Shakespeare between Machiavelli and Hobbes: Dead Body Politics

HomeArticlesShakespeare between Machiavelli and Hobbes: Dead Body Politics

No one would dispute that Shakespeare was interested in political questions. Much of his theatrical output focuses on medieval monarchs and ancient Roman civil wars. Plays such as The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure explicitly wrestle with political and legal dilemmas. Even Shakespeare’s more romantic and comical plots often revolve around crises of government, leadership, and citizenship. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, is a comedy about fairies and magic spells in which a buffoonish actor is transformed into an ass, but the action of the play is initiated when a disgruntled father brings his daughter before the Duke of Athens and demands that the state enforce his parental rights: “As she is mine, I may dispose of her – / Which shall be either to this gentleman / Or to her death, according to our law” (1.1.42-44). Similarly, while Hamlet has the reputation of being a deeply philosophical play, featuring Shakespeare’s most quotable statements on mortality and the meaning of life, it is also a play about ambition and political legitimacy. Denmark is a kingdom overflowing with would-be kings. Claudius kills his brother, Old Hamlet, to secure power for himself. Hamlet complains that his uncle has “Popped in between th’election and my hopes” (5.2.66) by seizing the throne before the prince had a chance to claim it. Late in the play, when Laertes returns to avenge his murdered father he nearly rises to power on the back of a popular revolt:

The rabble call him lord;

And, as the world were now but to begin,

Antiquity forgot, custom not known,

The ratifiers and props of every word,

They cry ‘Choose we! Laertes shall be king.’ (4.5.99-103)

And of course, throughout the play, behind all of the domestic and psychosexual drama in Elsinore, off in the distance, the audience hears the footsteps of an advancing army led by Fortinbras, who, believing Denmark to be “disjoint and out of frame” (1.2.20), sees an opportunity to seize power by force of arms. Thus even those plays that do not appear initially to be about politics still take place within specific – and often very detailed – political contexts. The political settings of the plays often give shape and structure to the dramatic action. Shakespeare’s plays are concerned with political things; that much is beyond argument.

Much more controversial is whether or not we can derive an argument about politics from Shakespeare’s works. Do Shakespeare’s plays present a consistent political outlook? In the Afterword to Shakespeare and Early Modern Political Thought Quentin Skinner says that if we want to understand the arguments of philosophical texts “it will be best to begin by assuming that their authors meant what they said and said what they meant”; however, Skinner claims “It would be extremely unwise… to make any comparable assumptions about Shakespeare.”[1] The problem, as Skinner goes on to say, is that Shakespeare’s works are poly-vocal. And of course characters in his plays often debate questions of law and government. It would be naïve to align Shakespeare with any one character – to say that when Brutus or Lear speaks, Shakespeare speaks with him. There is no Shakespearean Socrates, no one character who seems to speak with anything close to Shakespeare’s own voice. Still, when we read Shakespeare’s plays there are patterns and there are types. The same types of characters succeed and the same types fail. Similar political conditions seem to produce similar results. Certain images recur and persist throughout his career. It is from these patterns, I suggest, that we can learn something about Shakespeare’s political outlook.

In this book I treat Shakespeare as a writer and thinker who was not exclusively or even primarily concerned with contemporary politics, but rather as someone who was exploring and working out the limits of politics as such. I contend we can derive an account of politics from Shakespeare’s works – not simply evidence of early modern economic practices or generalized cultural anxieties, but rather an account of the essential laws that govern political activity. Shakespeare’s works offer up a particular interpretation of politics; that interpretation may or may not be correct, but it is coherent.

My central claim in this book will be that Shakespeare was a political materialist. Shakespeare’s plays function as investigations into the foundations of politics. They consistently evidence a concern with legitimate authority and effective government. His works repeatedly suggest that political disasters and civil disruptions are the results of failures (by leaders and citizens) to properly understand the essentially material foundations of politics. Shakespeare depicts politics as a temporal, bodily thing. Politics for him is the art of managing and organizing human bodies – caring for their needs, making space for the satisfaction of desires, protecting them from the threat of violent death. For Shakespeare, government is primarily a secular activity. His works express skepticism that human laws can be derived from metaphysical principles. He instead understands the capacity to wield material force to be a much more important measure of whether or not states succeed or fail.

The political priorities and preoccupations of Shakespeare’s plays are illuminated when we consider them alongside the works of Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and English social contract theorist Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Shakespeare shared a tremendous amount in common with Machiavelli and Hobbes, who are, arguably the two thinkers who most clearly articulate the founding principles of modern politics. Based on careful reading, it is clear that Shakespeare is troubled by the same questions that trouble Machiavelli and Hobbes, questions about the limits of authority and the origins of political community, about managing honor and ambition within the public sphere, and about the relationship between morality and politics. And insofar as the playwright arrives at answers, the answers he provides us are similar to those provided by Machiavelli and Hobbes. I hope to situate Shakespeare within the history of western political thought, to examine how the playwright’s own meditations on politics echo, qualify, advance, and sometimes oppose the accounts provided Machiavelli and Hobbes. By situating Shakespeare alongside these two political theorists, the materialist preoccupations of the playwright’s works become more visible.

To be clear, I am not here making claims of influence in the traditional sense. I am not particularly interested in whether or not Shakespeare read Machiavelli, or if Hobbes ever attended a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays, (though neither supposition is impossible).[2] I will not claim here that Machiavelli influenced Shakespeare, or that Shakespeare influenced Hobbes. It is simply the case that when we juxtapose Shakespeare’s works with the works of other materialist political theorists, the materialist assumptions and premises of his representations are revealed.

I should note also that I am not prepared to claim that Shakespeare is anything more than a political materialist. That is, I will not claim here that Shakespeare is an atheist, or that he believed the only certain knowledge we can have is knowledge of material objects. Both Machiavelli and Hobbes were materialists in this sense (although, as I will discuss later, both men dedicated significant space in their works to metaphysical subjects). Shakespeare’s works do not mock or sneer at people of faith, nor does the playwright ever seem to imagine a total separation of church and state. Faith, hope, and wonder are treated with great seriousness in his works. That said, in Shakespeare’s works, the relationship between the metaphysical, the moral, and the political is deeply problematic, perhaps even tragic. Rulers and citizens who depend on divine support and divine intervention come to ruin. Those who ignore the material dynamics of politics – military arms, mortal bodies, human passions – do extraordinary damage to themselves and their fellow citizens. The state’s jurisdiction does not extend to the afterlife; therefore Shakespeare’s plays suggest the state should not concern itself with condition of its citizens’ souls. The state’s priority is to preserve the lives of its citizens, to produce stability – and a kind of freedom that is consistent with that stability. Shakespeare may or may not have believed in God; he may or may not have been a closet Catholic or a patriotic Protestant. However, he did not seem to believe that humans could depend on God to support human justice. As both Machiavelli and Hobbes, in different ways, contend, human justice was a product of human deliberation and human action. The state was a mortal creation and mortals were responsible for its fate. And of course, because politics is only a product of human industry, like all material things, the state is subject to change and decay.

The title of this book, Dead Body Politics, is meant to capture this outlook. For Shakespeare, politics was a thing for mortals. Politics is – as Hobbes expressed most clearly – a response to our mortality. The purpose of the state is to preserve and support human life from the threats of violence and death. In this way politics is entirely bound up with our mortal nature. The state for Shakespeare was the response and remedy to human mortality. As we will see, Shakespeare emphasizes throughout his work the responsibility of the state and its leadership to preserve the body from violence and to ensure the stability of the governing order. The other reason I have chosen this title is because we can also understand Shakespeare’s corpus as a kind of eulogy: a funeral speech dedicated to what he sees as outmoded and deficient theories of politics. Over the course of his career, Shakespeare criticizes the divine right of kings, absolute monarchy, and even the metaphor of the body politic itself. During the early modern period, political thinkers reconceptualized the origins and ends of politics. Shakespeare’s plays are a part of this process. Throughout this work, we will see how his writings challenge received ideas about the foundations of political authority, the relationship between the monarch and citizen, and the limits of political power. At the outset, it is important for us to understand how emergent ideas about politics were related to a new conception of Nature, specifically human nature. During the 16th and 17th centuries, radically new accounts of our nature were emerging, and the consequences for politics were dramatic. Machiavelli and Hobbes were among the most insightful thinkers on these subjects. Shakespeare was another.

Politics & Nature

Every political system and every political argument is premised on an account of human nature. That account of nature is not always explicit, but it is necessary for any political argument to be coherent. Perhaps one of the clearest examples in early twenty-first-century politics is the debate surrounding marriage equality and the rights of gay and transgender people. To the extent that people debate the justice or fairness of allowing gay people to marry, their arguments typically revolve around divergent accounts of nature. Most opponents of gay marriage argue that heterosexual relationships are natural and homosexual relationships are not. Supporters of marriage equality typically argue that homosexuality is not a choice or attitude, but rather a biological condition, and therefore natural. Both sides make the identical claim that legislation should adhere to the natural; they disagree on their definition of nature and so on the content of the law. All political arguments begin from an explicit or implicit account of the natural. Even if a person is inclined to moral relativism and believes that all laws are merely contractual agreements, that person is either making the claim that laws should be based on such contracts because it is natural and good for humans to freely determine their own good, or they are making the claim that human politics is really a matter of the strong ruling the weak, those in power imposing arbitrary conceptions of morality onto a subordinate population. Again, both are accounts of human nature – that freedom is good for humans, or that humans are naturally locked in a power struggle. In order for political conversations to be coherent, the relationship between nature and politics should be prioritized. Political analyses become obscure when particular speakers and writers lose sight of this fundamental relationship. Political communities are organized around an agreed upon account of human nature. To advocate for the universal protection of human rights, for example, is premised on the concept of inalienable human dignity – that a human life is ontologically worthy of protection. Adherents of realpolitik begin from the premise that humans are by nature self-interested and motivated primarily by fear and gain.

We moderns are typically wary of equating politics to nature because in the past so many traditional conceptions of human nature were inadequate and in many cases have produced real harm. For instance, essentialist claims to the natural aptitudes of men and women, or the natural superiority of one race over another have shaped discriminatory policies and unjust laws. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s Edmund mounts precisely our modern objection in King Lear:

. . . Wherefore should I

Stand in the plague of custom and permit

The curiosity of nations to deprive me

For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines

Lag of a brother? Why ‘bastard’? Wherefore ‘base’,

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true

As honest madam’s issue? (2.1-9)

One cannot read Edmund’s speech in the twenty-first century without hearing echoes of civil rights or feminist activists. Edmund mounts a criticism here against an inadequate orthodox account of human nature. He does not believe that, simply because he was conceived out of wedlock, he is somehow unequal to his legitimate brother, Edgar. However, importantly, Edmund challenges the orthodox account of nature by establishing another account of nature in its place – He begins this speech by praising Nature as his “goddess”. In a general way, Edmund’s replacement of one account of nature with another is representative of the whole project of early modern political thought.[3]

Shakespeare exposes the degree to which many of things we thought of as natural are actually fluid and conventional, while resisting the notion that all things are conventional. Shakespeare was keenly aware of how distinctions that seemed absolute were actually conventional, and power structures that seemed permanent were actually malleable. Still, a human being for Shakespeare is a particular biological or maybe ontological kind of thing – a particular being, distinguishable from a dog or a ghost. As a being limited by certain non-negotiable natural imperatives – like death, for instance – humans were not infinitely malleable. It is precisely this aspect of Shakespeare’s thinking that is so profoundly insightful about politics. Much more than many of his contemporaries he understood the field of human action to be open to change and alteration. He understood laws, gender roles, and religious practices to be largely governed by convention; at the same time he understood a human being to be a certain kind of a thing, and human communities to be governed by certain non-negotiable imperatives.

Shakespeare spent his career troubling conventional definitions of our nature, and suggesting unorthodox ways to think about the relationship between nature and politics. This is, most of all, the thing that likens him to Machiavelli and Hobbes. Machiavelli and Hobbes similarly challenged dogmatic and traditional accounts of the relationship between nature and politics. In fact, both men were prophets of modernity. Modern western states and citizens have largely adopted their ideas about human nature and about politics.  Taking a long view, the French and American Revolutions of the late 18th century would have been impossible without the philosophical groundwork laid in the 16th and 17th centuries. Like Shakespeare, both Machiavelli and Hobbes set out to demonstrate how many of the things thought to be essential or necessary were actually conventional and changeable. Their principle target was ethics and the moral order. Both thinkers sought to relax or remove the traditional limits placed on human conduct – and specifically the limits placed on rulers. However, both men were actually concerned with the good of the community as a whole. For Machiavelli and Hobbes, political disorders and failures could be traced to inaccurate accounts of our nature as human beings. States need to be built on the proper foundations. Thus the human desire for freedom, and human equality had to figure more prominently in their work than in the work of their predecessors.

Machiavelli appears to have been a covert republican living in an oligarchic regime. Early in his career, Machiavelli achieved success as a diplomat for Florence’s republic. But in 1512, the Medici family rose to power to the city after eighteen years in exile. The republic was replaced by an oligarchy and Machiavelli fell from favor. In 1513 he was accused of participating in a conspiracy against the Medici, he was tortured and imprisoned.[4] The next year, he was forced to leave Florence. In his family home outside the city he wrote both The Prince and The Discourses on Livy.

Machiavelli believed strongly that the end or purpose of politics was the promotion of freedom, and argued that republics – like the ancient Roman republic – were the regime in which freedom was best realized. But Machiavelli did not believe in human rights. He did not believe that freedom was something that all humans had ontologically – that humans were free simply by virtue of being humans. Freedom for Machiavelli was a product of politics. Freedom was produced by certain political conditions. Particular constitutions support freedom more than others.[5] However, Machiavelli was also clear-eyed about the nature of politics. Livy was his great teacher, and the Roman historian argues that freedom is only good if the people are mature and moderate enough to manage it.[6]

Thus, though Machiavelli considered republics to be the best regime, he was not foolish enough to believe one can simply institute a republican regime whenever and wherever one desires. Machiavelli’s most famous work, The Prince, is clearly a manual for monarchs. It explains in clear detail how a monarch can rule effectively. He seems to suggest that sometimes an authoritarian government is needed to lay the groundwork for a republic. It is significant that The Prince is virtually silent on the question of succession, despite the fact that producing or identifying an heir is among the primary concerns in monarchies. It was certainly a problem that was familiar to those living in Shakespeare’s England. Elizabeth’s subjects fretted for decades about what kind of tumult might follow their virgin queen’s death if she did not marry and have children.[7] However, Machiavelli’s silence on the question of succession might be because he intends monarchs to be replaced by institutions rather than heirs. He praises Lycurgus, the founder of the Spartan constitution for this.[8]  Though Machiavelli believed that freedom was good, he did not believe in equality. Most of his arguments are premised on a stratified understanding of human community: cities and states are made up of people of diverse humours, the many and the great.[9] Ordinary people can, through extraordinary industry, become ‘great’, amassing wealth and power as they ascend, but, generally speaking, humans are not equal. Simple observation suggests that some people are more intelligent than others, more beautiful, more athletic, or more charismatic.

Hobbes was an empiricist immersed in scientific revolution of the 17th century. He was reputedly friends with Galileo; he corresponded with Descartes, and he spent time in the 1620s working as a secretary for Francis Bacon. As Stauffer says, he is “the thinker, who, more than any other, broke with traditional Christian political theology and laid the foundations of the more secular form of political philosophy that has shaped the outlook on religion and politics at the heart of the modern West.”[10] Hobbes did not begin his publishing career until his 30s. In 1629 he published an English translation of Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War. In 1640 Hobbes wrote De Cive (“On the Citizen”), a book which was intended to be part of a three-part philosophical work including De Corpore (“On the Body”), completed in 1655, and De Homine (“On Man”) completed in 1658. The philosopher’s most famous (and most notorious work) however, is Leviathan; there he lays out his position on the origins and purposes of politics.

Hobbes did believe in our equality; not in our absolute equality, but in a kind of practical equality: even the weakest human being could kill the strongest human being. Moreover, Hobbes articulated more clearly than his predecessors a theory of contractual government. He developed the notion that the state was a product of consent and that the state did not come into being without the endorsement of people. Hobbes also identified the fear of violent death as the primary motivation for human action, and understood politics to be organized around preventing that violence while simultaneously allowing individuals to pursue their particular desires. However, while Hobbes believed in human equality, and human rights, his primary commitment to order and stability lead him to conclude that absolute monarchy was the best possible regime for human beings[11]. Hobbes affirmed that the consent of the governed was a one-time proposition; once it was given it could not be revoked. And the absolute power of the monarch was necessary to ensure that the state could avoid civil unrest. While Hobbes believes that humans have certain essential rights in the state of nature, in fact “every man has a right to every thing, even to one another’s body,” the citizen has no rights against the government.[12] There is, for example, no just way to oppose the government, no fundamental right to property, and no freedom of speech.

Therefore, both Machiavelli and Hobbes offer us only partial accounts of modern politics. Machiavelli champions freedom, but does not believe in equality. Hobbes believes in equality and freedom, but believes that our interests are best served by submitting both our equality and our freedom to the absolute will of a monarch. Nonetheless, in severing politics from metaphysics, and in affirming that popular support and consent are the true foundations of political authority both thinkers offer distinctly modern views of politics. Both thinkers also recognized the diversity and range of human desire, and, more specifically, liberated desire from a hierarchical framework. Desire for sex, food, money, and power are not contemptible in Machiavelli’s or Hobbes’s account. Rather those desires are predictable and widespread. In fact, those desires are so dependable that they can make up the foundation of modern politics. This new foundation most clearly marks the difference between the early moderns and their predecessors.

Both Machiavelli and Hobbes reject and revise classical and medieval notions of our nature, and thus seek out new foundations for political community. They are particularly engaged with the work of Aristotle. As David A. Lines argues “Aristotelianism continued to be the main philosophical current throughout the Renaissance, and up to at least 1700 it was a serious contender against the new philosophy of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton.”[13] Donald Rutherford echoes this claim: “Especially in ethics, Aristotelian doctrines remain central in defining the structure and content of early modern philosophical thought.”[14]

Aristotle’s view of nature was teleological. That is, he believed all natural things had an end, a kind of trajectory. For example, the natural trajectory of an acorn is to become an oak tree, and the natural trajectory of a tadpole is to become a frog. For Aristotle “throughout the natural world there are irreducibly purposive structures.” The existence of these structures is commonsensical: “the heart is for pumping blood, the eyelid for protecting the eye,” and so on.[15] Human beings also had a trajectory. According to Aristotle, if we observe human beings, in all times, and in all places, despite differences of language, culture and ethnicity, humans almost invariably form groups and governments. This suggests that humans have a natural impulse to create political communities. Politics is bound up with our human telos, our end. Just as acorns become oak trees, groups of human beings become cities.[16]

Our consistent inclination towards politics persuaded Aristotle that the fulfillment of our purpose or telos depended upon our participation in political community, that is, that somehow living together with others, and participating in life with them was necessary for human fulfillment. This insight led Aristotle to think seriously about the nature of ethics. His Nicomachean Ethics discusses the characteristics essential to a happy human life; necessarily these qualities are the traits and capacities that allow us to live with other people, such as temperance, generosity, and prudence, as well as social traits like wittiness and honesty. For Aristotle we can almost always recognize the appropriate action – the action that promotes community and leads to our happiness – as a mean between two extremes:

We can be afraid, for instance, or be confident, or have appetites, or get angry, or feel pity, and in general have pleasure or pain, both too much and too little, and in both ways not well. But having these feelings at the right times, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way, is the intermediate and best condition, and this is proper to virtue.[17]

According to Aristotle, we acquire virtue through habit. Just as we become proficient at playing the guitar by practicing the guitar or good at ice-skating only by ice-skating, we become courageous and temperate by repeatedly performing courageous or temperate actions.[18] Shakespeare references something like this theory when Hamlet pleads with his mother, Gertrude, to abstain from sex with Claudius:

Good night – but go not to mine uncle’s bed.

Assume a virtue if you have it not.

Refrain tonight,

And that shall lend a kind of easiness

To the next abstinence. (3.4.155-59)

Whether or not Shakespeare was deliberately responding to Aristotle in his plays, much of his own project seems to be at odds with the Aristotelian theory of habit. Many characters in Shakespeare’s plays ‘act’ in ways contrary to their actual character. They do one thing while thinking another; they dissemble and pretend. They are not what they seem to be. Shakespeare consistently emphasizes the gap between the action and the psyche. One of the quintessential Shakespearean examples is Prince Hal. In Henry IV, Pt. 1 King Henry chastises his son for his pursuing “barren pleasures” and spending time in “rude society” (3.2.1-17). Hal insists that he remains unaffected by his leisurely pursuits, and claims that he can transform himself at will from an ingrate into a hero:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold

The unyoked humour of your idleness.

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That, when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted he may be more wondered at

By breaking through the foul and ugly mists

Of vapours that did seem to strangle him. (1.2.183-91)

Of course, in other contexts, Shakespeare seems to suggest that vicious action does carry psychic costs. Macbeth, Claudius, Leontus, and Edmund, are, in various ways, plagued by the spiritual or psychic consequences of their actions. Shakespeare may not be in complete disagreement with Aristotle, then; however, he regularly emphasizes the discrepancy between being and seeming. Shakespeare is fond of demonstrating that we cannot know the content or character of another’s psyche. Aaron the Moor, Edmund the bastard, Richard III, and “honest, honest Iago” (5.2.152) are all characters that testify to this fact. Nothing is more common in Shakespearean drama than the impenetrable disguise – the woman dressed as a boy, the King masquerading as a drunkard, the fool who is actually wise. It is the problem that shapes the entirety of Hamlet in which the prince puts on an “antic disposition” (1.5.179) once he realizes how common it is for one to “smile, and smile, and be villain” (1.5.109). The pervasiveness of disguise in Shakespeare is meant to affirm that there is a chasm between soul and action. The stakes in Shakespeare’s depictions are high. Shakespeare presents us with several characters who take pleasure in doing evil, and others who succeed even as they disregard traditional moralities. While the Greeks and Christians believe that such deviant pleasures and unjust successes were possible, they generally argued that there were psychological consequences for immoral action, or consequences that would be visited upon evil-doers in the afterlife. Shakespeare may not have agreed.

Machiavelli, Hobbes, for instance, are altogether less confident than ancient and medieval thinkers that criminal or sinful behavior leads to ruin.[19] Both Machiavelli and Hobbes suggest that Aristotle’s view of the mean is overly narrow and that human happiness might be achieved through a wide variety of avenues, and that the variability of human beings suggests that happiness does not have a uniform character. Aristotle claims that some actions are by nature vicious and cannot be done well or badly: “Now not every action or feeling admits of the mean. For the names of some automatically include baseness – for instance, spite, shamelessness, envy [among feelings], and adultery, theft, murder, among actions.”[20] By contrast, Machiavelli applauds murderers and argues that charity is politically imprudent: “for if one considers everything well, one will find something appears to be virtue, which if pursued would be one’s ruin, and something else appears to be vice, which if pursued results in one’s security and well-being.”[21] Hobbes similarly finds no thing good or bad in and of itself: “there being nothing simply and absolutely so, nor any common rule of good and evil to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves.”[22]

However, despite this general relaxation of moral limits, both Machiavelli and Hobbes believe there are certain common elements of political life need to be preserved in order to achieve happiness. Neither Machiavelli nor Hobbes would deny that politics is conducive to the human good; however, both Machiavelli and Hobbes understood politics as preventative or as a corrective to a dangerous, violent nature. Both Machiavelli and Hobbes prioritize security and stability. Justice for each of them is divorced from metaphysics and is instead nearly synonymous with ‘order’. Machiavelli and Hobbes are not in agreement on several key questions. However, in a broad sense, they both argue that successful states manage and effectively minimize the selfish instincts of human beings, and in both cases the good of the people becomes bound up with natural necessity. That is, the good of a human in a Machiavellian or Hobbesian state is much more closely tied to his or her survival. It is good to stay alive. Violent death, as opposed to a corrupted soul is identified as the chief political concern. Strauss claims that for Hobbes death becomes the “common enemy,” that “forces [people] to mutual understanding, trust, and union, and thus procures them the possibility of completing the founding of the State for the purpose of providing safeguards for the longest possible term, against a common enemy.”[23]

Leon Harold Craig identifies the status of nature as a key difference between Aristotle and Hobbes’s respective accounts of politics. For Aristotle “political association is man’s natural habitat, polities as such are natural. And that being the case, it is not man’s purpose but Nature’s purpose that is the Final cause of polities.”[24] That is, man merely fulfills his purpose with a broader schema of purposive nature. For Hobbes, by contrast

. . . man is not naturally political, that at most his nature includes some pro-political tendencies but is marbled throughout with strong streaks of the anti-political (implicit in the passions that incline him to war). The natural human environment or true State of Nature is basically the same as that of all other animals: the jungle. Accordingly, the political association is profoundly artificial, for it not only has to be constructed by men, the very possibility of living together ‘political’ has first to be conceived, invented, designed by men as a means of achieving the conscious human purpose of a safe and comfortable life.[25]

Much the same could be said of Machiavelli. It is the argument of this book that Shakespeare shares this account of our political nature. Despite his widespread reputation for ambiguity and elusiveness, Shakespeare’s work consistently bears out this reading.

With this general picture in place, I would like to now address in more detail some of the specific similarities between Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Hobbes. I will provide here a preliminary sketch of Machiavellian and Hobbesian thought, and then show how similar outlooks manifest themselves in plays by Shakespeare. My intention here is merely to provide a preview of (and a justification for) the more extensive investigation in the ensuing chapters.

Shakespeare & Machiavelli

Machiavelli’s political thought functions as a potent response to Aristotelian politics. For Aristotle, a person achieves happiness by using his reason to determine the correct action in any given circumstance. Happiness is the measure of that reason. One goes courageously into battle because one recognizes rationally that to run from battle will be shameful, psychologically and spiritually damaging, and though it may preserve one’s safety, it will also threaten his happiness. For Aristotle then, virtue is about doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way. Machiavelli appropriates this schema in The Prince, but he drains it of its moral content. For Machiavelli too virtue is achieved through prudent action. However, where Aristotle seems to suggest that some actions are, by nature vicious and cannot be done well or badly Machiavelli has a much more flexible view: “Hence it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself to learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity.”[26] The measure of good or bad action, at least where political leadership is concerned, is whether or not that action makes the prince more secure and the state more stable (understanding that these two things are always dependent upon one another). Perhaps the clearest indication of this argument in Machiavelli’s work is the shift he undertakes from rulers who are good and bad to rulers who are praised and blamed. For Machiavelli the measure of success or failure depends upon the opinion of the audience. This changes the measure of ethical action, because the arbiter of good and bad behavior is not God or conscience, but rather popular opinion.

However, it would be incorrect to suggest that Machiavelli does not care about morality, or that he endorses a straightforward might-makes-right argument. For instance, in one chapter of the Discourses, Machiavelli criticizes Julius Caesar for transforming the Roman republic into a dictatorship. Machiavelli is critical of Caesar because by transforming a functioning republic into a monarchy, Caesar exposed Rome unnecessarily to the vicissitudes of fortune. Fortune has a tyrannical power over hereditary monarchies – good kings make the state good, but bad kings make the state bad. He then goes on to advance a surprisingly conventional account of just communities and unjust communities. In the well-ordered principality one will see:

the world full of peace and justice . . . the rich citizens enjoying their riches, nobility and virtue exalted; he will see all quiet and all good… He will see golden times when each can hold and defend the opinion he wishes. He will see, in sum, the world in triumph, the prince full of reverence and glory, the peoples full of love and security (Dis. 31).

By contrast, when the principality is ruled by a wicked king one will see:

. . . Rome burning, the Capitol taken down by its own citizens, the ancient temples desolate, ceremonies corrupt, the cities full of adulterers. He will see the sea full of exiles, the shores full of blood. He will see innumerable cruelties follow in Rome, and nobility, riches, past honors, and, above all, virtue imputed as capital sins . . . And he will then know very well how many obligations Rome, Italy, and the world owe to Caesar.[27]

It is very hard to read these passages and still come away with the idea that Machiavelli has no account of justice and injustice. In Machiavelli’s healthy principality we see prosperity, peace, and perhaps most surprisingly freedom of speech. In the sick or disordered regime, temples are desolate, and ceremonies corrupted. Machiavelli, who says the prince must “be able not to be good,” advances here a very conventional argument about the nature of justice and injustice. We get a very conventional picture of the good state and the bad state.[28] Machiavelli has a commonsensical notion of the human good. A good political order has a healthy economy, peace, freedom of speech; it may not have freedom of religion, but it is religious. The family unit is a priority. There are festivals. The military is well trained and well equipped. The people are not tyrannized. If we begin to add up the various pieces of Machiavelli’s advice it is a very pragmatic and appealing picture we begin to see.

However, Machiavelli knows that achieving such a community depends – above all else – on stability. Specifically, the state must be able to withstand the unpredictable assaults of fortune. This means that a prince’s first concern must be order and strength. The prince must have the ability to defend the state against invasion and sedition. The state must be secured with force; it cannot be otherwise, for as Machiavelli says, most people “are ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers, evaders of danger, eager for gain.”[29] This is the reason why Machiavelli famously advises that it is better to be feared than loved: “for love is held by a chain of obligation, which, because men are wicked is broken at every opportunity for their own utility, but fear is held by a dread of punishment that never forsakes you.”[30]

In his account of the career of Henry V, Shakespeare’s kinship with Machiavelli is clearly on display. Henry succeeds largely because he has a keen understanding of the theatrical dimension of politics. In Henry IV, Pt. 1 he reveals that his time spent with Falstaff and the Eastcheap gang is merely part of a long con; the prince is laying the groundwork for a grand political myth.[31] Hal’s performance works perfectly, of course. By the time he takes the field to confront his “factor” (3.2.147), Hotspur, his mastery of public perception is clear. When Hotspur asks for an account of the “madcap Prince of Wales,” his compatriot Vernon replies that Henry appears “As full of spirit as the month of May / And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer”; he likens him to “Feathered Mercury” and “an angel dropped down from the clouds” (4.1.94-111).

In Henry V the King’s performing talents are on display again. His disposal of the traitors, Scrope, Cambridge and Grey, before the beginning of his campaign in France, is perhaps the best example. Henry has learned of a plot against his life, and rather than merely have the traitors imprisoned and executed, he makes a show of taking them into his confidence, and then gives them their commissions, in writing, which actually reveal that they have been discovered. On the one hand, the whole episode seems unnecessarily elaborate. Henry confronts his would-be assassins with the theatricality of a stage mind-reader. However, this episode demonstrates how clearly Henry understands the theatrical dimension of politics. He knows like Machiavelli that power is largely a matter of perception. Henry performs the revelation of treachery before other nobles. The performance serves as a warning to the innocent to remain loyal, because the king knows all. The responses of the traitors to their discovery is especially significant and reveals clear parallels between Machiavelli’s thought and Shakespeare’s. The traitor Scrope breathes a sigh of relief that “God hath justly discovered” their treason (2.2.147). Cambridge too thanks God that his treachery was discovered and begs both God and Henry for forgiveness (2.2.153-54). Grey then declares:

Never did faithful subject more rejoice

At the discovery of most dangerous treason

Than I do at this hour joy o’er myself,

Prevented from a damned enterprise.

My fault, but not my body, pardon, sovereign. (2.2.157-61)

The language of sin and redemption here demonstrates the power of Henry’s performance. In this moment, Henry appears godlike. He is omniscient and impossible to overthrow. In this way he has achieved the supreme form of political authority as outlined by Machiavelli. In fact, earlier in the scene, before Henry confronts his betrayers, Cambridge actually compliments Henry by saying: “Never was monarch better feared and loved” (2.2.25).[32] Obviously there are other moments in Henry V that point to Henry’s mastery of performance and his flexible morality in the case of necessity. His St. Crispin’s day speech is a masterwork. His decision to kill the French prisoners so as not to have to fight on two fronts is a sound if ethically dubious piece of military strategy. As he marches through France he gives “express charge” that the French people not be molested – “nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language” – and seems to understand the importance of avoiding hatred (3.6.108-14). There is though a moment at which Henry’s (and perhaps Shakespeare’s) Machiavellianism is in doubt. The night before the battle at Agincourt, Henry disguises himself, tours the camp and speaks with his men. On one level, this is a pragmatic kind of surveillance, not unlike the Duke’s strategy in Measure for Measure. In disguise, Henry is able to hear the people’s unfiltered thoughts. But the experiment reveals something about Henry too. When Henry’s speaks with Bates about the justice of the war, Bates posits that justice between nations is not their concern: “For we know enough if we know we are the King’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us” (4.1.125-7). Henry offers a rebuttal to Williams’ theory:

The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant… Besides, there is not king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrament of swords, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers . . . Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own” (4.1.148-70).

The curious thing about Henry’s response is that it works contrary to his purpose. That the souls of those who fight in the King’s cause are guaranteed salvation in the afterlife would be an extremely useful narrative for the monarch. But, useful or not, Henry rejects it here. He instead insists on a philosophical argument about the justice of war that he does not need to have and which is not politically expedient. Moreover, after his exchange with Williams and Bates, Henry prays privately to God for forgiveness. Curiously, he does not pray for forgiveness for starting a war, but rather for execution of Richard II and the usurpation of his throne by Henry’s father. There thus seems to be a spiritual dimension to Henry that Machiavelli might find disconcerting. It is possible this aspect of Henry’s character suggests some key disagreement between the playwright and the political philosopher on the relationship between morality and leadership. However, it may also be useful to think of Shakespeare’s representations not as celebratory or critical, but more precisely diagnostic. A figure like Henry will succeed, given certain conditions and certain variables. It will happen because humans are humans. Because there is the Dauphin and Falstaff, Fluellen and Williams, there will be Henry V. Henry’s genuine faith may not be an attribute that Shakespeare recommends, but merely a quality typical of kings. In fact, if there is a lesson to be learned from Henry V, it may be that he does what is political expedient despite his faith, and his country triumphs.

Shakespeare & Hobbes

Human reason for Hobbes is reduced to a kind of mathematical calculation of appetites: “For the thoughts are to the desires as scouts and spies to range abroad and find the way to the things desired; all steadiness of the mind’s motion and all quickness of the same proceeding from thence.”[33] Like Machiavelli, Hobbes is trying to effect a total demolition of the Aristotelian paradigms that persisted into the early modern period. Aristotle holds that the appetitive part of the human psyche can be in charge. Indeed it is in most people: he claims the many choose the life of pleasure, a life fit only for “grazing animals” as the happiest human life.[34] However, Aristotle maintains that it is in our best interest to obey our reason instead of our appetites, and to cultivate the virtues of character that make it easier to ‘hear’ our reason over our raucous appetites. Hobbes collapses all of our deliberate actions into what he calls the voluntary motions of animals.[35] In this schema, all human beings are governed entirely by appetites and aversions. We desire things, and we fear them. Those motions within our psyche – motions towards juicy pineapples and away from snarling dogs – is the whole basis of human motivation. This has a radical consequence on the moral nature of the world:

But whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good; and the object of his hate and aversion evil; and of his contempt, vile and inconsiderable. For these words of good, evil, and contemptible are ever used with relation to the person that useth them, there being nothing simply and absolutely so, nor any common rule of good and evil to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves.[36]

All value becomes relative in the Hobbesian schema, even more so than in Machiavelli. There is not in Leviathan a sense that the human good depends on a proper ordering of one’s appetites; rather, for Hobbes  “Continual success in obtaining those things which a man from time to time desireth, that is to say, continual prospering, is that men call FELICITY.”[37]

Something like this theory of human desires is on display in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play opens with an erotic dispute that is – initially – hemmed in and contained by the legal framework of Athens. Egeus, a father “[f]ull of vexation” comes to Egeus to demand that though he has given his “consent” for Demetrius to marry his daughter, Hermia, another youth, Lysander, has “stol’n” and “filched” Hermia’s affections. Egeus demands that Hermia “[c]onsent” (1.1.40) to marry Demetrius or, that she be put to death for disobeying her father “according to our law” (1.1.44). When Theseus encourages Hermia to obey her father, or else die (or live a celibate life as a cloistered votress), she responds that she prefers a life of solitude or death “Ere I will yield my virgin patent up / Unto his lordship, whose unwishèd yoke / My soul consents not to give sovereignty” (1.1.80-82).

Lysander grumbles because he is as “well derived” and as “well possessed” as Demetrius (1.1.99); his “fortunes every way as fairly ranked” (1.1.101). Hermia laments how impossible it is “to choose love by another’s eyes” (1.1.140). The juxtaposition of these two sentiments recalls Hobbes’ sense of our natural equality and the relative value humans place on various objects of desire. When Hobbes says that “From this equality of ability ariseth an equality of hope in attaining our ends” he could be describing Demetrius and Lysander.[38] That there can be no agreement on the objective value of objects of desire is precisely the reason for the quarrel between Egeus and Hermia.

The most famous part of Hobbes’ Leviathan, the one that virtually all students of political philosophy encounter in their freshman year is Chapter XIII: “On the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery.” Even as a standalone essay, this chapter constitutes one of the most insightful and formidable accounts of human nature in the whole history of political philosophy. Hobbes begins with the assertion that all people are naturally equal, not in dignity or before God, and not in a precise measurable way, but rather all people are effectively equal insofar as “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy of with others.”[39] Thus our shared mortality and bodily vulnerability to violence is the marker of our equality. Hobbes does not explicitly mention racial or gender equality in his analysis, but his argument is clearly meant to demolish all perceived differences between humans, or to affirm as Rousseau would later do more completely, that the inequalities between individuals are socially constructed, not natural.

This natural equality, however, poses serious problems for human beings when coupled with Hobbes’s assertion that there is no hierarchical order of human goods. That is, different people want different things, or sometimes they want the same thing very badly, perhaps something that is not easily shared like a plot of land or a sexual partner. Our fundamental equality to one another, coupled with our divergent appetites and aversions will inevitably result in conflict:

From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end … endeavor to destroy or subdue one another.[40]

This deadly competition is what motivates our move towards politics. Humans, desiring to avoid violent death above all make the rational calculation that a social contract with other humans is their best chance at survival. Because in the State of Nature our lot is “ a condition of war of every one against every one,”[41] human beings consistently arrive at the same conclusion, the first law of nature “to seek peace and follow it.” From there each individual arrives at the second law of nature to “be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself.”[42]

In the second part of his work, Hobbes addresses the creation of the Sovereign, which Hobbes also calls “that great LEVIATHAN” and “that mortal god.” Hobbes is clear that the Sovereign can take a variety of forms. It may be one person, or an assembly of people. Given the Hobbesian account of our nature and our general aversion to violent death and our near universal fear of the State of Nature, the creation of the Sovereign has several consequences including that the Sovereign can never be deposed or killed. Hobbes claims this is because by signing on to the social contract, the individual has authorized the Sovereign to act in his or her place. To then attack the person authorized makes no sense. While we might take a principled stand on a particular position, perhaps a question of conscience on an unjust war or perceived tyrannical act, Hobbes claims that this too is nonsensical. There is, for Hobbes no metaphysical point one can appeal to in order to justify overthrowing an authorized sovereign. This is because, as Hobbes says, “there is no covenant with God.”[43] We can understand Hobbes here to be saying that there is no account of justice that exists outside of and above the state. Hobbes’s position on the inviolability of sovereign authority is based on his experience of the English civil war, and his position (certainly a defensible one) that civil war (or the eruption of the State of Nature) is the worst possible condition for human beings, and even unjust taxation, unwarranted torture, or the occasional show trial and public execution is better than the horrors of a war of every person against every person:

the estate of man can never be without some incommodity or other, and that the greatest that in any form of government can possibly happen to the people in general is scarce sensible in respect of the miseries and horrible calamities that accompany a civil war or that dissolute condition of masterless men without subjection to laws and a coercive power to tie their hands from rapine and revenge…[44]

Perhaps the clearest similarity between Shakespeare’s thought and Hobbes’ has to do with the conception of law as guaranteeing civil conduct. In periods of conflict when authority is in dispute or law no longer holds sway over people, Shakespeare seems as certain as Hobbes that violent conflict will inevitably erupt. When Brutus and Casssius murder Julius Caesar; they create a power vacuum in Rome, and Antony is clear-eyed about the consequences: “A curse shall light upon the limbs of men. / Domestic fury and fierce civil strife / Shall cumber all the parts of Italy” (3.1.262-64). Henry V gives us a similar depiction when he stands before the gates of Harfleur during his conquest of France. Confronting a poorly defended town Henry offers stiff terms to the governor, painting a vivid portrait of what will happen if he unleashes his men upon the town:

The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand

Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;

Your fathers taken by the silver beards,

And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;

Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,

Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused

Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry

At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen. (3.3.113-20)

Shakespeare portrays states of war and civil unrest without law and order in just the way Hobbes seem to imagine them.

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream there is a clear dichotomy between the civic community and a natural realm without human government. Without hope of reconciliation with Egeus, Lysander and Hermia escape “a league without the town” (1.1.175), followed by Demetrius and Helena. The center of the play uses the conceit of the magic potion recklessly applied by Puck to speak to the variability of desire both between and within particular humans. Hermia and Helena love different men. Lysander and Demetrius both love Hermia, until they both love Helena. The men quarrel and fight over the objects of their (inconstant) desire. That the forest setting of the play’s main action is apolitical and ‘natural’ in the Hobbesian sense is indicated by several key moments. As Demetrius tries to shake free of the doting Helena in the woods, he tries to warn her by juxtaposing the unregulated nature of the woods to the security of legalistic Athens:

You do impeach your modesty too much,

To leave the city and commit yourself

Into the hands of one that loves you not;

To trust the opportunity of night,

And the ill counsel of a desert place,

With the rich worth of your virginity. (2.1.214-19)

Demetrius here points to the potential savagery and violence of a state outside the bounds of civil law. And real, though comical violence does break out after Robin Goodfellow uses magic to make both the men love Helena. The contest between men over Hermia transforms into a contest between women. The jilted Hermia accosts Helena: “How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak, / How low am I am not yet so low / But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes” (3.2.296-8). Later Robin leads both Demetrius and Lysander around the woods, both of them looking for a fight (3.2.396-404).

If we do not take this portrait of lovers accosted in the woods seriously due to its appearance within a comedy, we might consider how similar it is to the more sinister depiction we get in Titus Andronicus. There, newlyweds Bassianus and Laivnia enter the woods, but are met by Chrion and Demetrius. Instead of a playful Puck we get a sinister Tamora and a plotting Aaron who conspire to help the Goth brothers murder Bassianus and rape Lavinia. All of the fantasies and threats that lurk in the woods of Midsummer Night’s Dream are manifest in Shakespeare’s Roman revenge tragedy. Generic conventions prevent Shakespeare from taking the drama in more violent directions – but the fundamentals of the depiction are the same.

Shakespeare never greets the collapse of authority, or the fall of monarchs optimistically; nor does he depict the overthrow of rulers – even bad ones – as a cause for celebration. In times of political turmoil, violence inevitably breaks out. The point of emphasis for Shakespeare as for Hobbes is never on the justice of the ascendant regime, but always on the bloody costs of overturning an established order. Shakespeare always greets such revolutionary moments with skepticism. Brutus’ republican grandstanding is followed by the brutal murder of an innocent poet. Henry V’s inspirational St. Crispin’s Day speech – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.60) – is followed shortly by the slaughter of prisoners and young boys. However, Hobbes and Shakespeare differ somewhat on the justice of revolutionary moments. Hobbes argues that because the people are, for him, the authors of the sovereign, because his authority comes from their consent: “they that are subjects to a monarch cannot without his leave cast off monarchy and return to the confusion of a disunited multitude nor transfer their person from him that beareth it to another man or other assembly of men.”[45] But despite his emphasis on bloodshed, Shakespeare does not seem to be consistently a monarchist, or in favour of absolute monarchy. He is not always on the side of authority. He has a much more Machiavellian disposition and outlook on such matters. Though he realistically represents the costs of political revolution, he also seems to understand revolution as one of the necessary consequences of mismanaged government. Shakespeare conceived of the State of Nature, and he understood political communities in contractual, consensual terms, but he did not view sovereign authority as irrevocable. To put it in Hobbesian terms, history taught Shakespeare that the idea of unassailable monarchy were “words without meaning; that is to say, absurd.”[46]

Notes on Method

Over the past 30 years, most critical analyses of Shakespeare have tried to situate the playwright’s work within one of several histories, for example the history of the Christian reformation or the history of British colonialism. Economic history has been especially popular in Shakespeare studies. Critics operating in the dominant mode of our day painstakingly identify contemporary thinkers, events, sermons, and legal documents in order to demonstrate that certain ideas were ‘thinkable’ at the moment when they suggest a particular Shakespearean play was composed or performed. In 1950 E. C. Pettit argued that the plebeian riots in Coriolanus allude to the Midland’s uprising of 1607. In 2007, Nate Eastman criticized Pettit for tying Coriolanus to the Midland’s uprising simply because it is “chronologically closest to the writing of Coriolanus.”[47] Eastman contends that the plebeian riots are better understood as an allusion to the Tower Hill riots of 1595. This book attempts a similar maneuver. I share with Eastman the sense that we should not discuss Shakespeare’s works only in relation to their most immediate contexts. However, Eastman expands the scope of Shakespeare’s seventeenth-century imagination from 1607 to 1595; what I am attempting here is something more daring.

Here I am prepared to allow Shakespeare (and his audiences) greater liberty. I am situating Shakespeare primarily (though not exclusively) between two thinkers: one who wrote nearly a century before Shakespeare and another who began writing seriously about 25 years after Shakespeare’s death. My argument is that some political ideas which had been circulating for nearly a century throughout Europe were still circulating in Shakespeare’s works; other ideas that would be articulated and debated more explicitly in the decades after Shakespeare’s death were already emergent or nascent in Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare does not seem committed to specific political programs in precisely the same way that Machiavelli and Hobbes are; however, the same questions that shape their work on politics also give shape to Shakespeare’s investigations. He gives priority of place to issues that achieve similar status in the works of these other political thinkers.

For the past 30 years critics have worked hard to ‘historicize’ Shakespeare’s works. Scholars have dissected the plays and poems in order to reveal details about the economic climate of early modern England, or to excavate the historically contingent meanings that early modern audiences might have found in the plays.[48] Following the Foucauldian model of the New Historicist and Cultural Materialist schools, contemporary critics have interpreted the early modern English stage as one of many spheres in which the operations of ‘power’ can be illuminated. Critics have tried to expose those operations by juxtaposing dramatic texts to some aspect of legal, economic, or religious history – other spheres in which the mechanism of authority can be perceived more clearly. For several decades, then, critics have worked to demonstrate the ‘topicality’ of Shakespearean drama, the degree to which it is bound to its particular cultural moment.

Those familiar with the period will quickly recognize how the book’s five chapters intersect with topical and the contemporary issues. Chapter 1, for example, examines Shakespeare’s Macbeth alongside King James I/VI’s political writing. Shakespeare’s play about a Scottish tyrant written as James ascended to the English throne could certainly constitute a commentary on current events, but I have chosen to explore its more theoretical dimensions. Chapter 4 discusses Shakespeare’s anxiety over the policing of religion. Of course this resonates with changing, sometimes violent policies in early modern England concerning the treatment of Protestants and Catholics, including laws discriminating against Catholics that may have had some direct effect on Shakespeare’s family. But throughout this book, I have deliberately chosen not to prioritize such lines of inquiry. This is meant to be a work on Shakespeare’s situation within the history of political theory, not a work on political history. Moreover, such conversations have dominated Shakespeare studies for decades and much of the ground mentioned above has been covered exhaustively in many other works. Though readers who are interested in the topicality of Shakespeare’s work may find new points of contact here.

A number of scholars have established frameworks for how we might think about Shakespeare’s involvement in the emergence of modern politics. For instance, Annabel Patterson’s Early Modern Liberalism uses early modern literature, particularly Milton, to tell the story of how notions of liberty and individual rights ascended to become political commonplaces. Her contention is that literature “was one of the important media by which liberal ideas were transmitted.”[49] Andrew Hadfield focused directly on Shakespeare in Shakespeare and Republicanism, in a work of “historical and cultural archaeology” that attempted to “redraw the map of late sixteenth-century political culture.”[50] Hadfield tries to excavate how early moderns conceived of republicanism, and finds a diversity of justifications and conceptions of what republican regimes could and should look like: “the history of republicanism was discontinuous, fractious and confused, not a smooth development towards a clearly perceived goal when a full form of the idea was finally produced.”[51] James Kuzner in his work Open Subjects attempts a similar kind of conceptual history. However, while Patterson and Hadfield attempt to find the roots of the modern buried in the early modern period, Kuzner, identifies other concepts of citizenship and subjectivity that were present in ancient and early modern conceptions about politics, but which, he claims, have since been lost or suppressed over time. Specifically, Kuzner questions typical association of liberalism and republicanism with bounded and delineated selfhoods. He argues that ancient and early modern thinkers had certain positive associations with openness and vulnerability. Kuzner thus writes a “history of selfhood,”[52] and uses Shakespeare, Spenser, Marvell, and Milton to demonstrate how diverse concepts of the liberal subject were circulating in the early modern period. It is therefore well established that early modern literature might help us track the emergence of modern ideas about politics. While Robin Headlam Wells urges us to “be wary of attributing to [Shakespeare] political theories that were not to emerge for another half a century,”[53] I agree with Patterson, Hadfiled, and Kuzner that we can see in Shakespearean drama the ideological groundwork which necessarily preceded the development of important philosophical concepts like the social contract. We can, to borrow a phrase from Valerie Traub, use literature to help us “chart a genealogy of some of our culture’s key concepts.”[54]

Shakespeare’s plays, therefore, help tell the story of the emergence of modern politics. We can understand them as tracking a particular movement in the history of political thought. But more than that, we can understand them as commentaries and analyses on politics: articulations of the origins and ends of politics. Shakespeare gives us an account of the limits of politics. Shakespeare’s account may or may not be correct, but it is coherent; it can be understood.

In a recent book on Shakespeare and politics, Debora Kuller Shuger identifies her work as “historicist”, affirms her commitment to upholding the “alterity of the past,” and criticizes critics who “rewor[k] the past into a polemical prefiguration of current debates, and whose gilding erudition never quite manages to hide the soapbox.”[55] Nevertheless, Shuger admits

I did not start by looking for prototypes of the modern but rather the opposite – I started by looking at theories and practices that struck me as deader than doornails – and then found that the issues I was trying to understand, issues central to both Shakespeare’s play and early modern political thought, were also to be found in the magazines stacked on the coffee table, and, moreover, that contemporary events shed light on historical materials, the historical on the contemporary.[56]

My approach in this book is like Shuger’s without the anxiety. There is no element of contemporary politics that I believe needs to be justified by an ancient history. However, I have no problem forging links between past and present, between the 16th century and the 21st. In fact, I would affirm that there is no other reason to read Shakespeare unless his works can be of some use to the present – even if that use is purely contemplative or pleasurable. Unless Shakespeare is somehow relevant to us now, that is, unless things that were said and argued, done and attempted in early modern England have some bearing on modern human life, then literary criticism is utterly pointless. Unless the present is a product of the past, and we can understand ourselves better by examining the roots of our own political and cultural condition then there is no such thing as the humanities.

Some readers might cringe at the notion that we can speak about Shakespeare as knowing anything, as a ‘thinker.’ This anxiety might take two forms. The first might be to disqualify him from participating in the activity of philosophy or political theory because he is primarily a writer of drama and poetry. But Plato, one of the earliest practitioners of what we call political philosophy, wrote exclusively in dialogues. Setting, imagery, and character all play a role in how he approaches his arguments. Machiavelli is remembered primarily as a political theorist, but he was also a playwright. Bacon wrote both philosophy and prose fiction. Rousseau wrote his novel Emile in the midst of his Discourses on Inequality and the Social Contract. Discursive prose is not the only mode in which political thinkers operate.

Of greater concern for literary critics is the question of ‘authorial intent.’ In his recent book Phenomenal Shakespeare, Bruce R. Smith begins with a prologue in which he differentiates “The Historical William Shakespeare,” from “the Collected Works of William Shakespeare,” both of which need to be distinguished from “the illusion of an author thoroughly in control,” which Smith terms “William Shakespeare as Author” and “William Shakespeare as Cultural Icon.”[57] Oddly, a page later, Smith begins a discussion of the works of Francis Bacon in which he says that Bacon “observes,” and “concludes”; he “repeats his earlier remarks” and “rephrases” distinctions.[58] In other words, Bacon is not subjected to the same dissection and bifurcation as Shakespeare. Smith does not feel the need to distinguish between “The Historical Francis Bacon” and “the illusion” of an authorial Bacon. Bacon is just Bacon. Of course, Smith’s vivisection of Shakespeare is partly a parody: the careful distinctions he draws are an attempt to acknowledge the heavy baggage packed into the name ‘Shakespeare’ (by comparison, Bacon travels light). However, there has been for some time anxiety about talking about Shakespeare as if he were a person who thought things and that those thoughts could be recovered by careful reading of his texts.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says he is trying to compose “a sketch of the good” and he cautions his reader not to “look for the same degree of exactness in all areas, but the degree that accords with a given subject matter and is proper, to a given line of inquiry.”[59] Aristotle makes this point several times, that because the subject of his book is ethics, not metaphysics or mathematics, his discussion will have a kind of general quality.[60] It strikes me that Aristotle’s advice could be exceptionally useful for English studies. There are fields where determining the precise limits of our ability to speak of ‘the author’ is a legitimate and important concern. There are other profitable lines of inquiry that could be stunted by an insistence on settling a fine distinction or theoretical conundrum. Aristotle describes it in this way:

For the carpenter’s and the geometer’s inquiries about the right angle are different also; the carpenter restricts himself to what helps his work, but the geometer inquires into what, or what sort of thing, the right angle is, since he studies the truth. We must do the same, then, in other areas too, [seeking proper degree of exactness], so that digressions do not overwhelm our main task.[61]

The reader should consider this study a work of carpentry. I will work with a ‘functional’ definition of Shakespeare the author – the 91 degree angle will suffice – because my “main task” is to acquire an understanding of the political knowledge available to us in Shakespeare’s texts. Moreover, the subject of this study – politics – is an inexact subject about which we can only ever achieve a kind of rough knowledge, a working knowledge.


This work is divided into five chapters. In each chapter I examine two or three of Shakespeare’s works alongside the work of Machiavelli and Hobbes. Other writers and theorists will occasionally be used to illustrate particular arguments, for example King James I/VI, Hannah Arendt, John Locke, and Ovid. I have chosen to treat multiple plays in each chapter in order to illustrate that many of Shakespeare’s depictions are consistent across his canon. His arguments and ideas are not advanced in isolation but rather carry over from one work to another, often across early and late plays. Often he makes similar kinds of pairings and arguments. For example, plays concerned with the foundations of authority and the legitimacy of governments tend to fixate on the category of the ‘unnatural’. This persistent juxtaposition is seemingly meant to suggest something about the relationship between nature and politics. Similarly, plays that feature sexual assaults also feature arguments about equality or republicanism. I take the recurrence of this juxtaposition to be a meaningful statement on the importance of consent.

I have also divided the book into two parts. In Part 1, Nature & Politics, I consider the shifting conceptions of the natural order in early modern political thought and the relationship of nature to politics. I explore Shakespeare’s representations of the natural order and unnatural human behavior in a series of plays alongside the writing of Machiavelli (Chapter 1), and Hobbes (Chapter 2).

Chapter 1 examines Richard III (1592), Macbeth (1603), and Coriolanus (1609). In these three plays Shakespeare interrogates the orthodox account of the natural order. He targets specifically traditional justifications for monarchical authority, specifically the divine right of kings and the theory of the body politic. In this chapter I use James I/VI’s short treatise The True Law of Free Monarchies to establish the ‘orthodox’ view of the ‘naturalness’ of monarchical rule, and juxtapose James’s criticisms of would-be revolutionaries with Machiavelli’s claims that insurrection and usurpation are ordinary parts of politics. I then illustrate how Shakespeare inclines towards Machiavelli’s view. In both Richard III and Macbeth Shakespeare presents us with characters who initially seem to be unnatural and impious usurpers. However, upon examination, these aspiring tyrants are entirely typical – no different from the men they overthrow or the men who overthrow them. Both plays suggest that politics is essentially an unending contest of rival forces. Rule depends not on providence or hereditary right, but rather upon force and the (military) support of ‘friends.’ This last point is expanded in Coriolanus; in that play Shakespeare suggests the metaphor of the body politic is simply a rhetorical maneuver used to suggest that a particular political formation is ‘natural’ and could not be otherwise. The action of the play instead suggests that political institutions are artificial products of deliberation, and implicitly sets up an argument for a contractual understanding of politics.

Chapter 2 considers King Lear (1603) and Othello (1603) alongside Hobbes’s Leviathan. Having shown how Shakespeare undermines the orthodox view of ‘natural’ government, this chapter examines how Shakespeare’s more sophisticated account of human nature anticipates, and, in some respects, endorses the philosophy of Hobbes. Specifically, in both King Lear and Othello Shakespeare shows us how human beings can be turned into savage beasts. Importantly, this transformation is always a political process. As the crucial elements of civilized community – a sovereign power, enforceable laws, courts – are stripped away we see human characters descend into animality. All of this suggests that Shakespeare had a working theory of the State of Nature, something very much like the apolitical space that Hobbes describes in Leviathan where human life is characteristically “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[62] Further, in King Lear and Othello Shakespeare emphasizes our human ability to both deny the natural order and resist our natural instincts – our capacity to be something other than what we are by nature. The playwright suggests that the durability and sustainability of a given political order depends upon its capacity to recognize and address this fundamental liberty from the natural order.

In the second part of the book, ‘The Limits of Materialist Politics’ I examine the various kinds of boundaries that Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Hobbes perceive as limiting political communities and political action. Broadly speaking, the chapters are concerned with: violence (Chapter 3), faith and morality (Chapter 4), and individual autonomy (Chapter 5).

Chapter 3 investigates the relationship between violence and politics in Lucrece (1594) and Julius Caesar (1599). Early modern political thought is especially concerned with violence. Machiavelli spoke at some length about the political utility of violence and advised the prince should make nothing else his study other than war. Hobbes identified violence as the great evil that all human beings by nature wanted to avoid. The avoidance of arbitrary violence became for him the purpose of politics. Shakespeare shares this sense that politics is especially concerned with the careful management and prevention of violence. However, the appearance of violence is not just a problem of enforcement – not only of policing and order – but also, for Shakespeare (as for Machiavelli) a crisis in representation. The appearance of violence – in addition to the occurrence of violence – poses a particular challenge to the fabric of political community. For example, in the Shakespearean account of Roman history, both the foundation and the fall of the Roman republic are accompanied by the public presentation of a dead body. In The Rape of Lucrece, the sight of Lucrece’s dead body being paraded through the streets of Rome by her family helps to cause a republican revolution. In Julius Caesar the sight of Caesar’s corpse presented to the people by Mark Antony generates a response that is eerily similar and exactly opposite. Just like in the Lucrece story the Roman people revolt, chasing their leaders from the city, but this time they stand up for the autocratic side, not the republican. The essential issue, for Shakespeare as for Hobbes, is the fundamental opposition between the state and a state of violence. Shakespeare has his own way of articulating this dynamic, and is in some ways closer to Hannah Arendt’s 20th century reformulation of Hobbesian theory – “Power and violence are opposites” – than he is to Hobbes’ own theory.[63]

In Chapter 4 I use The Merchant of Venice (1596) and Measure for Measure (1604) to examine Shakespeare’s understanding of the relationship between religion and politics. Both Machiavelli and Hobbes perceive religion – perhaps Christianity in particular – as a divisive and dangerous force in political community. Devout citizens must divide their allegiances between earthly princes and immaterial Gods. Faith can therefore pose an obstacle to the operations of political power. Machiavelli and Hobbes each imagine how the state might usurp the authority of the church and use religion as a supplement and support for the law. Shakespeare, we will see, is not so confident. In both Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice, attempts to deploy religious arguments for political ends consistently fail. Both plays feature attempts to ‘convert’ citizens, such as Shylock and Claudio, that prove ineffective. Unable to convert non-believers, the state resorts to violent, forced conversions. Through this pattern Shakespeare seems to suggest something about the limits of materialist politics to inspire belief and the limited strategies it has at its disposal ensure obedience. The playwright seems to register what is lost when politics is severed from the metaphysical, but at the same time, the possibility of reconciling religion and politics appears to be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible.

In Chapter 5 I explore Shakespeare’s conception of consent and his definition of tyranny in Lucrece (1594), Titus Andronicus (1593), and Cymbeline (1611). We will see that Shakespeare’s definition of tyranny puts him at odds with both Machiavelli and Hobbes. Machiavelli permits a wide variety of violent and oppressive actions in the name of state stability. Hobbes does not believe that tyranny exists as a distinct form of government.  By contrast, Shakespeare identifies tyranny with violations of individual autonomy. Shakespeare makes this argument through his depictions of sexual violence and invasions of privacy in Lucrece, Titus Andronicus and Cymbeline. For Shakespeare, rape is linked to republican revolution because the structure of rape similar to the structure of tyranny: rape appears as a crime at precisely the moment when consent is in doubt. In this way rape has an analogical relationship to the unjust operation of power: when power acts without the consent of its subjects, power becomes tyrannical. However, the relationship between rape and tyranny is not solely an analogical or metaphorical one: sexual violence is not an analogy for an unjust state, but rather a symptom of an unjust state, evidence of a political and economic order that turns people into things. In this way, Shakespeare’s work may actually look forward, beyond Hobbes, and towards Locke to suggest that physical security alone cannot be the end of government.

By no means do I imagine this book to be the conclusive statement on Shakespeare’s intellectual affiliation with Machiavelli and Hobbes, let alone a final statement on Shakespeare’s political thought. My intention here is simply to illuminate certain patterns that exist in Shakespeare’s work which suggest a set of priorities and preoccupations. I argue here that those fixations and tendencies point to a materialist understanding of politics. Hopefully this work will interest students and scholars who may have noticed similar affinities, and perhaps even inspire some to take up these questions in classrooms and research.



[1] Quentin Skinner, “Afterword,” Shakespeare and Early Modern Political Thought (Cambridge, 2009), 271.

[2] If he did not read The Prince or The Discourses, it does seem probable that Shakespeare would have encountered Machiavelli’s ideas in some form. Towards the end of the 16th century, Machiavelli was sufficiently well known to appear as a caricature at the beginning of Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta (1589) as prologue to deliver a satirical speech about the lack of virtue in public life and in the church hierarchy:

Admired I am of those that hate me most.

Though some speak openly against my books,

Yet will they read me, and thereby attain

To Peter’s chair. . . (5-15).

Similarly, in Volpone, Ben Jonson’s Sir Politic Would-Be references “Nick Machiavel” in a conversation about the relationship between religion and the law. Michael J. Redmond argues that “the textual transmission of Machiavelli is an explicit theme in the works” of several of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. See Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy: Intertextuality on the Jacobean Stage (Ashgate, 2009), 6. Redmond also draws attention to Edward Meyer’s 19th-century work Machiavelli and the Renaissance Drama which identifies 395 references to the Florentine political theorist in literary texts. Hobbes was born in England in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada. Shakespeare was twenty-four years old. When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Hobbes was twelve; when Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, Hobbes was twenty-one. Hobbes’ Leviathan was published in 1651, approximately thirty-five years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616.

[3] As I will discuss in Chapter 2, however, Edmund’s account of human nature as predatory and self-interested is actually only the second term in a three-part argument in King Lear.

[4] Quentin Skinner, Machiavelli (Sterling, 1981), 29.

[5] See Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield (Chicago, 1998), I.4, I.5, and I.7.

[6] “Premature ‘liberty’ of this kind would have been a disaster: we should have been torn to pieces by petty squabbles before we had ever reached political maturity, which, as things were, was made possible by the long quiet years under monarchical government; for it was that government which, as it were, nursed our strength and enabled us ultimately to produce sound fruit from liberty, as only a politically adult nation can.” Livy, The Early History of Rome, trans. Aubrey De Selincourt (Penguin, 2002): 107.

[7] Hadfield, for instance identifies the succession as “the key issue of sixteenth-century England” (7).

[8] Machiavelli, Discourses, 13.

[9] Machiavelli, Discourses, 16; Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield (Chicago, 1998), 39.

[10] Stauffer Devin, “‘Of Religion’ in Hobbes’s Leviathan,” The Journal of Politics 72, no. 3 (2010): 868.

[11] See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, A. P. Martinich, ed. (Broadview, 2002), 141; 239.

[12] Hobbes, Leviathan, 98.

[13] David A. Lines, “Aristotle’s Ethics in the Renaissance,” The Reception of Aristotle’s Ethics, ed. Jon Miller (Cambridge, 2012), 173.

[14] Donald Rutherford, “The End of Ends? Aristotelian Themes in Early Modern Ethics,” The Reception of Aristotle’s Ethics, ed. Jon Miller (Cambridge, 2012), 196. Lines (2012) further argues that the Ethics was a staple in European classrooms, despite doctrinal differences, though it may have been treated differently depending on the particular outlook of the institution, “the Jesuits, for example, tended to place [the Ethics] at the very end, whereas the Lutherans preferred to teach it at the start, along with logic” (180).

[15] David Sedley, “Teleology, Aristotelian and Platonic,” Being, Nature, and Life in Aristotle: Essays in Honour of Allan Gotthelf (Cambridge, 2010), 6.

[16] The obvious objection to this argument is that there are so many different types of human social arrangements that their existence could not be considered natural. Aristotle recognized that there were different kinds of political communities. However, he contends there is less variety than we might initially think. According to him there are only six possible regimes. A state ruled by one person is either a monarchy or a tyranny; a state ruled by a small number of people is either an aristocracy or an oligarchy; and a state ruled by the many is either a polity or a democracy. The regimes differ from one another in terms of the number of people ruling and according to whether they serve “the common advantage” or the “private advantage” (Politics, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago, 1985), 1279a 23-1279b 9). A monarchy by Aristotle’s definition is a state in which one person rules for the good of all, and a tyranny is a state in which one person rules for the good of himself. One might argue that all monarchs serve in their own interest and never in the interest of the common people; this position does not threaten Aristotle’s definitions, it simply means that regimes we call monarchies are actually tyrannies. Insofar as one person ruling rules in his or her own interest, he or she is a tyrant.

[17] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Hackett, 1999), 1106b 19-24.

[18] Aristotle, Ethics, 1103a 28-1103b 2.

[19] Machiavelli “openly assaults the naïve hope in the salvific rewards of virtue, held out by Christian apologists, and the parallel assertions by classical thinkers that the just or virtuous life yields an unassailable intrinsic happiness.” (Major Rafael, “A New Argument for Morality: Machiavelli and the Ancients,” Political Research Quarterly 60, no. 2 (2007): 171.)

[20] Aristotle, Ethics, 1106b 10-13.

[21] Machiavelli, The Prince, 62.

[22] Hobbes, Leviathan, 42.

[23] Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (Chicago: 1963), 22.

[24] Leon Harold Craig, The Platonian Leviathan (Toronto, 2009), 80-81

[25] Craig 2009, 81.

[26] Machiavelli, The Prince, 61.

[27] Machiavelli, Discourses, 31.

[28] Elements of the argument are discernible in The Prince as well. For example, in a chapter entitled, What a Prince Should Do to be Held in Esteem Machiavelli tells us

A prince should also show himself a lover of the virtues, giving recognition to virtuous men, and he should honour those who are excellent in an art. Next he should inspire his citizens to follow their pursuits quietly, in trade and in agriculture and in every other pursuit of men, so that one person does not fear to adorn his possessions for fear that they be taken away from him, and another to open up a trade for fear of taxes. But he should prepare rewards for whoever wants to do these things, and for anyone who thinks up any way of expanding his city or his state. (91)

[29] Machiavelli, The Prince, 66.

[30] Machiavelli, The Prince, 66-7.

[31] One could argue that this position is not Machiavellian since Machiavelli advises that the prince not demonstrate vices that could damage his reputation. However, Machiavelli also seems especially to admire rulers like Moses and Agathocles who rose to power from humble beginnings through their own virtue. Thus by orchestrating such an ascent in front of the public eye, Prince Hal might be a magnificent example of Machiavellian political performance.

[32] Machiavelli, The Prince, 66.

[33] Hobbes, Leviathan, 57.

[34] Aristotle, Ethics, 1095b 20.

[35] It is clear that Hobbes is quite carefully adjusting Aristotle’s conception of the human psyche here. Though he does not use the word “soul” anywhere. See Hobbes, Leviathan,  40, and Aristotle, Ethics 1102a 30.

[36] Hobbes, Leviathan, 42.

[37] Hobbes, Leviathan, 49.

[38] Hobbes, Leviathan, 94.

[39] Hobbes, Leviathan, 93.

[40] Hobbes, Leviathan, 94.

[41] Hobbes, Leviathan, 98.

[42] Hobbes, Leviathan, 99.

[43] Hobbes, Leviathan, 131.

[44] Hobbes, Leviathan, 138.

[45] Hobbes, Leviathan, 130-31.

[46] Hobbes, Leviathan, 63.

[47] Nate Eastman, “The Rumbling Belly Politic: Metaphorical Location and Metaphorical Government in Coriolanus,” Early Modern Literary Studies 13, no. 1 (2007): 8.

[48] Edward Pechter has written a thorough history and criticism of this critical turn in Shakespeare studies: “During the past thirty years or so, Shakespeareans have transferred critical energy away from literary analysis. We tend to focus less on aesthetic than on historical topics. Instead of asking how Shakespeare’s texts work to engage interpretive interest, we ask from what situations the plays were generated, by what audiences engaged, and for what purposes.” See Shakespeare Studies Today: Romanticism Lost (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), 23.

[49] Annabel Patterson, Early Modern Liberalism (Cambridge, 1997), 15.

[50] Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare and Republicanism (Cambridge, 2005), 13.

[51] Hadfield 2005, 32.

[52] James Kuzner, Open Subjects (Edinburgh, 2011 30

[53] Robin Headlam Wells, Shakespeare’s Politics (London: Continuum, 2009), 17.

[54] Valerie Traub, “The Nature of Norms in Early Modern England: Anatomy, Cartography, King Lear,” South Central Review 26, nos. 1 & 2 (2009): 45.

[55]Debora Kuller Shuger, Political Theologies in Shakespeare’s England: The Sacred and the State in Measure for Measure (Palgrave, 2001), 3.

[56] Shuger 2001, 4.

[57] Bruce R. Smith, Phenomenal Shakespeare (Wiley-Blackwell 2010), xi.

[58] Smith 2010, xii-xiii.

[59] Aristotle, Ethics, 1098a 21-30.

[60] See also Aristotle, Ethics, 1094b 12 and 1104a 5.

[61] Aristotle, Ethics, 1098a 30.

[62] Hobbes, Leviathan, 96.

[63] Hannah Arendt, On Violence (Harcourt, 1970), 56.

Andrew Moore

Written by

Andrew Moore is the Director of the Great Books Program at St. Thomas University. He is author of Shakespeare between Machiavelli and Hobbes (Lexington, 2016) and co-editor, along with Sara MacDonald, of Mad Men: The Death and Redemption of American Democracy (Lexington, 2016). He also has published articles and book chapters on Shakespeare, social media, and the television work of David Simon.