Shakespeare: a revolutionary in literature

Today, 8 November, marks 400 years since the publication of the first volume of Shakespeare’s collected plays, known as his “First Folio”. Published seven years after his death, the First Folio included 36 of his works – from “The Tempest” to “Macbeth” – many of which had never been published and would otherwise likely have been lost.

To mark this incredible event, we republish here an article by Alan Woods, celebrating the life and works of one of the greatest writers of the English language. The article traces Shakespeare’s life through a period of revolution and social upheaval, showing how his masterful achievements were shaped by the epoch in which he lived. Contrary to the stagnation and decline of culture that currently faces the world, Shakespeare’s achievements show the potential of humanity to produce works of timeless genius – a potential that will reach its fullest development only under communism. 

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), 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.

Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon / Image: Diliff

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."

Elizabeth I Image public domainElizabeth I / Image: public domain

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.

Francis Bacon Image public domainFrancis Bacon / Image: public domain

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.

Primitive accumulation

"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.

The England of Shakespeare, like the Spain of Cervantes, was in the throes of a great social and economic revolution. This was a very turbulent and painful change, which thrust a large number of people into poverty and created in the towns a large class of dispossessed lumpenproletarian elements: beggars, thieves, whores, deserters and the like, who rubbed shoulders with the sons of impoverished aristocrats and defrocked priests to create an endless reserve of characters for Shakespeare's plays.

MartinLuther workshopCranachElder Image public domainMartin Luther / Image: public domain


The Protestant Revolution that began with the revolt of Martin Luther plunged the whole of Europe into a bloody conflict in which, under the banner of the new religion, the rising bourgeoisie assembled its forces. A central point in the Protestant creed was that the Bible, the Word of God, should be in the possession of every man and woman without the need for any mediation by priests. The translation of the Bible into the vernacular therefore became the spearhead of the new movement.

Even before Luther openly challenged the domination of the Vatican, the English reformer John Wycliffe had translated the Bible into English. His followers, the Lollards, had participated in revolutionary movements that culminated in the Peasants Revolt of 1381. That revolt ended in defeat, but in the 16th century the Protestant Revolution in England produced a new and brilliant translation of the Bible by William Tyndale. For the crime of translating the Bible into English, Tyndale was convicted of heresy and treason and put to death by being strangled and burned at the stake by Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father.

England remained a Catholic country until the reign of Henry VIII. The role of religion then was very different from what it is today. People were very religious and the Church held colossal power in its hands. Men and women were prepared to die for their beliefs. And under the Tudors they had plenty of opportunities to do so.

Henry was originally a staunch defender of Catholicism and an enemy of the new religious tendency. For his services to the old religion, the Pope allowed him to use the title Fidei Defensor (defender of the Faith) which appeared on the coinage of the realm for centuries after it had lost its original meaning: defender of the Catholic faith.

When Henry VIII, for dynastic reasons, broke with Rome and declared himself supreme head of the Church of England, (The Act of Supremacy), it marked the start of centuries of religious upheavals in Britain. Henry needed to break the Church's power in England - he soon discovered that this was an excellent way to make money.

In 1535 Henry ordered the closing down of Roman Catholic Abbeys, monasteries and convents in England, Wales and Ireland. The dissolution of the monasteries instantly made him the owner of vast riches in the shape of all the buildings, land, money and everything else that had belonged to the Church. By selling off the proceeds to the wealthy nobles and rising bourgeoisie, he raised the money he needed to fund his pointless and expensive wars against France and Scotland and simultaneously gave a powerful impulse to the process of the primitive accumulation of capital.

The break with Rome was a major historical turning-point. But from a doctrinal point of view, it did not represent the kind of radical change represented by the Protestant Revolution on the European Continent. Henry, like his daughter Elizabeth, was no friend of Puritanism, which he saw as a threat to the established order. He therefore left much of the old Church rituals unchanged.

That changed radically under the brief rule of his son Edward VI (1547-1553), a devout Protestant. For the first time England became a genuinely Protestant nation. Edward introduced a new prayer book and all church services were held in English. Catholics were repressed and bishops who refused to conform were locked up. But Edward died young and was replaced by his older sister Mary, a fanatical Catholic.

England found itself once again a Catholic nation. The pope became the head of the church and Church services changed back to Latin. Now repression was directed against the Protestants. About 300 leading Protestants who would not accept Catholic beliefs were burned at the stake. Among them were Bishops Latimer and Ridley. It is said that as the flames rose, Latimer encouraged Ridley, "Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God's grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out."

To make matters worse Mary had married King Philip II of Spain. All this earned the Queen the nickname of "Bloody Mary", although to tell the truth she killed far fewer per year than her murderous father. Nevertheless, these actions produced a violent reaction against her.

Following her death, England swung sharply in the direction of Protestantism, underlined by a hatred of Spain, which became the main national enemy. The accession of Elizabeth on November 17, 1558, following the Catholic reaction under Mary, was greeted by general rejoicing. Bells rang and bonfires lit up the sky. Now it was the turn of Catholic priests to go to prison or to go underground. Many churches were closed.

Elizabeth attempted to balance between the opposing forces, compromising between the Protestants and Catholics. In Elizabethan England it was illegal for Catholics to hold or to attend a Mass. However, the rich and powerful could usually escape punishment for their religious practices. Wealthy Catholic families kept private chaplains in their homes, a practice to which the law usually turned a blind eye as long as they did this in the privacy of their own homes and did not engage in subversive activities against the Crown.

But this uneasy balancing act was doomed to failure. Tensions continued to increase and were driven to fever point by the news of massacres on the European mainland. In 1572, on St. Bartholomew's Day, there was a mass murder of French Calvinists (Huguenots) in Paris. News of this caused outrage in England and a further backlash against Catholics. The assassination of the Dutch Protestant leader, William of Orange, added fuel to the flames. In 1580, the Pope stated that it would not be a mortal sin to assassinate the Queen of England. This announcement automatically meant that all Catholics were under suspicion for treason.

An army of Jesuit agents was dispatched to England to work underground, organising plots with the collaboration of Catholic noblemen, and preparing the ground for a Catholic uprising. For 18 years, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots had been held prisoner by her cousin Elizabeth, who regarded her as a useful bargaining chip for her dealings with France and Spain. There was a well-founded suspicion that Mary was a focal point for Catholic subversion. Elizabeth's advisers, members of the Protestant party, decided to get rid of this potential threat.

The Queen's network of spies was controlled by Francis Walsingham. Its network extended everywhere. Walsingham accused Mary of being involved in an assassination plot aimed at the overthrow of Elizabeth, who would be replaced by Mary herself. He claimed to have discovered compromising letters that proved her guilt. Whether these letters were genuine or invented by him we will never know. In any case, they had the desired effect. In February 1587, Elizabeth signed the death warrant and Mary was beheaded.

Religion in Shakespeare's plays

The religious revolution that swept through Europe like wildfire at that time affected literature in a very direct manner. When Elizabeth's Protestant government banned mystery plays, the door was open for the rise of a new secular theatre. Until then, the only theatre was closely linked to the Church. It was this that made the success of Shakespeare possible.

The religious element surfaces in his plays. In the Prologue and Act I, scene i of Shakespeare's Henry V, the Bishops of Canterbury and Ely, two powerful English (Catholic) churchmen, confer with one another. They are made to look ridiculous for the amusement of the audience. They are depicted as covetous, greedy intriguers.

The bishops are worried about a bill that has been brought up for the consideration of the king, Henry V. The reason for their concern is that if it became law it would authorize the government to lay its hands on the Church's land and money, which would be used to maintain the army, support the poor, and augment the king's treasury. The clergymen, who have been made wealthy and powerful by this land and money, are determined to keep it for themselves.

To this end, the Archbishop of Canterbury persuades the young King Henry into believing he has a claim to the throne of France. A nice little war in France would distract the king from the bill to confiscate Church property. To encourage Henry, Canterbury promises the king: he will raise a generous donation from the Church to fund the war effort.

This scene is clearly directed against Roman Catholicism, which was was very unpopular with the people of England, especially as it was associated with a hostile and malign foreign power. In this play that country is France, England's traditional enemy. But to an Elizabethan audience the main enemy was Catholic Spain.

The hostility to Spain was in part religious. The rise of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by social, economic and political convulsions, revolution and war. The first decisive battles between the nascent bourgeoisie and the decaying feudal order were fought out on the grounds of religion. The Catholic Church had dominated society for generations, exercising an absolute dictatorship over the minds and souls of men and women. In Shakespeares plays we find numerous hostile references to Spain and the methods of the Spanish Inquisition.

The rise of England represented a direct threat to the hegemony of Spain. This at that time was the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. Elizabeth was an unprincipled and cynical opportunist in religion, as in all other matters. She flirted now with King Philip of Spain, now with his enemy the King of France, dangling the prospect of marriage, which at that time was another name for a political alliance, while keeping them all at arm's length and systematically building up England's power.

When Philip II realised the impossibility of getting control of England through holy matrimony, he decided to use other, less subtle means. In 1588, Catholic Spain prepared to invade England. However, things did not turn out as expected. Harassed by the English warships, the Spanish Armada was finally destroyed by storms at sea. "Jehovah blew with His winds, and they were scattered," a common saying went.

The wind was now blowing strongly in the sails of the Protestant party in England. The Queen, however, was unhappy about its rapidly growing power and influence. Privately, she preferred the high ceremony and pomp of the old service and the hierarchical structures of the old religion. But she was obliged to support the Protestants because the main threats to her power and her life came from the Catholics and Rome.

She was obliged to tilt in the direction of the Protestant Party at court represented by Burleigh, Walsingham and the Earl of Leicester. However, the Queen regarded the extreme Protestant party (the Puritans) with suspicion and loathing. Society was gripped by religious fever that was taking on a dangerously political colouring. One horrified observer complained: "Many there are that hear not a sermon in seven years, I might say in seventeen." Sir Francis Drake protested that the Reformation "went so far as almost to put an end to religion."

This same antipathy is reflected in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, where we read the following:

The devil a puritan that he is, or any thing

constantly, but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass,

that cons state without book and utters it by great

swarths: the best persuaded of himself, so

crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is

his grounds of faith that all that look on him love

him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find

notable cause to work. (Twelfth Night, Act 2; scene iii)

The demand for the democratisation of the Church alarmed even those in the establishment who were favourably inclined to the new doctrines. Elizabeth regarded the Puritans as dangerous extremists and a potential challenge to monarchical power. The Presbyterians demanded an end to bishops. But a reformed church would not be so easy for the monarch to control and she saw this as a threat.

Edmund Grindal, the Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the Presbyterians' most significant supporters, found himself suspended from the exercise of his office, remaining in limbo for the rest of his life. Presbyterianism in effect was the party of the wealthy upper stratum of the bourgeoisie and its allies in the nobility. The further down the social ladder, the more radical the new religious ideas became.

On the extreme left wing of Protestantism far more radical trends were beginning to crystallise. Tendencies such as the Anabaptists were moving in a revolutionary direction. Could all this not lead directly to the demand for the democratisation of the political system? That question received its answer in the following century, when it led to civil war and the bourgeois Revolution.

Development of national consciousness

This was the period of the formation of the nation states of Europe, and the English national spirit is alive in every line of Shakespeare's plays. The English national consciousness was developed in the course of the Hundred Years War against France, and this is reflected in Shakespeare's history plays, especially Henry V. The French are here depicted as the national enemies of England and English patriotism is more or less defined as opposition to France. However, by the reign of Elizabeth the rise of Spanish power created a new national enemy.

England's situation as an island played an immense role in her destiny. The sea provided a natural frontier and a line of defence that other European nations lacked. It also provided a stimulus to trade and therefore to the accumulation of capital. While much of continental Europe was plunged in wars and civil wars, with Protestants and Catholics slaughtering each other in bloody wars of religion, this island kingdom enjoyed peace and prosperity after the end of the period of civil war known as the Wars of the Roses.

The partial reformation carried out by Henry VII provided a further impetus to development of capitalism in England, the commencement of which may already be discerned from the 14th century onwards. The English wool trade benefited from the textiles industry in the Low Countries and the fighting on the Continent, which created possibilities for lucrative trade with the belligerents of all sides.

The Tudor period was therefore a decisive turning point in the emergence of England as a nation. The popularity of history plays by Shakespeare and Marlowe bear witness to a growing sense of national consciousness. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 marked a qualitative change in England's national destiny. From now on English power depended upon her success in displacing Spain from its predominant position as the leading power in Europe and the world. A new spirit was abroad in the land -a spirit of confidence and optimism in the future. The English began to feel themselves as a distinct people with a special destiny.

The Englishman's pride in his nation was famously reflected in the speech that Shakespeare puts in the mouth of John of Gaunt in Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,

Renowned for their deeds as far from home,

For Christian service and true chivalry,

As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,

Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son,

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land...

The rise of the theatre

In the Elizabethan period, drama experienced a complete transformation. It was at this time that organised theatre first appeared in England and enjoyed tremendous success. Up till this time the only similar form of entertainment was provided by bands of travelling players staging plays at fairs, in the courtyards of inns and on market days. The only plays that were held in the towns of England were the "mystery plays" with religious subjects. But the Protestant Reformation dealt this kind of entertainment a mortal blow.

The theatre was thus set free from the influence of the Church and the way was open for a new, secular theatre. Companies of players formed to perform works to entertain the public under the patronage of noblemen. This new art form soon became very popular. The new professional theatres being built in England attracted 15,000 theatregoers per week in London, a city of 150,000 to 250,000.

During Shakespeare's lifetime, for the first time, permanent theatres were springing up, particularly in London. The Red Lion and James Burbage's playhouse, The Theatre, were the first public theatres in England. London's South Bank was the natural location for theatres such as the Rose and the Globe.

Theatregoing in those days was not regarded as entirely respectable. The unruly mobs of groundlings did not smell of roses. Sanitary conditions in Tudor England were primitive in any case and the unsavoury riff-raff who frequented the spectacles rarely washed. The atmosphere was thick with sweat, beer and swearing. It also represented a potential threat to the public order.

Ever since mediaeval times the part of London known as Southwark had been an area of taverns, bear pits and brothels. The Bishop of Winchester was the owner of some very profitable brothels here and the local prostitutes were known popularly as "Winchester geese". It is here that Falstaff and his cronies spent their time drinking and carousing.

In Elizabethan times the South Bank began to attract a new and somewhat more reputable public. Nevertheless, god-fearing people lambasted theatres as ungodly places - "Satan's domain." Some Puritans like William Prynne would have liked to see the theatres closed altogether. However, the theatres enjoyed the backing of powerful patrons and not only survived but thrived, particularly with the advent of a new and more respectable bourgeois public.

The Elizabethan middle class had money to spend and it became very fashionable to go to the theatre to rub shoulders with the nobility who were also frequent visitors. Indeed, the Lord Chamberlain of England himself was the patron of Shakespeare's company of players. Theatregoing was not, however, restricted to the wealthier citizens of the capital. The poor could pay one penny to stand in the stalls in front of the stage. Wealthier patrons would pay up to half a crown to sit under cover, safe from the inclemency of the London weather.

Early success

This was an exciting new phenomenon. It was also a highly profitable business for those who knew how to exploit it. And the young Shakespeare certainly knew how to do that. The next known record of Shakespeare emerges when he was already a playwright in London, belonging to a company known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men. His early successes aroused bitter resentfulness on the part of other less successful writers.

Between 1590 and 1592, Shakespeare erupted onto the London stage with his Henry VI plays, Richard III, and The Comedy of Errors. They were an instant success. This success and popularity gave rise to growing confidence. This is shown by the fact that he revived his father's lapsed application for a family coat of arms in 1596. In 1602, he had to defend his title against accusations that "Shakespeare ye player" was not entitled to the honour of a coat of arms.

Fellow playwright and rival Robert Greene wrote an unflattering note describing Shakespeare an "upstart crow." This insulting language reflects the hostility of the literary establishment educated in university towards the new kid on the block whose success they saw as a threat. Evidently their fears were well founded.

Shakespeare became a famous and wealthy man and a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The group had its own theatre called the Globe, and Shakespeare, clearly a shrewd businessman, held a 12.5% stake in it. He had sufficient capital to invest in property both in Stratford and London. He purchased the second-largest home in Stratford in 1597, though he continued to live in London.

When the theatres were closed in 1593 because of the plague, the playwright wrote two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and probably began writing his richly textured sonnets. One hundred and fifty-four of his sonnets have survived, ensuring his reputation as a gifted poet. By 1594, he had also written The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labour's Lost.

In 1598, the author Francis Meres singled him out as "the most excellent" of English writers in both comedy and tragedy. His work attracted the attention of the Court and he acted in several performances before Queen Elizabeth I. But he later got into serious difficulties when, shortly before her death, the Earl of Essex organised and ill-prepared plot in which Shakespeare was indirectly implicated.

A period of transition

Marx pointed out that it is precisely such periods of social transition that produce in abundance the kind of colourful characters that appear in Shakespeare's plays. But quite apart from the knockabout humour that so captivated the Elizabethan audiences, Sir John Falstaff is a striking personification of one aspect of the age - its plebeian underbelly - the lower depths of Elizabethan society that lay beneath the glamorous pageant of courtly life, chivalry and honour. In fact, he represents its polar opposite.

In one of his most famous speeches Falstaff accurately conveys the transitional nature of a society that is casting off the trappings of feudalism, and the old feudal morality based on ideas such as loyalty to one's superiors, honour etc., in favour of more practical considerations, especially of the monetary kind. Sir John's philosophical diatribe on honour provides him with a convenient excuse for running away from the battle:

[...] What need I be so forward with him that

calls not on me? Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks

me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I

come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or

an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.

Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is

honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what

is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?

he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.

Doth he hear it? no. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea,

to the dead. But will it not live with the living?

no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore

I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so

ends my catechism.

And Sir John abandons the field of battle as fast as his fat legs will carry him.

This speech represents a scathing critique of an outmoded morality that is very much in line with that of Cervantes' Don Quixote. This period in Spain was a seething cauldron of social change in which old classes were melted down faster than new ones could replace them. The decay of feudalism, together with the discovery of America had a devastating effect on Spanish agriculture. In place of a productive peasantry earning its bread by the sweat of their brow, we are confronted with an army of beggars and parasites, ruined aristocrats and robbers, royal servants and drunkards, all striving to make a living without working.

Spanish society at this time presents us with the same rich mosaic of scoundrels, thieves and tricksters that we find reflected in the pages of Shakespeare's plays. The philosophy of this layer can be summed up in one word - survival. Life is a mad scramble to secure the means of existence by any possible methods. Their motto is: "Every man for himself and let the devil take the hindermost." This philosophy of bourgeois egotism is summed up in the words of Sancho Panza who, like Falstaff personifies the values and morality of the new world, whereas Don Quixote clings to those of a world that has long ceased to exist. The resulting contradiction between what ought to be and what is can be summed up in one word - madness. It is precisely in this contradiction and its manifest absurdity that the humour of Cervantes' masterpiece resides.

The bawdy scenes of tavern low-life in Don Quixote give the novel life and colour while highlighting the central contradiction of the historical period. The common Spanish people are as alive and vivacious as the nobility is dead and absurd. The central theme of Quixote contains a fundamental historical truth about Spain in the period of feudal decadence. The ideals of chivalry now appear as ridiculous and antiquated eccentricities in the context of the nascent capitalist economy, in which all social relations, ethics and morality are dictated by cold, hard cash.

The England of Shakespeare, like the Spain of Cervantes, was in the throes of a great social and economic revolution. This was a very turbulent and painful change, which thrust a large number of people into poverty and created in the towns a large class of dispossessed lumpenproletarian elements: beggars, thieves, whores, deserters and the like, who rubbed shoulders with the sons of impoverished aristocrats and defrocked priests to create an endless reserve of characters like Sir John Falstaff.

Sir John Falstaff

Sir John Falstaff is probably the most popular of all Shakespeare's characters. He is the archetypal "lovable rogue", a drunkard, liar, braggart and thief. His centre of operations is in Southwark, an area of London lying outside its walls to the south of the River Thames that was the haunt of criminals and prostitutes. This is where the people of London came to enjoy themselves in the taverns, brothels and theatres. It was also the site of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, which is now been rebuilt and continues to show Shakespeare's plays.

Falstaff's companions are rogues, drunkards, thieves and cutthroats like himself, but also include the Prince of Wales, the future Henry V who participates with gusto in their immoral and illegal escapades in the plays Henry IV parts one and two. Among his cronies at the Boar's Head Tavern was Pistol, an old soldier, a boaster, coward and a "swaggerer", Poins, and Bardolph - a thief whose large red nose and flushed, carbuncle-covered face suggests an advanced stage of alcoholism.

These lumpenproletarians are fairly typical examples of London lowlife, with whom Shakespeare appears to have been fairly well acquainted. This social flotsam and jetsam is the product of the disintegration of the old feudal order at a time when capitalism had not yet firmly established itself. This is a faithful reflection of the social composition of a large part of the population of London in Shakespeare's time.

Sir John Falstaff himself personifies that layer of society, albeit superficially modified by the wit and manners of an Elizabethan gentleman fallen on hard times. Everything he says and does is on a big scale, from gluttony and drunkenness to lying, which he raises to an art form, disguising his villainy with a thick layer of hyperbole, mendacious retelling of events and the most imaginative and colourful inventions.

Like all good liars Falstaff shows considerable ingenuity in brazenly denying that he has told any lies at all: "Hal, if I tell thee a lie, spit in my face, call me horse." In one of his most outrageous lies Falstaff claims to have killed the rebel leader Percy Hotspur on the battlefield from which he has run away. When Prince Henry confronts him, the following comic exchange follows:


Why, Percy I killed myself and saw thee dead.


Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to

lying! I grant you I was down and out of breath;

and so was he: but we rose both at an instant and

fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock. If I may be

believed, so; if not, let them that should reward

valour bear the sin upon their own heads. I'll take

it upon my death, I gave him this wound in the

thigh: if the man were alive and would deny it,

'zounds, I would make him eat a piece of my sword.

(Henry IV part one, act 5, scene iv)

While Falstaff is not at his best on battlefields, he is in his element in the environment of the tavern. In fact, while others fight for honour, he eats and drinks his way through the entire play of Henry IV. The Prince discovers Falstaff in a drunken sleep at the Boar's Head Tavern where he has consumed a gargantuan quantity of sack (a sweet Spanish wine popular in England at that time). He examines the contents of Falstaff's bill, which runs as follows:


[Reads] Item, A capon,. . 2s. 2d.

Item, Sauce,. . . 4d.

Item, Sack, two gallons, 5s. 8d.

Item, Anchovies and sack after supper, 2s. 6d.

Item, Bread, ob.


O monstrous! but one half-penny-worth of bread to

this intolerable deal of sack!"

(Henry IV part one, act two, scene iv)

In case you didn't know, two gallons of sack is approximately nine litres! Falstaff is a big man in every sense of the word. His huge physical bulk is marvellously conveyed in the following passage:

Falstaff sweats to death,

And lards the lean earth as he walks along:

(Henry IV part one, act two, scene ii)

Falstaff and the Prince engaged in a mock duel of words, taking turns insulting each other. Their insults achieve a high degree of artistry, as when the Prince describes Falstaff as follows:

that trunk of humours, that

bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel

of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed

cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with

the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that

grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in


(Henry IV part one, act two, scene iv)

Although these insults may be well founded, they did not diminish in the slightest the popularity of this character with the public, especially the so-called groundlings. So popular was this genial rogue that when Shakespeare portrayed his death in the play Henry V, there was such an outcry from the public that he had to write another play, the comedy the Merry Wives of Windsor, in order to reinstate him.

The famous victories of Henry V may have appealed to the nobler patriotic feelings of Shakespeare's public, but they definitely felt more at home with the lowlife of the taverns and the loveable rogue Sir John Falstaff who, like them, laughed, drank, swore, chased after "loose women" and saluted the passing of the aristocratic Age of Chivalry by showing it his voluminous backside.

The age of Shakespeare was also the age of Machiavelli. That brilliant Italian philosopher was the man who first explained that the conquest and maintenance of political power has nothing to do with morality. The state itself is organised violence, and the seizure of state power can only be brought about by violent means. Moralists have given the Italian philosopher a very hard time, but history has shown that his analysis was basically sound.

Sir Francis Walsingham Image public domainSir Francis Walsingham / Image: public domain

Shakespeare and politics

In Shakespeare’s plays, particularly the history plays, we have an eloquent description in literature of what Machiavelli demonstrated in political philosophy. The history plays deal with the power struggles that culminated in what became known to us (incidentally thanks to Shakespeare) as the Wars of the Roses. The struggle for power (in this case, monarchical power) is achieved through intrigue, backstabbing, betrayal and murder.

This was a world in which violence and treachery were the normal tools of the trade in monarchical politics. The feudal system was breaking down and capitalism was beginning to take root. The old aristocracy was being undermined and physically annihilated by a long and bloody conflict. This senseless conflict between rival dynasties was characterised by extreme violence and thuggery in pursuit of power. Two gangs of robber barons slugged it out, while the kingmaker Warwick balanced between them. For thirty two years the nobles of England had slaughtered each other without mercy.

That bitter struggle for the English throne played an important role in undermining the feudal order in England. In the end both Houses – York and Lancaster – were exhausted. Edward IV (1461-1483), of the House of York, was succeeded by his brother Richard, made notorious by Shakespeare in his play Richard III. In this play Shakespeare describes how the Duke of Clarence was knifed and then drowned in a barrel of wine on the orders of his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III. Henry VI was murdered in prison, probably by Richard himself. These were typical of the charming methods used by the nobility of England in the Age of Chivalry.

This was an example of the “the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages” to which Marx refers in The Communist Manifesto. These murderous civil wars finally ended with the death of Richard III, the last Yorkist King, at Bosworth in 1485. The result was the rise of a new dynasty founded by the Welsh adventurer Henry Tudor.

The Tudors encouraged the development of trade, industry and the nascent bourgeoisie. But the new dynasty was unstable, its legal foundations very shaky. Both Henry VII and his son Henry VIII were faced with plots and revolts that threatened to thrust England back into civil war. For this reason, the majority of the upper classes and middle classes were fervently loyal to Elizabeth, who seemed to stand between them and a return to the chaos that they feared.

This was an age of great insecurity in which conspiracies, political intrigue and rebellion were always in the air. Shakespeare's great contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, who had earned great popularity and success with plays such as The Jew of Malta and Tamerlane, was killed in a pub brawl, apparently because he was suspected of being a spy.

Elizabeth herself lived in a permanent state of anxiety, fearing assassination at the hands of discontented Catholics or Spanish agents. Her person was guarded by a vast network of spies and informers under the ever-vigilant Walsingham, one of her most loyal ministers. There is a portrait of Elizabeth that was painted in her old age. Her face has been heavily made up. In order to hide the ugly reality beneath it, it is painted white. She is dressed in magnificent silks and satins and covered in priceless jewels.

But a closer inspection reveals a curious and rather macabre detail. Her dress is decorated with human eyes and ears. The meaning of this is perfectly clear: “My eyes and ears are everywhere. I see what you are doing, I hear what you are whispering, I can read your innermost thoughts and penetrate the secrets of your heart and soul.” In a word: Big Sister is watching you.

Nowhere is this peculiar world of intrigue, plots and assassinations better described than in Julius Caesar. Here the psychology that drives ambitious politicians is dissected with the accuracy of a skilled surgeon. Julius Caesar is yet another tale of Machiavellian intrigue and backstabbing (literally) that faithfully conveys the essence of the political life, not just of the late Roman Republic but of every other period in history, especially our own.

Looking around him at the faces of his future assassins, Caesar comments with a wry sense of humour:

“Let me have men about me that are fat;

Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;

He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.”

Anthony tries to reassure him:

“Fear him not, Caesar; he's not dangerous;

He is a noble Roman and well given.”

But Caesar is not fooled, replying:

“Would he were fatter! But I fear him not.”

(Julius Caesar, Act one, scene ii)

In Henry VI, the Duke of Gloucester (the future king Richard III) says:

“Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,

And cry 'Content' to that which grieves my heart,

And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,

And frame my face to all occasions.”

(Henry VI Part Three, Act three, scene i)

Here in a few lines we have the distilled essence of what we now call Machiavellianism. It is a chilling echo of the words put in the mouth of Donalbain in Macbeth: “There’s daggers in men’s smiles.” In the same play Duncan, musing over the death of the Earl of Cawdor, utters the following words:

“There’s no art

To find the mind’s construction in the face.

He was a gentleman on whom I built

An absolute trust.”

(Macbeth Act 1, scene iv)

All this is a faithful reflection of the mood of the times. Despite its external appearance of glitter, the myth of “Merry England” in Elizabethan times was just that – a myth. It was an age of extreme insecurity, where plots of assassination were ever present, spies were listening at every street corner and in every tavern, and the air was thick with fear and suspicion.

Elizabeth herself was steeped in the habits of a mind characteristic of Machiavellianism. She spent most of her life eaten up by suspicion and fear of assassination. Against real or imagined enemies, she showed herself to be utterly merciless. A man could be her favourite one moment, only to find himself a prisoner in the Tower of London awaiting execution the next.

An opportunist with few principles other than that of personal survival, her religious beliefs always came second to that principle. Even in her persecutions, she lacked the conviction of her late brother Edward, a fanatical Protestant, or her sister Mary, and equally fanatical Catholic. Mary burnt hundreds of people she regarded as heretics in order to save their souls. Elizabeth hanged or cut off heads, not to save souls but to serve herself, her interests and her throne.

Shakespeare's attitude to revolution

Shakespeare’s plays can tell us a lot about life at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century. This was a time of tremendous political and social turbulence. One play in particular had a significant role in political events. Here Shakespeare’s involvement in politics – albeit an indirect one – could have ended very badly for him. This occurred towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, when she was already an old woman and speculation about the succession was becoming acute.

As a rule, the message of Shakespeare’s history plays is pro-monarchical and in that sense conformist. For obvious reasons he wished to acquire the favours of the ruling monarch – both Elizabeth and later James I. The reason for this was not merely pecuniary. Shakespeare and his generation had every reason to fear political instability. Their psychology was rooted in the experience of recent events. The memory of the Wars of the Roses was still vivid in people’s minds.

James I of England by Daniel Mytens Image public domain

Yet in several of his plays Shakespeare gives free rein to subversive and even revolutionary thoughts. Shakespeare was capable of seeing the world from every conceivable angle. Although he was from a relatively privileged background, he was capable of understanding the misery and sufferings of other people. He lived at a time when colonialism was at its earliest beginnings. White Europeans were coming into contact with people of different colour, religion and customs. The result was a violent clash of culture that generally did not have a happy ending.

In The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play, we find a startling denunciation of colonial slavery. Caliban is a monstrous being living in a state of savagery who has been enslaved by the wizard Prospero, the leading character in that play. The latter is portrayed as a magician and a highly knowledgeable person. According to some critics, Prospero is the depiction of Shakespeare himself as a powerful man of the Renaissance. Yet Shakespeare puts into Caliban’s mouth a speech that eloquently expresses the revolt of the slave against his master:

“You taught me language, and my profit on’t

Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you

For learning me your language!”

(The Tempest, Act 1 scene ii)

London itself was a very violent place in those days. There were frequent riots, mainly by poor apprentices who expressed their frustrations in attacks on gentlemen's serving men, foreigners and prostitutes. Such disturbances were regarded by the City authorities as a normal part of life. Far more serious were the rebellious outbursts in rural areas. These were provoked by the enclosure of common land, wastelands, and forests by greedy landowners and agents of the Crown.

Such popular anti-enclosure protests were fairly common in Shakespeare's time, especially in the period from 1590-1610. They generally consisted of tearing up hedges and filling in ditches. Women and children participated in these actions. Small village riots, which were very common, were considered a misdemeanour. But on a larger scale they were punishable as treason. The largest, known as Kett's Rebellion, involved 16,000 peasants. The leader Kett died in jail. He was fortunate not to have suffered a worse fate.

Cade’s rebellion

There is a challenging of authority in Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Richard II. Yet Shakespeare was no social revolutionary. The message of Shakespeare’s great history plays is precisely this: a warning against the chaos of civil strife – and revolution. The only explicit depiction of social revolution in Shakespeare is contained in the play Henry VI part 2.

The facts of the case are as follows. During the chaotic reign of Henry VI the peasantry, maddened by the increasingly heavy burdens of taxation and other oppressive measures, rose in revolt. In June 1450 an army of 20,000 rebels from Kent marched on London under the leadership of a man calling himself John Cade. Cade, who was reputedly an Irishman, defeated the forces sent by the King against the rebels and killed their commander, Sir Humphrey Stafford.

In Henry VI, Lord Say describes Kent as:

“the civil’st place of all this isle:

Sweet in the country, because full of riches;

The people liberal, valiant, active, wealthy.”

Yet in the same play the men of Kent are depicted in negative terms, as senseless, riotous, unruly rebels against authority. But this judgement appears to be both one-sided and unjust. As was usually the case in all such uprisings during the Middle Ages, the rebels claimed to be fighting, not against the King, but against his ministers, specifically the royal treasurer, Lord Say. These demands were well received by the people of London and also by the soldiers in the King’s army. Despairing of victory, the king fled to the relative safety of Kenilworth.

Henry’s fears were well founded. As the rebels approached the capital the King’s army melted away, its soldiers refusing to fight the rebels who maintained an admirable level of discipline. The rebels entered London with no resistance, and captured Lords Say and Cromer, who they beheaded. But thereafter the movement seemed to lose its sense of direction and degenerate into mere rioting. Cade had issued orders that there be no pillaging or theft. But some of the rebels began to plunder the homes of the rich, provoking a backlash against them. The rebels were forced to leave London and Jack Cade fled to Kent where he was murdered by a sheriff, allegedly while hiding in a garden.

The impression one gets when reading the version presented by Shakespeare in his play Henry VI is an unfavourable one. It reflects the fears of the Elizabethan upper classes of the mass of downtrodden and oppressed people who represented a constant threat to their privileged situation. The Elizabethan gentry must have felt that they were sitting on the brink of a large and dangerous volcano that at any time could erupt with elemental violence. These fears clearly coloured Shakespeare’s portrayal of Jack Cade and his rebel army. Cade is made to say:

“We will not leave one lord, one gentleman;

Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon,

For they are thrifty honest men, and such

As would, but that they dare not, take our parts.

“But then are we in order when we are most out of order”,

Cade is supposed to have said:

“I thank you, good people: there shall be no money;

all shall eat and drink on my score.

“Seven half-penny loaves (3 1/2 cents) shall sell for a penny.

“All the realm shall be owned in common — no private property; just take what you want.

“All shall wear the same livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.”

At this point Dick the Butcher shouts the famous line,

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.”

At that point, a clerk enters. Someone accuses the clerk of being able to write and read. Cade orders:

“Hang him with his pen and inkhorn about his neck.”

In the end Cade’s severed head was paraded through London and his body was left for "crows to feed upon." The Elizabethan middle classes could sleep soundly in their beds once more.

We shall never know what Jack Cade actually did say, but the above lines sound suspiciously like what the defenders of capitalism constantly repeat today: that the idea of socialism is utopian, that we are promising people things which cannot be achieved, and misleading the “ignorant masses” with the promise of a fool’s paradise.

One thing is clear: William Shakespeare was no revolutionary. He supported the existing order of Elizabethan England, upon which his success was based. He supported the monarchy and considered all movements of the downtrodden classes to be at best misguided, and at worst a recipe for chaos and anarchy. Despite this fact, there are many elements in Shakespeare’s plays that show a keen understanding for the sufferings of the downtrodden, as well as what one might call “the common touch.” It is no accident that his plays found favour, not only with the prosperous middle class from which he came, but with the poorer layers of society.

Ireland and the Essex Rebellion

Primitive accumulation not only signified the plunder and dispossession of the English peasantry but also the even more brutal dispossession of the lands of the Irish people. The Tudor period, and in particular the Elizabethan, was marked by the most ferocious oppression of the Irish. Here class oppression was mounted a thousandfold by national, religious and linguistic differences.

Ireland was England’s first colony and the real cruel face of the English ruling class can be seen by its treatment of the Irish people. The Irish were treated as slaves and criminals, aliens in their native land. English soldiery butchered men, women and children without mercy, exterminating entire communities. For the English overlords, the Irish were not human beings but little better than animals without any rights, including the right to life.

As a result, there was a whole series of bloody uprisings and rebellions, ruthlessly put down by the forces of the English crown. The most serious of these was the rebellion of an Irish Ulsterman, Hugh O’Neill (Aodh Mor O Neill), earl of Tyrone, who repeatedly defeated the English forces and was making overtures to Spain, inviting military intervention in the pursuit of their common Catholic cause.

The English crown was spending a lot of money and losing an increasing number of men in this sanguinary conflict. England’s darkest hour in Ireland came on 14 August, 1598, when the English forces were cut to pieces at the battle of the Yellow Ford in County Armagh. 2,000 Englishmen, including its commander, the marshal of Ireland Sir Henry Bagenal were killed. Already in command of Ulster and Connacht, O’Neill’s army advanced rapidly into Leinster and then Munster.

In this desperate situation Elizabeth sent one of her “favourites”, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex to Ireland with a huge force of 17,000 foot soldiers and 1,500 horsemen, 2,000 of these being veterans transferred from the Low Countries and with the promise of 2,000 more to come. Two years earlier Essex became a national hero when he shared command of the expedition that captured Cadiz from the Spanish.

With such a large force as this “the hero of Cadiz” could hardly fail to crush the Irish rebels. But fail he did. Devereux seems to have been a spoilt aristocratic brat with strong narcissistic tendencies. Excessively fond of his personal appearance (he wore his hair long) his tender self-regard was not replicated by courage and foresight on the battlefield. His military campaign failed miserably. He behaved like a coward whose only successes were in perpetrating the usual massacres of Irish men, women and children.

In the end, he fell into a trap carefully set for him by O’Neill. The latter offered him a truce, which he accepted with alacrity. He then entered into a private discussion of terms with the Irish rebel. This was a bad mistake. When Elizabeth found out about it she flew into a fury, suspecting treachery. To make matters worse, Devereux hastened to London to explain himself to his erstwhile mistress, bursting into her bed chamber in his riding boots, his cloak bespattered with mud for greater effect.

Effect his dramatic entrance undoubtedly had. Elizabeth, who now required several hours every morning for her serving ladies to paint her face white, dress her in finery and do everything possible to cover up the ravages of old age, was not at all accustomed to men – even former lovers – appearing unannounced at her bedside in this state of undress. Devereux had committed the most unforgivable faux pas, and would pay for it dearly.

One of the more endearing aspects of the Earl of Essex was his unstinting devotion and assistance to the arts. He befriended Shakespeare and attended his plays, his favourite apparently being the tragedy of Richard II. The play tells the story of the last two years of Richard II’s reign and how he was deposed by Bolingbroke – the future Henry IV – imprisoned and murdered.

On Saturday, 7th February, 1601, just two years before the death of the aged Queen, Shakespeare’s company was asked to perform the play Richard II at the Globe Theatre. It was to play a fatal role in the plot that was hatched by the Earl of Essex after he had suffered disgrace and banishment from the court.

Shakespeare wrote and published Richard II around 1595. The parallels between the ageing queen and Richard II were too uncomfortable. It is clear that Elizabeth was aware of the political parallels between herself and Richard II, and of the potential ramifications.

The Virgin Queen, as she liked to be known, had no children. Next in the line of succession was Mary Queen of Scots, whom she had executed while cynically blaming other people. The most likely candidate after this was Mary’s son, King James VI of Scotland. Although he himself was undoubtedly inclined towards Catholicism, James was more pragmatic than his mother, whose infatuation with Catholicism led her straight to the executioner's block.

Since James had let it be known that he was open to do a deal with the Protestant party in London if he came to the throne, a faction of the English nobility saw James as a likely candidate and entered into contact with him. Among these was almost certainly Robert Devereux. This was the turbulent political and social background to Shakespeare’s plays of the period 1590 and 1613. The play shows the overthrow of Richard II by a group of rebellious nobles. The fall of the king is depicted in the following scene:


“My lord, in the base court he doth attend

To speak with you; may it please you to come down.


“Down, down I come; like glistering Phaethon,

Wanting the manage of unruly jades.

In the base court? Base court, where kings grow base,

To come at traitors' calls and do them grace.

In the base court? Come down? Down, court!

down, king!

For night-owls shriek where mounting larks

should sing.”

(Richard II Act 3, Scene iii)

In the given context, the play was provocative, politically subversive and even treasonous. Supporters of Robert Devereux paid Shakespeare’s company forty shillings – well above the normal rate – as a bribe to perform the play on the appointed day and hour. It was intended as propaganda to convince the public of the righteousness of the rebels’ cause.

The very next day, 8th February, Devereux marched into London at the head of 300 armed men hoping to seize the crown. But their hopes were soon dashed. The people did not rise and the rebellion ended in a farce. Essex was captured and on 25th February, 1601, he was beheaded as a traitor. It is said that Elizabeth wept bitterly for the fate of her former lover. But then she is said to have wept about the fate of Mary Queen of Scots and other of her victims. Just how sincere these tears were is anyone’s guess, but none of them served to stop the axe from falling on its target.

Were Shakespeare and his company aware of the real significance of the play they were asked to perform? Or were they enticed by the extra money on offer? Either way, they got off very lightly. Some members of the audience were arrested and executed for treason, but no charges were made against Shakespeare or the actors.

Did Elizabeth herself realise the meaning of the play? William Lambarde reported that in August 1601 he had a conversation with the Queen in which she said, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” The authenticity of this statement has been questioned – like many other things. But I would like to think it was true. In a supreme act of historic irony, Shakespeare’s company was commanded to perform Richard II at Whitehall in the presence of the Queen herself on Shrove Tuesday 1601 — the day before Essex’s head was parted from his shoulders. Maybe the old Queen was enjoying a private joke at his expense.

A new reign

If the Earl of Essex had had a little more patience he could have achieved his objective and kept his head. In 1603, James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. England, Scotland and Wales were now united under one crown. Possessed of a sharp intelligence, and an even sharper instinct for self-preservation, James was an expert in the black arts of manoeuvre and intrigue. For years he had been plotting to take the English throne (to which he had a claim, though not a particularly strong one, by right of descent) once Elizabeth had gone to a better world. There is little doubt that he was involved in the Essex plot. James immediately released the surviving members of Essex’s faction from prison.

As King of Scotland, a relatively poor country, James was unable to indulge himself in the kind of extravagances to which he aspired. Now, with the English exchequer brimming with stolen Spanish gold at his disposal, the king could afford to be generous with money. His court was known for its lavishness and extravagance, but it was also a nest of intrigue, and jockeying for position. James had his favourite courtiers – usually good-looking young men – who received exquisite gifts. His romantic attachments might, of course, have been merely an expression of "passionate physical and spiritual love." But that did not prevent people from speculating that these relationships were of somewhat more than a platonic nature.

Under King James the theatres flourished as never before. Shakespeare was the immediate beneficiary of his lavish generosity. His company was awarded a royal patent. At the king's invitation, Shakespeare's theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, became known as the King's Men, and they produced new works under his patronage. It was during King James's reign that Shakespeare wrote many of his most celebrated plays dealing with the struggle for political power. Among these are King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra and, of course, Macbeth.

Having so recently come close to disaster in relation to the late Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare was anxious to get into the new monarch’s good graces from the beginning. To this end he composed one of his greatest plays. Written early in James's reign, Macbeth (“the Scottish play”) was clearly composed as a means of impressing the new monarch. The play pays tribute to the king’s Scottish ancestry, presenting James’s ancestor Banquo in a very flattering light, while the presence of the three witches was designed to please a man who was obsessed with the subject of witches and witchcraft.

Already when he occupied the throne of Scotland, James saw himself as sacred. He also felt that he had a special insight into the agents of Satan. He had a morbid fear of a violent death and saw witchcraft as an evil that threatened his divine rule. Before his reign, witchcraft persecutions had been rare in Britain. While thousands of alleged witches were burnt on the European continent, only a relatively small number suffered that fate during Elizabeth’s reign. But James changed all that. In 1590 he had personally overseen the North Berwick Witch Trials. Over seventy people were accused of raising the storm that nearly sank James’ ship when he sailed home from Norway with his new bride, Anne of Denmark.

The precise number of people burned at the stake as the result of this trial is unknown. But thousands of Scottish women and some men were to be accused of witchcraft, tortured and killed, especially after 1597 when James published a book on Demonology. When he became king of England, James brought his views on witchcraft south of the border where the laws against it were rather less harsh than in Scotland. Only one year after James ascended to the English throne, he passed a new Witchcraft Act, which made “raising spirits” a crime punishable by execution.

James liked to hold lavish celebrations and masques for the court nobility. The services of such an accomplished writer as Shakespeare were very welcome to him. And he was prepared to pay the bills. Macbeth was the first English drama to depicted witches gathering in secret to perform their devilish rites. Performed for James’s court in 1606, the play presumably met with his most enthusiastic approbation. One doubts that this enthusiasm was shared by the poor wretches who paid with their lives for His Majesty’s morbid fantasies.

The lavish lifestyle of James I's court led inevitably to equally lavish debts. The king's subjects were naturally presented with the bill. Parliamentary disputes over the king's debts doubtless took some of the shine off the joys of court life. But it continued on its merry way regardless. Ultimately the debts he left to his son and successor Charles I led to a conflict between king and parliament that led directly to Civil War and Revolution. But that is another story.

There are at least a quarter of a million words in the English language – although some estimates suggest a far higher number – perhaps a million or more (according to the Global Language Monitor, January 2014 and the more recent Google/Harvard Study). Whatever the true figure might be, it is clear that English has more words than any other European language. This is the result of its peculiar historical evolution.

A revolution in language

Over the last thousand years English has changed more than any other European language. Anglo-Saxon, from which English is derived, belonged to the Germanic languages, related to Dutch, German, and the languages spoken in Scandinavia. If we go back a few centuries to the English spoken before 1066, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf would be as incomprehensible to most modern English speakers as Homeric Greek, as we can see from the opening lines of that work:

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum

þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon

hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon

Following the Norman Conquest in 1066 Norman French became the language of the ruling class, while Latin was the language of scholars and the Church. But the mass of the population continued to speak the Anglo-Saxon dialect of German. One curious feature of the English language is that we use one word for a particular kind of meat and another, completely different word for the animal it came from. In every case the word for the meat is French while that of the animal is German, as in the following examples:

Animal (German) or [OE*] | Meat (French)

Cow (Kuh) | Beef (Boeuf)

Calf (Kalb) | Veal (Veau)

Swine (Schweine) | Pork (Porc)

Sheep (Schaf) | Mutton (Mouton)

Hen (Huhn) | Poultry (Poulet)

[*Old English refers to the form of English spoken circa 500-1100 AD]

This is a clear example of the class basis of the English language, since the peasants who spoke Anglo-Saxon knew the animals very well, but hardly ever ate meat, while the Norman lords who spoke French were only acquainted with the animal when it was served to them on a plate. To this day the English spoken by the working class contains a higher proportion of words of Germanic origin, whereas the “educated classes” use a higher proportion of words of a French or Latin origin.

There is in modern English even a kind of “upper class accent” that, if it is not entirely unique, is certainly far more pronounced in English than in other languages. The language of those who “talk posh” or who “speak with marbles in their mouths” offends the ears of most people, producing approximately the same disagreeable effect as the whining of a dentist's drill. Although they cannot understand why, to ordinary folk it sounds completely alien – which in effect it is. It is a distant echo of the times when the upper class did speak a different, alien language.

Over a long period large numbers of French and Latin words entered the language. That is why it has a much larger vocabulary than either the Germanic languages or the languages of the Romance family like French, Spanish or Italian. The fusion of English (Anglo-Saxon) and French (Norman) that was already accomplished by the end of the 14th century is what makes the English language so uniquely rich, but also a rather strange hybrid animal that defies all logic.

The complex and frankly illogical nature of English spelling, which has driven generations of foreign (and also native English speaking) students of English to distraction, was the inevitable consequence of the fusion of two completely different languages. But the result is a wonderfully rich vocabulary that permits numerous nuances and plays on words that are difficult if not impossible to achieve in other languages.

This metamorphosis achieved its most perfect expression in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – the first real masterpiece in the English language. But the language of Chaucer was a transitional stage. It was not yet modern English.

Even educated people would have problems understanding the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour […]

Although this is far closer to modern English than the language of Beowulf, very few English speakers today would be able to read Chaucer’s works in the original.

A language in transition

The period in which Shakespeare lived was a period of fundamental change in the evolution of the English language, which was still in its formative stages. English as we know it was a very young language then. Not so long before it had still been the language of the lower classes; the upper classes spoke French, while the language common to the men of learning was not English but Latin.

It was in the course of the 16th century that English really came of age. It was a time of blossoming of literature and poetry in England that had no parallel before and, arguably, has had no equal since. It was as if the English language had been suddenly thrown into a gigantic melting pot into which words from many other languages were thrown, mingled and transformed like the elements in some strange alchemist's brew.

At that time the English language was a very flexible and malleable medium, like the lava that flows freely after a volcanic eruption. Shakespeare himself played an important role in the development of the English language at this formative stage. The Shakespearean critic Dr. Jonathan Hope comments: “He [Shakespeare] wrote during a transitional period for English grammar when there was a range of grammatical options open to writers.”

Like a skilful potter moulding fresh clay on his wheel, he transformed this wonderful raw material into something new and special. This is reflected in the tremendous richness of Shakespeare’s English, a richness that has never been equalled, with the possible exception of the King James Bible which was written about the same time. Creating new words and using old ones in a novel way, according to some estimates Shakespeare invented over 1,700 of our common words, changing nouns into verbs and verbs into adjectives, joining words together to produce words never heard before.

Among the many words he invented are: auspicious, baseless, and barefaced (shameless), castigate, clangour (a loud clanging sound), dexterously (skilfully), dwindle (to get smaller; diminish), sanctimonious (hypocritical) and watchdog. In addition to these new words, Shakespeare is also the author of a surprisingly large number of common expressions and phrases, some of which have become proverbs. Here are just a few:

All that glitters isn’t gold (Merchant of Venice): things may not be as good as they seem.

Break the ice (The Taming of the Shrew): begin a conversation diplomatically.

Wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve (Othello): to express one’s feelings openly.

A laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor): To be considered a joke by many people.

In a pickle (The Tempest): to be in an awkward situation that you cannot easily get out of.

Fair play (The Tempest): to play fairly by the rules.

Some recent studies indicate that some of these phrases may have been in use before Shakespeare, although their first recorded use is found in his writings. Even these studies, however, accept that Shakespeare, nonetheless, created many new words or gave new meaning to old words. None of this, however, takes anything away from the greatness of Shakespeare’s writing. And in any case, merely to list these words and phrases does not do justice to Shakespeare’s genius and the miraculous way in which he makes the English language a unique vehicle for his poetry. It is a kind of alchemy or magic that is difficult to analyse and impossible to imitate. Let us take just one example, the word that Shakespeare invented: incarnadine – meaning to turn red.

In his play Macbeth, we find Macbeth horrified by the murder of Duncan that he has just committed. The imagery of Macbeth is dominated by two colours – black and red: night and blood. After murdering Duncan, his king and kinsman, Macbeth is transfixed by the sight of the blood on his hands, he realises that it can never be washed away. Rather, it will stain the entire ocean red (incarnadine):

[Knocking within]



Whence is that knocking?

How is't with me, when every noise appalls me?

What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.

(Macbeth, Act 2, scene 2, 54–60)

Here Shakespeare takes an already existing word with a Latin root carn- referring to flesh, and thus, in its derivatives, flesh colour. From this original concept he fashions a new verb, "incarnadine," meaning to turn something crimson. But this kind of linguistic analysis – interesting as it may be – runs the risk of taking us far away from the real Shakespeare and the magical way he uses the English language. For what we have here is pure magic that defies all definitions.

The never-ending torrent of words and the striking imagery reflected in them gives the impression of a man who is utterly intoxicated with words, which he combines in the most original and unexpected manner in his similes and metaphors. The image of Neptune’s green ocean being transformed into a sea of blood is so striking that it transcends any amount of word dissection. Here, and in all of Shakespeare’s work, the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts.

Life, love and death in Shakespeare

In Shakespeare’s plays we see the human condition approached from every conceivable angle. Here are the big themes of life, love and death dealt with in a profundity that has an almost philosophical character. In these plays we find a never-ending stream of striking imagery that wonderfully conveys the whole expanse of human passions and contains within itself the distilled essence of the human condition. This is what explains its universal appeal.

The entire compass of human experience is contained in Shakespeare’s plays. King Lear is a dark tragedy of old age, full of the most profound psychological insights. The tragedy of Othello is a tour de force on the theme of jealousy and passion in the relationships between men and women. And the various stages of human life are summed up in one of his most memorable speeches, in As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

(As You Like It, Act two, Scene vii)

The theme of love is dealt with very movingly in Romeo and Juliet. This work had a profound effect not just on literature but on music. It inspired an opera by Gounod, a ballet by Prokofiev, an oratorio by Berlioz and a famous overture by Tchaikovsky. But Shakespeare is at his most lyrical in simple love songs, like the one sung by the clown in Twelfth Night:

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?

O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming

That can sing both high and low;

Trip no further, pretty sweeting,

Journeys end in lovers’ meeting—

Every wise man’s son doth know.

What is love? ’tis not hereafter;

Present mirth hath present laughter;

What’s to come is still unsure:

In delay there lies no plenty,—

Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,

Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

(Twelfth Night, Act two, Scene iii)

This is the voice of young love in full blossom. But the love theme receives a very different treatment in Antony and Cleopatra. Here the theme of passion is presented in an exotic and sensual guise that is completely different from the innocence of Romeo and Juliet. Every line in this play breathes the heady perfume of the Orient. The speech where Enobarbus describes Queen Cleopatra’s royal barge is poetry of the very highest order:

I will tell you.

The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,

Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that

The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes.

(Antony and Cleopatra, Act two scene ii)

This play, like Romeo and Juliet, ends in tragedy and in many of Shakespeare’s works the idea of love is tinged with the consciousness that all human existence must end in death. The idea that all that exists deserves to perish is implicit throughout.


Most of Shakespeare’s work consists of plays. However, he also wrote poetry of the very highest order, particularly the sonnets which are in a class of their own. There are 154 sonnets, exploring themes of love, sex and beauty in a profound and moving manner. They were probably written in 1592 when plague closed the theatres – a fairly common occurrence in those times.

Already a popular literary form in Italy, sonnets became popular in England during the Elizabethan period. Several of Shakespeare’s sonnets remain highly popular to this day, notably Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?). But all of them are works of exceptional poetic beauty and philosophical profundity. The main theme that runs through these poems like a red thread is the fleeting nature of life and love and the passing of time.


Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,

So do our minutes hasten to their end;

Each changing place with that which goes before,

In sequent toil all forwards do contend.

Nativity, once in the main of light,

Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,

Crooked elipses 'gainst his glory fight,

And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.

There can be few examples of a poetic description of old age that transcend the powerful and moving sonnet number 73, that compares it to the coming of autumn:


That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

Even here, in these most intimate lines, we find echoes of the turbulent period in which Shakespeare lived. The “Bare ruined choirs” refer to the ruined convents and monasteries that were destroyed in the Protestant campaign of image smashing. This is a striking image of the impermanence of all things in nature and society, a theme that lies at the heart of the sonnets in particular.

I know of nothing that come equal to the devastating effect of the black nihilism of the lines spoken by Macbeth when he is informed of the death by suicide of his wife and he muses on the futility of human existence:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

(Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28)

In the ten years before he died Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and that work of absolute genius The Tempest – plays that have a more serious, even sombre tone than the comedies of the 1590s. Unlike the tragedies, however, these plays end with reconciliation and forgiveness. This is the voice of old age, when the storms of life are over and men and women can afford to look back at their lives not in anger but with a philosophical vision.

In 1616, his health declining and sensing that the end was near, Shakespeare changed his will. His only son had died in 1596, and so Shakespeare left the bulk of his estate to his two daughters, with a grant of money for his sister, partners, friends, and the poor people of Stratford. An odd detail is the fact that to his wife Anne he bequeathed the family's “second best bed.”

He died in Stratford-Upon-Avon one month later, supposedly on 23 April, 1616, the date of his 52nd birthday and also, by coincidence, St. George's day – the national saint of England. In reality, the exact date of Shakespeare’s death is not known. It was deduced from a record of his burial two days later, 25 April, 1616, at Holy Trinity Church. His grave featured a stone-carved bag of grain to represent his family’s traditional occupation.

No one knows the exact cause of his death since there are no contemporary accounts of it. He had made his will a month before he died, in which he says he is in “perfect health.” Fifty years later the vicar of Stratford-Upon-Avon claimed that Shakespeare died of a fever contracted after a “merry meeting” where he “drank too hard.”

A recent BBC programme was devoted to an investigation of Shakespeare’s grave. As expected, it revealed precisely nothing. Nor does his will enlighten us but rather adds to the mystery. Why for example did he leave his wife his “second best bed”? We will never know, but will gladly leave empty speculation on such matters to other people with time to waste.

Seven years after he died, a collection of Shakespeare’s writing was published. This was by far the most complete version of his work. It was compiled by his friends John Heminge and Henry Condell. It contained 36 plays, including 18 never before printed. It is here, not under the stone slabs of Holy Trinity Church that we will find the truth about Shakespeare. They represent Shakespeare’s true monument – and what a colossal monument it is!

Shakespeare’s genius

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus (Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene ii)

If one merely examines the plot and content of Hamlet or Macbeth, they would appear to be no different from the kind of blood-soaked dramas that preceded Shakespeare’s plays. But this entirely misses the point. What breathes such vibrant life into these plays is not the subject matter but the poetry of the language, which creates a kind of magic that is difficult or even impossible to explain.

It is astonishing to think that all of his plays are written in poetry, and this poetry achieved heights which were never subsequently attained by any other English poet. There is scarcely a line in these plays that does not contain in it a hidden gem. In Macbeth (Act one, scene ii) Ross has just come from the battlefield where Macbeth has defeated the Viking army. When asked where he has come from he replies:

Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky

And fan our people cold.

In these few words one feels a cold wind blowing and one can hear the flapping of the Viking flags blown by the wind, conveyed by the skilful use of alliteration. Little details such as this are the hallmark of a true poet.

Later in the same play, Lady Macbeth, now insane, recalls with horror the scene of the assassination of Duncan:

Out, damned spot! out, I say! — One: two: why,

then, 'tis time to do't. — Hell is murky! — Fie, my

lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we

fear who knows it, when none can call our power to

account? — Yet who would have thought the old man

to have had so much blood in him.

The ghastly nature of the murder is expressed in a few simple words:

Yet who would have thought the old man

to have had so much blood in him.

This mastery of words resembles the craft of a great painter who with a few skilful brushstrokes accurately conveys the essence of his subject. Here we see a striking contrast with the cold, calculating and un-feeling murderess who tried to assure her husband that “a little water clears us of this deed.” Now driven to the point of madness by her nightmares, she cries out in despair:

Here's the smell of the blood still. All the

perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this

little hand.

(Macbeth, Act 5 scene i)

In Henry IV part one Shakespeare describes an imaginary conversation between the Welshman Owen Glendower and the rebel Englishman Hotspur. There is a complete contrast between the two: the Welshman is proud, political, mystical and superstitious – the Englishman (a Northerner) is brave, stubborn, prosaic, unimaginative and utterly unimpressed by Glendower’s flights of fancy:



I can call spirits from the vasty deep.



Why, so can I, or so can any man;

But will they come when you do call for them?

(Henry IV part one, Act 3, Scene 1)

The complete contrast between the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon character is conveyed with an acute eye for detail and a wry sense of humour.

A poet for all time

He was not of an age, but for all time.” (Ben Jonson on Shakespeare)

A contemporary writer, Greene, once famously dismissed Shakespeare as "a mere actor who thought he could write." Greene was not the only one who failed to appreciate Shakespeare’s genius. For a long time after his death he was underestimated. Marx wrote: “A singularity of English tragedy, so repulsive to French feelings that Voltaire used to call Shakespeare a drunken savage, is its peculiar mixture of the sublime and the base, the terrible and the ridiculous, the heroic and the burlesque.”

To us today these judgements appear simply ridiculous. Shakespeare’s genius is universally recognised and has left an indelible mark on the world. Nevertheless, the extreme paucity of information about his life has even led to speculation that his plays were not written by him at all, but by somebody else. Marlow, Bacon and other even less likely candidates have all had their advocates at one time or another.

The evidence put forward to justify such theories is extremely thin and can be safely disregarded. But the proponents of conspiracy theories are extremely persistent and prepared to resort to the most incredibly convoluted arguments to prove their point. Some of them have even attempted to show that there are secret messages hidden in the text of the plays that allegedly point to the identity of the “real” author.

Why on earth this mysterious “real” author should go to such extraordinary lengths to reveal his identity to the public instead of merely announcing it is hard to say. The ridiculous nature of these claims was exposed very effectively when it was pointed out that one of the Psalms in the Bible begins with the word “Shake” and ends with the word “spear”, thereby proving that Shakespeare was the real author of the Bible!

Four centuries have passed since the death of William Shakespeare, and since then no writer has surpassed him in the glory of his imagination, poetry and psychological profundity. His contemporary and rival, the playwright Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” And that is the truth.

Shakespeare’s influence on world literature is indisputable. But it goes far beyond the literary sphere. The Guinness Book of Records lists more than 400 film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works, making him the most filmed author of all times. He has had a major influence on a wide range of artistic forms from painting to sculpture to film.

Among these are such outstanding versions as Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III; Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and an impressive Russian version of Hamlet using the masterly translation of Boris Pasternak, with the great Soviet actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Prince Hamlet. Leonard Bernstein also recast Romeo and Juliet in a strikingly modern context in his musical West Side Story.

The words of the Bard of Avon frequently make an appearance in the speeches and writings of politicians. Lenin referred to the bourgeois democratic politicians of the Provisional Government as “Those poltroons, gas-bags, vainglorious Narcissuses and petty Hamlets [brandishing] their wooden swords.” And the widespread strike movement that occurred during the winter of 1978-79 in Britain was baptised “The Winter of Discontent”, quoting (or rather misquoting) the famous opening words of Richard III.

Shakespeare was one of Marx’s favourite authors, alongside Homer, Dante and the author of Don Quixote, Cervantes. Marx’s daughter Eleanor recalled: “As to Shakespeare he was the Bible of our house, seldom out of our hands or mouths. By the time I was six I knew scene upon scene of Shakespeare by heart.” Marx’s great admiration for Shakespeare is hardly surprising.

In my opinion, William Shakespeare was probably the greatest writer that ever lived. To my mind, the only writer who comes close to his poetical genius was Dante Alighieri, whose Divina Commedia was composed in the Late Middle Ages. In this judgement of course there is a large subjective element. Other great writers may have an equally strong claim to the title of greatness. However, it would be difficult to find another writer in world literature that had such an impact on the world of art, literature and music as Shakespeare.

Is it possible that such heights will be reached in future? Or must we conclude that he was a unique phenomenon, never to be repeated? Of course, there can never be another Shakespeare, just as there can never be another Aristotle or Rembrandt. Each made his own unique contribution to human culture in accordance with the period in which they lived. And since those specific conditions will never be repeated, the kind of artistic and philosophical products that emerged from them also cannot be repeated exactly in the same way.

In the course of human history, over a period of thousands of years, there have been very few geniuses like Shakespeare, Beethoven, Hegel, Marx or Einstein. But it is impossible not to conclude that the potential for genius has existed in the minds of millions of others who were compelled to a life of drudgery, forever cut off from the world of culture, art and science. Trotsky once asked the question: “how many Aristotles are herding swine? And how many swineherds are sitting on thrones?”

Shakespeare was the product of a revolutionary age, an age of transition that opened up new vistas for the human race, broadened its horizons and raised its imagination to new heights. But revolutions will also inevitably take place in the future. And the greatest revolution of all will consist in the emancipation of the human race from capitalist slavery, oppression and exploitation. Under socialism for the first time every man and woman will be free to develop whatever potential talent they have within themselves.

Socialism will open the door to art, science and government, which has been the monopoly of the privileged few for thousands of years. The reduction of the working day to a minimal expression will permit men and women to dedicate time to their own self-development. Of course, not everybody has it within them to become a Shakespeare or an Einstein. But we can be sure that from among the billions of people who have been denied access to culture and civilisation will arise new geniuses in many fields.

We will see the emergence of new Shakespeares, Beethovens and Rembrandts and an explosion of culture, art and music such as has never been seen in previous history. They will speak with a new voice reflecting the new conditions and that voice will resonate in the hearts and minds of men and women, just as Shakespeare did four centuries ago. The Shakespeares of the future have yet to be born. But we have every reason to hope and to believe that the writers and artists of the future will scale new heights that will put all the wonderful achievements of the past in the shade.

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