Shakespeare's Politics

Shakespeare's Politics

Shakespeare's Politics

Shakespeare's Politics


The most striking fact about contemporary university students is that there is no longer any canon of books which forms their taste and their imagination. In general, they do not look at all to books when they meet problems in life or try to think about their goals; there are no literary models for their conceptions of virtue and vice. This state of affairs itself reflects the deeper fact of the decay of the common understanding of—and agreement on—first principles that is characteristic of our times. The role once played by the Bible and Shakespeare in the education of the English-speaking peoples is now largely played by popular journalism or the works of ephemeral authors. This does not mean that the classic authors are no longer read; they are perhaps read more and in greater variety than ever before. But they do not move; they do not seem to speak to the situation of the modern young; they are not a part of the furniture of the student's mind, once he is out of the academic atmosphere.

This results in a decided lowering of tone in their reflections on life and its goals; today's students are technically well- equipped, but Philistine.

The civilizing and unifying function of the peoples' books, which was carried out in Greece by Homer, Italy by Dante, France by Racine and Molière, and Germany by Goethe, seems to be dying a rapid death. The young have no ground from which to begin their understanding of the world and themselves, and they have no common education which forms the core of their communication with their fellows. A Marlborough could once say that he had formed his understanding of English history from Shakespeare alone; such a reliance on a poet today is almost inconceivable. The constant return to and reliance on a single great book or author has disappeared, and the result is not only a vulgarization of the tone of life but an atomization of society, for a civilized people is held together by its common understanding of what is virtuous and vicious, noble and base.

Shakespeare could still be the source of such an education and provide the necessary lessons concerning human virtue and the proper aspirations of a noble life. He is respected in our tradition, and he is of our language. But the mere possession of his works is not enough; they must be properly read and interpreted. One could never re-establish the Mosaic religion on the basis of a Bible read by the Higher Critics, nor could one use Shakespeare as a text in moral and political education on the basis of his plays as they are read by the New Critics.

There has been a change in the understanding of the nature of poetry since the rise of the Romantic movement, and it is now considered a defiling of art's sacred temple to see the poem as a mirror of nature or to interpret it as actually teaching something. Poets are believed not to have had intentions, and their epics and dramas are said to be sui generis, not to be judged by the standards of civil society or of religion. To the extent that Shakespeare's plays are understood to be merely literary productions, they have no relevance to the important problems that agitate the lives of acting men.

But, when Shakespeare is read naïvely, because he shows most vividly and comprehensively the fate of tyrants, the . . .

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