- "Our Sovereign Process":Reading Shakespeare's Politics
For well we know no hand of blood and bonecan grip the sacred handle of our sceptre,unless he do profane, steal, or usurp.Richard II (3.3.79-81)1 [End Page 160]
Kings are earth's gods; in vice, their law's their will;And if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?Pericles (1.1.103-4)
It is not difficult to find something of a consensus regarding Shakespeare's philosophy. In the concluding section to their introduction to the Arden Hamlet, entitled "The Continuing Mystery of Hamlet," the editors observe that "part of the fascination of this play is precisely its refusal to give us all the answers and its resistance to yield to any 'theory'" (Thompson and Taylor 2006, 135). Introducing a collection of essays gathered from Shakespeare Survey, John Joughin remarks how Shakespeare's oeuvre "sustains a productive interpretative ambiguity which defies each new critical paradigm" (Alexander 2004, 1). Similarly, in his book reviewed here, Robin Headlam Wells observes that no one can be sure what Shakespeare's politics were (139). The most Stephen Greenblatt, in the collection reviewed here, will venture of Shakespeare's "central perception of governance" is that "the action of those in power have consequences" in this life. This seemingly anodyne view "stands in the place of any higher-minded ethical object" (72). One can see that the sheer girth of Shakespeare's output, measured by the variety of characters he created through dramatic and poetic impersonations, has baffled attempts to hem or rein him in. What were his preferences in religion, politics, sex? He kept his views to himself or had to if he was to portray and speak for others. This is the common assessment of what one recent critic of political readings has called the "gooey business" of contemporary Hamlet criticism (Semler 2006, 116).
However, that Shakespeare, focusing on the highest matters of state in work after work, demonstrates a complex engagement with how the wheels of power turn cannot be doubted. Hamlet, in what is no mystery but evident in plot and diction, indicates what came to the fore of Shakespeare's mind when he thought of politics in a general way. He took pains to make of Hamlet's murder, for example, an international event, a context not evident in the historical accounts of his death. At play's end, Fortinbras, prince of Norway, soon to be King of Denmark, arrives on the scene fresh from a military conquest over Poland. Arriving at the same time are ambassadors from the English crown with news that the Danish king's "commandment is fulfill'd" with a double murder—exacted on the wrong Danish subjects (5.2.370). These foreigners enter the stage just after Prince Hamlet, killed by a monarch and his accomplice, has uttered his last sentence, "The rest is silence" (5.2.358). The fact that Shakespeare has them gather there to witness, benefit from and/or add to the criminal events in Denmark at the highest level of the state, however, arguably amounts to Shakespeare's sounding an [End Page 161] alarum about a sovereign violence rife throughout Europe. Much has been written about Hamlet's enigmatic indecisiveness. Much less by comparison, though the last twenty years or so has us catching up, has been written about what Claudius calls "our sovereign process," and the state-monopolized violence he directs as he issues a letter to another state, England, to kill Prince Hamlet or else pay the price. It is in an offer that England dare not refuse:
Thou mayst not coldly setour sovereign process; which imports at full,by letters congruing to that effect,the present death of Hamlet. Do it, England.(Hamlet 4.3.62-65).