Shakespeare’s Politics, by Allan Bloom with Harry Jaffa
One of the joys of quarantine reading is getting in touch with classics that one has read a long time ago but not had the chance to read in recent years, and this book certainly qualifies on that front. This book is a thoughtful work that is definitely enjoyable even if reading it provides some questions about the book and its approach that one did not always have going into it. Allan Bloom is generally an enjoyable read and Harry Jaffa always is, and this book is a reminder of the struggle that contemporary readers have in understanding Shakespeare on his own terms and in recognizing his deep interest in politics and in doing it well. As Bloom is frequently insightful when it comes to cultural politics and Jaffa is on point as far as political philosophy is concerned, this book is a solid volume. One only wishes that this book had been longer or that there would have been multiple volumes so one could have read essays on Timon of Athens or Measure For Measure or the politics of the Tempest or something of that nature. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Still, this is well worth enjoying even if it is very brief.
This book is a short one at about 150 pages or so. The introduction looks at the relationship between poetry and political philosophy by appealing to an older view in which these two were not seen as being in opposition to each other (1). After that the author talks about the troubled relationship between Christian and Jew in the Merchant of Venice and how Shakespeare deals sympathetically with both sides (2) and the tragedy of the political outsider and the problems in being a cosmopolitan man in Othello (3). After that the author discusses the morality of the pagan hero by showing how difficult it was for Rome to maintain its Republic in the face of a populist leader, something that republics in general tend to struggle with, not least our own (4). Finally, the author discusses King Lear’s first scene as a look at the limits of politics and show how complicated and multivalent the love test is in showing Lear as a successful king but one who finds it unable to achieve what he wants and also provides a darker realpolitik to the behavior of Cordelia (5). After that the book ends with acknowledgements and an index.
In reading this book I got a series of melancholy feelings. For one, the authors themselves both appear to be of the school of the old heathen philosophers, in that they wish to defend virtue but from a philosophical perspective and not from a biblical perspective, and they openly favor Athens over Jerusalem instead of the reverse. Besides the gloominess of the author’s philosophical paganism, this book has a lot of melancholy reflections on the failure of secular regimes to paper over the intense worldview conflicts between the people who live with them, as the look at the two Venetian plays points out the tragedy of the outsider even in the cosmopolitan regime. If the authors are more sympathetic to Iago than most people are, it is rather telling that they also manage to be deeply sympathetic to Shylock even if he is not easy for others to relate to. If Shakespeare does not come off as a world genius, he certainly shows himself as a wary student of power because the authors do a good job at demonstrating how Shakespeare’s political insights allow him to use foreign locations as a way of speaking important truths that would be impolitic to do if everything was set in England.