From off "Coriolanus".
Jenny Farrell outlines a Marxist reading of Shakespeare, and illustrates it with an analysis of Shakespeare's King Lear.
Among Marxism’s core insights is that all history since the end of the primitive society has been a history of class societies and class struggle. Art does not arise in a vacuum; it is an integral part of the historical process and of human comprehension of the world. Therefore, the most appropriate way of reaching the core of a work of art is to understand it in the context of the time in which it originates and the social forces of that epoch.
With Shakespeare an art arises that is historically self-aware, conscious that the reality it represents is historical. Historical change is rooted in Shakespeare’s plays. They are built around a historical conflict. The task of interpretation – in both theatre and criticism – is to grasp this basic conflict. Any serious attempt to comprehend Shakespeare’s plays is to understand the time from which they come, the late Renaissance, early 17th c England: the early modern period as a time of epochal upheavals, the formation of the first phase of bourgeois society in which Shakespeare’s theatre originates.
In his tragedies, Shakespeare presents the fundamental conflict of opposing historical forces that arose after the collapse of the medieval world and the rise of the early bourgeoisie. These opposing forces within the bourgeoisie – in terms taken from the Renaissance – are humanism and Machiavellianism; humanism in the sense of an Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More, Machiavellianism after Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, the famous breviary on gaining and retaining power.
A third force involved in the basic constellation are the representatives of the old order, the mediaeval-feudal world. The fourth player in this overall constellation is the plebeian element, the working people, who are given a voice for the first time as gravediggers in Hamlet. The conflict of the tragedies originates within these forces.
A Marxist reading of King Lear
The main social forces in the play:
Lear (doubled by Gloucester) is an absolute feudal monarch who has lost touch with his people and with his own understanding. His is the strictly ordered feudal world, where a person’s place within the hierarchy was clearly defined and could not be changed. Lear is incapable of understanding the kind of disrespect shown to him by his elder daughters. Their disregard for him and for his dignity once he has handed over his power and his kingdom to them shatters his world completely. When he abandons the society he has known, and is indeed ejected from it by these daughters, he enters the heath as a naked man, a man who has lost everything.
The tempest that rages on the heath is symbolic of what is going on in Lear’s head. In the middle of this violent storm, in the territory of the poor and “mad,” Lear gains a profound understanding of the condition of the dispossessed. Before he enters the hovel he prays for “you houseless poverty” for the homeless. He realises:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
As he is exposed to the poor and the homeless, the evicted, he realises that this is going on in his own kingdom and that he has not taken an interest in the wretched. This insight is not madness but the opposite of madness. When Lear encounters Edgar, who pretends to be a mad beggar dressed in the most meagre of rags, if not indeed naked, his insight goes further again:
Thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.—Off, off, you lendings! Come. Unbutton here. (tears at his clothes)
Here he discovers essential humanity, “the thing itself,” “unaccommodated man.” This is a crucial moment in Lear’s development. Symbolically, to emphasise this new understanding he tears off his clothes. Of course, there are also expressions of genuine madness, sometimes simply for comic relief; but very often there is hidden reason in these, such as in Lear’s mock trial of Goneril and Regan, with Edgar and the Fool as judges. He asks:
Then let them anatomise Regan. See what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?
Lear here seeks a scientific, objective examination of what makes hard hearts. He has come a long way. Later in the play, when Lear meets the blinded Gloucester near Dover, he continues to be “unhinged,” commenting on social injustice:
A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?
Or he observes:
Through tattered clothes great vices do appear;
Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.
Edgar too recognises Lear’s deep new understanding, remarking: “Reason in madness”. This is a profound growth in humanity in Lear. Lear’s destruction means the loss of his new understanding of the plight of the dispossessed, his appreciation of the fundamental equality of human beings, the loss of his new humanity. This makes his death tragic.
Goneril, Regan, Edmund and Cornwall are the self-interested younger-generation Machiavellians in this play. It is clear to the audience from the start that they are adept at deception. However, just how inhuman they are is revealed only in their actions over time. In many ways they seem quite modern to us in their thinking and acting. Genuine affection, honesty and loyalty mean nothing to them; personal gain is everything, even if it costs the dignity and life of others.
Cordelia and Edgar are established as independent, loyal characters (Edgar after being initially deceived by the Machiavellian brother), willing to sacrifice their lives for justice. Cordelia and Edgar embody the tradition of Renaissance humanism; they are wise, honest and loyal and have a sense of the common good. Although Cordelia dies as a result of Edmund’s machinations, Edgar, who is proclaimed king by Albany, vows to rule in her spirit.
What is the play about?
The threat of a new Machiavellian order
A major theme in this play is the cataclysmic clash of social orders: the old absolute, feudal monarch is deprived of his royal status and power, his dignity, his right to house and home, by his elder daughters, the new Machiavellian generation. Alongside the dangerous, indeed murderous new power there are humanist forces that are in a position to lead society forward in an inclusive, honest and humane way.
Good kingship or leadership
In this play, as in Hamlet and Macbeth, Shakespeare brings to the fore the question of what makes a good leader, or king. Such leaders must be, above all, honest and wise and must act in the interests of the common good. Good leaders must be willing to sacrifice their lives in the defeat of evil forces.
The fundamental equality of humankind
Lear, the anointed king, is driven into a space outside this new society. At that moment, he shares his life with the naked wretches of his realm, recognises and affirms their common humanity. This in turn makes him realise the enormous social inequity and corruption in his kingdom, wrongs for which he is responsible. Ultimately, his experience leads him to understand that only a fair distribution of wealth can remedy this.
Social injustice created by social hierarchy
All the outcasts on the heath arrive at an understanding that the way things are in England is wrong. All of them describe corruption, the ignorance of the powerful, and the indifference towards the poor. They all envisage the possibility of a different kind of society, one in which, as the Fool says, the world will be put on its feet. This theme of a utopia, of what might be, is inherent in the central themes of the play.
Shakespeare is still relevant today. His plays are not about some hazy universal human condition – unchanging and unchangeable. His tragedies are rooted in history, in early capitalism. They are about his times and therefore about our times.
In an expression of their new historical place in early 17th c Britain, the bourgeoisie developed both a humanist and a Machiavellian rationale. These are two sides of the same society, its potential for both a utopian and a totalitarian direction. In the tragedies both potentials are put on stage, as well as characters caught in between. Interestingly, while we see a number of “pure” Machiavellians, few characters are cast as “pure” Christian princes or princesses, in Erasmus’s terms; examples might be King Edward I in “Macbeth” or even Cordelia in “King Lear”. These characters are often in the background, like a moral compass.
Instead, Shakespeare finds the idealised Renaissance image of humankind scattered among a number of people. The human potential that many of his characters show combines into a future vision of a social order commensurate with the needs of humankind and so points into the future of humanity. In this respect, Shakespeare’s positive characters are of their time and also born before their time in terms of their potential.
The Machiavellians present the greatest danger to the common good. They are depicted as dangerous and murderous. In each case their inhumanity causes the downfall of the tragic hero. Shakespeare’s historical optimism at the beginning of the era in which we still live allows him to end his tragedies with the destruction of the Machiavellians.
By revealing the nature of the epoch Shakespeare alerts us to the dangers. He points to who is the enemy of humanity and who fights to preserve it. In this sense, Shakespeare is not simply of historical interest, he has something valuable to contribute when we think about the times we live in now and our future.
King Lear takes the gravediggers’ understanding of human equality in Hamlet to a different level. Lear’s literal nakedness on the heath marks an unparalleled insight into common human nature and identification with the poorest of the poor. Lear discovers human dignity when he is stripped of everything.
In today’s world, the plight of the precariat and of refugees comes close to what Shakespeare was illustrating. Lear’s recognition of human dignity, of social injustice, and the need for an equal distribution of wealth, has lost none of its urgency. By putting before his audience the very essence of his time, and thereby ours, Shakespeare shows how it can and must change. This is what makes his plays so important for us now.
Jenny Farrell is the author of “Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies. A Comprehensive Introduction.” Nuascéalta, 2016.
Jenny Farrell discusses the prophetic politics of the Gravedigger scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which class-based justice and fundamental human equality are discussed by those whose task it will be to 'set right the time' by revolutionary upheaval. The scene is the first appearance of working people on the world stage.
There is hardly a country or a language in the world that is not familiar at least with Shakespeare’s name. His poetry has had an impact on the English language like no other. How can this enduring and all-encompassing popularity be explained? Has Shakespeare anything to say about the times we live in?
Hamlet is one of the most famous, if not the most famous, of Shakespeare’s plays. Yet one scene in it is hardly ever fully played out, and when it is, it is considered a piece of comic relief: the gravedigger scene at the beginning of the tragedy’s final act. A closer look at this scene reveals much of what Shakespeare is about and what he has to offer a 21st-century audience.
Act 5 opens with the first appearance of working people as independently acting persons on the world stage. They are two gravediggers discussing corruption in society, their own worth, and the equality of all humankind. The significance of this can hardly be overestimated.
The scene begins with the gravediggers, entirely on their own and completely self-sufficient, chatting and commenting on social injustice. Suicide victims were not normally buried in a churchyard in those days. The gravediggers comment how this rule does not apply to the nobility and how lawyers ensure this: “Crowner’s quest [coroner’s inquest] law.” They laugh at their own logic that therefore the wealthy have more reason to kill themselves than their ordinary fellow-Christians: “Great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian” (their equals).
This train of thought quickly moves on to an astonishing expression of self-respect: “There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers. They hold up Adam’s profession.” A connection is being made by the gravedigger to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, in which one of the leaders, John Ball, asked in a sermon:
When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?
These words, spoken at the time of the peasant rising in a sermon at Blackheath, near London, became legendary. The next sentence is: “From the beginning all men by nature were created equal.” John Ball deduced the equality of humankind from their common descent from Adam. He advocated social equality for all, and the gravedigger develops this idea. A gentleman’s coat of arms is swiftly reinterpreted to mean physical arms as the only arms worth having. They enable people to work and to build. This in turn leads to banter about a gravedigger building the most permanent of houses: “The houses that he makes last till doomsday.”
The working people in this scene are given more space than the actors in a previous scene. They are more clearly drawn as individuals; they have a direct and unromanticised relationship with their job, which Hamlet and Horatio comment on. They are superbly confident. The humour they bring onto the stage acts as a comic relief to the mounting tension of the main plot, but it is far more than that: it is a manifestation of the absolute integrity of the gravediggers.
The gravediggers are even more radical in their understanding of death than Hamlet. Hamlet had displayed a profoundly materialist concept of death (i.e. physical without reference to a soul) at the time of Polonius’s death, yet he is taken aback at first by the unceremonious treatment of human bones by the singing gravedigger.
The gravedigger’s throwing about of skulls, irrespective of whose they might be, parallels Hamlet’s earlier statements about the levelling role of death, suggesting the natural equality of all humankind. This is an instance of doubling, or restating of an idea. In addition, Shakespeare is making the point that the working gravediggers have reached the same insights as the university-educated Hamlet through their work, their lives, and independent thinking.
Hamlet vents his disgust at double standards with Horatio (more doubling, as the gravediggers just discussed the same) before he addresses the gravedigger. But he is in for a surprise when he begins talking to the gravedigger. This man is his equal in the important matters of punning speech, honesty, and absoluteness.
The theme of a fundamental common humankind-ness, a kind of emotional communism, is underlined as Hamlet joins the gravedigger, along with Horatio. They all occupy the same space and have a scientific discussion about the process of decomposition, linking it with Hamlet’s comments about death at the time of Polonius’s demise.
At this time, in the graveyard, we see representatives of the working people together with the humanist prince and the humanist middle-class scholar. They understand each other fully and without hierarchy. At the level of language they are equals: no-one can outwit the gravediggers. Basic human equality is emphasised, and social criticism made, as they toss around the skulls.
When Hamlet is given the skull of Yorick, the court jester of his childhood, he vividly recalls him and alludes once more to the perfectibility of humankind as well as the material nature of death. Hamlet, Horatio and the gravediggers are natural allies. There are only a few occasions in the play when Hamlet feels relaxed and with his own kind of person - a person of integrity and honesty. This scene is one of those moments; another is when he interacts with the actors.
When asking ourselves why Hamlet finds it difficult to “set right” his time, we must consider what allies are available to him. They are all gathered in the churchyard. It becomes clear that his undertaking is all but impossible, and that a solution lies in the future. It would be another forty years or so before similar characters would be a strong enough force in English society to challenge and execute their king, or form movements whose objectives included a more just and equal society, in the English Revolution of 1640–1660.
In this context the function of the scene within the tragedy becomes extraordinarily clear. It expands our understanding of Hamlet’s alternatives, which are historical and linked to class forces as well as personal, even if their time has not yet come. It is clear that in this episode social inequality and human equality are being discussed by those whose task it will be to 'set right the time' - by revolutionary upheaval. In this centenary year of the Russian Revolution, which was the first successful take-over of state power by representatives of workers and peasants (including gravediggers), the episode is more relevant than ever.
Jenny Farrell’s book Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies: A Comprehensive Introduction (2016), published by Nuascéalta, is available online.
In Part Two of his series, Professor Gabriel Egan considers how the sense of words and phrases shifts across time and cultures, and how we can still have a meanigful conversation with Shakespeare.
Do we really understand Shakespeare the way his contemporaries did? There are plenty of opportunities for the modern reader to misunderstand what Shakespeare's characters are saying. One problem is what linguists call the 'false friend' word: we think we understand it but in fact the modern sense is quite different from the sense used in Shakespeare's time.
Marcellus and Horatio try to stop Hamlet from following the ghost of Hamlet's father, which seems to beckon him away for a private conference that they fear could be dangerous. Hamlet violently rebuffs their efforts to restrain him, crying "By heav'n, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me" (1.4). The word lets seems quite wrong here: surely he means he'll make a ghost of anyone who won't let him follow and talk to his father's spirit. The verb to let has reversed in meaning since Shakespeare's time: it used to mean preventing something rather than permitting it. British passports still use the word in Hamlet's sense, requiring foreigners to "allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance".
Perhaps the most widely misunderstood Shakespeare word is wherefore, as in "O Romeo, | Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" (2.1). The dramatic context of a young woman looking out from her bedroom balcony encourages readers to suppose that she wonders where her lover is, but wherefore actually means why. This is odd. She is asking why he is called Romeo rather than something else that would not be an obstacle to their love: "Deny thy father and refuse thy name, | Or . . . I'll no longer be a Capulet". It would make more sense (and scan just as well) if the second and/or third Romeo were Montague.
Less well-known but more egregious is the misunderstanding of Shakespeare that is widely reproduced on posters depicting beautiful views of the countryside: "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin" (Troilus and Cressida 3.3). Far from being the source of goodness that unites diverse human cultures, by touch of nature Ulysses here means a weakness shared by all humankind: a taste for novel delights over things of true value.
Any competent specialist on Shakespeare's language can correct readers' mistakes regarding the meaning of his words - often it only takes a glance at the dramatic context. But should we conclude, then, that all of his meanings are available to us today so long as we take the trouble to recover them? Marxists are not the only intellectuals who harbour serious doubts that we can make the past so easily accessible to readers in the present. What if the underlying habits of thought and unspoken assumptions from Shakespeare's time are just so different to ours that we make similar 'false friend' errors regarding whole categories and concepts?
Take the barely suppressed homosexual desire between Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, which no-one noticed until W. H. Auden pointed it out in 1947. Attitudes towards this desire were different in Shakespeare's time from those of today, and indeed were quite different even in Auden's time when homosexuality was a crime in Britain. In what sense can we think of Shakespeare's universal appeal when notions of moral behaviour have so radically changed?
And it's not only sexual morality. Attitudes towards how societies should govern themselves have been revolutionized since Shakespeare's time by the rise of democracy. To understand what Richard II's contemporaries think he has done wrong, in his play, one needs more than a merely factual account of the idea of the divine right of kings. With rights, we often say today, come responsibilities, but this is not at all the view of those like Richard who believe in monarchial divine right. The Homily Against Disobedience preached from Elizabethan pulpits made it quite clear that even a bad king must not be resisted by his people, since only God could make and unmake rulers.
Yet it is also clear that in other matters Elizabethans saw rights and responsibilities as mutually reciprocal. In the New Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works to be published later this year, the editors have (with some regret, in my case) modernized a number of occurrences of the word owe to own. Shakespeare uses owe to mean possess, as in Roderigo's remark "What a full fortune does the thicklips owe | If he can carry't thus", meaning that Othello is a made man if he can marry and keep the desirable Desdemona (Othello 1.1). Linguistically there is no editorial defence for retaining owe in such cases: the notion is of ownership, not of debt, and hence the modern word is own. But the spelling owe for the notion of possession does pleasingly, to a Marxist, suggest that for Elizabethans the principle of possession necessarily entailed its opposite, a reciprocal obligation to give things away.
Editing Shakespeare involves making his works meaningful to modern readers, for example by modernizing his spelling (as in owe > own), but this does not imply that the plays' meanings were stored away by him 400 years ago and have only to be carefully unwrapped by us now to be fully appreciated. Marxist cultural criticism rightly rejects the idea that literary meaning is transhistorical, transcultural and simply embedded in writing from the past.
Rather, meaning is generated at the point of consumption by modern readers. In the opening words of his novel The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley observed that "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" and – to shift geographical metaphors only slightly – watching, studying, writing about, criticizing, and editing Shakespeare can be seen as building a bridge to span the historical chasm that separates his time from ours. But this is only a metaphorical chasm, made merely of changes in how humans think, speak, and behave.