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Title: Everything and nothing - the question of politics in Shakespeare’s works and why it matters
Other Titles: The different faces of politics in literature and music
Authors: Aquilina, Mario
Keywords: Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Political and social views
Political plays, English -- History and criticism
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Criticism and interpretation
English literature -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History and criticism
Politics and literature -- Great Britain -- History -- 16th century
Issue Date: 2023
Publisher: Routledge
Citation: Aquilina, M. (2023). Everything and nothing - The question of politics in Shakespeare’s works and why it matters. In M. T. Vassalo, & A. P. DeBattista (Eds.), The different faces of politics in literature and music (pp. 31-43). Abingdon: Routledge.
Abstract: In a 1598 book written by Francis Meres, we find the first-known critical account of the poems and plays by William Shakespeare (1564–1616). At a point in time when Shakespeare had yet to write his four great tragedies – Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear and Othello – Meres already likens the ‘hon[e]y-tongued’ Shakespeare with Ovid and declares that Shakespeare is ‘the most excellent’ of English playwrights in both comedy and tragedy (Meres, 1598, fol. 281). Shakespeare’s reputation as one of the greatest writers in history would take around two centuries to be firmly established by Voltaire, Samuel Johnson and then the Romantics around the end of the eighteenth century, but since then it has been reinforced by innumerable critical works and perfor mances of his work on stage. His plays have been turned into film adaptations, radio productions, comic strips, video games, and they are alluded to or cited continuously in both literature and popular culture. Thomas Carlyle captured a peculiarly intensive idolatry towards ‘the bard of Avon’ when in an 1840 essay he wrote that ‘Shakspeare [sic] is the chief of all Poets hitherto; the greatest intellect’ (Carlyle, 1840, p. 95). This view of Shakespeare as an unparalleled writer and genius persists. From the perspective of literary criticism, therefore, the value of continued interest in any aspect of Shakespeare’s work seems clear. However, the relevance of the subject of politics in Shakespeare’s work is arguably not only due to its literary value but also to the sustained cultural and educational impact of his work. Shakespeare has global literary fame, but he has played and continues to play a key role in the development of conceptions of Englishness. As L. W. Hinojosa writes, ‘literary historians worked to standardize Shakespeare’s Englishness’ in an attempt to ‘institu tionalize England’s cultural history’ (Hinojosa, 2003, p. 227). Shakespeare was thus presented as the pinnacle of English culture in ways that has ‘nation alist and imperialist’ connotations (p. 227). Sidelining earlier poetry from Anglo-Saxon time, scholars standardised the Elizabethan Age ‘as a period term idealising England’s cultural and imperial past and marking the origins of the modern English language and a national English literature’ (p. 227). In other words, Shakespeare has been mythologised not only as a playwright and literary genius but also in ways that make him inseparable from articu lations of English nationalism and patriotism. In England, but also more widely in the Commonwealth and beyond, Shakespeare has had and retains an important role across different education systems. Shakespeare is more often than not the author chosen as the exem plar of English and, more broadly, English culture to students from all around the world, meaning that his work modulates the way in which people from around the world consider the national culture. Shakespeare’s plays, then, carry an immense cultural capital that has significant political implications, not only in terms of the world they depicted at the time of writing but also in the way they continue to refract England to English citizens and to the rest of the world. In view of this, the question of Shakespeare’s politics matters, not only as a further layer of literary interest in his work but also as a way of developing a more complete understanding of the cultural impact of his writing. What follows is an attempt to answer a seemingly simple ques tion: ‘What are Shakespeare’s political views?’ The answer, it turns out, is far from easy to formulate, with the first issue that we need to confront being the established conception of Shakespeare as a ‘camelion’ or a ‘pro tean poet’.
ISSN: 9781032640396
Appears in Collections:Scholarly Works - FacSoWFS

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