Shakespeare as Political Thinker

By John E. Alvis; Thomas G. West | Go to book overview

SHAKESPEARE'S HAMLET
AND MACHIAVELLI:
HOW NOT TO KILL A DESPOT

John E. Alvis

Why Hamlet delays killing his father's murderer, King Claudius, perplexes readers of the play as well as Hamlet himself. I propose to approach this familiar problem from a somewhat novel angle by asking whether Hamlet addresses in a politically responsible manner the task of killing Claudius. My view is that he does not, and my interest lies in seeking to understand the cause of Hamlet's failing to execute responsibly a just retribution for the king's crime. Why does Hamlet neglect his role as a prince entrusted with the duty of securing the welfare of his nation? In pursuing an answer to that problem one may understand something about Shakespeare's thoughts on "tyrannicide as well as something about the way Shakespeare regards Christianity. Because it appears Hamlet's failure owes to his particular version of Christian belief.

We may begin by reminding ourselves of the teaching of Machiavelli, a thinker who faulted Christians for regarding it as morally reprehensible to assassinate even tyrannical rulers. On my reading of Shakespeare's play the dramatist agrees with Machiavelli that lacking a vigorous dedication to political liberty Christians prove weak opponents of tyrants. Shakespeare seems partly to agree with Machiavelli in the remedy he envisions. The problem of reconciling Christian morality with the necessity of tyrannicide comes to sight once we view the irresolute prince of Denmark in contrast to a responsible resistance to despotism Shakespeare had earlier depicted when he portrayed the expulsion of a bad king from ancient pagan Rome.

Shakespeare's plays concerned with the killing of kings encourage us to reflect upon the issue Machiavelli raises in a famous remark about the success of despotic rulers in Christian times. In his Discourses on Livy

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Shakespeare as Political Thinker
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Title Page vii
  • Foreword ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Note on the Revised Edition xiii
  • The Editors and Authors xv
  • Introductory- Shakespearean Poetry and Politics 1
  • Notes 24
  • The Unity of Tragedy, Comedy, and History- An Interpretation of the Shakespearean Universe 29
  • Notes 58
  • Richard II 59
  • Notes 69
  • God Will Save the King- Shakespeare''s Richard II 71
  • Notes 89
  • Shakespeare''s Henry IV- A New Prince in a New Principality 93
  • Notes 104
  • Spectacle Supplanting Ceremony- Shakespeare''s Henry Monmouth 107
  • Notes 138
  • The Two Truths of Troilus and Cressida 143
  • Notes 160
  • Troilus and Cressida- Poetry or Philosophy? 163
  • Notes 175
  • Nature and the City- Timon of Athens 177
  • Notes 201
  • Chastity as a Political Principle- An Interpretation of Shakespeare''s Measure for Measure 203
  • Notes 240
  • Prospero''s Republic- The Politics of Shakespeare''s the Tempest 241
  • Notes 258
  • The Golden Casket- An Interpretation of the Merchant of Venice 261
  • Notes 285
  • Shakespeare''s Hamlet and Machiavelli- How Not to Kill a Despot 289
  • Notes 312
  • Macbeth and the Gospelling of Scotland 315
  • Notes 344
  • Shakespearean Wisdom? 353
  • Notes 375
  • Shakespearean Comedy and Tragedy- Implicit Political Analogies 381
  • Note 395
  • Transcendence and Equivocation- Some Political, Theological, and Philosophical Themes in Shakespeare 397
  • Notes 405
  • Index 407
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