The Bard Can Help Us Understand Politics’ Sound and Fury
The more I read, teach and watch performances of Shakespeare’s plays, the more my political thinking is clarified. I have not become more allied with a particular party: Shakespearean politics are philosophical, not partisan. They do, however, express a basic value system—still relevant today—with which to think about society and judge its health or sickness.
Shakespearean politics are conservative in the classic sense. They value order. For Shakespeare, society is the Elizabethan “great chain of being” made manifest. God is at the hierarchy’s top, as the embodiment of supreme order. Satan is at the bottom, the epitome of complete chaos. In between is society, the human effort to replicate the orderliness associated with godliness. Its customs, traditions and laws keep chaos at bay and provide an emotional and intellectual connection across the divide.
Yet Shakespeare’s support for social order is not an uncritical approval of the status quo. There is no pretense that whatever exists at any given time is sacred or absolute. One supports the king because he is the king, not because he is a particularly good one. When Henry Bolingbroke usurps the crown in “ Richard II, ” he goes against the orderliness of succession and prompts a long and bloody civil war. Yet once Bolingbroke wins and becomes Henry IV, his reign and succession assume their own legitimacy. In Shakespeare’s political philosophy, social disruption is to be feared and opposed, but when it happens, the subsequent order then needs to be preserved, so long as it is rational.
In Shakespeare’s tragedies, disruption produces drama but is condemned as a course of action. There would be no play if Claudius did not kill Hamlet’s father. Don’t forget, though, that Claudius is a villain whose evil, illegitimate action produces devastating consequences.
In the comedies, one might argue that disruption comes closer to what we associate with innovation. In “As You Like It,” when Duke Frederick banishes the legitimate king, Duke Senior, the ultimate result is positive. The Forest of Arden, where the characters interact for most of the story, is a site of experimentation and play. Yet “As You Like It”—and all of Shakespeare’s comedies, for that matter—is an extreme exercise in whimsy. The audience knows this is not how life really works. The disruption it enacts is temporary, and, at the end, the existing social order is reinstated with only minor revision.
That said, Shakespeare has an acute understanding of the consequences of prejudice and meanness. “The Merchant of Venice” dramatizes the result of persistent, socially sanctioned mistreatment of one group of people. The villain of the play, the Jew Shylock, has experienced a lifetime of abuse, and his resentment fuels his determination to exact the pound of flesh that he is legally owed. Portia must exploit a loophole in the law to foil his claim. Through her ingenuity, the social order is made right, but the verdict—forcing Shylock to convert to Christianity—perpetuates his mistreatment.
The play ends on a disturbing note. Portia had asked Shylock to show mercy, but then she does not show it to him. The sentence she delivers seems bound to breed further resentment.
How do these insights apply to America today? Some say electing Donald Trump, despite his coarse, unpredictable nature, was better than the alternative. At least he would shake things up. But shaking up a social system, even a deeply flawed one, is treacherous.
This president combines qualities of Shakespeare’s worst kings: the vanity of Lear, the impetuosity of Richard II, the maliciousness of Richard III. His presidency has not introduced a new order the way Henry IV did. It has increased chaos and discord. No Trump-like character could possibly triumph in a Shakespeare play.
Yet Shakespeare’s “Henriad”—the eight-play historical sequence that begins with Bolingbroke’s usurpation of Richard II—chronicles a multigenerational war culminating in the ascendancy of the villainous Richard III. His final defeat ushers in the Tudor dynasty: a union of the warring Houses of Lancaster and York. Perhaps by learning from that tale of partisan vitriol, Americans can move away from finger-pointing, take responsibility for political and social failures, and build a new consensus.
Reading Shakespeare’s historical plays could encourage people to be less self-righteous in their political positions. Still, that leaves the problem of how to rectify what years of misrule and resentment have wrought. It also doesn’t answer the question of where to draw the line between supporting the office of the presidency and backing a man who seems to have no respect for its historical traditions and values.
Perhaps a Portia-like figure could use her legal ingenuity to effect the ouster of this selfish and irrational man. Yet this risks perpetuating the resentment that caused his election in the first place. Studying Shakespeare teaches nothing if not humility: an openness to the possibility that someone else may have an answer that has escaped the rest of us.
Ms. Cohen is a professor of English at Drexel University, where she is dean of the Pennoni Honors College.