William Shakespeare lived at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I and the start of the reign of James I (and VI of Scotland). This was a time when modernity was coming into being. Feudalism was crumbling and fading, and the capitalist epoch was in the process of being born. That’s why we call his time the Early Modern Period (another name for the Renaissance, basically). Modernity is essentially another way of saying capitalism, from its beginnings as a predominant social system onward. (We won’t here argue about whether we currently live in post-modernity.)
Shakespeare lived and died in an era of what Marx refers to as ‘primitive accumulation’. This was the process whereby feudal property was appropriated, broken up and turned into capital.
The basis of the feudal system was land, owned by lords, farmed by peasants who were tied to the land, generally not allowed to leave (which is why it’s such a clever joke when, in ‘The Androids of Tara’, the fourth Doctor responds to Zadek’s observation “You don’t look like a peasant” with “Well of course not, I’ve travelled”). The peasants farmed and produced their own subsistence directly. For the privilege of being allowed to do so (a privilege, incidentally, that people tend to grip hold of tightly when threatened with being forced off the land, out of direct contact with the means of subsistence, and into the wage system) they were obliged to produce surplus for the lord, to be paid upward to him in tribute. This manorial system was the basis of how feudal society was reproduced, i.e. fed and clothed day after day, generation upon generation. Upon it was built a social system of ties, bonds and reciprocal (though not equal) obligations, arranged in strict hierarchy.
The lord might use part of the surplus he controlled to buy things, or to employ people to produce things for him. Swords, for instance, or clerical records, or domestic service, or minstrelsy, etc. As in our world, the basic economic form produced a wide variety of attendant para-forms and relations. Whatever anyone tells you, today the basis of capitalism as a system of social relations is still industrial production (i.e. people producing stuff for a wage), and yet not every worker is involved directly in industrial production of physical goods (they never were actually, as Marx knew full well). So it was that under feudalism not everybody was either a landowner or a servile farmer. It doesn’t alter the fact that manorial land was the basis of the system.
There was a market even at the highpoint of feudalism, and feudalism became increasingly marketised as time went on. The existence of a market is not an exclusive trait of capitalism, nor it it enough by itself to signify or create capitalism. Capitalism is the ascendancy of market relations. Much work has been done, and many arguments conducted, by Marxists on the question of exactly how and why feudalism transformed into capitalism. Marx himself, to quote David Harvey, thought that
The dissolution of the feudal order, the dissolution of the power of landed property and of feudal land control, was largely accomplished through the powers of merchant capital and usury [not to be considered equivalent to 'the Jews', by the way]. …what we see in usurers’ capital in particular is the independent social power of money (and of the money holders), an independent power that he showed in the money chapter [of Capital vol.1] to be socially necessary within a capitalist mode of production. It is through the deployment of this independent power that usury and the usurers helped bring feudalism to its knees.
- Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Chapter 3
Under feudalism, money was a way for the lords to obtain services beyond agricultural production, using the wealth created by agriculture, on a market, by monetizing it. The increasing marketization and monetization of European feudal society is dialectically both cause and effect of the rise of capitalism. As they increase, they feed back into the system. Money, trade, lending, interest, finance… these things become increasingly widespread and essential to European feudal society, and are also the germs of a new society growing within it. (Speaking dialectically, it is the negation of the negation, an opposition which is unified with its opposite but still a constitutive contradiction, a rising and falling quantity which may eventually tip over into a qualitative change… as indeed it gradually did, after strife-filled centuries of social change and class struggle, all fought consciously at the level of ideology – the Reformation, for example.) In much the same way, socialised labour and property grows within capitalism as a capitalist relation but also as a negation which might one day negate capitalism altogether.
We won’t go too far into the question of the relationship of the economic base to the social superstructure, except to note the crucial point that, according to the great central insight of Marx and Engels - historical materialism - this means that feudal land ownership fundamentally determined the nature of the society built upon it. Marx and Engels see a determining relationship between the economic base and the social superstructure, i.e. they think that you get forms of law, behaviour, belief, government, culture, etc, which stem from and reflect the material reality of peoples’ lives, with the most basic reality being how the society is actually made day-to-day.
Marx’s model is not crude and mechanistic. He remembers the role of chance and contingency. He remembers that all society and history is made by humans, and that they make their own history albeit not in circumstances of their own choosing. He remembers that beliefs and ideas and choices and random divergences and inventions can feed back into the economic base (he has to really, if you think about it, otherwise how could he ever think revolutions could happen?). He just doesn’t think such things spring from nowhere. People change the economic base of their society when they invent new ways of doing things… but those inventions themselves stem from people interacting with their economic and social context. Contradictions built into the social context (i.e. antagonisms between classes with fundamentally different material interests, or between nations with similar systems but opposed interests, or between dominant ideas and new technological possibilities, etc etc etc) generate changes. The changes become part of the new context.
(But the question of whether or not this is a correct model is one for another time. Here, I’m basing my argument upon it, and accepting it as essentially true. Here I stand, I can stand nowhere else.)
Primitive accumulation was the violent and traumatic process which Marx was the first to identify as crucial to the formation of capitalism. Labour, land, money, etc, were effectively seized. The old feudal system of nested holdings, tenancies, rights and obligations was broken up. The feudal retainers were not allowed to retain. Monasteries were dissolved. The enclosures turned common lands into farming lands; peasants were turfed off the land and forced into the job market; the land was converted into capitalist farms. Marx describes the violent expropriation, and the cruel legal persecution of people who refused to accept it.
In Illusion and Reality (a work we’ll be returning to), the British Marxist Christopher Caudwell (1907-37) gives this potted summary:
In England during this period [primitive accumulation] the bourgeoisie and that section of the nobility which had gone over to the bourgeoisie, seized the Church lands and treasure and created a horde of dispossessed vagrants by the enclosure of common lands, the closing of the monasteries, the extension of sheep-farming, and the final extinction of the feudal lords with their retainers. The seizure of gold and silver from the New World also played an important part in providing a base for capitalism. This movement was possible because the monarchy, in its fight with the feudal nobility, leant on the bourgeois class and in turn rewarded them for their support. The Tudor monarchs were autocrats in alliance with the bourgeoisie and bourgeoisified nobility.
Primitive accumulation is the forceful - murderous, if needs be - appropriation of any wealth that can be wrested out of common, or non-capitalist, hands and turned into capital. It’s the dark secret on the birth certificate of capitalism.
The account Marx gives in Capital is flawed. He ignores the issue of how primitive accumulation hit women, which has had to be addressed by later thinkers - perhaps most compellingly Silvia Federici. Also, his unsparing account is arguably a tad exaggerated, though historical research tends to bear out the thrust of his argument. If it wasn’t quite as savage as he says, it was bad enough. It arguably still is. David Harvey has made the brilliant point - drawing on Rosa Luxemburg - that ‘primitive accumulation’ continues all the way through the history of capital up to the present day. Capitalist imperialism and colonialism entail primitive accumulation in the conquered or dominated lands. Capitalism crashes into non-capitalist societies, accumulates from them very primitively indeed, feeds itself and creates itself anew in them. In the West, capitalism has never been done primitively accumulating. Neoliberal privatisation is arguably a form of primitive accumulation of social wealth which exists to some extent outside the circuit of capital, outside commodification, outside the creation of profit. Our current government is a ruthless facilitator of primitive accumulation.
To anticipate myself, this idea - that primitive accumulation never really stopped and continues today on a global scale - may partly explain why Shakespeare continues to speak to so many people all around the world.
Caudwell (I’m going to be cheeky and quote him at length) goes on to say that
[i]n this period of primitive accumulation the conditions for the growth of the bourgeois class are created lawlessly. To every bourgeois it seems as if his instincts – his “freedom” – are intolerably restricted by laws, rights and restraints, and that beauty and life can only be obtained by the violent expansion of his desires.
Intemperate will, “bloody, bold and resolute,” without norm or measure, is the spirit of this era of primitive accumulation. The absolute-individual will overriding all other wills is therefore the principle of life for the Elizabethan age. Marlowe’s Faust and Tamburlaine express this principle in its naïvest form.
This life-principle reaches its highest embodiment in the Renaissance “prince.” In Italy and England – at this time leaders in primitive accumulation – life reaches its most poignant [sharp] issue in the absolute will of the prince – this figure of the prince expresses most clearly the bourgeois illusion, just as in real society the prince is the necessary means of realising the conditions for bourgeois expansion. To break the moulds of feudalism and wrench from them capital requires the strength and remorselessness of an absolute monarch. [Marx mentions the violent legal measures initiated by Henry VIII, and subsequent monarchs, against expropriated paupers who didn’t “put themselves to labour”] Any established bound or let to the divine right of his will would be wrong, for such bounds or lets, being established and traditional, could only be feudal, and would therefore hold back the development of the bourgeois class.
Elizabethan poetry in all its grandeur and insurgence is the voice of this princely will, the absolute bourgeois will whose very virtue consists in breaking all current conventions and realising itself. That is why all Shakespeare’s heroes are princely; why kingliness is the ideal type of human behaviour at this time.
Marlowe, Chapman, Greene, but above all Shakespeare, born of bourgeois parents, exactly express the cyclonic force of the princely bourgeois will in this era, in all its vigour and recklessness. Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Antony, Troilus, Othello, Romeo and Coriolanus, each in his different way knows no other obligation than to be the thing he is, to realise himself to the last drop, to give out in its purest and most exquisite form the aroma of self. The age of chivalry appears, not as it sees itself, but discredited and insulted, as the bourgeois class sees it, in the person of Hotspur, Falstaff and Armado, English cousins of Don Quixote.
At this stage the strength and vigour of the bourgeois depends on his cohesion as a class under monarchist leadership. In many parts already a self-armed, self-acting commune, the bourgeoisie in England, has as its spear-head the court. The court is the seat of progress, and its public collective life is for the moment the source of bourgeois progress and fountain of primitive accumulation. The court itself is not bourgeois: it seeks the coercive imposition of its will like a feudal overlord, but it can only do so by allying itself with the bourgeoisie for whom the “absoluteness” of the monarch, although feudal in its essence, is bourgeois in its outcome because it is creating the conditions for their development.
Hence we find Shakespeare, although expressing the bourgeois illusion, is an official of the court or of the bourgeois nobility. Players are the “Queen’s Servants.” He is not a producer for the bourgeois market or “public.” He has a feudal status.
Actually, feudal status aside (and it’s true that he and his company frequently performed at court, received royal patronage, and even became grooms of James I), Shakespeare was a producer for the bourgeois market. As Caudwell notes, he was of bourgeois parents. His father was a glover-maker, petty criminal (illegally selling wool), usurer (that quintessential practice of rising capitalism!) and sometime mayor of Stratford. William was unusual for a playwright of his time in that he took a share of the receipts as a member of the acting company and part owner of the Globe Theatre. He ended up becoming quite rich, achieved the status of ‘gent’, applied for and got a family coat of arms (a paradoxically feudal sign of his bourgeois rise), and went back to Stratford to buy one of the biggest houses in town. In retirement he invested some of his showbiz fortune in London property and in agricultural land around Stratford. When some of the land on which he was a titheholder was threatened with enclosure by wealthy landowners, and the corporation of the town of Stratford protested on the grounds that the enclosures would impoverish local people, Shakespeare elected not to join the protest once he was personally assured of monetary compensation.
Shakespeare was a new man, a modern man, one of the rising middle classes of this period of bourgeois ascendancy. As a result, we see new men - and women! - of this kind all through his plays. People of rich interiority and subjectivity who strive and struggle to rise. Kernals of truth and ideological fairytales both, these people are the quintessential new type.
And yet Shakespeare displays profound ambivalence about such people, about people like himself, or people who you might expect to be his idealised self image. All through the plays, the rising men are dangerous. Macbeth, Claudius, Edmund, Richard.
Richard, for instance, for all that he is a duke and a prince and a king, is also a man of business. He’s an entrepreneur of power. He’s a ruthless competitor. A self-interested utility-maximiser. He constantly uses the language of business, of trade, of money, of payment, of profession, of coin. He is repeatedly compared to tradespeople. He repeatedly commodifies relationships, buys services, bribes and pays. And he is the quintessential lone, atomised actor of bourgeois economics. He makes himself into such. He sees other people as material. He exploits and reaps the profits. He aggressively expands, launches a hostile takeover of England, and ends up chairman of the board. He unsentimentally eliminates the competition. And for all that he is wicked for doing all this, it’s clear that he succeeds at it because that’s the way the world works now. That’s what’s been going on in England during the preceding years, during the preceding plays even! And he is only unseated in the end by enemies who, for all that they talk a nicer game than him, engage in very much the same kind of ruthless power-grabbing – just enshrining their tactics within a socially stable framework of lawful, pious rhetoric of consensus and virtue. Richard fails because the rhetorical power of his PR proves unenduring in the face of savvier competition. The pre-capitalist and pre-modern world had villains, usurpers, etc, of course… but there is no equivalent for this kind of figure in the literature of that time. It is only in the age of primitive accumulation, of the rise of the bourgeois system, that such creatures as Richard strut the stages. Shakespeare is clearly intoxicated by the dramatic power and will of such stage creatures, and in many ways the plays celebrate them, yet the enjoyment is anxious. They remake the world, and we can often sympathise with their motives and impulses – from Richard down to less overtly villainous iterations. Maybe they even leave the world better than they found it, albeit inadvertently. Maybe they are progress. Yet they are also terrifying, and they bring ruin, destruction and horror in their wake. They are a dramatisation (avant la lettre) of the Marxist insight that progress and horror are inextricable, not just flipsides of each other or unfortunate juxtapositions, but interpenetrating unified contradictions.
They are the Renaissance “princes” that Caudwell talks about, inspiring and inspired by Machaivelli’s Prince. The kings sit atop the feudal system and yet, owing to the contingencies of history, it is their concentration of power which allows them to be key players in the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism – manifested in the plays, as Caudwell observed, in the renaissance Machiavellianism of their will and subjectivity. The conservative and the radical mixed up. The dialectical unity of opposites again, negating the negation and leading to the transformation of quantity into quality. The ‘machiavel’ then in turn becomes a figure on the English Renaissance (Early Modern) stage. The figure of wicked calculation, cousin to the stage figure of ‘the Vice’, the embodiment of… well, vice.
Yet that book – Machiavelli’s The Prince - is the product of bitter disappointment and disillusion. This man, Machiavelli, had been a fierce Florentine patriot, a republican, a defender of the revolutionary city after the popular ousting of the plutocratic Medici. He lost the game and, having been tortured and exiled, he sat and wrote what is supposed to be a job application to the triumphant Medici... and it turns into the first open admission (in modern European letters) that ethics and politics are separate and often irreconcilable. It is coded, deliberately or not, to imply that the failure of Republican hopes in the face of the Medici stemmed from a failure to be sufficiently ruthless against them, to be as utterly cynical as the Medici themselves. In the process, Machiavelli praises Cesare Borgia as the perfect Prince. The Medici had regained their status in Florence partly owing to an alliance with the bellicose Pope Julius II, who had been one of the Borgia's most implacable enemies.
Gramsci famously argued that the book was aimed at the common man, because the leaders to whom it was supposedly addressed already knew everything Machiavelli was saying. They just didn't talk about it. In this reading, The Prince might become the whistleblowing of ruling-class secrets. If you convert much of the advice into mordant irony, you find a book that laments a world in which people like the Medici can prosper precisely through a secretive, two-faced instrumentalism based on the most pessimistic view of mankind possible. Of course, for the Prince himself, the most pessimistic view of mankind is actually the most optimistic, because it posits humanity as a weak and easily-exploited mass of flesh-puppets.
The essentially double-edged nature of the rise of bourgeois social relations is expressed in the book's implicit recognition of this. Part of the promise of modernity, of its greater openness and ductility and possibility, is an inextricable co-habitee: opportunistic political tyranny based on the utilisation of people as counters, bargaining chips. Money again; the force which eats away at feudalism from within. Money to be banked, exchanged, invested, harvested. Banking is the basis of the rise of capitalism in Italy. The market is the basis of Medici power. They make society a market in which people are the tokens.
Machiavelli may have come to accept this view in the counter-revolutionary period after the fall of the Florentine Republic he championed, but I don't think his disillusion equates to an easy reconciliation with the kind of 'realpolitik' people often take from the book. On the contrary, the book seems more like Michaelangelo's Last Judgement on the wall of the Sistine Chapel - a work of melancholy recognition of the failure of the liberatory promise of the renaissance, destined to be perpetually overlooked by the ceiling upon which the optimism is forever frozen.
This is the fundamental dichotomy at the heart of the Early Modern Period that Shakespeare too – later than Machiavelli but on the same trajectory - sums up in his Richards: the great burst of opportunity for people to escape the shackles of the fixed way of life that went with feudalism, with all its stratified and rigid reciprocal obligations, all its social immobility, all its strict hierarchies… the great, world-changing progress that can be made by such freedom… and yet the fact that this transgression comes with so much entrepreneurial ruthlessness and businesslike hardnosedness. Shakespeare’s own rise from humble petty-bourgeois beginnings to wealthy semi-gentry entailed a fair amount of grubby horse-trading, speculation, sharp practice, huxterism, brash self-promotion, crawling round patrons, evading taxes, GBH, speculation in property and land, nest-feathering and, last but not least, apparently some pretty cold treatment of his wife. His rich subjectivity is intertwined inextricably with all this. His respectability is intertwined inextricably with what could have been considered low sordidness. And he only had to look around to see other men rising even father and faster by being even more ruthless and sordid.
It seems to have struck some deeply contradictory chord in the man. Even as he forges his fame and fortune and career, even as he rises, even as he dramatises the struggles of the rising new men, he also frets over them. And he frets over the loss of the old world.
Shakespeare’s father John was born roundabout the same time as the key events of the English Reformation were kicking off (you know, Anne Boleyn and all that malarkey). His was the first generation that grew up in an England broken from Rome. This rupture was unfathomably more traumatic than we can imagine today. It gradually mutated into the loss of an entire integral part of English culture, of an entire popular conception of life, of an entire popular conception of time and ritual. Saints and stories and holidays and traditions – steeped in history – became outlawed. (And it’s important to note that, contra the usual account you get from the televised gaggle of Starkeys and Schamas, this wasn’t just a random accident of history that happened because Henry VIII fancied Anne Boleyn – it was an expression of deep changes going on in the structure of Early Modern society. It was the subjective factor at the head of such historical forces. It was about the rise of the modern nation state, the new forms of nascent bourgeois government and imperialism, new ideas of sovereignty, trade, conflict with the Papacy as a foreign power expressing rights over the domestic state, jockeying for position within increasingly cut-throat rival clans of domestic aristocrats - all on the make and allied with different politico-religious formations, etc. The Boleyn girls were fashioned by their father to be attractive stepping-stones for his family’s rise in favour at court, and thus to power and position, etc.)
Later, as a councilman, John Shakespeare probably participated in enforcing the suppression of Catholicism, even down to whitewashing over the old and treasured pictures on the walls of local churches. John might have been a recusant Catholic. There is much debate about this (or at least there used to be; the issue is out of fashion now) but ostensibly a Catholic testament of his was found secreted away after his death (if it existed it is now lost).
In any case, two generations is not enough to get over seismic events like that, and Shakespeare’s plays are filled with a bittersweet longing for the pre-Reformation past. He sets all his History plays – bar one - in the period which led up to the end of the medieval period, the Catholic past. Falstaff represents this past, with his allegiance to his (probably invented) chivalric past, and his allegiance to the rhythms of the body and seasons. He’s Merrie England personified: old, gross, hypocritical and yet honest on his own terms, ridiculous, lost, achingly sad. He is finally rejected by Prince Hal, one of those new men. Similarly, the revelling Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night represents something similar in opposition to Malvolio, the prim, proper, priggish and professional representative of Puritanism. “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” he drunkenly demands of Malvolio, referring to Catholic festivities - possibly even to the Catholic mass - hated by puritans. Hamlet is explicitly torn between the Catholic past – out of which the ghost of his father comes from Purgatory – and his education at Protestant Wittenberg (the same place Faustus taught and Victor Frankenstein would one day go to school).
The same sort of tearing is key to understanding all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. They are all torn in some way between the past and the future. As Paul O’Flinn says in Them and Us in Literature:
Tragedy in Shakespeare therefore springs not from the hero’s flaw or sin but from his dislocation, his attempt to live in ways that his society suggests but does not accept. So, for example, Macbeth and his wife are desperate to climb a rung higher on the social ladder, a desire which capitalist society has since come to insist on as the motor of all human progress. But they do not live in a socially mobile world; theirs is a feudal one where you are born into a certain station and stay there. Out of that contradiction grows their tragedy.
Hamlet is a modern, educated youth who is caught between a Humanistic version of the future and the old feudal order, built on blood vengeance and rigid hierarchies. His tragedy is that he can't be true to himself and obey his father's ghost, no matter how much he might want to. Lear dismantles his kingdom and sets up a new order based on competition, yet he can't compete! Two of his daughters whittle away his feudal powers after they win in a bourgeois contest of love that the third daughter lost because she clung to a feudal notion of love as a bond, a social obligation. Othello owes his promotion to the forward-looking commercial city of Venice, yet he cannot shake off his awareness of himself as an outsider or the resentments of the bigots... nor can his romantic nature fully handle the Venetian conception of marriage as a property relationship. Coriolanus cannot be both the imperious aristocratic bullyboy and the tactful politician, yet Rome demands both of him. Timon discovers the power of (bourgeois) money to both create the impossible and destroy all social ties when he fails to negotiate the corrosive contradictions inherent in wealth. And so on.
I suggested earlier that part of Shakespeare’s continued relevance and popularity might be down to the fact that he is the dramatist of primitive accumulation, and primitive accumulation goes on. More broadly, his liminal class position within a liminal historical moment also gives him immense appeal. He not only dramatises many of the social contradictions of bourgeois culture and society, but he also straddles our continuing ambivalence about them.
I said in the opening part of this series (before I got somewhat sidetracked last time) that
…feudalism [was] a brutal, exploitative system in which millions toiled in slavery or near-slavery for gangster clans of bling-laden masters, oppressed by a quasi-totalitarian church, stunted by poverty and tied to the land, etc etc etc… and yet there is no denying that something was lost when the feudal world was slowly destroyed and usurped.
I talked a bit about how the quintessential genres of modernity - SF and Fantasy - create an opening for a mourning of this kind, as they are obsessed with history, and thus reflect the frenzied pace of history under modernity (a function of the capitalist system’s built-in drive to revolutionize).
I then said that we could get at what this mourning signifies by getting to Shakespeare. And we get there by picking up on the fact that, for all that he was a new man, a bourgeois individualist, an entrepreneur, a beneficiary of the new openness of Early Modern society, etc, he was also a conservative.
The word conservative is, unlike a lot of conservatives, very flexible and adaptable. It has, over time, been used to describe a great many radicals and zealous fire-eaters, people who wanted to radically remake the world in which they found themselves. Margaret Thatcher was a ‘conservative’ - a Conservative even - and yet she was to a great extent personally responsible for one of the most radical, far-reaching and successful shake-ups of the British politics, economics, society, and culture for generations. Of course, it’s also true that she did conserve some things from genuinely conservative impulses… what’s interesting is that the essentially radical impulses of neoliberalism (because that’s the socio-historical force of which her Hayekian monetarism was an expression) could co-exist within her, and the party she remade in her image, alongside remnants of traditional ‘One Nation’ Toryism. Some serious squabbles aside, the party has proved itself able to syncretize these impulses, which often contradict each other in both affect and effect. The basic ideological glues which have kept them stuck together are jingoistic chauvinism and fearful contempt of the poor and working class - terror of erosion of privilege, in other words, which is always at the heart of all modern conservatism. (This is no essential obstacle to garnering working class votes, as the Tories do, though notice how the long-term secular decline in their share of the vote has been evident in votes they used to pilfer from the working class… though, again, you have to remember that this is, paradoxically, partly owing to the destruction they themselves have deliberately wrought upon traditional working class industries, jobs and communities… but we veer even more severely off-topic… and though veering severely off-topic, and thus testing the nature of what a single topic can contain, is going to be central to the method and affect of this series, there are, nonetheless, limits.)
The Thatcher factor was, as hinted above, only the subjective factor at the head of historical forces, but that isn’t insignificant. Chomsky was fond, back in the day, of describing the second Bush administration as a coterie of “statist radicals”. His point was that, for all that they oversaw another wave in the neoliberal drive to deregulate business, and expropriate and privatise social wealth (the high point of this being their aggressive expropriation and privatisation of the social wealth of Iraq), they were also radically extreme in their dedication to unfettering American state power and military force. Their project was the obvious one of trying to aggressively combine neoliberalism with neoconservatism; violent neo-imperialism waged by the American state largely in service of American capital. Meanwhile, as is usual with successful American ‘conservatives’, the blather about traditional “values” at home was as performative and tactical as the blather about “democracy” in the Middle East. The former was never based on sincere ideological attachment to the sorts of things Evangelical Christian mothers in Kansas homeschool into their kids, no more than the latter was ever based on sincere ideological attachment to the kinds of things the so-called ‘Decent Left’ still has self-righteous wet dreams about. Nevertheless, the appeals to voters’ ‘values’ is not unlike the way the post-Thatcher UK Tories mouth their jingoistic and traditionalist appeals to the blue rinse brigade in order to scrape together enough votes to institute sweeping social changes.
Aside from all this, there’s also the question of what kind of society you live in, at what point in history, and how it is changing. Conservatives, remember, want to conserve (don’t worry, I’m not going to go all freshman on you and quote the dictionary definition). What it means to say that someone is a ‘conservative’ is going to depend greatly upon how their society is changing, and why. (I’m assuming we’re taking the term to be more meaningful than just a crafted self-description.) I said above that terror at the erosion of privilege is at the heart of all modern conservatism. I’m not entirely sure that’s so true of pre-modern or early-modern conservatism (if we can continue to take the outrageous liberty of deporting the term backwards into anachronism).
Shakespeare, as I say, was a conservative. I’m not being original or iconoclastic in saying so. Certainly, he is often employed and adduced by conservatives for the bolstering of conservative ends. There’s a very long history of this. Michael Portillo famously quoted the “degree” speech from Troilus and Cressida at the Tory Party conference one year. A far less original move than he might’ve thought. But I won’t go into the long history of Shakespeare being ideologically appropriated as a crusading emblem of England and patriotism and empire and hierarchy, and all those lovely things. It’s been well covered elsewhere. Nor am I going to quarrel with it especially. There are all sorts of things that need to be said about it - objections ranging from adding a bit of nuance all the way up to angry denunciation - but for the time being, and for the sake of argument, I’ll tactically concede it. Shakespeare was a conservative. But what does this really mean? I’m not to delve into whether or not it means he would’ve approved of Victorian morals, or modern colonialism, or the Prince of Wales, and been happy to lend his name to Rule Britannia and all that kind of stuff. I’m not talking about whether he would’ve voted for Disraeli, or even for Michael Portillo.
Shakespeare was a conservative in his own time, not in the era which staged his plays as national pageants for a country forging an industrial revolution and an empire. He was a conservative in the age of the decay of feudal social relations (and, relatedly, Catholicism) and the rise of bourgeois social relations. He is a conservative in the senses I’ve already outlined. He distrusts the new men, the ruthless self-seekers who leave their ascribed place and try to rise - even as he is one. He sees their horror and their tragedy even as he sees the way they (or, as I might want to put it, the forces they represent) push the world forward. He sees the way the social contradiction inherent in his hybrid society can tear people to pieces. He distrusts and baits the puritans – the reformers, the radical protestants, the “radical Left” of the time, as Michael Rosen has called them – and mourns the loss of the stories and values of Merrie England, of the Catholic past of his father. He was a conservative in his own time because he was, to be as crude and provocative about this as I can be – an anti-capitalist. He was aligned (broadly) with ideas that we might now want to call radical politics because, in his social moment, he was distrustful of the dawn of the very system that we now live in as a long established and ageing fact. Much the same mirror effect can be seen in the way we look back at the Puritans who get mocked in Twelfth Night. They were the radicals and revolutionaries of their time – despite embracing values that we would now think of as ultraconservative – because they were the ones pushing (whether they knew it or not) a social agenda aligned with the rise of the new bourgeois society. The intimate link between Protestantism and rising middle classes, private property, nascent capitalism, etc, is well documented (even if Weber puts the cart before the horse).
It’s fascinating that modern conservatism relies upon national chauvinism as a vital adhesive for its movement (as noted in the case of Thatcher and the Tories) and spurious moral values (as noted in the case of the American ‘statist radicals’ of the GOP)… and both these strains are quintessential parts of the ideology pioneered and championed by the people who, in Shakespeare’s time, were the radicals. The lineage of the chauvinism traces back to the new national consciousness and beginnings of colonialism which accompanied the sweeping changes in Early Modern England. The lineage of the talk about moral values can be traced back directly to the Puritans, with their emphasis on chastity, sobriety, obedience, private virtue, etc. The ideology of capitalism hasn’t changed all that much.
It’s a performative overstatement, obviously, to say that Shakespeare was an anti-capitalist. I’ve already talked about how he was himself one of the rising new bourgeois. In many ways he is the definition of an arriviste, middle class bourgeois. But that’s the point. He was both because his time was both at once, and for historically contingent reasons he straddled the fulcrum.
Much as SF/Fantasy contains the implication of other social worlds than modern capitalism, so Shakespeare’s plays contain similar implications, via the conservatism (really nostalgia for the pre-bourgeois) that permeates them. Can there really be something about the divided, implicit distrust of the capitalist spirit in the plays that expresses such distant searching for social change? I think so, and I think we see it very strongly in Richard III… strangely, since the play is by no means Shakespeare’s most profound or subtle statement. I think it stems from the conjunction between the social situation of the playwright (outlined above) and the accident of the fact that Richard III is the king whose death marks the end of the medieval, and whose successor marks the start of the modern. This is a semi-arbitrary and post-facto construction, obviously, and I’d want to argue for an actual understanding of history far less boxy and far more dialectical. But the fact remains, the dawn of the Tudors is what historians have tended to use as a handy marker for the end of the middle ages in England. When Richard goes down to defeat at Bosworth, what’s also being defeated is the last serious gasp of the medieval.
This isn’t to express sympathy with the historical Richard. Nor is it to say that the character of Richard in the play is, in some way, anti-bourgeois. As noted, he’s anything but. I’m pressing him into service – and I like that we vassals and serfs can do that to him – as a bookmark. The Wars of the Roses were a historical expression and symptom of the general crisis of feudalism. Plague, peasants’ revolts, political instability, the gradual monetization and marketization of social relations, the unstable attempts at repression of social mobility by the state… finally, civil war. And the new dynasty presides over the beginnings of a bourgeois revolution in centralised government, taxation, colonialism, and finally to Reformation and the era of primitive accumulation.
For all that this does represent ‘progress’ (in a technical sense rather than a moral one – remember how I said progress is inextricably bound up with horror?), and for all that the feudal system was brutal and tyrannical and exploitative, it’s easy to see the protest latent in Shakespeare’s mythologizing of the fall of the medieval. The fall is not just a fall of tyranny (and I stress again, feudalism was tyrannical and brutally exploitative) but also a fall of a world where people had not yet been uprooted from direct access to the means of making a living, forced into the job market, forced to sell themselves, forced into the world of capital where there are no obligations as well as no ties, where there are no protections as well as no serfage and villeinage, where competition rules. The loss of the social fixity was also a loss of ties of mutual obligation. Again, let me stress: I’m not rhapsodizing feudalism or yearning to return to it (god forbid!). What I’m saying is that even as those who can compete and self-actualise in the new society praise progress and liberty, these opportunities are based on horrors like primitive accumulation, imperialism, slavery, the misery of wage labour, the marketization of human relations, etc.
Through Richard, we see the old world eating itself. Richard in the play is the worm of capital in the apple of the past. And the First Tetralogy (the four plays which depict the Wars of the Roses) make it clear that Richard isn’t much worse than any of the less self-aware ‘noble warriors’ of his world; indeed, in many ways he’s a just punishment upon them. Yet the Tetralogy, in dealing with the Wars of the Roses, shows us a world eating itself in ruthless competiton, in the Hobbesian bellum omium contra omnes before Hobbes described it, in the ruthless dissatisfaction and competition of capitalism. Of course, such wars actually happened before capitalism – the plays depict one! – but the plays are a product of a nascent capitalism, and as such they dramatise that as much as they dramatise the past. The dreaded outcome represented in the plays by the Wars of the Roses is actually the dreaded outcome of the loss of the old world. It’s a reflection of primitive accumulation at least as much as it’s a reflection of a lordly medieval civil war. The endless discussions of the land torn apart, society sundered, a land steeped in blood, made infertile, families killing each other… it’s about what was happening all around Shakespeare as much as it is about what happened to people during the Wars of the Roses. It’s a lament and a prophecy all at once.
Richard may not win at the end of the play, but - whether anyone in the play realises this or not - his ruthless business values do. So we end up saddled with the consequences.
People in Shakespeare's time used the word 'tragedy' far more freely than we do. They sometimes called Richard III a tragedy rather than a history, or they used the terms interchangeably. I think it's actually quite apt.
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