Shakespeare and Globalization: the fragile unity of history, poetry, and politics

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Alan Bloom in his excellent work “Shakespeare’s Politics” regrets the passing of the time when university lecturers could count on students who were familiar with a canon of great works that  they held up as a standard by which to  shape their lives:

“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..than ever before. But they do not move: they do not seem to speak to the situation of the modern young.”

Bloom puts this fact down to the lack of a common understanding of principles. By way of emphasizing the modern lack of understanding of principles, he points also to how figures like Marlborough claimed to have formed their understanding of English history from Shakespeare as a counterpoint to the modern confusion expressed by the quote below:

“the result is not only a vulgarization  of the role of life but an atomization  of society, for a civilized people are held together by its common understanding  of what is virtuous and vicious, noble and base.”

Bloom wishes to make Shakespeare the theme of philosophical reflection and the source of inspiration for the search for the solution to moral and political problems. Shakespeare could write in the way in which he did because, Bloom argues, he wrote before the University was atomized:  before Poetry was separated from Philosophy, Psychology from Philosophy, Politics from Philosophy, Philosophy from History etc Philosophy once moved city states but no longer does so whilst poetry and popular songs can move nations. The imitators seem to have supplanted the originals.

Shakespeare, Bloom claims,  moved the English into an understanding of the political framework of their lives which affected everything then as it does now. Moreover, Shakespeare’s cosmopolitanism anticipates Kant’s Political Philosophy which is very aware of the history of politics .

Shakespeare was dismissed as a Philosophical poet by T S Eliot because he failed to fit the mold of Dante or Lucretius and neither of these latter writers could be regarded as Philosophers. But Eliot’s poetry as brilliant and unique as it was requires a dogmatic Catholic Philosophy for its structure so perhaps this is not the best standard by which to measure the greatness of Shakespeare’s poetry. For this is the nub of the problem: to evaluate the quality of Shakespeare’s work.

Wittgenstein is puzzled by Shakespeare and asks himself in his work on “Culture and Value” whether Shakespeare is more a creator of language than a poet. He suggests that because of this uniqueness Shakespeare should be regarded more as a natural phenomenon than a literary phenomenon (as Eliot was). He also says that Shakespeare is like a dream where both language and world are created. This impression is I suppose a result of the fact that Shakespeare’s plays are intended to be re-created in the dream space of the theatre. We sit in the dark, awake and hear Richard the seconds monologue after the losing of his kingdom:

“Of comfort let no man speak. let us talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs. Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes write sorrow on the bosom of the earth. Let us choose executors and talk of wills. And yet not so–for what can we bequeath. Save our deposed bodies to the ground. Our lands, our lives, and all, are Bolingbroke’s. And nothing can we call our own but death….. For Gods sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories about the death of kings. How some have been deposed, some slain in war. Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed. Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed: All murdered–For within the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples of a  king keeps Death his court…. How can you say to me– I am a king?”

The language and the world fit seamlessly together, like a panoramic landscape. Here Shakespeare is like the linguistic alchemist conjuring up images of loss and discontinuity which fit together into a picture of a universe of sadness.Shakespeare is also the monarchist whose views of kings and government may still reside in the minds of Englishman today reverberating in their bones whenever there is news of the Royal Family. He was not a supporter of Republics as his plays on The Merchant of Venice and Othello testify. Both are situated in the prosperous Republican city-state of Venice. Things did not go well for the Jew and the Moor living as they did in a universe of sadness created by a political misunderstanding of the social forces that operate beneath the surfaces of important events. And yet in the middle of this universe of sadness, out of the tearful mist, Venice appears in all its grandeur and we dream that we are there. We follow the Jew and the Moor to their fates. And in Venice, there appear the bearers of strange customs and traditions from other lands. Images within images These strangers were real men with real characters and real burdens to bear and demanded, therefore, the cosmopolitan sympathy we feel for all men. Was it living in a Republic which was responsible for their fates? We know Venice went the way of Athens and the city states of Greece. The Renaissance witnessed a resurgence of Republicanism once the memory of the fate of the Roman Republic faded sufficiently to seem sufficiently unreal. Venice was striving to be a modern Republic. Yet, Aristotle had claimed in his “Politics” that as long as a Community was constitutionally sound and virtuously run in accordance with a principle of justice which ensured the common good, it did not matter whether the ruler was a monarch or a group of citizens. There was a proviso however which might be problematic. The monarch would have to be as wise as the wisest philosopher because of the complexity of the task of ruling men.Aristotle was a believer in pluralism and manifold forms of life thriving in the state. This in itself would seem to require some system where representatives for these forms of life could bring their knowledge to bear on the task of government. Political reality for Aristotle appeared to be multi-perspectival and require an understanding of a number of perspectives if lawmaking was not to disadvantage one group at the expense of another. So although there is a remote possibility that one man could have the wisdom to rule in such circumstances it was highly unlikely. Richard the second’s fate may be a testament to this fact. The problem with Republics is that they seem to be founded on an act of violence which is often not only murderous but breaks up the continuity of life. Some lawmakers believe continuity to be the very condition of life, hence the great respect for common law in England. Shakespeare appears to side with this belief in the common law of  England. Now, Kant became very excited when he heard of the French Revolution and Kant was influenced by Aristotle and the Stoics which must be one of the ethical positions most loved by the Englishman who sees in the monarchy the continuity of all political life, remaining the same as governments come and go. But the French revolution did not start or end well and Napoleonic troops were in Königsberg very soon after the demise of Kant. I am not at all sure though,  that Kant would have been against a symbolic presence of a monarchy without any lawmaking responsibility. The Merchant of  Venice brings in another dimension of religion, of , as Bloom put it “other-worldliness”  into the Shakespearean wheel of fire. The Judaic God appears to be an extreme God to the Christian, vengeful, judgmental and not appearing to understand the creatures he created very well at all. So the presence of a Jew in the Republic is just as much of a test of the breadth of the pluralistic spirit of Venice as was the presence of a Moor. Neither are parasites on the society and both appear to be performing functions necessary for the prosperity and security of Venice. Bloom believes this test of tolerance was not directly addressed by ancient political thought but I think he must be forgetting Aristotle’s arguments for respecting pluralism. Shylock, of course, represents one of the most puzzling aspects of Globalisation, namely the commercial trading spirit which in a sense appears to frown upon veering from the middle path into extreme forms of life.Venices prosperity was due to this commercial spirit. It is also fascinating, and a testament to Shakespeares almost infallible ability to pierce to the very heart of all mysteries that he should choose to make the law the centre of the dispute between Shylock and Antonia, his Christian adversary. The Old Testament talks about 10 commandments or laws and the new testament only two, which presumably will imply at least the ten found in the old testament and many more other laws. The old testament thunders its laws out from Mount Sinai that “Thou Shalt Not” and the new testament meekly suggests that love is enough: love God above all and love thy neighbour as yourself. Which of course Shylock does not obey in his dealings with Antonio who also is not entirely blameless in the affair. The New Testament claims to capture the spirit of the law and the moral of the tale seems to be that Christianity was not just new but better. Shylocks respect for the law is admirable but it turns out to be a dogmatic respect. What is fascinating with Shakespeare’s choice of these two themes of the Jew and the Moor is that if one looks some hundreds of years into the future to our recent “terrible century”(the 20th century) we will see that Antisemitism and Racism were elements of Hitlers totalitarianism, Hitlers attempt to found a thousand year Republic which thankfully only lasted 12 years. What message emerges from the fate of the Jew and the Moor apart from the fact that commercial Republics require more than an antipathy toward monarchy and a commercial spirit. The Merchant of Venice and Othello are both tragedies,  not mere historical accounts, which means that Shakespeare’s poetic intent must have been to attempt to cause an awareness of our common humanity which of course did not seem to be present in Venice. Such awareness has obviously to preceded institutions which will guarantee the equality of men. Indeed, I believe that not mere awareness but philosophical awareness is required before institution building can begin. This was provided, in my opinion, by Kant’s moral and political philosophy which provided a secure ethical foundation for equality and human rights. Kant’s vision even extended to a suggestion of a United Nations to ensure the implementation of human rights. In Othello, of course, the theme is love. Not Christian love but the love of a more secular and unstable kind. We should remember in connection with the theme of love that it is a Christian concept with global intent. Christianity has always maintained that love is all you need for globalization, all you need to turn all our relations to each other into a brotherhood of man. More is needed of course, but it is nevertheless a good beginning. Some say that the presence of Iago in Othello is the presence of the devil. He is a materialist, loves money and uses deception to achieve his aims. If all citizens were like him, a government would, of course, be impossible. Only more sophisticated deception can outperform deception. This brings us back full circle to the claim that all politicians must trust(love) their citizens, i.e. brings us back to the need for politicians to be humanistic liberals.