William Shakespeare was a writer, not a politician. But he was destined by the very fact of his greatness to become a theorist of politics as well. The temptation to find a sign of theory for politics in his work is too strong to resist – it is almost unbelieveable that a great writer living in England in the XVI-XVII centuries could escape greatest political and philosophical debates.Shakespeare did not. He was deeply involved into the context of his time, where state and power were among main subjects of concern.
During all periods of his work, Shakespeare was formulating his own attitude towards the tendencies that shortly afterwards led to English revolution. The historical material he used was mainly about the period of long-lasting feudal conflicts in England.The problem as well as the approach were not unique.
The so-called “political skill” was a matter of concern for many, especially those who denied its Divine origins. Naturally, political systems in Europe gave all resons for that. Christendom, a concept of the early Medieval period, has failed. European political space did not unify, more than that – it became evedent, that it was gradually disintegrated. Reformation and subsequent political conflicts, enspired by religious hostility, led to a raise of quite a “multipolar” world in Europe, in which intrigue and statecraft played sometimes very important role – much more important than religious or ethnic motives. Especailly true that was about Italian states: difficult political environment and lack of unity made it vitaly important to improve political skills of the leadership.
Something like that was later actual for France and England.Italian writer thus became the first to analyze the nature and peculiarities of political processes. Nicolo Machiavelli summed his conclusions in his “Prince”, which became an example of “pragmatic” view on power, so uncommon for Europeans of the time. Undoubtedly, ideas expressed by Machiavelli influenced many people including writers and Shakespeare in particular.
But such influence was accompanied by personal implications as well as by historical background. What was actual and true about Italian cities could have been absolutely incorrect about English counties.Thus historical plays by Shakespeare, in particular Henry IV and Richard II, are the exapmles of an English interpretation of Italian theory, which have something to share and in some ways opposes the latter. Shakespeare is neither an adept, not a critic of Machiavelli – he is an analyst of his own, concerned about the problems facing his society. Two strong motives may be observed in Shakespeare’s plays: 1) a support for the Divine Right of kings, which means that there is a need for some kind of justification of hereditary power, upon which stability may be created; 2) a call for “pragmatic” rule in the sense that power obtained from God should be exercised in the way that make people (in broad sense) more happy.
Such a view, or synthesis, was not new or unique. New was the form of expression, the way in which Shakespeare described his point. Dialogues and scenes of Henry IV and Richard II are simple and clear but they convey some deep thoughts. A motive for Divine Right had been also expressed in Richard III, where the figure of main character dominates the whole scene from the beginning to the end. Something very much alike one may see in Richard II, with more complicated plot and composition. Shakespeare demonstrates that royal power is not something to enjoy.
O villains, vipers, damn’d without redemption!Dogs, easily won to fawn on any man!Snakes, in my heart-blood warm’d, that sting my heart!Three Judases, each one thrice worse than Judas!Would they make peace? Terrible hell make warUpon their spotted souls for this offence!(W. Shakespeare. King Richard II. Act III, Scene 2.) For him this is something to be responsible for, probably – something to sacrifice or die for. Returning to Medieval tradition, we may found some pre-christian analogies in feudal conflicts. One king must equal for one God and that will be good.A dialogue between Falstaff and Poins may seem to prove that there is nothing divine in royal power.
But later on it becomes evident that royal power which is destined gives sense of unlimited power. Such neighbour nearness to our sacred bloodShould nothing privilege him nor partializeThe unstooping firmness of my upright soul.(W.
Shakespeare, King Richard II, Act I, Scene 1). Divine power means not very much responsibility by the definition. This is the place, Shakespeare makes his own point. Showing life of princes and king himself in Henry IV, he shows that Divine power is something that may disappear, or something that may be overtaken by people.
“Special” effects, used in Henry IV, outline this idea. The plot is filled with small funny scenes from real life, showing how they affect political proceccess. A prince and a king are common people – again not a new idea, but expressed in new forms.
An idea of destiny is outlined in several ways: Edward’s seven sons, whereof thyself art one,Were as seven vials of his sacred blood,Or seven fair branches springing from one root.Some of those seven are dried by nature’s course,Some of those branches by the Destinies cut;(W. Shakespeare, King Richard II, Act I, Scene 2).One of the main ideas central for Shakespeare is the role of absolute royal power in general. Combining several approaches to it, trying to join Divine rights with very concrete responsibilities, Shakespeare although supports the view that the more power for a monarch the better. The reason for that is probably the political situation in England.
The XV century was full of intrenal conflicts and wars. They were the main sourse for instability. Quite naturally, the reason seemed to be a weak royal power. The example of France demonstrated how strong monarch could win wars and guarantee trade and flourishing.
Big English feudals – the Yorks, the Sommersets, the Northumberlands, the Hotspurs and others – were seeing as the main disorganizing force in the state. That was quite natural.Feudal anarchy is opposed by the idea of central power. For Shakespeare such power was only possible under a monarch, although republicans of the time had probably something to object. Royal power could only be possible with the idea of its Divine origin. Supported by church, such system would have been stable and long-lasting. This also implied the principle of hereditary power, with heirs strictly determined by family ties. Shakespeare could have vividly remebered the horrors of civil wars between the Yorks and the Lancasters, as well as conflicts preceeding Queen’s Elizabeth reign.
The problem was widely discussed at the time, so it was almost impossible not to mention it while describing royal life. Regarfing all that one may understand the meaning of long dialogues on the topic, which are found in many of Shakespeare’s plays. All that is directly connected with the idea od Divine rights and with the problem of the transition of those rights.In Henry IV, Shakespeare describes the rule of the king as full of upraisals and other destabilizing events.
The reason for them is the wrong policy adopted by the monarch, uneffective management, to put it in a more modern way.Here comes another part of a story. Shakespeare thus puts forward a thesis on “effective” use of power. That is very close to Machiavelli. An Italian was free from occupation with Divine rights. Despite he put all efforts to improve effectiveness of power, of whatever origin. Shakespeare shows miscalculations of Henry IV as leading to disasters.
The episode of usurping power by Bolingbrock may be seen differently. It may be seen as a prelude for further troubles: by capturing power he violated Divine rights which was the reason for further problems. But it also may look like a very “pragmatic” mistake.
By creating a precedent, he opened way for other feudals, who from now on were just waiting for political mistakes. This could have been easily corrected by some measures without reviewing Divine status of power.Since Henry IV came to power with the help of feudals their relations are far from those of lord and servants.
Divine status thus gives way to practical political reasons, which is so close to Machiavelli. The same picture is shown in Richard II. The constant dependancy on feudals and lack of Divine status is the everlasting problem of such king.Thus a strong royal power is a political good since it promotes the well-being of the whole society. But a king is to be somehow “up to his status”.
This idea is illustrated in Henry IV: I stay too long by thee, I weary thee.Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chairThat thou wilt needs invest thee with my honoursBefore thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth!(W. Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part II, Act IV, Scene 5) For a king to be “effective”, he has to possess some moral qualities.
Such a monarch is rarely found in Shakespeare’s plays.Unlike Shakespeare, Machiavelli considers heir’s status as just one from many important factors. A king for Machiavelli is just one of the politicians who have almost equal chances for success. Just like he compares Turkey and France to illustrate comparative difficulty of conquest, one may compare systems of non-absolute and absolute monarchy.
The latter is easy to capture but difficult to retain. Later on these ideas on structural power were developed, for example, by A. Gramsci.
Both for Shakespeare and for Machiavelli king’s moral qualitites are of some importance since they help retain power. The result is responsibility for both: Canst thou, o partial sleep, give thy reposeTo the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;And in the calmest and most stillest night,With all appliances and means to boot,Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.(W. Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II, Act 3, Scene 1.)Shakespeare’s responsibility was different from Machiavelli’s. The latter’s was much more political.
It demanded from a monarch constant struggle. Republican traditions of Italy can hardly be compared with political culture of England. Nevertheless, several problems were similar. Integration and unification seemed for Machiavelli possible only via skillful political operations. For Shakespeare there was an alternative – supported by Divine Right idea od centralized royal power. Both had something more important in common. They saw a royal power not as a value in itself, but as a tool for serving people. Weak power for Machivelli meant poor defense for people, first of all from external threat.
Weak power for Shakespeare meant inner conflicts with people suffering from that most of all. An idea of Divine Right, central for Shakespeare did not prevent him from demanding a more skillful and effective politics serving people’s interests.Political situation in England was such that it demanded changes.
The development of the state required modernization of political system. Old tasks were forgotten, the country needed to adapt for new economic situation. Shakespeare’s great role was to work out the experience of previous centuries and elaborate new remedies for new deseases. Divine Right was no longer enough; by defending it, Shakespeare dad not say that it should be the only basis and legitimator for royal power.
At the end the skill and effectiveness would be judges. Obtaining royal power by Divine Right may be easy, but exersicing it is surely difficult.