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  • Was Shakespeare a Republican?A Review Essay
  • Anthony DiMatteo (bio)
Cheney, Patrick . 2004. Shakespeare, National Poet-Playwright. New York: Cambridge University Press. $80.00 hc. xv + 319 pp.
Hadfield, Andrew . 2005. Shakespeare and Republicanism. New York: Cambridge University Press. $80.00 hc. xiii + 363 pp.
Maley, Willy . 2003. Nation, State and Empire in English Renaissance Literature: Shakespeare to Milton. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. $105.00 hc. xvii + 185 pp.
Skinner, Quentin, and Martin van Gelderen , eds. 2002. Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage.Volume One: Republicanism and Constitutionalism in Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press. $29.99 sc. xi + 420 pp.
Skinner, Quentin, and Martin van Gelderen , eds. 2002. Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage. Volume Two: The Values of Republicanism in Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press. $29.99 sc. xi + 402 pp.

How do we register Shakespeare politically? For that matter, Pythagoras or Muriel Rukeyser?1 The contemporary American dichotomy of liberal and conservative does not do justice to the complexities of many a past writer and philosopher. Anachronism as well as binary thinking befuddle the mass of criticism on Shakespeare that has largely ruled him politically conservative—or neutral and invisible. A twentieth-century version of this ruling runs roughly from E. M. W. Tillyard to Blair Worden. For the former, Ulysses's speech in praise of degree or hierarchy and order in Troilus and Cressida expresses what all Elizabethans—including Shakespeare—would have taken for granted (1943, 9-17). For Worden, a knowledge of Renaissance politics cannot "take us to the heart" of Shakespeare's plays for "all we have on the page are speeches which conform to the characterizations of their speakers" (1992, 1, 2). Shakespeare in such readings comes off as basically a conservative or pro-monarchist or as one who did not need to weigh in politically to write as poet and/or playwright.

Yet what if the political relation of poetry and drama to governance was at the core of his view of his own function as a writer, as Annabel Patterson (1989, 6), Jean Howard (1994, 17-21), Constance Jordan (1997, 29-33), Laurie Shannon (2002, 7-8) and Hugh Grady (2002, 20-21) have recently contended? It is arguable that to some degree, Shakespeare saw himself as an unacknowledged legislator, an Orpheus for all humankind at the "Global" center of an unrealized public order or republic, as Pauline Kiernan has indeed argued (1996, 14-20). According to classical myth, Orpheus was the first creator of civil society for a wild humanity which was tamed by the poet's music. This foundational act represents a republican moment at the very beginning of Western literature, inviting all to partake in a commonweal or polity as they flock to hear the bard's song. Shakespeare recognizes this transformative power of Orphic music in The Merchant of Venice when he has Lorenzo both invoke the myth and strip it of pretensions to being an instrument of a long-lasting harmony. An unspecified "poet," Lorenzo tells his beloved Jessica,

Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones and floods; Since nought so stockfish, hard, and full of rage, But music for the time doth change his nature.

The myth is a political and moral litmus-test, Lorenzo further observes, for a man, [End Page 197]

not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.

(Merchant of Venice, 5. 1. 79-85)2

What if Shakespeare too designed his art to convert or seduce his Globe's audience "for the time," eliciting a harmony among humankind, intimating a wide-ranging wisdom regarding how people can relate civilly in personal and public ways, marrying and forming cities, for example, to cite the vatic, or divinely prophetic, powers attributed to Orpheus (and Amphion) by the Roman poet Horace in his Art of Poetry? What if the poet-playwright's mission was to evoke and cast suspicion upon a universal law of nations, the way the myth of Orpheus begins in a comedy uniting humanity and ends in tragedy, with the bard literally torn apart by his own followers become "stockfish, hard, and full of rage" again? In his works, Shakespeare takes up...


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