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Colin Sparks

The origins of Shakespeare’s drama

(Autumn 1988)

From International Socialism 2 : 40, Autumn 1988, pp. 89–104.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Classical Marxist literary theory sought to demonstrate the relationship between the real material life of social classes and the form and content of literary works. In this, it was a special part of the Marxist concern with ‘base and superstructure’ and, like this more general question, it proved quite difficult to produce an agreed solution to the problems encountered. These difficulties, along with other social and intellectual developments, led some writers who would undoubtedly claim to be Marxists, like Terry Eagleton, to abandon, in practice, the attempt to either theorise or to demonstrate the relationship between the literary texts they were analysing and the world within which they were produced. [1]

This article cannot claim to present a fully-finished modern defence of the classical tradition. What I have tried to do here is to show how, in the most unfavourable circumstances, we cannot even begin to understand the nature of literary productions and of changes in literature without investigating the struggles between classes in the world in which those works were produced. I make no claims to have solved all of the problems involved in this enquiry. In particular, I have avoided one whole class of questions which are of very considerable importance to Marxism. Literary theory has at least two major components: the analysis of literary texts and their evaluation. I have only here considered the former of those two areas of enquiry. The latter, ‘aesthetic’, task is of considerable importance but I have consciously separated it out in order to sharpen the focus upon the ‘sociological’ problems I want to look at.

This distinction is particularly important since I have chosen to write about some of Shakespeare’s plays. There is no writer in the English language whose work is surrounded with more mysticism than Shakespeare. Much of that mysticism concerns the various claims for his ‘greatness’, ‘universal validity’, or whatever. Marx himself helped to import this ‘Shakespearean cult’ into our tradition [2], and Prawer [3] cites in scholarly detail the record of his use of Shakespeare’s works. I have strong views on the question of ‘greatness’ and, in particularly, ‘universal validity’, but I have tried to keep them out of this article. What I have tried to do is to show how this writer, who is often credited with quite remarkable and supra-historical abilities, can only be properly understood in terms of the class forces of his age.

Obviously, in a short article, I cannot do that exhaustively and I have here concentrated on two plays which exemplify a central problem of Shakespearean analysis: King Lear and The Tempest. [4] These plays present quite different views of the world. In the earlier play, as in general with the tragedies, great conflicts are represented which culminate in ruin, destruction and death: as the song That’s Entertainment has it of Hamlet: ‘A Prince and a Ghost meet/And everybody ends up mincemeat’. In the later play, the conflicts are resolved at least temporarily. The problem is to explain why this fundamental change should have taken place.

One of the key resources of bourgeois criticism in these sorts of circumstances is to try to explain change in terms of the personal development of the writer under study. Thus critics of a psychoanalytic persuasion argue that the tragedies were the product of some great mental crisis experienced by Shakespeare in the first years of the seventeenth century and the later plays represent the work of a man who has reached a new stability. Religious critics, on the other hand, argue that the tragedies are the product of a spiritual crisis and the later plays are the result of a conversion to Christian faith. [5] In most cases, critics of the various persuasions would adduce biographical evidence to support their positions and the Marxist would then have to engage in a tortuous, if thoroughly correct, argument derived from Plekhanov to demonstrate that individual biographical events and qualities are only of major significance in certain concrete historical circumstances. In this instance we are spared that task since nearly 300 years of intense scholarship have revealed virtually nothing about the life of William Shakespeare. [6] We simply do not know whether he experienced any psychic or religious crises, either at the appropriate time or at any other times. This has not deterred the bourgeois critics: they have fabricated convenient crises out of their own imaginations and read them back into the texts. If we can explain the problem to which these fabrications are addressed from the actually existing evidence about the epoch, then we have not disproved the existence of any crises any more than the theory of natural selection disproved the existence of a creator, but we have rendered them ‘redundant hypotheses’. We will have shown that Marxism can do something with the historical evidence which bourgeois scholarship cannot do.

The fact is that despite the lack of evidence about Shakespeare’s life we can say with certainty that he was a bourgeois playwright. This is true in two senses. The theatre in which he worked was a capitalist enterprise and the sort of plays that he wrote are of a kind that, historically, are specific to the bourgeois epoch. The Elizabethan theatre was the mass popular entertainment of its day and Shakespeare was one of the most popular creators: he was the Julia Smith of 1600. The public commercial theatre in London dates from 1576 and was something radically new in British cultural life. The drama itself had slowly evolved out of its religious prototypes and by about 1500, in for example Fulgens and Lucres, there was already a secular comedy. This drama, however, was performed in ad hoc settings like noble houses and, increasingly, the Universities and Inns of Court. It was thus only partially free of the older relationship of clientage towards the rich and noble that characterises pre- and early capitalist artistic productions. The establishment of a permanent Theatre (that was the name of the first purpose-built establishment) by Francis Burbage in 1576 represented a different sort of relationship to society. This building and its immediate successors were very large constructions by the standards of the day and required a considerable capital investment. They produced regular performances for a paying public and thus depended not upon the whim of some powerful individual or corporate body but upon the existence of large numbers of people with at least some money income. They also needed to employ a fairly large number of professional players (all male) in order to be able to present a regular and varied programme. They were thus not ‘showcases’ for the talents, or otherwise, of individuals whose main economic or social functions were located in other spheres. In a society in which the distinction between capital and labour was only just emerging, and in which production for the market was hardly the universal form of social labour, the new theatres were at the extreme of economic and social innovation.

The fact that the theatre was part of the most capitalist sector of the economy did not, however, endear it to most capitalists. As is well known, the theatres were carefully built outside the jurisdiction of the Corporation of the City of London and depended for their operation on the protection of powerful aristocrats. The City, the collective voice of merchant and small manufacturing capital, frequently addressed complaints to the Crown about the theatres and when, in 1642, the bourgeoisie broke free of royal control they immediately closed them all down. One of the reasons for this hostility was undoubtedly religious. The theatre was a form of ‘ungodly’ popular entertainment to which the Protestant sects were uniformly hostile. On the other hand, there were other and less otherworldly reasons for the hostilities: the theatres provided meeting places for apprentices and others where they made a noise, stopped out late and behaved in a generally unruly fashion. To read some of the petitions of the time is rather like reading the Daily Telegraph on the question of ‘football hooligans’ today. The merchants and manufacturers objected to large gatherings of their employees as some sort of threat to their control of the city streets and thus to their social power. The crown and the great aristocrats, whatever their literary inclinations, were quite happy to encourage and protect the theatres just because they constituted a point of popular opposition to the City and thus aided in the bargaining between these different sources of power.

Shakespeare, who made a lot of money out of the theatre, was thus a very successful participant in an advanced capitalist enterprise which, paradoxically, depended for its continuing functioning upon the support of the pre-capitalist elements in British society. For a literary figure, as indeed for intellectuals generally, the only exceptional element of this combination was the extent of his involvement in capitalist enterprises. Writers, like priests and other ‘brain workers’ of this period, tended to come not from the ‘feudal aristocracy’ but from the ranks of the middling merchants and, to a lesser extent, the minor gentry. What they all had in common was a degree of dependence upon the Tudor state machine for their employment and status. Thus, to take two obvious examples: Spenser, son of a journeyman Merchant Taylor, was successively Clerk to the Council of Munster and Sheriff of Cork, narrowly escaping the insurrection of 1598; Donne, son of a prominent member of the Company of Ironmongers, was Secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and later a clergyman. These two stood at the opposite pole to Shakespeare: they were much more the products of the traditional system of clientage and their work is clearly directed to an educated and ‘aristocratic’ audience whereas his is ‘popular’, both in its initial form of propagation and in its concerns and references. Between these extremes lay the bulk of the intellectuals of the day and as such they can be understood as part of a wider class that had grown up in the course of the sixteenth century. [7]

By 1600 it is no longer at all possible to describe England as ’feudal’, although there were clearly large elements of pre- capitalist production and life remaining. Capitalist farming and capitalist trading were already quite advanced and the political structure of Tudor England represented an attempt to construct an ‘absolute’ state. This form of rule involved the breaking of the power of the independent feudal lords with their private armies, the establishment of a permanent state machine with both the effective monopoly of force and control over the economic and social life of the national territory. Old ‘international’ structures like the Catholic Church were subjected to royal control and direction as an important ideological mechanism in controlling the minds of the population. In short, the modern national state was in the process of construction. This process went much further in Europe, and particularly in France, than it did in England where it was cut short in 1642, but during Shakespeare’s lifetime it flourished here too.

The attitude of different classes to this type of development is particularly interesting. The growth of royal power at the expense of the old landed magnates was bitterly resisted, leading on occasions to outbreaks of ‘reactionary’ civil wars. The royal power, on the other hand, attempted to concentrate aristocratic life around the court and to promote ‘new men’, often recruited from outside the old aristocracy, to positions of power and influence in the state. In France, these people were known as the ‘nobility of the robe’ and were sharply distinguished from the older ’nobility of the sword’. In Britain the distinction also existed, though it was less complete, particularly since the dissolution of the monastic order had led to the effective ennoblement of a large number of people.

For financial and merchant capital, the strengthening of royal power was welcome. On the one hand monarchs and states provided one of the largest and most secure homes for money loans and, on the other hand, their establishment of a uniform law and a single national state greatly facilitated trade. Added to this, by the sixteenth century, imperial conquest and ‘commercial military ventures’ like the slave trade had become increasingly important parts of economic life. Consequently, these groups of capitalists had an interest in continuing a close relationship with the state, particularly if there were limited but real prospects of social advancement and influence as well as money in the deal.

On the other hand there were also increasing disadvantages to the arrangement. Royal power was expensive and difficult to control. It tried to raise money by means of arbitrary taxation or the sale of lucrative monopolies to particular favourites. It could not be relied upon to pursue a foreign policy based on the needs of trade but was the prisoner of dynastic considerations. Its dealings with the old aristocracy meant that filling senior posts and policy making were often based on favouritism or heredity rather than competence, and so on. One of the consequences of these strains was that the capitalist class increasingly divided into two sections: those who were closely and irrevocably allied with the court, and those who were increasingly distanced from it. So long as the major sections of capital were purely or largely financial or mercantile, there was no new form of production growing. Both of these forms of capital could and did happily co-exist with older forms of production, from which they extorted surpluses produced elsewhere and which they only slowly and unevenly dissolved ‘from within’. By the start of the seventeenth century, however, capitalist production proper was beginning to emerge and with it a new and independent source of economic and social power. [8] The strains between the old forms of life and the new were growing all the time and, in the long run, their implications were revolutionary.

The intellectuals, mainly the products of the new classes but almost completely dependent upon the good will of the older classes and the state, naturally had to live with these growing contradictions. Those intellectuals who gained their living from the most capitalist form of entertainment but who were still dependent upon the state for patronage, felt the strains more acutely than most. Lucien Goldmann argued, in a neglected Marxist classic The Hidden God (1964), that in France it was precisely the ‘nobility of the robe’ who produced a tragic ‘world vision’ during the late seventeenth century. According to him:

A world vision is, in fact, the conceptual extrapolation in the most coherent possible manner of the real, emotional, intellectual and even motor tendencies of the members of a group. It is a coherent pattern of problems and replies which is expressed, on the literary plane, by the creation through words of a concrete universe of beings and things ... if my hypothesis is correct, all valid literary works have an inner coherence and express a world vision. [9]

He argued that the particular form this world vision took for the ‘nobility of the robe’ in the early capitalist epoch was a tragic one organised around the ‘silent god’. This vision, in its dramatic form ‘tells the story of a man who is alone from the very beginning’. [10] In this world vision the protagonists live in a state of supplication to the god they believe exists but who refuses to intercede in the doings of the social and material world:

Tragic man is absent and present in the world at one and the same time, exactly as God is simultaneously absent and present to man. Even if the smallest and most imperceptible ray of light – or real truth or real justice – were to become visible, tragedy would disappear, and man would be linked with God in a world made humanly habitable. [11]

Goldmann develops this proposition in some detail around the writings of Pascal and Racine but we can make this into a more general proposition about one of the major forms of consciousness available in the period when the capitalist class is beginning to think of standing on its own two feet and breaking with the absolute state.

The development of the absolute state also involved the subordination of the church to the needs of the national ideology and the proposition of divine sanction for the acts of the royal power, the ‘Divine Right of Kings’. In other words the major form of ideological control was identified as both the ultimate sanction of human action and the immediate justification for state power. Any class wishing to challenge the political power thus also needed to challenge its theological pretensions. Later in the seventeenth century the revolutionary wing of the bourgeoisie was to do precisely this. Its self-conscious ideologist, John Milton, in for example The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, was to provide a political and a theological justification for the execution of the king and for the general programme of the Independents. [12] Half a century earlier, however, for a much less developed and class-conscious bourgeoisie, the problem presented itself as a tension between its social nature as a class dependent upon a new form of social life and its political dependence upon a compromise with the absolute state. In its intellectual and literary representatives there was always the possibility that this social crisis would find expression in a spiritual and moral crisis involving a questioning of the basis for human action and the possibility of divine sanctions.

Not all literary works would be expected to confront the issue directly: as we have seen there were a range of differently nuanced social positions open to writers in the period. Neither should we expect all writers to give the same attention to the dilemmas of their class: not all literary works express the ‘maximum potential consciousness’ of a class. Nor would the same writer necessarily give the same attention to the problem, or the same answer to the questions it raised, at different stages of their career. In some periods it might seem possible to resolve the problems without any fundamental upheaval, or at least to postpone their impact, while at others they might present themselves in an extremely acute form. What we would expect a larger and more detailed study of the period to show, however, is that all the writers of this class and period in one way or another reflected upon the general dilemma of their class.

We have already seen how Shakespeare was someone particularly likely to confront the general problems of his class in an acute form. We stated fairly flatly above that not only was Shakespeare engaged in a theatre that was clearly capitalist but that his plays themselves had a bourgeois form, too. It was one of the heroic achievements of the bourgeoisie that it gave rise to the modern concept of the individual, freeing humanity from the restrictions imposed by earlier modes of production and patterns of thought. But the price paid for this advance was that the human individual emerged as the bourgeois individual. The ideal of the ‘Renaissance Man’ was a limited and one-sided projection of what the bourgeoisie hoped humanity could be like, but if you did not happen to be Cosimo de Medici even that one-sided perfection was problematic. [13] The alienated social relations which are characteristic of capitalism began to show themselves very early on, particularly in literary forms. The bourgeoisie created individuals, but created them in opposition to society. The bourgeoisie created civil society, but created it in opposition to the state. The bourgeoisie created the individual and subjective consciousness but created it in opposition to the objective world. The literary forms that it created reproduced these antinomies exactly. On the one hand, and from very early on, the newly liberated consciousness found expression in the short lyric poem, most obviously the sonnet. This is the form of subjective perception, in which the whole of the literary effort is expended in describing how something is experienced. On the other hand, and much later, the distance between consciousness and the world that it confronted found expression in the classic novel, in which the resources of narrative viewpoint permit the articulation both of subjective feelings and the objective world in which it is forced to struggle. Drama, in the bourgeois epoch, has always had a difficult time of it since it is a form particularly adapted to the representation of public action, of what people say and do, and can only with difficulty show the interior life of its characters. Shakespeare’s plays are very obviously a case in point: they are full of formal devices, most obviously the soliloquy, designed to cope with this problem. Hamlet is the most extreme case of a ‘bourgeois’ drama, in which the exterior action and speech is really only a minor part of the total development of the play which depends very heavily on its use of ‘non-dramatic’ elements to achieve its effect: the bits that people remember are precisely the least ‘dramatic’ bits.

In the two senses we have argued above, we can say that being does indeed determine consciousness: the plays under consideration are indeed the products of very precise historical circumstances. But that is not the end of the matter since the social circumstances within which King Lear and The Tempest were written did not differ fundamentally: there is a relationship of direct determination only in the ‘epochal’ sense of the general formal features a writer displays. In order to go any further we have to recall that for Marxists consciousness is essentially a practical category: while it starts from the world as given it is fundamentally concerned with transforming that world. [14] While the relationship is fairly direct and obvious when I look out of my window, see weeds growing in the garden and resolve to remove them, the same thing applies in principle to the highly developed mental structures realised in philosophy or drama. The relationship between developed ideologies and the practical life of the classes that generate them may be a highly mediated and indirect one but it is nevertheless present. Consequently we would expect to find that Shakespeare’s plays do not ‘reflect’ the world of his day but ‘project’ it: they explore its logic and its consequences. If we look at King Lear in this light, we can see this very clearly. We will consider three factors which are very closely linked together: the questions of god, authority and humanity.

The most immediate fact that strikes anyone seeing or reading the play is the amount of swearing that goes on in it. Almost all the major characters utter oaths of one form or another but these are completely and directly contradictory pronouncements upon the gods and their nature. Lear and Kent even have a semi-comic interlude (II: iv: 15–22) in which they attempt to outs wear each other. Some of the pronouncements upon the nature of god have the appearance of being major insights, for example the blind Gloucester says:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ Gods;
They kill us for their sport.
(IV: i: 36–7)

This would have the weight of an important summation of divine malefience from someone who has suffered a great deal, but his son, who has also suffered a great deal, makes a similar unqualified statement as to the beneficence of the gods:

The Gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
(V: iii: 170–71)

God may be just or unjust, judgemental or capricious, the play does not provide an answer.

Nor does it have any answer as to the ability of god to intervene in and change human affairs. Cordelia, who is the nearest thing to a god in the play, being spoken of in divine terms (e.g. at IV: viii: 46 and V: iii: 10–11), is the victim of very clearly human actions. She is not parted from Lear by ‘a brand from heaven’ (V: iii: 22) but is murdered by an ambitious and worldly soldier. Appeals for divine intervention are made as regularly as oaths throughout the play and yet the only apparent intervention of any superhuman agency is the incoherent, unintelligible voice of storm and thunder which is seen as divine only by the mad Lear (III: ii: 49–51).

The play has a similar confusion of opinions upon the basis of authority, power and worldly actions. In trying to prevent Cordelia’s banishment, Kent distinguishes between power and authority, and proclaims his right to act against the King when ‘majesty stoops to folly’ (I: i: 149), but he is prepared to humble himself, disguise his person, and return to the service of Lear in a menial capacity, for he finds in Lear ‘that ... which I would fain call master ... Authority’ (I: iv: 29–32). The Fool, on the other hand, makes no such distinction and all his criticisms of Lear at their first meeting are directed at Lear’s renunciation of plain power, with an acute perception that it is upon this that his ‘authority’ actually rests (I: iv: 100–331). Lear himself, after his fall, makes two speeches upon power and authority which equates the two as identical and equally corrupt (III: ii: 49–60 and IV: vi: 159–74). The only reason for even the most savage actions is the whim of the powerful. Oswald is dispatched on an errand with the instructions to murder Gloucester if he meets him and resolves that he ‘should show/What party I do follow’ for he knows that ’preferment falls on him that cuts him of (IV: v: 38–41).

King Lear shows the most extreme confusion about the motives and sanctions for human action. The three characters who act according to traditional norms of loyalty and right conduct, Cordelia, Edgar and Kent receive neither rewards nor the knowledge that their actions have prospered. By the end of the play they are dead or spiritually ruined and the only remaining motive is the burden of duty to ‘the gor’d state sustain’ (V: iii: 320).

So far, King Lear approximates to Goldmann’s notion of tragedy as the ‘silence of god’ in that there is no evidence of divine intervention despite the constant pleas of the characters. Indeed, in some ways it represents a more desolate moral and spiritual universe in that it does not even seem to sustain the notion that there might be a god at all. If this were the case, the play would hardly be a tragedy but a bloody spectacle like some of the ‘revenge tragedies’ of the period, which are clearly nihilistic in their morality. In order to be moved to ‘pity and terror’ we need to find within the play some sort of index of right action to judge the actions of the characters. In King Lear that index is a belief in common humanity as the keynote of justice and morality. In the course of his madness Lear comes to reject the call for indulgent luxury he makes early in the play (‘O! reason not the need ...’ at II: iv: 266–88) and to see social justice as an index of divine justice:

Poor naked wretches, whereso ’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? ...
... Take physic, Pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the Heavens more just’.
(III: IV: 28–36)

Lear’s identification of ‘unaccommodated man ... a poor bare forked animal’ (III: iv: 109–110) as the measure of value is not simply the insight of a mad king but is woven into the whole of the play. The Fool, who is the touchstone of Lear’s behaviour, speaks continually in the riddling verse of folk-wisdom, particularly in his ‘Merlin’ prophecy (III: ii: 79–96). Kent disguises himself as a poor man and his assumed accent (I: iv: 1–2) is a dramatic contrast to his equally-assumed flattery (II: ii: 106–109). Gloucester is aided by a poor old man and by his son disguised as a beggar. It is a servant who tries to prevent his blinding, provoking Regan to cry in amazement ‘A peasant stand up thus!’ (III: vi: 69). Gloucester calls on the gods, who do not answer him, but a common man does. The appeal to the common man as the source of right action is as insistent as it is impotent: The Fool dies; Gloucester and Kent are destroyed; the servants cannot prevent Gloucester’s blinding and no-one can save Lear from his final mental and physical destruction. But it is the presence of this strand of value which renders the play a tragedy when counter-posed to the collapse of all other measures of human conduct and divine sanction. It is a play of contradictory imperatives and absolutes whose clash brings ruin. Even the language of the play, with its rapid alternation between the lofty naming of the gods and the monosyllabic precision of its naming of immediate human endeavour articulates these clashes. In order to understand why this should be the case we need to return to our analysis of social reality.

As with all of Shakespeare’s plays, there is a problem with dating King Lear exactly: it seems to have been written at some time between 1604 and 1606, perhaps in the winter of 1604–05. I would prefer the earlier date to be correct since it fits my argument rather nicely, but anywhere within that timescale will do well enough. The tragic period of Shakespeare follows immediately after the death of Elizabeth and the accession of James I. Elizabeth, both by the length of her reign and her personal qualities, as much as by the policies she had pursued, had been able to ‘freeze’ the political situation into one of a balance between classes inside the country. She was the physical representative of a social, political and religious stability at home and of military and commercial successes abroad: the sonneteers really meant it when they praised her extravagantly for she assured them of the world’s continuity. The accession of James threw this settlement into some confusion. His accession itself, the importation of a foreign (and incomprehensible) king for purely dynastic reasons underlined the fragility of bourgeois influence over the absolute state: they were reminded that while they might be partners they were very much junior partners. At the same time, he altered the terms of the bargain by ennobling a large number of people. Elizabeth had been very sparing with the dispensation of such rewards and James’s ‘inflation of honours’ was part of a more general shift in the alignment of the different elements within the ruling class and the state machine. [15] At the same time, economic historians usually identify the first years of the new century as the period in which small scale capitalist producers became for the first time a significant and influential element of the capitalist class. [16] James, on the other hand, interfered increasingly with the economic life of the nation and tended to grant particular groups of capitalists privileges at the expense of their class as a whole. In other words, we see in the shift of dynasties a re-negotiation of the relationship between state, nobility and capitalist class just at the moment when the basis of a genuinely independent capitalist class was coming to prominence. In the long term, this shift led to a decomposition of the alliances and thus to the revolution. In the short term, it was a considerable shake up of established social boundaries inside and around the state machine and the dilemma of choice for those dependent upon the state machine for their social positions but whose origins and social activity was embedded in another and different class.

Shakespeare, as we have seen, was in a position to register that crisis particularly clearly.

It is this immediate crisis which lies behind the tragedies and the plays are an exploration of the problems posed for intellectuals by that social turbulence. The collapse of religious and moral authority which we have traced in King Lear is a projection of the consequences of real material events and the barbarous whims of the powerful are contrasted with a stress upon the value and loyalty of the ‘popular’. The crisis provoked by James’s new policies was emphatically not a social cataclysm and there was no reason why it should be reflected as tragedy but it is a characteristic of its projection in a dramatic world vision that its tragic consequences should be recognised. King Lear may anticipate the genuine conflicts of the revolution by 40 years but it manifestly arises out of the same irreconcilable social contradictions.

The Tempest was written some time before its first performance in 1611, and thus dates from between five and seven years later than King Lear. Strikingly, both plays begin from a very similar abdication of responsibility on the part of a monarch, but the consequences in the later play are radically different. Lear’s division of his kingdom is the occasion of the tragic action of the play, but Prospero’s coup is in the past when The Tempest opens and the play is concerned with the healing of such breaches rather than their catastrophic consequences.

If we look at the same elements in The Tempest as we did in King Lear, we find the differences are very considerable. The Tempest is suffused with supernatural interventions and, what is more, this divine power is present, visible, effective and evident throughout the play in the person of Prospero himself. In the opening storm Gonzalo prays to ‘the wills above’ (I: i: 66) but the controlling agency of the storm is Prospero. His divine control of the elements is immediately emphasised by Miranda:

If by your Art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them ...
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth ...
(I: ii: 1–11)

Prospero reassures her that:

I have with such provision in mine Art
So safely ordered, that there is no soul –
No, not so much perdition as an hair
Betid to any creature in the vessel
(I: ii: 28–31)

The theme is constantly repeated. Ferdinand is sure that the music he hears ‘waits upon/Some god o’ th’ island’ (I: ii: 391–2) and Ariel later refers to Prospero as ‘Destiny’ and ‘Fate’ (III: iii: 53–61). What Ariel says is:

You are three men of sin, whom Destiny, –
That hath to instrument this lower world
And what is in’t, – the never-surfeited sea
Hath caus’d to belch up you; and on this island,
Where man doth not inhabit ...
(III: iii: 53–7)

The island, of course, does now contain men, but if we look at those who ‘inhabit’ it they are: the ‘spirit’ Ariel; the ‘monster’ Caliban; the ‘maid’ Miranda; and ... Prospero. Prospero gives Ferdinand ‘a second life’ (V: i: 195) and he is the ‘heavenly power’ whom Gonzalo hopes will lead them from the island (V: i: 105).

Prospero himself is the exception in this general attempt to attribute him with divinity. According to him, he came to the island by ‘Providence divine’ (I:ii: 159) and his present advantages are enjoyed thanks to ‘bountiful Fortune’ which will not remain with him permanently (I: ii: 178–84). Neither is he quite omniscient, for he briefly forgets the drunken conspirators (IV: i: 139–42). He is emphatic about his own mortality, not only in his assurance to Alonso (V: 1: 106–66), but in his forecast that in Milan ‘Every third thought shall be my grave’ (V: i: 311). Above all, there is his great speech:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a wrack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is bounded with a sleep.
(IV: i: 151–8)

Inside the play, Prospero actually is, or represents, the divine power but he is also a divinity who is limited and transitory. For the duration of his Art, and thus of the play, there is no ‘silent god’, but outside of that is more uncertain.

As the divine order personified, Prospero is the controlling and validating power for all of the actions in the play. He can prevent any abuse of power, thwarting the drunken conspirators (IV: i: 165–62) and as we have seen he controls the storm exactly to his ends. He can enforce his will on anyone he chooses. He sends his daughter to sleep at will (I: ii: 184–6) and he forces his enemies to repent. It is by no means clear that Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love at their own volition since during their wooing, he thanks Ariel three times (I: ii: 423–4, 444–5 and 497–8) and certainly the romance ‘goes on, I see,/As my soul prompts it’ (I: ii: 422–3).

His absolute power, however, is coercive and does not depend upon the consent of those governed. The two characters most obviously subjected to his will are Ariel and Caliban. They have oddly similar aspirations. Ariel takes the first opportunity to claim ‘my liberty’ (I: ii: 243–) and he returns to this theme time and again despite Prospero’s irritation. Ariel at least has some debt to Prospero, who released him from the power of Sycorax. Caliban has no such debt. He has been enslaved (I: ii: 332–44) a–d he does not relish the ‘human care’ (I: ii: 348) that Prospero has lavished on him. In his view he has merely learned the vices of mankind and how to curse (I: ii: 365–7). He, too, wants his freedom, to such an extent that he is prepared to serve another ‘god’, Stephano in order to utter his cry:

Freedom, high-day! high-day, freedom! Freedom,
high-day, freedom!
(II: ii: 186–7)

Freedom, in the world of Prospero, is either the reward for complete and utter loyalty or the cry of the monster and the drunken common man.

The tenuous core of value formed by the link of common humanity is no longer present. There are no Fools or Old Men or rebelliously humane servants in The Tempest. Labour, the life of the common man, is only given any value when it is associated with service to Prospero (III: i: 1–67). The common people do not respond to humane treatment (IV: i: 188–93). Left to themselves they behave as Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban: their instinct is towards drunkenness, anarchy and destruction. They are no longer the instinctively good but the subversive enemies of the noble.

The world of The Tempest is thus quite different from that of the tragedies. It is one where right and wrong, master and servant, good and evil, are fixed and clear. It is a world in which divine power is manifest on earth and in which godly sanction is identical with the actions of the powerful. It is a world in which all must obey and in which obedience leads to a resolution of conflicts, to reconciliation and to marriage. It is a world in which the common people need close supervision if they are to give satisfaction and not to vent their natural anarchic instincts. Again, the smoother and more controlled language of the play matches the shift in vision. On the other hand, it is not quite a permanent and stable world. The concerns of the tragedies are present as an undertone. Prospero’s powers are limited. He discards his Art and he faces his death. The drives of power and ambition, the desires for freedom, are all still present and are held barely in check. The conflicts are resolved at least on the surface of this ‘comedy’, but they are so deep that the usual term of ‘tragi-comedy’ is quite appropriate.

This, I want to argue, is a different world-vision from the one we examined earlier. It is true that it is still the thinking through of the same sorts of dilemmas, but it articulates within a sense of confidence that they can, at least for the time being, be resolved. According to the theoretical model I have been developing, this new vision should be a projection based upon altered social circumstances. Fortunately for me and for Marxism, it was. By the time this play was written the Stuart innovations were an established part of social life and were no longer the shocking and disturbing novelties they had been a few years earlier. Different groups and classes had adjusted to the new arrangements and made their choices between court and city. The theatre, or at least that part of it to which Shakespeare belonged, certainly had made its choice. By 1610 it had aligned itself very firmly with the court and with the state machine against the city. The Tempest was produced not for the popular audiences of the commercial theatre but for a Court festivity.

The key to the shift in the world vision articulated in these two phases of Shakespeare’s life is thus to be discovered not in biographical factors but in the social circumstances of the class of which he was a member. At the end of the reign of Elizabeth this group was faced with a reappraisal of its relationship to the state and to its own class origins. Out of the choice arising from that conflict came the tragic vision in which all authority is questioned and in which the common humanity of some nobles and the common people is the only possible, if ineffective, measure of virtue. By the time of the late plays a new alignment of forces had stabilised. The wing of the intellectuals represented by Shakespeare had thrown in their lot with the Court and cut their ties with their own class origins. The new world he portrayed still rested on shaky foundations, but at least for the time being there was a power and a principle of authority which all had to obey. Those, like the common people, who found it unpalatable, could always be whipped into line. King Lear is the drama of the bourgeois choice between subordination to the absolute state and the revolutionary implications of its own class nature. The Tempest is a celebration of absolutism by a bourgeois playwright who has made his choice.


All references to the plays are from the Arden Shakespeare paperbacks, which just goes to show how long ago it was that I studied literature:
King Lear, ed. K. Muir (Methuen, 1964).
The Tempest, ed. F. Kermode (Methuen, 1964).

1. Eagleton’s own book, Shakespeare and Society (Chatto and Windus, 1967) was an early work (allegedly his undergraduate essays) and it is ‘a consideration of individual and society in the plays’ (p. 10). It is therefore understandable and excusable to find that it deals only with the texts of the plays.

2. F. Mehring, in his Karl Marx (George Allen and Unwin, 1936), gives an account of this (p. 504).

3. S.S. Prawer, Karl Marx and World Literature (Oxford, 1978).

4. I believe that what I have argued here can be extended to account for the other plays, but that will have to wait.

5. R.S. Danby claimed King Lear as at least as Christian as the Divine Comedy in Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature (Faber, 1948), p. 205. To be fair, the religious critics, of whom G. Wilson Knight was the most famous, have mostly long received their reward. Recent schools of thought tend to eschew this sort of thing and be much more technical.

6. More or less everything that is known about the man’s life is summarised in the first 66 pages of C. Williams’s abridgement of Chambers’s A Short Life of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1965).

7.There is An Analysis of the Social Status of 200 Renaissance Poets, in P. Sheavyn, The Literary Profession in the Elizabethan Age (Manchester University Press, Second revised edition 1969), pp. 211–238.

8. Since Marxists are famously accused of thinking that the ‘rising middle classes’ are the key to all history, it is as well to point out that even in The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels were careful to distinguish precisely between different stages of the economic and political development of the bourgeoisie.

9. L. Goldmann, The Hidden God, trans. P. Thody (RKP, 1964), pp. 314–15.

10. Ibid., p. 306.

11. Ibid., p. 60.

12. A. Milner, John Milton and the English Revolution (MacMillan, 1981).

13. See G. Lukacs’s essay The Bourgeois Ideal of the Harmonious Man, in his Writer and Critic, trans. A. Khan (Merlin, 1970).

14. See G. Lukács, Labour as a model of social practice, in New Hungarian Quarterly, vol. xiii, No. 47, Autumn 1972.

15. L. Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy (Oxford, 1967), pp. 37–61.

16. M. Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism (RKP, 1963), p. 134.

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