Shakespearean Anarchism: The Dreams that Stuff is Made Of
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).
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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.”
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.”