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Shakespeare, Prisoner of the British Empire


Intelligent high school students often ask me, with genuine bewilderment, why Shakespeare garners so much respect. They watch productions of Shakespeare’s plays and they read the texts, and they dutifully listen to their teachers fawn over “the bard”, but they remain stubbornly unconverted. Admittedly, I too remain unconverted— even after reading how Bloom, Greenblatt, and Bate expound on the virtuosity of the bard. What’s wrong with us? Are we corrupted by the media and by a few inept teachers?

Well, after a decade or two of musing and re-evaluating, I’ve come to the conclusion that Shakespeare’s scholars and promoters give little thought to the fact that he was a prisoner of an intolerant age. He was not a free, independent author or freelancer; his job was to entertain his rich patrons with clever diversions; his job was never to enlighten anyone. After all, he lived in a time when freedom and autonomy only belonged to the heads of state.

While these points are commonly accepted, we rarely draw the conclusion that Shakespeare did not have the freedom to write anything that challenged the status quo or the beliefs, vices and prejudices of his rulers. Somehow, scholars continue to imagine a Shakespeare who communicates enlightened ideas instead of a man condemned to entertain tyrants and gloss over the darkness of his era.

In a recent article on Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate rightly dismissed Harold Bloom’s hyperbolic assessment of Shakespeare’s positive influence on progressive values, and yet I must also dismiss Bate’s supposedly more modest and “more plausible” claim for Shakespeare’s progressive influence. I quote:

Ludicrously, the critic Harold Bloom once proposed that Shakespeare invented our idea of what it is to be human. Far more plausibly, one could argue that Montaigne and Shakespeare between them effected a seismic shift in our sense of the autonomy of the individual, the sense of the self, and the western tradition’s acknowledgement of cultural difference and relativity of values. (The Statesman, July 10, 2014)

Bate’s assessment of Shakespeare’s influence on our culture is half a degree less hyperbolic than Bloom’s. He claims that Shakespeare’s works “effected a seismic shift in our sense of the autonomy of the individual.” If this were true, slaves, suffragettes, civil rights activists and political revolutionaries would be in the habit of quoting Shakespeare, but they are not, and for good reason. Shakespeare was in no position to promote autonomy (freedom) or justice for the common person. His patrons and his paying audiences were largely sexist and racist elites, nobles, snobs and other greedy, calculating, war-mongering jingoists. They would have preferred to see the whole world bow to their queen and becomes slaves to their budding empire.

It’s precisely because Shakespeare’s works contain no obvious traces of a progressive mind that Hollywood remains in love with the bard. Hollywood loves Macbeth for its violence and immorality. In sensationalizing the lowest qualities of the play, Hollywood should not be blamed, for—like all of Shakespeare’s plays—Macbeth was not written to enlighten audiences; in fact, Macbeth was written cater to the fears and prejudices of King James, the fool who suffered from an irrational fear of witches and traitors. The play also stoops to propaganda by tactlessly contrasting the evil and stupid Scottish King Duncan to the unbelievably pure, good and divine English king. In short, Macbeth does not promote autonomy—it promotes the English monarchy, misogyny and it promotes false and dangerous stereotypes about pagans.

Bate’s idea that Shakespeare promoted autonomy is an Anglophile’s daydream that rings as hollow as the belief that America promotes freedom and democracy. Shakespeare lived in an age devoted to stripping individuals of their autonomy and to turning all individuals into royal subjects, Anglican clones and landless slaves. To credit him with promoting autonomy verges on comedy.

However, let us be fair. Perhaps some goodness can be salvaged from Macbeth. Macbeth is an irredeemable murderer, but the two other murders in the play are different. Unlike Macbeth, they are poor and struggling to survive in their predatory world, and they murder Banquo, the man they blame for their suffering. They want freedom from Banquo, but do we ever imagine that Shakespeare supported their decision to murder their oppressor? If freedom and autonomy were being promoted by Shakespeare, he should have focused his play on these two poor individuals who turned into murderers because their world had denied them autonomy, stripped them of their right to live on land free of landlords, subjected them to the violent authority of a king and very likely loaded them with debts. Shakespeare did not focus his play on them; the poor men play second string to the greedy, powerful Macbeth. They do not even receive names let alone respect.

We might also observe that the man blamed for ruining the lives of the two men is Banquo, whose name alludes to a word that means, in Latin languages, bank. Apparently, the bard knew how much people suffered on account of bankers, and because Banquo does not represent an English banker, he was able to hint at the injustice committed by Banquo. This makes the play rather relevant to our own time, for while we are not in the habit of murdering our bankers, I think plenty of victims of modern-day banking are seeing daggers. It’s a safe bet. After all, in this age of unprecedented national, student and consumer debt, nearly everyone is—to paraphrase Shakespeare—bowed to the grave or at least impoverished by our Banquos.

Back to Bate: what about his claim that Shakespeare was crucial to developing “the western tradition’s acknowledgement of cultural difference and relativity of values”? Again, this claim amounts to a daydream. Macbeth does not teach us to understand the value of other cultures or to accept that our values are relative. Instead, the play perpetuates such 16th century English prejudices as the belief that pagan cultures are practiced by evil witches, that good women are passive and that foreign kings are incompetent. And the foreign characters in Othello and The Merchant of Venice are not portrayed as intelligent, generous or virtuous characters. Even generous Antonio does nothing to compensate Shylock for his losses. As for mad King Lear, well, he might be English, but he’s not really English, not by Elizabethan standards, since he’s irredeemably pagan and ignorant of his ‘duty’ to keep his country united under one monarch.

Did Shakespeare set most of his tragedies in foreign countries because he respected their “cultural differences”? No. He set them abroad because his audiences considered foreign countries inferior and either deserving of tragedy or doomed to tragedy.

And the reality is much, much worse. You see, Shakespeare’s ‘tragedies’ are not genuine tragedies designed to make us pity for foreign kings, princes, commanders, money lenders and so on. Shakespeare’s wealthy snobbish English patrons were—for the most part—incapable of feeling pity for foreigners. If this seems harsh, imagine Hollywood screening movies depicting the humanity of foreign rulers—especially those who reject the dominant, capitalist culture and instead support communism or anarchy. Or, imagine Hollywood producing a movie about the tragic fate of the civilian victims of NATO’s violence in Libya. No one dares to expect such bravery from Hollywood, so why do we expect it from a mere court dramatist like William Shakespeare?

What about our beloved Romeo and Juliet? Does it “acknowledge cultural difference”? Well, if it did, its Italian characters would be cast in a positive light; instead, Romeo and Juliet exaggerates old stereotypes of women and Italians, portraying the one as weak and meddling, and portraying Italian men as belligerent, argumentative, lustful and vain. How’s that for promoting tolerance for cultural difference?

Furthermore, Romeo and Juliet makes a mockery of the Catholic Church. Honestly, if the play ‘acknowledges’ cultural differences it does so only to mock these differences.

This leaves only the claim that Shakespeare communicated the supposedly enlightened view that values are relative. I cannot seriously believe that Shakespeare used any of his plays to introduce the notion of relativism to audiences; his audiences were proud Anglophiles—cultural relativism was the furthest idea from their minds. Yes, admittedly Hamlet does hint at relativism when he says “nothing is but thinking makes it so,” but the sulking, morbid, inept and murderous Hamlet is hardly held up to audiences as a model thinker let alone as a model Englishman.

What about Hamlet’s final decision to voluntarily give his kingdom to Fortinbras, the Norwegian conqueror? Could this surrender of his kingdom mean that Hamlet understood that a foreign ruler is as a good as a local one because all values are relative? More likely, Hamlet’s voluntary surrender of his kingdom to a foreigner was intended to highlight his madness with an act of virtual treason.

While respecting Shakespeare’s obvious talent as writer, we should acknowledge that he was not free to use the stage to promote enlightened or even semi-enlightened views. He was a prisoner of a world that left him no choice but to echo and peddle its despicable prejudices and illusions.

Peter Dudink can be reached at:

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