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Volume 43, Nos. 2–4 (Fall 2004)

The Philosopher Poet

Of Philosophers and Kings: Political Philosophy in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear
by Leon Harold Craig.
University of Toronto Press (Toronto, Canada),
406 pp., $29.95 paper, 2001.

Paul A. Cantor

Of Philosophers and Kings is an unfashionable book in the best sense of the term. Unlike the vast majority of contemporary critics of Shakespeare, Leon Craig is not obsessed with issues of race, class, and gender in the plays. He is not even interested in showing how Shakespeare was complicit in the nascent imperialism of the Elizabethan regime. Rather than seeking to root Shakespeare in the concerns of his own age, Craig looks for the timeless element in the plays, the way they transcend their historical moment. In fact, by the standards of contemporary criticism, Craig’s book will strike many readers as old-fashioned in its insistence that we might actually learn something about profound and perennial philosophical issues by studying Shakespeare’s plays carefully. As Craig himself puts it, “the premise of this book [is] that Shakespeare is as great a philosopher as he is a poet—that, indeed, his greatness as a poet derives even more from his power as a thinker than from his genius for linguistic expression, and that his continuing appeal and influence is a reflection of his possessing great wisdom.” Since Craig emphasizes Shakespeare’s political wisdom in particular, his book is very much in the spirit of the essays published by ISI in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas West. In his quest to reveal the wisdom of Shakespeare’s plays, Craig analyzes two of them in depth and at length—Macbeth and King Lear—and offers briefer interpretations of three others—Othello, The Winter’s Tale, and Measure for Measure. The result is one of the best books on Shakespeare to appear in the past decade; it sheds new light on each of the plays it discusses and provides a model of what the serious study of Shakespeare necessarily entails.

For me, the highlight of the book is the long chapter on King Lear, one of the few discussions of this play I know that genuinely does justice to the complexity of what is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest achievement as a dramatist. Starting from Harry Jaffa’s pioneering and pathbreaking analysis of the opening scene of the play (included in Allan Bloom, Shakespeare’s Politics), Craig gives a detailed and convincing explanation of Lear’s hidden plan for dividing his kingdom. Far from acting out of foolishness or senility in his original division of the kingdom, Lear, as Craig shows, had at least a viable plan for securing the best part of his kingdom for the best of his daughters, Cordelia. The bulk of Craig’s Lear chapter is devoted to analyzing the understanding of the family as a social institution that Shakespeare develops in the play. Concentrating on the issues of primogeniture and the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy, Craig offers a cogent defense of the sometimes obscure logic underlying and justifying social conventions. He rejects the view espoused in the play by the bastard Edmund that conventions such as legitimacy are purely arbitrary and have no basis whatsoever in the nature of social existence. Most viewers and readers sense that there must be something wrong with any position championed by a villain like Edmund, but they would have a hard time identifying the fallacies in his claims. Craig thus significantly advances our understanding of King Lear by systematically articulating the function served in society by distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate children. As he concludes:

Once one understands how basic, and central, the idea of legitimacy is to the inner rationale of families, and thus to the larger political order of which families truly are the primary atoms, one can no longer see ‘legitimacy’ in the terms that Edmund would prefer, as but one more “plague” of irrational custom followed only out of blind habit, just another “curiosity of nations” that could as easily be otherwise as not. From the mere fact that the specific application of this distinction to a particular time and place is established by positive law and reinforced by an array of manners and mores and habits and prejudices, one is not free to conclude that it has no underlying reality, nor that all such ‘conventions’ are essentially arbitrary, or no less arbitrary than weights and measures.

Craig’s analysis of the functionality of family customs has broader implications and leads him to the most general philosophical issue Shakespeare broaches in King Lear—the vexed question of the relation of nature and convention. Many commentators are attracted to the nihilism of Edmund, which sounds so strangely modern to our ears, and choose to follow him in claiming that nature and convention are simply opposed. But Craig argues convincingly that this issue is more complicated than at first appears. As Lear shows, man is a peculiar being—it is evidently in his nature to create conventions for himself. What specific kind of clothing he wears may be a matter of fashion, but that he does choose to clothe himself seems to follow from his nature. As Craig formulates the point in one of the most important passages in his book:

Conventions are necessary for humans living fully human lives, according to their nature. Granting this to be the case (as by all the evidence we must), a valid idea of Nature, adequate for encompassing human nature, similarly must encompass conventions. Much about the particularities of how these or those people live is due to ‘mere convention,’ but this human capacity to frame and live in accordance with various conventions is not itself conventional: it is natural.

This understanding of King Lear takes Shakespeare out of the camp of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, as it were, and places him squarely in the Socratic-Platonic-Aristotelian tradition, in which man is a political animal, that is, a being who is by nature fitted and destined to live in a community, with all the creation of conventions that entails. In the course of investigating the concept of nature Shakespeare develops in King Lear, Craig traces Lear’s education, his remarkable transformation from a king to a philosopher, or at least a man in quest of philosophical education. In Craig’s words: “It is this logical-historical trajectory from non-philosopher through natural philosopher to political philosopher that we find illustrated in the several phases of King Lear’s intellectual transformation.” Throughout his book, Craig concentrates on Shakespeare’s interest in the Platonic possibility of the philosopher-king, but the section “A King Becomes Philosophical” in his Lear chapter provides the kernel of his argument and the high point of his analysis.

I have dwelled upon Craig’s Lear chapter and quoted at length from it in order to try to convey a sense of the richness and depth of his argument, but I want to stress that the whole book is worth reading. And that includes the extensive (and perhaps intimidating) endnotes, which amount to about a third of the book (up until page 40 of the text, the pages of endnotes actually outnumber the pages of text). One might be tempted to skip the endnotes, but they contain some of the most acute observations in the book, such as this comment on the villain of Othello: “Iago has the soul of a pyromaniac, who lights fires just to watch them burn.” Craig is also an excellent guide to Shakespeare criticism, and especially to a number of older critics who are in danger of being forgotten in an era when trendiness seems to govern academia. Craig’s generous extracts from other Shakespeare critics in his endnotes allow his readers to sample some of the best writing on the plays he discusses. Moreover, Craig uses the endnotes to carry on a number of valuable polemics against other critics. In a move essential to his central thesis, Craig does a particularly good job of demolishing T. S. Eliot’s famous claim that Shakespeare was not a philosophical poet (developed in his essay “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca,” in which Eliot contrasts Shakespeare with Dante in this regard). Craig points out that Eliot’s argument rests on a narrow and in many respects anachronistic conception of philosophy. With F. H. Bradley as his model of a philosopher, Eliot fails to appreciate precisely the Socratic/Platonic (which is to say dialogic) element in Shakespeare, that is, the undogmatic character of his thinking. Craig shows exactly where Eliot went wrong:

In short, by identifying ‘being philosophical’ with having a fully articulated metaphysical view, Eliot overlooks the fact that philosophy is first of all, both logically and psychologically, a self-conscious commitment to an activity, to rigorous and persistent thinking, in the recognition that the questions—not the answers—are primary. . . . [O]n Eliot’s view (which is by no means unique to him), the Sokrates of the Apology would not qualify as a philosopher.

If I had more space, I could quarrel with Craig at a number of points in his argument. For example, I was not fully persuaded by his claim that Othello is organized around a scheme involving the four elements, and, although I was intrigued by his suggestion that The Winter’s Tale is structured to reprise the contrast between Plato’s Republic and his Symposium, I think that the play can be more usefully understood by comparing it to Shakespeare’s own works. In particular, I feel that Craig missed an opportunity by not discussing Winter’s Tale in relation to its tragic counterpart in Othello. Indeed the whole question of Winter’s Tale as tragicomedy can best be illuminated by contrasting it with the Shakespeare tragedy to which it is most clearly linked by virtue of the theme of jealousy. I also feel that Craig does not sufficiently take into account the importance of Christianity in his analysis of the Viennese regime in Measure for Measure. Although the Platonic contexts Craig invokes in discussing the play are no doubt valid, this is one case where the contemporary historical context may genuinely be relevant to what Shakespeare is doing. In Shakespeare’s day, Vienna was the center of the Habsburg dynasty and hence the Holy Roman Empire; in particular, it is difficult to believe that the abdication of the Habsburg Emperor, Charles V—one of the most striking political events of the sixteenth century in Europe—is not somehow reflected in the story of Shakespeare’s Duke Vincentio.

But in dealing with such complicated issues, there is surely room for disagreement in the interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays, and my differences from Craig do not lessen my admiration for his achievement in Of Philosophers and Kings. I wish I had time to treat at length his subtle analysis of Macbeth, in which he systematically uncovers a Machiavellian subtext in the play by means of a discussion of the role of several seemingly minor characters, especially the enigmatic figure of Ross. Craig does an excellent job of characterizing the imaginative atmosphere of Macbeth, and he is at his most eloquent in formulating the complicated nature of the play’s protagonist:

Macbeth . . . has a surprising depth and complexity of mind. He is much more than the furiously valiant, callous, thoughtless butcher one might presume from either our first report of him . . . or our last. . . . It would be an exaggeration, but useful, to suggest that in the interim Macbeth shows himself to be the very opposite of this: fearful, morally sensitive, and above all pensive, ruminative. . . . With a mind toiling between the intellectual lowlands where the great herds graze, and the cold, lonely peaks favoured by goats and sages; and with a poet’s imagination that is at once his grace and his curse, he is more—much more—than just another erring barbarian.

Craig’s book ends with an insightful analysis of Socrates’ critique of the poets in Plato’s Republic and a suggestive discussion of how Shakespeare may be said to respond to and in effect answer these criticisms in his work as poet/dramatist. Craig’s documentation of Shakespeare’s ability to avoid the defects of conventional poetry as Socrates presents them puts the seal on his larger claim that Shakespeare is the true philosophical poet, indeed the kind of poet Plato has Socrates call for at the end of the Symposium—one who could transcend the distinction between tragedy and comedy and achieve a truly philosophical perspective on his material. In helping us to recognize the philosophical dimension of Shakespeare, Craig has performed a great service to our appreciation of the central author of our literary tradition, and indeed helped to explain why he justly occupies that position of centrality.

Paul A. Cantor is the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia. The second edition of his book on Hamlet has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

Posted: March 29, 2007

The moral imagination is the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.

Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969

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