Thursday, February 18, 2021

Elizabeth Frazer's "Shakespeare and the Political Way"

Elizabeth Frazer teaches political thought and political theory at the University of Oxford. Her publications include Can Violence Ever Be Justified? (with Kimberly Hutchings, 2019), and she is the author of articles about ideals of politics in political thought and education.

Frazer applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Shakespeare and the Political Way, and reported the following:
Page 99 sets out the story of Friar Laurence, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet which, as I tell it here, figures Laurence as a magus figure who meditates on the occult qualities of things, relationships, and actions, and also, critically for the book, as a ‘Machiavellian’ political operator who seizes the opportune moment – kairos - and takes the chance. In Machiavelli’s political philosophy, chronos – the flow of events, causes and effects – is important too, of course, but acting with or even against kairos sets political action apart from administration, for instance, or legal judgement. Laurence goes in for ingenious plans, and has to use his persuasive powers to recruit others to his scheme.

I am a bit disappointed with Page 99, partly because of the look of the layout – lots of cites to Shakespeare’s text in brackets. How about Page 171: ‘The idea that politics and magic are deeply intertwined with one another is both preposterous and commonsensical.’? Or Page 35: ‘In Othello we hear two distinct streams of free speech, with different political implications.’

Critics have argued about ‘Shakespeare and politics’ for ages – mainly asking whether the plays endorse a broadly ‘right wing’ view of the importance of stable sovereignty and established social order, or whether they endorse a more ‘left wing’ view with their representations of popular claims for justice and women’s subversion of patriarchy. There is also a good deal of amazing scholarship which shows how the cover of the dramatic stage permits allusions to current events and, especially, evaluations of the character and conduct of monarch and governmental officers that could not be voiced openly. But all this work tends to overlook another aspect of Shakespeare and politics: the plays’ extraordinarily acute and subtle understanding of both the elusiveness and the contested nature of ‘political power’. Plots often pit against one another rival constructions of ‘politics’: as divinely ordained sovereignty, as patriarchal authority (not the same thing), as free speech, or as tumultuous action, as the rightful prize for honourable military violence, as nothing more than economic – financial or commercial – clout, as violent domination disguised as magic capability .... And so on. That’s what the book is about – and I hope it might make a contribution to our twenty first understandings and evaluations of ‘politics’, as well as casting new light on the matter of Shakespeare and politics.
Learn more about Shakespeare and the Political Way at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue