Shakespeare and Republicanism, by Andrew Hadfield, 2008. Read in March-April 2011.
It should come as no surprise that Shakespeare was a political playwright but exactly what his own politics were is very difficult to discover. This book explores the question and the title reveals that the author finds - contrary to the view that Shakespeare was a conservative who feared a society in which anybody but royalty had any power - that he was influenced by the republican ideals emerging (re-emerging) during the Renaissance.
Hadfield begins by placing Shakespeare and his works in their historical context and shows how cultural materialism and New Historicism has broadened our earlier cautious and reactionary interpretations of Shakespeare.
He explores the Henry plays and shows how they have no hero (in spite of their titles) but ask “the reader/audience…to think how he or she would behave when presented with a series of stark choices between undesirable outcomes” (page 109). He shows how class conflict plays a greater role than sometimes realized and how the plays “focus…clearly and explicitly on the relationship between the sins of the leaders and the suffering of the people” (page 111). Hadfield concludes that giving a republican interpretation to the history plays indicates that Shakespeare was aware of the historical development towards the “humanist ideal of the ‘mixed’ constitution” of the Tudors, “even if they did not always live up to it” (page129).
Hadfield goes on to deal with Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, placing them all within the context of the complex political conflicts going on in England at the time. He has a very interesting discussion in which he presents the concept that other than being guilty of fratricide, Claudius is a much more modern king, using diplomacy and establishing law and order, than old Hamlet who ran a “lawless and anarchic kingdom” (page 200).
In conclusion Hadfield writes that while many of the plays have been used by conservative scholars to show that Shakespeare himself whole-heartedly support the monarchy they are in fact evidence that he was a “writer who dealt with complex and troubling political – specifically republican – issues, from the start of his career” (page 232).
After reading this book it’s hard to ignore the fact that two decades after Shakespeare’s death, England did in fact become a republic. Not for very long, but still.