shakespeare The Droeshout Portrait of William Shakespeare. Source: Wikipedia

Marx was always alert to the dissident potential of a uniquely gifted voice, writes Sean Ledwith

As Britain’s political and cultural establishment prepare to wallow in the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare‘s death, a suitable alternative for socialists would be to consider the notable role the poet and dramatist played in the development of the ideas of Karl Marx.

Before we are deluged by an outpouring of jingoistic and rose-tinted nonsense about the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’, it can be instructive to follow the influence of the playwright throughout Marx’s intellectual career, from his first stirrings of dissent as a teenager up to the mature dissection of capitalism contained in Capital.

The elite will predictably seek to promote a narrative of Shakespeare as an apolitical and quaint advocate of ‘Merrie England’, devoid of any radical or subversive messages. Marx, in contrast, was always alert to the dissident potential of a uniquely gifted voice that lived on the cusp of the transformation that catapulted early modern England from the feudal to the capitalist epoch.

Boundless respect

Marx’s son in law, Paul Lafargue, observed the effect of one great mind on another:

His [Marx’s] respect for Shakespeare wasboundless: he made a detailed study of his works and knew even the least important of his characters…His whole family had a real cult for the great English dramatist; his three daughters knew many of his works by heart. When after 1848 he wanted to perfect his knowledge of English, which he could already read, he sought out and classified all Shakespeare’s original expressions.

Marx’s family nickname was the ‘Moor’, a reference to ‘Othello’. One of his favourite activities towards the end of his life was meetings of the ‘Dogberry Club’ in which the Marxes would re-enact scenes from the plays.

In 1865, he named Shakespeare as one of his three favourite writers. He transmitted his love of the playwright to his daughters, as Eleanor Marx testified:

As to Shakespeare hewas the Bible of our house, seldom out of our hands or mouths. By the time I was six I knew scene upon scene of Shakespeare by heart.

Marx fully appreciated that Shakespeare’s undoubted genius could only be fully comprehended with reference to the economic and political turbulence of the Tudor and Stuart eras, which generated upheavals that found parallels in Marx’s time – and in ours. Many of the occasions when he used Shakespeare to illustrate a point resonate as powerfully today as they did in the nineteenth century.

Essential seasonings

Marx probably first came across Shakespeare in a significant way as a young man when he was courting his future wife, Jenny Von Westphalen, in the Rhineland in the 1830s. Jenny’s father was a member of the progressive minority of the German aristocracy that had been radicalised by the ideas of the French Revolution, exported to the area by Napoleon’s occupation a few decades earlier.

As Marx’s biographer, Francis Wheen, describes:

On long walks together the Baron would recite passagesfrom Homer and Shakespeare, which his young companion learned by heart – and later used as the essential seasonings in his own writings.

Inspired by such conversations and his reading of radical philosophers and utopian socialists, Marx began to encounter everyday exploitation and inequality in the course of his journalistic career after university. In 1843, he investigated poverty in the Moselle district, paying particular attention to the way in which the collection by peasants of fallen branches for fuel was being restricted by new laws devised by landowners. The episode triggered his thinking on the class nature of private property and the limits of liberal faith in the neutrality of the law.

To illustrate the greed of the Rhineland rich, Marx turns to a celebrated scene from the Merchant of Venice in which the moneylender, Shylock, is confronted by Portia, one of his debtors. Marx introduces the extract, then provides a summing up:

We have, however, reached a point where the forest owner, in exchange for his piece of wood, receives what was once a human being.

‘Shylock. Most learned judge! — A sentence! come, prepare!

Portia. Tarry a little; there is something else. This bond cloth give thee here no jot of blood; The words expressly are “a pound of flesh”: Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh’

What is the basis of your claim to make the wood thief into a serf? The fine. We have shown that youhave no right to the fine money. Leaving this out of account, what is your basic principle? It is that the interests of the forest owner shall be safeguarded even if this results in destroying the world of law and freedom.

The Marxist of Venice

For the young Marx, Shylock provides a literary personification of the heartless drive to accumulation that drove the rising capitalist class in early nineteenth century Europe. The clash between the lowly wood-collectors of the Moselle and the avarice of the landowners is mirrored in the courtroom battle between Portia and Shylock. In our time, the partisan nature of the law has been illustrated many times, notably in the dearth of financiers brought to book for tanking the global economy in 2008.

Marx would return to the Merchant of Venice to encapsulate the depravity of the system in his later work. In ‘Capital’, published in 1867, he uses the words of Shylock to sum up the mentality of English factory owners who mercilessly exploited child labour without any respite, forcing them to work up to 12 hours a day:

Workmen and factory inspectors protested on hygienic and moral grounds, but Capital answered:

‘My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,

The penalty and forfeit of my bond’.

The Venetian moneylender is also quoted as typifying the corresponding absence of concern for the dietary requirements of such children by England’s early capitalists:

“Ay, his heart, So says the bond.”

The Shylock-like clinging to the letter of the 1844 Act, as far as it regulated child-labour was, however, only a way of introducing an open revolt against the law, in so far as it regulated the labour of young persons and women

In the post-Holocaust era, this play has become controversial due to the disturbing ease with which a portrayal of Shylock can lapse into anti-Semitism. Marx, however, assimilates the complexity of the character by also using him in Capital for the voice of the oppressed, as well as the oppressor.

Marx describes the destructive effect of the new work process on workers’ well-being, then quotes Shylock’s words to those the Venetian regards as his tormentors:

We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of Modern Industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous.

‘No, go ahead and take my life. Don’t pardon that. You take my house away when you take the money I need for upkeep. You take my life when you take away my means of making a living’

Universal confusion

Another Shakespeare play that Marx references on numerous occasions is ‘Timon of Athens’, the story of a misanthropic recluse in Ancient Greece.

A few years after writing about the persecution of the wood-collectors in the Rhenish Gazette, Marx initiated another journal in Paris known as the Franco-German Yearbooks. His reflections on the increasingly corrosive effect of money on human relationships led Marx to turn to this play to highlight the issue.

The title character launches a blistering attack on how economic factors have led him to the pit of despair:

Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, gods, 
I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens! 
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair, 
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant. 
Ha, you gods! why this? what this, you gods?

Marx provides his own analysis of the wider significance of Timon’s words:

Shakespeare brings out two properties of money in particular: (1) It is the visible divinity, the transformation of all human and natural qualities into their opposites, the universal confusion and inversion of things; it brings together impossibilities. (2) It is the universal whore, the universal pimp of men and peoples

Again, the crash of 2008 and the mounting bubbles of debt and financial speculation that had accumulated in Western economies provide the contemporary resonance of the messages of both authors. It is not difficult to imagine Timon’s words being hurled as poetic abuse targeting Wall Street or City of London financiers today.

Marx would return to this scene decades later in Capital, once more deploying it as a forceful attack on how the cash nexus was dissolving the dignity of labour. After citing the same passage, he draws out the point:

Just as every qualitative difference between commodities is extinguished in money, so money, on its side, like the radical leveller that it is, does away with all distinctions… Thus social power becomes the private power of private persons

Valiant ignorance

Marx also found the dramatist a useful source of ammunition to denounce the stupidity of rulers who repeatedly drag their people into pointless and wasteful military ventures.

Troilus and Cressida is one of the so-called ‘problem plays’ in which Shakespeare dispenses with conventional portrayals of heroes and villains and replaces them with unsettling narratives of disillusionment and doubt. Throughout the play, the character of Thersites makes cynical observations on the deluded and warlike ambitions of the Greek nobles waging the Trojan War.

In a letter to Engels from 1848, Marx approvingly quotes Thersites’ scornful comment on his fellow Greeks:

I had rather be a tick in a sheep 
Than such a valiant ignorance.

Thersites is a perceptive but ultimately ineffectual commentator on the grandiose schemes of the ancient aristocracy, but understandably Marx found him a preferable protagonist, compared to grand-standing killers like Hector or Ajax.

Marx recognised that one of the keys to Shakespeare’s genius was the playwright’s appreciation of the complexity of human behaviour and ability to subtly question the motivation of those in power:

A singularity of Englishtragedy, so repulsive to French feelings that Voltaire used to call Shakespeare a drunken savage, is its peculiar mixture of the sublime and the base, the terrible and the ridiculous, the heroic and the burlesque.

It is not difficult to imagine Thersites watching a modern news bulletin and making acidic comments on the justifications made by Cameron and Obama for bombing Iraq or Libya. Thersites was an isolated voice of dissent on the margins of his society; in contrast, Marx fully developed the notion that only the collective power of the oppressed can end the madness of the war-mongering elite.

The old mole

Of course, it would be absurd to argue that Shakespeare was a proto-socialist or to deny that much of his verse can easily be cited on behalf of a conservative and reactionary agenda. However, if you find yourself groaning in the near future when Cameron or the Queen inevitably talk about ‘This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England’, note that Marx drew upon Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream to describe how the forces of change are slowly but surely preparing to sweep all elites aside:

In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy and the poor prophets of regression, we do recognise our brave friend, Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer — the Revolution.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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