Shakespeare: The Philosopher’s King

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The Philosopher’s English King: Shakespeare’s Henriad as Political Philosophy. Leon Harold Craig. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2015.


Anyone interested in studying Shakespeare as a philosopher-poet who addresses perennial questions about human existence through his plays will benefit from reading Leon Craig’s excellent book. Like his previous work, Philosophy and the Puzzles of Hamlet: A Study of Shakespeare’s Method, Craig’s latest offering approaches Shakespeare as a political philosopher and undertakes the valuable but difficult task of bringing to light Shakespeare’s political philosophy by situating Shakespeare in the midst of Plato, Machiavelli, and Hobbes.

Craig’s book is a careful study of Shakespeare’s Henriad, which Craig treats as “so many chapters of a single continuous story which concludes with Henry V” (xiv). The tetralogy as a whole explores the problem of political legitimacy, which emerges when Bolingbroke usurps the crown from Richard II, the last sitting and legitimate king of England. Bolingbroke’s usurpation undermined the credibility and legitimacy of his own monarchy as well as the notion of divine right of kings, and caused rebellion and civil disorder throughout the realm. Craig seeks to uncover Shakespeare’s political philosophy in the Henriad by tracing the moral and political arc of Hal becoming Henry V, and by examining how Henry V goes about establishing his legitimacy as king of England. By focusing on how Henry V is shaped by the actions of his father (Bolingbroke) and the problem of establishing his legitimacy in a regime riddled with conflict and usurpation, one comes to appreciate the genius of England’s most famous warrior-king. The problem of Bolingbroke’s usurpation, however, “points beyond itself to the problem of political legitimacy per se” (xi), and therefore goes to the heart of politics itself. Shakespeare’s Henriad, then, contains a treasure trove of the Bard’s political wisdom on the central problem of politics: legitimacy.

Craig’s book consists of a prologue; four chapters, each devoted to a single play in the four-part Henriad cycle; what he calls “An Alternate Epilogue: Imagining What Might Have Been”; and extensive footnotes. Craig sets the mood for his philosophical exploration of these plays by beginning and ending his book with quotations from Thomas Hobbes, who hangs over the volume like the ghost of Banquo. Indeed, each chapter, as well as the prologue and epilogue, is introduced by a lengthy passage from Hobbes’s Leviathan intended to focus the reader’s attention on a major theme of a play. Chapter 1, devoted to a study of Richard II, for example, opens with the following quote from Hobbes on the consequences of human actions:

“There is no action of man in this life that is not the beginning of so long a chain of consequences. . . . And in this chain there are linked together both pleasing and unpleasing events; in such manner as he that will do anything for his pleasure, must engage himself to suffer all the pains annexed to it; and these pains are the natural punishments of those actions which are the beginning of more harm than good. And hereby it comes to pass that intemperance is naturally punished with diseases; rashness, with mischances; injustice, with the violence of enemies; pride, with ruin; cowardice, with oppression; negligent government of princes, with rebellion; and rebellion, with slaughter.” (Hobbes, Leviathan, chap. 31. Para. 40)

The last two connections are interesting, as it is easy to see how Hobbes’s political logic applies equally to both Richard’s and Bolingbroke’s thoughts and actions, which is clearly Craig’s intention in prefacing the chapter with this passage. It is as if Hobbes is commenting on Richard II.

Teasing out Shakespeare’s political philosophy, however, is no easy task. We cannot point to anyone as easily identifiable as Plato’s Socrates about whom we can say, “Now there is Shakespeare’s wisdom personified!” And unlike Thomas Hobbes, Shakespeare did not leave behind political treatises in which he directly expressed his own views on politics. But the quest to discover Shakespeare’s political wisdom is not hopeless. According to Craig, Shakespeare provides the careful reader with clues to his political philosophy by planting “puzzles”—elements that appear to be contradictions—throughout his dramas to invoke in the reader a sense of wonder, the first step toward philosophical thinking (xiv). Rather than reading apparent contradictions as flaws, as some critics do, Craig argues that Shakespeare uses these moments to stimulate reflection on the part of the reader.

Consider the “puzzle of why the Welshman [in Richard II] think Richard is dead, and thus desert his cause, [which] provides a particularly effective illustration of the general pedagogical principle that Shakespeare shares with Plato. Namely, that the most effective stimulus to philosophic activity in people with an aptitude for it is not simply curiosity, but perplexity, puzzlement, paradoxicality—the famous aporia of Sokrates” (28; emphasis in original). Or consider this puzzle from Henry IV Part I: “What explains the conflicting expectations regarding the Archbishop’s contribution to the rebellion gathering head at Shrewsbury?” (71). Spotting and then thinking through these puzzles, Craig insists, reveals Shakespeare’s teaching about politics and his philosophical perspective on the perennial questions of human existence.

At the heart of Craig’s book is an examination of Hal’s “shrouded sun strategy”: Hal’s self-conscious attempt to stage what appears to be a miraculous transformation from juvenile delinquent to England’s greatest king. Hal’s seemingly sudden transformation consists in moral and intellectual progress that appears to be a miracle. The opening of Henry V focuses our attention on the intended effect of Hal’s strategy (chapter 4). Canterbury and Ely are perplexed and muse at length on the suddenness of Henry’s metamorphosis, which they can only understand in terms of divine visitation upon the young monarch. Not only has Henry shed his youthful immoral qualities, he appears to have transformed intellectually: “Never was such a sudden scholar made” (1.1.24). Overnight, or so it seems, Henry has mastered theology, politics, warfare, prudence, and the art of rhetoric (132). Henry’s moral and intellectual transformation has the effect of earning him credibility with the religious authority, which, Craig concludes, “includes an unqualified recognition of Henry’s claim to the English Crown” (135; emphasis in original). Approval from religious authority, however, is only one step toward establishing the legitimacy of Henry V’s rule. As Craig suggests, it also marks the beginning of Henry’s successful attempt to bring church authority under political rule, as Henry seeks more than just a show of religious support. Bringing the church into his reign is also part of his grand strategy to unify England.

Reports abroad of his delinquent days as a wasted youth have also “shaped common opinion in the French Court,” which has the effect of making his enemies underestimate him (140). Henry, with his imperial ambition, has set the stage for his rise. What remains is a study of how he puts his intellectual and moral knowledge to use in the service of England. By tracing each step of Hal’s transformation, Craig argues, Shakespeare makes his political wisdom evident.

Craig beautifully brings out Henry’s skillful use of religion in his dealings before the church authorities and his royal court. Craig’s analysis of how Hal manages to embody the Machiavellian trope of balancing “the qualities of the lion and the fox” in order to succeed as a new prince is full of insight and enriches our reading and understanding of the Henry plays (28). For example, Craig points out, Henry is always careful to craft his goals and strategies in pious terms while deflecting politically thorny decisions and responsibility onto the church, whose blessings for his war with France he manages to bring out into the open. Armed with the church’s religious approval, whose moral support and legal justification for his imperial ambitions he needs, Henry is able to assure his guests, “We are no tyrant but a Christian king, / Unto whose grace . . .  our passion is as subject / As are our wretches fettered in our prisons: / Therefore with frank and with uncurbed plainness / Tell us the Dauphin’s mind” (138). When he receives tennis balls from the Dauphin, a “gift” clearly intended to insult Henry, Henry checks his indignation and again responds in pious terms: “But this lies all within the will of God, / To whom I do appeal, and in whose name / Tell you the Dauphin I am coming on / To venge me as I may” (140). Henry never wastes an opportunity to shroud his deeds and words with piety. Why should this be?

According to Craig, Henry’s use of religion is a political necessity connected to the manner in which his father rose to become king. Henry is aware that his own legitimacy is compromised by his father’s usurpation of the Crown—hence the importance of Henry’s “extracting an official recognition of his legitimacy from the country’s highest churchmen” (141). Craig (correctly) contends, however, that to cement his status as having God’s approval, Henry needs to establish “indications of divine favour” (ibid.), which Henry manages to create by embodying Machiavelli’s advice to new princes in chapter 17 of The Prince to never appear without religion (140). Craig’s interpretation of Henry, then, breaks with the traditional view that Henry is a model of a Christian king (chapter 4). His skillful exploitation of religious authority is made possible by his ironic relationship with church authority, as he is clearly willing to manipulate it to his and England’s ends.

One of the most engrossing parts of Craig’s book is his examination of the conspiracy to murder Henry, and the mystery of how on earth Henry managed to discover it in time. After assembling a detailed body of circumstantial evidence, Craig suggests that the Dauphin is the likely instigator behind the plot, that the constable is most likely the source of Henry’s knowledge of the murder-for-hire scheme, and that the conspirators “accepted the French bribe … to help fund an anti-Lancastrian rebellion” (152). I find Craig’s reading convincing and helpful in understanding the play and appreciating the level of detail involved in understanding Shakespeare more generally. I believe, however, that Craig misses an opportunity to connect the conspirators’ plot to the overall theme of the Henriad: the unification of Great Britain. As my friend Mark Kremer once put it, the conspirators are holdovers from the civil war and their punishment marks the end of the civil strife and the beginning of Henry’s unquestionable legitimacy. Henry not only looks to establish his legitimacy; he is always looking for opportunities to unite his fractured nation.

The Puzzle of Falstaff

One of Craig’s most original (though puzzling) contributions is his interpretation of Falstaff. Throughout his book, Craig refers to Falstaff as old cadger, rogue, fat knight, fat rascal, old grifter, fat poseur, old faker, fat con, jester, false knight, fat sponger, and fat villain. In addition to “fat-shaming” Falstaff, whom he views as irredeemable and repugnant, Craig insists Falstaff is neither wise nor even intelligent. Falstaff is a “clown whose speeches, apart from their drollery, are quite pedestrian” (124). Ouch. And while he recognizes that many readers “regard the fat villain [Falstaff] with affection, and even admiration” (126), Craig ultimately concludes, however, that Shakespeare shares “Hal’s public repudiation of [Falstaff] as . . . fully justified” (122).

Shakespeare, in other words, shares Craig’s low estimation of Falstaff. Indeed, Craig is “confident that the philosopher-poet would agree since [Shakespeare] provided a pattern of evidence pointing directly to this conclusion” (122). So why, then, did Shakespeare create such a funny and engaging character? According to Craig, Shakespeare makes Falstaff “so terribly funny” because it serves “Shakespeare’s philosophical purpose of teaching those who care to learn this important truth about comedy: that whoever aspires to wisdom must train himself to think before he laughs, lest he prejudice his ability to judge all things fairly” (128; emphasis in the original). If Shakespeare truly intended Falstaff to be such a pathetic character, then the Bard failed, for Falstaff is clearly engaging and has many admirers, and his fame will most likely outlive those who write on him.

While he raises some interesting points and does capture some aspects of the surface of Falstaff and his relationship to Hal, Craig sells Falstaff short. Craig is too harsh on Falstaff, and one senses a degree of moral indignation in his assessment of him. Shakespeare clearly intended Falstaff to be a morally complicated “puzzle.” He is very funny, witty, and clearly highly intelligent, if not philosophic. Harold Bloom, for instance, refers to Falstaff as the “Socrates of Eastcheap” (Harold Bloom, Falstaff: Give Me Life, p. 2). Falstaff charms because he exposes what is false in others, which is a philosophical virtue, the appreciation of which would constitute an education in itself. And I suspect Hal learned much from his dealings with Falstaff, which Craig denies. We do not need to see Falstaff standing before a Glenn Beck–styled blackboard to conclude he taught something of value about politics and life to Hal.

Craig, however, denies Falstaff has any redeemable qualities. After eliminating a variety of reasons why Hal even consorts with Falstaff, Craig concludes, “One is left with one single possible motive: the fat old ruffian is the ideal foil for the ‘shrouded sun’ strategy, and is so precisely because—as all decent, law-abiding subjects of the king would agree—there is nothing good to be said of [Falstaff], and much bad” (125). In other words, by first associating himself with Falstaff, Hal tricks the public (and his father) into thinking he is a delinquent like Falstaff. But once Hal magically transforms from a wasted youth to a paragon of virtue (Hal-become-Henry V), it appears that he has God on his side and that his rule is therefore legitimate. For Craig, Falstaff’s primary role in the play is to serve as a prop for Hal’s public relations stunt.

Perhaps because he reacts so indignantly to Falstaff, Craig overlooks some of Falstaff’s philosophical insights that he shares in common with Hobbes. Consider Falstaff’s famous comic speech about honor, which is consistent with Hobbes’s view of honor in Leviathan. Here’s Falstaff’s soliloquy on honor:

’Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before

his day. What need I be so forward with him that

calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks

me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I

come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or

an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.

Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is

honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what

is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?

he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.

Doth he hear it? no. ’Tis insensible, then. Yea,

to the dead. But will it not live with the living?

    Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore

I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so

ends my catechism. (Henry IV, Part 1, scene 5 act 1)

For Hobbes, as for Falstaff, honor is a false virtue connected with the dangerous desire for glory, which clouds one’s judgment and is often the cause of unnecessary conflict. Honor can get you killed too. Honor, according to Hobbes, must be tamed through education for the sake of civil peace and securing one’s own self-preservation. From Hobbes’s perspective, Falstaff’s disquisition on the worth of honor is rather enlightened!

Consider also the scene just after Falstaff completes his “catechism” on honor and stumbles upon the body of Sir Walter Blount, who had been killed in battle. “There’s honour for you,” observes Falstaff, adding, “I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath. Give me life, which if I can save, so. If not, honour comes unlooked for, and there’s an end” (Henry IV, Part 1, 5.3). Now compare Falstaff on the consequences of following honor with what Machiavelli says about the “effectual truth” in chapter 15 of The Prince: “Since my intent is to write something useful to whoever understands it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it . . . for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation” (The Prince, p. 61, Mansfield edition).

Machiavelli “departs from the orders of others” by distinguishing the “imaginary” from the “effectual truth” on the basis of self-preservation and necessity (ibid.). In other words, if taking the high ground leads to your death, then you are a dupe of an imaginary standard of conduct, as Falstaff is saying about honor. Hotspur is a case in point. His love of honor ultimately led to his own ruin, just as it did for Sir Walter Blount. What good is honor if it gets you killed? Falstaff allows us to witness on stage what Hobbes and Machiavelli condone, only Falstaff embodies certain philosophical ideas without the pageantry of honor or pretense. Falstaff educates through laughter by providing a temporary liberation from the moral hypocrisy and pretense we see in others and rarely ever in ourselves.

Falstaff is complicated, and there is more to him than I can cover in a review. Harold Bloom, for instance, sees something of Socrates in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Falstaff. This may seem like a stretch to some (such as Craig), but there is something to it. Bloom points out, for example, how Falstaff’s death scene is clearly modeled after the death of Socrates in the Phaedo (see Harold Bloom, p. 156). Craig does acknowledge the reference to Plato’s Phaedo in this context, but he argues that Shakespeare intends the parallel to show the contrast between Falstaff and Socrates, rather than their similarities (p. 239), of which there are none, according to Craig. He dismisses any meaningful comparison between Socrates and Falstaff as a mere mischaracterization on the part of Mistress Quickly, who reports on Falstaff’s final moments (p. 233). But Mistress Quickly is not responsible for inventing the scene, which is clearly intended to draw comparisons between the death of Falstaff and Socrates’s own death.

And there are obvious comparisons between Socrates and Falstaff left to explore. Socrates and Falstaff are both accused of corrupting the youth and of making the weaker argument stronger, and so on. In the scene in which Hal and Falstaff role-play a conversation between father and son, moreover, Falstaff helps Hal to prepare to break with his father’s authority through a dialectical back-and-forth. Socrates was also accused of undermining the authority of fathers in the Apology. Just look at what Socrates does to old Cephalus in the opening of Republic. We are left wondering why Shakespeare chooses to draw our attention to Falstaff and Plato’s teacher.

Although I am ultimately unconvinced by Craig’s treatment of Falstaff and his relationship to Hal, I consider this one of the best books ever written on Shakespeare’s Henriad. The level of scholarship is second to none. Each chapter is as good as the next. The book is never uneven, and Craig’s passion for his subject matter and his desire to share his knowledge with his readers is evident throughout. Not only does one gain many valuable insights into these plays, we are also encouraged to read Shakespeare philosophically, as I am certain Shakespeare wished to be read.

Khalil M. Habib

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Khalil Habib is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Pell Honors Program at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. He is editor, along with Lee Trepanier, of Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Globalization: Citizens without States (Kentucky, 2011).