Celebrating Shakespeare: a Marxist-Leninist perspective

Part 1. The times make the man: Shakespeare’s historical context

Proletarian writers

Subscribe to our channel

Proletarian writers

Subscribe to our channel

23 April 2016 was the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the most celebrated dramatist of England and, arguably, of the world. The bourgeois media have been publicising the anniversary since the beginning of January, and bourgeois artists and academics are using the date to put on plays and publish books in the time-honoured fashion. But why should Marxist Leninists care?

Shakespeare’s present status as an icon of English and world literature seems immutable and unchallengeable today, but it has not always been the case. The basis for his work was the precise time he in which he lived. The intention of this article is to show how he could not have written as he did had he been born 50 years earlier or 50 years later.

This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the bourgeois critics, who laud Shakespeare as a genius for all times and all places as speaking of the ‘eternal man’ – in their usual fashion of seeking to remove all class issues from culture in order to support the bourgeois propaganda that we live in a society that is unchangeable in terms of its ruling class.

Shakespeare chose to stop writing in 1613 and retired to Stratford, which had always remained his permanent home. After his death, he fell out of favour and out of fashion. It is therefore necessary to understand a little about the society into which he was born and how that shaped both him and his work.

The English Renaissance

Every revolution, when the rule of one class is replaced by that of another, has been accompanied by a flowering of culture. The upcoming class, while flexing its economic muscles, seeks to replace the ideas of the dying class with those of its own, which are more in tune with and supportive of the new economic relations.

The European Renaissance is generally thought to have begun in Italy in the 15th century. It is said to have sprung from the rediscovery of the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. However, that rediscovery owes much to the work (usually ignored by the Eurocentric apologists for imperialism) of the scholars gathered in Baghdad from the late eighth century onwards. (One need hardly say that this era, known as the Golden Age of Islam, bears no resemblance whatsoever to the so-called ‘caliphate’ today of the reactionary Daesh).

These islamic scholars, by translating the works of Greek, Roman, Indian and Chinese writers and scholars into Arabic, were for the first time able to unite the learning of all these civilisations and make great strides forward in human knowledge – particularly in the field of mathematics and science.

The new Arabic knowledge made its way into Europe via Spain under the Moors, whose religiously tolerant regime was replaced by the catholic monarchy of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 (the same year as they sponsored Christopher Columbus’ voyage west). Ferdinand and Isabella proceeded to expel from their new kingdom all muslims and jews who refused to convert to Christianity, and in due course establish the Inquisition to suppress all anti-catholic tendencies.

Nevertheless, the Arab scholarship was preserved and remained available in the great libraries of the time to those who were interested. As James Burke wrote in his book Connections: “The event that must have done more for the intellectual and scientific revival of Europe was the fall of Toledo in Spain to the Christians, in 1105.”

In Toledo, the Arabs had huge libraries containing the lost (to christian Europe) works of the Greeks and Romans, along with Arab philosophy and mathematics. “The Spanish libraries were opened, revealing a store of classics and Arab works that staggered christian Europeans.” (1978, p123)

The intellectual plunder of Toledo brought the scholars of northern Europe like moths to a candle. The christians set up a giant translating program in Toledo, using the local jews as interpreters to translate the vast store of Arabic books into Latin. These books included “most of the major works of Greek science and philosophy … along with many original Arab works of scholarship.” (Readers Digest, The Last Two Million Years, 1973, p622)

It was no coincidence that the Renaissance saw its first great flowering in Europe in Italy, probably starting in Florence, between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries The Renaissance’s intellectual basis was its own invented version of humanism, derived from the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy, such as that of Protagoras, who said: “Man is the measure of all things.”

This new thinking became manifest in art, architecture, politics, science and literature. By the late fifteenth century, Italy had taken over from Moorish Spain as the acknowledged leader of the world (as it was known in Europe) in literature, music, philosophy and other arts, as well as in science.

Venice, in an Italy of separate city states, had long been the hub of trade between Europe and the rest of the known world to the east. It was the state that had begun the sea trading voyages that in due course replaced the overland routes to China (the ‘Silk Road’, which was not one but several routes) and the Indonesian ‘Spice Islands’ through Arabia, Persia and India.

These voyages were extremely risky, both in terms of lives and money, but, when successful, they brought immense wealth back to the city. If a Venetian merchant’s ‘ship came in’, he was wealthy beyond the dreams of his forebears, as the products of the east – silk, ceramics and spices – were unavailable elsewhere, were highly prized in Europe and commanded high prices.

The newly wealthy merchants and their government became patrons of the arts, replacing the Catholic Church as chief patron and paymaster in Venice. The merchants wanted all culture and art to reflect their own new importance and their new ideas. In Venice and other Italian cities, an explosion of talent in the visual arts was the result.

Other maritime nations followed the example of Venice, anxious to get a share of this new wealth. Spain and Portugal sent mariners westwards, to look for another way to reach the East Indies. The Merchant Venturers of Bristol were granted a royal charter by Edward VI in 1552.

The protestant Dutch, fighting for independence from Spanish catholic rule from 1568, were on the point of defeat in 1588, until the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English navy (and British weather) gave them the opportunity to rally and fight back to win eventual victory and independence in 1609. During the 15th and 16th centuries the seafaring Dutch and the English both took to the high seas in search of treasure. The era of modern colonialism had begun.

The Dutch took control of some of the Spice Islands in order to secure a monopoly of their produce. The English mariners had at first just stuck to raiding the Spanish ships as they sailed back with their cargoes of gold and silver from new colonies in Central and South America, but by 1609, the first successful permanent English colony (Jamestown, Virginia) had been founded in North America.

Other significant developments in England, which took place before this explosion in maritime exploration, provided the context and inspiration for Shakespeare’s work. These were: the end of the wars of the Roses and the coming to power of Henry Tudor (Henry VII), the expansion of the medieval wool trade to include finished goods as well as wool and, last but not least, the Reformation. These three factors were interdependent, but we shall start by examining the second, as economic change always precedes political change.

The Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the mid-fourteenth century and reduced its population by 30-60 percent, had, between 1348 and 1350, reduced England’s population of 4 million to just 2.5 million, creating an acute shortage of labour and kick-starting the process of replacing serfdom with paid labour. This trend weakened the feudal ties of mutual obligation.

Serfdom, whereby the peasant was tied to the land and his lord, growing food for his family on some of the lord’s land and having the shared use of the common land in return for payment in kind – crops and service, usually agricultural labour on their lord’s land kept for his own use – and protection from invading armies of other lords, disappeared from England during the 15th century.

The wool trade had long been important to the English economy. East Anglia is full of magnificent medieval churches – the ‘wool churches’ – which were built with this wealth and which in number and size stand in stark contrast to the size of the area’s current population. In the fifteenth century, it was found to be more profitable to sell woollen cloth rather than the raw wool.

It also became more profitable to run sheep on land and produce wool and cloth for sale than to produce food, and also to replace serfdom with paid labour in this rising capitalist economy. The landed nobility began to enclose the common lands in order to raise more sheep on them. They thus reduced the land available for the peasants to produce food for themselves, further breaking down the old feudal relations between lord and peasant.

While the economic landscape was slowly changing, between 1455 (the Battle of St Albans) and 1485 (the Battle of Bosworth) the two branches of the English-French royal house of Plantagenet were involved in an internecine struggle over the succession to the crown of England. The conflict – between the descendants of two of the sons of Edward III, the Dukes of Lancaster and York – is popularly known now as the wars of the Roses after the badges of the two houses, the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York.

Richard III was the last legitimate male heir to the house of York. Henry VII, as he became, had only a weak blood connection to the throne, which came through his mother’s side. Having defeated Richard III, whose death at the Battle of Bosworth was so memorably portrayed by Shakespeare, Henry married Richard’s niece Margaret, ending the strife between the two houses and founding the Tudor dynasty.

Many people now accept the view that Richard III was an honourable man, not a monster, and that Henry, not Richard, was the king who needed his wife’s brothers, the sons of Richard’s brother Edward IV (the ‘Princes in the Tower’) out of the way.

Regardless of his personal virtues, or Henry’s lack of them, history was not on Richard’s side. His dynasty was spent – largely wiped out by the wars, along with many of the most prominent of the feudal barons. Henry was supported by many of the younger sons of the great houses and by those increasingly powerful merchants who wanted an end to war and uncertainty, and freedom to pursue the new opportunities in trade. They knew that in supporting Henry they would have leverage to ensure a new order. (For an entertaining account of an investigation into Richard III’s reputation, see (The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, whose title references the old saying ‘Truth is the daughter of time’.)

Henry VII did what was needed. He claimed to unite the two houses of York and Lancaster and adopted the Tudor rose (white on red petals) as a symbol of this unity. He effectively wiped out any remaining possible claimants to the throne, removing the threat of further civil strife.

Back in the 12th century, Henry II (1133-1189) had introduced legal reforms that increased the number and jurisdiction of the king’s courts. This led in time to the replacement of many local courts, previously run by the barons and the local chartered markets, each with their own laws and customs, by a national system of king’s courts, with a single set of commercial laws – an essential precondition to the expansion of trade nationally and internationally.

Henry VII built on this system and appointed loyal gentry in all shires as justices of the peace with an obligation to uphold the laws. Most importantly, he concluded advantageous treaties with France and Holland to ensure freedom for the English to pursue the wool trade more profitably, and also found a cheaper source of the alum essential for the creation of wool cloth, side-stepping the pope’s former monopoly and amassing a considerable personal fortune in the process.

He married his daughter, Margaret, James IV of Scotland (she was the grandmother of both parents of James I who came to the throne after Elizabeth I died without an heir). He had two sons, so when the elder died, the second was able to succeed on his death, becoming Henry VIII. Henry VII became an absolute monarch with power concentrated in his hands to a far greater degree than the feudal monarchs who preceded him, who had always had the powerful feudal barons to contend with. The infamous Star Chamber was an expression of his autocratic rule.

The third event, which took a different form in England than on the continent, was the Reformation. Martin Luther (reputedly) had posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517, criticising the sale of indulgences and the excessive wealth of the Church. His ideas had supporters amongst the merchants of England.

There had been noises for a long while about the need to reform the corrupt practices of the Church. Kings in England before had tried to curb its power, but with mixed results, since there had not previously ever existed enough economic or political power in the hands of the kings or their supporters to alter or affect the pre-eminence of the Church.

The movement for fundamental change personified in Luther, however, met with success in England because it chimed with two great interests of the state: the need for a successor to Henry VIII and the king’s need for supporters in his struggle with the pope for a declaration that his marriage to his elder brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, which had produced no living male heir, was invalid.

Henry kept the title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ originally given him by the pope, but proceeded to take unto himself the pope’s authority over the Church within England. Having been unable to obtain a decree of nullity from the pope, he obtained one instead from the senior ecclesiastical court of England under Archbishop Cranmer, with the aid of his new chancellor, Thomas Cromwell.

Having thus broken with Rome, Henry proceeded to dissolve the monasteries and redistribute their lands between himself and his supporters. In this way, as well as swelling his own coffers, Henry created a new cohort of landowners and peers who saw their interests as allied to those of the merchants and manufacturers.

Henry VIII’s reign was followed by a period of extreme protestantism under Edward VI (1547-1553), who died before reaching majority, and an enforced but brief restitution of catholicism under Mary I (1534-1558). When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, one of her first tasks was to restore social and financial stability.

To this end, she reformed the currency then secured a settlement with the Church in England, which became the Church of England, steering a middle path between the two extremes of her brother and elder sister. An act of parliament was passed making it compulsory to attend the reformed church every Sunday, but, provided attendance was observed (on pain of fines for non-attendance), no questions were asked about people’s private beliefs, and the burnings for heresy, which were so notable a feature of both of her siblings’ reigns, stopped.

The period of primitive accumulation

This is how Christopher Caudwell described the period into which Shakespeare was born:

“Capitalism requires two conditions for its existence – masses of capital and ‘free’ – ie, expropriated – wage labourers. Once the movement has started, capitalism generates its own conditions for further development. The sum of constant capital grows by accumulation and aggregates by amalgamation, and this amalgamation, by continually expropriating artisans and other petty bourgeoisie, produces the necessary supply of wage labourers.

“A period of primitive accumulation is therefore necessary before these conditions can be realised. This primitive accumulation must necessarily be violent and forcible, for the bourgeoisie, not yet a ruling class, has not yet created the political conditions for its own expansion: the state is not yet a bourgeois state.

“In England during this period the bourgeoisie and that section of the nobility which had gone over to the bourgeoisie seized the Church lands and treasure and created a horde of dispossessed vagrants by the enclosure of common lands, the closing of the monasteries, the extension of sheep farming, and the final extinction of the feudal lords and their retainers.

“The seizure of gold and silver from the new world also played an important part in providing a base for capitalism. This movement was possible because the monarchy, in its fight with the feudal nobility, leant on the bourgeois class and in turn rewarded them for their support. The Tudor monarchs were autocrats in alliance with the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisified nobility.

“In this period of primitive accumulation the conditions for the growth of the bourgeois class are created lawlessly. To every bourgeois it seems as if his instincts – his ‘freedom’ – are intolerably restricted by laws, rights and restraints, and that beauty and life can only be obtained by the violent expansion of his desires.

“Intemperate will, ‘bloody, bold and resolute’, without norm or measure, is the spirit of this era of primitive accumulation. The absolute individual will overriding all other wills is therefore the principle of life for the Elizabethan age …

“This life principle reaches its highest embodiment in the Renaissance ‘prince’. In Italy and England – at this time leaders in primitive accumulation – … this figure of the prince expresses most clearly the bourgeois illusion, just as in real society the prince is the necessary means of realising the conditions for bourgeois expansion.

“To break the mould of feudalism and wrench from them capital requires the strength and remorselessness of an absolute monarch. Any established bound or let to the divine right of his will would be wrong, for such bounds or lets, being established and traditional, could only be feudal, and would therefore hold back the development of the bourgeois class …

“At this stage the strength and vigour of the bourgeois depends upon his cohesion as a class under monarchist leadership. In many parts already a self-armed, self-acting commune, the bourgeoisie of England has as its spearhead the court. The court is the seat of progress, and its public collective life is for the moment the source of bourgeois progress and fountain of primitive accumulation.

“The court itself is not bourgeois: it seeks the coercive imposition of its will like a feudal overlord, but it can only do so by allying itself with the bourgeoisie for whom the ‘absoluteness’ of the monarch, although feudal in essence, is bourgeois in its outcome because it is creating the conditions for their development.” (Illusion and Reality, 1937)

George Plekhanov, in his article Historical materialism and the arts, wrote that “in the moral conceptions of men there is nothing absolute, that they change as social conditions change”. According to Plekhanov: “human beings have a sense of beauty … a special kind of pleasure (aesthetic pleasure) … [which] depends upon the environment in which they are brought up, and live and act”.

And: “Historical materialists have consistently maintained that if human nature is immutable, then it cannot explain the historical process, which presents as sum of constantly changing phenomena; on the other hand if human nature changes with the course of historical development, then it is evident that there must be some objective cause for these changes. Therefore it is the duty both of the historian and of the sociologist to go beyond the limit of discussions about human nature.” (1899)

We have here sought to follow Plekhanov’s instruction by sketching the social, political and above all the economic characteristics of the society into which Shakespeare was born in 1564. The Renaissance movement came to England about a century later than to Italy and mainland Europe, and chimed with the great economic and social changes happening at that time.

The sixteenth century witnessed the flowering of the arts in England. A new secular learning and a new philosophy (humanism) supplanted the old scholasticism. Grammar schools were not new under the Tudors, but they achieved a new importance with the dissolution of the monasteries, for the latter had been the primary seats of learning and sources of education in medieval times.

When Henry VIII decreed that all grammar schools should include Latin in their curricula, a flood of translations was released of philosophers, scholars and historians as well as of the ancient poets. With the end of the clerics’ monopoly of literacy and the growth of trade, a new class of educated administrators was needed for government and commerce.

The grammar schools taught not only Latin language and literature (and some taught Greek as well) but also the English language, its grammar (as the name implies) and the arts of oratory (the oral presentation of argument) and adaptation (the rewriting of an existing piece in a new way). These last two skills, as well as a knowledge of classical literature, were all to serve Shakespeare well in his chosen profession.

So Shakespeare was born into a society that was in a ferment of change, discovery and creativity, as well as of uncertainty and danger. He was the son of a glove maker – a craftsman of one of the old guilds but also one of the class that was giving birth to the new bourgeoisie. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a prosperous landowner and a relative of minor nobility.

His father was prosperous during the first part of Shakespeare’s life, rising to the status of Alderman, a leading figure in the commerce and government of the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. In that capacity, Shakespeare senior had to enforce the new religious laws – by securing the whitewashing of the colourful murals at one of the town’s guild’s chapels, for example. He would have been present at leading social events such as visits to the town by travelling players, when it is likely that his family would have accompanied him.

He was entitled and was able to send his son to the town’s grammar school until William was about 15. At that time it appears that his finances suffered a reverse and William had to leave school and join his father’s business.

Much was made during the last century of the fact that William Shakespeare never went to university, unlike his contemporary poets and dramatists. It was common to suggest that a glover’s son could never have written the poems and plays ascribed to Shakespeare and that the true author must have been an aristocrat such as Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, or the writer and philosopher Francis Bacon (hailed by Marx as ‘the first materialist’), or even fellow dramatist Christopher Marlowe, who predeceased Shakespeare by some years.

Yet some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries mocked him precisely because he did not have a university education like his fellow poets and dramatists: “There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”

So wrote Robert Greene in 1592, mocking Shakespeare as a jack-of-all-trades, an actor and writer with false feathers, presuming to the same skill as those more educated than himself, a mere country bumpkin. It was only in the eighteenth century onwards, when an attitude of reverence towards Shakespeare and his texts grew up, that his relative lack of education began to be seen as an impediment to his authorship.

Today’s leading Shakespeare scholars have looked into many of the known facts about his life and times in great detail, relating the plays’ subject matter and text to what was happening both to Shakespeare personally and in society in general at the precise time each play was written. This essentially materialist approach has provided a wealth of evidence to show that the writing of the poems and plays could only have been carried out by the glover’s son turned actor from the English Midland town of Stratford-upon-Avon, which was situated between farmland meadow and forest, who also had close ties to the countryside and to landed and farming families.

But not even the best of these writers can, as bourgeois academics, shed light on why Shakespeare and his notable contemporaries wrote as they did just at that time, and what made Shakespeare both more and less than a writer of eternal truths about humankind. Bourgeois academics are bound to deny the class content of Shakespeare’s writing, just as they seek to deny the class content of all culture – that being the requirement of the ruling imperialist class right now in its efforts to maintain its rule by keeping its hold over people’s consciousness.

For real enlightenment on what makes Shakespeare great we must turn to the brilliant Soviet critic Aleksandr A Smirnov, whose seminal work Shakespeare: A Marxist Interpretation finally gave us the key to understanding this groundbreaking playwright. Smirnov’s book first appeared in English translation in 1936 – just one small part of the great flowering of culture in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, during the revolutionary period of socialist construction.

For generations, young people especially have been drawn to Shakespeare’s plays and poems, and this has created a lifelong love of his work. It is natural for young people to be optimistic; if they are not optimistic here in Britain today, that is a further indictment of the moribund state of imperialism, which cannot offer them a bright future. And it is the optimism in Shakespeare and the vigour of his language, characterisation and plot that has struck such a chord in so many of his readers and viewers down the centuries.

Shakespeare’s optimistic humanism also gives his works a continued value to today’s rising class, the proletariat. To be a Marxist Leninist is also to be an optimist, as we look to a better future for the working class and oppressed people and for all humanity.

Shakespeare was writing as a member of the rising class of his time, the new bourgeoisie, at the most optimistic stage of its development. The old, limiting, ties of feudalism were being broken and new opportunities for personal growth and development in every sphere were opening up. The possibilities seemed limitless.

Individualism at that time was a revolutionary philosophy, unlike now – an expression of the breaking of feudal bonds. Only towards the end of his career did the contradictions in the new bourgeois class relations become apparent: that along with this freedom came the corollary that all human relations were to be defined in future solely by the cash nexus.

Shakespeare did not earn his living by writing plays. There was no money in that. Contemporary playwrights were often poverty stricken if they did not have independent means. Shakespeare was an actor first before he started writing, and his first published works were his long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis, and Lucrece, which were published in 1593 and 1594 when the theatres were closed owing to plague.

When the theatres reopened after the plague receded, Shakespeare was able to use the money he made from his poems to buy a share in the company of which he was a member as player and resident playwright. His plays were not generally published in his lifetime and we owe their survival to the work of his friends and admirers, who collected the manuscripts together and had them published in the First Folio in 1623, seven years after his death.

As the plays were always works in progress, being amended for different productions and actors, and as Shakespeare was not there to proofread the mistakes of London typesetters putting Midlands words into print, there are variations and mistakes in the published plays which have given scholars much work over the succeeding centuries.

Shakespeare made his fortune not by publication, then, but by taking a cut of the box office – at The Theatre in Shoreditch before the partnership that owned the company built The Globe in 1699. Secular theatre in the mid sixteenth century was the radio, cinema, television or internet of its day. It was new, popular and in great demand in London.

The church as a source of pictures, spectacle and drama had been ended by the new protestantism – which was later to put a stop to theatre as well. There was also a thirst for an understanding of the making of modern England, as well as for the new knowledge of the ancient world of Greece and Rome and a desire to learn about Italy, the source of fashion in literature and art as well as dress.

Theatre answered all these needs. The charge was a penny to be a groundling (standing) or tuppence for a seat, and the people came and filled the theatres whenever they were open. There were many of these new theatres in London in the second half of the sixteenth century and Shakespeare’s job was to write the plays that would keep the punters coming to his particular establishment (The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later The King’s Men after the accession of James I).

Competition was strong but there is no doubt that Shakespeare was successful in his own time and retired back to Stratford in 1613 a wealthy man

Shakespeare never pretended to invent his plots and stories. He based his history plays on Holinshed’s Chronicles, his Roman plays on Plutarch’s Lives and some of his Italian plays on Bocaccio’s Decameron, to name but a few of his sources. Nearly all of his plays can be found to have had a previous incarnation at the hands of another writer. But Shakespeare transformed them all with his own genius of observation and language. “The range and extent of Shakespeare’s indebtedness is a badge of his genius, not a blemish upon it.” (Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare, 1998)

Early modern English is regarded as beginning around 1500. The use of the London dialect for government and administration coupled with the increased standardisation as a result of the increased reliance on printing meant that by Shakespeare’s time modern English was taking the place of the earlier multifarious dialects. The first English dictionary was published in 1604 (the Table Alphabeticall).

In view of the fact that English as the language of government and religion was in its infancy – having previously been confined mainly to the home and the uneducated classes (with the notable exception of Chaucer), it is not so surprising that many words and phrases familiar to us all appeared in print first in Shakespeare’s work. It is impossible to say whether he invented all or any of these or simply collected and used what he heard in popular use.

Part 2 will be published in our next issue.