Letter to M:

Shakespeare as Revolutionary

Dear M:

Our discussion about Shakespeare (conservative or revolutionary) made me ask myself why I came down so strongly on the revolutionary side.

What Shakespeare did that seems to me wholly original was to redefine the way in which stage characters were perceived both by playwrights and audiences. Traditionally, characters had primarily a symbolic role (I think this applies to comic and tragic characters and everything in between) that is, they represented an idea, or a set of dispositions or feelings; and it was left to each member of the audience to identify with them or not. This is certainly true of most Greek and Medieval drama - the twin influences on Elizabethan playwrights. Not even Marlowe, among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, questioned this schematic framework. Think of Marlowe’s treatment of character in Tamburlaine, or the Jew of Malta or Faustus and you will find that the symbolic role of the main characters takes priority over their qualities as recognizable individuals or, if you like, as ‘flesh-and ’blood’ human beings.

Shakespeare reversed this conventional approach by building from character to symbol, from the individual to the universal. The philosophical equivalent would be inductive as against deductive reasoning. This is why his personalities are so strong and even quirky, why Marlowe’s Jew is a stereotype while Shakespeare’s (despite the prejudices of the age) is full of personality; why Falstaff is so loved despite being a rogue; why Hamlet puzzles, angers, and frustrates - for he is, like us, insecure, by degrees passionate, cruel, witty, honest, dissembling and so forth - a thoroughly ‘human’ mixture. We meet Shakespeare’s characters in the street - those of Sophocles and Aeschylus in our minds. Before Shakespeare, I can think of no such figures for the stage (though there may be some hints in Euripides). Only in poetry do we find a precedent - in Chaucer’s wonderful gallery of portraits, in Villon's bitter-sweet picaresque - to name two examples.

All right, but why was this ‘inductive’ technique so revolutionary? I believe the answer lies in the fact that, for the first time, the individual became a focus of public and artistic attention. Shakespearean drama brought previously unattended elements of human nature and of political and social life to the forefront: the quixotic nature and psychology of motive (Cervantes belongs here, too, of course), the individual validity of the ‘common man’ (what earlier playwright would have created Henry V’s nocturnal encounter with his soldiers  on the eve of Agincourt?), human rights (sic) of the kind Caliban demands, and so on. None of this is to be found in Marlowe, or Jonson, or Webster.

Shakespeare was ahead of his time in using the individual as a focus of dramatic effect and attention. How else could he have written a play like Measure for Measure - with its panoply of “common” characters - including a prisoner who refuses to be executed (hilarious, yes, but also curiously poignant) - and its dangerous sexual overtones, or Othello where the hero is fatally influenced not by court intrigue but by a common soldier. Where before did commoners influence kings, princes and great generals? They may have bantered with kings or been cheeky, like Dekker’s Shoemaker, but influence? Dispute with? Mock? Or have a king call a man  ‘a bare forked animal’? Of course, Lear was referring overtly to ‘Poor Tom’ but also to all men, including himself.

 And then we have Hamlet’s transparent dialogue with Claudius:

Hamlet: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
King: What dost thou mean by this?
Hamlet: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.

We have to wait until the nineteenth century before another great English writer takes up the cudgel on behalf of common folk; and this time it’s a novelist - Dickens.

After Shakespeare's death and the end of the Jacobean era, Shakespeare’s plays began to attract criticism for their ‘excesses’, ‘lack of taste’, ‘untidiness’ etc., and were often ‘improved’ by writers who thought they knew better. What were the objections? Low-life subject-matter (unfit for polite society), vulgar language, graphic depictions of sex and violence etc., - features that we might recognize, nowadays, as coming from  ‘East-Enders’   rather than  ‘Yes Minister’. The ‘editors’ and ‘amenders’ tried to excise precisely those features that show the commonest citizen as the moral equal of the greatest monarch. They were dangerous features. Whoever witnesses the downfall of Angelo, or the rise of  Bolingbroke knows that the high and mighty are not necessarily to be trusted. Perhaps not to be trusted at all. And here we are not just speaking of a lust for and abuse of power (a familiar Elizabethan theme) but about corruption of a kind that brings authority to earth.

Much more important, though, is that the Shakespearean common man is as full of humanity as the king. The bard loved all his characters without distinction of class. True, he appears to accept the conventions of rank. He wasn’t a pamphleteer aiming to bring about political change. But his view of people was more revolutionary than anything a pamphleteer could achieve. Elizabethan stage convention unthinkingly accepted class values as fixed (as did French classical theatre); Shakespeare did not.

I find it interesting that commentators avoid recognition of Shakespeare’s originality in this respect, probably because it all seems so natural. Shakespeare, like Verdi (and Goethe also - especially in Faust), is another of what Isaiah Berlin called ‘naifs”. It’s hard to see that a strong view of the world is present at all because we like to think that, since Shakespeare dealt essentially with human emotions and states of consciousness, it doesn’t matter how these states are expressed or through which characters. But I think it does matter (though with this Berlin may not agree) and McLuhan’s dictum about the identity of medium and message seems to me entirely relevant.

My thesis, then, if we can call it such, is that Shakespeare was a revolutionary in the way he treated the individual - and that is precisely why he forces an attentive reader or playgoer to re-examine the basis of his or her beliefs, prejudices and social attitudes. Whatever Elizabethan England thought about Jews, the import of Shylock’s great Rialto speech can’t be avoided. It was quietly and firmly revolutionary, and Shakespeare must have known as much.  Revolutionary not because the writer wanted to change contemporary attitudes about Jews - that would be a crudely anachronistic fallacy - but because no one in Shakespeare is “merely” anything,  not a Jew, nor a peasant, nor a soldier, nor an inn-keeper nor a bawd, nor a king.

This great idea - that of not being “merely”,  has been the basis of much of the political change that has taken place in Europe, North America and elsewhere since the seventeenth century. It lies at the heart of modern democracy; and forms a backcloth to political movements like, marxism and socialism,  that are founded on ideals of social equality.

What Shakespeare helped to bring about was the beginning of a fundamental change in European consciousness of the human condition in the social and political context. I don’t think this was his intention; but it is a consequence of his work - of his quiet persistence in giving his characters their head and refusing to censor either them or his own pen.