[I've just started reading through the 1980 issues of The Militant. The article below is by Paul Seigel, who wrote important works on Shakespeare and religion.]
Shakespeare and working people
The Old Vic company of London is touring China, putting on Shakespearean performances . This could not have happened during the time of Mao Zedong, when Shakespeare was banned.
Shakespearean drama, with its kings and queens, its lords and ladies, is "feudal," it was alleged, and not fit for workers and peasants. Shakespeare, who was re-read by Marx every year, was not allowed to be performed in order to guard the masses from reactionary influences.
Leon Trotsky, however, had ·no such fears. "It is childish," he wrote, "to think that bourgeois belles lettres can make a breach in class solidarity." On the contrary, "the worker will be richer" by what he gains from Shakespeare and other literary masters.
Under capitalism, to be sure, Shakespeare is often a means of repression. He is crammed down the throats of high school and college students who find his language, the conventions of his art, and his dramatic universe utterly alien to their experience.
Instead of teachers clearing away these initialobstacles, they all too frequently blame the students.
In the high schools Shakespeare is generally given a superficial reading that lauds his universality without explaining how that universality speaks through dramas shaped by the ideas of his time. In the colleges these ideas are generally presented as without relevance for us today.
We must know the Elizabethan Shakespeare if we are to do justice to him, but knowing the Elizabethan Shakespeare is not to be construed as an exercise in antiquarianism. Through our knowledge of the Elizabethan Shakespeare we can know ourselves and our times better.
Living in an age of transition between feudalism and capitalism, Shakespeare was critical of both the old feudalism and the capitalism which was coming into being.
In his plays he shows the consequences of the feudal conflicts which had to be overcome by Tudor absolutism if England was to progress . But Shakespeare saw the Tudor order as threatened not only by the old nobility but by the most aggressive section of the bourgeoisie.
The latter was beginning to challenge the monarchy and to transform his world into one · in which what Marx called the "cash nexus" was the only tie between human beings.
In The Merchant of Venice and Timon of Athens the "cash nexus" is portrayed as working against the sense of humanity.
Shylock's bond is the business contract which takes precedence over human compassion. What is most essential about him is not that he is a Jew but that he is typical of the capitalist who recognizes only the "cash nexus."
Although Shakespeare used the traditional medieval anti-Semitic stereotype, derived from the Jews' position as marginal traders and usurers in feudal society, there is considerable evidence that the contemporary significance Shylock had for Elizabethans was his resemblance to the Puritan usurers in their midst.
Timon's creditors belong to the world of the "cash nexus." The diatribes against gold which Timon delivers illuminate this world. Marx wrote of these passages, "Shakespeare portrays the essence of money excellently."
So too the evil members of the younger generationbin King Lear are governed by the new capitalist values, making use of business language to express their self-seeking. The words of Edmund, "Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit," might have served as a motto for the acquisitive bourgeoisie, which was buying up estates from the older landowners.
Shakespeare was not a Marxist living beforeMarx. His ideal was a hierarchical society governed by a humanistic aristocracy. But by entering into the experience he provides us, we can be more fully conscious of the potentialities of life. These potentialties are thwarted today, as he was presciently aware, by the egoism and alienation characteristicof bourgeois society .
THE MILITANT/FEBRUARY 22, 1980
Excellent biography of Paul Siegel here: