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Shakespeare and Renaissance Political Thought


Renaissance political thought put forth the principalities and offered people a choice of them. Machiavelli proposes that the principalities may be hereditary or may be acquired by new princes or might be free ones. Hence, he proposes the state of dominions being free or living under a prince who occupied them. Hence, he proposed the fortune as well as creativity and skills. One can find Shakespeare influenced by the above principalities of renaissance thought as his writings express both the above mentioned principalities. Coming to hereditary principalities, Machiavelli discussed the way the principalities governed and maintained. Hence, one can understand that maintaining a principality in a hereditary state is easier than in a new state. Hence, he supports the ancient customs but initiates the thought of one change leaving space for construction of the other and Shakespeare’s works depict the above aspect.

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Now coming to Thomas More’s Utopia, the traveler talks about political arrangements of fantasy island country named Utopia. In the course of the descriptions in Utopia Thomas more proposes perfectly as well as orderly social arrangements that do not recognizes the private property. Religious toleration is the most important aspect put forth by him in ‘Utopia’ and propagates social order and discipline by emphasizing on god and after life. In accepting god and the afterlife, he suggests that the man has to accept the life outside him, which is a virtue of Utopia. Even this aspect can be seen in Shakespeare’s writings as he inherently talks about benevolent nature of humans and the belief in god. Hence, both Machiavelli and Thomas More are important while discussing about the nature of writings and affect of renaissance thoughts on Shakespeare’s writings.

Shakespeare Thought and Ethics

The Appropriation of Shakespeare starts with transparency as experiencing him becomes ‘like living in a public park’. “Private interests and public situations converge and backstage suddenly becomes front-stage, so that truth comes into focus with the force of a “grotesque”.”(Christy 19). Shakespeare serves corporate goals and power structures as well as cultural ideologies along with play and political commitments. Hence, human nature, power and morality of Machiavelli as well as moral and ethics in state politics mixed with pragmatism can be understood from the writings of Shakespeare and one can understand the effect of Machiavelli and Thomas More on Shakespeare. Hence, Shakespeare used art of drama and writing for creating a possibility of defying political power through art. Thomas More used pragmatism for in state politics and Shakespeare writings as aesthetic phenomena raise the questions of individual agency and theory of textual relations as well as Victorian ancestors’ attitudes towards gender. As Shakespeare finds place in social economics in the modern world, it indicates that his writings influenced the people of every quarter in the society; they can be explored for ethics, morals as well as pragmatism in power circles and politics. Desmet, Christy (1999) quotes Grady (1991) and Terence Hawkes (1996) about uncovering a residue of modernism in professional Shakespeare studies and that indicates the foresight of a thinker, which is visible in writings of Machiavelli and Thomas More. Hence, Shakespeare writings establish that the self, values and reality are socially constructed as well as shaped by culture and simultaneously one can observe conservative nature in the narration. In the above context, Thomas More can be quoted to affect the Shakespeare thought as conservatism as well as communication with ethics for a society is necessary for existing as Utopia.

Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Thomas More

As far as ethics, the literature needs to reflect it through good narration and storytelling. One can observe relativism in Shakespeare writings and should know that history cannot be divorced from textuality and deconstruction can be attacked in case of satanic doctrine. Shakespeare’s writings mark the difference between literary and the nonliterary as well as expressing crucial institutional negotiations and exchange, which is found in Machiavelli propositions. Moreover, Shakespeare derived the names of foul fiends from Harsnett and the language of madness, he used related to several attributes of hell and a substantial number of colorful adjectives. Hence, it can be understood that he criticized the characters, who did not follow the ethics and gave up moral values and that is reflected in Macbeth as the protagonist suffers defeat and death at the end due to his misdeeds as well as giving up moral values. Moreover, in this case, one can find the effect of Machiavelli’s principality, which can be found in ‘The Prince’. In that context, Machiavelli states that the Prince who gets the principality as hereditary may not face problems as long as novices are present in him. However, if a principality is occupied by a person, it is difficult to protect his/her authority on the dominion as all the subjects cannot be trusted and utmost benevolence as well as strength is necessary to have grip on the subjects. The same can be observed in the case of Macbeth who controls the kingdom but loses heart when the army moves towards his kingdom under the guise of trees. Hence, the principality and the opinions of Machiavelli can be observed in the writings of Shakespeare as well as the importance of ethics for rulers and their subjects.

Coming to the aspect of political thought, Shakespeare blended power and subtlety in his works. The swift movement of time as well as magic of myths is clear in his writings, which are mixed with tragic individuality as well as with an array of contradictory tensions. Hence, one can observe that “the inspiration of humanists of the Renaissance has been effortlessly absorbed and was explored in Shakespeare’s work” (Charles 17). Hence, one can understand that the ethics played as an inherent aspect in Shakespeare’s writings with excellent storytelling techniques. The narration of Shakespeare has an inherent presence of ethics and the consequences are tragedies if they are not met and comedies when they are satisfied according to the norms of the society. He used the knowledge of humanism by ancients and the thought of Thomas More in ‘Utopia’ in Hamlet. “In Hamlet It shapes the values of the ‘sweet prince’ who is taken from a philosophical and cultured dream of study of all that man might be, to be embroiled in a shuddering confrontation with the sordid reality of what is ugly in human nature”(Charles 18). Hence, the importance of the ruler being humanistic as well as a protector has been emphasized in the story. However, there is “other embodiment of the humanist dream, the magus Prospero, controlling life on his own private island, finally has to put away his magic to renew his embrace of imperfect humanity, some of which is unrepentant and unshaken in its commitment to evil” (Charles 18). Hence, the emphasis on humanity in Shakespeare’s works indicates the significance of ethics and the consequences of giving them up. As a result, the crucial areas of human experience such as love, politics, ethics and history are part of Shakespeare’s works indicating the effect of renaissance writers lie Machiavelli and Thomas More. Moreover, “the general ambience of Greaco Roman heritage which inspired the humanists of the Renaissance has been effortlessly absorbed and was explored in Shakespeare’s work”(Charles 19). The above aspect indicates the political thought of renaissance by Machiavelli and Thomas More is part of Shakespeare’s works and individually focused new historicism, varieties of feminism, poetics of space, reception theory as well as traditional humanistic approaches. However, one can observe the response to the problems and inconsistencies in Shakespeare’s work as part of humanistic culture in his narration. According to Martindale, Charles (2004), the readings of Latin works by Shakespeare might have shown more impact on his writings. Hence, the above aspect emphasizes the effect of Machiavelli as well as political thought of Thomas More on Shakespeare.

In addition to the above aspects, ‘The Tempest’ of Shakespeare best fits the description of a Prince by Machiavelli. In the above context, it is important to consider the character Prospero, who is cunning as well as a powerful man. Though the magical power of Prospero gives magical quality to the work, the narration is to express the control of the destiny of all characters by this powerful man in the play. In the efforts of Prospero, Shakespeare depicts the Machiavellian drama regarding principality and struggle for control on it. Hence, Prospero’s plans to destroy Alonso’s ship while travelling to Naples are murderous and are an expression of Machiavellian Prince’s politics to have control on his principality, when a rival is present. However, as long as Prospero tries to take revenge, he was successful and after he repents for his deeds and forgives Alonso and Antonio, he loses his daughter. Hence, one can understand that though it is for revenge, the lack of ethics in ones deeds will have its effect on the later life. As a result, he loses his daughter to Ferdinand. Hence, in the above context, the consequences of giving of ethics have been well established along with Machiavellian politics of a principality between two princes.

Political Thought and Ethics

The usage of political thought of Machiavelli in Shakespeare’s writings can be termed as the starting point of modern subjectivity. Using Machiavellian thought, Shakespeare developed intellectual modernity in the Renaissance period. Hence, Machiavellian ideas can be termed as prime content of Shakespeare and discussed as being a possible source. However, the lack of consensus is regarding ethics. Shakespeare mixed political thought and system with ethics, while that confluence of system and ethics is absent in Machiavellian. However, it can be understood that both Machiavellian and Shakespeare are the writers of same political thought, but Shakespeare introduced dramatized the writings with excellent story telling based on ethical practices for legal as well as political system, which is expressed comically in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and tragically in Macbeth and Hamlet. Using the technique of mixing system and ethics, Shakespeare goes beyond the logic of ‘The Prince’ to critique some premises in the political system and explores cultural crisis, due to introduction of ethics in the legal as well as political system as those systems from a reasonable amount of time are used up to mechanical follow up for the law and conventions. As a result, one can understand Shakespeare as the one who solved the crisis spurned by Machiavelli as his readers are more filled with thought but with little ethics that can assure a benevolent rule by the Prince of Machiavelli. Moreover, Shakespeare’s narration or ideas are beyond Machiavelli while we consider subjectivity as a dialect of power. In addition to the above aspect, the subjectivity of Shakespeare is about ethics and consequences of giving them up. However, Machiavelli’s Prince is thematic and Shakespeare’s writings are ethically supportive with the expression of legal and political systems in that period of Renaissance. Though Machiavelli has been hailed as the father of true social science, Shakespeare mixed that social science with ethical considerations and has shown the contexts of disaster due to the lack of ethics in legal and political systems.

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When critically examined, Shakespeare’s characters like Richard II and Richard III show evidence of Machiavellian influence on his writings. As Machiavelli talks about the resoluteness in the political leadership, Shakespeare inserts a context and examines the failure and success of the thought in it. Another important aspect that echoes Machiavelli in Shakespeare writings is the prophecy of Richard II about the people who deposed him in the hands of new king. In the above context, the instability in the republic is the context and the power of the princes who ruled and deposed are the expression in the writings of Shakespeare. However, in the later works, he mixed the power of thoughts and calculations with ethical considerations. In the next stage it is necessary to examine the ethical considerations of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare and Ethics

The importance of ethics and the consequences of giving them up can be seen in the comedy of Shakespeare ‘The Merchant of Venice’. In this novel Shakespeare inherently emphasizes the Christian belief of lending money being sinful. In the novel the villain is with anti-Semitism lending money for high interests and harassing people. In the novel the ethics and kindness are placed above legality as one of the heroic characters of the play, Antonio spats, insults and curses Shylock the money lender for not lending as a friendship gesture. Moreover, Shakespeare emphasizes the importance of legality as nobody is able to save Antonio from the clutches of Shylock when he fails to repay the loan according to contract. However, the benevolent persons in the society; Portia saves Antonio in the guise of a young lawyer who insists on the point, which is not in the contract of Shylock with Antonio. Thus again in the end of the play, Shakespeare emphasizes the ethical point in the law of Venice that saved Antonio from Shylock. By commending Portia for she saved Antonio using mere logic and using the law, the final verdict of the writer is emphasis on ethical implementation of law for the sake of commoners be saved from the hands of cruel rich people like Shylock. In addition to that at the end of the play, according to law of Venice, the young lawyer charges Shylock for attempting to take the life of a Christian in an unlawful manner. Hence, Shakespeare stresses the importance of usage of law in ethical manner and concludes that ethics prevail over law. If ethics are not followed, according to Shakespeare, people suffer like Shylock though he initially wins, but finally suffers.

The emphasis on ethics as well as policies of Machiavelli and Thomas More by Shakespeare is evident from analysis of Lowenthal, who attempts to reveal the philosophical riches of Shakespeare’s plays. While describing ‘The Tempest’ as an indication for giving life to themes and showing solutions for the problems in a principality defined by Machiavelli. Hence, one can find that Shakespeare’s plays are directed towards political, legal knowledge mixed with ethics. Consequently, it is necessary to understand that the political thought of Machiavelli and Thomas More was mixed with ethics in Shakespeare writings. As part of the above aspect, Shakespeare writings depict the knowledge of the human being’s life in a community as well as the principles and activities that make life food for a common man as well as the nobles by involving politics as important factor in the plays. The political rule in Shakespeare’s writings matches in theory with Machiavelli and the aspect of dramatization with that of Thomas More as he explains the Utopian community with an imaginary character. Moreover, Shakespeare added the aspect of ethics to above aspects and demonstrated the political order as well as justice that needs ethical approach in ruling and interpreting. Though he emphasizes the importance of Christian faith and beliefs in ‘The merchant of Venice’, he stresses on political order in King Lear as the main character turns first to gods and then to natural political order. Hence, according to Shakespeare, the ethics when blended with the political order can make life pleasant for rulers as well as the ruled. As it is not possible to introduce all ethical as well as political confluences in a single story or a drama, Shakespeare expressed different contexts in various dramas. In ‘Julius Caesar’, Shakespeare talks about the consequences of uncontrolled political ambition and in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, addresses the political as well as legal concerns in the absence of ethics. Even in the ‘Julius Caesar’, the aspect of lack of ethics and the consequences are inherent as the Machiavellian’s principality in the story witnesses turmoil and wars due to lack of political stability. In the midst of above aspects, in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Shakespeare explored the effect of revelatory religion with ethical background as he repeatedly talks about the sin of lending money. Moreover, he excellently narrated the natural and theological visions of the world in Kind Lear and the consequences due to absence of ethics. Hence, Shakespeare’s stand is that whatever high or excellent may be the political thought of the rulers, the ethical approach is necessary for the legal as well as political system.


The discussion in the paper indicates the effect of Machiavelli’s Prince and Thomas More’s Utopia on Shakespeare writings. However, Shakespeare introduced a new concept of ethical considerations, which are absent in Machiavelli’s political thought. Though Thomas More thought echoes ethics, the excellent narration of Shakespeare by showing consequences due to lack of ethics made him unique as the one, who mixed the political thought and ethics.

Works Cited

Desmet, Christy (Author). Shakespeare and Appropriation. London, GBR: Routledge, 1999. Print. Pp. 19-23

Grady Hugh. “Shakespeare’s links to Machiavelli and Montaigne: Constructing intellectual modernity in early modern Europe”. (2000). Web.

Jennifer Thompson. “Ethics in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’”. 2009. Web.

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Martindale, Charles. Shakespeare and the Classics. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print. Pp. 17-20.

Niccolo Machiavelli, Peter Bondanella, The Prince. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 1998. Print. “Machiavelli Vs. Shakespeare”. 2009. Web.

Stephen Greenblatt. “Shakespeare and the Exorcists”. Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Ed. Parker, Patricia., Hartman, Geoffrey. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1986. Print. Pp. 176-179.

Tessier, Jeffrey. “Review of Shakespeare and the Good Life: Ethics and Politics in Dramatic Form.” Early Modern Literary Studies 5.3 (2000): 2009. Web.

Thomas More, George M. Logan, Robert Merrihew Adams. Utopia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2002. Print.

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