The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.461 Wednesday, 26 November 2014
Date: November 2, 2014 at 9:01:36 PM EST
Subject: What Shakespeare taught me about Marxism
This article excerpt is from The Guardian.
What Shakespeare taught me about Marxism
If you could watch Shakespeare’s history plays back-to-back, starting with King John and ending with Henry VIII, it would, at first sight, be like an HBO drama series without a central plot: murders, wars and mayhem, all set within an apparently meaningless squabble between kings and dukes.
But once you understand what a “mode of production” is the meaning becomes clear. What you are watching is the collapse of feudalism and the emergence of early capitalism.
The mode of production is one of the most powerful ideas to come out of Marxist economics: it was prefigured by Adam Smith, who divided economic history into “modes of subsistence”, but in the hands of Marx himself, and subsequent historians who took a materialist viewpoint, it has shaped our view of the past.
Feudalism was an economic system based on obligation: peasants were obliged to hand part of their produce to the landowner and do military service for him; he in turn was obliged to provide the king with taxes, and supply an army on demand.
But in the England of Shakespeare’s history plays, the mainspring of the system has broken down. By the time Richard III was slaughtering his extended family in real life, the whole power network based on obligation had been polluted by money: rents paid in money, military service paid for with money, wars fought with the aid of a cross-border banking network stretching to Florence and Amsterdam.
Once you accept that feudalism existed, and capitalism does, there’s a big academic debate about what caused the collapse of feudalism and the rise of capitalism. Shakespeare managed to get to the essence of it without having knowledge of the terms feudalism and capitalism. Feudalism was a word invented to describe medieval society once it was over, by 17th century historians. As for capitalism, Shakespeare had seen only the earliest form of it, yet he described it well.
In the comedies and tragedies – which are about the contemporary society the audience lived in – we are suddenly in a world of bankers, merchants, companies, mercenary soldiers and republics. The typical place in these plays is a prosperous trading city, not a castle. The typical hero is a person whose greatness is essentially bourgeois self-made, either through courage (Othello), humanist philosophy (Hamlet and Prospero) or knowledge of the law (Portia in The Merchant of Venice).
But Shakespeare had no clue about where this was going to lead. He saw and described what a society that could print books, sail to the Americas, chart the heavens accurately was doing to the human character: empowering us with knowledge, yet leaving us susceptible to greed, passion, self-doubt and power-craziness on a scale unknown by the peasants and serfs of feudal Europe. Another 150 years would pass until merchant capitalism, based on trade, conquest and slavery, would give birth to industrial capitalism.
For this reason, whenever I want to stop myself being too Marxist, I think about Shakespeare. Armed with a few history books and a profound humanism, he described the society around him with peerless insight, and tried to explain to his audience how they’d got there.
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