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Shakespeare and the Uses of Power

In 1998, a friend of mine, Robert Pinsky, who at the time was serving as the poet laureate of the United States, invited me to a poetry evening at the Clinton White House, one of a series of black-tie events organized to mark the coming millennium. On this occasion the President gave an amusing introductory speech in which he recalled that his first encounter with poetry came in junior high school when his teacher made him memorize certain passages from Macbeth. This was, Clinton remarked wryly, not the most auspicious beginning for a life in politics.

After the speeches, I joined the line of people waiting to shake the President’s hand. When my turn came, a strange impulse came over me. This was a moment when rumors of the Lewinsky affair were circulating, but before the whole thing had blown up into the grotesque national circus that it soon became. “Mr. President,” I said, sticking out my hand, “don’t you think that Macbeth is a great play about an immensely ambitious man who feels compelled to do things that he knows are politically and morally disastrous?” Clinton looked at me for a moment, still holding my hand, and said, “I think Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.”

I was astonished by the aptness, as well as the quickness, of this comment, so perceptively in touch with Macbeth’s anguished brooding about the impulses that are driving him to seize power by murdering Scotland’s legitimate ruler. When I recovered my equilibrium, I asked the President if he still remembered the lines he had memorized years before. Of course, he replied, and then, with the rest of the guests still patiently waiting to shake his hand, he began to recite one of Macbeth’s great soliloquies:

If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well

It were done quickly. If th’ assassination

Could trammel up the consequence, and catch

With his surcease success: that but this blow

Might be the be-all and the end-all, here,

But here upon this bank and shoal of time,

We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases

We still have judgement here, that we but teach

Bloody instructions which, being taught, return

To plague th’inventor.


There the most powerful man in the world—as we are fond of calling our leader—broke off with a laugh, leaving me to conjure up the rest of the speech that ends with Macbeth’s own bafflement over the fact that his immense ambition has “an ethically inadequate object”:

   I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself

And falls on th’other….


I left the White House that evening with the thought that Bill Clinton had missed his true vocation, which was, of course, to be an English professor. But the profession he actually chose makes it all the more appropriate to consider whether it is possible to discover in Shakespeare an “ethically adequate object” for human ambition.

Macbeth himself seems tormented by the question. To be sure, his anxiety derives in part from a straightforward prudential concern, a fear that what he metes out will inevitably be meted out to him, measure for measure. But his queasiness has deeper roots in his sense of ethical obligation, in this case the obligation to obey and serve the king his master. His wife, who knows her husband’s character all too well, has already cannily anticipated his inner struggle:

  Thou wouldst be great,

Art not without ambition, but without

The illness should attend it.


Hence faced with the perfect opportunity to seize the crown—King Duncan is a guest in his castle—Macbeth holds back. He is, he reflects, Duncan’s kinsman and subject, and at this moment he is also the king’s host, “who should against his murderer shut the door,/ Not bear the knife myself.” Above all, there has been nothing in the king’s comportment that would make his murder a remotely justifiable act. (Shakespeare characteristically altered his source in order to eliminate evidence of Duncan’s incompetence and thus to eliminate a rational basis for his assassination.) On the contrary, Macbeth broods,

   this Duncan

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against

The deep damnation of his taking-off.


Meek” is a strange word to describe a king whom we have just seen conducting a bloody military campaign and ordering the summary execution of his enemy, the Thane of Cawdor. But it serves to intensify Macbeth’s brooding on the deep damnation that will befall Duncan’s assassin.

The theological language here must, I think, be understood as an expression of the would-be assassin’s inner fears and not as Shakespeare’s own affirmation of the sacredness of kingship. From time to time, of course, we hear such affirmations in his work—

There’s such divinity doth hedge a king

That treason can but peep to what it would


—but they tend to be treated with deft irony. The stirring words I have just quoted from Hamlet are spoken by the fratricide Claudius, successfully pacifying the enraged Laertes. None of Shakespeare’s plays, not even Macbeth, unequivocally endorses the view that any act of usurpation is automatically evil, and none condemns as necessarily unethical the use of violence to topple the established order. Unlike the most conservative voices in his time, Shakespeare did not position himself squarely against the bloody unthroning even of anointed monarchs. Violence, as he well understood, was one of the principal mechanisms of regime change.

Richard III, to take an example from early in Shakespeare’s career, has royal blood and a better lineal claim to the throne than anyone in the realm. (To be sure, he has seen to that by murdering everyone in his way, but ruthlessness was never strictly incompatible with legitimacy.) He is careful to wrap himself in the mantle of moral authority, appearing before the citizens with prayer book in hand in the company of two “deep divines,” and if this show of piety is hypocritical and the popular acclamation manipulated, Shakespeare’s audience easily grasped that such shows were essential elements in the order of things. Some, after all, might have still recalled that Queen Elizabeth ostentatiously kissed a Bible during her coronation procession. Yet Shakespeare’s history play never doubts that it is reasonable, sane, even necessary to rise up on the side of the usurper. The beleaguered king vigorously exhorts his troops to destroy the invading army, “vagabonds, rascals, and runaways” (5.6.46) led by a “paltry fellow” (5.6.53). But the paltry fellow succeeds in killing the king.

But if Shakespeare treated the mystical accounts of kingship with relentless irony, he did not endorse any general principle of resistance. Such principles were readily available in a variety of forms: the tyrannicide advocated by George Buchanan; the passive disobedience proposed by Montaigne’s friend Étienne de la Boétie; the oligarchical republicanism articulated by Thomas Starkey. “What is more repugnant to nature,” Starkey wrote during the reign of Henry VIII, “than a whole nation to be governed by the will of a prince, which ever followeth his frail fantasy and unruled affects?”2 The only way to secure the well-being, dignity, and liberty of men, he declared, was to hold free elections, the elections that fashioned the greatness of the ancient Roman republic and that accounted in his view for the flourishing success of contemporary Venice.

Deeply invested imaginatively in both Rome and Venice, Shakespeare understood this argument very well, yet he kept a critical, ironic distance from it. There are elections in his work—in Titus Andronicus, for example, and in Coriolanus, Hamlet, and Macbeth—but they are all deeply flawed. It is not that the plays are sentimental about the alternative to elections: they offer many variations on a spectacle epitomized by Julius Caesar, surrounded by cynical flatterers, caught up in his own cult of personality, and poised to destroy the tottering liberties of Rome. The republican conspirators who determine to rid themselves of this public menace adhere to a moral principle: “I was born free as Caesar,” Cassius tells Brutus; “so were you” (1.2.99). But it is not clear that they themselves have the will to govern; after all, Brutus makes clear in his oration that it is precisely the manifestation of this will in Caesar that prompted his murder:

As Caesar loved me, I weep for him. As he was fortunate, I rejoice at it. As he was valiant, I honour him. But as he was ambitious, I slew him.


If the conspirators do nonetheless aim to wield power in the newly restored Roman republic, that aim, as the play shows, is doomed by their own internal disagreements, their total contempt for the will of the people, and their fatal errors of judgment. At the close the triumphant Antony briefly pauses to pays homage to what he calls Brutus’ “general honest thought,” that is, his ethical motivation:

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.


Then he and Octavius turn to the serious business of carving up the Roman state.

Brutus’ fate is not his alone: in Shakespeare no character with a clear moral vision has a will to power and, conversely, no character with a strong desire to rule over others has an ethically adequate object. This is most obviously true of Shakespearean villains—the megalomaniac Richard III, the bastard Edmond (along with the ghastly Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall), the Macbeths, and the like—but it is also true of such characters as Bolingbroke in the Henriad plays, Cassius in Julius Caesar, Fortinbras in Hamlet, and Malcolm in Macbeth. Even victorious Henry V—Shakespeare’s most charismatic hero—does not substantially alter the plays’ overarching skepticism about the ethics of wielding authority.

No one is more aware than the reformed wastrel Henry V that there is something deeply flawed in his whole possession of power and in the foreign war he has cynically launched on the flimsiest of pretexts. On the eve of the decisive Battle of Agincourt, he queasily negotiates a settlement with God—“Not today, O Lord,/O not today, think not upon the fault/My father made in compassing the crown” (4.1.274–276)—and evidently God is at least temporarily won over. At the end of the play Henry proclaims the death penalty for anyone who denies that the victory was God’s alone. But as the epilogue makes clear, the king’s son and successor soon lost everything that his father had won. And the irony is that this son, Henry VI, is virtually the only Shakespearean ruler with a high-minded, ethical goal: a deeply religious man, he is passionately committed to bringing peace among his fractious, violent, and blindly ambitious nobles. Unfortunately, this pious king has no skills at governance whatever. The nobles easily destroy him and plunge the realm into a bloody civil war.

  1. 1

    All citations of Shakespeare are from The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (Norton, 1977).

  2. 2

    Thomas Starkey, A Dialogue Between Pole and Lupset, edited by T.F. Mayer (London: Royal Historical Society, 1989), p. 104.

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