In response to:
Shakespeare and the Uses of Power from the April 12, 2007 issue
To the Editors:
Much as I hate to disagree with my friend Stephen Greenblatt, I feel that I need to respond to his essay on Shakespeare and politics [NYR, April 12] because in it he is responding to, and directly contradicting, a position which I am on record holding—namely, the view that Shakespeare does endorse, as Greenblatt puts it, a “general principle” of political resistance (see my Resistant Structures, University of California Press, 1995, chapter 7). We agree on how extraordinary the intervention of the servant is in the scene of Gloucester’s blinding, and we agree that this intervention—this armed intervention—is “a radical act,” but Greenblatt denies that this is a politically radical act. He sees it as entirely a matter of private ethics (“human decency”). But that is not how the servant presents his action. Greenblatt rightly notes that the servant is one of Cornwall’s, not one of Gloucester’s, but he does not make anything of this. But Shakespeare makes it crucial. The servant presents his action not as one of moral outrage—though it certainly is that—but as one of excellent, supremely dedicated “service.” He is, in other words, putting his action in relation to the key sociopolitical concept and experience of the medieval and early modern period.
The question of what a subordinate was to do in the face of wickedness on the part of his social or political superior was one of the hottest political issues of the day. Shakespeare took the position that a subordinate was required to intervene in such situations, regardless of status. Even “a peasant” is required to “stand up thus.” The whole play of King Lear insists on the duty to intervene, on what I call “virtuous disobedience” and what it calls proper service: in the intervention of Kent in the opening scene, and in the intervention of Gloucester in aiding Lear (nonmilitarily) in direct contravention of the order he has received from his superiors not to do so (“Though their injunction be to bar my doors”).
Moreover, it should be said that Shakespeare formulated the principle of virtuous resistance in various plays following King Lear. The clearest statement is perhaps in Cymbeline, where a subordinate disobeying a direct order (to murder someone) says: “Every good servant does not all commands:/No bond, but to do just ones” (V.i.6–7). Shakespeare, in short, was a strong advocate of the general principle of resistance to immoral authority.
Department of English
University of Chicago
Stephen Greenblatt replies:
Richard Strier’s interesting reflections on the Renaissance ideal of “proper service” miss the point. The issue is not whether it is possible in Shakespeare to find a principled, morally upright servant but whether it is possible to find a principled, morally upright master. The nameless servant in King Lear who heroically intervenes to stop his master from torturing a prisoner performs an act with profoundly serious consequences, but he is not striking a blow for a different, more ethically adequate political system. He accepts the one into which he was born and that he dutifully serves. But he insists that it live up to its own minimal standards of honor and decency. That insistence is one of the reasons that Shakespeare is worth reading in this time of national dishonor and indecency.