive, though not, in her case, with much reluctance.
The other betrayal is of honor. It is not the Greeks’ long debates, nor Ulysses’ cunning plans that bring Achilles back into the war, but the death of Patroclus, his “male varlet” (to quote Thersites). Achilles fights with Hector; out of training he tires, and Hector chivalrously spares him. One short scene later Achilles finds Hector, disarmed and resting. Achilles repays Hector’s chivalry:
Look, Hector, how the sun begins to set;
How ugly night comes breathing at his heels.
Even with the vail and darkening of the sun,
To close the day up, Hector’s life is done. (V, viii, 5-8)
And he has his myrmidons butcher him.
But the most destructive appetite of all belongs to time. Ulysses:
O, let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was;
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating Time. (III, iii, 169-174)
In Troilus and Cressida, there is no sense of before and after, no frame of moral or temporal reference, no mention of religion, no even the gods that have such an important part in the Iliad. Everything is disconnected. Everyone is on his or her own. The Chorus’ strange setting of the scene (“Beginning in the middle, starting thence away, to what may be digested in a play”) locates it nowhere. Each character in the play decides how to act, for that moment only. This too is part of a world at war, where all sense of order has been lost. This is the closest the Renaissance world comes to Samuel Beckett: a world at war, where for each individual there may be no tomorrow, where, under the imperative of survival, morality comes second: “Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war.”
Five years after Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare gives us another dystopian universe in King Lear. The language of Troilus and Cressida is beautiful, and its ideas are powerful, but none of its characters or scenes escape the stage and live in the imagination as they do in King Lear.
In King Lear cruelty and despair are made flesh. The story is of the disorder that follows Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom among his daughters, excluding the youngest in a fit of pique. In parallel, the Earl of Gloucester’s bastard son deceives him into turning his good son out of doors. The play unfolds through Lear’s madness as he is exposed to anger, grief, old age, and the elements; and through the blinding of Gloucester, when he tries to help Lear, by one of Lear’s sons in law.
In this catastrophe the precepts we have in earlier plays are shaken. The Duke of Cornwall and his wife, Lear’s daughter, who blind Gloucester, do so in full view of the audience. They are the highest ranked in the land. One of their servants, appalled, rises against them and kills Cornwall. Other servants go to help Gloucester. There is no doubt where the sympathies of the playwright lie, and the audience will join him. In this world turned upside down, the servants are right to attack their masters; the blind see more clearly than the sighted, and truth is spoken by the fool and the madman.
Lear, robbed of his power and position, sees how the world looks from the bottom.
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you,
From seasons such as these? O I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
And thou must shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.7
The lesson of the play seems to be the opposite of Ulysses’ (and Thomas Hobbes’s): When order has broken down, justice and injustice remain and still have meaning. But only the mad, the blind, and the poor can understand this.
King Lear, like Troilus and Cressida, is set in a pre-Christian era. Nature is red in tooth and claw. What gods there may be are cruel. But Lear in the last scene, carrying the body of his daughter, is an image that looks forward to the pieta. In this world without order or justice, it is the ordinary Christian virtues that matter: love, friendship, charity.
Finally, ungoverned force is self-destructive, as in Troilus and Cressida:
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite.
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. (I, iii, 116-125)
Is this is Shakespeare’s voice or Ulysses’? We do not know. But the fineness of the language catches the ear, and this story is played out in Troilus and Cressida and in many other plays.
In the past hundred years Shakespeare’s plays have often been given a contemporary twist. Orson Welles’ production of Julius Caesar in 1937 omitted large parts of the original, made Caesar a fascist dictator and Brutus an ineffectual liberal. (It ran for a record 157 performances). Under the influence of Vietnam, some critics, wanting Shakespeare on their side, interpreted Henry V as an anti-militarist play, though it is not clear that anyone attempted this on the stage.8
We can do what we will of Shakespeare. If it works on the stage that is enough; if it brings people to read Shakespeare themselves, that is even better. But we should not imagine that Shakespeare shared these views. Here I take an equally ahistorical guess at how Shakespeare might look at today’s world.
Much has changed, but not everything. Order is still better than chaos, though some regimes (North Korea) test this proposition to the limit. Kings rule today in few countries, but governments still have a touch of monarchy about them. The monarch may be temporary, and his or her power may be less than absolute, but in almost every country, authoritarian or democratic, leadership rests with one man or woman. Succession is still the key question, no matter what the system. Legitimacy, complicated, intangible, and subject to constant evolution, remains the foundation of order.
The destruction of a regime—the modern equivalent of regicide—is still likely to bring brings chaos or civil war: Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria; going further back, China and Russia. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 were exceptions: Their historical experience, and a benign encompassing environment (the European Union and NATO) saved them. Even so, their continued success cannot be taken for granted. Russia, on reflection, for all its unpleasantness, has at least avoided a civil war.
The qualities needed in leaders have not changed: Constancy, responsibility, courage, a sense of justice, and the common touch are all as valuable today as in the 17th century, and as rare. Learning from Hamlet, we might add skepticism to our list of good qualities. Hesitation has its merits: Eisenhower procrastinated on Vietnam; Carter did nothing about Iran; Reagan did not take revenge in Lebanon but instead withdrew the remaining American forces. The occasions when decisive action is the best course are fewer than we think.
The biggest change, perhaps, is that ambition, once a sin against order, is now a prerequisite for office. Shakespeare would be astonished to find we have invented a system of choosing leaders that is so arduous and unpleasant that only those with overwhelming personal ambition will think of submitting themselves to it.
Shakespeare thought crowds were dangerous; this remains valid. That authoritarians fear them is no surprise. Democrats should be as wary of their modern equivalent: the referendum, a pseudo-democratic way of bringing out the worst in people.
Does the superb Troilus and Cressida mean that Shakespeare saw war as futile? Not necessarily. It is one possibility. But this is a play, not a sermon.
It is tempting to sum up by saying that, in today’s terms, Shakespeare is a skeptical conservative. But that misses the point: both his skepticism and his conservatism reflect a distrust of ungoverned power. Shakespeare and Montaigne shared a hatred of cruelty. Their age was not yet the age of Enlightenment, but they point the way to it.9
Shakespeare is skeptical of principles and certainties: We should put people first. This is a playwright who understood men, including their faults. Even those who are dangerous like Jack Cade or ridiculous like Malvolio get sympathy from their author. Somewhere here is a glimpse of the modern world and of the idea of the worth of individuals, but it is a glimpse, not a doctrine.
A few months ago, in the Warsaw State Theatre, someone pointed me to a quotation from Shakespeare, in Polish, on the main staircase. My guide didn’t want to translate for fear of getting the words wrong. Why should the Polish State Theatre quote Shakespeare? Then I saw it was from Hamlet and I knew what it must be.
Shakespeare has a trick that he uses when he has something important to say. He announces that it is coming, but then delays it with qualifications and conditions, as if it is difficult to say it straight out. Thus in Twelfth Night, when Viola is admitting to herself that she loves Orsino, she speaks hesitantly:
My father had a daughter loved a man
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship. (II, iv, 107-9)
Here is Shakespeare explaining what he is doing when he writes for the theater:
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is quite from the purpose of playing whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
Acknowledgements, Further Reading, Listening, and Viewing
Reading Shakespeare: The Arden Shakespeare is the most comprehensive; I also like Oxford, especially for Henry V, where many of my comments reflect the superb editing of Gary Taylor. Signet is easy to use and always contains interesting critical material.
Reading About Shakespeare: Anything by Stephen Greenblatt: his life of Shakespeare, Will in the World and his criticism. My comments on King Lear draw on an essay from Greenblatt’s Shakespeare’s Freedom.
Jan Kott’s Shakespeare our Contemporary tells how the plays came to life in Poland under Communism.
The question to ask when reading Shakespeare is: How should this be played on the stage? The TV series by John Barton and The Royal Shakespeare is some decades old; but it is excellent and is still available on DVD.
Voice Recordings: Laurence Olivier’s voice is wonderful; John Gielgud’s readings are subtle.
Films: The greatest film of Hamlet is by Grigori Kozintsev, with the Prince played by Innokenti Smoktunovsky. This is available from the Russian Cinema Council. English subtitles.
The old MGM film of Julius Caesar features a fine performance by Marlon Brando as Anthony. An Italian film Cesare Deve Morire, in which the actors are prisoners in a Neapolitan jail, is also remarkable. Unfortunately the subtitles are in Italian—translating the Neapolitan.
Henry V and King Lear are best seen in the theatre; film directors get too interested in battle scenes. As far as I know, no one has filmed Troilus and Cressida, and it is staged only rarely. Do not miss it.
1Enoch Powell, unreliable politically, but with a great knowledge of literature and history.
2See Hamlet’s Moment by András Kiséry, Oxford University Press.
3The name, “Wars of the Roses” came into use in the 19th century. It comes from a scene in Henry VI where nobles conversing in a garden identify themselves with one or the other side by plucking red or white roses.
4Jan Kott recounts this in Shakespeare, Our Contemporary (Doubleday, 1964).
5“In the middle of the action”. This is still the fashion today in thrillers.
6“Generally” is also a pun, since Agamemnon is a General.
7“Take physic pomp”: Cure yourself, rich man. “Shake the superflux”: Give away what you don’t need.
8See Making Make-Believe Real, Gary Wills (Yale University Press 2014) Ch9, 10.
9Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s essays was published in London in 1603; it is clear that Shakespeare read and appreciated them.