Shakespeare, William

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Shakespeare, William

Shakespeare, William (1564-1616) English playwright

An actor and dramatist from Stratford-on-Avon, William Shakespeare came of age at the height of the Elizabethan era of voyaging and conquest and before the founding of the British Empire. He was around 23 when he left his wife, Anne Hathaway, and their three children and moved to London, where he acted and wrote for the Lord Chamberlain's company, later named the King's Men. While portraying statesmanship in drama, he employed engaging stagecraft, salting his stories with disgruntled ghosts, assassins, and royalty beset by court treachery, as exemplified in NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI'S The Prince (1514), a political manual that the playwright admired. Shakespeare chose settings on the far edge of English awareness, including Bermuda in The TEMPEST (ca. 1610-11), reputedly his literary farewell to the London stage. His rise to prominence coincided with the defeat of the Spanish Armada on August 8, 1588, the beginning of a multinational state and the outset of its mastery of the sea, leading to English colonialism. Literary historians note that, despite the playwright's obvious Englishness, he never overtly sided with the dominant culture.

Shakespeare’s admirers included sophisticated theatergoers and drama patron Queen Elizabeth I, whose father, Henry VIII, had rid England of Rome’s papal authority. At the queen’s death on March 24, 1603, Shakespeare won the regard of King James I, the Scottish king who ruled both England and Scotland. Before the playwright’s retirement in 1611, he produced chronicle plays about Celtic, English, and Scots history as well as comedies, tragedies, and romances that incorporated elements of SLAVERY, court and military intrigues, favor currying, and empire building. The perceptiveness of his canon won kudos in 1840 at a critical time in the British Empire, when the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle exclaimed in “The Hero as Poet”: “Indian Empire will go, at any rate, someday; but this Shakespeare does not go, he lasts forever with us” (Carlyle 1895, 134). The declaration attests to the continued popularity of Shakespeare throughout British colonies, language groups, and educational institutions.

Shakespeare and the Roman Empire

The conventions of imperialism imbue Shakespeare’s early writings with the events and strife of the Roman Empire. His first revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus (ca. 1588-1594), describes a royal struggle in Rome after the death of an emperor in the final years of Roman power. The title figure, a Roman captain-general, returns in triumph from a decade in the field battling the Goths of East Germany, the fourth-century invaders of Rome. After Andronicus’s election to emperor, he rejects the notion of being candidatus, the Latin term for the politician clad in a symbolic white toga, and spurns a request that he “help to set a head on headless Rome,” an allusion to the recycling of sculpted imperial torsos with new heads (1.1.185-186). The protagonist mourns the death of Bassianus, Emperor Saturninus’s brother, whom a Moorish agent and the two sons of the Gothic Queen Tamora, Chiron and Demetrius, kill in the forest. A forged letter implicates Andronicus’s sons Martius and Quintus, who suffer a wrongful execution. More shocking for playgoers is the despoliation of Andronicus’s daughter Lavinia, whom Tamora’s minions rape and disfigure by lopping off Lavinia’s hands. The internecine plot, Shakespeare’s most revolting, concludes after 14 brutal deaths, a sop to lovers of GOTHIC drama and a glimpse of the carnage of war and blood that shore up empires. The vicious tragedy took on new life as Titus (1999), a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange as the Roman general and Goth queen.

Early in 1599, Shakespeare apparently perused Sir Thomas North’s translation of PLUTARCH’S 46 tandem life studies in Bioi paralleloi (Parallel Lives, ca. A.D. 110) for details of the March 15, 44 B.C., assassination plot against Julius Caesar. Because of the source material available, the play Julius Caesar is a more correctly drawn historical drama than Titus Andronicus. In the second funeral speech, the play’s rhetorical peak, Mark Antony summarizes Caesar’s climb up the political ladder from field commander to dictator for life and his refusal to wear a crown. Antony resumes by citing Caesar’s victory over the Nervii in Belgic Gaul in 57 B.C., reported in the second book of Caesar’s Commentarii de bello Gallico (Gallic Wars, ca. 50 B.C.). Shakespeare’s chronicle is a testimonial to the grueling campaigning, hostage taking, and SLAVERY in northwestern Europa and Britannia that laid the groundwork for imperial expansion. With considerable expertise and guile, Antony stirs plebeian unrest with an alleged recitation of the dictator’s will and a rallying cry: “Here was a Caesar! when comes such another?” (3.2.251). Shakespeare dramatizes the rhetorical challenge as a farewell to republican government and as an introduction to a 17-year period of administrative quandary and civil war preceding the formation of the Roman Empire in 27 B.C. In the interim, Antony, in concert with Octavius and Lepidus, Rome’s first triumvirate, cynically initiates a political purge by proscribing citizens with a stab into a scroll: “These many then shall die; their names are prick’d” (4.1.1). Another testimony to opportunism, Antony’s examination of Caesar’s will, provides means “to cut off some charge in legacies” (4.1.9), the promised inheritance with which Antony baited his rabble-rousing funeral speech. The bloodlust, chicanery, and venality anticipate the corruption of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

The idealism of Marcus Brutus, the prize catch of Cassius’s conspirators, lends pathos to the two suicides—Brutus and his seducer Cassius— that end the five-act tragedy. In the final scene, Shakespeare changes the tone from self-serving negotiation to a vestige of traditional Roman values. Antony concludes with a more magnanimous speech—a salute to Marcus Brutus, a defender of traditional republican Rome: “This was the noblest Roman of them all: / All the conspirators save only he / Did that they did in envy of great Caesar; / He only, in a general honest thought / And common good to all, made one of them” (5.5.76-80). The death of other leaders leaves Octavius, Caesar's nephew, adopted son, and successor, in a position to shape the national destiny. The concluding line reveals that Octavius, not yet self-proclaimed as Augustus Caesar, considers international conflict and the loss of many Romans to civil war the necessary sacrifices to an imperial future. Shakespeare's play saw two film remakes, casting Marlon Brando, James Mason, and Louis Calhern as Mark Antony, Marcus Brutus, and Caesar in 1953 and Charlton Heston, Jason Robards, and John Gielgud as the same triad in 1970.

Roman Imperialism in Africa

Shakespeare returned to the foundation of the Roman Empire with Antony and Cleopatra (ca. 1605), a familiar tragedy in popular history, also based on Plutarch's writings, about events following Julius Caesar's assassination. Because of the demands of compressed stage action, the text shortens to a few weeks the period between the battle of Actium in the Ionian Sea on September 2, 31 B.c., and the suicides in Alexandria, Egypt, of contenders for control of the eastern Mediterranean—Mark Antony on August 1, 30 B.c., and Cleopatra VII 11 days later. Shakespeare stresses the uniqueness of Cleopatra as lover of both Julius Caesar, the former dictator of the Roman Republic, and of Antony, one of the interim triumvirs who grappled for power before the formal establishment of the empire under Octavius.

In the play, Agrippa, the seasoned warrior, refers derogatorily to the Egyptian queen's sexual allure: “Royal wench! / She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed, / He ploughed her, and she cropped” (2.2.234-236), a reference to the siring of the twice-royal child Caesarion. Shakespeare moves from the dynastic mutterings of Agrippa about a political marriage between Antony and Octavius's sister Octavia to focus on real passion. At a crisis in Antony's life, having been dismissed as an ambitious politician, he rejects power and patriotism for love: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space” (1.1.34). The inevitable ruinations of the title characters became a vehicle for the film stars Charlton Heston and Hildegarde Neil in 1972 and for Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave in 1983. The historical screen version, Cleopatra (1963), a $44 million Hollywood extravaganza based in part on Shakespeare's tragedy, starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and featured Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, Martin Landau, and Hume Cronyn as characters destroyed in the death throes of the Roman Republic.

Shakespeare and the Venetian Empire

A popular drama set in Venice, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (ca. 1596-98), praises justice, mercy, friendship, and romance as superior to worldly aims. The action pictures a battle of wits in the rich Queen of the Adriatic, a crossroads of trade, avarice, and intrigue early in the Italian Renaissance. A subplot concerns the loss of convoys at sea to “land-rats and water-rats, water-thieves and land-thieves” (1.3.23-24), a risk common to speculators equally culpable for milking distant lands of their commodities. Along with money, the theme of European dynasty dominates the play. Among suitors for the orphaned heiress Portia are the princes of Aragon and Morocco, western Mediterranean nationalities that lend cultural and racial exoticism to the cast and introduce the power of Suleiman I the Magnificent, the lawgiver and sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Because the Aragonese and Moroccan princes fail to solve a prenuptial puzzle, they lose the lovely Portia and their right to marry and procreate (2.1.38-42). The lapse curbs the expansionism of Aragon and Morocco but foretells longevity and wealth for Portia's aristocratic bloodline.

In a parallel subplot, the moneylender Shylock and his nubile daughter Jessica are Jews living in an alien Italian realm dominated by a questionable Christian morality and by unions based on economics and social position. As a satiric highlight, Shakespeare turns into comic relief Shylock's cry, “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! / Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats! / Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!” (2.8.15-17). Before Portia appears disguised as the sage Balthasar, Gratiano delivers an understated authorial comment on Britain's dream of world power, demonizing commercial empires as “wolvish, bloody, starved and ravenous” (4.1.138). By declaring that mercy “becomes / The throned monarch better than his crown,” Portia begins solving a verbal conundrum (4.1.188-189). With clever legal sparring, she thwarts Shylock's bloody tribute of a “pound of flesh” from the debtor Antonio (4.1.232). Her courtroom oratory resounds with denunciation of Venetian xenophobia and of ethnic and religious bias. She earns for herself the sobriquet “a second Daniel” (4.1.334), a comparison to a Hebrew hero whose name means “judge by God.” Of the value of her own debating skills, Portia exults, “So shines a good deed in a naughty world” (5.1.91), an apt description of the dishonorable status of Venice among competing nations. For the screen, the play served the talents of Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright in a 1973 film and of Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Joseph Fiennes in a 2004 remake.

A Venetian Clash with the Turks

A broader view of Venetian imperialism marks Othello (ca. 1603-04), one of Shakespeare's more astute studies of human psychology and of the struggle for control of international sea power. Othello, a Moorish general and member of a North African royal dynasty, holds the position of commander in chief because Venetian law bars its citizens from the post in order to prevent a military junta from seizing governmental control. According to the villain Iago, Venice “cannot with safety cast him” (1.1.148), a curious comment suggesting a tenuous relationship between the black mercenary and white Europeans. In the second act, a newsbearer exults on fate, which delivers to the Turks a deadly blow: “The desperate tempest hath so bang'd the Turks / That their designment halts; a noble ship of Venice / Hath seen a grievous wrack and sufferance / On most part of their fleet” (2.1.25-28). Shakespeare's subtext implies that the weather, an unpredictable factor controlled by divine will, deserves more credit than the fleet for securing the island of Cyprus for Venice against Turkish naval forces dispatched by the Ottoman Empire. While Othello takes control in a twist of imperial power, his detractors ridicule his thick lips and ram-black coloring, as well as the pagan taint of an infidel race called blackamoors, whom racists equate with Satan. The dialogue indicates that race is a virulent issue at any time.

Like The Merchant of Venice, Othello contains overt cultural stereotyping and is one of the bard's most troubling probes of evil. Venetians reproach each other for “turning Turk” (2.3.189), a reference to the different ethnic and religious rules and customs within the Ottoman Empire, which threatens a Christian hegemony. Othello's moral subversion undermines his recent marriage to Desdemona, a Venetian noblewoman. His love match destroyed by lies, he admits that his bride has reason to hate him, for “I am black” (3.3.267), an admission of fault caused by skin color. The play's contrasting roles—a military leader at a pinnacle of fame for combat service, made wretched by the entrapment of the malcontent Iago—were played by Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins in a 1981 television version and by Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh in a 1995 film.

Shakespeare and the Danish Empire

The tragedian produced a monument of English theater with a study of international conniving in Hamlet (ca. 1599-1600), set in the Danish Kingdom at the beginning of a 750-year span of imperial rule. It is thought that Shakespeare set the play in the mid-11th century during the reigns of Harald III Sigurdsson of Norway and Sweyn II of Denmark. At the helm in Denmark is Claudius, a fratricidal monarch and wife despoiler, whom Hamlet debases as “a cutpurse of the empire and the rule … a king of shreds and patches” (3.4.91, 102). Hamlet scolds his tremulous mother, Queen Gertrude, for accepting a “bloat king” into her bed (3.4.182). The prince expresses his outrage that a vice-ridden lecher and crown thief should flaunt illicit power in the place of the murdered King Hamlet, the prince's father and ideal of a noble and valiant sovereign. By supporting young Hamlet's intention to unseat Claudius, Shakespeare sets a bold authorial precedent—endorsement of revolt as the Danes' right and obligation.

The bard's view of retribution within family and state suits the genre of tragedy. As in the tests of Shylock's resolve and Othello's mettle, Prince Hamlet falls victim to his innate faults. Rather than bring a criminal charge against a miscreant, he employs symbolic oratory, both his own and that of the players producing the play-within-the-play, The Murder of Gonzago, into “something like the murther of my father” (2.2.595). The trick serves as the prince's trap to catch a rat. Because he lacks a sovereign's resolve, Hamlet can only picture himself as an avenger: “Now could I drink hot blood / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on” (3.2.390-392). The absence of belligerence in his makeup proves him unworthy of his role as Denmark's crown prince.

At a time when Catholic Spain menaced Protestant England, Shakespeare portrayed Hamlet's downfall within a doomed royal clan. The hiatus in Danish leadership tempts power-hungry contemporaries encircling the Scandinavian nation. The young prince Fortinbras of Norway, sensing the “state to be disjoint and out of frame” (1.2.20), moves decisively toward conquest and finds a horrifying prostration of the Danish power structure. As Fortinbras enters the great hall at Elsinore Castle, he sees corpses of King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, the courtier Laertes, and the title character. The astonished prince differentiates between war and palace intrigue: “Such a sight as this / Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss” (5.2.412-413).

The complex role of a princely regicide attracted cinema greats for over a half century—among them, Sir Laurence Olivier in 1948, Richard Burton and Christopher Plummer in 1964, Richard Chamberlain in 1970, Derek Jacobi in 1980, Kevin Kline and Mel Gibson in 1990, Kenneth Branagh in 1996, and Ethan Hawke in 2000.


Carlyle, Thomas. Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in

History. Philadelphia: Henry Altemus, 1895.

Lupton, Julia Reinhard. Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Maley, Willy. Nation, State and Empire in English Renaissance Literature: Shakespeare to Milton. London: Macmillan, 2003.

Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra. New York: Washington Square Press, 2004.

----- . Hamlet. New York: Washington Square Press, 2003.

----- . Julius Caesar. New York: Washington Square Press, 2004.

----- . The Merchant of Venice. New York: Washington Square Press, 1995.

----- . Othello. New York: Washington Square Press, 2004.

----- . Titus Andronicus. New York: Washington Square Press, 2005.

Tennenhouse, Leonard. Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare’s Genres. New York: Routledge, 1986.

Woodbridge, Linda, ed. Money and the Age of Shakespeare: Essays in New Economic Criticism. London: Macmillan, 2003.