14 Necessary Political Lessons From The Works Of William Shakespeare
Shakespeare is a sneaky guy. You might think that his plays are old fashioned, stuffy relics popular with high school English teachers and your one cousin who does theatre. But any Shakespeare nerd (myself included) will tell you that half of the books/plays/movies you know and love borrow heavily from Shakespeare. Most of us quote Shakespeare every day without even realizing it. He coined over 1700 words in the English language, including "luggage," "bet," and "eyeball." Most importantly, his plays are surprisingly (and sometimes upsettingly) still relevant to our daily lives. Here are a few things that Shakespeare can teach us about modern day politics.
After all, a large portion of Shakespeare's work deals with kings, queens, war, and other matters of state. Sure, he's usually writing about kings and queens falling in love or stabbing each other, but still. He tackles justice, prejudice, antisemitism, gender as a construct, and whether or not a nation should go to war over tennis balls.
There's a reason that we can all quote Shakespeare's Hamlet, but not necessarily Kit Marlowe's Edward the Second. Shakespeare's plays have lasted because they transcend time period, dealing with real human emotions and real human bureaucracy across the centuries. So here are a few political lessons that'll make you want to brush up your Shakespeare:
1. Unlearn your internalized prejudice
A lot of people shrug off Romeo & Juliet as a play about lustful teens making dumb decisions. These people have missed the point entirely: two teens die because their families hate each other. In another world they might have lived long enough to realize that you shouldn't get married at fourteen. And why do their families hate each other? Who knows, we're only told that it's an "ancient grudge." These people hate because they grew up hating—their prejudice is internalized, a part of their identity. It's only the red hot angst of teenage love that breaks through the years of pointless, ingrained hate. So please unlearn your own bigotry before it kills your horny teenage children.
2. Power corrupts
Alternatively, "don't take career advice from witches." At the start of Macbeth, the titular Mackers is a pretty OK guy with a very intense wife. It's only once he starts lusting after power for power's sake that he begins a steep descent into madness. Seek government positions because you want to serve and solve problems, not because you want power. Power always corrupts. And don't let your partner bully you into murdering anyone, even if the witches say it's OK.
3. To the privileged, equality feels like oppression
So in Shakespeare's Othello, Iago hates Othello. I mean, he really, really hates Othello. For... no specific reason? He thinks Othello might be sleeping with his wife, but he has no evidence of that. He's just threatened by the mere idea of Othello's sexuality. Essentially, Iago is furious that Othello is a Black man who's much more successful than he is. Rather than deal with his own white mediocrity, Iago gaslights Othello, lies to him, and plays on everyone's racial prejudice against him, until he's driven Othello out of his mind. The tragedy of Othello is all because whiny brat Iago can't deal with Othello actually outranking him based on merit: to Iago, the loss of his privilege feels like oppression.
4. Don't suck up to the unstable king
And if you're an elderly king (or president) who's barely holding it together, don't just assume that your daughters should run the country instead. In King Lear, a tired old king divides his kingdom between his three kids. The first two, Regan and Goneril, flatter him and lie through their teeth to get the best chunks of kingdom. The third, Cordelia, keeps it real and refuses to lie about how great and amazing her father is. Lear banishes her to France for her honesty, and spends the rest of the play hardcore regretting his decisions as his eldest daughters prove to be even worse monarchs than he was. (So... let's ditch Ivanka and un-banish Tiffany?)
5. Gender is a social construct
In Shakespeare's day, all the roles would have been played by men, so there was already a fair bit of gender fluidity, even in the plays without huge cross-dressing plots. But in plays like Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Cymbeline, and Two Gentlemen of Verona, the smart female lead must dress as a man in order to be taken seriously. And then there's usually a messy love triangle, where a lady falls for a secret lady, who loves a dude, and the dude loves the lady dressed as a dude without realizing she's a lady. Basically... society undervalues people who look like women, and gender has nothing to do with falling in love.
6. Even the good guys can be bigots
Romeo & Juliet has a pretty basic anti-prejudice lesson: the stuffy old people are backwards and hateful, and the sexy teens are (mostly) not. But The Merchant of Venice is a bit more complicated: pretty much everyone is terrible. Our heroes are antisemitic and betray their girlfriends. Our leading lady is a brilliant lawyer, but pretty racist. Shylock is not the nicest guy, but he doesn't deserve to be violently hated because of his religion. He's the villain of the piece, but he's also taking revenge for a lifetime of being dehumanized by Christians. Even the most well-intentioned people can take part in an oppressive system.
7. A ruler’s power comes from the people
What's that? Coriolanus isn't your favorite Shakespeare play? It may not be Shakespeare's best-loved piece of writing, but it is his most overtly political. Coriolanus has been banned by communist and fascist regimes alike for its portrayal of a people at odds with their government. You can read the play as a call for strong grassroots organizing or as cautionary tale against letting the uneducated masses elect a leader who doesn't have their best interests at heart. Either way the message is clear: a leader's power comes from the people. And the people are capable of organizing to overthrow a corrupt government.
8. Listen to women
Look, you can take a lot of political lessons from the play Julius Caesar, like how the power of pure rhetoric can sway the voting public. But mostly you just want to shake every male characters by the shoulders and scream, "LISTEN TO THE WOMEN." The women in the play have a sense that things are not going all that well, and urge the men to do things like talk about their feelings, or to not go outside on March 15th. Julius and Brutus ignore their wives, however, because listening to women is not very macho, and decide to solve Rome's political strife with a good old fashioned stabbing instead.
9. Political infighting is destroying the environment
A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the sillier Shakespeare plays. Fairies! Lovers! Donkey heads! And, while the play has a fairly relaxed attitude towards the idea of drugging your crush (please don't drug your crush), there are a few real lessons about how not to rule a kingdom. Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, are in the middle of a bitter custody battle, and as a result of their petty infighting, the environment is falling apart. It's snowing in the summer, flowers bloom in winter, the whole forest is on the edge of collapse—because the actions of the ruling class directly impact the world's environment. It's only the meddling of low level fairies like Puck that starts to undo the damage.
10. Check your news sources
Much Ado About Nothing is another light comedy. It's your classic rom-com starring two witty jerks who hate/love each other, until the character Claudio goes ballistic and ruins his own wedding. He's been told that his fiancee, Hero, is cheating on him... but his source is not very reliable. She's not actually cheating (hence the "much ado" about "nothing"). So please, check your new sources and learn the truth before you go wrecking your own wedding over "fake news."
11. You can’t just take over someone else’s island
...even if you think you can run it better. Prospero from The Tempest is a smart, magical guy, so he assumes that he can run a magical island better than Ariel or Caliban or any of the other inhabitants. But in the end, Prospero leaves, giving up his magical arts. He frees Ariel from servitude and bequeaths the island to Caliban, which is a little rude considering it was Caliban's island to start with. So, you know... maybe respect indigenous peoples and don't steal anyone's island?
12. Take responsibility for your actions
Fulfilling your political responsibility can be as grand as deposing a monarch, or as personal as deciding to call your friend Falstaff out on his sexist jokes. The three plays Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V are a coming of age story for Prince Hal. He starts out as a drunk frat boy who loves to hang with Falstaff and co., picking up chicks and pulling pranks on Vine (or the equivalent in the year 1400). By the time he takes the throne as King Henry V, however, he has to step up and take responsibility. Does he still go to war with France over tennis balls? Sure he does, but he takes his decision seriously, he disavows his fun drunk friends, and he actually starts thinking about how his actions will affect his countrymen.
13. Resist unqualified leaders
Richard III is the story of how an insecure, unqualified narcissist rose to power. But Richard does not seize power through murder like Macbeth, or inherit power despite being a drunk lout like Prince Hal—he becomes king because people don't take him seriously. The people around him let him win, because they refuse to believe that he's really as bad as all that, or because they don't believe that he could really win, or because they get a kick out of a hateful, ridiculous man taking office. Don't just stay silent while fools take over. Resist.
14. Inaction will destroy you
Hamlet is your textbook over-thinker. He spends approximately 99% of his own play waffling around, feeling sorry for himself, being weird to his girlfriend, faking a mental illness, and staging an experimental play. He's your typical thirty-something college student who cares about politics, but he doesn't really want to take any action. Most of us don't have a spooky ghost dad to nag us, but we can all relate to Hamlet's indecision. Unfortunately for Hamlet, his indecision is part of what winds up killing him and everyone he cares about. So don't let inaction destroy you, especially when the fate of your country hangs in the balance.