Shakespeare Studies Relevant to Current Social Unrest, Says Professor and Author

By Tom McLaughlin

Shakespeare critics, says Chris Fitter, assume that the great playwright was a believer in divine-right monarchy.

William Shakespeare

However, explains the professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden, the Bard of Avon was just as concerned with notions of democracy and social justice, which should make Shakespeare studies surprisingly relevant and familiar in this current period of social unrest.

“Shakespeare is about alehouse indignation as much as palace intrigue, and often grief-stricken over fruitless sufferings imposed by the powerful,” says Fitter. “My hope is that what gets taught in classrooms as the ‘meaning’ of Shakespeare is no longer obsession with courts and noblemen, but the sufferings of countless impoverished commoners, the eager pressure for reform and redistribution – sought by humanists, Puritans, and social thinkers – and egalitarian ideals.”

Fitter shows how Shakespeare’s unquestioned belief in the monarchy is a taken-for-granted myth in his new book, Majesty and the Masses in Shakespeare and Marlowe: Western Anti-Monarchism, The Earl of Essex Challenge, and Political Stagecraft (Routledge, 2020).

Throughout his fourth book – following two historicized readings of Shakespeare’s plays: Radical Shakespeare: Politics and Stagecraft in the Early Career (Routledge, 2013) and Shakespeare and the Politics of Commoners: Digesting the New Social History (Oxford University Press, 2017) – the Rutgers–Camden scholar demonstrates that the legendary playwright was neither a propagandist for state power nor an equivocator, satisfied with a balance of contrasting perspectives.

“He was a protest playwright, a ventriloquist of popular grievances, publicizing the disastrous common humanity of kings and lords, who convulse the nation with beggaring wars,” he says.

Part history of ideas and part literary criticism, Majesty and Masses opens by showcasing a long history of anti-monarchist arguments and depictions in Western literature, thought, and religion – from Homeric Greece through late-Tudor humanism – of which scholars are largely unaware, for such a survey has never been written before.

“Western anti-monarchism began with the Greeks and Romans, who each overthrew tyrannical kings and proclaimed, across centuries, the benefits of a free and flourishing citizenry,” explains Fitter.

The Rutgers–Camden researcher further notes that the Tudors were deeply impressed by both the “free” Roman Senate, and the unparalleled philosophic genius of “free” Athenians such as Plato and Aristotle. Moreover, the Bible is “packed with portraits of tyrants grinding down the poor,” and the Italian Renaissance reprised the classical hymning of civic liberty, attained by elimination of monarchs. Humanists like Erasmus and Thomas More are likewise as disgusted by dynastic kingship, as an irrational institution generating barbarism, as were their heroes, Cicero and Livy.

Chris Fitter

Majesty and Masses goes on to demonstrate the deconsecration of kingship performed in Shakespeare’s history plays and in Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris. The book’s findings also unfold the important recognition that Elizabethan England, far from clutching to a simple-minded belief in dynastic monarchy, was active heir to several competing paradigms of political governance.

In the second half of the book, the Rutgers–Camden professor contends that the young militarist, the Earl of Essex, England’s most popular man, was not, as usually thought, admired by Shakespeare. Rather, to the contrary, Shakespeare’s plays sought to discredit Essex as an unstable, war-crazed, scheming militarist, who would escalate warfare against Spain, bankrupt the country, and like to seize the crown for himself.

He explains that Bullingbrooke in Richard II and Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I are thinly disguised versions of the great earl, as Hamlet later was. The appeal of Essex as a savior figure, he says, is grounded in depiction of the desperate conditions of life for the late-Tudor masses: deepening mass poverty, hypertaxation, recurrent famine, exploitation by the gentry, and press-ganging into wars, from which they returned, if at all, as cripples and beggars.

“Shakespeare was clear-eyed about the instability, misery, and hypocrisy produced by national leadership, ludicrously claiming itself to be divinely inspired,” says Fitter. “As Pistol tells his wife, before leaving for the war in France which beggars him, ‘Trust none.’”

Fitter posits that many Shakespeare critics have been unaware of the long tradition of Western anti-monarchism partly because they were misled by the censorship of the period, which, preventing direct statement of political critique, fostered the myth that all Elizabethans believed in divine-right monarchy. In addition, there are occasions in Shakespeare’s plays where divine-right ideology is explicitly affirmed, such as Claudius in Hamlet and the Bishop of Carlisle in Richard II.

“The staged action of these plays overturns such high claims, foregrounding realpolitik,” says Fitter. “And the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe, bitingly skeptical about power, were best-sellers.”

Fitter explains that Majesty and Masses is written for Shakespeare specialists. However, written in simple language, it is also accessible to schoolteachers and the interested layperson. He notes that Shakespeare is taught in every country where the English language is taught, making it a prime venue to explore a more socially conscious understanding of his works.

“Then Shakespeare studies will have become a forum for discussing democracy and social justice,” says Fitter. “And that would have made the courageous and wily old playwright very happy.”

Posted in: Arts and Culture

Comments are closed.