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Was Shakespeare a Conservative?

Noah Berlatsky writes in The Atlantic:

Shakespeare’s Conservatism
How his politics shaped his art
NOAH BERLATSKY AUG 5 2014, 8:00 AM ET

Ira Glass recently admitted that he is not all that into Shakespeare, explaining that Shakespeare’s plays are “not relatable [and are] unemotional.” This caused a certain amount of incredulity and horror—

… A Shakespeare who is never questioned is a Shakespeare who’s irrelevant. And there are a lot of things to question in Shakespeare for a modern audience. One of those things, often overlooked in popular discussions of his work, is his politics.

Shakespeare was a conservative, in the sense that he supported early modern England’s status quo and established hierarchy, which meant defending the Crown’s view of divine monarchical right and opposing the radicals, often Puritan, who questioned it.

Shakespeare’s history plays are largely concerned with “legitimacy.” He had to walk a creative line politically since Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, Henry Tudor, had come to power in a rebellion against King Richard III, so Richard had to be demonized. But unsuccessful rebels had to be bad or at least misguided (e.g., the rebel Hotspur in Henry IV Pt. 1 is charismatic and brave, but in the wrong).

Shakespeare’s views on who should rule (if possible, the legitimate heir) and how he should rule (wisely, justly, and powerfully) have a little bit in common with those of Confucius. Richard III seems to lose what the Chinese dynastic historians would call the “mandate of heaven.”

Leaving aside political specifics limited to particular eras, Shakespeare’s general attitudes and personality seem pretty similar to those of his greatest living heir in writing for the English stage, Tom Stoppard, who is definitely right of center by London culturati standards. Robert Conquest said that everybody is conservative about what they know best, and Shakespeare and Stoppard knew a lot of things really well.

Despite Shakespeare’s colossal prestige, you seldom see his works cited today to underline a point of pious liberal conventional wisdom.

Update: Noah Millman has more.

 
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  1. Wyrd
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    Shakespeare was a conservative, in the sense that he supported early modern England’s status quo and established hierarchy, which meant defending the Crown’s view of divine monarchical right and opposing the radicals, often Puritan, who questioned it.

    Given how odious the descendants of Puritans are and have made the U.S. and a good portion of the rest of the world, I don’t see a problem here.

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  2. OsRazor
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    Shakespeare’s (i) social and political conservatism (ii) the biographical revelations of the Sonnets (iii) the dating and chronology of the plays and (iv) the biographical facts of the Burgher of Stratford, combine to make it impossible for the Burgher to be Shakespeare, but the fact that the Burgher is accepted as the author goes a long way in explaining why even today Shakespeare retains prestige.

    Absolutely, there’s nothing in Shakespeare with which PC dominated Western culture of 2014 can or should be comfortable. However, some art (Shakespeare and Wagner, e.g.) is so monumental that it will take centuries before it dies away and even then it forms the foundation for much creativity thereafter. It’s like a supernova in a Galaxy which bursts and burns and forms the material of a whole new generation of stars.

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  3. Seneka
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    Taming of the Shew…isn’t that an early instruction manual on how to use “Game” on a certain type of bitchy woman? Shakespeare certainly created many strong and complex women characters, but he perhaps also had some traditional and conservative notions of what women want and the proper sex roles (among his many other ideas).

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  4. Anonitron
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    Kind of hard to not be anti-Puritan when Puritans are anti-you.

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  5. Thursday
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    Conservative artists have a few advantages:

    1. They are free to deal with themes of purity, loyalty, and respect for authority. This gives them greater range.

    2. One of the most powerful of artistic tropes is personification, which is closely related to the sense that there is something mindlike in the non-human world. This line of thought is very closely related to teleological ethics, the sense that the world has built in purposes, and again a conservative, religious version of morality.

    3. The great chain of being seems to be a fundamental metaphor, but only conservatives feel free to use it.

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  6. Thursday
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    Just getting back from England, I can’t help but notice how forcefully Henry VII felt the need to put himself out there through architectural work like King’s College Chapel at Cambridge and the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey. He was obviously trying very hard to demonstrate his power and establish his legitimacy.

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  7. Dr. Evil
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    Take that, bleeding heart liberal English teachers!

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  8. Steve Sailer
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    King Henry VII twice had to put down military uprisings led by impostors. There was a lot of weird energy back in those days.

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  9. B&B
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    Shakespeares serious works like The Tempest are classics that inspire people centuries on. His comedies, on the other hand, were absolute shite.

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  10. Peltast
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    Was Shakespeare a “antisemite”? The Merchant of Venice is not a very flattering portrait of the jews.

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  11. Steve, your last sentence is very true. In the old days, people might have considered that this posed a problem for modern liberals. Now, I guess we just have to elect a new history for the English language since the old one doesn’t support the narrative.

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  12. I fear that OsRazor is wrong. I don’t see much creativity springing from Shakespeare or Wagner anymore. I think screenwriters and movie scorers–who would be the primary creative artists one would expect to see making use of these two–don’t need to return to the sources anymore. They have moved on to a world where their work is entirely derivative, self-referential, uninspired, and uninspiring. Can you think of a soundtrack recently that alludes to Wagner that needed knowledge of Wagner per se rather than just immersion in modern soundtrack creation in order to be made, for example?

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  13. Was Shakespeare a conservative? | Reaction Times
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    […] Source: Steve Sailer […]

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  14. Anon
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    Shakespeare is liberally quoted in twilight.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndDq-R20bNA

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  15. Anon
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    “Despite Shakespeare’s colossal prestige, you seldom see his works cited today to underline a point of pious liberal conventional wisdom.”

    But Othello has been sold as interracial love story where the noble black guy went nuts because of an evil white guy.

    Romeo and Juliet has also been as interracial stuff. West Side Story.

    Shakespeare plays are very critical of the folly of power.

    I don’t see his plays as right or left. Such notions didn’t exist in his time.

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  16. Anon
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    “Given how odious the descendants of Puritans are and have made the U.S. and a good portion of the rest of the world, I don’t see a problem here.”

    It wasn’t the Puritans who called for importing 100,000s of African slaves. Greedy business class did that.

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  17. dearieme
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    His comedies are rubbish to read. A good company can make them OK to watch, but you get far better than OK with the tragedies, even with a not very good company.

    I suspect that Shakespeare plays are a pons asinorum: some people are just too limited to see the point.

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  18. SFG
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    “Was Shakespeare a “antisemite”? The Merchant of Venice is not a very flattering portrait of the jews.”

    Yes. He was a product of his times. (It was religious rather than racial–notice that his daughter, Jessica, is married off to a Christian, and nobody has any problem with this; also note that he is redeemed at the end by converting to Christianity, something modern views of the play always elide.)

    Unlike many people, I don’t expect people living 400 years ago to conform to my standards of correct thinking.

    As for his conservatism–dispositionally you’re probably right. However, I doubt you’re going to find much in Shakespeare to support cutting the capital gains tax or banning abortion. Things have changed way too much in 400 years, and conservatives and liberals aren’t even on the same sides of many things. He’d probably be horrified we broke away from the King, though he might admit he didn’t have anything relevant to opine after four centuries of change. Probably he’d go try to work writing one of these really complex TV shows in HBO, or make videos for Youtube–remember, the guy was always about pleasing audiences.

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  19. Paul H
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    The UK’s most well know literature academic, Terry Eagleton, wrote a little known humorous poem about the political views of famous poets. The lack of proto-Marxism among the luminaries apparently disappointed him.

    ———————

    Chaucer was a class traitor
    Shakespeare hated the mob
    Donne sold out a bit later
    Sidney was a nob

    Marlowe was an elitist
    Ben Jonson was much the same
    Bunyan was a defeatist
    Dryden played the game

    There’s a sniff of reaction
    About Alexander Pope
    Sam Johnson was a Tory
    And Walter Scott a dope

    Coleridge was a right winger
    Keats was lower middle class
    Wordsworth was a cringer
    But William Blake was a gas

    Dickens was a reformist
    Tennyson was a blue
    Disraeli was mostly pissed
    And nothing that Trollope said was true

    Willy Yeats was a fascist
    So were Eliot and Pound
    Lawrence was a sexist
    Virginia Woolf was unsound

    There are only three names
    To be plucked from this dismal set
    Milton Blake and Shelley
    Will smash the ruling class yet

    Milton Blake and Shelley
    Will smash the ruling class yet.

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  20. ChrisZ
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    Shakespeare’s concern with politics is not only local: alongside the English history plays he explores Rome at several points decisive points in its history (height of the republic, twilight of the republic, emergence of empire, and dissolution), the sexy “new” forms of government emerging in Venice and elsewhere in Italy, the transition from pagan to Christian kingdom and the novel consequences of the latter, and several fanciful settings that posit political arrangements that might inform the future.

    My conclusion from a long association with Shakespeare is that he was what we would call conservative in practical matters (i.e., that hard-won, received wisdom is usually a superior guide to action than theory), but that above all he judged Nature to be the inescapable standard and anchor around which all human questions revolved (which is not necessarily a conservative position, but is certainly consonant with it). He is something of a political scientist, who input the different choices human beings have made (and could make) and played out their consequences through his drama. It occurs to me that he might be called the first “big data” guy–although that would be a little much.

    The most impressive approaches to Shakespeare as a political thinker are the interpretive writings of Allan Bloom: “Shakespeare’s Politics” and “Shakespeare on Love and Friendship.” Two examples of his unique creative insight: that “Romeo and Juliet” reflects Shakespeare’s deep reflection on the writings of Machiavelli; that the characters of Falstaff and Prince Hal are an English take on Socrates and Alcibiades. You will go away from reading Bloom with a new sense of amazement at Shakespeare’s erudition and artfulness; and you will also have a deep sense that the prevailing Shakespeare “scholarship” is the province of second- and third-raters.

    BTW, Steve’s remark that Shakespeare’s authority is not much quoted to support liberal opinion is perceptive, I think.

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  21. Rapparee
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    I once read an introductory essay to The Taming of the Shrew, written by a modern-day (female) literature professor, which attempted to identify proto-feminist themes in the plot.

    It was, dare I say, unconvincing.

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  22. Anonymous
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    Karl Marx reportedly liked Shakespeare. I suppose Marx wasn’t radical enough to suit those guys.

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  23. Robert
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    Well, the most ferociously, defiantly, unambiguously anti-leftist work in the Bard’s entire canon is surely Coriolanus, which, for that very reason, was a great hit among Action Française sympathizers in the last years of the Third Republic. I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned it on this thread.

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  24. “When I was an undergraduate I had a professor who was a Marxist. Now, a Marxist in academia is not a rare thing, but this particular Marxist was different from the typical American Marxist. For one instance, this Marxist was a Stalinist. He denied the purges that even Khrushchev said took place. It was all lies — the Gulag stories of Solzhenitsyn and so many others — lies, lies, according to my professor. Secondly, the Marxist academic was more consistent than his liberal brethren, most of whom considered themselves Marxists as well. He was more consistent because he hated Shakespeare and regularly denounced him from his Marxist pulpit. A Marxist should hate Shakespeare’s vision of life; it is diametrically opposed to Marxism. On the other hand, the other academics, the liberal fellow-travelers of the Marxist, did not share his opinion of Shakespeare. They went into raptures about Shakespeare’s poetry, about his humanity, and about his keen insights into human nature. But they had no right to rhapsodize about Shakespeare. The Marxist professor was correct. From a liberal or Marxist view, which amounts to the same thing, Shakespeare is poison; he is a corrupter. As much as I hated the Marxist for hating my Shakespeare, I hated his liberal colleagues more, for trying to take comfort and sustenance from Shakespeare when, based on their professed beliefs, they should have left Shakespeare to the non-liberal Europeans and tried to take sustenance and solace from their modern garbage poets of Liberaldom.”

    http://cambriawillnotyield.blogspot.com/2011/09/in-defense-of-non-inclusive-european.html

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  25. chucho
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    Cue that passage from Troilus and Cressida I.iii that Moldbug was fond of quoting, beginning:

    The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
    Observe degree, priority and place,
    Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
    Office and custom, in all line of order;

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  26. JJJ
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    Was a great British person really not so great? Noah Berlatsky, Ira Glass and Alyssa Rosenberg (impartially, and without any ethnic jealously) discuss.

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  27. syon
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    Frankly, I’m not really comfortable using a word like “conservative” in a pre-1789 context…

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  28. B&B
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    Well there is a traditionalist outlook in Shakespeare. The negro Moor Othello is treated sympathetically because of his torment due to ostracism. Shylock is however not treated with the same sympathy.

    Othello can’t help but be where he shouldn’t, its not his fault. A sense of misplacement is his fate as unnatural outsider, Othello is tragic. He is what he is, which doesn’t belong in Venice, he belongs in Barbary.

    Shylock however is a Jew. The place of the Jew as a diaspora people in Europe, socially ordained to be associated with a despised profession, means Shylock actually is in his natural place – which happens to be hostile to Christians by nature.

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  29. recusant
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    Shakespeare was a conservative, in the sense that he supported early modern England’s status quo and established hierarchy, which meant defending the Crown’s view of divine monarchical right and opposing the radicals

    For a completely different view, please read “Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare” by Clare Asquith.

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  30. Threecranes
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    Today I learned something. Thank you Thursday @ 5:07. (Seriously)

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  31. Glanvill
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    The chain of being speech is delivered by Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, and it’s clear he doesn’t believe it; it’s a useful speech at the time. Overall, the play totally undermines the thought behind that speech. And let’s not forget the life’s a story told by an idiot speech. Never before or since has nihilism been articulated so forcefully. But of course, that’s not Shakespeare speaking, but a guy who violated the natural order, so maybe, oddly enough, that speech properly understood (you violate the natural you end up in hell) is more supportive of the natural order than the chain of being speech.

    Shakespeare never speaks to us directly except in the sonnets, and possibly through Prospero in the Tempest, at the end. Good luck figuring that out.

    Trying to claim S as a conservative or liberal just seems silly to me.

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  32. Luke Lea
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    Shakespeare’s world view was essentially secular and aristocratic. Like the nobility, and unlike the common people, he had no need for the Christian religion, except to pay it lip service now and then.

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  33. The Z Blog
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    Despite Shakespeare’s colossal prestige, you seldom see his works cited today to underline a point of pious liberal conventional wisdom.

    This is an excellent observation. I’d go further and say you rarely see anything from the Western canon held up in support of current pieties. The Left seems to know little to nothing of its own intellectual history. If you call their thing a religion, for example, they go berserk. Yet, the idea of their thing being a secular religion dates back to Rousseau. Many liberal intellectuals at various points called their thing a secular religion and did so with enthusiasm.

    Whatever the various Rousseau-ist cults were, what we have today is a deeply anti-intellectual mass movement that sees the past as the enemy. Every day is day zero for these people. I think that’s why they seem oblivious to the fact they have been running the show for the last fifty years. Take a look at discussions about the schools or cities. The Left carries on like they have been run by Pat Robertson for the last century.

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  34. James Kabala
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    Wyrd: The Puritans aren’t really a presence in Shakespeare, though. Unlike Ben Jonson and others, he wrote only one play set in contemporary England. There are some quasi-Puritan characters in foreign settings (Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Angelo in Measure for Measure), but only a few.

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  35. Anon
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    http://stuartschneiderman.blogspot.com/2014/08/illiberal-radicals-are-killing-art.html

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  36. dearieme
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    “attempted to identify proto-feminist themes in the plot”: I’ve seen that work on stage. They are plays, after all, not novels.

    Anyway, how come everyone is identifying Shakespeare’s views: how do we know what they were? We know only the words he puts into his characters’ mouths.

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  37. dearieme: “His comedies are rubbish to read.[...]you get far better than OK with the tragedies”

    Somebody trying to re-evaluate Shakespeare (I think it was Michael Lind) made this point too. He said that instead of being pointlessly puffed up as the greatest writer ever in the English language, Shakespeare should be respected as the greatest tragic playwright in the language. Which is a great enough achievement as it is.

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  38. cassius
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    Actually, the depiction of Shylock was rather daringly human for the time, with the speech “hath not a Jew eyes….”etc.

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  39. QQQ
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    Shakespeare was Catholic (see The Phoenix and the Turtle) and some of his plays are highly subversive of the English crown.

    In one sense his Catholicism made him very conservative; in another — in Reformation England — it made him revolutionary.

    Residual anti-Catholicism has tended to blind Shakespeare scholars to what he’s up to. We can’t have our national poet be a superstitious popish Catholic, can we? Ah, but he was.

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  40. Prof. Woland
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    In the Master and the Margarita, the breaking point for the Devil and the opening chapter was when the Soviet Writer’s Guild began directing the writers to deny Jesus ever existed rather than just trash him. In effect, they were trying to rewrite him out of history, and by doing so rewrite the Devil out of history, which is why he was determined to teach them a lesson.

    Writers like Pushkin, Lermontov, or Tolstoy (or Shakespeare) were way to loved and integrated into the culture for the Soviet Union to make them just disappear so they did to them what they did to the Churches and put them into almost “Historical” category. It was too late to sent them to the Gulags like the contemporary writers and artists.

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  41. syon
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    “The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
    Observe degree, priority and place,
    Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
    Office and custom, in all line of order;”

    Bear in mind the context of the passage, not to mention the speaker…

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  42. syon
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    “Shakespeare’s world view was essentially secular and aristocratic. Like the nobility, and unlike the common people, he had no need for the Christian religion, except to pay it lip service now and then.”

    Very few Early Modernists would agree with any of these assertions…

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  43. Retired
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    What an idiot. Shakespeare was the greatest practitioner of the English language and this dolt wants to accuse him of not being PC? Go read “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” or something else off oprah’s reading list.

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  44. Luke Lea
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    @syon

    August 6, 2014 at 5:56 pm GMT

    @Luke Lea

    “Shakespeare’s world view was essentially secular and aristocratic. Like the nobility, and unlike the common people, he had no need for the Christian religion, except to pay it lip service now and then.”

    Very few Early Modernists would agree with any of these assertions…

    Would you elaborate?

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  45. Karen
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    Moldbug’s use of this quote demonstrates that he knows Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

    My sons and I frequently have Highbrow Laundry Folding, wherein we watch a filmed version of one of the plays and discuss it while completing the dullest chore on Earth. A recent favorite was the David Tennant – Patrick Stewart version of Hamlet, which emphasizes the damage to the government of Denmark by the usurping Claudius. Much of the play involves characters spying on or defaming other characters, which this production notes by having some of the speeches filmed as though by surveillance cameras. We agreed that Shakespeare had much to say about how a king should govern.

    As for the Oxfordian hypothesis, absolutely none of Shakespeare’s contemporaries believed him to be anyone other than the ordinary guy from Stratford. As for Edward de Vere, he is best remembered for leaving court after he broke wind in front of Queen Elizabeth. When he returned some years later, the Queen greeted him “Why, Your Lordship, I had forgot the fart.”

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  46. josh
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    … that would have been the Puritans (and the Scots Irish, of course ;)).

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  47. By the way, I did a little research a little while ago and determined that, Henry VII’s day, the letter-of-the-law rightful heir (by male-preference primogeniture) to William the Conqueror’s throne was … Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York. Her father, Edward IV was the rightful king when he was alive; he had two sons who lived past infancy, but they both died under mysterious circumstances (“the princes in the tower”); and Elizabeth was his eldest daughter, so it was she who technically should have inherited. Henry Tudor was, no doubt, aware of this: that not only was his marriage to a York a union of the two sides in the civil war (as Shakespeare and Steve have alluded to in the past), but also that his wife had a much stronger technical claim to the throne than he did. Their oldest son, Henry VIII, therefore inherited the throne de facto from his father, but he inherited his water-tight claim to legitimacy from his mother.

    All of the subsequent British monarchs up to the present have been descended from Henry VII … not through Henry VIII, of course, but mostly through Henry VII’s oldest daughter Margaret, who married the Stewart king of Scotland.

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  48. Jim O
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    OsRazor, I cannot help but notice that your mainpoint has been studiously ignored. Why ask whether Shakespeare was a conservative without considering, or even caring, who “Shakespeare” was?

    The conventional view is that he was a man from the back backwater town of Stratford who, when not writing timeless plays, busied himself with mundane pursuits such as lending money at interest. Why would not such a man have more sympathy for Shylock than the author of the Merchant of Venice reveals? Is it merely that Christian moneylenders did not care for their Jewish competitors?

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  49. Thursday
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    You could argue that Shakespeare was more pagan than Christian, but secular he was not.

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  50. dearieme
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    “Shakespeare was Catholic “: do you mean Marlowe Shakespeare or De Vere Shakespeare?

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  51. syon
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    “Would you elaborate?”

    1. Atheism amongst the elite:

    A very iffy proposition. Sure, we have scandalous tales about Raleigh’s coterie (cf Marlowes’s alleged remark about Moses being a juggler and Harriot being able to do better), but the bulk of the elite seem to have been genuine believers. Even so apparently secular a figure as Sir Francis Bacon, under close examination, shows a deep vein of Christian belief .

    2. Common people and belief: Depends on which common people you are referring to. The very bottom of Early Modern society in England, based on the evidence at hand, seems to have been much less devout than the elite and the middle levels.

    3. Shakespeare: The great enigma. We have very little insight into Shakespeare’s private mind. Unlike Jonson, he left us no record of his obiter dicta. On the other hand, there is little sign of genuine atheism in his plays, particularly when read alongside Marlowe’s.

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  52. Stoppard did a somewhat funny BBC radio play “Darkside” taking a somewhat lame, precocious nerd plot (where hypothetical figures in thought experiments go when they die) and licensing the “Dark Side of the Moon” album for interstitial music, MGM-style. Spotify has it for non-U.K. taxpayers or proxy subscribers

    Have to salute the gimmick since the same people who listen to interminable Marc Maron podcasts or sides 1-8 of Panda Bear dub remixes would never sit through a radio drama otherwise. (It must be cultural)

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  53. Whoah. Clearly none of you have been in a Shakespeare college classroom in the last decade.

    Didn’t you know that all the actors in Shakespeare’s day were MALE? When you read the plays and constantly consider that the actor who played Juliet or Beatrice was a beautiful young BOY, then all the seemingly heteronormative breeder stuff suddenly becomes much sexier and queerer. And all the cross-dressing in the comedies? Makes the gender bending even crazier!

    And if on reading The Merchant of Venice you are impressed by how antisemitic and racist it is, you can’t pin those sentiments on Shakespeare. He was EXPOSING the hateful xenophobia and antisemitism that was such a problem in England in his day. Of course there had been no Jews in England for hundreds of years, but it just shows Shakespeare’s genius to have anticipated the hazards of hateful antisemitism of modern Europe.

    And Hamlet? The one line that liberals used to use to support cultural relativism was “nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” I don’t see it quoted often now, though, since cultural relativism has been replaced by absolutist humanity mongering.

    My personal feeling is that the line that holds the key to Shakespeare’s politics and opus is Prospero’s take on Caliban: “a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick.” Shakespeare’s plays are about the triumph of nature over nurture. Thus they are very elitist, racist, sexist and fabulous.

    PS. The comedies are really great, but they are harder to read now because they are more idiomatic. If you want to enjoy one, read an Arden edition a couple times, see a couple good film adaptations, then read it again.

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  54. Notably all the attributes that Shylock lists in that speech are shared by most mammals. The speech is often read now as a soaring gesture to a shared humanity that transcends race and religion, but Shakespeare was not a humanity mongerer.

    I’ve read that that speech would have been played up to get laughs from the audience. Jews were stock comic characters. Nowadays of course it’s always done with great pathos.

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  55. if you consider conservative to mean ‘rightwing’, which I do, then conservative means neoliberal, which means you support letting the rich have their way. Ok, fine.

    There is a theory (supported by considerable evidence) that shake-speare was actually the 17th earl of oxford, edward de vere. A theory I find likely.

    So, de vere was born rich. He had little feeling for the little people, despite his talents. So, yes, shake-speare was conservative.

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  56. Luke Lea
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    @syron — by a secular world view I meant this-worldly, not atheism. The nobility of England may have worried about heaven and hell at the very ends of their lives — when they left bequests to monasteries to say prayers for their souls — but they show few traces of Christian humility, non-resistance to evil, compassion for the lower orders, etc., that I can see. Nor do I see them in Shakespeare’s plays. This is just a general observation.

    Bacon, I agree, had a religious streak. You see it most clearly in his speculations on the future of science and technology as they relate to the future happiness of mankind. His mother was Presbyterian. No one ever accused Shakespeare of being a Protestant that I am aware. He had no religion.

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  57. Luke Lea
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    Forget my remark about the English nobility. That is a stupid generalization. What I should have said were the nobility of England as depicted by Shakespeare. {Apparently my original reply got tagged as spam; we’ll see if it shows up.]

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  58. Steve Sailer
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    The spam filter is being hyper-aggressive lately. Don’t know why.

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  59. Thursday
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    No one ever accused Shakespeare of being a Protestant that I am aware.

    Actually, quite a few people note his preference for the hyper-Protestant Geneva Bible. He apparently wasn’t that attached to Catholicism.

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  60. Thursday
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    The chain of being speech is delivered by Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida

    The chain of being is used pervasively throughout Shakespeare, particularly in the Histories, but also elsewhere, not just in that one speech.

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  61. Thursday
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    He had no religion.

    Idiotic comment.

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  62. SFG
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    “I’ve read that that speech would have been played up to get laughs from the audience. Jews were stock comic characters. Nowadays of course it’s always done with great pathos.”

    I think it’s supposed to be terrifying–he’s unforgiving, he’s smart, and he’s coming to get you.

    There’s also this whole idea of how, being Jewish and hence not Christian, he’s vindictive because he doesn’t have the idea of Christian mercy.

    Really, it was the 1600s. Take the play for what it is and don’t read too much modern politics into it. Oh, Shakespeare was a traditionalist! No, he was an anarcho-monarchist! I think he was a vaguely conservative playwright who was interested in entertaining his audience.

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  63. Jim O
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    1. It’s odd, tho’ that they didn’t say so until seven years after his death, and even then, only through Ben Jonson’s curiously worded intro to the First Folio.

    2. Best remembered by whom?

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  64. @ Robert,

    Absolutely. Though written before the modern right/left split, it plays like an anti-leftist cri de coeur. In addition to providing a devastating portrayal of the mendacity of demotic politics, Cariolanus contains some of the most crackling dialog to be found in English language drama. The protagonist’s weapons grade invective against the mob is perceptive, rousing, and sidesplittingly funny. Hands down my favorite work by Shakespeare.

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  65. Luke Lea
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    Luke: He had no religion.

    Thursday: Idiotic comment.

    He was not a religious person? I am speaking of Christianity. His was not a Christian world view. I mean the world depicted in his plays and the characters who populated it. They cared about the things of this world, not the next. Love, power, living. Oh, what a peasant knave am I.

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  66. Jim Sweeney
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    Mistress Q:

    I should like for us to see jocund day standing tiptoe on the mountaintop; thou art a wench for all seasons.

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  67. anonymous
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    Let’s extend this five minute editing window. Indefinitely.

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  68. Dr. Evil
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    Shakespeare was more a deist or pantheist, rather than someone who steeps himself and his works in every dot and tittle of Christian dogma. Milton, despite his political liberalism, was more the latter.

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  69. “If you call their thing a religion, for example, they go berserk. Yet, the idea of their thing being a secular religion dates back to Rousseau. Many liberal intellectuals at various points called their thing a secular religion and did so with enthusiasm.”

    If one wants to make the argument that liberalism is a religion–with a God, Bible, and rituals–then the same reasoning can be applied to conservatism.

    GREAT! Liberalism and conservatism are religions, regardless if each is secular in nature. Except…Exodus 20:3–You shall have no other gods before me.

    So, conservatives, what do you choose, your religion (Christianity) or your political ideology (conservativism)?

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  70. Anonitron
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    “Shakespeare was more a deist or pantheist, rather than someone who steeps himself and his works in every dot and tittle of Christian dogma. Milton, despite his political liberalism, was more the latter.”

    This isn’t a contradiction. Devout (Calvinist) religiosity in that era was liberalism. The revolutionaries after Cromwell were more often than not aristocratic and Catholic. The establishment was Anglican and more and more supported by an increasingly secular bourgeoisie. The wackos shouting on street corners demanding theaters be shut down were belt-buckle hat-wearing Puritans.

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  71. Anonitron
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    “My personal feeling is that the line that holds the key to Shakespeare’s politics and opus is Prospero’s take on Caliban: “a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick.” Shakespeare’s plays are about the triumph of nature over nurture. Thus they are very elitist, racist, sexist and fabulous.”

    Really all you need to know about Shakespeare’s attitudes toward entrenched aristocratic prejudices or whatever w/r/t minorities or sundry oppressed peoples is that the well spoken bastard in Lear is still the bad guy.

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  72. Anon
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    “Was Shakespeare a “antisemite”? The Merchant of Venice is not a very flattering portrait of the jews.”

    No, no such thing existed back then. The notion of ‘antisemitism’ is very new, and the notion that ‘antisemitism’ is inherently wrong or evil is newer yet.

    It is natural for a people to be suspicious of other peoples. Such feelings existed in all cultures and still do. How do Jews see Russians or ‘white trash’?
    What do so many American conservatives say about ‘muzzies’?

    So, if Shakespeare viewed Jews as Jews view Wasps–with hostility and distrust–, so what?

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  73. Anon
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    Shylock may not be good… but he’s smart.
    And there is awe in that.

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  74. Karen
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    And his daughter and granddaughter married prominent Puritans.

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  75. ChrisZ
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    “Every day is day zero for these people…”

    Terrific and pithy insight, Z Blog. Thanks.

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  76. Jim O
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    Well, if you assume Shakespeare’s plays reflect his worldview – by that I mean, he didn’t script anything that could not really have happened – then he believed in ghosts. And witches. That implies at least a measure of religiosity.

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  77. Karen
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    1. It’s even odder that they didn’t suggest anyone else, especially someone who died 7 years before the last play was published. The Oxfordian hypothesis only appeared in 1920. You’d think someone would have noticed before then.

    2. By me.

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  78. ChrisZ
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    On Shakespeare’s treatment of Protestantism: Meaningful references pop up occasionally in the plays. It must be significant (and is certainly not coincidental) that he has Hamlet study at Wittenberg: Ground Zero for the Reformation, and closely associated with Luther. (Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is also a Wittenberg alum, so the place was on the minds of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, too.)

    The sticky situations dramatized in “Measure for Measure” find their resolution in the wedding of a monk (actually the disguised Venetian duke Vincentio) and a nun–a development not unrelated (as Allan Bloom notes) to Martin Luther’s break with Roman Catholicism.

    On the whole, whatever his actual background, I’d say Shakespeare shows a certain approval of the emerging Protestant spirit in his plays.

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  79. OsRazor
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    Shakespeare is conservative because he’s an extreme genetic determinist. There’s bad blood and there’s good blood. Environment is irrelevant. So many of his plays involve characters who don’t know they’re born of good blood but have been acting with great nobility from the start. They can’t help themselves. Noble characters die or are murdered and their deaths are lamented on the basis of bad blood destroying good blood. There’s nothing remarkable in any of this. It has to be said again and again that until just a few decades ago all sane people thought this way. In any matrimonial consideration the individual was less important that “his people”–from what sort of “people” did he come. In the end, as they say, “blood will tell.” It’s always been a good rule of thumb.

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  80. Yeah, the Christians in the trial scene (4.1) keep commanding Shylock to be “humane” by showing Christian forgiveness. When the judge says, “We expect a gentle answer, Jew,” the pun on gentle/gentile is crucial.

    Then they threaten Shylock with death unless he converts to Christianity, and they force him to will all his property to the gentile who stole his daughter. This is not hypocritical or sad. It is merciful and comic. Try teaching that to an 18-year-old college student. It explodes their world.

    A prof I know tells the story of teaching a special Shakespeare class for alumni. After the lecture on Merchant, an old Jewish woman came up to him at the end of class and wanted to know: “If Shakespeare was such an anti-Semite, why do Jews like him so much?”

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  81. Luke Lea
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    @ Thursday

    You could argue that Shakespeare was more pagan than Christian, but secular he was not.

    I believe this calls for a definition of terms. When I use the word secular I mean this worldly as opposed to otherworldly. Christianity was an otherworldly religion to the extent that its practitioners looked for their rewards in the next life; but it also had this-worldly goals, namely, to redeem a fallen world by turning it into a place in which people would not need to look forward to a future life because life on earth could be a completely fulfilling one for a person who was just (did not exploit others). I am expressing this in my own words and obviously not doing a very good job of it, but you should get the gist.

    The nobility both in modern Europe and in ancient Greece and Rome (and probably in all civilizations) was this worldly, not because they could achieve happiness without exploiting others, but because they were perfectly happy exploiting others, or at least did not let it bother them unduly. In Hegel’s terms, they were the ones who would rather die than be a slave. Kill or be killed was their motto. The pagan gods of Greece and Rome were basically an ideal image of such a noble class. Pagans were not otherwordly and were therefore secular. By this definition Jews, or rather the ancient Hebrews, were also secular: they looked for their rewards in this life.

    Now maybe Thursday wants to define these terms differently. Please go ahead.

    As for Shakespeare, he strikes me as neither pagan nor Christian nor Jewish, which is what I mean when I said he had no religion. This does not mean he was necessarily an atheist in the sense of someone who categorically denied the existence of God (whether the Hebrew or later, modified, Christian version). He could have been an agnostic, but, if so, an agnostic who didn’t much care. In other words irreligious. (I, by contrast, am an agnostic who does care, therefore, of the tortured variety, therefore religious, but mainly focused on the future of this world, thus secular in orientation, while fearing what it might feel like to die, given the life I have lived, thus in some sense some kind of a wavering post-Christian Jew — a real outlier probably. Or maybe Hamlet was like that too, but Shakespeare wasn’t Hamlet, and neither am I.)

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  82. keypusher
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    “Into the Woods” no doubt reflects Steven Sondheim’s worldview, but I wouldn’t take it as evidence that he believes in fairy tales.

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  83. keypusher
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    I’ve seen Ryland’s company do Richard III and Twelfth Night with an all-male cast, and it really was different. But unlike an Elizabethan theatergoer, I’ve been seeing women play roles in Shakespeare all my life. The cast was racially mixed (including siblings and parents/children) — would be interesting to see what an Elizabethan made of that.

    I’ve read that that speech would have been played up to get laughs from the audience. Jews were stock comic characters.

    Not Shylock. And especially not this guy. http://www.archive.org/stream/thejewofmalta00901gut/jmlta10.txt

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  84. Jim O
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    True. I don’t think I expressed myself very well. Let me try to dig out.

    No one who sees Into The Woods or the Wicked thinks that their authors are trying to create realistic drama. But if Theodore Dreiser had ghosts and witches populating his novels, I would attribute a certain degree of religiosity to him. In other words, where we see the usual laws of physics suspended in a work of fiction, the author is usually creating something lighthearted, or, if not lighthearted, at least something directed to the leftover child within each og us. The Superman franchise, for example. But Shakespeare wasn’t playing for laughs in Hamlet or MacBeth.

    Know what I mean? I guess I just can’t explain it. Shakespeare may have been a Catholic or an Anglican. I do not know. But he certainly was not a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens-style aggressive atheist.

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  85. Thursday
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    It seems pretty clear that Shakespeare believed in spirits and souls, and portrayed nature as having personality and purpose. Those would be religious sentiments.

    I’d also advise reading something like Chesterton’s essay on the orthodoxy of Hamlet. In fact, there’s an entire book of Chesterton’s writings on Shakespeare.

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  86. Thursday
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    Thanks to those who pointed out Shakespeare’s other connections to Protestantism. There seem to be aspects of his biography and plays which point towards Catholicism, and others that point towards Protestantism. Really, who knows?

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  87. Jim O
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    1. Do you realize how unusual you are? Most – no, virtually all – Stratfordians insist that his contemporaries continuously referred to the Stratford man as a playwright during his lifetime. Only when forced to examine the evidence in detail will some of them reluctantly concede that the only references to William of Stratford in association with the theater before 1623 are business-related. There is not even an unambiguous reference to him as an actor, yet alone playwright, during his lifetime. No, there are no listings of him as a member of the cast of a play. There are listings of him, along with actors, as having received payment for the performance of plays. That is not quite the same thing. For the most celebrated playwright in the history of humanity, how odd is that?

    Rather, you contend that it is even odder that no one suggested anyone else as the author. But actually, others did – and at the time. The expressed themselves subtly, as one would expect of the friends of the true author, if he were writing anonymously and using our a friend from Stratford as a front. One quick example. Stratfordians often cite the reference to the Stratford man as “our English Terence” by John Davies in 1610 as recognition of his status as playwright during his lifetime. You’ve heard that one, right? “See. Terence was playwright, and they’re calling Will “Terence.” Ergo, they’re calling Will a playwright.” Those people are blithely unaware that Terence had a reputation as a front for anonymous playwrights. And DeVere was praised to during his lifetime as a talented poet and playwright, although all that survives of his work, in his own name, is little more than youthful doggerel. Odd.

    2. Thanks for clearing that up.

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  88. Luke Lea
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    @ Thursday “It seems pretty clear that Shakespeare believed in spirits and souls, and portrayed nature as having personality and purpose. Those would be religious sentiments.”

    You mean he was a poet? That’s like saying he had a way with words.

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  89. Assorted links
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    […] 8. Was Shakespeare a conservative? […]

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  90. Pithlord
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    That’s only true if by “Christian dogma”, you mean Milton’s own personal understanding of Christian dogma, which was almost as far from Christian orthodoxy as Blake’s.

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