A review of Of Philosophers and Kings: Political Philosophy in Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' and 'King Lear', by Leon Harold Craig

Almost 40 years ago, Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa sought to recover Shakespeare as a source of wisdom about moral and political questions, and to demonstrate that political philosophy offers the indispensable background for understanding him. Leon Craig carries forward the tradition of Straussian scholarship on Shakespeare inaugurated by Shakespeare's Politics and does honor to it. Craig's distinctive contribution lies in the systematic and rigorous way in which he pursues the idea that Shakespeare is himself a political philosopher with a special kinship to Plato, and, specifically, to Plato's Republic, as indicated most certainly by his preoccupation with the concept of the philosopher-king. Craig also urges us to read the plays like Platonic dialogues—taking each as a self-contained, if partial, conversation devised by its author with immense care. Above all, he concludes that, like Plato, Shakespeare writes with the primary aim of bringing his readers to philosophy, giving them a chance to participate in it first-hand. Shakespeare's plays reveal, by contrast, that the fundamental human questions are embedded in ordinary experience, which, if we are attentive, leads of itself to perplexity and wonder.

According to Craig, Shakespeare's characters (e.g., Macbeth) show that rulers must be philosophic to prevent politics from deteriorating into Machiavellianism, and that philosophers (e.g., Lear, Edgar, and Duke Vincentio) must be prudent in deference to their own necessities and in order to be responsible for others. Craig emphasizes that political philosophy means not so much philosophizing about politics but philosophizing in a political spirit. And Shakespeare practices what he preaches, writing in a politic or "polite" way that shows a due regard to the widely varying aptitude for, and interest in, philosophy among his readers. He makes it tough to figure out his true meaning or purpose, so to speak, tempting those readers who can stay the course to think for themselves. To achieve his aims, like "any good mystery writer," he plants various perplexities and puzzles in the plays, strewing tantalizing clues and even false leads throughout. Those readers prepared to "turn detective" can crack the case, getting the deeper meanings of the plays for their pains.

Craig calls his method of detection "old-fashioned," in that it places maximum weight on authorial intention, and because it it looks like a simple matter: we only need to figure out the plot—being careful to connect all the dots. His Shakespeare never nods, never randomly "disappears" his characters, and never leaves loose ends. To the possible criticism that Craig assumes a perfect text where none exists, it should be said that he applies the principle of "logographic necessity" primarily out of prudence, to insure that we neither underestimate Shakespeare nor set limits in advance to the questions it is legitimate to raise about the plays.

Craig makes his case about Shakespeare's interest in the philosopher-king in extensive studies of two familiar plays,Macbeth and King Lear, seeking to bring to light heretofore forgotten or unnoticed elements in them. If I may put it this way, Craig's Macbeth is a potential philosopher made vicious and his Lear is an actual one made useless. He also aims to show how political questions in the plays lead naturally to the metaphysical or ontological ones entailed by the comprehensive study of man, setting up for the reader a continually renewable dialectic between the work and the world. Although references to other Shakespeare plays are plentiful throughout, the two major chapters are supplemented by one comprising three shorter studies of OthelloThe Winter's Tale, and Measure for Measure that deftly amplify his themes. Craig ends the chapter with a reconsideration of the Socratic criticism of poetry in The Republic and Shakespeare's immunity to it. Finally, the substantive end-notes (making the book half again as long) give ample evidence of Craig's own dialogic skills and the formidable learning he brings to bear. 

It is impossible here to capture, let alone respond properly to, the richly textured, demanding, and highly engaging analyses supporting Craig's main contentions, or to do justice to his invaluable eye for detail or to the finesse of his constructions. And Craig is a super-sleuth, who pretty much notices everything.

* * *

To benefit fully from this book it is not necessary to be persuaded by every one of Craig's readings of scenes or characters. As he describes Shakespeare's plays, so his own book "does its philosophical work" whenever it incites us to think about fundamental issues, or, under the challenge of a given intepretation, impels us to reformulate, modulate, or simply reconsider our own views. Craig's elevation of Rosse from minor figure to holder of the keys to Macbeth's deepest political teaching is, for me, the most striking case in point. According to Craig, Rosse is the puzzle Shakespeare uses to convey sotto voce that the truth about justice is more complex than the salutary surface moral of the Macbeths' fall would suggest. As in The Republic, Craig argues that Shakespeare has to appeal here to two kinds of people, those whose aversion to injustice can only be supported by a teaching on its disadvantages, and those more philosophic readers whose natural repugnance at such a soul-deforming way of life suffices, and who can therefore handle the unvarnished truth.

Joining the ranks of other literary gumshoes who have trooped through Macbeth on the hunt for the Third Murderer, Craig convicts Rosse of this and even blacker crimes, all of which he gets away with. Though Craig's case is ingenious and a spur to re-read the play, I'm not persuaded. Why go under cover to make the point that sin doesn't always receive its proper wages, when the slaughter of the innocent would seem to guarantee that there is enough moral ambiguity—right on the surface—to go around? Moreover, the whole thrust of the play suggests that the wages of Macbeth's tyranny are themselves a consequence of the natural repugnance he inspires in others, such that in the end he can only repel and so is unable to defend himself. The natural attractiveness of the good and the natural repugnance of evil is also thematically conveyed in the parallel vulnerabilities of Duncan and Macbeth; suggesting that, even on Machiavellian grounds, it is not simply better to be feared than loved.

Craig also argues that Macbeth, its sensationalistic exterior notwithstanding, may be Shakespeare's most philosophically ambitious play. Noting that Shakespeare uses the word "metaphysical" only in Macbeth, Craig proceeds to explain that political questions are treated here in the context of over-arching metaphysical ones in order to teach us how metaphysics shapes morals. Of special importance is the status of time in human life, and, in particular, the way in which our awareness of our mortality leads us to order the present in order to secure or control the future; consequently, the conviction that the future is pre-ordained (whether by "spirits" or by the laws of motion) has a crucial impact on human behavior. 

Craig attributes to his "metaphysical" or supernatural encounters, Macbeth's transformation from a man with a "proto-philosophic nature" to a soulless automaton. By an inescapable logic, once losing his free will, Macbeth becomes, like his "weyward" mentors, liable to the self-defeating calculations intrinsic to evil, there being no possibility of honor among thieves (or witches). Now one might quibble over whether a deterministic metaphysics drives Macbeth to become a wanton murderer or whether his wanton murders turn him into the machine we see at the end, but Craig's searching effort to contextualize the political with the metaphysical lucidly explains what is at stake in the metaphysical alternatives and elaborates the difference in orientation between Shakespeare and Machiavelli, with whose teaching Craig begins.

His interpretation of King Lear is the literal and substantive centerpiece of the book, and movingly evokes the characters and their situations. Shakespeare often dislocates his protagonists in some way in order to give them experiences that afford far greater self-knowledge—so to speak, forcibly ejecting them from the cave. Craig takes the revolution Lear is made to undergo, at its deepest level, as a portrayal of the birth of political philosophy via the discovery of nature. Shakespeare's tragedy parallels for him the comic way Aristophanes depicts the need to bring philosophy down from the clouds. Specifically, Craig identifies a correspondence between the two interwoven strands of the story and two ontological questions bearing on political philosophy: the quest to know the nature of Nature, as highlighted in the main plot concerning Lear and his daughters, and the subordinate question about the relationship of nature and convention, as highlighted in the subplot following Gloucester and his sons.

* * *

In order to make his case, Craig argues persuasively that it is important, but difficult, to see Lear's greatness as a ruler in Act I; if he must fall tragically, he must fall from a great height. Unlike Macbeth, Lear is a prudent Machiavellian strategist who, forseeing his own death, aims to stabilize and perpetuate his regime in advance. When Lear's clever strategy goes awry, and he is shorn of all conventional supports and all the life-sustaining arts, he begins a series of agonizing trials that first destroy and then restore his sense of the potential for harmony between nature and what is man-made (both conventions and the arts). Lear's vantage point in nature finally yields him an adequate understanding of man, and brings him, albeit too late to be of much use, to political philosophy. 

With reference to the prospects for philosophizing, Lear's experience is probably better discussed than undergone, in much the same way that the effects produced in Plato's Laws by a discussion of drunkenness are more conducive to philosophizing than actually being drunk. Craig may elide the difference. If Lear's experience doesn't make him a philosopher, as interpreted by Craig it may contribute to our becoming more philosophic by recognizing the comportment necessary for examining our lives; making Lear's life at least a symbol or metaphor for, if not a literal re-enactment of, the birth of political philosophy.

In his interpretation of Lear, Craig goes farthest in his claim that it is necessary to distinguish a play's deeper meaning from its surface appearance, owing to the fact that here Shakespeare essentially writes two different stories for his two different audiences. Apparently, Shakespeare agrees with Plato and Rousseau, both of whom affect to doubt that the philosopher as such can be put on the stage: men who are serenely self-possessed offer no arc for the dramatist to trace. In any case, like Plato and Rousseau, Shakespeare found his own way to circumvent such limits, and not only because he confines himself to showing the education of philosophers. Most people have no interest, Craig holds, in "the higher, more abstract philosophical issues, and in philosophy as such." Accordingly, to make the play more generally compelling, Shakespeare "politely clothed" or disguised his story about the birth of philosophy and the making of a philosopher as the story of a king's fall through filial ingratitude. With this suggestion Craig may take back the harmony between ordinary experience and philosophy that he appropriately granted at the outset. On the whole, I think it would be safer to contend that the wider audience's experience—far from being out of range of Shakespeare's meaning—is what keeps interpretations from being out of range of the plays. 

I confess to being a little uneasy with the principle (largely apart from Craig's gifted applications of it) that Shakespeare directs us to "the higher, more abstract philosophic issues," for fear that its consequence is to direct us away from the characters or to consider them as mere instantiations of the ideas; as if to task the poet with the self-overcoming of poetry, with putting himself out of business. I see a difference between the argument that wise poets can translate philosophic considerations into the lives of memorable figures, and the argument that the poetic art, properly understood, is indistinguishable from philosophy. Although it is true in some ultimate sense that poetry is not an autonomous enterprise and so is inseparable from philosophy, there may be something to be said, nevertheless, for leaving poetry a room of its own—located somewhere in between philosophy and history, thus affording the great poet what Bloom called a unique experience of human beings, one unavailable to the other arts and sciences. Failing to acknowledge something distinctive in poetic intimations might also be to lose a useful check on both political and philosophical ambition. 

Craig repeatedly emphasizes the value of a "synoptic judgment" developed through the continual, wide-ranging comparison of various kinds of human beings of the sort Shakespeare's plays make possible. Craig's book is important for its significant contribution to this enterprise, all the more so because we now lack the instinctive affinity for Shakespeare's characters that existed in other times. Today, more than ever, readers need the kind of cultivated comprehension that Of Philosophers and Kings embodies and encourages.