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.
Update: Noah Millman has more.