Shakespeare’s Civic Art and the Politics of Poetry
by Rebecca Burgess
People tend to confine Shakespeare’s political thinking to the plays, with the sonnets being a sort of autobiographical love triangle. Not so. The sonnets are at the heart of his civic-minded poetic project.
When the Greek Plutarch retired from his civil servant post in the Roman Empire, he began his study of the lives of the great or noble statesmen of both Greece and Rome by writing first of all about Lycurgus and Numa, the legendary men who gave to Sparta and to Rome their distinctive laws. Centuries later, Lord North inserted the lives of the “one who built Rome, and the other the city of Athens” at the forefront of his translation of Plutarch’sLives. So when his compatriot Shakespeare read the life of Theseus and then of Romulus, he absorbed the suggestion that the origins of politics are colored by some conflict (often familial) that enabled lawmakers to appear.
Shakespeare began his own authorial career with an overt treatment of the politics of kingdoms and family, with his triple-play treatment of Henry VI. When he came to ponder directly what is politics, however, he turned not to the law and the lawmaker, but to Theseus and the city most associated with beauty and the arts, Athens.
Theseus alone among the founders of classical antiquity’s great cities appears in Shakespeare’s plays. In aMidsummer Night’s Dream, he is not Plutarch’s man of action and the sword, but a bridegroom whose attempt to establish a political rule over and above the ancient customs of Athenians seems to be necessitated—and aided—by poetry. The law the founder invokes to establish a city is shaped first by a vision of what type of city it is to be. Who, however, owns that vision?
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