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The Problems Are Everlasting, the Bard Indispensable

The Problems Are Everlasting, The Bard Indispensable

The Soul of Statesmanship: Shakespeare on Nature, Virtue, and Political Wisdom. Khalil M. Habib and L. Joseph Hebert, Jr., eds. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2018.


In 2015 students at the University of Pennsylvania’s English department, in the name of “inclusivity,” took down a picture of Shakespeare that had hung on the wall and replaced it with the image of black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde. I confess to not knowing Lorde’s work beyond snippets, but I wonder if it will be discussed four hundred years from now as Shakespeare’s is still discussed four centuries after its appearance. Looking at the statistics afforded by Project Muse for the quarterly journal I edit, articles we have published on Shakespeare routinely rank in the top ten of those accessed in any given year. And the number of books and articles published on the Bard seems to grow without abatement.

The reality is that to learn or brush up your Shakespeare is a good way to discover the origins of many of the words still used in English as well as a great many of the phrases that crop up.  More importantly, to know Shakespeare is to know a great deal about what it means to be human. T. S. Eliot’s memorable observation that “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world: there is no third” seems to hold true today. The reason they divide the world is that their literary creations dramatize and illumine the great topics John Updike referred to as the “three great secret things”—art, sex, and religion—and most everything else, including politics. What light they afford on this last topic is explored in a very fine collection of essays edited by Khalil Habib and Joseph Hebert, Jr. titled The Soul of Statesmanship: Shakespeare on Nature, Virtue, and Political Wisdom.

The title and subtitle are both significant for the way in which the contributors approach the subject. While political systems and mechanisms are clearly important, how and whether they are successful depends upon the personnel in charge of them and under them, as well as the systems’ and mechanisms’ congruence with actual human nature. Habib and Hebert write in their introduction that Shakespeare is interested in the revelation of “what is human in a given political context.” No free-floating humanist theorizer, Shakespeare takes “demonstrable interest in the clashing political and religious theories of his time—especially the tensions and harmonies among classical, Christian, and early-modern views, and the struggles associated with the advent of the early modern nation-state.” In other words, Shakespeare is all about the question of what it means to be human and virtuous in particular places in time under particular notions of the human and virtuous. Political wisdom means not simply cleverness or technical knowledge, but truly philosophical and prudent and virtuous words, deeds, and (dare we say it for politicians?) thoughts.  Yet such a combination is rare. The better actual statesman might have less imagination but more virtue than his rival, less skill but more imagination, or some other combination of defects and advantages on paper that are difficult to assess. “Tragedy and the Folly of the Ruler,” the first section of the book, puts on display three very different combinations.

The question of the relationship of private vice and public virtue is all too often what we are asked to contemplate, but Timothy Burns’s “One That Loved Not Wisely But Too Well,” examines the difficulties of a slightly different problem. Othello, the privately and publicly virtuous public servant, tragically fails when foiled by Iago, a villain who knows how to manipulate appearances perfectly in order to exploit Othello’s elevated desires for love, justice, and happiness by convincing him of his wife’s infidelity. While they say you can’t cheat an honest man, the problem is that he may be the only one you can cheat—all the others are lying to themselves. Othello’s soul is indeed great, though his love is not wise. Unlike the privately vicious individual falling prey to a scam, the Venetian response is appropriately pity.

According to Carson Holloway, Macbeth’s tragedy is to be more like Iago, whose attack on Othello was motivated by his concern for reputation.  “At both the beginning and end of his tragic career, Macbeth loves his honor more than he loves himself, and fears disgrace more than he fears evil.”  The irony is that the tyrannical pride that overwhelms Macbeth is truly a trick of the devil by which the love of honor for itself negates the possibility of receiving it. Tyrants fear not merely the many who might wish to be ruled by another, but also the brave and the wise who might do or arrange to do something about the tyrant. The end result is that they must eliminate the only people from whom they could actually gain true honor or true friendship. Holloway focuses very closely on the demonic character of Macbeth’s path; not that he is himself a demon, but one who has been tricked by them into forging a path of public and spiritual ruin that is seemingly total. Holloway notes that Macbeth alone among the great Shakespearean tragic figures has no one to speak a kind word after his death. Holloway speculates that a word of pity in his lifetime might have changed him, but the rest of his analysis leads one to think that such a change would be, if not impossible, unlikely.

Unlike the great-souled and large-but-not-wisehearted Othello and the demonic Macbeth, the proverbial melancholy Dane is melancholy in large part because of a crisis of meaning. L. Joseph Hebert’s treatment of Hamlet is in line with other examinations that focus on the Lutheran context of this one-time student of Wittenberg. While not arguing that the Bard is a crypto-Catholic, Hebert argues that the radical severing of virtue and action from faith in the Lutheran schema is not unrelated to Hamlet’s fate. The perceived Lutheran disconnect between virtue or virtuous action and faith yields “confusion in the personal and political as well as ecclesiastical orders.” Hamlet is challenged by his father’s ghost to an act of vengeance—not personal revenge, but the retributive justice which is his duty as true heir to the king. But owing to his lack of a vision of the good of his country and the virtues necessary to fulfill the difficult duty of vengeance, he is prevented “from responding effectively to the troubles besetting the state whose ‘sanity and health’ ought to be the object of his thoughts and actions.” Instead of exercising vengeance, an act of charity in the public arena, he settles on “petty, private, and hateful forms of revenge” based on a conversion to Machiavelli rather than Christ, that result in a bloodbath. True love is sometimes terrible in action, but the failure to exercise it is worse, for it results in a “foul, strange, and unnatural silence” in Denmark.

After these cheery tales, the reader is happy to dive into Part II: “Comedy and the Reign of Wisdom.” Wisdom is usually (and rightly) depicted as a woman, so Denise Schaeffer’s and Mary P. Nichols’ “Both False and True: Love, Death, and Poetry in Love’s Labour’s Lost” showing how the women in this play are usually and rightly depicted as victorious in correcting clever male verbal folly is not uncommon. What is uncommon is their suggestion that the women also need to learn something about the “human capacity to generate and create” that is present even in “witty folly.” Their essay explores, particularly in its last section, what kind of poetic language works to connect life and art without losing the understanding of their distinction. Though it is not their phrasing, one might put the point another way to make the connection to today. How can we speak “seriously but not literally” in a responsible way?

The connection to today is perhaps more obvious in Thomas Vincent Svogun’s essay on The Merchant of Venice. A legal philosopher, Svogun focuses on the weakness of that commercial republic’s emphasis on contractual forms of justice that are divorced from any sense of the deeper claims of the natural law. Shylock’s use of the courts to demand a pound of flesh reveals that legal positivism becomes simply a mechanism by which “subjective wills” achieve their own ends, “even if they be malicious.” Such a society will be pleasant for those in power while things are good. Though this is a comedy with a happy ending—Portia and Bassanio end up in Belmont, a kind of natural law oasis from Venetian society. But it is no long-term solution, since Belmont is economically and militarily dependent on Venice. And Venice’s time in the economic sun was brief. Without high ideals and without a bond deeper than commerce, Venice ceased long ago to be a political or economic power; it is, Svogun says, a kind of “amusement park for tourists after the style of the Las Vegas casino that bears its name and mimics its architecture, not to mention its carnival atmosphere.” The question he leaves the reader with is whether the fate of those of us in the modern state will be the same. . .or worse.

If a state or society can forget the natural moral law, can it take it too seriously? This is the burden of Luigi Bradizza’s essay on political moderation and Measure for Measure. In this play in which the Duke wishes to reform a politically neglected Vienna that has become sexually licentious, the character Angelo, a kind of sex Czar, proposes drastic punishment for those who falter and fall into carnal vice. The comedic aspect of the play—in both Shakespearean and modern senses—is that the answer, found after Angelo himself falls, is that the proper punishment for sexual incontinence is marriage. Bradizza’s use of “continence” as a kind of vice is somewhat confusing in this chapter, depending as it does on the older sense that simply to restrain one’s unwieldy desires is not itself virtue; only the inner reformation of desires can count as virtue. I think some explanation of his vocabulary would have been helpful. But the patient reader will see his point in the end: that we all need to see that there but for the grace of God go we. Law needs to be geared toward moral excellence but the law’s ability to promote virtue in the heart is somewhat indirect and weak. It points the way, but has not the power to create inner transformation with either its rewards or its punishments. A healthy state will exercise charitable punishment but also wisely exercise mercy when it can.

“History and Rule as the Measure of Statesmen” is the third, final, and most memorable section. Khalil Habib’s essay on the Bastard in King John is a meditation on the bringing together of England as a nation. Habib prefaces the chapter with quotations about our age’s attempts to bypass actual political units such as nations in favor some sort of “universal humanity” (Solzhenitysn) or “transnational political order” (Scruton) and why they do not protect or acknowledge the dignity of humans. Habib’s reading of the play is not simply as a problem of monarchical succession but of “how to unite subject and king, nobles, and nation, and how to reconcile loyalty to a universal church authority with national interest.”  In contrast to King John, the Bastard’s skills and integrity stand out, but so too does his “ability to synthesize religion and nation.” King John seems set on “subsum[ing] the nation into the state” while the Bastard merely wants to “qualify” his Christian political and religious instincts by his own devotion to the nation. This is no jingoism but a recognition of the need for liberty to be directed toward a sense of a concrete political common good that is itself trained on virtue.

The final two chapters both treat Richard II and hearken back to the first section in their pondering of the tragic outcomes to rulers. Joseph Alulis’s essay looks back at the Aristotelian questions about the best regime, noting that ideally, Aristotle’s is absolute kingship. The tragic part of this is that it is so dependent on virtue in the ruler. Richard II, in Alulis’s treatment, shares Aristotle’s vision but displays “incongruity between the nobility of his aspiration and his capacity to bring it into effect.” Bolingbroke is a more worthy ruler despite the fact that his vision is so much narrower than Richard, whose monarchical reach—which Alulis, looking to Aquinas, sees as not mere “political courage” but a kind of courage that laughs in the face of death—is far beyond his fingertips. The pity, in Alulis’s view, is that such a vision of kingship functions as a kind of iconic look at Christ’s kingship. Our thoughts in politics, he says, “should be high, not fixed on merely mortal things; they should be so because we are high, have in us something of the divine.”

Alulis’s final comments are drawn from John of Gaunt’s praise of England as a royal throne. David Alvis’s “This Blessed Plot: Divine Justice and Law from Richard II’s Trial by Combat to Henry V’s Battle of Agincourt” depicts John of Gaunt the political theologian as “superannuated.” While it is not clear what his beliefs about the afterlife are, he is clear that his view of kingship is good for the living. It is, Alvis says, a “salutary myth” that is shattered by Richard’s failure to guard the mystique of rule. His ecclesial foes, however, cannot win the day due to their inability to argue in such a way that they respect “customary rights and law.” This failure to synthesize religion and rule mean a country that is divided and not able to function properly until Henry V.

In a way that reminds one of the questions raised by Nichols and Schaeffer concerning poetry and reality, Alvis points to Henry’s capacity to speak seriously if not literally in order to get good ends. Law and virtue are not enough to get good politics: “Rather law and virtue are only truly efficacious when human beings think that they are sanctioned by a divine authority. Henry sees the need for more poetry in ruling even if he does not, like Richard, speak in rhymed couplets.” Henry’s success reminds one of Chesterton’s line that pragmatism is about human needs—and the first human need is not to be a pragmatist. In Alvis’s judgment, Henry knows that “self-interest” of the people must be appeased but also that they require a “supernatural belief in the power of those who rule.” It is his genius, so manifest in the famous speech, to use the victory at Agincourt as a symbolic episode that accomplishes in the nation what Catholic Christians believe happens with the Eucharist. As the transformed elements that mystically make the victory of Christ on the cross present unite the Church into one people, so the memorial of the events of Crispin’s day recall the victorious day of Agincourt and make England one again.

Such a spectacular conclusion, but it certainly does not establish a permanent solution. Alvis’s conclusion is that “the solutions are always tentative: the problems are eternal.” While this may be an exaggeration, they will last until the end of this world. As long as they do, however, Shakespeare will be read to ponder the solutions.


An excerpt of the book is available here.

David DeavelDavid Deavel

David Deavel

David Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and Visiting Assistant Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. Winner of the Acton Institute’s Novak Award, David's articles have appeared in Catholic World Report, Chesterton Review, Chicago Studies, First Things, Journal of Markets & Morality, Minneapolis Star Tribune, National Review, Nova et Vetera, and the Wall Street Journal.

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