A review of Shakespeare As Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West
This collection of essays is meant to continue the Shakespearean studies begun by Harry Jaffa and Allan Bloom twenty years ago and added to since by Howard White, Michael Platt, Paul Cantor, George Anastaplo and others. Most of the contributors teach in English or Politics departments across the country; many, like Robert Heilman, Bloom, Jaffa, Cantor and Platt, have already written extensively on Shakespeare, and many in other areas of literature or philosophy. Of the fifteen essays, the first (by Alvis), and the last (by Jaffa) are the most comprehensive, and two others (by Heilman and Laurence Berns) have general themes as well. The rest are devoted to particular plays and, in one case, to a sonnet. The coverage is not as even as it might be: four of the ten history plays (from Richard II to Henry V), four of the seventeen comedies (Measure, Merchant, Tempest, and Troilus-if Troilus is kept in this category), and only one of the ten tragedies (Timon). Richard II and Troilus even receive two essays apiece, though to good effect. And the authors who open and close the volume not only make reference, often extensive, to many plays there, but also contribute an essay each on particular plays.
These and similar studies of great figures thought to be "literary"-Sophocles, Dante, Montaigne, Swift, Melville, Twain-are all traceable to the intellectual revolution wrought by Leo Strauss. Over several decades, Strauss had revived political philosophy in its classical origins and entire subsequent history, made discoveries about the art of philosophical writing, and extended his classical interests from Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle to the philosophical history of Thucydides, the philosophical poetry of Lucretius, and the philosophical comedy of Aristophanes. The new Shakespeareans maintain that the man generally considered the greatest of all poets and playwrights is in this tradition. He too uses his art to convey a systematic rational teaching, "arguing" its various facets, so to speak, play by play. And he follows Socrates and the Socratics in making politics the natural center of human life-the chief vantage point for displaying, and directing, human virtue and vice, happiness and misery.
Today, scant attention is paid to the undeniably political features of Shakespeare's plays, on the assumption that they are merely instrumental to the drama, and hence peripheral, even superficial. John Alvis lays this view to rest in his fine introductory essay explaining, in essentially classical terms, the significance of politics to Shakespeare. But he may have inadvertently gone a bit too far in giving the impression that all the plays are political, and perhaps equally political, that all raise human life beyond the level of the individual and family to show it in the context of the political regime (p. 5). Actually, judging by their outward appearance, the plays are very unevenly political, taking the word in the ordinary sense of pertaining to rulers, governments, regimes. The largest single group, barely a majority of the thirty-seven, is fully and directly political, like the history plays. Others, like Romeo, Timon, Merchant, have crucial political ingredients without being directly about politics, A third group-all comedies, including Love's, Twelfth, Comedy-has important political elements but seems to lack a serious political message. And a final two-Turning and Merry Wives-are comedies of private life, almost devoid of any political connections whatsoever. No doubt many of the apparently less political plays are actually more so, but the apparent range of the plays, extending well into the private and non-political, proves that the vast predominance of the political among them is entirely deliberate, confirming Alvis's main point.
Shakespeare knew, Alvis tells us, that the various political regimes exhibit different ways of life and direct their members toward them with a unique authority. These ways of life involve a partial view of man and his happiness, and must be examined in searching for the fullest human life and the society most akin to it. Like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, then, and the tradition they established, Shakespeare seeks the good and the right by nature. This is why the plays must also depict and examine other claimants to being, or providing, the supreme end of life-religion, philosophy, poetry, friendship, love. With regard to religion, Shakespeare's interest can hardly be said to be conventionally Christian. Close to a third of all the plays have pre-Christian or pagan settings, and even more are devoted to a critical appraisal of Christianity's effect on human life in all respects. As for the natural force of love or eros-a subject generally associated with Shakespeare's name more than politics-all its varieties are drawn, but usually in relation to some larger conception of things set by politics, religion, or philosophy. A nice example of this takes place in Antony and Cleopatra, the play depicting the transition from the ancient lovers of Troilus and Cressida to the modern Christian lovers of Romeo and Juliet. At precisely the moment when the natural force of eros is liberated from the political constraints of Roman mores, and about to thrive on its own, as we think, it dies, and is transformed into a non-physical, nonerotic form of love. To make sure we understand this great event, Shakespeare uses a marvelous device. Wishing to commit suicide and thinking he needs help, Antony calls many times for his servant and armorer, a man named Eros (he helps protect Antony's body), so that the name "Eros" rings out again and again. But Eros refuses to help Antony with his suicide and kills himself instead: the transition to Christianity requires the death of eros (IV, 12, 14).
That Shakespeare is a "political thinker" in the fullest sense-indeed, a political philosopher-is proven repeatedly in this fine volume. No one can read the longer and more systematic essays especially without being impressed by the human importance of their subjects, and at least intrigued by their evidence and reasoning. Whoever begins reading the plays in this way finds in them a whole new world, endlessly difficult, fascinating, even astonishing, but promising intelligibility. They are a liberal education in themselves. Jaffa's final essay tries to indicate the comprehensive view at which Shakespeare arrived-the summation of his philosophy.
Now anyone commenting on a book of this scope and importance should avoid loose talk and stick to what he knows. For this reason, I will have little to say of the essays by Cowan and Bloom on Richard II, by Flannery and West on Troilus and by de Alvarez on Timon, despite their obvious merits, and will even advert to only one part of Platt's argument about that bewildering Sonnet 94. Nor have I any thing useful to add to the reflections on tragedy and comedy found in the essays by Heilman and Berns. But I think I have a few things to say about the other essays, some geared to their particulars, some that cut across many, and some that propose a kind of defect in all.
Dain Trafton's "Shakespeare's Henry IV: A New Prince in a New Principality" is a beautifully written and consistent view of Henry Bolingbroke as a Machiavellian-impious, violent, deceitful-yet incapable of that "extraordinary virtu" needed to found a new order in a new principality (94). By now I imagine Alvis and Trafton have had a chat with each other, since to Alvis he is a "new prince in an old regime" rather than in a new one (101). Important as this disagreement may be, however, I am more interested in the fact that both authors think Machiavellian categories applicable to what Shakespeare had in mind. Since Shakespeare himself certainly knew of them, were they part of his intention when he wrote? Is it that his and Machiavelli's views happen to coincide at certain points? Did he write to confirm or disprove these views? Does he share Machiavelli's approval of "extraordinary virtu" If so, what becomes of the classical principles Alvis, Jaffa and others attribute to him?
Christ or Machiavelli?
This difficulty arises in several places among the essays. Bloom's "Richard II" ends by claiming that Henry remains a Christian (directly contradicting what Trafton concludes two chapters later); in fact, "so strong is his faith or his fear of hell fire" that he cannot accept the idea that murder-"as Machiavelli teaches"-can contribute to establishing earthly justice (60). Again, the disagreement between Trafton and Bloom is less important than their sharing the notion that citing Machiavelli is somehow appropriate to Shakespeare's intention. Later, Alvis speaks of Harry's demonstrating his virtuby his victory over Hotspur, and gives the impression that Shakespeare himself has adopted Machiavelli's praise of this "manly vigor" (102). Alvis thinks Harry is personally pious, meaning Christian (105, 119), but claims that his conduct as a ruler is neither Christian nor just, as shown especially by his favoring foreign war over domestic rule-again like Machiavelli. This time Alvis seems to be criticizing Machiavelli and claiming that Shakespeare, by disapproving of Harry, does too.
It may be too quick a judgment to regard Harry's private prayer to God, before Agincourt, as a sufficient proof of his Christianity. That prayer is directed to the God of battles, not the Prince of Peace; it says nothing of the afterlife, does not even mention his present belligerency in France (as Alvis notes), and asks God only to keep his soldiers from counting the superior numbers against them: The fighting they will handle on their own. Only in his contrition for his father's sin does Harry sound Christian. Otherwise, he seems to be praying to a God with political understanding, who, unlike Christ, sympathizes with the needs of political rule, and perhaps, therefore, also forbids the kind of political usurpation of which his father was guilty. Harry's soliloquy on ceremony does deny a royal duty of "moral stewardship," as Alvis claims (121), but not of stewardship per se: it is not Machiavellian. The speech is difficult to understand precisely because the king's sole and completely unrewarded purpose is to preserve the peasants' security (but
neither their religion nor their virtue), while on his side, the king is repaid by nothing-certainly not by empty ceremony, but not even by the honor of which ceremony is only an outward sign, and which Harry publicly and proudly says he covets. As far as I can see, this difficulty remains despite Alvis's fine analysis of this speech (96-97, 103, 125). Nor is it clear to me that Harry, by his devotion to security, "embraces the modern political premise," stressing peace and self-preservation (21-22). He certainly seems to have departed from classical and Christian standards, but he may have done so for complex reasons as yet unclear to us. It is not clear why the soliloquy pays so little attention to the nobility and to honor-just before the glorious "We happy few" speech to the assembled army, or whether it is correct simply to add the two together, as Alvis does (97). Even so, we are still far from the individual right of self-preservation with which modern liberalism begins in Hobbes and Locke.
Alvis does not seem quite willing to concede that Harry succeeded in providing something like what Trafton says his father needed-a renewal of divine right monarchy through the apparent miracle of God's intervention on the English side at Agincourt. Yet is this not why Harry so willingly commands all the glory for the battle to go to God, despite his promises only moments before of everlasting honor to the "happy few" who fought with him? Alvis likens him to the Biblical David's also gaining glory by giving it to God (118), and is emphatic in thinking the love of honor and glory his supreme object. All the more perplexing, then, is Jaffa's insistence, in his closing essay, that Henry ". . . does not act for honor as an end in itself any more than Falstaff," that nothing in him is honorable, that he is entirely Machiavellian in thinking of the art of politics as the art of war, and of war solely in terms of calculation: ". . . he would never face an enemy he could cut down from behind" (288-89). Alvis concedes Henry's calculation, his ability as an actor and a speaker, even much of his Machiavellianism, but he is far from denigrating his character so strongly. And it would be hard to square such baseness in Henry with the overall spirit of the play which, from beginning to end, seems to treat him as a great hero, celebrating him beyond the kings in all the other English history plays.
That he is "the mirror of all Christian kings," as the Chorus proclaims before Act II, Alvis gives us many reasons to doubt. Certainly there is little of the true Christian in his public life, and, generally speaking, few men have given so much attention to this world and so little to the next. He is an expert at deceit and smooth talk, and can be ruthless in politics as in battle, but there is no sign that he is vile or that he does not seek the public good of England, the peasant's security. He kills Hotspur in a perfectly fair fight, and even his ordering the death of his French prisoners occurs under duress-when the French had begun another charge and every Englishman was needed for the fighting (IV, 6:36-38). His honorable and gracious treatment of the dead Percy receives strong praise from Alvis (101). So Harry's character remains elusive.
Alvis ponders, and vigorously condemns, Hal's Eastcheap dissipations and scandalous escapades, only to conclude, with the prince himself, that his sole aim was to astonish and win glory by his reformation. This causes Alvis to write off Hal's tavern talk and his relation to Falstaff too quickly, and even to neglect the touching account of Falstaff's death (101). Elements of the deaths of two very great figures-Christ and Socrates-are combined in this account. On his deathbed, following Henry's insistence, Falstaff repents a life of sin-a life bereft of religion till then. But we should take seriously the implication that Falstaff was a kind of Socrates to Hal-he is actually called "a misleader of youth" (2H4, at II, 4:508)-and should consider why Shakespeare saw fit to dwell so extensively on their life together. By contrast to the world of the nobility, the world of honor, Falstaff and the tavern give Hal lessons in ignobility. Contrary to the kind of education Socrates prescribes for rulers in the Republic, Hal surrounds himself with low things and imitates the low rather than the high. His exchange with Frances, the tapster, and Poins is one of the best examples of such an actual imitation (1H4, at II, 4). Nevertheless, it would be hard to regard this as rising to the full vicious majesty of a Machiavellian education, and without a more comprehensive analysis of Henry's relation to Falstaff, in particular, it is hard to know exactly how Eastcheap contributed to his education, and hence to his later conduct.
Measure for Measure
There are several other places in the book applying Machiavelli to the study of Shakespeare. In Measure, the Duke arranges to let Angelo bear the onus of cracking down on a city the Duke himself has ruled too permissively, and this plan Jaffa thinks, resembles Cesare Borgia's use of de Orco in The Prince (189). He might have added the Duke's statement, as he tells all this to Friar Thomas, that he intends, in the disguise of a friar himself, to "visit both prince and people"-perhaps an even clearer reminder of Machiavelli. But in such cases it is important to discover exactly the extent of the similarity. Jaffa accepts as true the Duke's admission to the friar of neglectful and bad rule on his own part-and for a period of fourteen years (I, 3). But this is a long time to be neglectful, and the reader soon starts to realize that the Duke is a man capable of the most extensive and ingenious deceit; in fact, his coming to borrow the robes of a friar already shows such deceit. What the Duke cannot tell the friar is that Christian asceticism, in his eyes, poses as great a threat to the city as unbridled hedonism. In fact, it may have been a greater threat
Let us suppose that the Duke began by having the view that the chief danger to be overcome was Christianity itself, with its claimed superiority over the secular and political order, and its otherworldliness, of which sexual asceticism was a vital part. Now the similarity to Machiavelli deepens, but the solutions are very different. Imagine the Duke, an Aristotelian ruler who believes that, to counter the vice of asceticism (originally shown by Isabella's entering a nunnery), he must allow the opposite vice to flourish for an extended period, and then find a way of moving back toward the virtue between them. Knowing Angelo's character and past actions much better than he admits to the friar, the Duke deputizes him to rule in his place, suspecting what will happen-suspecting not only sexual severity but the possibility of sexual abuse from the man whose name (deriving from "angel") signifies his Christian background. Lurking around in his disguise as a friar will permit the Duke to detect, and prevent, the harms that might come from this plan. One might even-think that the Duke is more interested in catching Angelo, and making a public display of his hypocrisy, than he is in having the brothels closed. This punishing exposure accounts for the leniency with which the Duke is able to treat Angelo at the end, after he too (unlike the example of de Orca from The Prince) has benefited from the experience. In the great public exhibition of the finale, the saints and the sinners are all compelled to marry, with the Duke himself now setting the prime example, thus finding the mean in marriage Jaffa so beautifully describes in the course of his essay.
The problem is that, if we are not extremely careful in linking Shakespeare to Machiavellian ideas, Shakespeare begins to look like a combination of Plato, Aristotle, and Machiavelli, and hence like an inconsistent and unworthy thinker. InMeasure, since the Duke does make use of considerable deceit and immorality, it is especially important to discover whether Shakespeare himself thinks of this as a form of Machiavellianism he and his protagonist have both adopted, or whether it is reconcilable in his own mind with the classical teaching. Jaffa combines speaking of the Duke's actions as "outside the bounds of morality," despite appearances to the contrary, and of the "classicism" that sets him apart in the play (192, 195). Then does Shakespeare want us to consider his actions just or unjust? What if they are the most benign way of conquering a formidable enemy, one that prevents a sounder morality and polity from coming into existence?
The Duke's name, mentioned only in the dramatis personae and never in the play itself, is Vincentio, and refers to conquering. Jaffa draws our attention to the names of friends of the Duke, "of whose existence we have had no previous inkling," called forth at the end of the play (194-95). Four of the five are Roman, and most seem to be the names of conquerors who failed, usually in wars against those they considered barbarians. In his war the Duke did not fail, and he wants these friends to "bring the trumpets to the gate" (IV, 5) and welcome his return. At the end, the Duke is not as mild as it might seem to those who have committed offenses, since public humiliation can be a very strong punishment. Nevertheless, what he does not do is give the simple "measure for measure" Christ calls for in Matthew VII-a principle hardly involving charitable forgiveness. He punishes and he compels, but in such a way as to conduce to the Aristotelian mean he seeks in the institution of marriage. The ending, therefore, is neither Christian nor Machiavellian (cf. 189), and the justness of the means used cannot be fairly estimated without a more accurate idea of the evil he sought to overcome.
Chastity in Politics
Apart from this difficulty, Jaffa's essay on Measure is straightforward, systematic, and filled with acute observation and intelligent reflection. Through an examination of the speeches and action, the importance of "Chastity as a Political Principle" is established beyond doubt. "Chastity" here means the preservation of the family as the basis of political society, with the consequent necessity of limiting sexual liaisons to those between husband and wife, and permitting them nowhere else. The play itself gives examples of commercial fornication, fornication between serious lovers bent on marriage, and a kind of mixed and semi-voluntary fornication, where one of the partners seeks marriage and the other thinks he is committing an act of fornication with someone else. The play begins with Angelo closing down the brothels, but it seems that those in the city (as distinguished from the suburbs) were not closed down, and it is not clear, by the end of the play, that the Duke means to finish the job.
I have difficulty following one final section of Jaffa's argument, where he says: "We have concluded that upon the basis of reason and law, Claudio's execution was certainly justified, paradoxical as that conclusion may seem to our moral taste" (211). Earlier he had shown that bringing bastards into the world is properly a public offense, and mentions that, apart from two of the loosest characters, no one in the play ". . . seriously questions that fornication ought to be an offense, or even that it ought to be a capital offense" (198). But this is not enough to prove that "reason and law" clearly justify the execution, and I can find no other place where it is proven. In addition, the view that reason "certainly" justifies capital punishment for fornication pits the Duke's final resolution of things against reason, since it violates this rule not once or twice but three times. Not only in the case of Claudio, but with that regular fornicator, Lucio, and that new covert fornicator, Angelo, the Duke requires only marriage. Incidentally, two of the moral people in the play do oppose Claudio's execution: it is Escalus' firm position (II, 1:4-40), and Isabella's first and spontaneous reaction, at least, only calls for what the Duke does ultimately-marriage (I, 4:4).
Jaffa tries to save the Duke by suggesting that, in effect, he does "kill" Claudio, only to resurrect him at the end and then order his marriage (211). This explanation is not only unlikely in itself but fails to consider the fate of the other fornicators. And the case is further strengthened once we consider the fact, mentioned only by Claudio to Lucio, that he and Julietta are at least half-married already. Knowing this weakens our repugnance at Mariana's fornication, directly devised by the Duke himself, since she had a few years back been Angelo's fiancée-a condition more distant from marriage than Claudio's. Why does Shakespeare introduce such facts if not to qualify the blanket condemnation of fornication? We must therefore conclude, contrary to Jaffa, that reason does not consider fornication an offense deserving of death. In short, the irresponsible creation of life is not the exact moral equivalent of the irresponsible termination of life (197-98). With this qualification, the main substance of Jaffa's argument about the connection between the family, chastity, political health generally constitutes one of the most original and solid parts of the whole volume and, particularly today, merits wide dissemination.
In Barbara Tovey's essay on Merchant, the philosophical theme of the play is taken, perhaps too quickly, to be the distinction between appearance and reality. Symbolized by the golden casket, this theme is extended, by the end of the essay, to Portia's only appearing to stand for the "lusty, gay, physical love" Bloom had once suggested, while her innerreality is Platonic philosophy. Along the way, Tovey makes many fine observations about the characters, action and meaning of the play, showing, quite originally, how Portia has to struggle for Bassanio against Antonio, his benefactor. But in some things Tovey does move too rapidly. She seems to concede that ". . . the casket choice is a silly way to decide between the suitors," and therefore concludes that Shakespeare uses it chiefly as a vehicle for the theme of appearance and reality (216). To do this, she must forget the way the casket choice is said to originate-as the will of Portia's dead father-and she can overlook the details attending each choice. She admits Portia knows how to choose the right casket in Bassanio's case, but did she know it in the other cases as well? The details accompanying the three main cases actually show that Portia has full control over the caskets and would therefore be in a position to manipulate them in such a way as to risk nothing in the choice, and to get only the suitor she wants-thus making this odd method far from silly. Bloom keeps Portia's subservience to her dead father before our eyes because he relates it to the larger Biblical theme of obeying God the Father, but the independence of mind he attributes to Portia is inconsistent with the final piety he also attributes to her. The only consistent alternative is that she only appears subservient to her father, while using a means of finding a husband that is essentially of her own devising.
In explaining Antonio's willingness to execute a loan with Shylock guaranteed by his own flesh, Tovey astutely suggests that Antonio wants Bassanio to appreciate that his friend will risk everything for him. But she seems to have overlooked the fact that Antonio did not have to borrow from Shylock at all. Antonio had begun by promising Bassanio that his "extremest means," his "uttermost" were at his disposal, and this after admitting in a conversation with other friends: "Nor is my whole estate upon the fortune of the present year" (I,1:43), meaning that he did not have to worry about possible losses from his ships at sea because he had prudently kept sufficient money uninvested. Only after hearing Bassanio's harebrained request for a considerable sum to help him win Portia's hand-and wealth-in marriage does Antonio completely reverse field and tell him that all his fortunes are at sea, adding: "and I no question make, to have it of my trust, or for my sake" (I, 1:185). That is, either by his credit or from his friends ("for his sake"), Antonio will get the money for Bassanio and spare himself the outlay until his ships return. Immediately thereafter, both Bassanio and Antonio end up at Shylock's place, thus compelling the conclusion that Antonio's friends had failed him-visible proof, incidentally, justifying Shylock's occupation, that of a nonfriend who lends money as a business. Tovey quotes George Keeton's criticism of Antonio for not simply going to his friends before Shylock's note is due to borrow the principal and save himself. But this misses the point on two counts, for if Antonio had been able to rely on friends, he would not have had to have recourse to Shylock in the first place. What is worse, he has put himself in the position of not even being able to save himself with his own funds since, having falsely told Bassanio he had none, he could not suddenly produce the needed money without totally discrediting himself with his friend.
Tovey is undoubtedly right in maintaining that the play contains "a veiled criticism of Christianity" along with an open one of Judaism-in fact, the latter may be said to conceal and make possible the former. The criticism, she says, is embodied in Antonio's defective love for Bassanio-defective not as the love of one male for another, but because it is possessive: "It is not wholly directed toward the well-being of the beloved one; it aims instead at securing from him the maximum return of love and gratitude" (233). It is hard to ask of love that it be wholly for the good of the beloved, especially in this play. In fact, discounting or renouncing the inevitable selfish elements of love, and particularly sexual love, is a demand of the Christianity Shakespeare criticizes. Even the struggle Tovey describes so well-of Portia for the soul of Bassanio-is hardly lacking in selfish motivation. Not even possessiveness, as such, can be rejected as a part of love, and is certainly present in sexual love. But Antonio's passion for Bassanio falls under the heading of neither sexual love nor friendship. Its defect is that it substitutes money-giving for the things that either sexual love or friendship naturally give and, without knowing it, wants gratitude, love and dependence in return. On the surface it is the very model of Christian charity-of unselfish giving, to the uttermost; in reality, it feeds a vice of Bassanio's, his prodigality and constant need for money, in order to win love. Behind it seems to be Antonio's conviction that he himself is not lovable without his money-giving, or that there is something wrong with ordinary sexual love-perhaps its direct pleasure-seeking. Otherwise, why would Antonio say "Fie, fie" to the suggestion that he might be in love, and later compare himself to a "tainted wether of the flock," fittest to die; i.e., to a castrated ram? These attitudes connected with his Christianity drive him toward trying to win the affection of men only, and hence toward his unusual relationship with Bassanio.
This brings us, finally, to Tovey's interesting speculations about what Portia and Belmont stand for. She is right in finding Bloom inconsistent when he has Portia stand for physical love while the residents of Belmont, her home, are pictured as glimpsing "the only true beauty, which lies somewhere beyond the heavens for a happy few" (234). Yet it is impossible to dismiss the former as mere appearance in favor of the Platonic reality of the latter. In fact, the notion of a beauty beyondthe heavens misreads Lorenzo's famous speech about the heavenly bodies. These bodies, he says, not only exist and move in a harmony (he describes them as golden, like the casket and Portia's hair), but send forth a musical sound only pure souls can hear (V, 1:54-65).
This view of the heavens does not refer platonically to a beauty "which lies somewhere beyond the heavens." On the contrary, the beauty, the harmony are in the heavens, in the visible universe itself, and not separate from it. Soul is in body-perhaps associated with or identical to the harmony within-bodies. Indeed, the separation of soul and body, spirit and matter, is the major source of the Christian defects to which Bloom and Tovey both refer. To show what he has in mind in this sense, Shakespeare has recourse to a little joke, involving lines that always puzzle the critics. It is nighttime. Lancelot, now Bassanio's servant, enters (at Belmont) to tell of his master's coming. He keeps yelling "Sola" four times, then three times again, and finally says, "Sola! Where? Where?"-to which Lorenzo responds, "Here!" Now in the text it seems that Lorenzo only means to give his own location to Lancelot, by saying "Here," but Lancelot (of all people) had really asked-and here is the joke-where is soul, and to that Lorenzo had answered "Here," meaning here in physical things, in the earth itself, in the heavenly bodies.
This is why Shakespeare has Lorenzo bid Jessica sit-that is, attach herself more fully to the earth itself-while he describes the visible heavens to her. And it accounts for the name Belmont too-a beautiful mountain, not a conclave of souls existing beyond the heavens, in some pure world of ideas. The world of Belmont is therefore closer to what Aristotle meant by soul and cosmos-unless one thinks Plato himself did not believe in a separate world of ideas. As a society of friends, it needs neither morality nor politics, and hence has an artificially thin cast. Apart from open erotic love, it isdevoted to appreciating the beauties of nature, poetry and music rather than the wonders of philosophy. And it bases the good for man on man's nature and nature generally, rather than on the command of any father or father-like being. This is the play's alternative to the Bible, and this is the philosophy on which Portia acts, whether or not she herself is meant to be thought of as a philosopher.
Paul Cantor shows that the proper background for understanding Tempest is Plato's Republic, and its rule of philosopher-kings. Permitting his brother to rule while he gave himself to "secret studies," Prospero, the philosopher-duke of Milan, is ousted when his brother combines forces with the king of Naples against him. Now, marooned on a Mediterranean island with his daughter, Miranda, and a deformed human named Caliban, he devises a way of returning to Italy. With new-found magical powers, and working through a spirit named Ariel, he takes advantage of his enemies' ship nearing the island and casts them ashore through an artificial tempest. We learn, with Cantor's help, how Prospero proceeds to influence the various individuals and groups on the island, each with different virtues and vices and at different levels of humanity. This is the only Shakespearean play in which all the action, from beginning to end is planned by one man, and, in four hours of action, Prospero proves he can rule with wisdom and justice, made effective through Ariel, who transforms the philosopher's natural weakness into strength. But the plan has a flaw that Cantor misses: it makes no provision for the king's butler and jester, and so their coming ashore alone and then meeting with each other and with Caliban, is all due to the purest chance and indicates the necessary limits of even the wisest human rule.
Cantor remarks that "In many respects, Prospero shows greater political wisdom in dealing with Ariel than with Caliban" (247), and he is right. After Prospero himself, Caliban may be the most interesting character in the play. He is a mixture of bodily wants or earthiness, timidity, perceptiveness, poetic sensitivity, natural piety, and an inclination to serve a master. In many ways his traits link him with poetry, and his name-far from being an anagram of cannibal, as commonly thought-is more likely a combination, from the Greek, of bios and banousos-beautiful and vulgar. After his attempted rape of Miranda, Prospero loses all hope for him and makes him a slave. But Caliban's education and improvement, even in the course of a conspiracy to murder Prospero, is one of the play's most absorbing themes, and it is important to discover whether Prospero learns of this by the end of the action, as the audience certainly does. If Prospero's name is any indication, we can expect everything to prosper and turn out for the best. In a play more optimistic than the stubborn realities of matter and chance in the real world will allow, Caliban and all he stands for will be able to rise from a kind of subhumanity to serve the philosopher-duke voluntarily and well. In short, he will prove capable of being integrated into civilized society and brought back to Italy with everyone else, rather, than left on the bare island.
Cantor's fine sustained analysis should be undergirded by one broad political point. The king of Naples is not acting impulsively or vainly in gaining hegemony over Milan far to the north, nor in insisting that his daughter marry the king of Tunis to his own south-and against her wishes and his counselors' advice. The one part of Italy not mentioned in the play lies between Milan and Naples. It is Rome, much more famous than either and now the location of the Papal States and the heart of Catholic Christianity. Since the middle of Italy must begin to bow to any power capable of pressing it from both sides, we must begin to suspect a very ambitious secret plan on the king's part-a plan to unify all of Italy, including the Papal States, under his rule, If this is so, Tempest becomes among other things, Shakespeare's answer to Machiavelli's call for the unification of Italy in The Prince, which, perhaps not accidentally, mentions only two places in its first chapter: Milan and Naples (Thanks, Dick Cox!). The two men seem to agree-Shakespeare very quietly-to the need for subordinating the church to secular rule, as shown by the fact that Prospero makes no attempt to return to the status quo ante, involving Milan's independence, but instead arranges for his daughter to become queen of the united Naples and Milan. On the other hand, Prospero's devotion to Miranda, and his bringing her into the highest levels of political life, shows the stark difference between the Shakespearean and Machiavellian approach to politics and to the unification of Italy as well.
I would also ask Cantor whether there are not important differences, as well as similarities, between Tempest and Plato'sRepublic. Perhaps the most famous speech in Tempest is Prospero's "Our revels now are ended. . . ." delivered to Ferdinand and Miranda as he sweeps away the temperance-teaching spectacle he has arranged for them and prepares to meet Caliban's conspiracy on his life. The Republic tries to anchor our knowing and being in the eternal forms, and especially the form of the good, yet the entire point of Prospero's speech is universal transience. What accounts for this difference? Is Prospero a Platonic philosopher without the forms? Are they omitted for some other reason? And was it wise of Prospero to counter so completely the hopes and expectations of prosperity and stability that he had been fostering in Ferdinand and Miranda only moments before? Is the speech really as cheerful as Cantor makes out (255)? Finally, I must confess to some disappointment at reaching the end of this essay without finding an analysis of the enchanting and mystifying Epilogue, where Prospero, Shakespeare and perhaps Caliban as well all seem to merge their identities, and-very un-Platonically, it would seem-plead with the audience to be released from bondage.
The capstone of this volume is Jaffa's essay on "The Unity of Tragedy, Comedy and History: An Interpretation of the Shakespearean Universe." This tour de force, filled with original insights, is occasionally, and at times seriously, marred by hasty judgment and unclarity. Starting from an analysis of Shakespeare's unique combination of these three forms of drama, Jaffa ranges through the following topics in separate sections: the comedy Tempest; the tragedy Macbeth; a comparison of Macbeth and Richard III; Shakespeare's relation to Christianity, Machiavelli and the Machiavelli-derived principles of modern life; a transition from the history plays back to the Roman poem and plays; further pursuit of the Romans in Antony and Cleopatra; and, finally, the problem of political cycles in Shakespeare.
I shall not try to repeat this complex argument or even the very fine things said about tragedy and comedy at the beginning. I was looking particularly for Jaffa's conclusions about Shakespeare's overall philosophy, but had difficulty discovering them. We are told that Shakespeare adopted Machiavelli's interpretation of Roman republicanism (291, 302), and also that Richard III is "a nearly perfect symbol of Machiavellian modernity"-which can only mean, since Richard is surely one of the most detestable characters in Shakespeare, that Shakespeare rejected the core of Machiavelli's teaching. If so, how could he have adopted his view of the Roman republic? And if Shakespeare rejects "Machiavellian modernity," this must mean rejecting the modern liberal transformation, through Hobbes and Locke, of Machiavelli's stress on security (288-89, 303). Yet Jaffa adds that "The Merchant of Venice displays for our approval nearly every vital element of John Locke's political teaching," including religious toleration, and, soon after, that "In the same way Othellodemonstrates the impossibility of racial prejudice. . . ." These sound like very favorable, not critical, remarks about the liberal lessons of the Venetian plays. Jaffa also thinks Shakespeare foresaw the liberal change from medieval Christendom's remote City of God to the "equality of all before God" as a "rule upon earth" (289, 303). By this point it is unclear whether Shakespeare holds fast to classical principles or rather accepts some of the challenges to them presented by Christianity, Machiavelli and the liberal derivatives from Machiavelli and Christianity together. Does he accept or reject Falstaff's depreciation of honor (288) and the consequent move (as Jaffa sees it) toward the secure and comfortable life sought by economic Machiavellianism?
In making some of these points, Jaffa does not seem to appreciate the difficulties that lie in his way. In Bloom and Jaffa's original book on Shakespeare's Politics (31, 36), for example, Bloom thought Merchant and Othello showed the limits of religious and racial mixing in Venice, rather than the salutary effect of such mixing. Similarly, when Jaffa attributes an amalgam of Christianity and Machiavelli to both Henry IV and Henry V (288), he disagrees with one of the other essayists, Trafton, about the former's Christianity, and may be mistaken about the latter's as well. And he disagrees with Alvis's emphasis on Henry V's love of honor, and hence on the degree of his Machiavellianism (288-89). In all of these interpretations, Jaffa may be right, but he does not seem to consider the full complexity of the evidence or always appreciate the need for making an argument. A difficulty of the same kind, but of even greater magnitude, shows itself in his claim that ". . . Dante (and Shakespeare) could see God's providence at work, as much in the history of Rome as in the history of the Jews," and, again, that ". . . Shakespeare seems certainly to have shared Dante's thesis that the history of Rome was providential. . . ." (294). Since it is impossible to see God's providence at work without believing in God and, in this case, the Biblical God, Jaffa is indirectly asserting here that both Dante and Shakespeare are believers in the Biblical God, and since they are not Jews or Moslems, they must be believing Christians. Whether this is true of Dante or not depends on resolving the controversy over his possible Averroism. As for Shakespeare, this is a claim of the greatest depth and consequence, and yet it is supported by not a word of argument.
I find myself lost in perplexity on turning from remarks like these to Jaffa's wonderful treatment of the secular genesis of Christianity in Antony and Cleopatra (301-2). This account of how the late Roman republic, turned imperial, generated the elements of Christianity seems unlikely to place Shakespeare on the side of a belief in Christian revelation. Nor wouldMeasure, Tempest, Merchant and the other plays treated in this volume. Is Shakespeare a strict follower of classical philosophy? Is he a Christian follower of classical philosophy? Just how much of Machiavelli does he accept, and on what grounds, and consistently or inconsistently? I wish Jaffa had concentrated his great powers more on such issues and less on showing how Shakespeare anticipated the whole modern world, down to the last stage envisaged by Marxism (303). It would have been more than enough to come to a clear conclusion about Shakespeare's principles, only then applying them to elements of the modern world like those he thought about, without venturing into the uncertain realm of what he did or did not anticipate.
A Careless Bard?
I want, finally, to express a general concern about two tendencies of this volume, authored by teachers of English or politics. One is to ignore certain prejudices built up in educated Shakespeareans recently, preventing them from appreciating Shakespeare's thoughtfulness; the other, to write as if Shakespeare's thought can be abstracted from a play without the fullest attention to the art of that play. Today it is a well-nigh universal dogma, taught in every English department, that Shakespeare wrote only for the stage and, even then, carelessly. This prejudice keeps moderate and intelligent people, with healthy, natural interests, from reading Shakespeare with the sympathy, attention and constant questioning he requires. For if he wrote only for the stage, as is claimed, he could not have written with depth and complication: his eye would be on the drama and action, on bringing the audience with him through the movement of the play. Conversely, if he was a careful thinker, as our authors not only presume but often prove, could he have been a careless writer? Could he even have been, first and foremost, a writer for the stage rather than the study?
While never as dogmatically and universally held as today, the view that Shakespeare wrote only for the theater, and carelessly, has a pedigree going back to Samuel Johnson, and there is much plausible evidence to support it. First of all, the plays simply do not look like vehicles for a philosophical analysis of human problems, and we must therefore wonder, if it turns out they really are, why Shakespeare took such pains to conceal the philosophy. Even Coleridge, the man who made the most extensive claims for Shakespeare as a philosopher, never envisaged what our authors have been maintaining lately-that each play represents the development and resolution of a specific problem or difficulty in human affairs. Ancillary to this, if Shakespeare models his teaching on Plato and Aristotle, by and large, why do we find no explicit praise of their philosophy, or of philosophy itself, but instead what amounts to a kind of concealment even of those characters in the plays most likely to have been philosophers? Why does Barbara Tovey, for example, have to work so hard to prove that Portia represents classical philosophy, and even go so far as to make a "potential philosopher" of Bassanio (235-36)? Or Paul Cantor have to guess that Prospero's knowledge is "presumably" of natural philosophy-when all we are told directly in the play is that he was a student of the "liberal arts" (242)? And why must even Harry Jaffa proclaim Duke Vincentio a philosopher on the basis of evidence that is indirect and shaky at best (181)? In short, if Shakespeare is himself a philosopher, and presenting philosophy through the medium of poetry and drama, must he not have also intended to conceal philosophy? And has he not been most successful, over the centuries, in this concealment? What is there, finally, in his philosophy that requires this considerable departure from the classics whose teaching he is thought to adopt?
The case against Shakespeare as a careful writer and thinker was probably best stated by Samuel Johnson in 1765, prefatory to his edition of the plays. While acknowledging Shakespeare's unmatched superiority as "the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life," Johnson does not find him deeply reflective, philosophical, learned or careful. He catalogues the defects of writing often appearing in the plays and claims, moreover, that Shakespeare lacked any interest in perfecting them textually. "Present popularity and present profit" were his sole objectives. In short, Shakespeare lives on, in both the theater and the study, despite himself.
In Alvis and West, only one essay, toward the very end, pays any attention whatsoever to this vital threshold issue of Shakespeare's carelessness as a writer and, peculiarly enough, confirms this imputation! In the course of explicating Sonnet 94, Platt maintains that it concerns men of poetic capacity, like Shakespeare himself, who nonetheless have no desire for "deeds," or for doing good. Platt thinks this is confirmed by Shakespeare's method of writing, and his attitude toward correcting and publishing his writings. Shakespeare "seems not to have taken his writings seriously enough to make sure that we read an accurate text." He did take care in publishing his narrative poems when he was younger, but "The mature Shakespeare was more careless," and, again, "it is mildly surprising to find so many marks of carelessness." This leads Platt to ask: "Should the reader treat seriously what he seems to have treated so casually?" If Shakespeare's friends and later editors had to intervene to put these texts into the condition they now enjoy (he singles out the exceptional accuracy of Tempest as perhaps reflecting Shakespeare's own wishes), what made it possible for him to treat his own works "so casually"? Platt's novel answer is that, for Shakespeare, writing was "first and finally" an aid to his own thinking, and publication only an "afterthought or unintended consequence" of this primary intention.
I find it impossible to accept this line of argument, but it has the distinct advantage of forcing us to confront the evidence. First, Platt does not go back far enough, for Shakespeare did, in fact, write the plays, or most of them, for immediate production on the stage, not merely for his own personal use, and he must have been involved in releasing some for quarto publication as well. These are all "deeds," and either he did them, as Johnson thought, for "present popularity and present profit," or for some larger end. In addition, Platt's theory turns topsy-turvy our usual assumption about great works of poetry and philosophy. Take Sonnet 94 itself: Does Platt not assume, all the way, that Shakespeare had the full thought behind it prior to writing it? Is it not possible, even likely, that Shakespeare learned absolutely nothing in the process of writing it, except how best to express the thought he already
Platt grants, moreover, that Shakespeare superintended the publishing of his narrative poems, and may have perfected the text of Tempest as well. Are we to conclude that he did not similarly wish to publish anything else? that thinking less of his sonnets, and all his other plays, than of the narrative poems and Tempest, he was willing to have them meet whatever fate came along? That he may even have written them all carelessly, as one might write first drafts, since they were only intended as aids to his own thinking? This already seems highly implausible, but there is positive evidence to the contrary as well. Shakespeare's close friends, Heminge and Condell, in their famous First Folio collection of his plays, seven years after his death, make no claim that he asked them to act as his editors, but they manifestly take it for granted that he would have done the job himself had time remained, and even draw attention to the perfect copies he left of many plays. Shakespeare, they say,
Who, as he was a happy imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together; And what he thought, he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.
With the help of such "papers," they claim not only to have "cur'd" of defects the plays published unjustly by imposters, but all the others as well.
If we peruse the Riverside edition of Shakespeare, an up-to-date summation of literary scholarship, this claim is still not far from the truth. It is remarkable, in the textual comments at the end of each play, how many are thought by their editors to be in good or excellent condition. In fact, many are traced, one way or another, to Shakespeare himself, thus verifying-if verification were needed-the existence of manuscripts like those Heminge and Condell referred to as coming from him. Without doubt, then, Shakespeare took pains-great pains, perhaps extending through the last three years of his life, often said to have been spent in literary idleness-to produce perfect manuscripts for many of the plays. And we should add of defects still thought to exist in either folio or quarto, that many are assuredly editorial inventions, based on faulty theories of what Shakespeare really wanted to do in the plays. Efforts are still afoot, for example, to remove whole scenes from Macbeth (III, 5, and IV, 1) on the theory that Hecate's rule and the mode of expression there could not possibly have been of Shakespearean origin.
Phenomena of Nature
But a perfect manuscript and a carefully written play-a play composed with an eye to presenting a philosophical theme, argument and supporting details in the best possible manner-are two very different things. That the plays are carefully written in this latter sense can be shown only through the kind of textual study so painstakingly, and sympathetically, undertaken by Platt and the other contributors to this volume. Yet, despite all the evidence they have themselves uncovered, the new Shakespeareans have yet to express themselves on Shakespeare's art of writing. Certainly none has gone so far as Thomas de Quincey, back in 1823, in his famous short essay, "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,"with its concluding apostrophe:
Oh mighty poet! Thy works are not as those of men, simply and merely great works of art; but are also like the phenomena of nature; like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers; like frost and snow, rain and dew, hailstorm and thunder, which are to be studied with entire submission of our own faculties, and in the perfect faith that in them there can be no too much or too little, nothing useless or inert – but that, the further we press in our discoveries, the more we shall see proofs of design and self-supporting arrangement where the careless eye had seen nothing but accident?
This comparison between Shakespeare's art and the phenomena of nature is a reminder of a much more renowned comparison Plato's Socrates had made long before, in the Phaedrus (264C), between a well-composed discourse and a living thing:
Socrates: But I do think you will agree to this. That every discourse must be organized, like a living being, with a body of its own, as it were, so as not to be headless or footless, but to have a middle and members, composed in fitting relation to each other and to the whole.
The Art of Writing
This Platonic maxim, one might say, is nothing but common sense and applies equally to dialogues, plays, poems and treatises. The well-wrought work should contain nothing accidental, superfluous or internally inconsistent, and all its parts should be related to each other and the whole. If de Quincey is right, and Shakespeare had somehow adopted the same principle of writing he describes and Socrates enjoins, the plays will be of this sort. All their parts-the title, characters, setting, beginning, atmosphere, flow of time, flow of action, speeches, stage directions, poetry or press-will have been most carefully selected with an end in mind, that of developing the theme, preferably in a way that will also bring stage success. Moreover, if Jaffa, Bloom, and their followers in this volume are right in their principal point-that the plays are essentially vehicles of systematic thought-then all these outward parts of each play, down to the last detail, will have been devised by Shakespeare with an eye to its philosophical theme. Correspondingly, the task of the reader will be to observe, think about, and work through the outward parts to the hidden theme and its resolution. And, finally, the weaknesses observed by Johnson-loosely formed plots, weak endings, historical inaccuracies and anachronisms, grossness of humor, love of quibbles and the like-will ultimately prove to be apparent only, and subservient to some deeper intention of the author as yet unfathomed. In short, the plays use all their parts to make the reader think, and all the parts have some relevance to the thought he is expected to find. Staging, which is more akin to the political, ultimately makes way for reading, which is closer to philosophy.
In their eagerness to get at the thought in each play, the authors in this volume sometimes treat the philosophy as if it can be easily extracted without the closest attention to all the details-to the art-of the play. But this always runs the risk of distorting, or missing, the intricacies of Shakespeare's thought. On the other hand, the progress they have actually made in setting forth Shakespeare's ideas, and increasing his attractiveness to the philosophical reader, is very real and very great. Certainly, in today's world, only they and others like them will be able, collectively, to prove the truth of the most profound short statement ever made about Shakespeare. It occurs in the opening lines of the inscription on his tomb:
JUDICIO PYLIUM, GENIO SOCRATEM, ARTE
TERRA TEGIT, POPULUS MAERET, OLYMPUS
Him who was Nestor by his judgment, Socrates
by his genius, Virgil by his art:
The earth covers, the people mourn, Olympus