Shakespeare and The Body Politic
The frontpiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan presents an interesting image: A King towers over a large city with a sword in one hand and a Bishop’s crosier in the other. On close inspection one can see that his body is made up of people, his subjects, who are all looking toward his head. Hobbes published Leviathan in 1651, which places him a little beyond Shakespeare’s time but also indicates that Hobbe’s was most likely familiar with the work of England’s most famous playwright. In Leviathan, Hobbes gives his “Social Contract Theory” of Ethics, in which all citizens are bound by laws because these laws are of the consent of the governed. The King doesn’t rule by divine right, but by the full consent of the governed majority. If the King’s body in the picture forms the Body Politic, then the King himself forms the soul of this entity. Although Shakespeare was never familiar with Leviathan, his work is full of allusions to the body politic. This concept also ties in with his idea of citizens as assets to be exploited in the body politic.
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The King himself is even a commodity. The image Shakespeare presents of Caesar in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is practically that of the sacrificial lamb. In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare shows how, like Tamora, a country at war is essentially eating its own children. In Henry V, King Henry is torn between his duties as the enforcer of laws and his loyalty to his former friends. In all of these plays, Shakespeare makes it clear that in tumultuous times, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the individual.
Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare’s earliest tragedies. Its major themes are revenge and the body politic. The conflicts that arise in the play are because of an initial perceived evil, in which children are sacrificed in the name of the state or, in the case of Tamora’s son Alarbus, “to appease their (his sons’) groaning shadows that are gone.” In my paper on Titus Andronicus, I stated that is was clear that both Titus and Tamora view their children as part of their identity. The identity of the body politic could be seen in the same way. The death of Caesar in Act 3 of Shakespeare’s play, and the revealing of the conspiracy at the hands of Brutus and Cassius, presents Caesar himself as a noble sacrifice.
It is telling that Caesar’s death sends all of Rome into chaos. The giant has lost its head, and it’s pain and unthinking rage culminate in the death of Cinna the poet at the hands of an angry mob in Act 3, scene 3. The primary conflict here is that there is no clear succession in the wake of Caesar’s untimely death. Although Caesar is not an absolute ruler, his assassins believe that his popularity will make him practically so. They see him as ambitious, but this could be seen as similar to Hobbe’s political ideas, in which the king rules through the rightful consent of the majority of the governed.
Although his assassins see his ambition as dangerous because it threatens the sovereignty of the people, it is revealed during the reading of his last will and testament that he left his wealth to the people. The people, represented by the chorus of citizens that are present during the reading, are outraged because it appears that Brutus and Cassius are trying to hijack the will of the people. Although at first Brutus and Cassius are seen as heroes by the forum assembly for curbing Caesar’s alleged ambitions, Mark Anthony’s reading of Caesar’s will illustrates that Caesar’s only ambition was to be a public servant who felt that his good fortunes were a result of the people and that ultimately his riches belonged to them. It was his wish for every Roman citizen to “ walk abroad and recreate” themselves in the wake of his death.
Brutus states that it was regrettable that he had to kill Caesar, and it wasn’t out of hatred for Caesar, “but that I loved Rome more.” He says of Mark Antony on his entrance into the forum carrying Caesar’s body that “though he had no hand in his death, [he] shall receive the benefit of his dying, a place in the commonwealth.” The citizens’ outrage at the learning of Brutus’ treachery demonstrates that although his actions were for the sake of the commonwealth, his killing of Caesar was unprecedented and unilateral and that he didn’t fully consider what the people actually wanted.
This theme of uncertain succession and usurping of power is present in The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus and The Life of Henry the Fifth. Although Titus is popular with the people and is offered the Emperor’s laurels, he doesn’t take them because he is old and knows that he would soon die, leaving Rome in the same predicament. He feels that it is not his place to assume the Emperorship even after Marcus implores him to “help to set a head on headless Rome.” This vacuum of power leads to the play’s central conflict, as Saturninus acends to the throne and uses his position to ruin Titus’ life. This shows what happens when the body politic is led by an improper person and is bent to the will of one corrupt individual.
John D. Cox, in his paper, Shakespeare and Political Philosophy, compares Shakespeare’s political philosophy with that of Machiavelli. Although he makes it clear that Shakespeare and Machiavelli differ in the precise mechanism through which one seizes power: “a strongly Stoic sense of fortune appears in Shakespeare, with very different implications from Machiavelli’s equation of success with aggressively seized opportunity.”It could be said that Shakespeare disagreed with Machiavellian sentiments, as his only arguably Machiavellian king, Richard III, is a villain who is unceremoniously dispatched in what is perhaps the most anticlimactic duel scene in history.
The development of Henry from Prince Hal to King Henry shows what an individual must do in order to properly execute the will of the body politic. Henry is forced to execute a childhood friend because he realizes that, as King, the law is paramount to the sentiments of the individual. He must not let this sentiment cloud his judgement. Claire McEachern, in her 1994 paper Henry V and the Paradox of the Body Politic, emphasizes this transition as a necessary evil:
”The play is as vigilant in limiting the scope of common feeling as it is in encouraging it. Henry’s body becomes the chief site of this contest.”
She cites passages from Act 1, scene 1 in which Henry’s becoming King is likened to the expulsion of Adam from Paradise. She further presents Henry’s becoming King to purification of the body and, with the death of Falstaff, whose death “would seem to prove the coercive rather than communal nature of Henry’s personification of the body politic” and that “libidinal energy and the body are exiled to the margins as the play constructs community in the exclusive image of state power. Falstaff dies offstage.” For McEachern, Falstaf symbolized Henry’s being an ordinary human with ordinary passions. His unceremonious death after a life of excess is not allowed to burst Henry’s bubble, so to speak.
For Shakepeare this paradox, that in order for someone to be a leader of men, they must sacrifice a bit of their humanity is a crucial one. It begs the question of how we can entrust our future to someone whose major qualification is that they can’t relate to us as human beings. Just as the existence of the state requires the sacrifice of bodies through war, so does the wearing of the crown require sacrifice of a bit of the soul on the part of the King himself. Indeed, as in Titus… this sacrifice is seen as a remedy. It can be compared to the practice of Medicinal Cannibalism, in which the eating of human flesh, often of one’s enemies, is said to confer healthful benefits. Shakespeare’s Titus….borrows this from the Ovidian myth of Thyestes, in which Atreus gets revenge by cooking Thyestes’ sons and feeding them to him.
Louise Noble’s paper “And Make Two Pasties of Your Shameful Heads:” Medicinal Cannibalism and Healing the Body Politic in Titus Andronicus reveals that the mummy as medicinal remedy metaphor “proved irresistible for Shakespeare and his contemporaries who drew frequently on such uneasy paradoxes.”For Noble, the central problem of this play is the reconciling of Rome’s perceptions of outsiders as barbarous and its own detestable practices:
In the end, the grisly challenge posed by Titus is the extent to which
polluting acts of violence and cannibalism, which breach the moral
integrity of the civilized state, and thus bring the very nature of that
state into question, can have a therapeutic function, and whether we
can identify all forms of violence in the play as pollution therapy.
According to Noble, Shakespeare uses this cannibalistic imagery specifically because of the savagery that an English audience would associate with it. Tamora is portrayed very early in the play as being less than human, or one should say, less than Roman. Her becoming queen is metaphorically representative of Rome’s descent into barbarism.
In Titus… the metaphor of purification is presented as a paradox. Although sweet revenge is the mechanism by which Titus will purify Rome’s political landscape, his feeding Tamora her own children is both symbolic of Rome’s willingness to sacrifice the most sacred things of all in the name of greed and power and of Tamora’s eating of the “enemy” (her children, and by extension, herself). It is emphasized that the need for revenge has made Titus and Tamora into their own worst enemies, and their children are as much victims of circumstance as they are of their parents’ self-destructive need for vengeance. For Noble, these metaphors “all reinforce the dubious motif of healing which valorizes brutal revenge as the purgative for the ailing body politic.”In the process of trying to expel the virulent elements from the body politic, the “giant” has gone insane.
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All of these plays deal with the themes of purity and defilement. King Henry V is presented as having achieved a kingly state of purity, which seems to be almost overly aggrandized when compared to the Goths’ being portrayed as little more than animals whose occupation of the throne causes all of Rome to be defiled. It is telling that Henry’s transition involves expelling the impure parts of himself, whereas Tamora’s transition involves acquiring an image of purity that she does not deserve.
In conclusion, it can be said that Leviathan has some Shakespearean sentiments. It posits that the power of the King lies ultimately in the people. Together, they form the body politic, with King as the head and the people as the hands, feet, and other necessary organs. The King has the power to lead, but not without the people to support him. Shakespeare sees this relationship is symbiotic, with the king’s death as a sign of possible disease in the body politic. The process of succession can introduce infectious elements, which can threaten the health of the state. All of the plays I’ve discussed deal with succession, the introduction of rogue internal (Henry’s past loyalties, Brutus’ misplaced intentions) and external (the Goths in Titus…) elements in the process of succession, and the purging of these elements in order to ensure society’s future. The body politic, with the King as the head, remains a powerful metaphor, which resonated with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan times, in which Queen Elizabeth’s legacy was threatened by English conservatism.
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