“Living when he did, Shakespeare could no more be democratic or anti-democratic then he could be a motorist.”
-Thomas Marc Parrott, Twenty-Three Plays and Sonnets
On October 8th, Stephen Greenblatt wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times which sought to argue that through a detailed close reading of Shakespeare’s Richard III, we could better understand the state of the 2016 US Election. He argues that Richard III represents a play in which Shakespeare dramatizes the rise of a tyrant into power through the consent of the governed, despite how apparent his evil was to everyone around him. In this argument, Richard III becomes a cautionary tale, one that teaches its audience a lesson about the dangers of political complacency and the abdication of one’s responsibility as a political subject, whether that political subject is a low ranking early modern aristocrat or a swing-state voter in 2016. The politics of this particular editorial are fairly transparent, but what interests me is the mobilization of Shakespeare’s Richard III as an exemplum of a political reality that remains relevant to readers over four centuries after Shakespeare’s death. Here, a play about the rise of a usurping king and a political rebellion against an absolute monarch becomes a lesson about the importance of active and informed participation within a system of democracy that would be incomprehensible to even the few republics of Early Modern Europe, let alone the subjects of the English Monarchy.
Here, I don’t intend to criticize Greenblatt’s reading of the play, but I am more invested in the underlying impulse, specifically the implication that Shakespeare, if approached properly, can reveal grand truths about the state of our current lives. Greenblatt goes so far as to conclude his editorial by claiming, “Shakespeare’s words have an uncanny ability to reach out beyond their original time and place and to speak directly to us. We have long looked to him, in times of perplexity and risk, for the most fundamental human truths.” Variants of this appeal seem to represent a justification for the continued study of Shakespeare. In this model, Shakespeare becomes a unique literary site for understanding the world around us, and if we can simply read a play like Richard III well enough, we can understand the issues in our current historical moment that would appear inexplicable.
Richard III is an interesting case study for complicating this desire to find timeless political truths within the canon of Shakespeare. Richard III, despite being a play about an English king, is not really a history in the sense that we might understand the word today. The play itself draws heavily upon carefully crafted bits of Tudor propaganda which sought to validate the current ruling regime in England. The play, which documents the fall of the tyrant Richard III, implicitly celebrates the rebellion of King Henry VII, first monarch of the Tudor dynasty and grandfather of the sitting Queen Elizabeth I. The play’s framing of King Richard as a child-murdering, usurper is itself a theatrical decision grounded in a series of incredibly specific contemporary historical circumstances. This is not to say that we can’t learn anything of value for a play like Richard III, but it should serve as a constant reminder that the political world that Shakespeare occupied and the political world in which we live are so radically different as to be nearly unrecognizable.
As a graduate student working on the political discourses that were in circulation during Shakespeare’s life, this intellectual movement is one that I find fascinating because it simultaneously highlights and collapses the gulf that exists between our world and the world of Shakespeare. In my own work, I examine the political anxieties which gripped Shakespeare’s England in an attempt to better understand the ways in which the institution of the theater helped negotiate those problems. Here, four hundred years later, it is more than a little mystifying to see a major publication print an op-ed piece in which a renowned scholar makes a near identical move, utilizing the institution of the early modern theater to address a political anxiety gripping the country in 2016.
My posts this month will seek to delve deeper into this mode of reading Shakespeare as a window through which we better understand our contemporary world. While I don’t intend to provide a definitive answer to the question of just how much we can learn about politics merely by reading plays about politics, I do hope to offer insight into why Shakespeare’s political plays are thought to remain relevant exemplum for teaching political lessons. However, before turning towards the strengths and deficiencies of this model, I feel it will be worthwhile to look at the longer history of turning towards the past to learn about the political present. This belief that by turning to the fictions and lessons of a long forgotten age that we strive to see as a mirror of ourselves is not a unique quality of modernity. Next week, we will look at the ways in which thinkers in the Early modern world looked towards their own imagined past as a way of understanding their specific historical moment.
 This narrative surrounding Richard III’s history has been remarkably hard for historians to dispel, as these very specific examples of Tudor propaganda remain ingrained in cultural memories surrounding the real Richard III.
Evan Hixon is a second year PhD student in the English Department. His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations. His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.