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Closely examining the relationship between the political and the utopian in five major plays from different phases of Shakespeare's career, Hugh Grady shows the dialectical link between the earlier political dramas and the late plays or tragicomedies. Reading Julius Caesar and Macbeth from the tragic period alongside The Winter's Tale and Tempest from the utopian end of Shakespeare's career, with Antony and Cleopatra acting as a transition, Grady reveals how, in the late plays, Shakespeare introduces a transformative element of hope while never losing a sharp awareness of suffering and death. The plays presciently confront dilemmas of an emerging modernity, diagnosing and indicting instrumental politics and capitalism as largely disastrous developments leading to an empty world devoid of meaning and community. Grady persuasively argues that the utopian vision is a specific dialectical response to these fears and a necessity in worlds of injustice, madness and death.
The first Introduction to Part I defines the book’s three central concepts of the political, the aesthetic, and the utopian and shows a Shakespearean trajectory within the sequence of plays about power that grows more and critical before turning to utopian alternatives to power politics. It then reviews the history of how Shakespearean critics have framed and conceptualized the theme of power in Shakespeare, with emphasis on the second half of the twentieth century up to recent decades to provide context for what follows. Finally, the last section takes up the issue of how Shakespeare’s approach to politics evolves and changes over the approximately twenty years of his writing career, from an initial period of political eclecticism in the early histories and Titus, to a period of the acceptance of amoral power in the second Henriad and Julius Caesar, to the tragic period, which turns to indictments of political cruelty and immorality, and finally to a late period of utopian alternatives to politics.
Chapter 4 on Antony and Cleopatra again investigates the dynamics of power, but this time in a dialectic with erotic pleasure as well as with nature. The play’s paradoxically triumphant suicides at the end contain strong utopian resonances affirmative of eros and its links with death and the aesthetic. This play represents the turning point in the development this book is charting, as Shakespeare’s works take on new forms and themes that emphasize the utopian overcoming power in plays that are tragicomic and synthetic of his career. The chapter also analyzes Egypt as containing, along with its political practices, a Shakespearean green world quality, linking the play to earlier green world comedies. Egypt is especially an erotic, feminized, and feminist utopian space housing the play’s counter-political values. Cleopatra emerges as both a political and a utopian character and one who becomes at the very end the play’s dominant figure. Her partner Antony, of course, is essential to the play as well and eventually develops his own utopian qualities after seeming at first a love-sick buffoon, then an instrumental, ruthless politician. The play is formally a tragedy but has a strong tragicomic feeling as well.
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, after Mark Antony’s wildly successful speech to the multitudes at Caesar’s funeral, he watches the resulting uprising with satisfaction and remarks, “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot. / Take thou what course thou wilt!”1
In The Winter’s Tale, power, eros, death, the utopian, and the aesthetic are the main themes in play. It begins in a world of amoral and dehumanizing power politics and ends in affirmations of the utopian spirit – while acknowledging the realities of death and suffering. It draws on festival traditions, fairy tales, and ancient issues of resurrection and rebirth in its end and political and psychological issues, as King Leontes becomes a mad tyrant. His madness paradoxically takes an aesthetic form in its (perverse) creativity and reliance on intuitive mental decisions as defined by Kant – thus relating to the aesthetic issues later in the play. The play’s utopian space is a mixed, complicated locus that includes both the utopian and the nonutopian. What makes it a consummate example of Shakespearean metatheater is its investigation of the relations of two concepts of ancient provenance, “art” and “nature,” introduced off-handedly, played with extensively in the second half of the play, and climaxed and thematically resolved in the complex, dissonant unity of the two terms figured when an apparent stone statue of the supposedly dead Queen Hermione is revealed as living flesh.
Chapter 6 shows The Tempest dispersing instances of the aesthetic-utopian and instrumental political power throughout until a remarkable ending imposes a tragicomic aesthetic over all other materials in the play. In describing the disenchanted early modern world with fantasies of enchantment, in representing instrumental reason as magical manipulation of natural spirits, and in manifesting the power of aesthetic representations to heal, restore, and regenerate a fallen humanity, the play is one of Shakespeare’s consummate examples of the aesthetic-utopian. At the center of the play is the master–slave pair Prospero and Caliban. Each is a deposed sovereign in a narrative of betrayal, forming the center of two (fragmentary) dramas that are each an essential part of the larger play. And in the play’s implied after-time, both are restored to their former polities as sovereigns. And both see something of the foolishness of the political struggles in which they had lived so long. As such, they are important parts of the aesthetic-utopian in the play’s conclusion, which does not so much defeat the political as declare it irrelevant to the play’s ultimate aesthetic-utopian vision.
“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair,” wrote Theodor Adorno in 1946–47, “is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption … Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.”1
Chapter 2 investigates Macbeth as representative of the next stage of Shakespeare’s political thinking in the tragic period, focusing on issues of power specifically to reveal the version of instrumental reason (or power for power’s sake) Shakespeare explores in this dark play. This includes the play’s implied conception of the political and its relation to dramatic structure. In the specific case of Macbeth, the form of politics is best described using Simone Weil’s 1940s anti-war essay “The lliad, or the Poem of Force” to define the issues involved, seeing the play as an anatomy of political force manifesting like The Iliad the destructive effects on both its agents and its victims of the deadly instrumental politics of warfare. In this analysis, Macbeth emerges as a consummate man of force parallel to Homer’s Achilles as described by Weil, while Lady Macbeth is a figure sharing his commitment to force but constrained by her society’s patriarchal structure and values to a publicly subordinate (though privately powerful) role. The Macbeths’ political actions enable the introduction of modern autotelic instrumental power to a fictional and temporally complex Scotland.
The next chapter on Macbeth looks at how the play uses a Baroque, expressionist aesthetic to help define the empty world of power it depicts, and the ambiguities of the Baroque aesthetic form as defined by Walter Benjamin provide the setting for the faint glimmers of utopian thinking in the play. In this, the complicated figures called the Weird Sisters in the play’s text – but Witches in the paratextual stage directions and speech prefixes of the non-authorial Folio text – play a central role and get detailed examination. They are fundamentally ambiguous dramatic figures, showing conflicting traits as both the Three Fates of classical mythology and witches of medieval and early modern legend and belief-systems. Accordingly, they can be seen as either detached prophets merely predicting events, or co-agents of Macbeth’s crimes and failures. There are even utopian elements in their complex construction, especially if the songs Thomas Middleton inserted in the Folio text are taken into account. But the play remains a dark tragedy of the emptiness and cruelty of the politics of force, its hints at utopian alternatives muted and subordinated to the predominant bleak and troubling qualities of a world dominated by force and power.