Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Political Views of Shakespeare and Bacon

Opinions, attitudes and interests of Shake-Speare and Bacon

Political Views

Shake-Speare was conservative par excellence. He approved the existing framework of society, revered tradition and abhorred mob rule. Further, as A. Hart pointed out in his Shakespeare and the Homilies (1934), p. 27: "Shakespeare outdoes every important dramatist of his time in the number and variety of the allusions made to the divine right of the reigning monarch, the duty of passive obedience, enjoined on subjects by God, and the misery and chaos resulting from civil war and rebellion". But he was too intelligent to be a blind conservative. He knew the shortcomings of the aristocracy. This has led a few Stratfordians to see in the Shake-Speare plays the ill-concealed contempt of a representative of the bourgeoisie for the effete old aristocracy. But this is not a correct inference from the Shake-Speare works as a whole.

Shake-Speare's political approach is in total accord with Bacon's. At the trial of the Earl of Essex for treason in 1601 Bacon declared: "By the common law of England, a Prince [sovereign] can do no wrong". Or as Shake-Speare put it in Pericles 1.1.104-5: "Kings are earth's gods; in vice their law's their will; And if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?". Our two authors shared contempt for the mob. And both thought it crucial that the hierarchy of society should be preserved. In his famous speech in Troilus and Cressida 1.3.109-10 Ulysses says: "Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows". In his The Advancement of Learning Bacon says: "Nothing doth derogate from the dignity of a state more than confusion of degrees". And in the same work he refers to "men, who are full of savage and unreclaimed desires of profit, of lust, of revenge; which as long as they give ear to precepts, to laws, to religion, sweetly touched with eloquence and persuasion of book, of sermons, of harangues, so long is society and peace maintained; but if these instruments be silent, or that sedition and tumult make them not audible, all things dissolve into anarchy and confusion". Note that both authors describe the hierarchy as "degree", and that both use a very similar musical analogy by Shake-Speare, "untune that string", in Bacon "if these instruments be silent".

Will Shakspere of Stratford aspired to and achieved membership of the lesser gentry. So he too was probably conservative. But it is doubtful whether someone of his background would have been as emphatic as Bacon and Shake-Speare in their support for the divine right of Kings.

Shake-Speare's contempt for the mob is too well known to need illustration. But here are some more examples from Bacon's works. In his The Wisdom of the Ancients he wrote of the "innate depravity ad malignant disposition of the common people". In the same work he said: "The nature of the common people, always swelling with malice towards their rulers, and hatching revolution or sedition, is feminine". In his Certain Considerations Touching the Better Pacification and Edification of the Church of England he wrote of "multitudes who can never keep within the compass of any moderation".


Shake-Speare's personal view may have been that a person of high birth was innately superior. One finds texts such as Troilus And Cressida "Do you know what a man is? Is not birth, beauty, good shape, discourse, manhood, learning, gentleness, virtue, youth, liberality and such like, the spice and salt that season a man?" One notes that "birth" is put first. It seems to have been the lynchpin of Shake-Speare's concept of the ideal man. That view was certainly shared by Bacon who  wrote in his Essay on Praise: "For the common people understand not many excellent virtues: the lowest draw praise from them; the middle virtues work in them astonishment or admiration; but of the highest virtues they have no sense or perceiving at all".

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