Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 637. Thursday, 7 October 1993.
Date: Thursday, 07 Oct 1993 07:22:13 -0600 (CST)
Subject: Shakespeare and Politics.
It might help some, mulling over this vast topic, to distinguish between the
uses that particular plays might contingently be put to from time to time, by
this group or that, and the ideas and attitudes that are integral to the plays
themselves. That Coriolanus caught fascist or nazi fancies--as T. S. Eliot
foresaw--may or may not tell us something about the play; we need to know a lot
more than we do about the way they were reading it. Chances are they didn't
Whatever we might want to say about Coriolanus, he's not a fascist. Can you
imagine him joining or forming a political party? Leading marches, presiding
over mass meetings? Waving flags, shouting slogans, whipping up frenzied mobs?
Getting him to acknowledge obligations toward family and friends--much less
the state--is like pulling teeth; and political abstractions mean nothing to
him. He's entirely a-political, a complete individualist and proud of it:
self- sufficient, self-enclosed, needing no one, a law unto himself, the author
of his own being. That at any rate is how he sees himself. All he cares about
is honor, which for him is absolutely valuable in itself, regardless of
considerations, its own absolute reward, the standard by which all other goods
are to be valued. Therefore nothing he does, no matter how extraordinary,
satisfies him. He is, perhaps, Shakespeare's supreme egoist.
Shakespeare's plays are full of people who resemble Coriolanus in this: like
him they make absolute demands, of themselves or others or the world; or place
an absolute value on some quality or virtue, like honor or love or sincerity or
chastity. Such people do not fare well in the world of Shakespeare's plays.
The greatest and most absurd of these absolutists is Coriolanus--who, thinking
he can banish Rome, family and friends and find a world elsewhere, learns that
the world is everywhere much the same. The wine he drinks is made of grapes,
as Iago would say. Shylock demands an absolute revenge. Isabella places an
absolute value on her own chastity. Othello's soul has to be perfect and so
must Desdemona's; so a wink and a nod from Iago is all it takes to drive him
mad. Hamlet demands absolute certainty, absolute virtue and absolute
revenge--at first. Cordelia demands absolute sincerity--real instead of
artificial feelings--and instantly (in S.L. Goldberg's memorable phrase) they
are all swept out to sea. Shakespeare's finest and most attractive realist is
Prince Hal who learns more from the witty and immoral Falstaff than *The Book
of the Courtier* or *The Faerie Queene*. (Does Shakespeare ever allude to
either of those books?) And so on.
To be thinking in this way about 'value' is a political stance or idea is it
not? Particularly in the late 16th century when everyone was claiming to know
the absolute truth of God's will.