Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Shakespeare and America
Shakespeare and America

Shakespeare and America


William Shakespeare

April 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, who is not only the poet of the English speaking people but also their political teacher, as Homer was the political teacher of the Greeks and Vergil the political teacher of the Romans. Although he wrote long before the Founding of the United States, American politics owes much to Shakespeare as well. During his visit to America in the 1830s, Alexis d ’Tocqueville noted that even in the meanest cabin on the American frontier of the time, one found two books: the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

So what could Americans learn from a poet who wrote about kings and dukes and Roman nobles?  The fact is that Shakespeare explores a number of themes that have influenced not only British, but also American politics: the nature and limits of political life; the effect on politics of Christianity, classical philosophy, and modernity as represented by Niccolo Machiavelli and Francis Bacon; the meaning and practice of statesmanship; the best polity vs. real polities in the form of England, Italy, and Rome; the link between individual character and the political regime; and the relationship among poetry, politics, religion, and philosophy.

The division of Shakespeare’s plays into histories, comedies, and tragedies often obscures the fact that all of his plays—including the comedies— are political, in the sense that they are treatments of the human condition under different constitutions. The human beings he describes seek completion within a political community, whether it be an ancient city such as Athens, a timocratic regime such as Rome, a commercial republic such as Venice, or a monarchy such as England in transition from a medieval polity to a modern one.

As Allan Bloom has written, “Shakespeare devotes great care to establishing the political setting in almost all his plays, and his greatest heroes are rulers who exercise capacities which can only be exercised within civil society. To neglect this is simply to be blinded by the brilliance of one’s own prejudices. As soon as one sees this, one cannot help asking what Shakespeare thought about a good regime and a good ruler. I contend that the man of political passions and education is in a better position to understand the plays than a purely private man. With the recognition of this fact, a new perspective is opened, not only on the plays but also on our notions of politics. . . The poet can take the philosopher’s understanding and translate it into images which touch the deepest passions and cause men to know without knowing that they know.”

As Bloom understood, Shakespeare’s plays are about public men sharing a public world with other citizens or subjects, who make choices that have political consequences. Shakespeare wrote at a time when an Englishman could seek guidance regarding the best life for man and the political arrangements most conducive to that life from three philosophical possibilities.

In his introduction to Shakespeare as Political Thinker, John Alvis writes, that these three philosophical possibilities can be seen as roads intersecting in Shakespeare’s England. Two led to the past; the third led to the future. The first road led to Athens via Rome—the guides on this road were Vergil, Plutarch, Aristotle, and Plato, the second road led to Jerusalem—its guides were Hooker, Fortescue, John of Salisbury, Aquinas, Augustine, Paul and the Evangelists, and through the mists of time, Moses. The third was a new road under construction, leading to the modern scientific and technological state of New Atlantis. The guides on this road were Machiavelli and Bacon.

The opening paragraph of Federalist 1 suggests that the United States chose the road to New Atlantis: “…it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force” (emphasis added). But it is clear that the Founders also took their bearings from the other roads as well, especially the road of classical political philosophy. Their choices of pseudonyms during the debates over the Constitution illustrate their debt to this tradition as related through the works of Plutarch in particular.

Here is how Plutarch described his enterprise in his Life of Timoleon:  “Using history as a mirror I try by whatever means I can to improve my own life and to model it by the standard of all that is best in those whose lives I write. As a result I feel as though I were conversing and indeed living with them; by means of history I receive each one of them in turn, welcome and entertain them as guests and consider their stature and their qualities and select from their actions the most authoritative and the best with a view to getting to know them. What greater pleasure could one enjoy than this or what more efficacious in improving one’s own character?”

Shakespeare’s plays serve the same purpose: to educate his viewers by having them confront a variety of men and women living under various constitutions/regimes. Thus his plays serve the truth: “minding true things by what their mock’ries be.”

From Shakespeare, Americans learned the relationship between the human soul and political constitutions. The Greeks divided the human soul into three parts: nous, the intellective, reasoning part of the soul; thumos, the spirited part of the soul, concerned with honor and justice; and epithumeia, the appetitive part of the soul, concerned with basic human desires and subject to the passions.

For the Greeks, various polities each reflected a part of the human soul. In this taxonomy of regimes, the noetic part of the soul was seen in rule by the one; the thumetic part of the soul in rule by the few; and the appetitive part of the soul in rule by the many. Each form of rule had a good and bad version, the former based on rule for the benefit of the entire polity and the latter rule on behalf of the ruler alone. Thus the good form of rule by the one was kingship; the bad form tyranny. The good form of rule by the few was aristocracy; the bad form oligarchy or plutocracy. The good form of rule by the many was politeia or a balanced constitution; the bad form was democracy or ochlocracy: mob rule.

This taxonomy led the Greek historian, Polybius, to suggest that all political regimes were subject to the anakuklosis politeion, or “cycle of constitutions.”  Kingship—rule by the one on behalf of the whole deteriorates into tyranny. The virtuous few—the aristoi–depose the tyrant, but over time aristocracy deteriorates into oligarchy. The oligarchs are overthrown by the virtuous many but a balanced constitution deteriorates into democracy, and the cycle then repeats itself. 

One sees a version of the anakuklosis politeion in Shakespeare’s sonnet, The Rape of Lucrece (Lucretia) and his Roman plays. Lucretia’s rape by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the last Roman king, leads to her suicide, which in turn compels the aristocrats to expel the Tarquins and establish the Republic. In Coriolanus, we see a timocratic regime that is nonetheless at war with itself. Julius Caesar overthrows the republic and his adopted son, Augustus defeats Antony and other leading men to establish a cosmopolitan empire, the decline of which we see in Titus Andronicus.

What the American people in general and the Founders in particular learned from Shakespeare’s Rome was the instability of democracy, which served the passions, not the reason of the people; the dangers of demagogues; the importance of the rule of law; and the necessity of institutions—in this case the Constitution—to tame the ambition of great men while tamping down the passions of the people. Thus this warning against demagogues from Federalist 71: “There are some who would be inclined to regard the servile pliancy of the executive to a prevailing current, either in the community or in the legislature, as its best recommendation. But such men entertain very crude notions, as well of the purposes for which government was instituted, as of the true means by which the public happiness may be promoted. The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests. It is a just observation, that the people commonly intend the PUBLIC GOOD. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it” (emphasis in the original).

Shakespeare taught the English speaking world the deficiencies of most polities, suggesting thereby how deficient constitutions can be improved. The timocratic Roman Republic of Coriolanus is full of men motivated by thumos but deficient in other characteristics. The commercial republic of Venice feeds the epithumeia of its citizens but thumetic men are lacking; this means that the Venetians must depend on outsiders such as Othello—who do not share their religion—to defend the city.  The Vienna of Measure for Measure is a city of extremes: it is characterized by bordellos and convents. It is a city that needs to be taught moderation.

And this most of all is what America seems to have learned from Shakespeare: that a balanced constitution that accommodates the souls of all of its citizens and moderation are necessary for a healthy polity. By working through the entirety of partial, partisan regimes, Shakespeare’s readers and audiences can get a sense of the best practicable regime. And as we survey the world today, that best practicable regime appears to be the American Republic.