Politics & Policy

The Nobility of High Politics in Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (Wikimedia)
Shakespeare skeptics say his plays must have been written by someone with intimate knowledge of English government affairs.

Every scholar is aware of the precision with which Shakespeare limns contemporary knowledge of medicine, science, and the law in nearly every one of his 37 canonical plays. Yet few are aware that the political behavior depicted by Shakespeare is equally accurate, as attested by modern scholars and especially by modern politicians and diplomats — an assessment that adds to the ongoing controversy over the authorship of the Shakespeare canon.

Shakespeare’s political plays were the ones that most interested Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln had received the gift of a book, Notes and Comments upon Certain Plays and Actors of Shakespeare, with Criticism and Correspondence, from its author, James H. Hackett. He wrote back from the White House on August 17, 1863:

Some of Shakespeare’s plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful.

In noting Lincoln’s fascination with Macbeth, Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago highlighted the playwright’s intimate knowledge of political ambition:

The man who could write Macbeth so convincingly that a Lincoln believed it to be the perfect illustration of the problems of tyranny and murder must have known about politics; otherwise, however charming its language, the play would not have attracted a man who admittedly did know.

Shakespeare’s works, which teem with insights into aristocratic life and political intrigue, have endured for 400 years without any link being established between the man who is traditionally considered the author of the plays — William of Stratford, we might call him — and court or political life. This has perplexed many statesmen over the years, such as German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who said that Shakespeare must have been “in touch with the great affairs of state [and] behind the scenes of political life.”

In fact, historians such as Lily B. Campbell are emphatic about the systematic political uses to which the history plays of Shakespeare were designed. The UCLA professor concluded her 1947 study of the history plays by stating, “Each of the Shakespeare histories serves a special purpose in elucidating a political problem of Elizabeth’s day and in bringing to bear upon this problem the accepted political philosophy of the Tudors.”

Examining Shakespeare’s political philosophy was the aim of the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford. In his essay “What’s in a Name?” he wrote that the best way to discover Shakespeare’s political beliefs was to examine the underlying assumptions taken for granted by all of his characters. What he found was the philosophical outlook of an aristocrat pervaded with longing for the past and gloom about the future, precisely because Shakespeare’s arrival as an artist coincided with the end of the Renaissance. In Trevor-Roper’s analysis, Shakespeare the dramatist supported the feudal social order, detested the Puritans, hated rebellion in all its forms, and tended to ignore God in the canon because he was a cultured aristocrat who was unquestioning in his social and religious conservatism.

In this regard, it is telling that nowhere in Shakespeare’s canon do we find the English Parliament at work. In Elizabeth’s time, it met only sporadically, and then only because the Queen called it into session when she needed funds. The legislative powers of Parliament extended only to proposing bills, which could not become law without her approval. For these reasons, access to an insider at the royal court was what represented true political success. As Justice Shallow tells an associate about the visiting Sir John Falstaff, close friend to Prince Hal:

I will use him well. A friend i’ th’ court is better than a penny in purse. [2 Henry IV, 5.1]

In all his plays, Shakespeare presents courtiers as powerful noblemen, even when they appear disguised as itinerant peddlers, as in The Winter’s Tale (4.4), where balladmonger Autolycus is taken for one by a clown and shepherd on the road.

Clown: This cannot be but a great courtier.

Shepherd: His garments are rich, but he wears them not handsomely.

Clown: He seems to be the more noble in being fantastical: a great man, I’ll warrant; I know by the picking on’s teeth.

In an interview for the PBS documentary The Shakespeare Mystery, Enoch Powell applied his own political experience when probing William Shakespeare’s working knowledge of high politics:

I had been a member of the Cabinet, and I’d been in politics for twenty years, and I had some idea of what it’s like in the kitchen. And my astonishment was to discover that these were the best works of somebody who’d been in the kitchen. They’re written by someone who has lived the life, who has been part of a life of politics and power, who knows what people feel when they are near to the center of power, near to the heat of the kitchen. It’s not something which can be transferred, it’s not something on which an author, just an author, can be briefed: “Oh, this is how it happened”; it comes straight out of experience — straight out of personal observation — straight out of personal feeling.

The same conclusion was reached by American ambassador Paul Nitze, who thought the Shakespeare plays spoke directly to a life experienced at the center of power. Nitze was President Ronald Reagan’s chief negotiator on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1981–84), an achievement dramatized in the play A Walk in the Woods. For more than 40 years, Nitze was one of the chief architects of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. For the television program Uncovering Shakespeare, moderated by William F. Buckley Jr., Nitze pointed out:

Many of [the] plays of Shakespeare, of course, deal with people of the upper echelons of the society. Deals with kings and queens and principally courtiers. It’s at that level that emotions are extremely tense and rivalries are extremely bitter, and that the important issues cut and bite deeply into the human spirit.

Two years later Nitze expanded upon that assessment in a foreword for Shakespeare: Who Was He? There he noted that “as settings for his human dramas, he almost always picks the highest levels of political power.” Even more revealing of Shakespeare’s value system, in Nitze’s view, was the insight that “rulers are his greatest heroes.”

As with Powell, so with Nitze — Shakespeare understood the psychology of power as it was actually employed during the English Renaissance, because of his personal history:

Shakespeare knows what it is like at the center of power. He has the insider’s knowledge of the way power can be used for good or evil and the consequences that ensue. He understands the struggles that result from the tension between ideals of morality and the needs of statecraft.

Scholars contend that Shakespeare even satirized Elizabeth’s secretary of state, Sir Robert Cecil, as King Richard III, and her lord high treasurer, Lord Burghley, as Polonius in Hamlet, without suffering consequences. There is no record of William Shakespeare’s being brought in for questioning even after the Crown arrested members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the theater company for which Shakespeare most often wrote) for performing Richard II on the eve of the Earl of Essex’s rebellion in 1601.

Is it surprising, then, that so many modern politicians have concluded that only a nobleman living at the apex of Elizabethan society and government could have written Shakespeare?


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