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He was forced to operate within political categories that he absorbed from his immediate intellectual environment, beyond which he could not possibly have seen. His Romans have been called Elizabethan Englishmen in disguise. If the plebeians clamor for grain at the beginning of Coriolanus , Shakespeare is supposed to be thinking of an event closer to home, the Midlands Insurrection of This agrarian uprising threatened the interests of the landholding class in England, and perhaps Shakespeare, as a wealthy landowner himself by this time, was worried about this kind of agitation.
Such speculations tend to divert our attention from the broader issues that Shakespeare might be raising to narrow biographical readings of his plays. Fortunately, there is an alternative to such attempts to view Shakespeare within the narrow geographic and historical confines of Renaissance England.
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In recent years, scholars have increasingly come to treat Shakespeare as a genuine political thinker in his own right, perhaps even a major political philosopher, worthy to stand comparison with Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Nietzsche, and other great minds who have meditated on the human condition in relation to politics. Shakespeare seems to have been interested precisely in the variety of regimes under which human beings have lived.
Given his experience as an Englishman, he of course devotes a good deal of effort to understanding monarchy as a distinct form of government. Yet contrary to historicist approaches, Shakespeare is not confined to thinking in terms of kingship as his only operative political category. He seems to have gone out of his way to look at ancient Rome and modern Venice, and thereby to give serious thought to the republican alternatives to monarchy, considering the ways in which encouraging fuller participation in political life might energize a commonwealth and promote the common good.
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Perhaps Shakespeare ultimately hoped to offer a model of how to incorporate republican elements into monarchy, drawing upon the classical idea of the mixed regime. His plays about Henry V seem to endorse the idea of a king getting to know his people, developing a popular touch to make it easier to rule them and to do so justly.
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In short, Shakespeare seems to have understood the concept of the regime Greek: politeia as developed by Plato and Aristotle—the idea that different forms of political organization encourage different forms of human development. Not every human possibility is equally available under every regime; it is difficult to be a Christian saint in pagan Rome and as Hamlet shows, it is equally difficult to be a classical hero in Christian Europe. A monarchy will inevitably discourage certain forms of political activity particularly those that challenge monarchy , while a republic may cause the very same activities to flourish.
Shakespeare is generally praised for the immense variety of human types he portrays in his plays. Perhaps one of the keys to this success is the variety of regimes Shakespeare covers in his plays—from ancient pagan republics to modern Christian monarchies. He is claiming to be free of the immediate confines of his Danish environment, free to pursue an ethical alternative suicide forbidden in his own community but actually encouraged in ancient Rome as Shakespeare shows in Julius Caesar.
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By the same token, precisely by using ancient Rome as a point of comparison, Shakespeare is able to highlight the new human possibilities opened up by the development of Christianity. The tension between classical and Christian values, which these plays expose, provides the basis for a distinctively Renaissance form of tragedy.
But this does not mean that we should approach his plays in the spirit of narrow, partisan politics. Politics was an intellectually liberating subject for Shakespeare because it freed him from thinking solely in terms of the categories of the community in which he happened to live.
Like all great political thinkers, Shakespeare extended his philosophical horizons by extending his political horizons.
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Contemplating a wide variety of regimes—the varying customs and beliefs that have prevailed in different communities over time—allowed Shakespeare to explore ways of life quite alien to the wide but nevertheless limited range of humanity that was available to him in Renaissance England. Could Shakespeare have imagined a Coriolanus or a Mark Antony if he could not have imagined ancient Rome?
Could he have imagined a Shylock or an Othello if he could not have imagined the distinctive political community of Venice?
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