Book Review: Interpreting Shakespeare

New books on the life, works and ideas of Shakespeare are continually added to the enormous literature on the subject. Recent additions have included Ivor Brown’sShakespeare,” Duff-Cooper’s “Sergeant Shakespeare” (in which it is suggested that be must have served in the army to have gained his familiarity with military matters), and a reprint of Hesketh Pearson’s lively and entertaining “Shakespeare” that Ivor Brown catalogues under the heading “Imaginative.” Pearson seeks to interpret Shakespeare’s writings in the light of political and other happenings at the time, and of Shakespeare’s likely reactions to them. Writing during the recent war when, as Pearson puts it, the world had before its eyes in the persons of Hitler, Mussolini, etc., a large number of modem Julius Caesars. Pearson claims that Shakespeare, with a similar example to study at first hand in Queen Elizabeth, had a much better understanding of Caesar and of all dictators than is shown by G. B. Shaw in his idealised version of the ancient Roman dictator.
But for Socialists a much more profitable study is “Shakespeare—A Marxist Interpretation,” a short work by A. A. Smirnov, translated from the Russian and published in 1937 by the “Critics Group” (96, Fifth Avenue. New York).
Smirnov set out to relate Shakespeare’s views to the basic economic and political changes and class struggles taking place in the 16th century.
He argues alike against those who see Shakespeare as “the ideologist of the feudal aristocracy” as against those who see him as “the ideologist of that section of the nobility which was acquiring bourgeois trappings.” To Smirnov, “Shakespeare was the humanist ideologist of the bourgeoisie, the exponent of the program advanced by them, when, in the name of humanity. they first challenged the feudal order, but which they later disavowed ” (Pages 92 and 93). According to this interpretation, which Smirnov supports with many quotations from the plays, Shakespeare in the early years portrayed in a favourable light the absolutist monarchy needed by rising Capitalism as a protection against the warring feudal barons. Later, that need became less urgent, the Monarchy and Court degenerated and leaned towards feudal reaction, and at the same time the narrow Puritan group emerged as a representation of capitalist interests and outlook.
Then Shakespeare, who was particularly antagonised by the Puritan hostility to the theatre, found himself, like other “humanists,” faced with the dilemma of the contrast between early bourgeois ideals and the sordid money-grubbing of the bourgeois way of life. To some extent he then “surrendered his former position and yielded to the taste of the reactionary aristocracy which held such triumphant sway over the London stage in 1610.” (P. 85.)
The evidence adduced by Smirnov is necessarily partly speculative and may or may not convince the reader; but those who follow his argument will at any rate appreciate that here is a serious study worth many of the more usual superficial interpretations.
It is not made clear whether Smirnov is, or was. a supporter of the Stalin regime in Russia and he wrote very guardedly when expressing dissent from views on Shakespeare held by some Soviet writers. But one of his tributes to Shakespeare would certainly now give offence to Stalin worshippers. He praises Shakespeare for having had the insight to realise “three centuries before the appearance of scientific history,” that the battle of Agincourt was not won by “a little group of well-born heroes, but by the English soldiers.” If Shakespeare lived in Russia now and wrote plays dealing with the war he would have to reshape his ideas and become a groveller. He would have to pay slavish tribute to “the great leader and supreme commander of genius. Generalissimo of the Soviet Union. Stalin.” “the greatest man of our planet.” “creator of Soviet military science.” etc., etc.
Edgar Hardcastle

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