William Shakespeare, Dramatist–Not Statesman, Not Philosopher



William Braithwaite, Tutor, St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD

My present duty is to speak the lecture written by George Anastaplo. He and I have agreed, in a long conversation yesterday afternoon, that it would not be unfit that I also make, in my own name, a few prefatory remarks, as well as, after his lecture, some comments and observations, on several of the questions his lecture touches upon.

There will be another occasion for me to tell the history of my friendship with George Anastaplo, and of how I came to be here today. It is sufficient for the present that I say he began teaching in the Basic Program in 1959, two years after I was graduated from a Southern Baptist military prep school in Virginia, that I first met him as a student in the Basic Program in September 1971, and that most of the blessings of my life since then are traceable to his influence as a teacher.

When we try to figure out how events come to happen, we sooner or later find ourselves asking about Chance, Intelligence and Providence. Do some things just happen causelessly, like the swerve of Lucretius’ atoms, as he describes in De Rerum Natura? Or is there some First Intelligence at work, as Aristotle concludes in the Metaphysics? And if there is a First Intelligence at work in the ordering of all the operations of the cosmos—in the motions of sun, moon, planets and stars, plants and animals, and in the political motions of cities and human beings, is that Intelligence benevolently disposed toward us in particular, as the Bible proposes?

Of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays, ten deal with some of the great motions in English history. Together these ten plays touch on events occurring during the reigns of the several royal families that ruled England up to the beginning of Shakespeare’s own lifetime; these are the Houses of Plantagenet, Lancaster and York, and the Tudors. King John, the subject of the chronologically first of the history plays, reigned 1199-1216. Henry VIII, the subject of the last, ruled 1509-1547. Shakespeare was born in 1564.

The eight plays dealing with events between 1199 and 1547 fall into two tetralogies. The first group of four deals with the last Plantagenet, Richard II, and the first two Lancasters, Henry IV and his son Henry V. The second group of four includes a trilogy, three plays dealing with the reign of Henry VI; the title character of the fourth and last play in this group is Richard III, whose death at Bosworth Field opens the way to end the contest, called the War of the Roses, between the Houses of Lancaster and York over the right of royal succession.

Mr. Anastaplo asks me to say that this lecture is dedicated to Laurence Nee, my late faculty colleague at the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College, who for three years near the end of his life attended Mr. Anastaplo’s Basic Program Alumni classes. Of Mr. Nee’s participation in those classes, Mr. Anastaplo remarked to me that it “showed how much it helps to have a second Seminar leader, who always comes with questions and observations of his own.” [The text of Mr. Nee’s June 20, 2013 letter to Mr. Anastaplo is an Appendix to these remarks].

The announced title of the lecture was “William Shakespeare and the Idea of the Natural.” The revised title, in the hand-written manuscript that I will read from, is “William Shakespeare, Dramatist—Not Statesman, Not Philosopher.”

[End of Preface]



George Anastaplo


            On Christmas Eve, three weeks ago, our family did what we had done many times before: we listened on WFMT Radio (here in Chicago) to the Christmas Eve concert from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. This 2013 concert was made particularly memorable for me when I learned (from the announcer’s introduction) that this Cambridge Choir had been founded in 1441 by King Henry VI.

I had, in the weeks immediately preceding this broadcast, been very much involved in a University of Chicago adult education seminar discussing William Shakespeare’s History Plays. The Henry VI trilogy (which we had just been reading) includes his accounts of the awful things that the King and even more his nobles did to each other, month after month, year after year.

All this had finally led to the end of the dreadful War of the Roses, with multitudes of nobility and their accomplices having indulged themselves in atrocities that eventually (perhaps even naturally) culminated in their moral depravity to the bloody career of King Richard III.

We can be reminded, by the exquisite music and ancient lineage of the King’s College Choir, of what a celebration of continuity has long meant for the English people and can mean for those elsewhere privileged to share such a heritage for centuries. Beautiful things can be an inheritance which can be cherished across a millennium without an informed awareness of the appalling ugliness that had been part of the lineage of related noteworthy developments. Such ugliness can be somehow suppressed in communal recollections across centuries.

Can such a people, it may even be wondered, truly know itself? It may also be wondered, of course, whether an awareness of the awful things resorted to and somehow endured provides an instructive edge to any effort at collective self-recognition.

It can be instructive, in assessing Shakespeare as a dramatist, to recall the dates of the reign of Queen Elizabeth  (1558–1603). Shakespeare’s own dates, it should be remembered, were 1564–1616, which means that she was on the throne for all but a decade or so at the end of his career.



             Awful things do happen routinely in the Henry VI trilogy, including the atrocities that those with power repeatedly inflict upon those who trust them. These extend, we have noticed, even to what can be done to one’s own relatives and to one’s most intimate associates. (Such barbarities are also routine, of course, in the other History Plays of Shakespeare.)

To what extent are these troubling Henry VI monstrosities somehow prepared for, perversely enough, by the exuberant Henry V celebration, which includes the noble speech by the young Henry V on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt? Henry V, it will be remembered, was the father of Henry VI. It is in France that the severely-challenged king can speak of his fellow warriors on that fateful occasion, no matter what their current station in civilian life, as his brothers ever after.

Are there implicit, in Henry V, if not also in earlier plays, anticipations of the rigor to which one’s associates may be subjected in challenging circumstances? The antics of Prince Hal, Falstaff, and others may conceal relationships that can turn disturbingly severe if not even ugly as circumstances change.



             However much faithful servants can be recognized from time to time, underlings do tend to remain permanently subordinated in Shakespeare’s plays. This may be seen, for example, in the Jack Cade populist uprisings in Part Two of Henry VI (to which I will return on this occasion). The grievances of ordinary citizens who had been long exploited by the nobility and the landowners are recalled and bitterly resented. There seems little recognition by Shakespeare of the massive peasants’ revolts which had rocked Germany (with tens of thousands of peasants slaughtered by Martin Luther and others), disturbances to which England had been subjected to a lesser degree.

Shakespeare’s apparent callousness in such matters may be seen as well, of course, in what (for example) he does with the Jews, especially with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. So dominant is that determined libel in the play that it can be easily overlooked how offensive are the disparaging stereotypes with which Portia rejects one foreign suitor after another.



             All this can remind us of the darker side of Shakespeare’s thought, if not also of various other dubious features of Elizabethan society. On the other hand—and in dealing with someone of Shakespeare’s majestic genius, there is usually likely to be something to be said “on the other hand”—there are treasures to be found and cherished. This I was privileged to develop in one of the essays in my 1989 Commentary, The Constitution of 1787 (Johns Hopkins University Press), a discussion I entitled “Anglo-American Constitutionalism.”

That Bicentennial essay includes these observations (at pp. 76–78 [emphasis added]):

We see in the History Plays one great account of English constitutional history, a history during which constitutional government of sorts is taken for granted by the kings, nobles, and commoners portrayed there. These plays draw upon episodes that extend from 1199 to 1533. This span of three and one-third centuries begins with King John (which may have muted references to Magna Carta) and ends with Henry VIII (which concludes with the birth of the great Elizabeth). “When Elizabeth came to the throne,” we are told [by our David Bevington], “England was already in some ways a ‘limited’ monarchy. Parliament, and especially the members of the House of Commons, claimed prerogatives of their own and were steadily gaining in both experience and power. … [Elizabeth] never claimed or exercised the right to establish law; that was Parliament’s prerogative.” … Among the lessons taught by Shakespeare in these and other plays is the importance of the political. When the political life of a country is unhealthy, we are taught, the private as well as the public life of the community can be contaminated.

             Questions have been raised by professional historians about the soundness of Shakespeare’s accounts of English populist movements, including with respect to the Jack Cade uprising glanced at in Part Two of King Henry VI. One curious way of deprecating that uprising was to have Cade present himself with aristocratic pretensions (as a Mortimer). In this and other ways the rebels can be dismissed by having them mimic the nobility they rebel against. (We can even wonder, in passing, whether there are indications in this History play that Jack Cade and the future Richard III had collaborated in bloody deeds in Ireland.)



            Central to my inquiry on this occasion—and it is an inquiry more than it is a thesis—central to my inquiry here is an attempt to determine how much Shakespeare grasped (and in what ways) that Parliamentary superiority which was being significantly advanced in his day.

After all, three decades after Shakespeare’s death (in 1616), an English king was indicted, tried and executed by an English Parliament (led at that time by Oliver Cromwell). Subsequent developments have seen Parliaments place one restriction after another on English monarchs. How much of all this did not only Shakespeare but even more the wily Elizabeth not anticipate?

Indeed, the developments we have been noticing on this occasion could usefully be depicted as a deeply-rooted (if not even natural) movement from Jack Cade to Oliver Cromwell.



             Shakespeare’s political/constitutional sense, I presume to suggest, was not of the highest order. If it had been, it can be wondered, would he have been the first-rate dramatist that he obviously was?

We can be reminded here of the Socratic insistence that there is a fundamental tension, if not even a deep-seated conflict, between the artist and the philosopher.

Was not Shakespeare able to use, at the highest artistic level (and especially in his tragedies) what he learned in the History Plays (and elsewhere, of course) about human nature, character, divine guidance, ambition and fate?



             The limitations of Shakespeare (as, indeed, of any great artist) as a philosopher can be evident upon the study of his vocabulary (including the uses made, and not made, of terms such as philosophy and nature). See, for example, Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens where a quite limited (if not even primitive) understanding of philosophy is on display). My Timon essay may be found, with several other discussions by me of Shakespeare’s work, at this website (anastaplo.wordpress.com).



             We have noticed on this occasion the substantial empowerment (over centuries) of the English Parliament. It can be instructive to speculate why Shakespeare was not (or at least did not want to appear) fully aware of this constitutional development.

But then, the English do like to offer arrangements that are not always what they may seem. Thus, the English monarch has available “in principle” an absolute veto of all legislation developed in Parliament. But, of course, it has been centuries since any English monarch has ventured to exercise such a legislative veto.



             A reminder of that routine “indirection” to which the English have recourse is the continued usefulness among them of the House of Lords. Thus, that venerable House can still be counted on to refine significantly legislation over which the House of Commons is understood to have ultimate control.

One happy consequence of the dubious 2003 Allied military intervention in Iraq is that it did oblige the British Government of that day to postpone indefinitely the thorough dismantling of the House of Lords that it had imprudently initiated.

This talk was presented on January 12, 2014 as The Works of the Mind Lecture, The University of Chicago, The Cultural Center, Chicago, Illinois.  It was delivered (and thereafter usefully discussed) by William T. Braithwaite (of St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland).



     [Responses by Mr. Braithwaite were not recorded]

There was a degree of political suppression when Shakespeare was writing. His plays may have been censored. He was a deep thinker who put as much into his art as he thought was good for his audience. Do you have any comment?

Was Shakespeare limited more by his audience, or by what censors would pass? Could he have been more political if the audience had been informed enough to understand? How much could he teach?

Has our present-day media dummied things down? Do playwrights, producers, and screen-writers feel that we just won’t get it?

Do you have comments or thoughts on Shaw’s comments about Shakespeare? He was very negative. Some people said it was self-promotion, as in [Shakespeare is] “clowns posing as statesmen.”




June 30, 2013

Dear Professor Anastaplo,

Thank you for the past twenty years—from the conference on evangelization in the new world to Burke and Xenophon—during which you helped me to learn to question. I recall the polemical nature of that conference, my first encounter with you at UD [the University of Dallas], which found Fritz Wilhemsen shouting down the audience at the end. With the possible exception of Professor Schall, only you posed questions or at least the one question that stuck with me: “Would the Indians of the Americas have been better off receiving Homer first, if only as a preparation for the Gospels?”

Years of encountering what Dr. [Leo Paul] de Alvarez has called “the unexpected question” have followed in your books, lectures, and classes. Their effect has not been to point me to a series of answers but, rather, I hope, has been to foster in me the habits of questioning and, hence, moderation.

It has been a joy to learn with and from you. Life is much richer for me because of the ways in which you have showed me how much lies beneath what we erroneously believe we know. Thinking is so much more vital when we set aside those stifling categories that provide easy comforting, apparent answers.

I extend a special thanks for generously allowing me to participate in your classes [in the University of Chicago Basic Program] these past three years. You helped to keep my studies alive, and hence, to keep me human. It was good for me as well to continue speaking with other bright, serious students and to continue to learn from your example.

May you be able to continue your remarkable work for many years to come. Even after you are gone, though, it will continue to benefit others as it has me.

With gratitude and best regards,

Laurence Nee

January 12, 2014

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1 Response to William Shakespeare, Dramatist–Not Statesman, Not Philosopher

  1. Like most of the students of Leo Strauss, George Anastaplo generally regarded the “ancients” as superior to the “moderns.” And yet here, and in some of his other writings, he recognizes the barbarism, cruelty, and callousness of illiberal premodern culture, as expressed here in Shakespeare. Doesn’t this suggest that liberal modernity is superior to illiberal antiquity? Isn’t that implied in Anastaplo’s enthusiasm for the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, and modern liberal constitutionalism?

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