All the world’s a stage, and the men and women merely politicians.
Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By KATE HAVARD
Of the plays discussed here, only The Tempest has a happy ending. And yet, since The Tempest teaches that a ruler yields justice only if he is magical and wise, our expectations for politics and government are lowered. And since most politicians cannot summon spirits from the vasty deep, Burns looks, in his central essay, to the cosmopolitan commercial republic of The Merchant of Venice for an example of the best possible regime. Portia is able to prevent tragedy because Venice is a city of laws, not a city of men. Rather than break the law to save Antonio, Portia uses it, thereby preserving the institutions that will protect her fragile marriage with Bassanio. (Portia also tempers the Venetians’ desire for revenge, shaming them away from killing Shylock in favor of a conversion to Christianity.)
In Julius Caesar, Macbeth, King Lear, and The Tempest, relations among the public, the private, and the divine are either conflated, confused, or deficient. And it all ends badly: tyranny, civil war, witches, general viciousness. In Merchant, Shakespeare draws a strong line between those problems that can be solved in public and those that must be solved in private. This is also the only play Burns discusses that does not require magic to avoid tragedy.
Shakespeare’s political wisdom deals largely with the limits of politics. The full flourishing of the soul must be sought offstage, and the greatest abuses of power happen when rulers overstep their boundaries. Seeing justice done isn’t pretty, even in verse—and it is with a certain amount of force and fraud, as well as pious restraint, that just rule is possible in Shakespeare’s universe.
Kate Havard is a Tikvah fellow in New York.