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In Macbeth and Winters Tale he anatomizes the tyrant;4 in Richard II he considers the

difficult issue of resistance to a sitting king;5 in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V he
traces the education of a prince; in King Lear he examines the dangers of dividing a kingdom,
of the kings separation from good counsel, and of the evil of flatterers; in the Roman plays he
explores the possibilities of republicanism, in a number of plays (Julius Caesar, Coriolanus,
Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V) he meditates on the role of the people in the body politic. And
yet, as many have noted, it is hard to pin down anything that we might call Shakespeares
own politics though he has been labelled a traditionalist, a monarchist, and a sympathizer
with republican thought.6 In truth, one does not quite know where to have him. That is
fundamentally, I think, because even more than most dramatists Shakespeare does not use his
plays to elaborate a consistent political position. He never wrote an overtly polemical play
like John Bales King Johan, for example.7 Nor did he write a prose treatise in which he
offered advice to a monarch or a great man on affairs of state. Shakespeare did not invent
drama concerned with political matters. Fulgens and Lucrece, Respublica, Gentleness and
Nobility, Health and Wealth, Gorboduc and Jack Straw _ these are but a handful of the many
plays on the sixteenth-century stage that dealt with right rule, the role of counsel and the
possibility of popular rebellion. In short, he was drawn both to comedy _ the genre in which
he worked his whole career in one form or another _ but also, immediately, to history and
tragedy and thus to the dramatic representation of kingship, of struggles within the body
politic, of counsel, consent and rebellion. While the formal elegance, the sustained lyricism
and the formal shapeliness of Richard IIs examination of the fall of one king and the rise of
another has long been considered to mark the moment when Shakespeare reached a certain
stage of maturity as a dramatist of the political world, I want to go back to the beginnings, to
look at earlier plays, especially The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of
York and Lancaster to talk, not about Shakespeares political thought as if it were separable
from particular traditions and conventions of theatrical representation, but precisely about the
dramaturgy within which anything we can call his political thought was embodied. If
Shakespeare was not a programmatic political thinker, he was, nonetheless, gifted at what I
would call the dramaturgy of politics in action.
This technique, of examining the actions of the great in view of the lives, the rights and the
actions of the common people, is one Shakespeare continued to pursue in his later histories,
though perhaps in no other play does he explore with such imaginative force the
consequences of a breakdown of the bond uniting people, counsellor and king with the
eruption of Jack Cades rebellion. The second consequence of this alternation of high and low
scenes is to produce certain critical or ironic effects, enabled by the arguments they set in
motion and the questions they elicit. Irony emerges from the juxtaposition of orderly
behaviour among the low and the chaos, disorder and competition among the high.
Such a stage, in Shakespeares hands, was less a space to espouse certain political ideas than
to test them, to make them the subjects of an implicit public debate which the stage was
uniquely situated to promote.
This is certainly true of what is probably the plays most memorable part, the
eruption of the popular rebellion led by Jack Cade in Act IV. By modelling the rebel
on the pattern of a comic Vice, Shakespeare places him, morally speaking; Cade
is bad, someone who sacks London, is the tool of the Duke of York and would
dethrone a king. Cades devastating performance of kingship is, moreover, not
without its own informing ideology. Even while wishing to be king, Cade
articulates the watchwords of a popular radicalism with roots in the late medieval
period. He praises the inherent nobility of working men, stressing that those who
labour in their vocations should be magistrates; and he orders that when he is
king, all things shall be in common

The presence of low scenes throughout the play forces the question of the role of
the commons in the political nation; the Cade scenes intimate both the power of
the commons to challenge the traditional order when their privileges within it are
ignored and also the power of common men to submit the privileged to their
withering critique.
Unlike the anonymous author of Jack Straw, Shakespeare eschews the overt use
of metaphors that define the rebels as a many-headed beast or that even present
the commonweal as a body composed of many interconnected but hierarchically
organized parts.
If the history plays are most centrally about kings, they are enacted by
commoners and assign commoners important roles within their multi-vocal
political explorations. In this and other ways, drawing on the resources of the
stage traditions he inherited, Shakespeare submitted the political thought of his
time to the test of embodied representation. It is important, then, when thinking
of Shakespeares contribution to political thought, to consider not only the ideas
debated in his plays, but
also the particular vividness with which the stage brought them home to the
ordinary people who frequented the theatre and the degree to which the political
thinking they embodied was inseparable from the dramatic forms and
conventions through which they were expressed. The commercial theatre was a
public and popular London venue, and in the 1590s, the English history play,
which Shakespeare helped to establish as a recognizable stage genre, became an
important part of this theatres repertory. It not only gave playgoers a sense of
their national past, but also let them experience a uniquely dialogic and complex
exploration of political ideas that circulated in different forms in other quarters of
the national culture. Written somewhat later than his English histories, both
Shakespeares Roman plays and tragedies exhibit a similarly complex capacity to
investigate ideas of tyranny, right rule, and popular participation in the
commonwealth. What is unique about the history
plays, I would argue, is not only how early Shakespeare penned the first of them,
but also how directly they insert political debate into an explicitly English context.
As theatregoers confronted their national past in dramatized form, they were
invited to understand it in the context of implicit debates about the limits and
powers of the sovereign or the proper relationship of the people to their rulers.


The age that produced Shakespeare was an era of change and restlessness. Everywhere
-- in religion, in philosophy, in politics, in science, in literature -new ideas were springing
into life and coming into conflict with the established order of things. The English
Renaissance was something much more complex than the revival of Greek and Roman
culture A whole series of events and discoveries, coming together at the end of the
fifteenth century, transformed and compromised, if it did not actually sweep away, many
of the institutions and the habits of mind that we call medieval. The gradual break-up of
feudalism, the challenge to the authority and the unity of the medieval church, the
discovery of gunpowder and the consequent revolution and democratization of warfare,
the discovery of the mariner's compass and the possibility of safely navigating the
limitless ocean, the production of paper and the invention of printing, and later, before
the sixteenth century was half over, the Copernican system of astronomy which
formulated a new center of the universe-all of these new conceptions had a profound
effect upon human thought and became the foundations for intellectual, moral, social,
and economic changes which quickly made themselves felt. Medieval England may be
said to have come to an inglorious end with the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses.

These wars were followed by the unsettling experiences of the Protestant Reformationitself an aspect of the reawakening-which prevented any early flowering of the
Renaissance proper. Both the Renaissance and the Reformation had been anticipated in
England by more than a century. The poetry of Chaucer is more akin to Elizabethan
poetry than it is to medieval. The humanistic spirit, eagerly interested in all the glorious,
infinite capabilities of the individual, was abroad.
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty!
In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel!
In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of
animals! ( Hamlet, II, ii, 315 ff.)
"Players," said Hamlet, "are the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time." The theatres
of Shakespeare's London reflect this interest in the marvels of the great world, not only
in the conventional Italian and other foreign settings of their plays, but also in their
foreign themes. Yet, regarded as a whole, the age of Elizabeth was an age of opportunity.
Old feudal barriers and rigid class distinctions had broken down, and upstart, capable
families, like the Cecils, rose to incredible positions of authority where they earned the
envy and the hatred of the older nobility. Even the feudal honor of knighthood could be
obtained, not only by military service to the sovereign, but by financial assistance in
times of peace.
Shakespeare's age, however, still believed in degree as the sound traditional basis of a
well-ordered commonwealth. The discourse which the dramatist put into the mouth of
Ulysses sums up the political creed of the average, prosperous, middle-class Englishman
of his day:
The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre [i. e., the earth]
Observe degree, priority, and place . . .
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthron'd and sphered
Amidst the other. . . . But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! What hunting!
What raging of the sea! . . . O, when degree is shak'd,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows!
( Troilus and Cressida, I, iii, 85 ff.)
Like the age in which she lived, Elizabeth was a paradox. Vain, fickle, evasive, she could,
nevertheless, on occasion be coldly calculating. She had many suitors, and scandals
about her were not infrequent, yet Elizabeth kept her head and no man lost his over her

as they did over her great rival, Mary Queen of Scots. Fond of ceremony and ritual, she
was, unlike her sister Mary, devoid of a religious temperament, and, fortunately for her
day, she valued uniformity in religion, not as a safeguard against heresy, but as a
guarantee of unity in the state and of royal supremacy. Like James, her successor,
she believed in the divine right of kings, but Elizabeth loved and trusted her
people. In return, she inspired in them a passionate personal loyalty which,
more than anything else, explains her greatness. Vexing as was the question of the
succession, Elizabeth alone seems to have realized fully that to recognize any of the rival
claims would, in her own phrase, have been to spread a winding sheet before her eyes.
There was no obvious heir, and civil war between the various claimants seemed
inevitable. For years Elizabeth literally stood between her people and the double disaster
of civil war and invasion from abroad, dangers which were not wholly dispelled even by
the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Through
difficult problems-religious, social, economic, and international-she steered a steady keel,
gave her nation a strong stable government, and-in spite of the threat of Spain, her
active aid to the Netherlands, the perennial troubles in Ireland, and the Jesuit scares at
home-Elizabeth brought England peace. Her voice was that of a united people. When
Shakespeare came to London, Elizabeth had already been more than thirty years on the
throne. She had long before become the subject of legend, and her work, for the most
part, was over. Shakespeare, too, was much less sycophantic than the average
Elizabethan poet. But into A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of his early plays, he did
insert for her ear an allusion to "a fair vestal throned by the west" that was designed
more to awaken memories than to flatter an old lady of sixty-five. But later, in Henry
VIII, when the aged queen had been dead for a decade, when an unpopular foreign king
was on the throne, and men could look back and see more calmly, he paid her a beautiful
tribute. It is in the form of a prophecy, spoken at her baptism by Archbishop Cranmer,
who holds the baby princess in his arms:
This royal infant -- Heaven still move about her! -Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,
Which time shall bring to ripeness. She shall be -But few now living can behold that goodness -A pattern to all princes living with her
And all that shall succeed. Saba was never
More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue
Than this pure soul shall be. All princely graces
That mould up such a mighty piece as this is,
With all the virtues that attend the good,
Shall still be doubled on her. Truth shall nurse her,
Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her.
She shall be lov'd and fear'd. Her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn
And hang their heads with sorrow. Good grows with her.
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants, and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours. ( V, v, 18 ff.)
These lines are a disinterested summary of what Elizabeth meant to her people.

Absolutism practiced by a Tudor was one thing; when it was professed by a Stuart who
spoke with a burr, it became quite another. Elizabeth's ecclesiastical policy was political,
but James's blunt enunciation, "no bishop, no king," antagonized the extreme
Protestants, with the result that the Puritans allied themselves with the constitutional
opposition. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 aroused the new king's witch-hunting zeal
against the Catholics. The mutual understanding and trust between ruler and ruled that
had characterized the Tudor sovereigns was destroyed.
Naturally, the theatres of Shakespeare's day reflected the differences between the two
reigns. The drama of the 1590's is filled with patriotism, national pride, or "matter for a
May morning." Just as the deeds of the English explorers thrilled their contemporaries, so
the chroniclers supplied the playwrights with materials that fed the pride in England's
past. The historical drama, glorifying the English, declined and was replaced by satire and
the drama of intrigue. It is too much to suggest that Shakespeare's late plays reflect the
spirit of the new age, but the sharp contrasts in some of them, like Measure for
Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and King Lear-conceived in the cynical mood of the
melancholy Jaques-may not be altogether unconnected with it. "The time is out of joint."
Shakespeare's broad humanity and understanding of human problems were still present,
but something was dead, and it was never again revived for long in the English drama.
Although, as Hamlet remarked, the purpose and the end of playing is to show "the very
age and body of the time his form and pressure," Shakespeare was so universal an artist
that the value of his plays as social documents is certainly secondary. Seldom in
Shakespeare's plays does one come upon a scene that causes one instinctively to
exclaim, "How Elizabethan!" rather than, "How true!" It is not that Shakespeare was
unable to be specifically realistic or concrete in his descriptions; it is rather that he rose
above immediacy and contemporaneousness and attained to universal truth. In Jonson's
phrase, he was "not of an age, but for all time." Yet, throughout, the background of life
in Shakespeare's plays is Elizabethan life. The social order, the manners and customs, the
human realities that Shakespeare knew intimately were Elizabethan. To be sure,
Shakespeare's plays are set in ancient Rome, medieval Britain, and the cities of Italy, but
they were written for a popular audience. The England in which Shakespeare lived was
still a comparatively small place, essentially rural, and self-supporting. Its population was
only four or five millions, and London was the only city of size in the kingdom. It was a
land of "fertile fields of corn and verdant pastures," of orchards and gardens, dotted here
and there with towns and villages. Most of the land was still unenclosed, but the old
medieval system of cultivation in common was giving way to modern methods.