Shakespeare, literary history and Marxism

Issue: 117

Joe Hartney

A review of Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare (Jonathan Cape, 2004); and James Shapiro, 1599: A year in the life of William Shakespeare (Faber, 2005)

Two recent bestselling biographies of William Shakespeare have provided entertaining and accessible accounts of the famous bard in the context of 16th and early 17th century English society. These works are examples of the now dominant academic trend of literary criticism known as “new historicism”. Their success in reaching a popular audience well beyond university-based specialists who teach and research literature has already generated much media comment, and will probably lead to a spate of similar “popular” works.

Books about Shakespeare are not rare. Hundreds of studies and articles on this subject appear each year, yet this is mostly work by and for academics, and seems to have very little impact on the way Shakespeare is viewed in our society in general. The suggestion that his plays might be dropped from school and college courses incites tabloid columnists to nationalistic indignation, and most schoolchildren are still forced to regard him in the same way that their parents and grandparents did: a remote icon of “English culture” and a solemn representative of “national values”.

When this approach was challenged by scholars who knew better, the rarefied world of the academy and the increasingly obscure language used there excluded all but a few “professionals”.

It is, then, a welcome change to see at least a couple of critics writing biographies of Shakespeare that are free of theoretical jargon, and that attempt to cut through some of the mystique and reverence surrounding this subject, presenting portraits of the writer that emphasise the world in which he grew up and lived. Many traditional approaches to Shakespeare (and literature generally) either ignore history and society altogether, focusing solely on language, or are concerned about purely “literary” matters, such as textual sources and the stylistic influences of other artists. The most common form of “history” dabbled in is the personal history of the artists, accounts of their “inner life” stressing their unique qualities as exceptional individuals. This has tended to give the impression that artists, and the art and literature they produce, are separate and distant from real life, removed and totally disconnected from the everyday world of work, human relationships and politics (an impression that reflects the position of the academy itself, hoping to maintain a comfortable distance from the grubby realities of capitalism).

One of the strengths of an approach that tries to combine an understanding of history and society with culture is that it can help bring art and literature to life for us. By stressing the connection that works of art and artists have with their own world, and the conflicts and struggles of their times, such an approach can help us grasp their significance for us today. This is why Marxist literary criticism has always stressed the historical context. This is also a professed concern of many of the “new historicist” critics, and is surely one of the reasons why these biographies have proven popular with non-specialist readers.

So there are some very positive elements in these accounts of Shakespeare’s life and work, and even some advances on the usual methods adopted by new historicist critics, which I will touch on later. However, the way in which literature is placed in a historical context and these authors’ attitudes to history itself raise a number of questions. In particular, many of the “new historicist” critics are influenced by various strands of postmodernism.

Some of these questions can best be answered by turning to the classical Marxist tradition.1

What made Shakespeare?

Every potential biographer of Shakespeare has first to find a way of dealing with the simple fact that there are huge gaps in the evidence. What we actually know about Shakespeare’s personal history is far too sketchy to provide enough material for a proper biography. Therefore the biographer is forced to guess and speculate to a large degree. A good knowledge of history can help make such speculation more informed, but both Greenblatt and Shapiro would accept that there is much educated guesswork involved in their accounts. Many of the more negative reviews of these biographies have focused on the “maybes”, “perhapses” and “might haves” that crop up fairly regularly, but given the scant facts this is inevitable. At least a critic interested in social and political history can attempt to fill in some of the gaps in the personal record by assessing situations that would have been common for most people at the time.

Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare seeks to do this with digressions on the sort of society Shakespeare lived in, and attempts to reconstruct some of the perceptions and experiences that he feels would have been current in that world. So, as well as drawing on some of the more standard biographical material such as the likely curriculum of young William’s grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon (a diet of Latin classics), he also focuses on the importance of local festival days and the sorts of popular celebrations that broke up the monotony of life in Elizabethan England. These would include visits by touring troops of players putting on morality plays for the townspeople, and public spectacles created by local lords to entertain and impress the visiting queen. Many of these real life events could have had as much an influence on Shakespeare as the Latin plays he studied at school, and Greenblatt notes that aspects of “folk culture” play an important part in Shakespeare’s works.

Greenblatt also gives a good account of some of the more brutal aspects of Elizabethan society, especially the sorts of punishments meted out to those who opposed the state religion. Like a number of recent biographers, Greenblatt is attracted to the notion that Shakespeare’s father might have been a secret Catholic, and that Shakespeare too may have harboured some allegiance to the old religion. The evidence for this is extremely tenuous, but it does at least give Greenblatt the opportunity to recount stories about the horrific torture and executions meted out to those who were active in the service of Catholicism. Typically for a new historicist critic, the focus is on how religious ideology is enforced by the state from the top down. In contrast there is little discussion of the other side of this, where religious ideas expressed opposition to authority, which, given the context of the Reformation, makes his account a little unbalanced.2

Greenblatt is not a Marxist and therefore does not start from a class analysis of Tudor society. However, it is difficult to avoid the fact that this society was a very hierarchical one where class distinctions were obvious to all and maintained by force. He touches on this aspect of society when discussing his view that Shakespeare clearly aspired to become “a gentleman”. He draws together some of the known facts about Shakespeare’s father: that he was an artisan (a glover), who became a respected town official; he sent his son to the local grammar school, probably with the hope that he would attend university; and he applied for a family coat of arms, but then ran into financial difficulties and so did not succeed in getting one. Later his son, now a wealthy playwright, renewed the application successfully and bought himself a large house (as well as plenty of land) in the town where he was born and raised.

For Greenblatt it is important for Shakespeare, whose profession (an actor) was not well respected, to aspire to be seen as “a gentleman”, a man of wealth and education. Greenblatt makes the connection between Shakespeare’s father’s ambitions (that seemed to end in failure), and the drive and ambition of Shakespeare himself to achieve what his father could not. This is how Greenblatt characterises Shakespeare’s attitude:

I am not someone who can be treated like a hired servant or whipped like a vagabond; I am someone who does not merely pretend onstage to be a gentleman; I am a true gentleman, entitled to bear arms… And, half_concealed, another symbolic statement: I have with the fruits of my labour and my imagination returned my family to the moment before things fell apart.3

Although indulging a little in cod psychoanalysis,4 this is a plausible speculation, given what we know about both Shakespeare’s life and the sort of society he lived in at the time. But left at that, is this really sufficient to explain the complex treatment of class and status in the poet’s work? Shakespeare was personally ambitious, but is this a significant factor in understanding his development as an artist and the plays he wrote?

Here I found myself thinking that Greenblatt’s account would benefit greatly from the broader context of a Marxist approach that reaches beyond the perceptions of the day (such as an individual’s aspirations to an improved status in Tudor society) to a class analysis. The distinction between class and status at this time is one that was summarised very effectively by Christopher Hill in the 1950s commenting on the debates about the role of “the gentry” in the English Civil War:

We must surely start from the fact that “the gentry” were not an economic class. They were a social and legal class… Some yeoman were thriving to gentility; others were being submerged… It is not helpful to speak of the legal class as though it were in any sense an economic class. What we need is a far more precise analysis of the way in which the gentry was dividing.5

Given this distinction between status (the “legal class”) and “economic class”, and the strict social differentiation that existed in feudal society, we might ask how it was possible for someone to become upwardly mobile in the way that Shakespeare did. What changes were taking place in society that could allow the sons of artisans to attend grammar schools and possibly universities, and aspire to be “gentlemen”? If previously strict divisions of social status were becoming blurred and even to some degree being broken down, then what were the underlying causes of these changes, and who were the people most likely to benefit from them? Crucially, if some people can take advantage of such changes, do they not also have a clear interest in perpetuating them and pushing for further changes, and if so how does this alter their perception of the world they live in?

The answers to some of these questions, from a classical Marxist perspective, would situate Tudor society in the context of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. They would seek to explain how the emergence of the ideas behind the Renaissance and Reformation are intimately connected with such changes, and why it is that artists developed all sorts of new techniques and styles to give expression to these ideas. New historicist critics might complain that this “totalising” approach to history is too general to be useful when discussing individual artists or works of art. However, there is no reason why we cannot move from a broader picture to a more detailed one. In fact, placing something “in context” ought to demand precisely that method.

Even a fairly brief account can demonstrate the extent to which Shakespeare’s career, along with those of other writers of the day, were shaped by the social and economic changes taking place. It is surely not an accident that many of those among Shakespeare’s generation of writers came from similar backgrounds: the sons of artisans and lower middle class families that lacked strong connections to the court and nobility (in contrast to an earlier generation of Renaissance poets who were courtiers).6 In a society where traditional forms of noble and court patronage were in decline, but where a rapidly expanding London saw the beginnings of the commercial theatre, these well educated men had an opportunity to pursue careers as professional writers, and crucially to try to live a life fulfilling the promise of Renaissance humanism—achieving success through their own excellence and endeavour.

The expression of the Renaissance vision of humanity in Elizabethan poetry and drama is clearly connected to these circumstances. Writers were reaching beyond the narrow confines of official ideas about the world to find new forms of expression, because in their own lives they were reaching beyond the traditional confines of the old society itself. Their experience may not have been typical of everyone who lived in England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but it was typical of an emerging class in the towns and cities seeking to capitalise on a broader transformation taking place.

A year in the life

James Shapiro looks at one year in the life of Shakespeare, where he argues that a set of historical and personal circumstances converged to transform Shakespeare from a successful dramatist to a great artist. The focus on a single year might seem restrictive, but in fact it gives Shapiro the opportunity to provide a detailed survey of social, political and artistic developments taking place at the turn of the century. Like Greenblatt he pulls together a great deal of existing scholarship and successfully incorporates it into a very readable account that works hard to transport the reader back into Shakespeare’s London. Shapiro has a more intensive focus on change, because he is making an argument that this is a crucial time in Shakespeare’s artistic development. He is not just telling a story, but trying to persuade at the same time, and this more polemical aspect makes for better history.

The “history at close quarters” approach of historicists and more traditional literary historians alike is used to construct a convincing case for 1599. Shakespeare is already famous and recognised as probably the best playwright on the scene, and in this year his company built and opened the new Globe theatre. As a shareholder he would directly benefit from its success. The company itself, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, now contained some of the most experienced and accomplished actors of the day. In the next few years Shakespeare would write for these players some of his most famous tragedies: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth (as well as a few excellent comedies). It has been clear to critics for a long time that this was a key moment for Shakespeare as an artist. It might be expected that a popular writer hoping for commercial success would “play it safe” and just give the audience what they want. But here the opposite is the case. Shakespeare starts writing plays that test both the actors and the audience like never before.

Shapiro also assesses the key political issues of the day, providing a convincing picture of a time of uncertainty, fear and conflict. One of the main areas of conflict was war: rumours that another attempted Spanish invasion was imminent (it wasn’t) and the attempt to suppress rebellion in Ireland taken up with great patriotic fanfare by the ambitious Earl of Essex (an important backdrop for the patriotic play Henry V). Uncertainty over the succession of the old queen, now nearing the end of her reign, and the resulting increase in paranoia within the state led to intrigues at court and greater censorship. There was real fear of the state itself, of conscription into the army, of religious persecution and, of course, the devastation of the plague. This realistic picture of life in Shakespeare’s London is markedly different from the conservative “golden age” image of “merry England”, which crudely portrays the great art of the Renaissance as a reflection of the natural order and social peace maintained by a benevolent ruling class.

Shapiro is aware that the current affairs of 1599 are inadequate to fully explain the growing ambitions of Shakespeare’s artistic endeavour. He speculates that the dramatist must have begun writing Hamlet at this time, which may be a tenuous assertion, but it does at least give him the excuse to engage with one of the greatest tragedies. In the best chapter in the book, “Things Dying, Things Newborn”, Shapiro situates Hamlet in the much broader context of an old world of “chivalry” dying away and a new one of global capitalism starting to replace it.

Shapiro’s method is to describe historic events as symbolising ideas, and as “forces” of history. The Earl of Essex’s failure to suppress rebellion in Ireland leads him to a rash appeal to the queen, scandalously charging into her bedchamber to declare his allegiance. His actions confirm the fears of those who see him as a dangerous menace at court, and he falls from favour as a result. These failures are depicted as symbolic of the inevitable decline of the “chivalric age”. In the same year, and as a consequence of the steady growth of world trade, the British East India company was founded—”a seminal moment in the history of global capitalism”:

Hamlet, born at the crossroads of the death of chivalry and the birth of globalisation, is marked by these forces, but unlike the caustic Troilus and Cressida, is not deformed by them. They cast a shadow on the play, though, and certainly inform its reflections on the possibility of heroic action. They also reinforce the play’s nostalgia; there’s a sense in Hamlet, no less than in the culture at large, of a sea change, of a world that is dead but not yet buried.7

It is perfectly understandable for a critic like Shapiro to want to reach beyond the immediate and everyday historical context for an explanation of a Shakespearian tragedy. Hamlet addresses in the most striking language what it means to be human, the individual’s struggle to comprehend the world and face up to the consequences of taking action to change it. In order to understand this, more than just a knowledge of the playwright’s personal life or even the current political scene is required to avoid a dreadfully reductionist account.

In order to makes sense of Shakespeare’s development as an artist Shapiro identifies a conflict between an old and a new world in the play, a reflection of a similar conflict of ideas taking place in history. However, ideas cannot exist as disembodied forces, bearing the standards of “chivalry” and “global capitalism”; they arise out of attempts of different social classes to generalise and justify their experience of the world. Again I would argue that the Marxist understanding of class can help to enrich the analysis and connect it more concretely to real material changes taking place at this time. In so doing it might be possible to question some of the detailed examples Shapiro gives, but nevertheless accept his overall characterisation of Hamlet as the work of an artist trying to come to terms with a society experiencing fundamental changes.8

History, context and literary criticism

The term “historical context” is widely used by literary critics, but what is meant by this? Even the strictly formalist critic, who believes that literary criticism should only ever focus on linguistic techniques, cannot escape from history. Pick up any modern edition of Shakespeare’s plays and you will see that the language itself requires a certain amount of translation from the editors. This is because between the 16th century and today some words have fallen out of use and others have completely changed their meanings. A historical investigation of language itself has to be undertaken before an informed reading can even begin. This process involves taking a word and then investigating the different ways in which it was used at the time. It is an attempt to understand a particular detail by seeing it as a part of a much bigger picture.

However, the usual practice of many new historicist critics seems to approach the notion of historical context in a slightly different way. The Marxist critic Terry Eagleton has characterised new historicists as preferring “anecdote to analysis” and in practice many of these critics seem more interested in historical digressions than in understanding events or literature in the context of a bigger economic, social and political picture. Their approach typically begins with a detailed description of some sort of event contemporary with the writer or artwork under investigation. There need be no actual connection between the work of art and the event, but the critic will try and draw out some sort of ideological motif that exists in both. This, it is then argued, places the work of art in a historical context. But we have not moved from the general to the particular. Instead we have only compared coexisting particular events.

Unfortunately this is not a very useful method if you wish to use history to provide a better understanding of art and literature, because it can only work by asserting that otherwise disconnected events are expressions of something else. This anecdotal or digressive method has been adopted under the influence of some postmodernist ideas, in a move deliberately designed to avoid the “totalising” approach of classical Marxism. Yet, for all the aversion to “grand narratives” and “meta-narratives” (stories about stories) of new historicist critics, it is difficult to see how it is possible to avoid some sort of grander narrative when putting something in context. Even in the very simple instance of the changing meanings of words through history, an individual usage (say in a play or poem) is fitted into an account of as many other usages as we can find. Hence it is an attempt to grasp the totality of possible meanings in order to derive a better understanding of the individual meaning.

In some respects, the biographical format of the stories they are telling has forced both Greenblatt and Shapiro to adopt at least a grander narrative approach to their subject. An orthodox new historicist might well be critical of this, but in my view the narrative structure of the biography is a clear advantage. A further advantage of biography is that there has to be some explanation of change, and again this brings a positive edge to new historicist criticism, which typically undertakes quite a static analysis of texts. Shapiro’s emphasis on 1599 as a key year in Shakespeare’s development is better here, but Greenblatt is also keen to identify some of the experiences that might have proven key formative influences on the writer. Such an approach is typical of conventional literary biography, but for the new historicists I would argue it helps to enrich the analysis.

The limits of “context”

Marxists are used to understanding things within their context in a way that allows the big picture to illuminate the detail. For example, to understand what Antonio Gramsci was really talking about in his Prison Notebooks we need to understand those writings in the context of his life and work as a revolutionary socialist. In the spheres of art and literature an understanding of the life of the artist and the society they lived in is also very useful. A knowledge of Milton’s role in the English Revolution can throw a great deal of light on his Paradise Lost, and a grasp of the revolutionary ideas of poets such as Blake and Shelley can help us to better interpret some of their more opaque lyrics. Yet, despite the best efforts of scholars through the ages, our knowledge of Shakespeare’s actual attitudes and opinions is extremely limited. The best we can do is try and piece together a picture of the artist from what we know of the world he lived in, and both Greenblatt and Shapiro have done a good job here.

However, if placing art and artists in context is important, is this all that needs to be done? Surely there is also a need to engage with the concerns of the work of art itself and to evaluate its success or otherwise as art. Even in the case of Gramsci, understanding the Prison Notebooks in context allows us to clarify and correctly interpret the argument he is making, but we also want to evaluate that argument and judge how relevant it is for revolutionaries today. In the case of Milton, of course we can see parallels between history and literature, but this should not stop us evaluating whether or not Paradise Lost is a successful artistic expression of the concerns, ideas and emotions of the turbulent times he lived through.

This aspect of literary criticism, as something that seeks to understand what it is that makes for a good play, poem or novel, is by far the most neglected by academics, who tend to work with a given canon of great literature. They may push the boundaries of the canon, or introduce a greater awareness of social and political issues within it, but by and large it is not challenged. The new historicists are reluctant to evaluate literature. Obviously, both Greenblatt and Shapiro believe Shakespeare is a great writer, but they assume that their readers already know that as well and they do not tell us much about what makes him great. Shapiro comes closest in his analysis of Hamlet, where we get the sense that he feels Shakespeare has grasped an essential human dilemma in his attempt to grapple with a transformation between the old and the new world. However, this is more implied than overtly stated.

This leads to a problem for critics who are interested in the close connection between history and literature like the new historicists. Their failure to specify the particular nature of literary art, to evaluate it as art, can lead to a form of reductionism. For many of these critics (again influenced by postmodernism), literature and history collapse into each other, and literature is reduced to history as just another set of “texts”. Ironically, some new historicists reject Marxism because they argue it imposes modern concepts on the past, rather than reconstructing the past in its own terms. Yet, apart from indicating a surprising naivety regarding other non-Marxist methods of historical investigation (which certainly were not prevalent in the 16th century), the notion that everything is a “text” is a thoroughly modern concept which has been foisted upon the past in a completely indiscriminate fashion.

One thing we can be sure of is that Shakespeare knew he was writing something different to a sonnet when he was writing a play, and that when he wrote a tragedy he was aiming at something different to a comedy. Beyond these distinctions, a drama, poem or a novel is different to a history, a diary or an essay on scientific method. Writing has taken many different forms, but to regard all of these forms as “texts” with no distinct attributes of their own or intrinsic value flies in the face of the actual interests of literary critics in practice.

The unspoken assumptions about artistic value are not addressed explicitly because many of the postmodern ideas that influence literary critics simply cannot cope with any concept that implies there has to be some sort of objective criterion by which we judge art. They are caught in a dilemma, in that their actual concerns imply an objective judgement has already been made, but outwardly they deny it is possible to make that judgement. However, if we at least attempt to try and define that criterion, by regarding art, like history, as an attempt to develop a better understanding of the world but using different methods and techniques, these two different approaches to reality can complement each other.

The obvious way in which history can illuminate art is by helping us understand the circumstances of life that the artist is addressing. Left at that, however, there is a danger that we give the impression that art is just an adjunct to history, an illustration of the historian’s analysis. However, because the artist is dealing with life in a different way, perhaps making it more concrete to us by addressing our emotional responses, the historical analysis can aid our understanding, but cannot be used to judge the effectiveness of that response. This problem has been addressed a number of times within the Marxist tradition. As the Russian Marxist Aleksandr Voronsky commented on Marx’s own attitude to Shakespeare:

One of his favourite writers was Shakespeare who was undoubtedly a realist. The point is not that Marx “acknowledged” Shakespeare or gave him his due as an historian, or even that he received profound aesthetic pleasure from him, but that he recommended that his best contemporaries imitated him in his realism…when discussing Lassalle’s play Franz von Sickingen, he advises him to Shakespearise and not to follow in the footsteps of Schiller with his transformation of individuals “into simple mouthpieces of the spirit of the times”.9

The notion that Shakespeare is a “realist”, as Voronsky puts it, may be implied by much modern criticism. After all, what would be the point of reading the works of a writer who had no relevance to our experience of the real world? Yet this idea does not really infiltrate the methods of literary critics, and it is absent from the literary biographical accounts of Greenblatt and Shapiro. This is unfortunate because an analysis which begins by understanding the historical context of literature should also be uniquely suited to tease out the relationship between art and life, and in the process develop a greater appreciation of art itself.


1: The most comprehensive Marxist critique of new historicism I am aware of is to be found in Holstun, 2000. Anyone interested in exploring the relationship between new historicism and postmodernism in more detail should consult this work.

2: One omission in the account of religion is any mention of the Marprelate controversy: a pamphlet war that broke out in the 1590s sparked by some wickedly satirical puritan attacks on the bishops. This controversy prefigures some of the later debates of the English Revolution. It also indicates that religious ideas can be used to express opposition to authority and -resistance to oppression. The near absence of voices of opposition and rebellion in new historicist criticism is covered well by Holstun, 2000.

3: Greenblatt, 2004, p86.

4: Those familiar with Greenblatt’s criticism might be surprised at the psychological analysis implicit in this account of Shakespeare being driven by a “dream of restoring” his father’s desire to improve his status, as he is the author of what has been described as a “devastating” critique of psychoanalytic approaches to art and literature. His contention is that new historicism is superior because it does not attempt to superimpose on the past concepts and methods that arose in a different period, yet he is clearly not immune to that method here, or has found himself forced into it through his attempt to imaginatively fill in the gaps in what we know about Shakespeare’s life.

5: Hill, 1958, pp17-18.

6: In addition to Shakespeare, the son of a glover, Thomas Kyd was the son of a scrivener (a scribe); Christopher Marlowe was the son of a cobbler; Robert Greene was the son of a tradesman; George Peele was the son of a clerk; Thomas Nashe was the son of a minister; and Ben Jonson was the son of a master bricklayer.

7: Shapiro, 2005, pp309-310.

8: In fact the Earl of Essex is not a good representative of the “age of chivalry” in the sense that Shapiro describes it. He is more typical of a new breed of aristocrat who owe their influence and power to the absolutist state. Of the factions at court there were sections of the ruling class that tended to favour pushing forward in a capitalist direction, with a more gung_ho, pro-Protestant foreign policy, and with an expansion in foreign trade. Renaissance men such as Essex, and especially Sir Walter Ralegh, were a part of this faction, and so in fact were relatively progressive elements in the ruling class.

9: Voronsky, 1998, p108.


Greenblatt, Stephen, 2004, Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare (Jonathan Cape).

Hill, Christopher, 1958, Puritanism and Revolution (Secker & Warburg).

Holstun, James, 2000, Ehud’s Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution (Verso).

Shapiro, James, 2005, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (Faber).

Voronsky, Aleksandr, 1998, Art as the Cognition of Life: Selected Writings 19111936 (Mehring).