Shakespeare's Precarious Kingdoms: Notes on a Subversive Art

"Psychedelic Shakespeare" by Vulpes Lumin
"Psychedelic Shakespeare" by Vulpes Lumin


1~ Shakespeare is revered as the ultimate master and exemplar of eloquence in language. His plays nevertheless coil and twist under the dramatic pressure of poetical double-speak. “The all-seeing sun / Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun”, cries Romeo in passion for his muse (1.2, 94-95). Only that it is Rosaline who inspires these words, whose “match” he will quickly discover in another “bright angel”, Juliet (2.2, 26) – who would disbelieve him? 


Shakespeare seems to insist that expressive brilliance be treated as it is: inherently suspect. The “truest poetry”, says Touchstone in As You Like It, “is the most feigning” (3.3, 18-19). The bard's critique of power, ascendant or triumphant, begins with this ironic understanding. 



2~ Anthony, in Julius Caesar, recognises the incendiary force of well-wielded speech – to mean more, that is, than one ever explicitly expresses – when he sways his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” against Caesar's murderers, even as he praises them as “noble” and “honourable” (3.2, 74-84). By contrast, it is Brutus, before plunging into a murderous bloodbath and defeat at Philippi, who stirs his fellows to enthusiasm, with the trust that “Our legions are brimful, our cause is ripe”:


There is a tide in the affairs of men 

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune:

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries

On such a full sea are we now afloat, 

And we must take the current when it serves, 

Or lose our ventures. 

(4.3, 212-221


In Shakespeare, designs of the utmost folly and cruelty come clothed in velvet words, at once seductive and dangerous in their expressive flair.



3~ King John's Hubert, seeking to maneuver a diplomatic settlement (through marriage) between England and France, blends pragmatism and imagistic invention to support his case: 


O, two such silver currents, when they join, 

Do glorify the banks that bound them in; 

And two such shores, to two such streams made one, 

Two such controlling bounds shall you be, kings, 

To these two princes, if you marry them. 

This union shall do more than battery can 

To our fast-closed gates....

(2.1, 441-447)


“He speaks plain cannon, fire, and smoke, and bounce”, fumes Philip the Bastard in reply: “Zounds! I was never so bethumpt with words / since I did call my brother's father dad” (2.1, 462-67). 


As here, the perfectly pitched self-dramatisations, the illuminating irreverence, of Shakespeare's life-scaling schemers are amplified and undercut by the playwright's own wry sympathy for his audience: “bethumpt with words” from every side and, surely by now, knowing veterans of the tumultuous moral fray each performance seeks to explore anew. 



4~ Again and again, narrative itself will cock a skeptical (or comical) eyebrow at the moral claims and lyrical flights of the talking mouths that so fill its echoing halls with sound and fury. 


For all the perceived dominance of cosmic fate and pattern through time, realpolitik prevails as the engine of historical flux and renewal. So Gloucester, in King Lear, imagines the “late eclipses in the sun and moon” to have foreshadowed the “ruinous disorders” of the present time (1.2, 103-14). “An admirable evasion”, Edmund scoffs, in that intimate space he shares only with himself and all the room, “to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star” (1.2, 127-28). 


As Helena affirms in All's Well that Ends Well, if with an inverted emphasis: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven” (1.1, 215). Human agency, the ability to assess and take action in a given scene, moves the moving world.


"'King Lear'" by R'lyeh.
"'King Lear'" by R'lyeh.


5~ As Shakespeare's mellifluous moderns gamble and vie together, each – in Iago's phrase – for their own “peculiar end” (1.1, 59), differences of gender, geographical origin, social standing, and ethnic identity are defined in motion, and sometimes weaponised. “I will be master of what is mine own”, declares Petruchio of his wife, the resistant Kate, in The Taming of the Shrew: “She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house […] My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing” (3.2, 229-231). Even bombast, of course, may harbour ambiguities. But the potential many-sidedness of such a discourse does not in itself alleviate the atmosphere it generates – of lingering disquiet. 



6~ In The Merchant of Venice, the mask is momentarily lifted. With terse, vivid anger, Shylock reminds Antonio – a financial speculator and a Christian – of the prejudices of his honey-voiced caste and class:


Signior Antonio, many a time and oft 

In the Rialto you have rated me 

About my moneys and my usances: 

Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, 

(For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe)

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, 

And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine....

(1.3, 104-110)


The subsequent delights, the easy “concord of sweet sounds”, that would refashion the play as a beguiling romance, can never quite conceal the social savagery that Shylock has accused and named.



7~ What makes Shakespeare's supposed villains so humanly persuasive is the sense that they can usurp and exploit the various relations of their milieu only because they have understood them with more depth, more acute political and psychological insight, than their comparatively blithe antagonists. 


“I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends stol'n forth from Holy Writ”, says Richard III, and so “seem a saint, when most I play the devil” (1.3, 336-38). “I'll play the orator as well as Nestor”, he  declares in Henry VI (Part 3): “I can add colours to the chameleon, / Change shapes with Proteus for advantages, / And set the murderous Machiavel to school” (3.2, 188-193). 


The usurper's blood-callous ambition has a consciously civilisational dimension, drawn from the myths and histories, the acknowledged statecraft, of the glorious past. Through study and guile, the rigid order of things can be made to reveal contradictions – strange permutations of station, legitimation, right – and tradition turned upon its head.



8~ In a gladder mode, the comedies are encoded with a similar appeal. Twelfth Night proceeds by way of rapid and extravagant changes of dress, gender role, and social standing – transforming a forbidding hierarchy into a plane of bright self-fashioning and amorous opportunity. “O mistress mine, where are you roaming?”, chimes the Clown: 


O stay and hear, your true love's coming, 

That can sing both high and low. 

Trip no further, pretty sweeting:

Journeys end in lovers meeting, 

Every wise man's son doth know. 

(2.3, 39-44)


In a topsy-turvy world, love can discover new balances, and repurpose them as music.



9~ If clowns and fools are the conduits of wisdom in Shakespeare's work, poets most closely resemble so-called madmen, or political traitors – all transfixed by the imagined splendour of their private schemes. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, we learn of “The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling”, that


Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

(5.1, 12-16)


Likewise, in King Henry VIII, we encounter cardinal Wolsey, in apparently tormented reverie: 


… He bites his lip, and starts, 

Stops on a sudden, looks upon the ground, 

Then lays his finger on his temple; straight 

Springs out into fast gait; then stops again, 

Strikes his breast hard, and anon he casts 

His eye against the moon. In most strange postures 

We have seen him set himself. 


“It may well be / There's mutiny in's mind”, the King concludes, on hearing of such behaviour (3.2, 113-120).



"Hamlet Dragging Polonius" by John Gilbert (1867)
"Hamlet Dragging Polonius" by John Gilbert (1867)

10~ In his book, The Western Canon, Harold Bloom nominates Hamlet as the literary forebear of Milton's Satan. It is Wolsey, however, who draws on that subversive angel's dark light – to elucidate and emblematise his own predicament. “O, how wretched / Is that poor man that hangs on princes' favours!”, laments the disgraced cardinal: “when he falls, he falls like Lucifer, / Never to hope again” (3.2, 366-72). 


Wolsey is a typical casualty of Shakespeare's history plays: someone who lives as both an instrument and beneficiary of traditional power, whose words are calibrated to manipulate and appeal to a generalised reverence for authority, elusive but consequential; and whose surfeit of cunning or ambition seems destined to end in dispossession, often in the form of death. 



11~ Hamlet, among Shakespeare's manifold dramatic inventions, is another kind of beast, although he shares Wolsey's seeming madness, and fatal end. 


Much has been written of the young prince's paralysing and voyeuristic hostility towards his mother and uncle, following their marriage. And yet, insofar as Hamlet's internalised Oedipal aggression becomes manifest, its unwitting object is Polonius, the much-adored paternal figure of Ophelia. “I would give you violets, but they withered all when my father died”, she whispers (4.5, 183-84), whose own body will soon lie “i'th'earth […] where violets spring” (5.2, 236-38). If there is a triangular relationship that drives the play and vexes its protagonist, tangling distrust with death and love, Ophelia seems to be at the centre of it (and Laertes, one of the nodes). 


In killing Polonius, Hamlet murders not just a rival for Ophelia's affections, but a possible version of himself: a willing servant of the state, obsessively surveilling his loved ones; an actor prone to grandiose (and occasionally subtle) assessments of the ways of the world, who nonetheless has fully assimilated himself to his given position – as Hamlet is expected to, but cannot. Polonius in his youth “was accounted a good actor”, we learn in one resonant exchange between the two: “I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i'th'Capitol. Brutus killed me” (3.2, 101-5). 


Hamlet's famous self-questioning, “to be or not to be”, might be understood, in his case, as a crisis of public station, “to be or not to be” Polonius: earnest, ubiquitous, prolix, ineffectual; a man who once loved passionately, who came to know and accept his place, and now collaborates (3.1, 56). “And truly in my youth I suffered much extremity in love, very near this”, the prince's potential father-in-law reflects, as if disarmed by the remembrance (2.2, 189-90).  



12~ Whereas Hamlet jigs and writhes in speechified despair, Ophelia – beset by losses and deceits, trapped in a life no longer tolerable – is the one who reconciles the choice, “to be or not to be” (3.1, 56), singing as she drowns, “like a creature native and indued / Unto that element” (4.7, 179-80). Her relative silence – speaking when spoken to, or crooning sadly and mysteriously in painful isolation – is the lacuna that Hamlet, for all its far-roaming, shape-shifting loquacity, can neither fathom nor fill.


When Marcellus detects something rotten in the state of Denmark, he may merely have caught the reek of those many deaths, those actual corpses, that Hamlet's resistance to Polonius (to becoming, through marriage to Ophelia and acquiescence to the will of the court, a new Polonius) will create.



"Youngstown Strike" by William Gropper (1937)
"Youngstown Strike" by William Gropper (1937)

13~ Eloquence and social violence are rarely in opposition, in Shakespeare. Both, indeed, are deployed, sometimes desperately, as controlling brakes to the threatened upsurges of natural and popular disorder.


The commons – in its double meaning, as a non-privileged and potentially troublesome populace, and as an egalitarian community-in-nature, with land and resources shared by all alike – looms in the minds of Shakespeare's regal leaders, power-jockeying nobles, and upwardly mobile middlemen. “The grieved commons / Hardly conceive of me”, Wolsey frets to his secretary, in vain, “let it be noised / That through our intercession this revokement / And pardon comes” (1.2, 104-7). “Rich men look sad, and ruffians dance and leap”, observes a similarly trepidatious Captain in King Richard II, “The one in fear to lose what they enjoy, / The other to enjoy by rage and war. / These signs forerun the death or fall of kings” (2.4, 12-15). 


The fury of the “ragged multitude / Of hinds and peasants” (31-32) that storms across King Henry VI (Part 2), hoping to “break open the gaols and let out the prisoners” (4.3, 14-15), illuminates, in flashes, a brutal social order – challenging the aristocratic overclass with an accusatory roll-call of criminal mis-rule: “Thou hast appointed justices of peace, to call poor men before them, about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison, and because they could not read thou hast hanged them” (4.6, 37-43). Railing against such abuses, the mob threatens to become an incarnation of progress (to borrow James Connolly's later phrase), a force of immediate and total societal transformation, such as no lordly caste could tolerate or survive.


In the event, tellingly, feudal order is restored through a proto-patriotic discourse, as Old Clifford invokes king and country before the surging crowd: 


What say ye, countrymen? Will ye relent, 

And yield to mercy whilst 'tis offered you?

Or let a rebel lead you to your deaths? 

Who loves the King and will embrace his pardon, 

Fling up his cap and say, 'God save his majesty!' 

(4.8, 11-15)  


But the “ragged multitude” continues to stalk Shakespeare's precarious kingdoms. 



14~ In King Lear, the patriarch's accelerating insanity is signified and proven, in the eyes of his remaining loyal attendants, by his effusive, grief-laden identification with the un-people of his realm, the wretched of the earth. Lear's self-recriminations express not only the fractured anguish of his final loneliness, but a late-won vision of future justice:


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? O, 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.

(3.3, 27-36)


Lear's surrender to the elements, his return to nature (re-entering “mad” and “crowned with wild flowers”), is interpreted by his subjects as a loss of dignity – when by the hidden logic of the play, it is in fact such surrender alone (of power and entrenched dominion) that can repair the catastrophes of the era, holding out the prospect, in Gloucester's words, that “distribution” will “undo excess / And each man have enough” (4.1, 73-4).



15~ In an important sense, the plays not only critique and complicate inherited notions of power and right, but can themselves be seen as a many-layered arena of political expression, a democracy of the voice.


Shakespeare's most consistent gift is his fluency in matching each individual character's speech to the shape and timbre of their own experience. The Hostess in King Henry IV (Part 2) defines the esoteric conditions of her hospitality, her words and tone a kind of poetry, tilting like a mirror towards the time – when presumptuous “swaggerers” abound, and a wind-shook aspen tree can lend itself to truthful utterance. “I will bar no honest man my house, nor no cheater, but I do not love swaggering by my troth, I am the worse when one says 'swagger'”, she chats, “Feel masters, how I shake. Yea, in very truth do I, and 'twere an aspen leaf. I cannot abide swaggerers” (2.4 100-107).



16~ Is it possible not to love Falstaff, whose speech is as wholesome, hungry, flighty, and delicate as himself? A knight in title, by nature Falstaff is an everyman and reveller, endowed with a canny consciousness of the dangers of his moment, even as he remains besotted by the world's rich flourishing.


On being told, in battle, that he “owest God a death”, Falstaff rumbles into philosophic action (and away from physical peril). “'Tis not due yet, I would be loath to pay him before his day”, he counters: 


What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is in that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! He that died a-Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. 'Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon – and so ends my catechism. 

(5.1, 126-140


Falstaff has deep roots: in everything that lives amply, replenishingly, perennially in love with its own sources. “Give me life”, he says, “which if I can save, so” (5.3, 60-62). 



17~ The calculated indulgence of young Hal, the wayward prince's shrewd recognition of his position and potential – his royalty – are finally incompatible with Falstaff, whose carousing fullness might be understood as a kind of promise: that plenty may be had and shared. 


Once crowned as King, Hal cultivates and enforces an entirely different logic of existence, one that is orderly and punitive. “I know thee not, old man”, he asserts: as “I have turn'd away my former self; / So will I those that kept me company […] I banish thee, on pain of death” (5.5, 47-63). Pleasure itself must be outlawed, for power to maintain its rule.



18~ In Shakespeare, what most endures is not the state, with its hierarchical authority to kill or let live. Rather, nature and society both exist in a permanent process of upsurge and levelling, rupture and restoration. “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm”, contends one maladjusted performance artist, and “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar” (Hamlet; 4.4, 27-31). Despite regal decrees to the contrary, a rich equality abides: life's common treasury both ours and us, and all the world a stage.



*(All quotations are from The Arden Shakespeare: Complete Works, eds Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thompson, David Scott Kastan). 

Ciarán O'Rourke // May 2021