Shakespeare belongs to us

Issue: 150

Gareth Jenkins

We don’t know a great deal about William Shakespeare’s life. The records are scant and, in the absence of personal testimony, we know nothing of his intimate feelings or thoughts.

We do know some things, however. His father was a glover who must have been reasonably prosperous and well-respected because for many years he held a position on the town council of Stratford-upon-Avon. His mother seems to have had more genteel origins and John Shakespeare himself applied for a coat of arms to become a gentleman, which he later obtained with the help of his son. Shakespeare attended the local grammar school, which gave him a good grounding in the classics and in the art of rhetoric, but did not attend university. His father may have hankered after the old Catholic religion but there is no evidence that his son was other than a loyal subject in matters of faith and politics.

We know rather more about Shakespeare’s professional life. He was a leading actor, though not one of the greats, in companies with aristocratic and royal patronage and also a shareholder in the Globe theatre. The field he worked in was socially suspect (actors were regarded as little better than vagrants, and the world of the theatre and that of the brothel were closely connected). Nevertheless, he seems to have been a shrewd enough operator to prosper—indeed, he was able to buy a substantial property in his hometown, to which he later retired.

We do, of course, have his poems and his plays (or most of them—a couple seem to have been lost). These should not be read as disguised autobiography. Even the most emotional of his “personal” sonnets were governed by conventions of rhetoric, the highly intricate patterning of language to produce effects that Shakespeare had been taught at school. His plays may well reflect his beliefs but, by their very nature, they allow for the dramatisation of conflicting and even subversive viewpoints. Certainly, the authorities were nervous about the relative “openness” of the genre and subjected the stage to tight censorship—even sending playwrights to prison for overstepping the mark, a fate Shakespeare never suffered.

A poet of flux

Shakespeare, then, belonged to the middle sort in a period of considerable flux. His talents as a writer allowed him to make money in the somewhat precarious world of theatre as well as cultivate connections to aristocratic patrons and to the royal court. They also allowed him to capture the deep tensions accumulating behind the facade of Elizabethan absolutism, tensions that, in the mid-17th century, would explode in civil war.

The kind of period he lived through goes some way to explaining Shakespeare’s extraordinarily rich and diverse oeuvre. He mastered the poetic forms, with their intricate rhyme schemes and complex, allusive patterning, favoured by the court and rich patrons (particularly the sonnet form and longer classical-style poem). At the same time he mastered the language of drama, particularly the high-flown and stirring blank verse form that his older contemporaries had pioneered for popular consumption. But he also made all these forms his own, setting his stamp on the diverse theatrical genres that developed. He made poetry and drama more expressive, more human, less dependent on convention. He was also a master of dramatic prose, often filled with the energy of the language of the streets, taverns, servants, apprentices, citizens and peasants. Poetry and prose jostle against one another—the prose sometimes providing a realistic corrective to high-flown sentiment. There seems little doubt as to Shakespeare’s broad appeal—to those who went to the Globe as well as to more “refined” audiences.

Shakespeare’s plays were designed for public performance rather than private reading (unlike some of his socially superior contemporaries’ plays). Therefore many of the plays that came to be printed (many only after his death) exist in different versions, or are inconsistent, corrupted and sometimes plain puzzling. (Trying to reconstruct the true texts of Shakespeare’s plays has kept scholars busy ever since the 18th century.)

Of course, the fact that Shakespeare wrote in the language of 400 years ago means that for us he is sometimes difficult to follow on the page (to the despair of generations of school and university students), less so in the theatre where the actor can bring out obscure meaning through gesture, tone or emphasis. At the same time, Shakespeare enormously expanded the English vocabulary and many of the expressions he coined remain part of our present day language. If you talk about acting “more in sorrow than in anger” or about something “vanishing into thin air”, you are quoting Shakespeare though you may not know it.

Shakespeare’s output of plays and poetry may be unique in its intensity and power, but that uniqueness was only possible because new opportunities for people of his background made it possible for his work to express new and profound insights into the changing and contradictory world in which he moved. Theatre—the new cultural form in which the lower and upper orders rubbed shoulders—was, not surprisingly, therefore, the site in which that uniqueness could flourish.

Whose Shakespeare?

Some 400 years after his death, Shakespeare is still very much alive. But Shakespeare is also highly contested territory. Just what does he stand for, culturally and socially? Has he been appropriated by the elites, particularly the educated elite, and been used as a cultural weapon of exclusion? Or is he “ours”? Can he be returned to us and be made part of the working class and socialist movement?

The traditional appropriation of Shakespeare has him as the quintessence of Englishness, particularly rural (merry) England, born and dying on St George’s Day (he certainly died on 23 April 1616 but since we only know the day of his baptism, 26 April 1564, it is pure, if conveniently patriotic speculation, to have him be born on the 23rd). Laurence Olivier’s wartime film version of Henry V is perhaps the most potent embodiment of a Shakespeare mobilised in a national struggle against the enemy. Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s “brilliant” chancellor of the exchequer, quoted lines from Troilus and Cressida to prove that Shakespeare was the embodiment of tradition, continuity and order. Consumerism seeks to sell that image in bland and palatable form—as anyone who’s visited Stratford-upon-Avon or the reconstructed Globe can appreciate. It is at least arguable that in a world where subsidies to the arts are under threat there is pressure to avoid provocative reinterpretations of Shakespeare.1

Yet Shakespeare has always figured in oppositional culture: Karl Marx, as is well known, was passionate about him; Victorian mill girls read him before going to work; Bertolt Brecht, the great Marxist poet and dramatist, worked and reworked Shakespearean material.2 It is safe to say that none of these appreciated Shakespeare for his supposed conservative genius but because he spoke to their hopes, aspirations and fears—as well as offering an appropriate language for those who wished to resist. Shakespeare remains a towering figure who is far too good to be left in the hands of the right.

Marxism, history and form

The 17th century playwright and poet Ben Jonson claimed in a dedicatory poem prefacing the first edition of Shakespeare’s plays that Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time”. A better way of putting it might be to say that Shakespeare was of his age (how could it be otherwise?) but that his work so grasped the dynamics of his period that it was able to address issues that resonate beyond the historical limits of his period and thus contribute to a genuinely human culture, one that flowers in a classless society.

Putting it like this avoids two problems. One (which is often taken to be the Marxist position) is that Shakespeare should be understood as no more than reflecting his period (a kind of sociological reading of Shakespeare); the other is that Shakespeare was a genius able to transcend his time and place. The first is a species of mechanistic materialism; the second a kind of idealism. The first is sometimes used to argue that Shakespeare was simply part of the class culture of the period, reflecting its exploitative and oppressive nature, and continues to be used today to push the values of the ruling class. The second is sometimes used to demonstrate that materialism in general (and Marxism in particular) is reductive and simplistic—its failure to understand the specific quality of culture (Shakespeare in this case) being seen as symptomatic of a more general failure to respect and advance human potential.

A whole tradition of academic criticism sought to reinforce the view that Shakespeare was in some sense the literary embodiment of the dominant ideological concerns of the period—the Elizabethan world picture.3 The key plays, then, are the English history plays (the War of the Roses), with their themes of rebellion, treachery and celebration of patriotic order, most notably in Henry V, the last to be written. The emphasis was on Shakespeare as embodying social cohesion in literary form; the social contradictions that lay beneath the surface and that were to explode, a mere quarter of a century after Shakespeare’s death, in civil war and revolution, were ignored or downplayed.

Alongside this approach, as a complement, went a more formalist approach that viewed Shakespeare’s poems and plays as self-sufficient wholes, to be studied in terms of archetypes or in terms of linguistic patterning, imagery and the use of metaphor. Such studies did not necessarily agree with one another in what they found important in Shakespeare but in general terms the tendency was to abstract Shakespeare from his broader social, historical and ideological context as a way of focussing what was “universal”. The subtlety of attention to aesthetic qualities could be enriching but the cost was often an impoverishment of Shakespeare’s social meaning. So the formalist approach, in its own way, reinforced a conservative view of his work.

By the 1970s, as radicalism and radical ways of thinking penetrated the academy, much of this was under challenge. Shakespeare now began to be read against the grain. Critics began to argue that Shakespeare’s plays themselves were more contradictory and fractured in respect of the dominant ideology—for example in the way they challenged gender or racial-cultural stereotypes—than often supposed. You could tease meanings out of ambiguities, gaps and silences to subvert the dominant narrative (not that Shakespeare himself would have been conscious of this). There was, therefore, more than one Shakespeare.4 This pluralisation of Shakespeare owed more to Michel Foucault and post-structuralism than to Marx. Nevertheless, the challenge to traditional criticism had benefits. Lawson might like to quote the passage in Troilus and Cressida that seemed to prove that Shakespeare was a conservative. But he ignored the fact that the spokesman for order in the play, in order to gain his own ends, played fast and loose with his own philosophy, thus cancelling its supposed authoritativeness.

Then there is the new historicism, which can be as exotic as the old historicism was dour. The new historicism owes something to postmodernism in that it is wary of the grand narratives that the old historicism espoused. So new historicists like James Shapiro have focussed on what might be seen as relatively marginal events or issues (important in their own right but perhaps less so in explaining historical development) and seen them as crucial determinants in Shakespeare’s imagination. Shapiro has written two books, 1599 and, last year, 1606, both of which (as the titles suggest!) focus on a single year in order to bring together disparate elements to illuminate what Shakespeare was writing, or preparing to write, in that year. 1606 applies the new historicist approach to some of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, and offers ways into these plays through the Gunpowder Plot, King James’s interest in witchcraft and Anglo-Scottish unity and the spectacle of the royal visit by the King and Queen of Denmark (among other things).5 This does yield insights. And the book is an exciting, almost breathless read, with Shapiro trying to recreate events as if in a historical novel.

Shapiro’s ability to engage with his audience, an audience that may not be an academic one, is impressive—and anything that brings Shakespeare to a wider public is to be welcomed. But it is impossible not to feel doubts about his approach. For a start, the attempt to compress themes of different importance, duration or broader social significance into a single year risks missing the broader, overarching historical development. Where the old historicism may have ignored much of the texture of lived life, the new historicism runs the opposite risk—that Shakespeare is little more than a writer driven by immediate pressures, concerns and worries. King James’s obsession with getting Parliament to pass an Act of Union tells us something about what was topical in Lear’s division of his kingdom. But that hardly helps us grasp Shakespeare’s profoundly dramatic exploration of social and individual disintegration that gives the tragedy its power and continuing relevance.

As it happens, two splendid Marxist explorations of Shakespeare’s work, Shakespeare: Poet and Citizen and Eight Tragedies of Shakespeare, by the late Victor Kiernan are being reissued this year.6 Kiernan was a historian to rank with Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill. His background was the Communist Party, with which he broke (as did Hill, but not Hobsbawm), in the years following the Russian intervention in Hungary in 1956. His approach to Shakespeare is based on a deep historical understanding of the contradictions of the period, which makes him deeply sensitive to what the plays reveal. Other Marxist writers, like the late Paul Siegel, an American Trotskyist academic, also wrote fine, historically grounded analyses of Shakespeare’s plays. Probably the best known academic working creatively in the Marxist tradition to have explored aspects of Shakespeare’s work is Terry Eagleton. None of the work of these writers in any way approximates to the caricature of Marxism as a crude and reductionist philosophy.

The struggle of old and new

Let us return, before moving on, to those “difficult” aspects I mentioned earlier: gender and racial-cultural stereotyping. Of course, Shakespeare was of his period and it would be unreasonable to expect him to adopt positions that the development of modern society and the movements of resistance to oppression have made possible. We should therefore avoid such anachronistic terms as “sexism” and “racism”. It is the case, however, that Shakespeare’s female characters as a whole show greater complexity and diversity than the shrewish stereotype that “needs” taming in the play of that name (interestingly, a younger contemporary of Shakespeare’s rewrote the plot from the “shrew’s” perspective). And secondly, it is arguable that, because boys played the parts of women on the stage of the period, the fluidity of gender identity to be found in some of his comedies is startlingly modern. It is a mistake not to recognise that Shakespeare was clearly responsive to developments in a shifting society.

As for “race”, much the same point can be argued—perhaps more convincingly. One example will have to suffice. The Merchant of Venice certainly invokes the mediaeval stereotype of the hated Jew (as Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe did in The Jew of Malta) but transforms it utterly. Take, for example, Shylock’s famous speech:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?—fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?7

This is a demand to be recognised as having the same needs and feelings as everyone else. It is, in other words, an appeal to a common humanity—except, and this is testimony to the complexity of Shakespeare, it is also an argument to say that Jews, precisely because of their shared humanity, have the right to be as “evil” as their Christian tormentors (the speech turns into a justification for revenge). Shylock is humanised the better to offer a critique of mercantile society, his tragedy being that he is a victim of the very state and legal system he thought he could get justice from (admittedly, a perverted justice).

Shylock expresses something of the contradictions of what we might call “the new individualism”. He emerges from behind the stereotype of the Jew (to be found in Marlowe’s play) as a real individual with human needs. But these human needs, ones we can identify with and which give Shylock his power as a character on the stage, are, inevitably given the stage of historical development, stained with the new barbarism of competition (the horror of believing that there can be an exchange equivalent between human flesh and money). Shakespeare has no solution to this—other than to contrast the commercial world of Venice with another, older and more harmonious world, in which true mutuality in relationships (love) does not involve sordid and (literally, dehumanising) exchange.

What we see here, quite early on in Shakespeare’s career, is a profound grappling with the clash between the old and the new—his ­realisation of the dynamic of the new and the inadequacy of the old to resist it. He looks back (hence his “conservatism”) but the power of his art points forward: it captures and gives powerful expression to the inescapability of the dynamic of the new. This is not yet tragedy. Shakespeare brackets the tragic implication of Shylock’s fate by containing it in the form of a comedy—the plot finds its resolution in the lovers finding happiness.

Shakespeare went on to explore, in much more profound plays, the full tragedy of the clash between old and new. So it is to this that we must turn, focusing on the figure of the “villain”.

From slightly earlier than Shylock we have the character of Richard, villain-hero of the play of the same name. Richard’s character still owes something to the mediaeval figure of the Vice, and to the idea that moral unnaturalness is rooted in physical unnaturalness (deformity from birth). But Shakespeare develops another side to Richard (which explains his ability to outwit his enemies and the ferocious, even captivating energy with which he pursues his conquest of power). He represents a new kind of human “nature”, one much more akin to the kind of human nature that the first major philosopher of the new bourgeois society, Thomas Hobbes, would write about in the following century. This is the idea that human beings are essentially solitary and that their inter-relations are not governed by bonds of mutual obligation but by self-interest. Richard tells the audience (at the end of an earlier English history play) that he has no kinship (neither father nor brother). He is self-sufficient: “I am myself alone”8 and it is this vantage point (of egoistic calculation) that allows him to carve his way in the world (literally, in some senses).

This new individualism underpins all the great villains in Shakespeare. Iago in Othello, in his first monologue, says “I follow but myself… I am not what I am”.9 Not only is he self-reliant but his self-concealment (the way he appears) is integral to his self-sufficiency (the way he is). This is the source of Iago’s power (his ability to exploit “seeming”), which destroys Othello’s relationship with Desdemona (interestingly, this is another Venetian play, featuring an “outsider”—Othello, the Moor—caught between being needed by the state for its military survival and being rejected by it as not being “one of us”).

Edmund (the Bastard) in King Lear goes much further in terms of self-consciousness as speaking for a new nature. His first words are: “Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law/My services are bound”.10 This is nothing less than a declaration of war on the traditional view of nature: what the old order saw as illegitimate is now fighting not for a place within the old order but the right to recast the world in its interests, to proclaim itself the new legitimacy. In a long speech in the same scene, Edmund mocks the superstitiousness, ignorance and self-deception of the old order, which sees the stars as determining our place in society and our code of conduct and the way events should develop: “I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardising”, he asserts.11 Given that the Bastard eventually comes to a bad end, we can be fairly confident that Shakespeare rejected this new philosophy, which the contemporary poet, John Donne, described as bringing all in doubt. But Shakespeare the artist cannot deny its rationality: the power of his tragic writing brings out the fact that the old, having lost its rationality, no longer has the right to exist.

Edmund may be alien to the old order but the old order is eaten from within by this new way of thinking and behaving—even if it doesn’t recognise this. It invites its own overthrow, powerfully symbolised by the way in which Lear divides his kingdom in the opening scene. He asks his three daughters not whether they love him but how much they love him, this being the basis on which each will receive their portion. The language of mercantile competition is the organising centre to this interchange of emotion, the logic of which thus sets in motion, even before we are aware of the Bastard’s philosophy, the downfall of the traditional system. The old system depended on limits—boundaries that all sides were meant to recognise in terms of mutual obligations. The new individualism, dissolving the old order through a vastly expanded circulation of money, recognises no such limits (the contradiction captured by Marlowe of “infinite riches in a little room”). Thus Goneril, the eldest daughter, says she loves her father more than words can express, “dearer than eyesight, space and liberty/ Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare”.12 To this Regan, the second daughter, replies that she loves her father equally (being of the same mettle as her sister), except that Goneril “comes too short” whereas she denies every other joy of the senses so that she “alone” is “felicitate” (made happy) in her father’s love. The first infinity of comparatives is out-topped by a second infinity.

The third, and youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses the mutual verbal outbidding of her sisters by getting as close to silence as possible by uttering in response to Lear’s invitation to draw “a third more opulent” than her sisters, a bare word: “Nothing”. Pressed, she explains that she loves her father according to her bond—a word that expresses a whole world of traditional obligation but which here, in the context of competitive exchange, is denuded of substance. “Nothing will come of nothing”, Lear threatens—a word that resonates throughout the play in many different ways. The “more than everything” promised by the elder sisters in their competitive interchange will prove not just a lie but a nothingness into which Lear, his sanity and the old social order, will be sucked.

Shakespeare powerfully shows this in the reverse competition between Lear and his two elder daughters (Cordelia having been banished for her nothingness). It doesn’t take long for the position of a king, who is no longer a king but retains the trappings of monarchy, to unravel. Goneril exploits the contradiction by demanding that Lear reduce his train of followers, whom she accuses of being disorderly and debauched. Lear, in a fury on learning that half his followers have been dismissed, departs to stay with the other daughter, convinced that she will not be ungrateful like her sister. Yet Regan proves the equal to her sister and ups the stakes by telling Lear he only needs 25 followers. With Goneril’s arrival, a new competition opens—not, as in the first scene, an inflationary competition of love but a deflationary competition about the number of retainers he needs: “What need you five and twenty, ten, or five?” asks Goneril. Finally, asks Regan, getting as close to nothing as she can: “What need one?”

This is a pivotal moment in the play. “O reason not the need!”, Lear then exclaims in reply,

Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest things superfluous.
Allow not more than nature needs.
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou are a lady:
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need.13

At which point, the argument breaks off as Lear’s personal emotions, of anger and desire for revenge, take over. The power of this speech comes from the fact that Shakespeare has lifted the confrontation between Lear and his daughters from being a family spat to one over how human need is to be judged. If “need” is to be measured according to the rationality invoked by Goneril and Regan, then it is not just the old dominant class that faces loss but those at the bottom of it. At the same time, reason can also be applied to challenge the sisters’ “need” for finery (if the marginalised are to be allowed nothing, then nor should those who are using the new rationality against the old).

What Shakespeare has captured in this scene, with extraordinary power, is a conflict of world historical significance. His artistic grasp of the struggle between the old and the new points beyond his immediate period to illuminate a question that haunts all class society (the struggle to satisfy human need). The fact that Lear breaks off mid-sentence is symptomatic of a problem that was objectively irresolvable in Shakespeare’s own period. The hiatus after “true need” shows Lear’s impotence—he can neither answer what “true need” might be nor do anything about it. What remains for him is self-exile to the “no place” of the heath where the detritus of the old order, the wretched and the dispossessed, gather. In this new nothingness, a nothingness of loss of all reason in madness, Lear can identify with the neglected “poor naked wretches” and issue a stinging reproof to “pomp” to expose itself “to feel what wretches feel”.14 As he strips himself to nothing, when confronted by mad Tom, he poses the question of what it means to be human at its most basic: “Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume… Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art”.15 Lear’s folly points to a truth—or rather it strips away layers of meaning so that we might reconstruct humanity on a new basis.

We are close here to Marx’s understanding, 200 years later with the maturing of capitalism, of how bourgeois social relations, which were completing their destructive work of the feudal order, sweep away “ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions” and compel humans to “face with sober senses” their “real conditions of life” and their interrelations with one another.16

The limits of bare humanity

There is much more that could be said about Shakespeare—about his other major tragedies, his comedies and Roman plays; about his understanding of power more generally, about love and individual fulfilment, about time, death and opportunity. But there’s a reason to focus on what is undoubtedly his greatest tragedy, King Lear. And that has to do with Shakespeare’s radical departure from the plot line he inherited from King Leir, the anonymous play he followed. In that play, Cordelia is reconciled with her father, whom she restores to his throne. This “happy ending” must have been known to Shakespeare’s audience since the anonymous Leir, published in 1605, had been staged as early as the mid 1590s. Instead, at the climax of Shakespeare’s version, Lear enters with Cordelia dead in his arms. This so pained the 18th century critic and lexicographer Dr Johnson, as running contrary to natural justice, that he preferred Nahum Tate’s tepid 1680 rewrite (in which Cordelia is married off to Edmund’s legitimate brother—about as close to a hero as you get in the tragedy). At the end of King Lear, uniquely in Shakespearean drama, there is no restoration of order, except in the most token sense.

This is what gives King Lear its profound bleakness. But we should be wary of seeing here the reality of the “human condition”—a kind of Samuel Beckett bleakness. Rather, what Shakespeare grasps is something rather more concrete: the inescapable but destructive logic of the new, bourgeois individualism, together with a new questioning of what it is to be human. The bleakness is that, at the historical conjuncture of Shakespeare’s period, the bare, common humanity, which Lear discovers among the wretched (a positive outcome, as it were, in the midst of nothingness) offers no potential for any social order to replace the one being destroyed.

The closest Shakespeare gets to seeing the dispossessed as any kind of agent is his finest Roman play Coriolanus (written slightly later than King Lear), in which the citizens are as much a subject of the drama as their antagonist, Coriolanus. They are disruptive and fickle, both easily led and capable of leadership. Unlike other mobs in Shakespeare, they are a collective that reasons and debates. This is not in any way to say that Shakespeare sympathises with them—nor, I would argue, with Coriolanus, who in his own way is part of the new individualism (he is contemptuous of custom like the Bastard in Lear and prone to act “as if a man were author of himself/And knew no other kin”17).

The power of King Lear (indeed of much else Shakespeare wrote) rather confirms Leon Trotsky’s point about how works of art belonging to one epoch can speak to a different epoch. In this instance, for all its rootedness in its period, the period of the clash between feudal absolutism and the emergent bourgeois society, King Lear achieves an artistic intensity that brings out not only what is common to all class societies—exploitation by the minority of the majority—but points towards a truly human culture of solidarity. Shakespeare, in that sense, belongs to us.


1 To this writer, at least, the recent performances of four of Shakespeare’s History Plays at the Barbican seemed, despite stellar casts, to slip too easily into Blackadder mode—with a touch of ’Allo, ’Allo thrown in.

2 As evidence of how Shakespeare can enter contemporary politics in oppositional form, we have Benedict Cumberbatch using his star status to appeal for money for refugees after his recent Hamlet performances—Elgot, 2015. And even more startlingly, a production of Hamlet was staged at the Calais “jungle” camp—Brown, 2016. (See also Economist, 2015, in connection with refugees.)

3 A reference to the influential book by E M W Tillyard, published in 1942, that most students of Shakespeare in the 1950s and 1960s would have had to have read.

4 Shakespeares was the title of a collection of essays edited by John Drakakis, first published in 1985.

5 Shapiro, 2015.

6 Kiernan, 2016 a and b.

7 The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1, 51-57. All references to Shakespeare are from the 1969 Penguin edition of the complete works (Harbage, 1969).

8 Henry VI, Part 3, Act 5, Scene 6, 83.

9 Othello, Act 1, Scene 1, 59 and 65.

10 King Lear, Act 1, Scene 2, 1-2.

11 King Lear, Act 1, Scene 2, 127-129.

12 King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1, 56-57.

13 King Lear, Act 2, Scene 4, 259-265.

14 King Lear, Act 3, Scene 3, 28, 30-33.

15 King Lear, Act 3, Scene 4, 97-102.

16 Marx and Engels, 2000.

17 Coriolanus, Act 5, Scene 3, 36-37. No wonder, by the way, that Brecht loved this play.


Brown, Mark, 2016, “Shakespeare’s Globe to take Hamlet to ‘Jungle’ Refugee Camp”, Guardian (29 January),

Economist, 2015, “What would Shakespeare do about Europe’s Migrants?” (23 October),

Elgot, Jessica, 2015, “Benedict Cumberbatch Stuns Theatregoers with Anti-government Speech”, Guardian (30 October),

Harbage, Alfred (ed), 1969, William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Penguin).

Kiernan, Victor, 2016a, Eight Tragedies of Shakespeare (Zed Books).

Kiernan, Victor, 2016b, Shakespeare: Poet and Citizen (Zed Books).

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels, 2000, The Communist Manifesto (Verso).

Shapiro, James, 2015, 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear (Faber and Faber).