Does Shakespeare still matter?
And does the world’s greatest playwright have important things to say to libertarians, other freedom lovers and those millions still wrestling in the 21st century with tyranny, war, slavery and other poisonous fruits of statism?
As a veteran theater critic, I’d argue yes on both counts!
So does a thoughtful essay by Michael Lucchese reviewing and comparing two recent books about Shakespeare and his views on liberty and authority in the Law and Liberty journal.
Lucchese makes a persuasive and nuanced case that the two books share an overlapping and unifying perspective about the Bard despite their focus on different aspects of Shakespeare’s character and perspective.
While R. V. Young’s Shakespeare and the Idea of Western Civilization gives readers a sense of Shakespeare as “a poet of tradition,” the late Nalin Ranasinghe’s Shakespeare’s Reformation: Christian Humanism and the Death of God gives readers “a sense of Shakespeare as a poet of liberty,” Lucchese writes.
“Although a definite tension exists between Young and Ranasinghe’s interpretations, they both capture essential elements of Shakespeare’s writing. He was a poet of both tradition and liberty—and that is why his poetry forms the foundation of the modern Western mind,” Lucchese writes.
Although Shakespeare has fallen on hard times in an era when too many students and teachers who should know better superficially dismiss him as a “dead white male,” Young and Ranasinghe’s books probe more deeply and find perennial truths and lasting art in Shakespeare’s plays.
“Young is rightly concerned… that the contemporary academy’s contempt for authority has produced little except desiccated Shakespeare scholarship. Postmodernism, critical theory, and other nihilistic academic trends lead many who professionally study Shakespeare into realms of strange obsessions. Rather than wrestle with the words he wrote, he is too often treated as a source or expression of sexism, racism, and imperialism,” Lucchese writes.
“But instead of refuting postmodern interpretations, Young chose to counter the critics by expositing Shakespeare’s plays. “My hope is to provide a model of humanistic education, of teaching in the liberal arts,” he writes, “insofar as the study of Shakespeare is a part of the enterprise, especially in the English-speaking world.” In large part, Young succeeds in this mission. These essays are shining examples of what serious literary scholarship ought to be,” Lucchese writes.
Lucchese also admires Ranasinghe, who sadly died before he was able to complete his research and finish his book (later completed by others.)
“Ranasinghe’s central thesis is that Shakespeare is the Renaissance’s greatest champion. The Renaissance was a great intellectual movement to put the human person at the center of Europe’s political and cultural life, liberating the people from political oppression and, at the same time, reintroducing them to the classical philosophical tradition,” Lucchese writes.
“In this context, Ranasinghe holds that Shakespeare’s plays offer “an esoteric vindication of the human soul itself,” the heart of the Renaissance, “against the looming backdrop of the Counter-Reformation in Europe and the Puritan perversion of English Anglicanism.” In his “re-telling of Classical and English history,” Ranasinghe argues, “Shakespeare is thus tying poetry to history and giving us an alternate, if playful, account of Western civilization.”
THE CORRUPTIONS OF ABSOLUTE POWER
Many of Shakespeare’s plays dramatize the excesses and corruptions of power.
“Ranasinghe suggests, then, Shakespeare’s humanistic vision for politics consists in dethroning all forms of absolute power,” Lucchese writes.
“Whether exercised by a tyrant or a mob or an oligarchic junto, absolute power is inimical to the common good. It perverts its wielders and degrades society. It violates the precepts of classical philosophy and the new covenant of love announced in Christ’s gospel. In his tragedies and histories, Shakespeare dramatically depicts over and over again the corrupting grip absolute power holds on tyrants, oligarchs, and demagogues—and the bloody consequences of unlimited authority.”
“Ranasinghe’s Shakespearean politics holds that the common good must be grounded in human freedom. The chief characteristic of the human soul is its ability to love, and Ranasinghe believes Shakespeare rejects the notion that any central authority is competent to direct and order a soul’s loves. Power must always be limited, then, to preserve freedom and the possibility of love.”
Lucchese’s essay is worth reading in its entirety.
A THEATER CRITIC’S PERSPECTIVE
As a newspaper theater critic for more than four decades, I can attest to the truths and insights that Lucchese finds in these two books.
I have seen few plays that have dramatized the corruptions and abuses of power – and the terrible consequences that can disrupt civil society and undermine civilization itself – as profoundly and dramatically as Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Richard III.
Contrary to the common view that Macbeth is a tragic drama about ambition (however misdirected), it’s theme is more specifically and explicitly about the abuses and corruptions of power. Moreover, the chief character flaw in its title character and his conniving wife is not “ambition” per se (which can be benign, depending on its objective, and appropriate, if not unbalanced) but unbridled power-lust – far more dangerous and deadly than any of the other so-called “seven deadly sins.”
Meanwhile, Romeo and Juliet, perhaps the greatest romantic tragedy, can be seen as not only a moving love story but also as a still-relevant social-issue drama implicitly championing the rights of two young adults to love and marry as they choose.
While class and social barriers between “two warring tribes” largely prevented Romeo and Juliet from joining in matrimony, today’s audiences easily can grasp the deeper theme and apply it more broadly today to the rights of consenting adults to overcome today’s persistent tribalism and choose to love each other – no matter their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or ethnicity.
Perhaps less obviously, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing and other Shakespeare comedies often explore how people strive to take advantage of what limited but genuine freedom they have to exercise their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (No matter if the unanticipated results often prove the Bard’s observation “what fools these mortals be” and how we all ultimately become “fools for love.”)
Of course, the Bard wasn’t a modern “libertarian.”
No one was in the 15th and 16th centuries, since modern libertarianism didn’t exist until the past half-century or so. Yet, the desire for liberty has roots in the human soul and surfaces anew in every generation.
Shakespeare felt the allure of liberty and the threat of absolute power.
And he created memorable characters who feel it, too. That’s a powerful legacy, which we moderns should not minimize or ignore.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE:
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One thought on “A poet of liberty? How Shakespeare upheld and advanced our appreciation of liberty and wariness about unlimited authority”
I’m not so sure about the Puritans being the bad guys from a libertarian perspective. Neal Stephenson memorably points out, in The Baroque Cycle, that under the Tudors and Stuarts, people were legally compelled to attend the churches in their own parishes, but under the Commonwealth, they were allowed to choose churches whose doctrines and rites they agreed with; under a system where religion was a function of the state, this was a step toward greater liberty, just as school choice is a step toward greater liberty in our system of state-financed education. Note also that Cromwell allowed the Jews to return to England, from which they had been expelled centuries before by Edward I.
The case can be made that the English Revolution was the first revolution of the modern era, before the American and French Revolutions; and if its outcome was not so fortunate as that of the American Revolution, it was at least less disastrous than that of the French Revolution. No less a figure than Patrick Henry found its memory worth evoking when he warned that “Caesar had his Brutus, and Charles I his Cromwell, and George III” [shouts of “Treason!”] “—may profit from their example.”