Shakespeare transformed English literature, reaching heights that before were unheard of and which have not been reached subsequently. Like a blazing meteorite he shot across the firmament and cast a glorious light on an entire period in our history. His impact on world literature was arguably greater than any other writer. His works have been translated into every language. For centuries after his death his star has not dimmed but shines as brightly as on the first day.
“He was not of an age, but for all time.” (Ben Jonson on Shakespeare)
In Literature and Revolution (1924), Leon Trotsky wrote: “A new class does not begin to create all of culture from the beginning, but enters into possession of the past, assorts it, rearranges it and builds on it.” He presents Aristotle along with Goethe as the peaks of human achievement. He considered Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos as a play that “expresses the consciousness of a whole people.” The very same words could be said of the greatest English writer William Shakespeare.
It is surprising, then, that of the life of the man considered by many to be the greatest writer of all, very little is known. We know when Shakespeare died, but we are not exactly sure when he was born. The records show that he was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small town 100 miles northwest of London, far from the cultural and commercial centre of England. Since infants were baptized three days after their birth, he may have been born on April 23, the same day on which he died at age 52, although even this is disputed.
Much of his life is shrouded in a veil of mystery. What little we know of his life can be briefly stated. He was not born into a noble family or an especially wealthy one. He did not go to university. Yet he became the most famous writer in the world.
The Shakespeare family
At first sight William Shakespeare did not seem destined for greatness. His father John Shakespeare started out as an apprentice glover and tanner of leathers and later began to deal in farm products and wool. A self-made man, he married Mary Arden, the daughter of the prosperous local farmer, the owner of a sixty-acre farm. William was the third of eight children.
It seems that neither John nor Mary could write. Shakespeare’s father used Glovers’ compasses as his signature. But this did not prevent them from becoming important members of the community. Among other civic positions, John Shakespeare was elected ale-taster of the Borough of Stratford – quite an important office since people drank beer because in those days it was safer to drink than water. He later became chamberlain of the borough, alderman in 1565, (a position which came with free education for his children at the Stratford Grammar School), high bailiff, or mayor, in 1568, and chief alderman in 1571.
Proud of his success John Shakespeare aspired to the title of gentleman and applied for a coat-of-arms. But for unknown reasons the application was withdrawn, and within the next few years, for reasons that are likewise obscure, John Shakespeare’s fortune went into decline. In 1570 he was accused of usury for lending money at the rate of 20% and 25% interest. By 1578, he was behind in his taxes and unable to pay the obligatory aldermanic subscription for poor relief. In 1579, he had to mortgage Mary Shakespeare’s estate to pay his creditors.
In 1580, he was fined 40 pounds for missing a court appointment. He became a debtor and was frequently absent from council meetings. In 1586, the town removed him from the board of aldermen due to lack of attendance. By 1590, John Shakespeare owned only his house on Henley Street. Worse was to come. In 1592, he was fined for not attending church. This was a serious matter.
Religion was central to the society for which Shakespeare wrote. Queen Elizabeth made attendance at Church of England services mandatory, even though many church-goers had to travel long distances. People who did not attend – for any reason except illness – were punished with fines. Some have concluded that Shakespeare’s father – and possibly Shakespeare himself – must have been a covert Catholic. But this is an unwarranted assumption. His failure to turn up in church may have been due to more mundane reasons, namely non-payment of debts.
So although Shakespeare was born into a relatively comfortable middle-class home, he must have spent most of his childhood under the shadow of his father’s financial difficulties. This experience must have had a powerful influence on the psychology of the young man. Having experienced relative poverty and the disgrace that accompanies it, he developed a keen sense of business that was reflected in later years.
Later on the family’s fortunes seem to have improved. In 1599, John Shakespeare was reinstated on the town council, but died a short time later, in 1601. He was probably about seventy years old and had been married for forty-four years. Mary Shakespeare died in 1608.
To sum up, Shakespeare was born into a fairly typical middle class family in the period that Karl Marx describes as the period of primitive accumulation of capital. The feudal system had fallen into decay and a new rising middle class with its own agenda and ambitions was on the rise. John Shakespeare, the self-made man who built up a business, married into money and lost it again, was the personification of a new period in the history of England and the world.
Childhood and education
Young William attended the local grammar school, King’s New School, where his education would have been based mainly on rhetoric, grammar, Latin, and possibly Greek. We do not know anything about his school years, but a famous passage in As You Like It may provide us with a clue that suggests that he was not very enthusiastic about school:
“the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.”
Does this reflect his own recollections of school? His subsequent history suggests that this may indeed be the case.
At school he became acquainted with Greek mythology, Roman comedy and ancient history, all of which resurface in his plays, which are frequently based on Greek, Latin, French, and Italian models. The result is a uniquely rich cocktail of English and non-English elements. He frequently quotes Roman authors such as Plutarch and uses material from classical mythology.
Unlike his fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, he did not go to university. Ben Jonson, his famous contemporary, wrote that he had “small Latin and less Greek.” Shakespeare learned more from his practical experience as an actor than from his formal studies. Having never been to university, his knowledge of people and situations was derived from life itself. Shakespeare wrote for the masses – the “groundlings.”
He seems to have started his literary activities as a travelling actor, one of the Queen’s men, and this had an impact on his way of writing plays. Unlike other writers, he wrote from the standpoint of the actor. His plays often include what are, in effect, stage directions.
At age 18, he married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior and three months pregnant. At some point Shakespeare moved to London, leaving his family in Stratford, and established himself as a playwright and actor. It is said that he worked as a teacher, an apprentice butcher or a lawyer’s clerk. His first biographer says that he fled to London to escape punishment for poaching deer. However, no real evidence exists of his activities in this period of his life, which is known as “the lost years.”
Given the scarcity of accurate information concerning Shakespeare’s life, the only way in which we can cast some light upon both it and the plays is to place them in their real historical context – something about which we know a very great deal. In 1558, six years before Shakespeare’s birth, Elizabeth I became the Queen of England. Over the next 45 years London became a thriving centre of trade.
In order to cast more light on the Bard of Avon, we must place him in the context of the world into which he was born – an exciting new age of change, ferment and transition that stands on the frontier between two worlds – the old world of feudalism with its fixed certainties and rigid social and religious hierarchies and a new world that was struggling to be born: the age of the bourgeois Revolution.
An age of revolution
“The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.” (The Communist Manifesto)
One could say the same thing of Shakespeare. Shakespeare himself was the product of the age in which he lived and probably could not have flourished in the same way on any other soil. It was an age when old ideas, traditions and beliefs were being challenged, when the lives of men and women were being turned upside down and old ways stood on their head. It was an age of transition, a decisive break with the mediaeval past and the beginning of a new historical period, in a word, it was an age of revolution.
In Shakespeare’s works we have the distilled essence of a people in a period of transition from one historical period to another. This was a remarkable period of English history. Following a century of bloody upheaval known as the Wars of the Roses, this was a time of relative political stability under the new ruling dynasty, the Tudors.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 established England as a leading military and commercial power on the world stage. There was a spirit of adventure and change. Francis Drake became the first sea captain to complete the circumnavigation of the world and Elizabeth provided funds for Sir Walter Raleigh’s exploration of the New World. He brought tobacco and gold from the Americas, bringing new wealth to his country and his monarch.
The sixteenth century was the era of the Renaissance in England. It was an age of inquiry and experiment. The old sterile scholasticism of the Middle Ages was challenged by a revolutionary scientific-philosophic movement, which is closely associated with the name of Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Marx called him the first creator of English materialism and he was the father of a new form of secular learning and a new scientific philosophy.
In addition to its success as a commercial centre, London was also an important cultural centre where learning and literature thrived. Economic growth created a prosperous middle class that wanted to see new plays. Shakespeare was born into the new middle class, the class which prided itself on the freedoms and rights that other people conspicuously lacked.
This age witnessed the flowering of the drama in England. At the end of the century a whole galaxy of dramatists appeared in England: Marlowe, Dekker, Lyly, Kidd, Greene, Heywood, followed later by Beaumont, Fletcher and Ben Jonson. The flourishing of literature went hand in hand with technological innovations, in particular the invention of printing. Caxton established his first printing press in 1476, and very soon, books, which had previously been a monopoly of the wealthy few, became accessible to a mass audience among the new middle class.
The rise of the bourgeois middle class was a revolutionary development. Bourgeois individualism penetrates art in the form of portraits and self-portraits – an art form virtually unknown in the art of the Middle Ages. And it makes itself felt in the plays of Shakespeare in the form of the soliloquy. The novel itself is a product of the same tendency – a new interest in individual psychology, as in Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear. This is something new in the theatre – to penetrate the mind of the subject and lay bare its secret motivations, obsessions and desires.
The power of money
“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” (The Communist Manifesto)
“If money go before, all ways do lie open.” (Ford, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 2 Scene ii)
This explosion of art, science and literature was the expression of fundamental changes in the economic and social life of society: the decline of the old feudal society and the rise of the bourgeoisie; the emergence of an economy based on money and trade instead of the feudal system based on the possession of land.
The 16th century saw the rise of a new kind of economy based on trade and money. By contrast, the wealth of the Middle Ages was based on the ownership of land. The church considered usury to be a deadly sin and Christians were forbidden to lend money at interest. This role was generally played by the Jews, which is the main explanation for the rise of anti-Semitism at that time.
In the Merchant of Venice Shakespeare portrays in negative terms Shylock the Jewish money-lender who famously demanded a pound of flesh from his Christian victim, who was unable to pay his debts. Here we see expressed in an extreme form the real relationship between creditors and debtors that has existed in one form or another since ancient times. The conduct of the bankers of the European Union in relation to Greece is only the continuation of this ancient and venerable tradition.
This graphically expresses the newly established importance of money as the lifeblood of trade and the basis of all economic life. It is no accident that in his Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx quotes Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens to underline the power of money in bourgeois society:
Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, gods,
I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens!
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.
Ha, you gods! why this? what this, you gods? Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench: this is it
That makes the wappen’d widow wed again;
She, whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To the April day again. Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that put’st odds
Among the route of nations, I will make thee
Do thy right nature.
(Timon of Athens, Act IV, Scene iii)
And Marx explains its inner significance: “Shakespeare brings out two properties of money in particular: (1) It is the visible divinity, the transformation of all human and natural qualities into their opposites, the universal confusion and inversion of things; it brings together impossibilities. (2) It is the universal whore, the universal pimp of men and peoples.”
This profound observation goes to the heart of the nature of capitalism, and is even truer now than when it was written. The true God of modern society is not Jehovah, Mohammed or Buddha, but Mammon. The real temples are neither cathedrals nor mosques but banks and stock exchanges. Its high priests are the bankers, stockbrokers and bondholders. And they still live by demanding their pound of flesh. The true spirit of Capital is summed up in the person of Shylock.
His is the voice of capitalism speaking in its crudest and therefore most sincere voice. Capital must be allowed to expand without any restriction or hindrance whatever. The relationship between human beings is reduced to a naked cash nexus. Considerations of sentimentality, friendship, morality or religion do not enter into it. That is why it is preferable not to lend money to a friend, but rather to an enemy who must suffer the consequences for non-payment.
This is the true nature of capitalism, stripped of any pretence of humanity or morality. The picture is not a flattering one, but it is completely true to life. Shylock is the personification of Capital – its distilled essence. His antipathy towards Antonio is not so much based on religion but on the fact that he violates the most fundamental principle of capitalism – the inviolability of the profit motive. Antonio represents an old world morality, a hangover from the period when bounds of friendship and honour were supposed to rule supreme:
I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty.
(Antonio, Merchant of Venice, Act 1 Scene iii)
By contrast, Shylock represents the new capitalist morality, which places the pursuit of profit before all other considerations. The most heinous crime of Antonio from Shylock’s point of view was not that he worshipped the Holy Trinity, but that he lent money without demanding interest, thereby violating the Holy of Holies of capitalism:
How like a fawning publican he looks!
I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains and my well-won thrift,
(The Merchant of Venice, Act 1 Scene iii)
Some people have tried to find anti-Semitism in this play, and it is true that Shakespeare was not fully free from the prejudices of his time. Nevertheless, as Marx understood, the essence of Shylock is not his race, nationality or religion but his calling as a money lender, the personification of capitalism in its formative stage of primitive accumulation, that is to say, in its purest, chemically distilled essence.
As if to refute in advance the accusation of anti-Semitism, Shakespeare puts in the mouth of Shylock the most eloquent and moving speech of protest:
I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
(The Merchant of Venice, act 3 scene i)
Capital knows neither race nor religion. It has no fatherland and knows no frontiers. It has neither soul nor heart, knows neither right nor wrong. Yet this blind god, more pitiless than any heathen idol, subjugates the entire human race and forces it to do its bidding. That is the true message of Shakespeare’s play, and it remains a true message for our own times.
“Whiles I am a beggar, I will rail and say there is no sin but to be rich; and being rich, my virtue then shall be to say there is no vice but beggary.” (The Bastard in The Life and Death of King John, Act 2 Scene i)
Capitalism developed in England somewhat later than in the cities of Northern Italy, but once it took hold it developed rapidly. This was the period Marx describes as the period of primitive accumulation. The Tudor monarchs acted as an agency of the nascent class of English capitalists. Elizabeth lent her support to the new manufacturing and trading class that provided the wealth that underpinned the ruling dynasty and ensured its survival in a threatening world. But this economic progress came at a high social cost.
The social upheavals that flowed from these great changes meant terrible hardship for the masses. Marx describes this in Capital, in the section on primitive accumulation:
“In the history of primitive accumulation, all revolutions are epoch-making that act as levers for the capital class in course of formation; but, above all, those moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and ‘unattached’ proletarians on the labour-market. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process.” (Karl Marx, Capital volume 1, chapter 28)
The main growth industry was wool, which constituted three quarters of England’s exports. The constant increase in demand for wool promoted the growth of sheep farming. But since this employs fewer labourers large numbers of the rural population found themselves unemployed. Farms that formerly produced crops were turned into grazing land for sheep. As Thomas More bitterly complains in his famous work Utopia, “the sheep are eating the people.”
This was a period of brutal laws against “beggars” and “vagrants”, that is to say the huge numbers of peasants who had been thrown off the land, displaced by the new methods of capitalist agriculture. In this period, as Marx observed, a huge section of the English people were criminalised, prosecuted, whipped and put to death for the crime of being poor. During the reign of Henry VIII, no fewer than 72,000 “thieves” were sentenced to death. Wages were limited by law. The problems faced by the impoverished masses were exacerbated by the dissolution of the monasteries, which threw thousands of monks and nuns into the ranks of the unemployed, and the disbandment of the feudal retinues of the nobility.
Marx describes the savage laws enacted against the poor in the reign of Elizabeth: “Unlicensed beggars above 14 years of age are to be severely flogged and branded on the left ear unless someone will take them into service for two years; in case of a repetition of the offence, if they are over 18, they are to be executed, unless someone will take them into service for two years; but for the third offence they are to be executed without mercy as felons. Similar statutes: 18 Elizabeth, c. 13, and another of 1597.” (Capital volume 1, chapter 28)
Nevertheless, this is only one side of the coin. Despite its oppressive and exploitative character, the nascent capitalist system led to an explosive development of the productive forces. Despite the poverty and hardship suffered by many people, and the terrible the diseases that plagued England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the population increased.
London was now a bustling centre of trade, handling 85 percent of all exports. Every year around 10,000 citizens migrated to London, believing the streets to be paved with gold as the fairy tale has it. Gold streets there were not, but wages in London were about 50 percent higher than in other parts of the country. Wealthy landowners and merchants built palatial homes with gardens and orchards. The middle-class prospered and even some of the lower classes had sufficient money to go to the theatre.
Caravaggio and Monteverdi worked for wealthy patrons who paid the bills. But Shakespeare was only partly dependent on such patrons. The rise of the bourgeoisie created a new middle class audience that went to the theatre and paid for their seats. To an increasing extent Shakespeare was writing for this audience.