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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

The Poet as Teacher of Statesmen

This volume joins a growing chorus of scholars who approach Shakespeare as a political thinker.[1] The chapters that follow 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. Although the last fifty years have seen a surge of interest in Shakespeare as a political thinker, Shakespeare was already held in such high esteem as an educator across a wide range of socioeconomic classes in the United States that upon Alexis de Tocqueville’s arrival in America in the 1830s, de Tocqueville observed that “there is scarcely a pioneer’s cabin where one does not encounter some odd volumes of Shakespeare. I recall having read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log-house.”[2] German journalist Karl Knortz echoed de Tocqueville’s observation in the 1880s:

“There is, assuredly, no other country on the face of this earth in which Shakespeare and the Bible are held in such general high esteem as in America . . . If you were to enter an isolated log cabin in the Far West and even if its inhabitant were to exhibit many traces of backwoods living, he will most likely have one small room nicely furnished in which to spend his few leisure hours and in which you will certainly find . . . some cheap edition of the works of the poet Shakespeare.”[3]

It is well known that one such log cabin belonged to the Lincoln household, where the great statesman Abraham Lincoln probably first developed a love of Shakespeare from an early age. As Michael Anderegg has shown, Lincoln was particularly interested in Macbeth and Hamlet and what Shakespeare had to convey about the dangers of civil war, illegitimate rule, and excessive ambition.[4] In a letter addressed to his friend James H. Hackett, dated August 17, 1863, Lincoln remarked that “nothing equals Macbeth.”[5] By the end of the nineteenth century, Shakespeare was so integrated into American popular culture that allusions to his plays abound in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Shakespeare provided the young nation with a direct link to its European intellectual heritage. In a sense, the Bard was, and remains, our political teacher, as Homer and Virgil were said to have been the political teachers of the Greeks and Romans.

Shakespeare’s plays are an inexhaustible treasure trove of deep political and philosophical insights. They invite us to think about the great themes of human life by placing us in the shoes of a wide range of colorful characters. The reader and the audience may know how a particular moral or political dilemma gets resolved, but the characters, of course, do not. Consequently, Shakespeare’s plays compel readers to share in the struggles of and relate to the tensions felt by each character in a way that no political treatise or lecture can. Moreover, Shakespeare’s plays explore a staggering range of topics, from the nature of tyranny, to the effects on politics of Christianity, to the meaning and practice of statesmanship, to name only a few. And he examines a bewildering variety of characters in relation to their regime, family, religion, poetry, and quest for self-knowledge.

Shakespeare’s plays rival philosophy in their comprehension of human nature, politics, and statesmanship. As Mackubin Thomas Owens notes:

“The division of Shakespeare’s plays into histories, comedies, and tragedies often obscures the fact that all of his plays—including the comedies—are political, in the sense that they are treatments of the human condition under different constitutions. The human beings [Shakespeare] describes seek completion within a political community, whether it be an ancient city such as Athens, a timocratic regime such as Rome, a commercial republic such as Venice, or a monarchy such as England in transition from a medieval political to a modern one.”[6]

Similarly, Allan Bloom observes that:

“Shakespeare devotes great care to establishing the political setting in almost all of his plays, and his greatest heroes are rulers who exercise capacities which can only be exercised within civil society. To neglect this is simply to be blinded by the brilliance of one’s own prejudices. As soon as one sees this, one cannot help asking what Shakespeare thought about a good regime and a good ruler . . .With the recognition of this fact, a new perspective is opened, not only on the plays but also on our notions of politics . . .The poet can take the philosopher’s understanding and translate it into images which touch the deepest passions and cause men to know without knowing that they know.”[7]

We believe the chapters in this volume will contribute to and provide support for these conclusions.

What might we expect to learn about human nature, politics, and statesmanship from Shakespeare’s plays that a direct study of politics cannot provide? How is the study of politics enhanced by a poet such as Shakespeare? Edmund Burke believed that a great play could provide a philosophical education that could help to civilize political passions and effectively bring the human mind to maturity. He had this to say about the moral effects of tragedy on civic education:

“Because it is natural . . . because we are so affected at such [tragic] spectacles with melancholy sentiments upon the unstable condition of mortal prosperity, and the tremendous uncertainty of human greatness; because in those natural feelings we learn great lessons; because in events like these our passions instruct our reason; because when kings are hurl’d from their thrones by the Supreme Director of this great drama, and become the objects of insult to the base, and of pity to the good, we behold such disasters in the moral, as we should behold a miracle in the physical order of things. We are alarmed into reflexion; our minds . . . are purified by terror and pity; our weak unthinking pride is humbled, under the dispensations of a mysterious wisdom.”[8]

We believe Shakespeare’s plays teach thoughtful readers the kind of political wisdom Burke (and Lincoln) saw as necessary for civic education and statesmanship. This volume—with contributions from some of the most accomplished and promising scholars in the fields of philosophy, political science, and legal studies—seeks further to enrich our understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare’s profound and inspiring teachings on the nature, character, and limits of personal virtue, political wisdom, and prudence.

No one discipline or school of thought can justifiably claim a monopoly on how Shakespeare—one of the thinkers most talked about, read, and written on—ought to be read, enjoyed, or interpreted. The approach we take to understanding these Shakespeare plays neither follows the conventional methods of the literary cultural critics, who confine Shakespeare’s thought to the prejudices of his times, nor follows those of the critical-theory school who “deconstruct” the Bard’s works only in order to convince themselves and others that they do not contain timeless truths about human themes. Such approaches underestimate Shakespeare’s profound concern and peerless facility with issues such as political liberty, justice, tyranny, moral virtue, and self-knowledge, among many other important issues and themes that make up our bewildering human condition. Read with an open mind, Shakespeare can help to awaken an awareness of the most vital and enduring questions of human life and politics.

Shakespeare’s interest in the enduring questions about human nature and political society does not of course render him detached from the particular changes and struggles of his day. On the contrary, it provides him—and his audience—with a superior perspective from which to consider the contours and conflicts of any given age, including our own, as he seeks to uncover what is human in a given political context. Thus our chapters pay close attention to Shakespeare’s 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 modern nation-state. His reflections on individual characters and political context are informed by his intense concern with the practical political question (vital in our day as much as his) of the nature of personal virtue and its relation to the success or failure of political leaders in fostering the happiness of political society. Whether a play ends in tragic defeat, rises to a comedic victory, or depicts the more ambiguous exploits of history, each play prompts us to question the aims and actions of its leading characters in light of contending theories of virtue and statesmanship, while providing us with the evidence necessary for a more profound weighing of those theories, and thereby provides us with an invaluable education in political wisdom.

This volume is divided into three main parts. Part I deals with Shakespeare’s tragedies, which involve the failure of otherwise-great or potentially great leaders to achieve the virtues and wisdom necessary to overcome the personal and political difficulties they face. Each in his own way, Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet fail to love wisely, and each thereby facilitates disaster for himself and his country. Part II turns to Shakespeare’s comedies, in which a combination of wise leadership and fortune intervene to bring about the common good. These essays focus on what we can learn about the reality of virtues such as love, justice, and prudence from the outlandish success of Shakespeare’s comedic protagonists. Part III concludes with a selection of plays drawn from Shakespeare’s histories, in which a mixture of wisdom and folly—and good and bad luck— makes the virtues and vices of statesmen especially difficult to discern. Nonetheless, our authors find that the histories offer lessons about the virtues requisite for civic flourishing in the changing conditions of modern England—lessons that remain vital and relevant for us in an age where nationhood, public-spiritedness, and the rule of law are still central and contested features of the political landscape.

In our first chapter, “Othello: Jealousy Becomes Tragic,” Timothy Burns examines Othello’s jealousy. No extant ancient tragedy has as its subject the jealousy felt by a husband who believes himself cuckolded: Jealousy belonged to ancient comedy. Yet Shakespeare chose to take Cinthio’s sad story of the jealous Moorish Venetian Captain as a fit subject for a high tragedy. What accounts for this change? What makes Othello’s plight one of universal significance, worthy of our serious reflection and our pity? What causes Othello, who is understood by all Venetians—from the Duke down to Iago—to be noble, valiant, stoically patient, level-headed, tender, diligent, public spirited, and prudent—suddenly to lose these virtues and become the jealous murderer of his beautiful, faithful wife and thereby of his own happiness? Is this royal Moor great souled, as he wishes to believe, as Cassio understands him to be, and as his suicide suggests? Or is he, as a baptized and confessing Christian, ever doubtful of his own merits? Or does he manifest an uneasy and fatal combination of these? What part does devotional love play in his demise? If Othello “loved not wisely but too well,” what would it mean to love wisely? And is Iago, who “wrought” Othello into a man scarcely recognizable to himself, a villain of pagan vices, or (as he wishes to believe himself to be) a devilish being? This chapter attempts to answer these questions.

In our second chapter, “The Drama of the Tyrannical Soul in Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” Carson Holloway explores Shakespeare’s treatment of Macbeth’s tragic tyranny as both a Socratic and spiritual drama. Like the classical philosophers, Shakespeare shows how the tyrant’s desire for power, divorced from any concern for the common good, is destructive not only of others but of his own genuine flourishing. In his quest for power, the tyrant must oppose himself to precisely those things—especially virtue and friendship—without which happiness is impossible. In this sense, tyranny represents a failure in the love of oneself. Through references to witchcraft, the afterlife, and Christian charity, however, Shakespeare extends this argument into the spiritual realm. Not only is Macbeth driven to do evil with a demonic near absence of any illusion of his own good, but even his opponents, just though their cause ultimately is, fail to extend to Macbeth the pity Shakespeare evokes in us regarding his eternal damnation. Had Macbeth turned to God, shown charity toward himself, or experienced it in others, Shakespeare implies, both political and spiritual ruin might have been averted.

Our third chapter, “Wings as Swift as Love: Hamlet and the Virtues (and Vices) of a King,” similarly examines the role of Christian charity—or its absence—in political affairs. In this case the protagonist, Hamlet, seeks to oppose the tyranny of his unnatural uncle, a task bequeathed to him by the ghost of his murdered father. As L. Joseph Hebert notes, Shakespeare frames Hamlet’s mission according to Thomas Aquinas’s teaching that vengeance, properly understood, must be governed by the virtue of charity, by which a ruler seeks the honor of God, the benefit of his country, and his own spiritual welfare. Due in part to a confusion stemming from his exposure to Lutheran theology, however, Hamlet is unsteady in his grasp of Aristotelian and Christian virtues, and particularly misses the mark when it comes to “faith that worketh by charity.” Rather than employing his many talents toward the conversion or public prosecution of his guilt-ridden uncle, Hamlet vacillates between desires for a suicidal death and various forms of petty revenge, finally fixing upon a plan to secure the eternal damnation of his enemies in conjunction with his own ostensibly honorable demise. As a consequence of Hamlet’s inconstant Christianity, Denmark is left to become the spoils of a young and ruthless Machiavellian prince.

In chapter 4, Mary Nichols and Denise Schaeffer turn to Love’s Labor’s Lost, a comedy whose tongue twister of a title draws our attention to the use and abuse of language that runs throughout the play. The king of Navarre and his three nobles seek a life free from limitation and swear an oath to live a life of austere asceticism devoted to philosophy while avoiding contact with females for three years. Despite their high-seeming pretensions, the men are presented as charming but frivolous and unreliable wits who pledge vows they are destined to break—for they believe words are “but breath.” Their ascetic experiment and views of language are soon tested when the men fall in love with and must seduce, through the very words they have denied, the women they profess to love. The women resist their charms and set out to reform and educate the men. Through a set of trials that force the men to confront suffering and mortality, the women teach the men to recognize death and suffering as a limit to human freedom. Although the women triumph over the men, Nichols and Schaeffer argue that the women’s perspective is itself in need of reform, for their debilitating emphasis on mortality leaves no room for the men to redeem themselves. If the men tend to forget about death, the women tend to never lose sight of it. While Shakespeare may share some of the women’s critique of the men’s freedom-loving perspective, the poet’s presentation of lovers, of marriage, and of death in the play suggests he is critiquing the women’s denial that human creativity and generativity can partially transcend the limitations of mortality by counterbalancing the limits on human life and its pleasures in love.

In chapter 5, “The Jurisprudence of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice,” Thomas Vincent Svogun reflects on the causes of the conflicts roiling Shakespeare’s Venice, and the means by which Portia is able to effect a real but qualified resolution of them. Devoted to the pursuit of wealth and individual autonomy, this early-modern republic has reduced law to a set of formal procedures instrumental to the will of contracting parties—so much so that its courts are powerless to void even a contract for murder-suicide. Without reference to natural standards of justice, Shakespeare demonstrates, a purely formal law is easily manipulated by men, whose passions cannot be constrained by mere formalities. The virtuous father of Portia, a participant in Venetian society but partly removed from it, is able to embed a clever device within his will whereby he continues to guide the judgment of his daughter in the selection of a virtuous husband. Building on this experience, Portia disguises herself as a judge and brilliantly exploits ambiguities in the Venetian law to rescue Antonio from Shylock’s murderous designs. Even so, Portia is unable to prevent the authorities from imposing characteristically unjust and pseudo-contractual punishments on Shylock. In a conclusion that ought to be sobering to citizens of today’s commercial and positivist societies, Belmont—Portia’s estate, and a symbol of the Socratic virtue to which she and her family aspire—remains a limited and uncertain refuge from a “naughty world” unable to resolve bloody conflicts by recourse to its own flawed principles and procedures.

In our sixth chapter, “Christian and Aristotelian Ethics in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure,” Luigi Bradizza considers Duke Vincentio’s use of extralegal means to bring about a reform of Vienna and its legal institutions. Presenting us with a city divided between citizens indulging in sexual license at the expense of public order and those hoping to escape it through a reactive celibacy, the play helps us to see that the necessary legal distinction between external deeds and internal dispositions maps imperfectly onto the realm of ethics, in which continence—the desire to do wrong without acting upon that desire—is but one step removed from incontinence, while only the latter can be punished by civil law. Through a series of artful disguises and deceptions, the duke is able to bring Vienna’s lawless citizens to practice a grudging continence, and its stricter souls to tolerate that continence while moderating the punishment of the incontinent with mercy. (author’s name omitted) reflections on the details of the drama encourage us to think about the lessons it holds concerning the proper relations between law and morality, church and state, and philosophy and politics.

In chapter 7, “The Bastard in King John; or, On the Need for a Unified English Nation,” Khalil M. Habib focuses on Shakespeare’s presentation of the Bastard, who emerges as a new English hero at a time in English history when England was part of medieval, Western Christendom. Christendom’s religious center during the reign of King John was located in Rome, where popes exercised considerable influence over Christian kings and their subjects. As a result of Rome’s power over kings, national identities and loyalties often conflicted with—and were increasingly overwhelmed by—religious duty and loyalty to a transnational spiritual authority. The play as a whole explores an England struggling to unite as a nation, and through the Bastard shows the need for citizens who are loyal and devoted to its liberty: so long as England is divided, it is vulnerable to foreign invasion and weakened by internal political division and disorder. By focusing on the Bastard’s spectacular rise in the play, and his ever-increasing sense of patriotism, we witness a story of the birth of a novel hero in whom we see a new English citizen emerge who mirrors England’s transition away from its Norman roots, its medieval feudal order, and its mythology toward nationhood and national independence.

In chapter 8, “To Make High Majesty Look Like Itself,” Joseph Alulis argues that Richard II’s absolute kingship is both incompatible with the English constitution and incongruent with his own merit. Richard’s grief at his fall and his stately un-kinging of himself envelops this kind of kingship with an air of dignity that makes it seem ideal. (author’s name omitted) goes on to show how this idealization of absolute kingship is to be read not as Shakespeare’s endorsement of this political form as such but of the preeminent virtue that—where it does exist—justifies it. The lesson for our liberal democratic regime as for Shakespeare’s audience is that the good regime is characterized by virtue in both ruler and ruled. Richard II on the whole is an invitation to recognize the highest part in ourselves and accord it its rightful place in our politics.

In chapter 9, which concludes the volume, David Alvis explores Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy and concludes that this set of plays contains an important lesson on the limits of the rule of law and the necessity of statesmanship. While it is the mark of our contemporary understanding of political life to believe that the people ought to be governed strictly by promulgated rules and procedures, Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy reveals how the success of law really depends on the qualities possessed by the men and women who can shape our vision of the legitimacy of those rules, earning our allegiance through carefully administering the law. From Shakespeare’s political teaching, students of administration today would be advised to learn the degree to which individual qualities of leadership contribute to our impression of the legitimacy of law. In addition, they would do well to learn that our current dilemmas in public administration, particularly reconciling the administration of law with the fundamental philosophical foundations of democratic government, is not peculiar to America but a perennial problem of political life.



[1] Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa, Shakespeare’s Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); Michael Platt, Rome and Romans According to Shakespeare (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1983); Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare’s Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays (London: Routledge, 1988); Paul A. Cantor, Shakespeare: Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Joseph Aluius and Vickie Sullivan, eds., Shakespeare’s Political Pageant (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996); David Lowenthal, Shakespeare and the Good Life (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997); John Alvis and Thomas West, eds., Shakespeare as Political Thinker (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2000); Leon Craig, Of Philosophers and Kings: Political Philosophy in Shakespeare’s MacbethandKing Lear” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001); Mary Ann McGrail, Tyranny in Shakespeare (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001); Tim Spiekerman, Shakespeare’s Political Realism: The English History Plays (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001); Stephen W. Smith and Travis Curtright, eds., Shakespeare’s Last Plays: Essays in Literature and Politics (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002); John Murley and Sean Sutton, eds., Perspectives on Politics in Shakespeare (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006); Bernard J. Dobski and Dustin A. Gish, eds., Souls with Longing: Representations of Honor and Love in the Plays and Poetry of William Shakespeare (Lanham, MD: Lexington Press, 2011); Bernard J. Dobski and Dustin A. Gish, eds., Shakespeare and the Body Politic (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013); Timothy W. Burns, Shakespeare’s Political Wisdom (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Bruce E. Alschuler and Michael A. Genovese, eds., Shakespeare and Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2014); Leon Harold Craig, The Philosopher’s English King: Shakespeare’s Henriad as Political Philosophy (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2015); Paul A. Cantor, Shakespeare’s Roman Trilogy: The Twilight of the Ancient World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[2] Mansfield, p. 445.

[3] Quoted in Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies, edited by Chandra Muerji and Michael Schudson (Berkley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 160–61.

[4] Michael Anderegg, Lincoln and Shakespeare (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2015).

[5] Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 6, Lincoln, Abraham, 1809–1865 (Michigan: University of Michigan Digital Library Production Services, 2001), p. 393.;view=fulltext;q1=June+2%2C+1863.


[7] Bloom and Jaffa (1981), p. 5.

[8] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. L.G. Mitchell (Oxford.: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 80.


This excerpt is from The Soul of Statesmanship: Shakespeare on Nature, Virtue, and Political Wisdom (Lexington Books, 2018) with our book review here.

Khalil M. Habib and L. Joseph Hebert, Jr.Khalil M. Habib and L. Joseph Hebert, Jr.

Khalil M. Habib and L. Joseph Hebert, Jr.

Khalil Habib is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Salve Regina; and L. Joseph Hebert is an Associate Professor of Political Science at St. Ambrose University. They are co-editors of The Soul of Statesmanship: Shakespeare on Nature, Virtue, and Political Wisdom (Lexington, 2018).

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