Bullish on the Bard

Today is the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (it may also be his birthday; his standard biographies merely say he was baptized on April 26, with his exact birthday uncertain), and while the Left has been trying to kill off Shakespeare for a long time now, they haven’t succeeded.

I argue that the best insights on Shakespeare today are to be found from . . . conservative political scientists. On the surface it might seem strange that Shakespeare could be considered as meaningful to political thought as he is for literature, but as Allan Bloom argued it is perhaps only in political science today that “Shakespeare is taught as though he said something.” Harry Jaffa put it succinctly: “Shakespeare’s theater and Plato’s cave are closely related,” and argued further that Shakespeare was one of only two writers who absorbed the full impact of Machiavelli’s teaching. (He thought the other was Leo Strauss.) Is this idea so outrageous or novel? The modernist artist and critic Wyndham Lewis argued much the same thesis in his 1927 book The Lion and the Fox: The Role of the Hero in the Plays of William Shakespeare. “The master figure of Elizabethan drama is Machiavelli. . . Elizabethan drama. . . was more terrified of Machiavelli than of anybody.”

Today Shakespeare has become politicized with all of the usual filters of post-modern ideology, and it is not certain whether to greet with dismay or relief the news that a startling high number of English literature departments nowadays de-emphasize Shakespeare. (Some colleges no longer require a single course on Shakespeare for English majors.) Meanwhile, in political science departments where conservatives have a strong presence it is common to find popular courses on Shakespeare as a political thinker. Allan Bloom justified the enterprise in a manner that would not be uncongenial to the great Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom (who was no relation to Allan):

Shakespeare devotes great care to establishing the political setting in almost all 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. I contend that the man of political passions and education is in a better position to understand the plays than a purely private man. 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.