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The Soul of Statesmanship: Shakespeare on Nature, Virtue, and Political Wisdom

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


In The New Criterion a few years ago, Steven F. Hayward wrote that “if you have a close look at the political science departments around the country that lean conservative or have a strong conservative plurality in the department, you will typically find in the political science course offerings one or more courses on …Shakespeare.  While many English departments now regard Shakespeare as optional material because he’s old or because he represents the ‘white Anglo-Saxon phallo-logocentric hegemonic discourse’ that needs to be swept away, conservatives think you can find wisdom of permanent value in reading the works of the great dramatist.”[1]

A study could be made of the alternative, conservative tradition in Shakespeare criticism that has been going on now for half a century since the publication in 1964 of Shakespeare’s Politics by Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa.  It continues with the current volume under review, The Soul of Statesmanship: Shakespeare on Nature, Virtue, and Political Wisdom, edited by Khalil M. Habib and L. Joseph Hebert, Jr.  Led mainly by scholars connected with or sympathetic to the Straussian school of political philosophy (Bloom and Jaffa dedicate Shakespeare’s Politics to Leo Strauss)[2], this way of interpreting Shakespeare is part the larger Straussian conviction that great literature has political wisdom to teach humanity.

In line with what I would call this sapiential approach to literature is the aim, as Habib and Hebert put in their introduction, to “explore how Shakespeare’s plays dramatize perennial questions about human nature, moral virtue, and statesmanship, and demonstrate that reading them as works of philosophical literature enhances our understanding of political life” (xi).  That is to say, the goal is to treat Shakespeare as a deep reservoir of political wisdom, but politics understood in a capacious, humane, classical sense.  Aristotle memorably describes human beings as political animals in the Politics.  But perhaps more important is his reason for so describing human beings.  It is because, Aristotle argues, our political nature manifests itself primarily in our perception of, and our ability to articulate through reason and speech, a shared moral reality: “for it is peculiar to man as compared to the other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and the other things of this sort; and community in these things is what makes a household and a city.”[3]  One can make a very strong case, as the authors in Habib and Hebert’s volume collectively do, that Shakespeare holds this elevated view of politics as well.  Human speech and reason unlock the moral dimension of political life.  Politics is therefore a profoundly moral concern that reveals the highest goods for human beings: the soul, virtue, political wisdom, and statesmanship.  What is politics after all but the drama of human life writ large?  Who better to guide us than Shakespeare?

Habib and Hebert’s volume collects nine chapters equally distributed into three main divisions.  Part I considers the “Tragedy and the Folly of the Ruler” and begins with an essay by Timothy Burns: “One that Loved Not Wisely But Too Well: Devotional Love and Politics in Othello.”  Next is Carson Holloway’s “Macbeth: The Spiritual Drama of the Tyrannical Soul”.  Part I ends with L. Joseph Hebert’s entry, “Wings as Swift as Love: Hamlet and the Virtues (and Vices) of a King.”  Part II treats of Shakespeare’s comedies, “Comedy and the Reign of Wisdom”.  It begins with Denise Schaeffer’s and Mary P. Nichols’ “Both False and True: Love, Death, and Poetry in Love’s Labour’s Lost.”  Next is Thomas Vincent Svogun’s “Jurisprudence in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.  Rounding out Part II is Luigi Bradizza’s meditation on “Christian Ethics and Political Moderation in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.  Part III, “History and Rule as the Measure of Statesman” concludes the volume.  It opens with “The Bastard in King John; or, On the Need for a Unified English Nation” by Khalil M. Habib, followed by “To Make High Majesty Look Like Itself: Shakespeare’s Richard II and the Nature of the Good Regime” by Joseph Alulis.  The final essay of the volume is “This Blessed Plot: Divine Justice and Law from Richard II’s Trial by Combat to Henry V’s Battle of Agincourt” by David Alvis.

The essays in Part I offer meditations on the souls of the tragic figures at the center of each play.  Timothy Burns examines Othello in light of Shakespeare’s source for the play, a 1565 story by the Italian writer Cinthio (Giambattista Giraldi).  The comparison shows that Shakespeare’s play “presents a very heightened attention to the matter of public worth or desert that is central to political or public life, even in its tension with the moral demands of love and marriage.  In keeping with this, his portrayal of the concern with, and Iago’s manipulation of, the chief locus of public life, reputation, is unparalleled in any of his other plays” (4).  Shakespeare creates in the character of Othello, as Burns sees it, “a would be [my emphasis] great-souled” man whose “sense of worth proves to be more fragile than that of any great-souled man” (8).  This is because Shakespeare reverses what he finds in Cinthio’s story, “giving Othello a great soul and unattractive body instead of a handsome body and a low soul” (8).  It is Othello’s insecurity about his true worthiness – one might say ironically the appearance (i.e., reputation) of being great-souled – that gives the demonic Iago his opening to engineer Othello’s tragic demise.  Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic, evil characters.  His brainy, hyperactive malevolence is truly menacing.  But it is his sham reputation as Othello’s dutiful old ensign that cloaks his wickedness.  “I am not what I am” (1.1.56) he exclaims in one of his more arresting utterances.  Shakespeare’s telling inversion of the tetragrammaton of the Biblical God illustrates Iago’s satanic quality (noted by Burns, 15).  Could even a wholly magnanimous man see through his machinations?  Perhaps it is part of Shakespeare’s teaching (his realism?) not to underestimate the evil of which the human heart is capable.

Carson Holloway recalls our attention to the demonic in his essay on Macbeth, the eponymous character he bracingly characterizes as a “demonic tyrant” (28).  Seduced by the half-truths of the witches at the play’s opening, Macbeth resists categorization as a classically conceived tyrant; he instead becomes “something even more disturbing: an agent of demonic forces” (28).  Yet it would be a mistake, Holloway writes, for us to see him as “drawn, helpless, into evil by superhuman powers beyond his control” (28).  No.  Macbeth exercises agency in his descent into darkness: “he chooses to harken” to the witches and to “trust in their prophecies” (28).  The true tragedy of Macbeth, Holloway surmises, is his recognition of the loss of his very soul: “In meditating on his past crimes, and in contemplating further ones, Macbeth expresses the belief that he has lost his soul to the devil, that he has given his ‘eternal jewel’ to ‘the common Enemy of man’ (III.i.67-68)” (34).  Holloway intriguingly suggests that the piety of Banquo, whom Shakespeare portrays as praying throughout the play (e.g., “Merciful Powers!/Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature/Gives way to in repose” [II.i.7-9]) is the antidote that Macbeth fails to consider in saving himself from his fall into temptation.

Co-editor L. Joseph Hebert’s essay on Hamlet concludes Part I.  Hebert provides an ingenious analysis of the profound theological and philosophical confusion that clouds the soul of the prince of Denmark.  Confronted by the dual Machiavellianism of his uncle Claudius and his Norwegian rival Fortinbras, Hamlet is psychically disarmed thanks to his miseducation at the symbolically Protestant city of Wittenberg.  For Hebert, the ghost of Hamlet’s father stands in for the classic Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of vengeance as a virtue allied to caritas that would enable a true king to bring his enemies to justice.  Yet Hamlet abandons this traditional framework for understanding his father’s commandment to seek vengeance “in a move that parodies the Lutheran doctrine of sola scriptura and that foreshadows the Cartesian method of radical doubt” (50).  Without this traditional knowledge of the “charitable virtue of vengeance” (51), Hamlet fumbles his role as Heaven’s scourge and minister and loses everything, his kingdom included.

The authors of the essays in Part II move to a consideration of virtue in Shakespeare’s comedies, in particular, I would say, the cardinal virtue of moderation or temperance.  Denise Schaeffer and Mary P. Nichols lead off with their essay on Love’s Labour’s Lost.  They argue that “like the women in the play, Shakespeare is critical of his courtly male characters’ tendency toward frivolity, but unlike the women, he understands the place of witty folly, and can therefore put it in its place without denying it altogether” (60).  This strange play, with its blend of wittiness, frivolity, and seriousness, displays Shakespeare’s deep intuition of the broad contours of life in all of its dimensions of wittiness and folly, of comedy and tragedy.  Moderation seems to be the virtue that mediates the polarity of life’s dialectical structure.  Shakespeare appears to acknowledge so much at the end of play with the dialogue of Spring and Winter.  In the words of Shaeffer and Nichols, “spring threatens as well as promises, and in winter there are merry notes.  Both seasons reflect the complexity of life itself” (75).

The exploration of moderation continues in Thomas Vincent Svogun’s essay on jurisprudence in The Merchant of Venice.  Crucial in his estimation is that “Venetian law, dedicated as it is to the commercial ethos and largely neglecting what is necessary to a public morality, proves unable by itself to solve the conflicts and other problems that these passions [spirited, diverse convictions about God and the good: my addition] (and the Venetian social structure) give rise to” (81).  Law abstracted from any solid agreement about the good held by tradition or lacking the underpinning of natural law yields a monstrous, immoral positivism.  This abstraction allows Shylock to contract with Antonio for a pound of his own flesh if he defaults on Shylock’s loan.  It turns out, thankfully for Antonio, that Portia’s positivist reading of the law renders Shylock unable to collect, since “the bond gives him no jot of blood and only a pound of flesh” (89).  Abstracting the law from a shared moral framework is just as difficult (and perverse) as abstracting a pound of flesh from a living human body.  Shakespeare, Svogun argues, presciently “takes us very near the precipice overlooking a world in which the subjective will of the individual trumps the basic forms of human good protected by the traditional law of crimes” (93).  Tradition or natural law necessarily moderates the abstract freedom promised by legal positivism.

In the last essay in Part II, Luigi Bradizza higlights Shakespeare’s teaching on moderation in the play entitled, appropriately enough, Measure for Measure.  Here, “Shakespeare promotes political moderation by reconciling people to tolerable human failings.  He assimilates an ethical schema of virtue, continence, incontinence, and vice as a corrective to what he sees as the overly demanding moral views to which some Christians are subject” (99).  Bradizza connects Shakespeare’s overarching teaching on moderation particularly with the character of Isabella and the distorting affect her Christian piety has on her understanding of justice.  “Her misunderstanding of Christianity,” Bradizza writes, “— one to which some Christians are subject – leads her to two extremes with respect to the punishment of criminals: she is either too harsh as a Christian who condemns sin or too soft as a Christian anxious to be merciful to a sinner” (106).  At issue in the play is the Duke of Vienna’s plan to restore the public morality of the city after its descent into sexual licentiousness.  Isabella’s brother Claudio is caught up in the severe justice meted out by the Duke’s lieutenant, Angelo, who demands celibacy, or, if found guilty of lustful acts, the death penalty.  Isabella, who thinks her only refuge from the danger of lust is the nunnery, incongruously wishes her brother to be both harshly punished and mercifully excused.  Marriage turns out to be the key in taming the volatile nature of sexual desire in Vienna, and both Angelo and Isabella are educated and “punished” by embracing marriage.  Shakespeare uses the difficulty of dealing with sexual desire to show Angelo, Isabella, and us the importance of being “prepared to live in a merely continent world” (107) without the extremes of superhuman virtue (celibacy) or subhuman vice (lust).

In Part III the contributors turn to Shakespeare’s histories.  The last section considers the question of kingship or statesmanship: what makes for a good king or statesman?  First is co-editor Khalil Habib’s thoughtful meditation on the character of “the Bastard” in Shakespeare’s King John.  The Bastard is Philip Falconbridge, illegitimate son of Richard I, The Lion-hearted.  Having died on crusade, the throne devolves to Richard’s youngest brother, John.  Early into John’s reign, rivals to his claim to the English throne emerge, including Arthur of Brittany, the son of John’s deceased older brother Geoffrey.  Because Arthur is too young to assert his right, his mother Constance enlists the help of Philip, King of France.  Yet the challenge to John’s legitimacy is not the only problem he faces: “the play as a whole explores an England struggling to unite as a nation while it is consumed by costly foreign wars, plagued by tensions between church and king, intrafamilial conflicts over succession, as well as disloyal and treacherous nobles” (118).  John is undone by this mass of political entanglements, but the character of the Bastard emerges as, in Habib’s view, Shakespeare’s model of the new English hero “whose religious instincts are qualified by English nationalism, and whose loyalty to his nation elevates him to a vantage point above conventional labels of legitimacy, royal titles, kin relations, transnational loyalty to Church” (118).  Indeed, in battle, notes Habib, the Bastard intones St. George himself, the patron saint of England: “Saint George, that swinged the dragon, and e’er since/Sits on his horseback at min hostess’ door,/Teach us some fence!” (2.1.288-290).  Shakespeare’s presentation of these two characters in counterpoint, King John and the Bastard, offers us an illustration of what statesmanship in service to the common good shouldn’t and should look like.

Joseph Alulis explores the nature of true kingship, “what constitutes majesty” (141) in his essay on Shakespeare’s Richard II.  Alulis suggests that two ideas of kingship emerge in Richard II, embodied by the party of Northumberland and Richard, which “correspond to those of Machiavelli and Aristotle respectively, two thinkers who in Shakespeare’s day, no less than in our own, make mighty opposites” (141).  The Machiavellian idea that Northumberland represents is one articulated by Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy, namely, that men (meaning both rulers and ruled) must be forced through necessity to do what is right, which in Northumberland’s thinking means that Richard must be made to see that “majesty will look like itself when the king conforms to the law because he knows that the great men of the realm will oppose by force his failure to do so” (143).  Contra Richard’s absolutist pretentions, the king’s power must be hemmed in by the law backed up by the power of the nobles to keep it from devolving into tyranny.  On the other hand, Richard’s theological claims to sacral monarchy can be “assimilated to Aristotle’s rational argument for absolute kingship” (148).  Alulis here refers to Aristotle’s notion from the Politics of the regime type of absolute kingship, where one man of preeminent virtue rules solely, a regime in which “the best man, not the best laws, rule” (148).  Aristotle’s rational account of this absolute king, so supremely virtuous that he seems “like a god among human beings,” is buttressed in Richard’s case by Christian theology and the religious ceremonies of anointing and coronation.  Yet as Alulis concludes, “the tragedy of Richard II is that he unworthily [my emphasis] claimed title to rule in the best regime, rule by one of superhuman virtue” (154).  Shakespeare’s genius is that he “makes us feel both the superiority of Richard’s idea and Bolingbroke’s greater worthiness to rule” (141).

The book closes with David Alvis’ look at the entire Henriad, or the second tetralogy, the span of plays which include Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V, and so nicely picks up where Joseph Alulis left off.  The political problem in England in the aftermath of Richard II’s deposition is one of legitimacy.  While Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, has the power to be king, does his rule have legitimacy?  The medieval model of political power, emblematic of Richard II’s reign, was one in which power was bestowed, usually by the sacred authority of the pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Bestowal from a divinely sanctioned power conveyed legitimacy.  The modern, Machiavellian notion is that power is simply seized by the powerful.  Yet, if this is true, what will stop power from being contested endlessly by a series of strongmen?  In Alvis’ formulation: “If Richard overestimates the nature of his authority as God’s viceregent on Earth, Bolingbroke underestimates the value of divine right in securing the consent of the governed” (175).  A successful king must recognize that “divine right is a salutary myth” (175).  The task of the ne’er-do-well son of Henry Bolingbroke, Prince Hal, is the full-scale re-enchantment of the English monarchy.  How to pull of such a feat?  It will require nothing less than a miracle, which is just how Hal interprets the English victory at Agincourt on St. Crispin’s Day: “Not just a feast day for saints in Christendom, English heroes too will be immortalized on this day thus assimilating this particular English battle to the universality of Christianity… Like the Eucharistic sacrifice that mystically transforms mankind into one body in God, so the memory of this spectacle will make England one whole with its king.  Here, the political is made divine not because Henry declares it so, but because his soldiers, desirous of immortal honor and glory, will lend their faith in making it a sacred body” (p. 185).  Trial by ordeal, where God chooses the victor in combat – mothballed by Richard at opening of Richard II – is repurposed by Hal to repair the breach between spiritual authority and temporal power (184).

The volume of essays edited by Habib and Hebert provides conclusive proof of Shakespeare’s wise attentiveness to political reality in all of its manifestations, from the nature of the soul and virtue to the question of the regime and good kingship.  I heartily recommend it to all students of Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s politics, and to all readers of good will who see the great books as conduits of invaluable insight into the truly important, truly human things.



[1] Steven F. Hayward, “Conservatives & higher ed” The New Criterion, June 2014.

[2] See note 1 of Habib and Hebert’s Introduction, which details the series of studies influenced by the style of Bloom and Jaffa from 1964 to the present, the most recent study being Shakespeare’s Roman Trilogy: The Twilight of the Ancient World by Paul A. Cantor in 2017.

[3] Aristotle, Politics Book 1, ch. 2, 1253a17-19 (Carnes Lord translation).


See David Deavel’s review here as well as an excerpt of the book.

Patrick Macfarlane

Patrick Macfarlane received his Ph.D. from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He is a member of the Philosophy Department and Humanities Program at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.

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