Shakespeare our conservative contemporary?

17 November, 2008

A&LD has just posted a link to an April article by Teddy Dalrymple in the New Standard. There’s not much really new here (though perhaps that’s his point), but I have a couple of nits to pick with his argument.

Then the First Citizen enunciates what might be called the first principle of socialist economics, upon which (implicitly, of course) Shakespeare pours scorn):
    What authority surfeits on would relieve us. If they
    would yield us but the superfluity while it were
    wholesome, we might guess they relieved us
    humanely; but they think we are too dear.
In other words, the fundamental problem of economics is one of distribution; and if it were sorted out, all would be well. The redistributionists have ye always with you.

This glib attempt to say “See, Shakespeare hated socialists just like we do!” isn’t really honest, and I suspect Dalrymple is aware of this. The citizen is not advocating for anything we would recognise as a socialist system, but arguing for what we call noblesse oblige, the idea that those whom God has raised up are morally bound to, among other things, show charity to those beneath them. (While he was at it, he might have referenced the rich man and the eye of the needle, if not for the anachronism.) While charity has become more institutionalised and less personal since the Industrial Age, we see in Nineteenth Century literature the remains of the old way, when the gentry would personally give of their surplus to their tenants and impoverished neighbours, and when ladies of good family would take it upon themselves to support the “worthy poor” (see Gaskell’s ‘North and South’, for instance). The idea faintly persists in the name of Boxing Day, traditionally the day after Christmas when money or food was given in boxes to those of inferior wealth and station. Certainly in Shakespeare’s time, any other meaning to the above quotation would have been inconceivable.

Dalrymple also begs the question in his call to historical analogy:

Has political life really changed very much since Shakespeare’s day, at least as portrayed in Coriolanus? If anything, it seems to have regressed towards it, having perhaps (but only perhaps) have moved away from it for an interlude of a century or two.

Here Dalrymple seems to have become confused: Shakespeare is not describing political life in his own time. England was not a democracy, though courtiers might gain influence at court by accumulating a popular following. (I’m not especially familiar with the political forms of Shakespeare’s times, but I suspect democracy went no further than election of town aldermen by the local burghers – hardly the blood and iron of Roman politics.) Thus there was no great need for any person to appeal to the public for high authority; thus the analogy is false.

Shakespeare knew of the republics of Rome and Venice, of course, and the democracy of Athens, but not in great detail, and his depictions of politics beyond the personal usually fall into the Great Man view of history – the quarrels of titans shake the Earth of we mere mortals.

Shakespeare was familiar with the Mob, of course. What ancient Greeks despised as the okhlos was still around in the Nineteenth Century, stoning the windows of the Duke of Wellington, for instance. (I suspect alcohol and unemployment were always involved, and since mass chronic unemployment is now less common, and daily drunkenness less acceptable, the present-day Mob limits its demonstrations to sporting victories and New Year’s Eve.) Shakespeare would have expanded his experience of the English Mob to the proportions of the Roman electorate, and imagined how a stiff war hero might cope if he required their acclamation. It is a literary triumph, but we should not err by imagining he represents truly the political life either of his own time or of Rome’s.


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