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Shakespeare, a Political Theorist Too

Hamlet (1948)

That they are tragedies also reveals Shakespeare’s pessimistic outlook on politics. Politics is a tragic necessity. But it comes with a cost. Namely, the forsaking of love.”

William Shakespeare, that immortal bard from Stratford-upon-Avon, is well-regarded as the English-speaking world’s greatest dramatist and, arguably, the greatest dramatist in the history of drama. But Shakespeare is also a political thinker. In fact, political commentary pours through the lines of his many plays—especially his tragedies. Some of his most famous tragedies are also his most political works: Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra (notwithstanding Othello, Macbeth, and King Laer).

For the sake of brevity, I will limit this brief exposition of politics as tragedy to Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra. The reason for this is because Hamlet is standalone and deeply relevant to our world today, especially given the prevalence of spying and untrustworthiness in the play—themes that ought to be all the more important to us considering our national security state and the continuing fraying of social and cultural trust through Western Europe and North America. Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, though standalone works, should be seen as companion pieces, which continue to develop the mature themes of politics, power, and love, beginning with Julius Caesar and reaching fruition in Antony and Cleopatra; however, the question of love and politics is also contained in Hamlet but not at the same level as in the Roman plays. 

Politics, Paranoia and the Surveillance State

Reading Hamlet politically should immediately reveal the politics of paranoia that run through the play. The play opens with two inconsequential sentinels, Barnardo and Francisco, before giving way to more important characters—Horatio and Marcellus. Something strange has been occurring, and Horatio has arrived to investigate.

Horatio’s entry into the play, which pushes the play forward, is brought forth by rumors. Although, in this instance, the rumors turn out to be true. But the dramatic beginning of the play foreshadows the reality of cold and dark whispers that carry the play forward. When the men encounter the ghost, Horatio demands it to speak. All to no avail. The ghost exits. The men immediately consider the worst possibility for interpreting this encounter. Horatio foreshadows the ominous nature of the play immediately after the ghost vanishes, “In what particular thought to work I know not, but in the gross and scope of mine opinion, this bodes some strange eruption to our state.” This is followed by that most famous line, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

The “strange eruption to our state,” and the rotting problem in the state, is what the rest of Hamlet deals with. King Hamlet, as we know, has recently died, and the ghost is his apparition. King Claudius, aptly named after the Roman emperor, has made his bid to the throne in murdering his brother and subsequently marrying Gertrude—thereby ascending to the throne. We become aware, through the ghost of King Hamlet, that Claudius murdered him because of his lust for Gertrude and lust to wield crown and scepter. Claudius’ marriage to Gertrude is not out of love but out of the pursuit of power and self-pleasure.

Lurking in the background is the feud between Denmark and Norway, over land, which is boiling up to erupt in war. Compounded to these fears are the worries of Polonius that the young Prince Hamlet is madly in love with his daughter, Ophelia. Ophelia informs her father of Hamlet’s suggestive behavior and love letters. Polonius offers to prove his loyalty to Claudius by spying on Hamlet (thus serving both Claudius but also serving his own end to prevent Hamlet’s love for Ophelia). But it is Claudius’ fear, his paranoia, that Hamlet will take revenge for his father’s murder by killing him that drives his antagonism toward the young prince to rid himself of the perpetual threat at his side. Polonius is but a pawn in a larger and more sinister game.

Shakespeare does a remarkable job in presenting politics as no pasture for saints. It is the domain of those sad and sorry humans inflicted with “the primal eldest curse” (a reference to Cain’s murder of Abel). Love is absent in the political scheming and skullduggery that consumes the state of Denmark.

So paranoid is Claudius that he effectively establishes a police and surveillance state to control every aspect of life in the palace. Polonius, through fidelity to Claudius and fear of Hamlet’s love for Ophelia, is enlisted as a spy. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two childhood friends of Hamlet, are also conscripted in this game of spies as they betray their friendship and memories with Hamlet in service to Claudius. Not even the sacredness of friendship and joyful memories can keep relationships from dissolving into utilitarian contracts. Claudius, for instance, doesn’t care at all about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Claudius merely contracts them for his service—what happens to them is equally unimportant to Claudius so long as Claudius’ scheme to dispatch Hamlet succeeds. (I should also point out that as the second act comes to a close Hamlet is also counter-spying on Claudius and is very much bound up in this game of spies as all the villains are.)

Hamlet, however, is not without suffering the degradation of the rotten sins of the Danish state and the brutal machinations of power politics inside the “prison” that is Denmark under Claudius. En route to England, Hamlet grows suspicious of his former friends and rewrites the letter instructing the executioner to kill the two disposable spies and, in battle against pirates, flees back to Denmark, leaving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for dead. And die they do. But rather than offer any hand of forgiveness or redemption to his former friends, Hamlet abandons them to the fated contract they had signed up for. We may feel Hamlet justified in his actions toward Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but, in his rather callous actions (though lesser in comparison to Claudius), we come to see how truly “changed” Hamlet has become due to his enslavement to the politics of power and revenge.

Ironically, the security-surveillance state that has been erected to keep Claudius in power fails. The realm of the political, if it is to survive, must shed itself of the spying apparatus that constricts it. Thus, Polonius is killed by Hamlet (though Hamlet thought he was killing Claudius in the spur of the moment). As hitherto mentioned, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also shed off and later die. In the end, the very elaborate system of security and spying that Claudius has built has done him no good. His crime is eventually revealed, and he pays the price.

At the same time as Shakespearean irony reveals the limits of the security-surveillance state, the tragic element of the play is seen in the deaths of Ophelia and Hamlet. Ophelia loved Hamlet. Hamlet loved Ophelia. Whatever possible love the two had for each other could not be consummated because love is driven away by the “madness” of politics. Ophelia, in my opinion, committed suicide rather than having drowned in her own madness; that is neither here nor there considering the bleaker portrait that Shakespeare in painting, however.

Hamlet, for his part, probably did love Ophelia despite the debates over whether he did or did not. (At least this is the most probable when analyzing the interactions between Hamlet and Ophelia, especially when Hamlet realizes Ophelia is the one being buried and he declares that he loved her as he cries out, “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum.”) In happier and more tranquil days, Ophelia would have been queen to Hamlet, and the two would have gayly spent their days together. However, it is not Hamlet’s destiny to be wed and live the happy life. He must deliver the state from the constrictive and enslaving machine that Claudius has built. As such, Hamlet is fated to a loveless life too. For that is what Shakespeare is revealing about the empty and brutal nature of politics. Politics forsakes love as it is about power.

But Shakespeare is no anarchist. The state must survive and be restored. While those who occupy its halls of power will be miserable creatures without love, the state plays an important role in facilitating the happy and loving lives we can create. As such, Hamlet is the tragic hero whose destiny it is to restore the state to its proper condition by destroying the intrusive security-surveillance state, which prohibited civil society and human-to-human relationships from flourishing. (It is also been widely argued that Shakespeare was making esoteric commentary on the Elizabethan police state of his day.) So Hamlet does. So Hamlet dies.

The political life, as we’ve said, chases away love and, therefore, cannot give life but can only serve to protect life.

Hamlet dies at the end of the play because he must. The political life, as we’ve said, chases away love and, therefore, cannot give life but can only serve to protect life. There is a difference between giving life and protecting life. Politics is a tragic enterprise according to Shakespeare. It is, however, a necessary one—and that is why it is tragic. 

Politics and the Death of Eros

Politics chasing away love—and destroying love altogether—is further explored in Shakespeare’s two great plays dealing with that most sublime imperium in Western History: Rome. Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, in many ways, explore similar territory to Hamlet. Like Hamlet, these two Roman plays are deeply political, and it is because of their political nature that they find themselves in the annals of Shakespeare’s tragedies. 

Where Hamlet was a sympathetic character, Julius Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra are filled with an overabundant vanity. Julius Caesar is clearly in love with himself, his grandiosity, and his power. Antony and Cleopatra, when they are introduced in the first scene of their play, enter as king and queen of the world. They enter the stage with servants, a golden train, and eunuchs fanning Cleopatra, as if reminiscent of a Roman triumph. The pomp and circumstance of Julius Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra are borne for all to see. Literally.

Part of the crisis of politics is the conflictual dimension of it. Brutus, Cassius, and the Senatorial Republicans, who oppose Caesar, are fighting a losing battle against the politics of monopoly. The politics of monopoly is represented by Caesar, who wields the unruly passion of the mob for his self-gain. Moreover, since Julius Caesar has now entered the domain of the political, his relationship with Brutus changes.

Prior to Julius Caesar’s foray into politics, he counted Brutus as one of his best and most trustworthy friends. Brutus was able to be a true friend to Julius Caesar because he did not threaten the politics of power that the Senate held and embodied. With Julius Caesar now entering the domain of politics, the relationship between the two men must change—and change it does. Brutus is convinced by the conniving machinations of Cassius to slay his former friend. Thus, this is the source of the great shock and sadness on Caesar’s face when he is mercilessly cut down like Priam. It is in seeing the one man whom he had trusted so dearly deliver the culling blow.

The ghost of Caesar haunts Brutus, Cassius, and the rest of the conspirators for the rest of the play. The moral law rears its horrifying and terrifying head against the men who, in betraying trust, Dante placed in the ninth circle of hell. What was anticipated as their triumph becomes the whip of their flight. Brutus, Cassius, and the rest of the pro-republican forces thought that the murder of Caesar would stave off the rule of one and preserve the rule of many. It did not. The energy unleashed in the murder only speeds up the inevitable eradication of the politics of plurality into the politics of universalism that will eventually be consummated by Octavius.

Antony and Cleopatra continues where Julius Caesar left off. “The triple pillar of the world” (the triumvirate) still retains a vestige of the politics of plurality. Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus have split the Roman Republic among themselves. Sextus Pompeius, or just Pompey in the play, is a fourth leg in a three-leg race. Pompey controls the sea and therefore prevents Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus from getting at each other’s throat. Ironically—and irony is a major feature of Shakespeare—this unintended fourth leg acts as the wall of peace between the triumvir.

Antony, however, is caught between a rock and a hard place. His erotic love for Cleopatra puts him outside of the domain of the political despite being among the triumvir and a great Roman general. For a man of extreme pride and haughtiness, he speaks the only wisdom in the play, “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space, Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life is to do thus; when such a mutual pair and such a twain can do’t, in which I bind, on pain and punishment, the world to weet we stand up peerless.”

This most passionate and wise aside by Antony continues to develop Antony as a man of passion. After all, in Julius Caesar, Antony was the most passionate man after the death of Caesar. The one line that everyone knows from Julius Caesar was uttered by Antony, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” The passion exuded by Antony in Julius Caesar has now fully consumed him in Antony and Cleopatra. Love threatens the political, “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall.” Love has its own domain, “Here is my space.” Antony also reflects on the temporality of politics but the eternality of love, “Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike feeds beast as man.” Those who wish to build immortal houses and eternal arches are doomed to failure. Politicians are not lovers, thus lovers are not peers with politicians, “We stand up peerless.” Antony and Cleopatra are peerless because they are lovers.

Where Antony and Cleopatra are introduced as passionate and prideful individuals, Octavius Caesar is introduced as a cold and calculating man of bureaucratic management who only talks politics. In the fourth scene of the first act, as Octavius is introduced, he is described as having no grand entrance and gives no passionate and memorable speech. Instead, Octavius enters, along with the other Roman contenders for the prize of managerial power, in a dry and sterile room of banal politicking. Rome, as Shakespeare reveals in the scenes in Rome and among the Romans, is the center of the passionless world of cold and calculative politics. 

Antony doesn’t escape this reality when in the presence of his fellow Romans. His marriage to Octavia is purely political. There is nothing loving, erotic, or passionate about it. At first opportunity, with hostilities erupting, he sends Octavia back to Octavius to be rid of her.

The war for the world begins when Pompey is eliminated. Again, this unintentional fourth leg initially kept the peace until Octavius and Lepidus allied together to destroy Pompey. Power, however, kept Pompey short-sighted. He despised Antony and cursed him in the opening of second act, he called Antony and Cleopatra “Epicurean cooks,” a derogatory dig at their sensuality in each other’s arms and bed. The politics of power blinded Pompey to his impending doom. (It did the same to Antony insofar that an alliance with Pompey would have proved beneficial in the coming struggle against Octavius.)

Lepidus may have been the third man in the triumvirate, but he, too, is of little concern. Octavius uses Lepidus to defeat Pompey then has him imprisoned after his use. This is made tragic given that Lepidus, according to Enoborus, loved Caesar, “O, how he loves Caesar.” Agrippa, a cold politico like his master, retorts, “Nay, but how he clearly adores Mark Antony.” Love, as we’ve mentioned, cannot survive in the realm of cut-throat politics. Loyal Lepidus was disposable and disposed he was once his utility ran out.

The removal of Pompey and Lepidus cuts the world down into halves, one ruled by Octavius and the other by Antony and Cleopatra. The diarchy cannot survive the inevitable push to political universalism either. So at the mouth of Actium the battle for the fate of the world commences. It is not a battle between Octavius and Antony; it is a battle between cold rationalism and bureaucratic managerialism (embodied and represented by Octavius) against the world of passion, love, and the erotic (embodied and represented by Antony and Cleopatra)—“Nature’s infinite book of secrecy.” In this battle the cold and calculative politics of Octavius wins when Antony, lovestruck in seeing Cleopatra flee to the open seas, gives chase “like a doting mallard” after his beloved—abandoning men and material to be with Cleopatra.

The world of Antony and Cleopatra is one of sensual play and erotic catharsis. “Give me some music: music, moody food, of us that trade in love,” Cleopatra famous says in the second act. She follows this up by revealing the extent of her world of “sport” with Antony as she reminisces, “That time—O times!—I laughed him out of patience; and that night I laughed into patience; and next morn, ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed; then put my tires and mantles on him whilst I wore his sword Philippan.” 

With all lost, however, the only comfort that Antony and Cleopatra have is in retreating into that “space” of play. “Where hast thou been, my heart? Dost thou hear, lady? If from the field I shall return once more to kiss these lips, I will appear in blood; I and my sword will earn our chronicle. There’s hope in’t yet…Come,” Antony continues to say after his disastrous defeat at Actium, “Let’s have one other gaudy night: call to me all my sad captains; fill our bowls once more; let’s mock the midnight bell.”

As Antony and Cleopatra retreat into her bedchambers for another night of gaudy sex, thereby mocking the midnight bell of death wrought by the inevitable ascent of politics, Shakespeare again shows us how politics chases away love. The crime of Antony and Cleopatra was that they were lovers in the world of politics. Being lovers in the cold world of politics they had to die to make safe passage for the consummation of the universal bureaucratic imperium that rational politics demands which had chosen Rome and Octavius as its vessel of realization. 

Love cannot coexist with the political because love threatens the political. “Let Rome in Tiber melt,” as Antony said. To love is to forsake the political; to love is to “[l]et Rome in Tiber melt” away in the fires that consumed Troy; to love is allow the pettiness of politics slip away and dwell in the timelessness of love just as Cleopatra did when waiting for Antony’s return from Rome, “I might sleep out this great gap of time [while] my Antony is away.” When campaigning in Egypt to finish off Antony and Cleopatra, Octavius says, “The time of universal peace draws near.” Universal peace can only be consummated with love destroyed; so it is that Eros (Antony’s most trustworthy companion) dies, then Antony dies, and, eventually, Cleopatra dies in rapid succession. (I have treated this topic in further detail here.)

Shakespeare is not, in my view, celebrating universal peace through universal order. Instead, he is revealing the tragic reality of the cold rationalism of politics—the inevitable law of politics is that it must destroy plurality in favor of universality to win that “universal peace.” In doing so, “Nature’s infinite book of secrecy” must be destroyed and all the personality that dwells in that world must also be eliminated. The triumph of Caesar and the bringing of universal peace entails the triumph of cold bureaucratic politics, the very bureaucratic politics embodied by Octavius in the play as he sits over desks, reads papers, and commands his lackeys to execute his will. Indeed, how very tragic.

Shakespeare as Political Theorist

Reading Shakespeare is a joy. He is, above all, a treasure of Anglodom and the English language. The great dramatist that he was, he was also a first-rate political thinker. His tragedies, as demonstrated, are all political works. That they are tragedies also reveals Shakespeare’s pessimistic outlook on politics. Politics is a tragic necessity. But it comes with a cost. Namely, the forsaking of love.

Shakespeare’s reflection on the need to dismantle the security-surveillance state is very much worth our consideration, especially in this brave new century we find ourselves. Likewise, Shakespeare consistent presentation of the conflict between politics and love is something we must necessarily wrestle with. Is it the case, as with Claudius and Octavius, that the consummation of the political is the dictation and control of the life of the masses? It surely seems that way, especially in rhetoric and reality. Does politics chase away love, and must love necessarily be fated to dissolution for those who become consumed by the coldness of politics?

Long before Max Weber insisted that politics is no realm for the saint, Shakespeare also reveals that politics is no realm for the saint, the lover, or the idealist. Politics beats us down. It spies. It schemes. It lies. It kills. It destroys friendships. Those who claim to enter politics because they are interested in love and helping others should be regarded with suspicion. That is the enduring political wisdom of Shakespeare. 

Those who love and would dwell in the space of timeless play should remain out of the domain of politics. Otherwise your life will be a tragedy as the coldness of politics consumes you. Or we can lay down the pursuit of power as Prospero did and allow love to take its rightful place, protected and sanctified by the political. When we do that, like Prospero, we walk off into an uncertain future and ask the world—the audience—for forgiveness. Yet when we walk off into that uncertain future we might just find something far more beautiful and meaningful when the fog clears and the breadth of “Nature’s infinite book of secrecy” is open before us.

Paul Krause is a graduate student in philosophy writing a thesis on the political aesthetics of Edmund Burke and holds an M.A. in theology from Yale and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University. He is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and contributed to the book The College Lecture Today: An Interdisciplinary Defense for the Contemporary University (Lexington Books, 2019).

2 thoughts on “Shakespeare, a Political Theorist Too

  1. These comments are so cogent and plausible that I must ask if Dr Krause is a traditional “Stratfordian,” who believes the Merchant of Stratford wrote these works. Or if he’d rather not say. In an anomymous New York Times survey several years ago, only 82% of Shakespeare professors in the U.S. said they were certain “Shakesepare wrote Shakespeare.” Many remain in the closet, naturally, due to the ferocious fury the establishment unleashes at authorship “heretics.” They’ve learned a lot from the Inquisition, clearly!

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I suppose you can say I’m a soft Oxfordian. Of all the possible alternative candidates, I think De Vere is the most plausible candidate given his relationship with Elizabeth (giving him notable access to the inner workings of Elizabethan politics — and Shakespeare certainly seems to be politically astute) and that his “love” life certainly adds to why love is such an important theme in so many of Shakespeare’s works. But the biggest smoking gun, in my mind, are the sonnets. If something came out that definitely showed the merchant from Stratford-upon-Avon was not the author, I’d be fairly confident in placing a bet on Edward de Vere.

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