Shakespearean Anarchism: The Dreams that Stuff is Made Of

The world is not thy friend, nor the world’s law.

The world affords no law to make thee rich

Then be not poor, but break it, and take this.

                                                                           Romeo handing gold to the Apothecary, Romeo and Juliet, 5.1.72-75

With the publication this month of Dan Falk’s The Science of Shakespeare, the popular science journals have published some excellent pieces exploring how Shakespeare’s writings seem to have been influenced by the beginnings of the modern scientific revolution. Falk rightly stresses in this week’s issue of New Scientist, for instance, that mainstream scholarship typically ignores this aspect of his plays. This tendency goes beyond Shakespeare and Renaissance studies, however, right back to Middle English literature. As with radical pamphlets, dream literature throughout English history has proven to be a viable medium through which authors have engaged with classical texts. These texts can often be detected as an influence and a guide, yielding a ‘new science’ (as Chaucer put it in The Parliament of Fowls) for the audience of medieval poets to interpret their place in the natural world and the hierarchical social structures imposed on them by church and state. In Chaucer’s The House of Fame, the narrator, eponymously called Geoffrey, is guided by an eagle around a glass temple decorated with images of classical heroes. His guide soon begins to expound on the Aristotelian physics behind falling bodies (Boitani 1983: 202), with Chaucer, unlike Petrarch and the Italian ‘humanists’, being one of the few medieval poets open to the ‘new science’ of the Merton natural philosophers (who formulated the mean speed theorem centuries before Galileo).

The work on matter, mechanics, and dynamics by Bradwardine (present in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale), Heytesbury, and Strode (to whom Chaucer dedicated Troilus and Criseyde) figures in the background as the eagle explores through logical reasoning the physics of sound, pledging ‘A preve by experience’; judging matters based on empirical evidence. Chaucer’s oeuvre typically frames ‘experience’ in opposition to ‘authority’; a dichotomy which, in Fame (with its lack of chapels, monasteries, and paradises) supports a secular appreciation of naturalistic inquiry over the auctorite of instinct and purely imaginative literature. Though Geoffrey restricts the eagle’s exposition in order not the distort the poem’s artistic merits, it would not be mistaken to describe this as a form of ‘popular science’, and one which (like Peter Kropotkin) employs the findings of scientists to undermine the claims of concentrations of domestic power.

The addition of Falk’s book allows Shakespeare to look eye-to-eye with Chaucer’s naturalism. But while it may be true that Shakespeare’s scientific side has been ignored by mainstream scholarship, his radical tendencies have also been starkly sidelined. What are the reasons for this? The most obvious one is ideological, but a distinguished Shakespearean scholar, Chris Fitter (2012: 35), recently derided ‘the current Post-Modernist climate, with its chic neo-Heraclitean dogmas of flux and indeterminacy, of epistemological undecidability and history as the irrecoverably contingent’, suggesting that a concern for literary ‘theory’ and the fashionable urge for conceptual innovation have discouraged many scholars from carrying out actual scholarship. Chris Hedges (2008) has aired a similar view:

‘Most professors of literature, who read the same books I read, who study the same authors, are to literature what forensic medicine is to the human body. These academics seem to spend more time sucking the life out of books than absorbing the profound truths the authors struggle to communicate. Perhaps it is because academics, sheltered in their gardens of privilege, often have hyper-developed intellects and the emotional maturity of twelve-year-olds. Perhaps it is because they fear the awful revelations in front of them, truth that, deeply understood, would demand they fight back. It is easier to eviscerate the form, the style, and the structure with textual analysis and ignore the passionate call for our common humanity.’

Ideas about Shakespeare’s radicalism are not entirely new, they’ve just been forgotten (as a wry André Gide wrote in 1891: ‘Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning it all over again’ (cited in Strawson 2008: 4)). The Welsh anarchist novelist John Cowper Powys, one of the greatest writers in the English language, rarely read today (and described by Philip Larkin as a ‘gigantic mythopoetic literary volcano’), when lecturing at Columbia University in 1930 claimed that Shakespeare – who, through the mouth of Timon of Athens, saw gold as the source of all evil – was ‘naturally an anarchist’:

‘King Lear was a spoilt child: he later became an anarchist. The moral attitude of civilization and society is attacked in Lear. Jacques in As You Like It is an anarchist. Caliban was not only an anarchist against the ways of man: he represents the revolt of the Cosmos against the Human Race.’ (Reed 1997: 51)

Powys aligned himself closely with what he saw to be Shakespeare’s variety of radicalism, stressing, unlike many of his communist contemporaries, the importance of establishing non-industrial forms of voluntary association. He writes in his 1934 autobiography (323): ‘I have often wondered how I would get on in Soviet Russia to which I feel as much attracted as I do to the Catholic Church. I am so simple in my tastes, and so unambitious, that as long as I had the smallest room to myself and enough kopecks to keep me in bread and tea and cigarettes, and as long as I had a road, or even a path across a common, where I could walk alone, I believe I could be happy there. Only I should be always wanting to share the contents of my samovar with some mystical Father Zosima. I fully agree that I ought to be forced by a Communist State to share the burden of manual labour. But, when I’ve done my share, I want to be free to turn from the State altogether, and from all my tedious mundane concerns, free to discuss God and Freedom and Immortality with learned and pious men! Yes, I agree altogether with my Communistic friends that I ought to be forced to do some sort of manual labour. But I do not agree with them that it is a waste of time to discuss God. It is not that I myself ever want to go to church. I never feel the remotest desire to do so; and when I pray, as I weary myself with doing, I pray to idols and fetishes and images, to sticks and stones, to the Sun and the Moon and the Earth’.

These feelings surface in many of Powys’s novels, for instance in his 1933 masterpiece A Glastonbury Romance, when one of its central characters, John Crow, is being driven across the hills of Somerset on his way to Glastonbury (where he establishes a commune with other like-minds), looking upon the rural scenery and seeing in it an anarchistic urge for self-fulfillment:

‘The wide Plain stretched around them, cold and mute, and it was as if the daylight had ceased to perish out of the sky, even while the surface of the earth grew dark. The identity of that great space of downland was indrawn upon itself, neither listening nor seeking articulation, lost in an interior world so much vaster and so much more important than the encounters of man with man, whether evoked by prayer or by chance, that such meetings were like the meetings of ants and beetles upon the twilit terrace that had thoughts and memories of its own altogether outside such infinitesimal lives.’ (Powys 1933: 96)

Kropotkin’s memoirs (1972: 310) eloquently depict a similar image:

‘The masses want to know: they are willing to learn; they can learn. There, on the crest of that immense moraine which runs between the lakes, as if giants had heaped it up in a hurry to connect the two shores, there stands a Finnish peasant plunged in contemplation of the beautiful lakes, studded with islands, which lie before him. Not one of these peasants, poor and downtrodden though they may be, will pass this spot without stopping to admire the scene. Or there, on the shore of a lake, stands another peasant, and sings something so beautiful that the best musician would envy him his melody, for its feeling and its meditative power. Both deeply feel, both meditate, both think; they are ready to widen their knowledge, – only give it to them, only give them the means of getting leisure.’

Powys’s forgotten epic of the dark ages, his 1951 novel Porius, combines the psychological nuance of Joyce with the epic historical narrative of Tolstoy, complemented by the verbosity and wit of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century novelists. It is set in the year 499 during a Saxon incursion towards a Roman fort in North Wales, with King Arthur sending a contingent led by Merlin (or Myrddin Wyllt, as he is predominantly called, possibly a resurrected Cronos as the novel later suggests) to help King Einion and his son Porius defend themselves against the dominant matriarchate. Once he establishes a camp to prepare for the Roman hordes, Myrddin begins to help his companion, the young Neb, persuade himself of the importance of anarchism. After asking him whether obedience is ‘a good thing’, the boy replies, shaking his ‘impish’ head, ‘It’s what cruel people do to children and animals’ (2007: 260).

In the anarchistic mind of Porius even the plants and rivers continually rebel against external authority, leading him to tell his closest friend, Rhun, ‘I like this time of twilight down here by the river … the river seems more conscious of your existence than the woods and precipices’ (44). By the end of the novel, ‘Porius felt it was infinitely preferable for the unnumbered gods and men and spirits and elements and beasts and birds and fishes and reptiles and worms and insects and all vegetation and for the air and the earth and the sun and the stars and all the waters to have nothing to struggle with beyond themselves, and nothing to compete with beyond themselves, and nothing to punish them or reward them beyond themselves, save only that mystery of mysteries, that liberator of liberators, that everlasting friend of the Many against the One, Tyche Soteer, ‘Chance, the Saviour” (744).

It’s very likely that Powys was thinking of The Tempest – in which Shakespeare wrote ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’ – when he has Crow later watch a herd of sheep moving up a hill in the Somerset countryside, and the figures of a man, a boy, and a sheep-dog walking behind them:

‘As he watched these figures and that moving river of grey backs in front of them his mind was carried away on a long vista of memories. Various roads where he had encountered such sights, some of them in Norfolk, some of them in France, came drifting through his mind and with these memories came a queer feeling that the whole of his life was but a series of such dream-pictures and that the whole series of these pictures was something from which, if he made a strong enough effort, he could awake, and feel them all dispersing, like wisps of vapour. Pain was real – that woman crying out upon her cancer and calling it ‘Lord! Lord!’ – but even pain, and all the other horrors of life seemed, as he stared at the backs of those moving sheep, to be made of a ‘stuff’, as Shakespeare calls it, that could be compelled to yield, to loosen, to melt, to fade, under the right pressure.’ (704-5)

Though he is urged instead by impossible riches and not by Crow’s anti-authoritarianism, Shakespeare’s Marcus Andronicus pleas likewise: ‘If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me. / If I do wake, some planet strike me down / That I may slumber an eternal sleep’ (Titus Andronicus, 2.4; Wells et al. 2005: 167). Not least because ‘there is probably no modern poet more correct than Shakespeare’, as Schlegel put it (1991: 53), Lord Talbot in Henry VI, Part I seems to have had a similar view of authority to Powys’s: ‘But kings and mightiest potentates must die, / For that’s the end of human misery’ (3.6).

Shakespeare, who wrote not a poem or elegy to mark the death of Queen Elizabeth or the ascension of King James, had no sympathy for ‘a hierarchic social system of inherited, permanent and inalterable class and rank … whose verticality was ordered on the pattern of the cosmos itself’ (Fitter 2012: 12). For Shakespeare, argues Victor Kiernan in seminal work, the ‘animating spirit’ of the state is ‘an unreasoning, insatiable thirst for power’ (1993: 37). Quite like the socialist plays of Edward Bond (most notably Lear), Shakespeare’s dramas rejected the submission of the commoner to the will of authority, both regional and national, along with the muffled obedience of women. But unlike the works and political leanings of writers who claim to have learned much from Shakespeare (Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Stephen Fry – who proved himself a judicious scholar of Shakespeare during his Cambridge years by using what he modestly describes in his second autobiography as his ‘creepily good’ memory to develop a ‘theory of Shakespearean tragic and comic forms’ to use as a template to answer any conceivable essay question (Fry 2010: 85-6)), ‘subversive assertion of class and rank as the betrayal of an essential human commonality is widely found in the Histories’ (Fitter 2012: 20). Hence we find in King Lear the playwright heroising an anonymous servant for drawing his sword against the Duke of Cornwall for torturing Gloucester, dramatising Renaissance resistance theory (Strier 1988: 119-20).

Commenting on Henry VI, Part 2, which depicts the famous uprising of Jack Cade in 1450 against the corrupt gentry, John Palmer remarked in his 1948 study Political Characters of Shakespeare, not often read today, that ‘It is strange that those who find in Cade’s barbarity an indication of Shakespeare’s horror of the mob should neglect to find in the barbarity of Queen Margaret or of my lords Clifford and York an indication of his horror of the nobility’ (1948: 318-9). The play observes the manifold injustices of the judicial system, noting that those who benefited from the rare privilege of literacy could escape execution for murder (4.7.37-38). It depicts the English state as a corrupt, torture-loving, and over-taxing burden on common life, with Richard of Gloucester stating, ‘Priests pray for enemies, but princes kill’ (5.2.6). Perhaps the most careful and important study of Shakespeare’s radicalism is Fitter’s 2012 book on the playwright’s early career. After his first decade of writing, Shakespeare emerged from the turbulent 1590s an ‘audacious and committed … nuanced and powerful protest playwright’, writes Fitter with substantial textual and historical support (80). Using a unique mix of deixis (making reference to the context of the particular performance), framing and doubling, Shakespeare’s stagecraft served to disrupt the incorporation of spectators into ‘a range of state ideologies’. But the claim that Shakespeare was a radical remains a minority view amongst ‘the almost immeasurable ocean of Shakespeare studies’ (30). Departing from the received wisdom of mainstream scholarship, Fitter sees Shakespeare’s drama more as scripts than plays or texts, ‘scripts whose dialogues are crafted for placement into further dialogue: with a gathered crowd, in a certain locus, within a specific cultural milieu. The insistence that Shakespearean drama essentially comprised not verse narratives but a set of flexible playscripts, aiming at a self-unfolding through action on a stage, not turning the page, is inestimably important’ (34). Shakespeare’s plays are easily adaptable for public theatres and improvised venues, encouraging a dynamic and innovative use of these political scripts. Moreover, they appealed not just to the breadwinning artisan and labourer, but to youth culture, women, and other malcontents.

Fitter points out that critics (such as the Cambridge School political theorists) have rarely drawn connections between Shakespeare’s drama and the radical currents in Tudor and Stuart England. The 1590s (the ‘Black Nineties’, for Fitter) saw the Oxford Rising of 1596 and Hackett’s Rebellion on 1591, both of which, as Richard II and Henry VI, Part 2 reveal, influenced Shakespeare’s politics. When Shakespeare began his career, arriving in London in the late 1580s, he would have been surrounded by stark wealth disparities (depicted in As You Like It and through the cries of the malnourished protestors in Coriolanus) and various resentful Armada mariners organising to demand payment for their service or basic provisions for their time at sea, which the crown summarily refused them. In 1589, ‘When a crowd of 500 discharged soldiers assembled … near the royal palace in Westminster to protest their non-payment, Provost-Marshals hauled out four and hanged them, while calling out 2,000 men from the city’s trained bands’ (Fitter 2012: 3). Many Londoners consequently felt no more loyalty to England than they did to Spain, with one Canterbury artisan complaining in 1596, ‘If the Spaniards did inhabit here it would be better for us … [for] we could not live worse unless we were starved’. Like the Levellers and Ranters soon to follow him, Bartholomew Steere called for popular revolt in 1596 and stated that England ‘would never be well untill some of the gentlemen were knockt downe’, not least because ‘the common long sithens in Spaine did rise and kill all gentlemen … and sithens that times have lyved merrily there’ (4-5). Fear of the public and a heightened awareness of their own small numbers were defining features of the gentry in the late sixteenth century. As an Essex labourer had asked two years before Steere, ‘What can riche men do against poore men yf poore men rise and hold toguither?’ (6).

The post-revisionist school of early modern English political history has revealed that the commoners of Tudor England were far from pre-political and ideologically docile, with the country housing 9,000 parishes run by up to 50,000 men in total (Goldie 2001: 153-94). Given all this, Fitter is more than justified in arguing the Shakespeare’s focus on state and ecclesiastical figureheads ‘demonstrates not antipopulist snobbery (a literary critical indictment frequently imputed) – for the impact of policy, convulsing commoners’ lives, is never far away – but reflects rather … the enforced contemporary gaze of the hyperactive political nation, in late Tudor England’s polymorphous state’ (11). Shakespeare’s position toward insurrection seems to have been similar to that of the sixteenth-century political philosopher Thomas Starkey, who in his Dialogue between Pole and Lupset has the former claim that, since tyranny resulted from the fall of man and was not God’s creation, men have the right to usurp tyrants (1989: 110-1).

When Powys (2005: 15) introduces the eponymous protagonist of his 1929 novel Wolf Solent, we find a comparable intolerance for the aloof promises of a brighter future found not only throughout large parts of Christian history, but also in liberal democracies today – a cause for departments of literature to consider the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Powys much more carefully (and in the case of Powys, to at least include him in the syllabus):

‘One of the suppressed emotions that had burst forth on that January afternoon had had to do with the appalling misery of so many of his fellow Londoners. He recalled the figure of a man he had seen on the steps outside Waterloo Station. The inert despair upon the face that this figure had turned towards him came between him now and a hillside covered with budding beeches. The face was repeated many times among those great curving masses of emerald-clear foliage. It was an English face; and it was also a Chinese face, a Russian face, an Indian face. It had the variableness of that Protean wine of the priestess Bacbuc. It was just the face of a man, of a mortal man against whom Providence had grown as malignant as a mad dog. And the woe upon the face was of such a character that Wolf knew at once that no conceivable social readjustments or ameliorative revolutions could ever atone for it – could ever make up for the simple irremediable fact that it had been as it had been!’


Boitani, Piero. (1983). Chaucer’s Labyrinth: Fourteenth-Century Literature and Language. The Chaucer Review 17(3). Winter.

Fitter, Chris. (2012).  Radical Shakespeare: Politics and Stagecraft in the Early Career. London: Routledge.

Fry, Stephen. (2010). The Fry Chronicles. London: Penguin.

Goldie, Mark. (2001). The unacknowledged republic: Officeholding in early modern England. Tim Harris (ed.). The Politics of the Excluded, c.1500-1850. New York: Palgrave.

Hedges, Chris. (2008). Surviving the Fourth of July. Truthdig. 7 July.

Kiernan, Victor. (1993). Shakespeare: Poet and Citizen. London: Verso.

Kropotkin, Peter. (1972). Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899). Marshall S. Shatz (ed.). The Essential Works of Anarchism. New York: Quadrangle Books.

Palmer, John. (1948). Political Characters of Shakespeare. London: Macmillan.

Powys, John Cowper. (2000/1929). Wolf Solent. London: Penguin.

— (1953/1933). A Glastonbury Romance. London: Macdonald.

— (1934). Autobiography. London: John Lane The Bodley Head

— (2007/1951). Porius. Judith Bond and Morine Krisdóttir (eds.). London: Overlook Duckworth.

Reed, Ann M. (1997). From the Front Row. Melvon L. Ankey (ed.). Powys Journal VII.

Shakespeare, William. (2005). The Complete Works. Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett and William Montgomery (eds.). 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.

Strawson, Galen. (2008). Real Materialism and Other Essays. Oxford University Press.

Strier, Richard. (1988). Faithful Servants: Shakespeare’s Praise of Disobedience. Heather Dubrow and Richard Strier (eds.). The Historical Renaissance. University of Chicago Press.

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2 Responses to Shakespearean Anarchism: The Dreams that Stuff is Made Of

  1. hmopr says:

    I know it’s 6 years late, but you have misinterpreted Talbot’s lines in Henry VI. You interpret “the end of human misery” as referring to the deaths of “kings and mightiest potentates”, but it just refers here to death itself, whether the death of a peasant or lord. It’s just a standard reminder of human mortality — the misery of (any) human life must terminate in death.

    The rest of Talbot’s dialogue from which you excerpt these lines render it unambiguously clear that he is not expressing the anarchistic sentiment that rulers are the font of human misery. In fact he’s delivering a final exaltation for a deceased nobleman, Bedford: “A braver soldier never couched lance,/A gentler heart did never sway in court/But kings and potentates must die,/For that’s the end of human misery.”

    • murphyblog says:

      I understand your point that this is of course the literal interpretation: the man is dying, and hence his emotional states will cease to go on. But, alas, dual meanings are quite possible here, especially when read in the context of actual composition: a number of other scholars have interpreted this section of the play the same way I have (Chris Fitter, David Goodway, Antony Taylor), and, moreover, as Taylor in particular has argued, this and other examples have been read by 19th c. radicals as deeply anti-hegemonic and anti-authoritarian.
      So yes, the man is literally dying, but there is more complexity to this passage than that. The passage, and its context, is far from “unambiguously” simply delivering a message of Talbot’s death. More to the point: this is one passage. As Fitter and others have explored, Shakespeare expresses very similar sentiments in a number of other places.

      As Warwick also says:

      “Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust? /
      And, live we how we can, yet die we must.”

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