If you were to attend a performance of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, you would be struck by how contemporary the problems in this play are. It begins when the Duke of Vienna recognizes that his permissive policy of governance is responsible for the erosion of social norms. In the absence of clear moral leadership, healthy inclinations have deteriorated into perversions of the good—specifically, into extreme sexual behaviour. Mistress Overdone justifies her brisk business in the sex trade as providing a necessary civic service, while Angelo retreats from all the sordid sexuality by repressing his desires altogether. Without clear moral leadership, the body politic has become dysfunctional: the liberal state has become the libertine state; the free society has become addicted to freedom. And that’s just the starting point of Measure for Measure. The sheer difficulty of reversing the decline of Viennese society and the apparent hopelessness of finding a cure for the social malaise make this a play for present times.
This timeliness is not just a feature of Measure for Measure. All of Shakespeare’s plays—both in form and content—are ripe with opportunities to contribute to positive social renewal. And I believe that the cultural mandate to renew social infrastructures ought to include an engagement with the plays of William Shakespeare.
To begin with, the dramatic medium itself has a fundamentally social nature. The theatre already is a place where people come to see a dramatic enactment of their own individual and communal realities. Quite naturally, the body of spectators and listeners is referred to as a collective noun: “the audience.” From ancient Greece to contemporary Broadway, the public theatre is a social space, a gathering of persons who have assembled to be entertained, instructed, moved, and even mocked—together. Everything about the theatre—its location, design, acoustics— suggests that this is a place especially intended for the social event that is public performance. This was especially true of theatres in Shakespeare’s day, particularly the theatre known as The Globe, erected on the south bank of the Thames in London in 1599. This circular building could hold an audience of approximately 3000 people, representing all levels of society; the less well-heeled members of the audience stood around three sides of the raised stage, while their social betters sat in the three storeys of galleries, over the stage, or even on the stage itself. This would have been one of only a few non-ecclesiastical spaces in Elizabethan England where every level of this heavily stratified society came together regularly.
A second aspect is crucial to Shakespeare’s role in social renewal: his deliberate engagement of this audience through their active participation in the performance. The oft-noted difficulty of Shakespeare’s language means that attending to the dialogue is hard work for audiences today, as it possibly was even in Shakespeare’s day. The rich complexity of the language requires auditory processing at an astounding level simply to comprehend the exchanges between characters, the soliloquies and asides. Then there’s the psychological depth of the central characters in the major plays, and even the peripheral characters in the minor plays, that calls for acuity on the part of the audience to understand the interplay of motives revealed through language and action. Further, the complications of familiar plots and the intentional frustrating of expectations keep the audience on its mental toes. To the linguistic, psychological, and formal demands that draw the audience into participation with the play, Shakespeare adds various forms of irony which involve subtle and sophisticated interpretative processes on the audience’s part. In other words, the audience is forced to participate together in the social world of the Shakespearean theatre.
In this regard, audiences of Shakespeare’s plays in 1611 and 2011 are functionally similar. I am not suggesting that our common humanity transcends the historical difference in our experience of the plays, and that Shakespeare remains the same. However, it is the function of an audience to form one of the four walls that comprise the live theatrical event, and this function does not change. The audience are the hearers of the thoughts expressed in language, the witnesses to the events acted in their presence, and the co-conspirators in the illusion that is the play. The audience colludes with the wide array of agents who bring the theatrical event into existence, collaborating by their very constitution as an audience in the experience of the theatre. This makes the audience partly responsible for the thing and gives them collective ownership of what takes place. Despite the distance in time and space between audiences then and now, they remain the crucial enabler of the social institution of the theatre.
Shakespeare seemed to have been particularly attentive to the audience’s participation in the theatre, frequently eliciting their imaginative and thoughtful engagement; often we are asked to watch an audience within the play, as though Shakespeare is reminding us of what an audience is and does. The circumstances of involvement in the theatre may have changed, but the vital function of that collective noun—”the audience”—remains unchanged. Taken together, the function of the audience in contributing to the very existence of the theatrical event, the presence of various classes at the public theatre, and the invitation to participate in the play all point to the irreducible social nature of the medium that is Shakespearean drama.
More than any other playwright working with and in this social medium, Shakespeare seemed both to enjoy and take seriously the opportunity to engage the social dimension that is offered by the theatre. No playwright moves up and down the social ladder with the ease and delight of Shakespeare. The interactions of kings and commoners, merchants and beggars, bishops and politicians are remarkable portraits of the complexity of social interactions. Throughout his plays, the recognition of the fluid, uneasy, and troubled reality of social relations is consistent: not only was Shakespeare reflecting the new economic and social situation of Elizabethan England, he was also suggesting that relationships within and among social classes are always open to negotiation. The points of connection and intersection within and among social classes—which is the focus of Shakespeare’s social curiousity—are neither static nor impervious to change. One could call this the realism of Shakespeare’s depiction of society: unlike the idealized, even utopian, picture of human society in political theory, Shakespeare gives us the grotty reality as it is lived. In his theatre, with the working-class “groundlings” standing around the stage and merchants and nobles in the galleries, Shakespeare presents the world in its social array. So while we might merely marvel at Shakespeare’s insight into each social class, amazed at the convincing characterization of individuals from all walks, we should be deeply impressed by the potential for disruption and misdirection in social relations.
Thus, when Shakespeare depicts the tumultuous events of the Wars of the Roses in the history plays, for instance, the audience must consider the social interactions that played such an important role in English history. Shakespeare asks his audience to examine the legitimacy of authority—not just the given reality of the power held by kings and nobles, but the basis upon which they hold that power.
Take King Henry V as an example. In Shakespeare’s day, Henry V was considered the most successful monarch, idealized as the model for a Christian king or queen. When Shakespeare tackles this myth of Elizabeth I’s great-grandfather, Henry was popularly perceived as “a king full of grace and fair regard,” “a true lover of the holy church.” Rather than simply affirming the institution of monarchy and the legend of this good king, Shakespeare gives his audience the full range of Henry’s character, from the loose-living Prince Hal, the drinking companion of ne’er-do-wells in Henry IV, to his triumphant victory over the French at Agincourt as King Henry in Henry V. Throughout the Henriad, Shakespeare presents monarchy as an institution and Henry as a king with an irony that compels the audience to reexamine its assumptions about both. All this is done in a way that makes the common more noble and the noble more common.
In the 18th century, Shakespeare was praised for presenting general human nature, transcending the differences of social class, gender, and race. While there may be some truth to this, the notion that each of Shakespeare’s characters represents “humanity” as a disembodied abstraction is patently not valid. Shakespeare’s characters are all indeed profoundly human, but never at the expense of their particular place in the social relations in time and place. What makes the evil genius of Iago in Othello so compelling is that his brand of evil comes from a specific place of insecurity and paranoia. The calculation with which Iago plots the downfall of Othello is a middle-class calculation, driven by social ambitions as well as psychological traits. Evil is not a concept or force that is independent of those who think and act evilly, and Iago’s evil cannot easily be dissociated from social realities expressed in formal, institutional ways. Iago is not a representation of “Evil”: he is a deeply disgruntled ensign whose ambition to become lieutenant motivates his diabolical plan to destroy Othello. The jealousy that runs as a dark river throughout the play is thus located in the uneasiness with which characters view those who challenge social distinctions, including Othello and Desdemona. This troubling “unnaturalness” of Othello the Moor is experienced by the audience, not as a philosophical abstraction of racial “otherness,” but as a challenge to existing social assumptions, habits, and structures. The uncertainty, discomfort, and alienation that Othello engenders in the audience produce painful but salutary introspection and reevaluation.
Critical self-reflection in the audience is evoked particularly powerfully in the comedy The Merchant of Venice, where the problem of racial and religious “otherness” is complicated by a consistent emphasis on justice and the law. Instead of Othello the Moor, we have Shylock the Jew—a character who seems to embody all the negative stereotypes of self-seeking avarice associated with Jews in Shakespeare’s England. Throughout the play, Shylock revels in the prospect of exacting revenge on Antonio, and on all Christian Venice by proxy. His insistence on Antonio’s payment of the penalty for defaulting on a loan—a pound of flesh—reveals the distortion of a financial institution gone horribly wrong: the accounting of human worth has become deeply disturbing in the Venice of the play.
Then, when Shakespeare places the central scene of the play in a courtroom, he shifts the audience’s attention from the mercantile context of Shylock’s uneasy relationship with Venetian society to the legal and judicial context. This is the scene in which the two plotlines converge in the character of Portia, whose virtuoso performance as a legal expert dazzles and delights the audience. The scene ends with the court’s sentencing of Shylock, which includes the confiscation of his possessions and the forced conversion to the Christian faith. The trajectory of Shakespearean comedy should make this scene in Act 4 the resolution of dramatic tension surrounding Shylock, but the experience for the audience is anything but relief. Instead, we come to the end of this scene with an uneasy sense of justice ambiguously administered. Earlier in the scene, the brutal legalism of Shylock’s insistence on his bond was tantalizingly contrasted by the divine clemency presented before the court by Portia:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown. …
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
Even though the commuted sentence spared his life, Shylock leaves the stage with his humanity in tatters, his personhood in pieces. The Merchant of Venice leaves the audience feeling troubled by the cognitive dissonance between the messy, hamfisted execution of justice by human agents and social institutions on the one hand and the impartial, perfect Justice expected from God on the other. The audience somehow feels complicit in the injustice, implicated in the failure to achieve full resolution and bearing the responsibility for Shylock’s ultimate humiliation.
How, then, do the form and content of Shakespearean drama contribute to a positive renewal of society today? As these three brief examples suggest, Shakespeare tends to focus the audience’s attention on the dynamic and dialogic character of social relations, on the hinges or linkages between individual and collective: the relationships between the man and his office in Henry V, social norms and transcendent realities in Othello, and inadequate justice and perfect mercy in The Merchant of Venice.
Shakespeare’s revelation of social infrastructure tends to be more diagnostic than prognostic, identifying the cracks and fissures in social relations against the background of enduring principles and patterns without prescribing antidotes. Nevertheless, Shakespeare uses a cultural institution—the theatre—to accentuate the pressure points in social relations against the unchanging patterns of creational order. The social institutions that were current in Elizabethan and Jacobean England may have changed, but the principle of constancy and change in social structures is the same. Shakespeare’s plays challenged his audiences in his time because he pried loose—often in uncomfortable ways—the grip of a monolithic worldview by disrupting the monological discourse. The plays continue to prompt audiences to critical self-reflection— and not only through the true-to-lifeness of the characters’ realistic psychology. It also comes in the recognition that the experience of social institutions is rarely simple, uniform, and easy, but is almost always complex, plural, and difficult. Paradoxically, each member of the audience who becomes aware of the flux of social relations in the plays also becomes conscious of the enduring order of creation. Shakespeare’s plays remind the audience of the dual nature of social institutions, their underlying structure in creation, and their historical expression in time—and they call the audience to responsible action.
Can Shakespeare rescue us? The plays come in handy as rich sources for the bon mot, powerful image, or pithy phrase to lambaste the Macbethlike ambition of Rupert Murdoch, to praise the Henry V-like charisma of Barack Obama, and to ridicule the Cleopatra-like self-absorption of Britney Spears. And paying close attention to Shakespeare in performance is arguably a social act with greater promise than going to the mall, watching the Fourth of July parade, or watching the Superbowl.
Yet our social malaise is too deeply rooted in the sinful heart for a secular saint like Shakespeare to heal. The plays affirm creational ordinances that have developed into social institutions, and they point to Christ—but they do so typologically, not directly and distinctly. Despite the rejection of Aristotle in many regards, the tragic equation in Shakespeare is still shaped by Greek notions of Fate and retributive justice, notions that cannot easily admit the radical nature of the Christian gospel. Cordelia in King Lear and Prospero in The Tempest, perhaps, come closest to pointing to Christ. In the plays we see Renaissance versions of ourselves, and what we see should disturb us. More profoundly, however, our active participation by performing in and attending carefully to Shakespeare’s plays can animate our dialogue about social structures and directions.
Just as the state of Vienna in Measure for Measure reflects our western world, so the inadequacy of solutions that characters in the play represent—a monastic retreat from life, an intolerant insistence on the letter of the law, a laissez-faire libertinism—draw us more wisely into the problems of our world. Whenever we enter the dynamic space of Shakespeare’s plays in performance, we see a creation that is groaning as in travail and longing for the ultimate resolution of comic and tragic tensions. And that’s not a bad place to begin the process of social renewal.