Mainstream discussion about Shakespeare usually depicts him and his enormous body of work as quaint and apolitical, devoid of any radical or subversive messages. But Shakespeare was living and writing during a time of violent transition and social upheaval, which is reflected in his plays. Since they were first published more than 400 years ago, every generation in every part of the world has reinterpreted Shakespeare’s plays, allowing the words to speak to them to explain their own world.
At the time that Shakespeare was writing, feudalism (an economic system based on obligation) was on the way out, and capitalism (an economic system based on competition) was on the way in. Feudalism was a fixed, hierarchical system in which everyone knew their place—serf at the bottom and lord at the top, divinely ordained. This was upended with the emergence of capitalism, in which people insisted that society could be reshaped through individual effort and ambition and that anyone with enough of either could rule. This burgeoning society was transforming economic and social life, and with that came an expansion of possibilities in other areas—expressed in the explosion of science, art and literature.
Shakespeare wrote for a new capitalist theatre; writers who previously relied on aristocratic patrons for survival could now charge admission. The theatres attracted ordinary folk who paid a penny to stand, and the gentry who paid a bit more for comfortable seats. Shakespeare had a reciprocal relationship with the theatre—his position as actor, writer and shareholder meant he had an interest in the financial success of his plays, but the relationship he created with the audience also had an impact on his writing. His plays did not just reflect his society’s context; they also shaped it.
With capitalism came the emergence of the bourgeois individual: cutthroat and egotistical. We see this in Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy, an innovative theatrical device that demonstrated a new interest in individual psychology—exposing the mind of the characters, laying bare their secret motivations, obsessions and desires. We can see this in characters from Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.
However, the tragedy of Shakespeare’s eponymous characters is not simply explained by their flaws but by understanding the world in which they were trying to survive. Romeo and Juliet want to choose who they marry, but they live in a society that doesn’t recognise that right. A whole tradition of academic criticism has tried to reinforce the idea that Shakespeare was the literary embodiment of the dominant ideology of the bourgeoisie, namely that of cohesion and order. They work hard to ignore and downplay the social contradictions beneath the work’s surface.
While Shakespeare himself cannot be described as a revolutionary, his art had a radical impact on society. Shakespeare was grappling with the clash of the old and the new; he might look backward to make sense of the world around him, but his work was also looking forward, wondering what this new society would deliver. The representation of the nobility on stage brawling and fighting, constantly at each other’s throats, would make ordinary people in the audience think: “Is this who rules us, those who are supposed to be our betters? Maybe there’s nothing natural about them being at the top, if they manipulated and fought and killed to get there”. In Henry V, the king starts a war to divert attention from social problems people are facing, which may have produced doubts in the audience—is this what our rulers do too? He shows the inner workings of the royal state and reveals them to be entirely corrupt.
Karl Marx loved Shakespeare’s work from a young age. His influence can be seen throughout Marx’s writings, from passing comment to direct analogy. Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice, provides for Marx a literary personification of the heartless drive to accumulate wealth that defined the rising capitalist class in early 19th century Europe. But in Capital, Marx uses Shylock as both the voice of the oppressor and the oppressed. The play is often considered problematic today because performances can fall into anti-Semitic stereotypes, and Shakespeare certainly wasn’t exempt from the prejudices of his times. Still, it contains an important political message: some people from oppressed minorities, like Shylock, believe that joining their oppressors on the same level will rid them of discrimination. Shylock discovers the hard way that you can’t buy your way out of oppression, and rising to the top only makes you more comfortable with the brutality of the system that oppressed you in the first place. Just as having more Black mayors, judges, governors or attorneys general has done nothing in the overall fight against racism in the United States, so Shylock was never going to escape a life of discrimination and humiliation by joining those above him.
Marx also references Timon of Athens in Capital when reflecting on the destructive impact of money on human relations. The play is full of exchanges of money and commodities that take on a perverse and depraved role in Timon’s society—once the money has run out, Timon’s “friends” are nowhere to be seen. Timon disparagingly talks about how his despair has been brought on by money and other people’s attitudes towards it:
“What is here?
Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, gods,
I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens!
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.”
And Marx provides his own analysis of the broader significance of Timon’s words:
“Shakespeare brings out two properties of money in particular: (1) It is the visible divinity, the transformation of all human and natural qualities into their opposites, the universal confusion and inversion of things; it brings together impossibilities. (2) It is the universal whore, the universal pimp of men and peoples.”
Marx’s analysis helps to modernise Shakespeare’s words—they can easily be applied to the bankers responsible for the 2008-9 global financial crisis or the world’s ten richest billionaires who, according to Oxfam, more than doubled their wealth during the pandemic. Marx’s observations get to the heart of capitalism’s nature: the real god of modern society is greed; the real temples are the banks and stock exchanges; the priests are the bankers and traders, and they succeed in life by demanding their pound of flesh from people when things go awry.
When Shakespeare came to write a play about a society based on competition, he saw such a society as tragic. King Lear is set in a feudal society with a rigid hierarchy. Lear decides to shake things up, dismantling this society and creating a competitive one instead. Rather than leaving his kingdom to his firstborn, he makes his three daughters compete for it by asking them to prove who loves him the most. The infinite love that the daughters Goneril and Regan profess is immediately made worthless. The third daughter, Cordelia, says she loves him as much as a daughter should love a father, angering Lear and leading to her banishment. Lear’s fostering of a competitive drive within his daughters leads to his downfall as they are driven to accumulate more by giving him less. Without money in this new society, he is worthless; he relies on his daughters’ generosity, but the love that might have inclined them to that has been eroded by their competitive drive to gain ever more wealth. Goneril and Regan are ready to do whatever they must to accumulate more, even wage war with each other—a perfect representation of Marx’s description of capitalists as a “band of warring brothers”.
In the words of Shakespeare at the dawn of the new society that Lear has created:
“Humanity must perforce prey on itself,/ Like monsters of the deep.”
Marx expressed a similar sentiment in Capital when he wrote, “capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt”.
Shakespeare wrote King Lear by extending an existing story in which Cordelia and Lear are reconciled at the end. His reworking reflects the tumultuous times he was living in, when the restoration of order at the end of the play was an unconvincing outcome. But the poet Nahum Tate revised Shakespeare’s play with a happy ending in which Cordelia doesn’t die, and it was this version that was performed in the late 17th century as capitalism was taking great pains to establish its dominance. A version of the play that shows how mad, brutal and war-obsessed their society was simply could not be tolerated. This version was performed for decades, until the 1830s, when society was shifting once again. The Chartists—the first independent working-class party—were launched alongside the first recorded use of the word “socialism” in the English language. Suddenly Shakespeare’s version had much more to say to a society that was starting to radically question capitalism.
The pervasiveness of identity politics can make Shakespeare seem like the ultimate dead white male with little relevance to the left. He has recently been a target for “decolonisation” attempts in academia and schools. But that perspective misses all that his writing has to say about the human condition, with our flaws, hopes and dreams. His works show us it is possible to challenge the existing order and that humanity can transform the world and transform ourselves in the process.
Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James called Shakespeare the “most political writer that Britain has ever seen”. James believed that there was tremendous creative power at the moment in history when existing notions of democracy and order were being pushed and expanded through political struggle, and Shakespeare’s plays could be used to represent those moments as they reappear. Artists often use the past to comment on their present; James did so when writing his seminal work, The Black Jacobins. In it, he had one eye on an amazing piece of history, the uprising that abolished slavery in San Domingo under slave leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, and one eye on the coming national liberation struggles in Africa and Asia.
The classics often feel out of reach for the ordinary person—only to be discussed in the academy or viewed by a wealthy elite. But the ideas and political undercurrents in Shakespeare’s plays are of value to everyone who dreams of a different world. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote in Literature and Revolution:
“It is childish to think that bourgeois belles-lettres can make a breach in class solidarity. What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoevsky, will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious ... In the final analysis, the worker will be richer.”
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