What do Shakespeare's plays actually teach us? In this original and innovative new study, Patrick Gray argues that, in a series of diverse works, Shakespeare shows us how vulnerable individuals are, how reliant they are on other people, and how mistaken and counterproductive notions of self-sufficiency invariably cause disaster. Put another way, Shakespeare is an anti-Stoic writer, determined to show the folly of the classical philosophy in the light of Christian revelation and an ethics of kindness and openness to the other. Concentrating on the Roman plays, Gray argues that Shakespeare portrays an ancient world beset with delusion and cruelty in which even impressive characters end up inflicting pain on those they imagine they love.
Part 1 analyzes Julius Caesar in two chapters. The substance of Gray's argument is that the audience witnesses out-of-control Stoic ideals put into practice, which lead to murder and civil war rather than the calm restoration of a proper civil order. What makes Brutus sympathetic rather than an outright fool or villain is that he is a bad Stoic, his compassion prefiguring “the very different moral world of Christianity” (60). When put to the test his love for Cassius “overrides his stoicism” (62). The passions may be at odds with Stoic ideals but that is a sign that they are often to be trusted rather than dismissed. Rome is characterized as a pitiless state, a quality that ensures both its success and downfall. It is little wonder that the word blood appears so often in the play, signifying sympathy, vulnerability, the feminine—everything that Rome needs to suppress in order to promote its military might. Indeed, we should pay more attention to the female characters in the play. The male characters create a dynamic whereby people are dominant or dominated, but it is the women, Portia and Calpurnia, who “represent . . . their husbands’ stunted and repressed faculty of pity” (115). What Shakespeare shows us is Augustine's earthly city, characterized by the “classical philosophers’ utterly impassible, wholly immaterial Unmoved Mover” when the true ideal self is “the incarnate, suffering, sympathetic Christian God of love, tears, anger and death by crucifixion” (137–38). Perhaps this is put in an excessively rhetorical manner, but it is an interesting reading.
Part 2 has two chapters devoted to Antony and Cleopatra. In this play, Gray argues, Shakespeare shows us “our sensitivity to shame” (177). Cleopatra demonstrates time and again that she does not have a functioning relationship with the world outside her court, foregrounding her desires and manipulating those around her into becoming her collaborators in collective denial: “The more Anthony succumbs to the allure of the follie à deux, the more insulated he becomes from the workaday humiliations of the outside world” (215). The Christian audience can observe the play from a more detached perspective, understanding there is a huge gap between “his characters’ idealized imagination of what they will encounter and . . . their more likely fate” (263). The book concludes with an afterword, which makes the case that Shakespeare's understanding of the nature of the self is far more complex and accurate than that of any number of antihumanist philosophers. If there is a thinker his work resembles it is that of Emmanuel Levinas, the philosopher who argued that the only proper way to live was to open ourselves to an understanding of the other.
The great strength of Shakespeare and the Fall of the Roman Republic is that it escapes from a narrow historicist reading that can only imagine his work in terms of ideas and beliefs that few imagine have any serious relevance for audiences today, enacting a separation between criticism and contemporary performance. It is also good to have a thoughtful, intelligent, and imaginative Christian interpretation of the plays. The book suffers from excessive referencing and engagement with too many theories and an overarching theory that is impressive rather than always persuasive. There are also a lot of words to cover just two plays. However, it does mark the emergence of a new and excitingly different voice in Shakespeare studies.