Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 107-124
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Shakespeare and Political Philosophy
John D. Cox
Though Shakespeare has been praised as one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived, he has no standing in the history of Western philosophy, being at best a footnote to the derivative neo-Platonists and skeptics of the late Renaissance. He died in 1616, more than twenty years before Descartes's Discourse on Method heralded the autonomous rationalism of the Enlightenment, and Shakespeare did not achieve a reputation as a deep thinker until the nineteenth century, as a consequence of admiration for his characters. People seemed to think that a reflective and witty prince who could say to his friend, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" must be the product of a keenly philosophical intelligence—never mind that Hamlet is referring to the "antique Roman" philosophy he so admires in Horatio, i.e., Stoicism, which by 1599 was little more than an oft-repeated set of moral and social platitudes. 1 To assert that there are more things in heaven and earth than late Renaissance Stoicism is not to assert very much.
But other ways of thinking about Shakespeare philosophically are more promising than character analysis. He was indeed a thoughtful playwright, and though he had no university education, he was a voracious and incisive reader, so the influences on his plays and poems include many writers who have some standing in the history of philosophy. More complex than discerning historical philosophical influences on Shakespeare is what might be called the hermeneutical approach, i.e., the interpretation of the plays and poems with particular philosophers and philosophies in mind, regardless of their possible historical influence in the sixteenth century. To survey the range of philosophical influences and hermeneutical approaches is impossible [End Page 107] in a single essay, but a manageable example of Shakespeare's thinking is his political philosophy, where both ways of understanding him can be discerned. The most influential interpreter of Shakespeare's history plays for the second half of the twentieth century, for example, was E. M. W. Tillyard, who purported to excavate the neo-Platonic assumptions of Shakespeare's political culture: order, degree, hierarchy, and obedience. 2 Though questions were increasingly raised concerning Tillyard's assumptions and documentation, the decisive challenge to his authority was issued in the 1980s by New Historicists and Cultural Materialists, whose allegiance was more or less explicitly Marxist, and who therefore interpreted Shakespeare in light of a particular nineteenth-century philosophy. 3 A clearer example of the difference between history and hermeneutics in understanding Shakespeare is hard to imagine.
The clarity of the difference, however, does not mean that the two approaches are mutually exclusive. Tillyard construed Shakespeare's emphasis on hierarchical order as an advocacy of divine-right monarchy, and much in the plays of Shakespeare supports this construal. Despite his sympathetic portraits of particular characters, including commoners, remarks in his plays about commoners taken together ("the people") are always slighting and mistrustful—often indeed scornful—and the proportion of upper-class to lower-class characters reflects their perceived social importance, for the former invariably outnumber the latter, even in the comedies, whereas the aristocracy were a tiny fraction of the total population in Shakespeare's England. Shakespeare's portrayal of pre-imperial Rome, in Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, shows little understanding of, and less sympathy with, republican alternatives to one-person rule. Shakespeare was not responsive to Calvin's spirited defense of the "poor common people" against rapacious kings (even, or especially, under godly magistrates), and Shakespeare's plays offer no support to the nascent republicanism of those who took arms against the king of England in the mid-seventeenth century, largely inspired by Calvinism. 4 Shakespeare, in short, was no Milton.
This is not to say, however, that he was an uncritically idealizing royalist, as we can see from his first venture into writing about English history: his four early plays on the civil unrest of the fifteenth century. Three of these plays...