On this date, 23rd April, it seems appropriate to post about Shakespeare. It is thought to be his date of birth in 1564 and was his date of death in 1616. Shakespeare is often imagined as a figure of authority – on exploring and representing what it is to be human, of presenting emotion, and as a foundation of high English literary culture – though this latter would have been very strange to him as a man writing plays and acting to earn a living in the popular theatre of his time. These connections, arguments and assumptions are all problematic in one way or another, but they still persist. This perceived authority is one of the reasons that dropping a Shakespeare reference into a discussion of something else might be thought to carry with it some authority for the speaker or the topic under discussion.
There have been some notable uses of Shakespeare in recent UK political commentary. Boris Johnson referenced Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in his December 2019 speech on exiting the EU, and Allison Pearson presented the recent hospitalisation of the Prime Minister during the spread of Covid-19 in a recent Telegraph article as like a Shakespearean tragedy, and figured his health as the health of the nation in the Body Politic. But why? Is it because Shakespeare is relevant for everything? A man ‘not of an age but for all time’, as his contemporary, Ben Jonson, wrote? Or was it to invoke the name of ‘the Bard’ to give the speaker – or the spoken about – some added authority?
In a speech on leaving the EU in December 2019, Johnson claimed that Leaver and Remainer were defunct labels, just like Montagues and Capulets at the end of Romeo and Juliet. It was a statement about closing divides, healing divisions and moving on without any need for further analysis. But at the end of the play, the citizens of Verona don’t just agree to forget all about it and move on united. The Montagues, the Capulets and their ruling Prince make a gloomy peace in their shared grief. They’ve all lost and they know it. And the Prince notes that they are all going to:
‘Go hence to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished’ (5.2)
He insists that they talk about what happened, and why, and figure out who is to blame. This is not a ending of complete, amnesiac, reconciliation. It’s an impending reckoning for the tragedy they all know they could – and should – have prevented. This is certainly not what Johnson had in mind when he made the reference. His listeners were not supposed to know much about, or think much about, the end of Romeo and Juliet. They were just supposed to see Shakespeare as adding authority to his position, without thinking about whether Shakespeare’s play would actually give authority to this position.
Similarly, what could Allison Pearson possibly have in mind comparing Johnson’s hospitalisation and the spread of Covid-19 with a ‘newly written Shakespearean tragedy’? Are we supposed to think about the sad, even tragic, fall of greatness? Probably. But several of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes fall in large part because they listen to the wrong people (Othello and Macbeth), or are more concerned for themselves than the people that they lead (King Lear and Antony). When the Body Politic image is evoked in early modern drama, it often shows that the leader is mad, and his poor judgement is making the country sick. These surely aren’t what Pearson was going for. She was going for the popular idea of the great Shakespearean hero, and imagining the Prime Minister as central to the health of the nation. She was trying to give him status and authority.
But Shakespeare ‘s plays, as with those of many other Renaissance dramatists, question authority. They invite their audiences to think about what having authority means, how it is bestowed and lost, how it affects other people, and why good advisers are important to good leadership. Studying literature encourages critical thinking, not just in literary analysis, but in all walks of life, not least of which – and urgently needed in current times – a critical approach to ideas of power and authority, its exercise and its support structures. Students of literature won’t take what they read or hear in the news or political speeches solely at face value.
Shakespeare and his contemporaries were not unquestioning of the structures of authority of their own time; we shouldn’t let a questionable idea about Shakespeare lead us to be unquestioning of our own political leaders.