Skip to main content

Age cannot wither him

New books on Shakespeare illustrate how his work continues to affect our understanding of economics, psychology and language four centuries after his death, says GORDON PARSONS

Marx and Freud
by Crystal Bartolovich, David
Hillman and Jean Howard
(The Arden Shakespeare, £23.99)
Shakespeare and Economic Theory
by David Hawkes
(The Arden Shakespeare, £17.99)
Shakespeare’s Political and Economic Language
by Vivian Thomas
(The Arden Shakespeare, £25.99)

SHAKESPEARE’S contemporary Ben Jonson eulogised him as “not of an age but for all time” and it is true that successive periods have indeed treated the Bard’s works as mirrors reflecting and commentating on particular contemporary experiences.

As the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin affirms, the “afterlife” of great works of art changes because they are inextricable from the networks of social relations in which they come to have meaning.

Thus, these three books represent interesting developments in exploring the historical context and influence of the world’s greatest dramatist.

The Arden Shakespeare has provided a benchmark for textual interpretation on the stage and academically for over a century and Marx and Freud, in the Great Shakespeareans series, examines the multifarious ways in which the works have been used by actors, scholars, novelists, playwrights, composers and thinkers.

Editor Adrian Poole contends that their works have not only been “significantly inflected by Shakespearean idiom” but that their relative projects — historical materialism and psychoanalysis — are living practices in modern understanding of political sociology and individual psychology.

Marx admired and recognised the plays not as founts of universal wisdom on “human nature” but, as Crystal Bartolovich remarks, as “a perspective on people — the history they make, as well as the conditions that are not of their own making — in their particularity and generality, individuality and sociality.”

Critically, the Shakespeare moment coincided with the emergence of early capitalism and its revolutionary impact on society. The playwright’s works engage vitally with the effects and responses to human alienation as individuals increasingly became commodities in the monied market place, exemplified by Timon of Athens’s diatribe against “Gold? Yellow, precious, glittering gold…Thou common whore of mankind.”

Marx does not offer a “reading” of the plays but engages in a “conversation” with the playwright, choosing dramatic characters and situations enabling new connections and interventions into our own age, seemingly approaching the end of the creative but self-destructive energy of the essentially exploitative system he analysed in his Capital. There, Marx cites many Shakespeare plays to “punctuate key points challenging the reader… [wrenching] the meaning of phrases and characters in ironic or novel directions, situating them in a larger chorus of other voices.”

Marx never treats the plays as declarations of any ideological agenda serving his own interests but as studies of individuals within society. Unlike Freud, who saw the individual and society at odds with each other, Marx argued that “there is no ‘asocial’ form of the individual.”

David Hawkes, in Shakespeare and Economic Theory, believes that modern literary criticism increasingly recognises economic themes and imagery in the plays, due partly to modern crises as our economy “bursts the artificial bounds imposed on it by 20th-century economists.” His comprehensive study explains how in the ancient world the term economics applied to use value and any employment of exchange or profit value was considered bordering on immoral, an attitude accepted by Christianity.

Even in the 16th century Shylock as a Jew could be a usurer, a term with its derivatives meriting 10 pages of Vivian Thomas’s dictionary, Shakespeare’s Political and Economic Language. But already the market was becoming “the centre of human engagement rather than an adjunct of the polis” and the language was changing accordingly.

Shakespeare responded both as a lightning conductor and water diviner to the wealth of new vocabulary and alchemical flexibility of hitherto established language, coining many new words himself.

The commodification of land, labour and money required a magical new lexicon which would transform politics, culture and personality.

There is at present a concern over attempts to modernise Shakespeare’s “difficult” language. His dramatic poetry, however, is at the centre of understanding his world and ours, not simply in its evocative power but in its essential play on the rich ambiguity of our language. 

While audiences always laugh knowingly when Lear urges the blind Gloucester to get glass eyes and “like a scurvy politician [originally a confidence trickster] seem to see the things thou dost not,” elsewhere they respond subliminally to the nuanced meanings of terms such as priceless — intrinsic or monetary value? — or “dear” — beloved or expensive?

Shakespeare was no revolutionary. He largely approached his brave new world with conservative suspicion but, as a working playwright at the centre of the main entertainment industry of his time, all his plays reflect an acute understanding of the nature of the changes being brought about by the new religion of greed.

As Thomas comments, his “critical perspective on the early stages of market society allowed him to achieve insights and sound warnings that seem more apposite than ever to the human predicament at the dawn of the third millennium.”


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.



Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 10,353
We need:£ 7,647
10 Days remaining
Donate today