Shakespeare as a Social Scientist

This is not out of boredom of the lock down, I have far too much in my schedule to find time even during these days. I have been pursuing Shakespeare for quite some time now, more as a sociologist than a connoisseur of literature. I am completely convinced that he is a genius because he seemed to anticipate categories of thought and analysis which would come into vogue at least 300 years after his plays were first staged. He is a genius because he could see the limitations of his age in each of the discourses those were in circulation during his times and he imagined a set of virtues for the individualism that came to be recognised by social sciences centuries after his death. Presented below are some of Shakespeare’s less read plays because of their scant presence in our syllabus and school and college curricula. Here they are:

Richard II

Often construed that Richard II as portrayed by Shakespeare is a construction of Queen Elizabeth, her deep suspicions of her nobility, among who she feared may arise to depose her. Richard II is a war monger trying to unite Britain by claiming Ireland and for this he raises money from the noble lands. The nobles feel threatened that they may be deprived of their property and hence plot against Richard. Richard seeing that he has lost the support of the nobility abdicates his throne in favour of his cousin Bolingbroke, who would eventually rule as Henry IV.

The outstanding part of the play is the penultimate scene with Richard’s monologue in the prison where he is counting his numerous thoughts, reviewing his multiple selves, and ruminates on who an individual is, beyond what he is born into, beyond the accidents of life. This is a long discourse on individualism, a definite beginning of modernity.

Henry IV

An interesting play and yes it is more in the tavern and less about the Royal courtyard. And the character who stands out is not the King but the fool, the comedian, the anti hero, Falstaff. Indeed, the historical plays are overwhelmingly around the repeated appearance of Falstaff. Despite this attachment to Falstaff, and the fact that the King goes on without any specific description, to me Henry IV is a remarkable document of history of the early 15th century England.

The King tries to unite Wales, Ireland and Scotland into England in the name of Christianity so that he may also wage the Holy Crusade. His principle aids like Northumberland, a very well respected regional ruler is happy to remain in his autonomous region as its sovereign head but feels betrayed when Henry imposes uniform taxations to perhaps collect money for his dream project, the Crusade. Henry faces rebellions from Wales and Scotland and though he suffers defeat in Wales, his close aide Hotspar wins Scotland. But eventually the friends turn foes as allies turn rivals of the King. The King fails to merge as a moral agent despite his unification plans, ideation of the nation and Christianity. Prince Hal, whose primary aide Falstaff is turns into a highway robber, a metaphor for the royalty and the State, it collects taxes backed by force and violence. Dialogues and conversations speak too much of hanging, let me be hanged, let the executioner come and so on, referring to the practices of punishment.

The conversations in the tavern shadow the court, what is the court if not the tavern? One drinks the wine of power. The conversations between the tavern owner, a woman and Falstaff where he calls her names and hurls obscenities upon her, may be a metaphor of the rapacious State that is molesting the more local and earthy communities under its more esoteric idea of the nation. The play is a criticism of the King, who is nothing but a better version of the highway robber, of the idea of the nation which is an insult to the more real local communities and Christianity that supports such robbery and rapacious activities of villains.

The rebellion of Henry’s aides show that power and not ideals brace the royalty, greed for power.  Prince Hal is interesting, he is royalty and like his father brave as well. But for most of the play, while he is still the prince, Hal is a waster. He then represents the individual over the dynasty, a guy who is yearning to be on his own.

Henry V

Now Prince Hal is Henry V. After ascending the throne he is a changed man, kind, wise, honest, moral and astute and loyal to the country. He exiled Falstaff who has died of a broken heart and intends to change the idea of a kingdom. But his assumption of moral power especially under the idea of a nation scares the Catholic Church, who then plot to divert the king’s attention, albeit in the name of the nation towards France. A war is waged though Henry V creates rules of war, no stealing, no pillage and hangs his close aide from his tavern days for a petty theft. He was especially cruel to his close ones so as to emerge as an exemplary King who was both strict and was equally disposed towards one and all.

There is a scene and interesting it has not caught much attention and which is that Katherine, the daughter of the French King learns English from her maid. This shows that culturally England was gaining ascendancy and this was due to the proliferation of its common people across the public spaces, most probably due to the rising commerce. Would this then mean that the English were already gaining a foothold in the economy even before the industrial revolution?

The armies of the French and the English are unequal. The English army is about a tenth of the French army. Despite this, the English win. The English win due to a combination of strategy and determination and Henry gives an arousing speech on the eve of the war infusing patriotism. This speech is a mettle of management people and the speech is used in many places especially by football coaches and management gurus. But to my mind, this speech when contrasted with the encounters of Henry V as he moves in disguise among his soldiers the night before the war. In the later case, the soldiers are eager to understand whether the sins of their death in battle would be on the King or not, to which Henry replies that each will live or die according to his individual fate and that the King is only a cause. It might be interesting to note that the concerns of the soldiers are purely Catholic and Henry’s answer is Protestant and the rousing speech is nationalistic.

The next point of interest is Henry’s wooing of Katherine. Here he says that he has come to love France and contribute towards it, the marriage is an alliance. History tells us that this peace was short lived because the battle of Agincourt was the start of the 100 years war between England and France.

The attitudes of the French and the English are interesting as well, the French underestimate Henry as a wannabe, refer to his wanton days and imagine that he can do nothing. This attitude of condescension that the entrenched and the privileged have over the newly emerging talents is a sure reason for their defeat.

Henry VI

Henry V dies a respected King. But he leaves behind his infant son Henry VI. There is a clamour among the elites to gain control of England, Lords are going over to the Church to become cardinals and for this they pay money. They have to raise the money again from their fiefdoms. The plays of Henry VI revolve around elites, nation and the Church. The Church continues its machinations into politics. England though it raises the bogey of nationalism, it now seems that France has been able to forge together a nation. Though France does not spell out the nation yet it brings together the common men, the nobles, the pagan leaders like Joan of Arc who now leads the army against England.

The discourse that braces England is no longer the rousing inspiration of Henry V but the release of superstitions of Catholic Christianity against paganism when Joan of Arc us burnt at stake.

There is an interesting appearance of women characters. From the independent and autonomous tavern owner in Henry IV to the passive Royal women of Henry V to the more active women namely the Lady and Joan both of who play important roles in the defense of France. When men lose their vision and power, women step in. Lord of Suffolk falls in love with Margaret, a commoner and marries her off to Henry VI so that the prince remains within his command. Mortimer, the real claimant to the throne dies in prison and here genuine royalty falls to ambitions of meaner and baser men. Power struggle is only power struggle, avaricious, capricious and mean. There is no higher ideal in any of this.

King John

This is about King John the 12th century King from the Plantagenet dynasty who introduced primogeniture in England and appears as the popular villain, King John in Robin Hood. King Philip II of France raises the issue of the claims of John to the throne of England insisting that Arthur, the son of Richard, the Lion hearted should be the King, suggesting primogeniture. Suddenly there arrives two brothers of a decorated officer, where the older one claims that he is not the son of the same father as the younger guy. He uses facial resemblance between father and the younger brother and his own lack of it to say that he is not the biological son of his father. A long debate ensues on who the father is, whether it is the pater or the genitor. King John faces baron rebellion owing to his wavering with the rules of inheritance and eventually survives with the help of the Church.

King John was instrumental in the Magna Carta in 1215, the document that made every individual subject to the same set of laws and trial by jury. This was later in the Henry VI plays diluted as law was replaced by the nobles’ machinations and manipulation so. Whatever it is, King John in the play was a guy concerned with inheritance. He kills Arthur, the primogeniture. It seems that France gained ascendancy over England, dictating which laws it should follow and who the rightful inheritor to the throne should be. How did France get such a hold over the affairs of England? Through the Church and in the name of the Crusade, the Imperial Christianity.

Richard III

Richard the Third reads more like Othello, a story of personal revenge by a bad looking man. This is a gregarious guy who tries to get everybody’s confidence, pretends that he is a friend to all but conspires against each and every. His ultimate revenge is on his brother’s wife because it seems to him that the only way he can get a woman is by defeating her husband and then claiming the vanquished wife as his own. Richard III destroys the ruling dynasty as he is its last King.

Pericles, the Prince of Tyre

This is a morality play of the truthful prince, Pericles, how he is attached by the King of Antiochus for revealing dark secrets about him and how he is on the run. The play is literally about the flight of Pericles from persecution and his exile. He faces shipwrecks and separation from his wife and daughter. In the end everything works out for him because he is an honest person, thus so far ends most of the interpretations of the play. Considering the tumultuous times of Shakespeare, caught between two epochs, the pandemic of plague and the civil war, we may try and understand that ideals of behaviour, the right values and morals in modern terms were yet to develop and be articulated from a very different set of morals of medieval times. In this regard, Shakespeare must have been a genius to have articulated modernity.

But why is Pericles a good man? He tells the truth, he accepts his fate calmly, and even in the face of utmost misfortunes he never loses gratitude. He remains an altruist, has very little consciousness of his own interests, and looks to uphold the needs of others. He remains himself in the company of the rich and the poor alike, and when he is accepted as a ruler of Antioch, he accepts it without being overwhelmed or taking it as a personal glory. He reaches food to those states which need them, he stands in for people who call upon him for help. His daughter, who he thinks is dead, too is an epitome of strength. When she is taken away to be raped in a brothel, she convinces the rapist that he has more to gain from her if she earns money by teaching crafts and skills than she can by prostituting herself. The rapist is convinced because she instils in him a higher self by showing him that he can do the very task that he has set himself to do through honest and noble means. The goodness of Pericles and Marina, the daughter lies in the fact that they can appeal to the larger interests of humanity and therein lies their goodness which is a broadness of mind and understanding. Hence, Pericles is a story about rationality more than it is a morality play.

One wonders what incest had to do with the story, why the story must revolve around the incest of the father and daughter of Antiochus. Was Shakespeare speaking against the Greek God, Zeus? And hence against the Greek morality, and thus against the Renaissance? Did he find the Greeks too hedonistic? Did he look for morals which were both utilitarian and humanitarian?

Timon of Athens

This too is a severe critique of the Renaissance. Timmons is a rich gentleman of Athens and soon has unctuous flatterer a surrounding him. He loses his wealth through overspending on works of art, paintings and throwing lavish parties. When he is thus broke he has no one to stand in for him and he leaves the city to go and live in the forest, or to die in it. His faithful servant, Flavius, knowing fully well that his master cannot pay him nonetheless decides to serve him. Timor discovers gold in the forest, returns and pays his creditors back and compensates Flavius but does not return to his flatterers nor does he reveal anything regarding his discovery of gold. Timor realized the value of wealth and refuses to spend above his immediate wants because once it is used in surplus, it invites falsehood. The play is a criticism of the high elite culture of Renascent Europe and hence perhaps Athens is used as its metaphor.

Troilus and Cressida

This is a play out of Homer, where Troilus is against war. He finds no glory in war except a competitive ego, which in turn is based upon a peculiar construction of masculinity. The play has a very strong discourse against masculinity.

Measure for Measure

This is a critique of Puritanism where Puritans are shown to be people jealous of the status of the high elite and their culture. The Puritan lobby gets too powerful and the Duke goes on a vacation leaving Angelus, a Puritan baron in charge of the city. The Duke does not leave the city and instead stays on, disguised as a friar to observe the going on. Angelus arrests Claudius, a gentleman of high standing on grounds that he is immoral, the immorality being his status. thus Angelus’s Puritanism is exactly what right wing of today is, more to do with status anxiety than with other concerns.

Claudius is not subject to law but to will because Angelus soon asks Isabella, Claudius’s sister who is becoming a nun to sleep with him, if she wants her brother’s life. Isabella decides to let go of her brother rather than to compromise on morals and the Duke, still disguised, substitutes the head of an already deceased prisoner as the head of Claudius. The prisoner suggested that another prisoner, long due for execution be executed in place of Claudius but the Duke stopped it. The discourse turned against capital punishment. Meanwhile, he also substitutes Marianne, Angelus’s fiancée to go in place of Isabella. Angelus rejected Marianne because her dowry was sunk in a shipwreck.

The Duke appears in the city to free Claudius and force Angelus to marry Marianne and forces another baron to marry the prostitute by who he has an illegitimate son. The Puritans are thus shown their place and eventually the Duke proposes to the remaining Puritan, Isabella to marry him. The play is a full tirade against Puritanism.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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