Review of Shakespeare between Machiavelli and Hobbes: Dead Body Politics

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Shakespeare between Machiavelli and Hobbes: Dead Body Politics. Andrew Moore, Lexington Press, 2016.


Andrew Moore’s book, Shakespeare between Machiavelli and Hobbes: Dead Body Politics, is bold and enlightening. Moore follows in the footsteps of Harry Jaffa, Allan Bloom, Thomas West, Paul Cantor, and Leon Craig, among others, in that he takes Shakespeare seriously as a political philosopher. Unlike their approach, however, which generally place Shakespeare in the classical tradition, Moore see aspects of Shakespeare’s political thought that are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with the classical tradition.  As the title suggests, the central claim of Moore’s book is that Shakespeare is ultimately a political thinker akin to Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. Like Machiavelli and Hobbes, Shakespeare explores and draws similar conclusions about such issues as divine right of kings, the limits and origins of political authority, managing honor and ambition, and the relationship between morality and statesmanship and the demands of political life. Moore goes further, however, and argues that Shakespeare is ultimately a political materialist in the sense that: “for Shakespeare, the relationship between the metaphysical, the moral, and the political, are deeply problematic, perhaps even tragic” (3). This means, according to Moore, that in order to get at Shakespeare’s political philosophy one must interpret Shakespeare’s views on politics and morality within a materialist context in which no cosmic or metaphysical support exists for human beings.

For Shakespeare, the political shapes man’s consciousness and to reflect on politics is to reflect on the human condition. Consequently, Moore considers carefully the politics and context of each play that he treats. Although Shakespeare stages a bewildering variety of characters in a variety of settings, Moore sees a unifying pattern that he believes reflects Shakespeare’s political philosophy: “The same types of characters succeed and the same types fail. Similar political conditions produce similar results. Certain images recur and persist throughout the playwright’s career. It is from these patterns, [Moore] suggests, that we can learn something about Shakespeare’s political outlook” (2).

According to Moore, Shakespeare is of the view that politics is a temporal, bodily, and secular activity that boils down to organizing and managing human bodies in a world where human laws cannot be derived from metaphysics or some transcendent cosmic order. This is why, he argues, we often witness in Shakespeare’s plays the Machiavellian trope where “rulers and citizens who depend on divine support and divine intervention come to ruin” (3). And like Hobbes, Moore argues, Shakespeare ultimately believes that the state’s priority is the safety of its people and those “who ignore the material dynamics of politics — military arms, mortal bodies, human passions — do extraordinary damage to themselves and their fellow citizens” (3). Hence, the subtitle of Moore’s book, Dead Body Politics, is meant to capture the materialist outlook on politics.

A brief summary of the book’s argument is in order. Moore’s book consists of five chapters divided between two parts. Part 1, “Nature and Politics,” situates Shakespeare between Machiavelli (chapter 1) and Hobbes (chapter 2). Each chapter examines a set of Shakespeare plays alongside Machiavelli and Hobbes. Part 1 is devoted to parsing out Shakespeare’s views on what is natural and unnatural in politics and his conception of human nature. Chapter 1 explores Richard III, Macbeth, and Coriolanus alongside Machiavelli. Moore begins by demonstrating convincingly how Shakespeare rejects the orthodox account of the natural order of his day (as expressed in The True Law of Free Monarchies). Moore argues that Shakespeare’s views on divine right of kings, the “naturalness” of monarchy, insurrection and usurpation are consistent with Machiavelli’s views on these matters rather than the Christian interpretation of politics and human nature. Consequently, Moore argues that like Machiavelli, Shakespeare is of the opinion that political rule is subject neither to providence nor to hereditary right. Force and guile is what rules politics and the lack of either brings about one’s ruin, resulting in tragedy.

Having established Shakespeare’s break with the conventions of his day in chapter 1, chapter 2 turns to King Lear and Othello and examines them alongside Hobbes’s Leviathan in order to show how Shakespeare shares Hobbes’s view that humans can be turned into savage and nasty brutes.  By situating King Lear and Othello in relation to Hobbes’s state of nature teaching, Moore suggests that Shakespeare’s apolitical views on the political order come to light and reveal the materialism he attributes to the Bard.

Part 2 of the book, “The Limits of Politics,” consists of chapters 3-5, and, as the title suggests, is concerned with the limits nature places on political communities and political action. Chapter 3 focuses on the nature and ethics of violence in Lucrece and Julius Caesar and develops how Shakespeare’s representation of politics in the image of a dead body indicates his agreement with Hobbes that the aim of political life is security or flight from violent nature (83). Chapter 4 focuses on The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure and the relationship between religion and politics from within a materialist perspective.  Both plays, Moore suggests, reflect Shakespeare’s skepticism that law can be made to conform to Christian principles, as materialism drains the cosmos of any transcendent principle grounding the political order. Chapter 5 explores Shakespeare’s conception of political and personal consent, tyranny, and the violations of personal autonomy in Lucrece, Titus Andronicus, and Cymbeline.

Unlike the focus of his other chapters, however, chapter 5 argues that Shakespeare does not share Machiavelli or Hobbes’s definition of tyranny. Machiavelli allows for and even justifies certain cases of violence and oppression in the name of social peace and law and order, while Hobbes “does not believe that tyranny is anything other than a label applied by disgruntled citizens to monarchies they do not like” (126). Shakespeare, by contrast, associates tyranny with assault on individual liberty.  Sexual and physical violence are symptoms of an unjust state and the consequence of a political and economic order reducing human beings to mere objects.  If this is indeed true, and I suspect that it is, it is hard to see how this moral view of violence and liberty squares with the claim that Shakespeare is a materialist. At any rate, Moore’s point is a more general one — in reading Lucrece, Titus Andronicus, and Cymbeline alongside Machiavelli and Hobbes we see, according to Moore, how the end of government for Shakespeare, unlike Machiavelli and Hobbes, cannot be security alone. What, then, is the end of government beyond security? Yes, the forgetting about death is a powerful motive in human begins, but how are we to understand the view that the end of government is beyond security within a materialist context?

The part of the book that made the deepest impression are those that explicitly tie Shakespeare’s views on politics to materialism, which Moore pulls together by examining the rise and fall of a variety of characters, their successes and failures, through textual analysis and familiarity with materialist philosophy. Given Moore’s claim that Shakespeare is a political materialist, Moore could have, but did not, develop Cassius’s Epicurean political view in Julius Caesar: “You know that I held Epicurus strong/And his opinion. Now I change my mind” (Julius Caesar, Act 5 scene 1). More importantly, however, Shakespeare corrects Cassius’s political doctrine by having Cassius ultimately reject materialism, as seen in the passage just quoted. Why should this be? One would have to think through what is inadequate about Epicurus such that Cassius must come to reject it as part of his education. It seems to me, at any rate, that any attempt to present Shakespeare as a political materialist must examine why Shakespeare clearly believes Epicurus, one of the most intelligent and influential materialist thinkers, somehow falls short, just as one would also have to grasp the limits of Brutus’s Stoicism, which is also presented as inadequate and in need of correction.

This is not to take away anything from Moore’s excellent book, but the failure to address Cassius and his change of opinion on such an important issue did leave me wanting more. Nevertheless, Moore’s important book provides a philosophical framework that prods the careful reader to think more clearly about Shakespeare’s political wisdom.


An excerpt of the book is available here.

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).