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Shakespeare Helps Us Understand Rome's Descent into Empire

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Shakespeare’s Rome: Republic and Empire
by Paul Cantor
1976; University of Chicago Press, 2017, 228 pp.

Paul Cantor will probably be best known to readers of the Mises page for his pioneering use of Austrian economics in literary criticism, and many will also be aware of his brilliant studies of popular culture. (For the former topic, see my review.) He is also one of the world’s leading Shakespeare critics, and his principal theme in this area is Shakespeare as a political thinker, a theme that proves as illuminating as it might at first appear surprising. Several years ago, he published Shakespeare’s Roman Trilogy, an account of Shakespeare’s views of the Roman Republic and Empire as developed in the plays Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra. The book includes as well an analysis of Shakespeare’s portrayal of the rise of Christianity and an arresting comparison of Shakespeare with Nietzsche on the decline of the ancient world. I hope soon to address that book, but for now I wish to discuss Cantor’s first book on Shakespeare, written forty years before his later study and reissued together with it, which lays the groundwork for the new volume. (Although he does not discuss the rise of Christianity in Shakespeare’s Rome, the book gives evidence that the topic already interested him [see pp.220–21n18].)

Cantor argues that in Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, the plays discussed in Shakespeare’s Rome, Shakespeare presents a profound account of the transition from Republic to Empire. To some the notion of Shakespeare as a political thinker may appear bizarre: “Ever since Ben Jonson, it has been fashionable to question Shakespeare's knowledge of Rome, and even to maintain that his Romans are merely Elizabethan Englishmen in disguise” (p. 7; Cantor notes that Goethe held this view [p. 209n1]). This opinion, though, imports historicist preconceptions into the reading of Shakespeare, rather than attempt to understand him as he understood himself. In this connection, the author says, “If we assume a priori that Shakespeare was incapable of understanding Rome, we will never read his Roman plays carefully enough to determine whether he had any insights into Rome. It is all too easy not to find something when one is convinced from the start that nothing is there” (p. 8). In his revolt against historicism, it is evident that Cantor is a close student of Leo Strauss.

It transpires that Shakespeare knows more about Rome than many of the historicist critics. Some of them, for example, wonder whether the Roman Republic was an aristocracy, because of the Senate, or a democracy, because of the tribunate. In fact, it was neither but was a “mixed regime,” a concept Aristotle originated. “Political theorists have always considered the Roman Republic an example of a fourth form of government, the so-called mixed constitution or mixed regime, which involves precisely the blend of aristocracy and democracy that Shakespeare portrays in Coriolanus “ (p. 9; see also, pp. 209–10n7).

It was not only the notion of the mixed regime that Shakespeare took over from classical antiquity. The key to Cantor’s analysis of the plays is another part of classical political philosophy, the view that political regimes both promote and depend on certain human temperaments. The Republic was founded on martial valor.

Thus Roman austerity and martial virtue must be understood in the context of Rome…. It is difficult to find one English word to cover this complex of austerity, pride, and public service that constitutes Romanness in Shakespeare, in a way that the one word eros describes the force that manifests itself in such diverse forms as hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and “immortal longings.” Perhaps the best word to describe the side of human nature developed in a character like Coriolanus is spiritedness, a term which has the advantage over alternatives like heart or courage of immediately calling to mind public spiritedness. (pp. 36–37, emphasis in original)

Cantor stresses that in this sort of regime, there is no separation of church and state, much less a private sphere of “religion”; following Fustel de Coulanges, and again Strauss, he holds that the gods are part of the city’s civic institutions. “The horizon of Rome and the horizon of heaven are coextensive, or, to put it differently, in Shakespeare’s Rome even the gods are in some sense included within the precincts of the city. Clearly this aspiration to totality on the part of the Roman community goes beyond the claims of the modern state as we conceive it” (p.57). Cantor brilliantly suggests that the resort to private divine visions in the Empire constitutes, from the point of view of the older conception, a decline in religion.

In the Republic, the patrician Senate was the primary expression of spiritedness, while the plebeians were more moved by eros; but one should not think that the latter class was entirely bereft of men of spirit. To the contrary, the plebeians of highest ability and spirit were co-opted into the institutions of the Republican regime though the office of the tribunate. Though on the surface, the tribunes could veto any measure of the Senate, in fact the Senate remained in control. This settlement between the two classes depended for its success on concealment, and the senators and holders of high office, such as the consuls, had to “play up” to the plebeians. Coriolanus is a general of unsurpassed military achievement and valor whom the Senate wishes to advance to consulship, but his refusal in his campaigning for office to conceal his contempt for the plebeians leads the Senate to repudiate him. His military achievements go for naught, because he has pierced the veil upon which the institutions of the Republic depend. Cantor makes this suggestive observation. “According to both Livy and Machiavelli, the Roman Senate’s policy was to make one man bear the brunt of popular anger and then sacrifice him to appease the plebeians” (p. 219n28). This comment is especially telling if considered in the light of the work of René Girard, who has influenced Cantor’s work subsequent to Shakespeare’s Rome.

Matters were quite different under the Empire, analyzed in Antony and Cleopatra. “To understand why Antony apparently prefers a life of love rather than politics, one must consider how the terms of his choice have changed since the time of the Republic. In the Empire, the rewards of public life begin to look hollow, whereas private life seems to offer new sources of satisfaction. The change from the era of the Republic might be conveniently summed up in the formula: the Imperial regime works to discourage spiritedness and encourage eros, or, more accurately expressed, by removing the premium the Republic places on spiritedness, the Empire sets eros free with a new power” (p.128). Neither Antony nor Cleopatra entirely sacrificed the older conception for the newer, and Cantor sets forward the intricately complex dialectic between the two, contrasting it with the complete absorption into each other of Tristan and Isolde as depicted in Wagner’s libretto (p. 177).

In Shakespeare’s Rome, Cantor helps us to understand why Shakespeare was not only a great writer but a great political thinker as well, and that is no mean achievement.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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