Thursday, December 01, 2005


I make no claim to be a Shakespeare scholar. Even so, I think a case can be made that Shakespeare was opposed to a key aspect of what has become the modern liberal philosophy.

One piece of evidence was discussed recently by Lawrence Auster. It’s a quote from the play King Lear, in which Albany speaks harshly of the evil daughter of Lear, Goneril, with the words:

O Goneril!
You are not worth the dust which the rude wind
Blows in your face. I fear your disposition:
That nature, which contemns [scorns] its origin,
Cannot be border’d certain in itself;
She that herself will sliver and disbranch
From her material sap, perforce must wither
And come to deadly use.

This runs directly against the grain of modern liberalism. A key idea of liberalism is that we are made truly human when we choose who we are through our own individual will and reason. Therefore, liberals prize the idea of an individual “freedom” in which there are no limits to our individual will. For liberals, individuals are free when they are not impeded in their will by an inborn nature, or by tradition, or by inherited identities.

Albany, though, does not praise Goneril for having liberated herself from her unchosen nature. Instead, he condemns such a project as likely to lead to vicious outcomes. He talks of a person who chooses to “sliver and disbranch from her material sap” as withering – which is a similar thought to the more modern conservative view that people who are made rootless suffer a loss from being denatured.

[All of which reminds me of the fate of Alice James, sister of the famous novelist Henry. She did not relish her spinsterhood as a freedom from a “biological destiny” as liberals might have it, but confessed that it could not be “anything else than a cruel and unnatural fate for a woman to live alone, to have no one to care and ‘do for’ daily is not only a sorrow, but a sterilizing process”. When she spent time with her brothers, she was happy to lose her “floating particle sense”.]

There is another passage from Shakespeare which appears to run directly counter to the liberal concept of freedom from an inherited nature. The quote is from the play Coriolanus. In this play, Coriolanus is unjustly expelled from Rome and so allies himself with Rome’s enemy to seek revenge. However, just prior to his attack on the city, his Roman family visits him to plead with him to call off the attack.

At first, Coriolanus tries to ignore their pleas. He tries to brace himself by telling himself that,

I’ll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand
As if a man were author of himself
And knew no other kin. (5.3. 34-37)

Shakespeare here uses language which is very familiar to modern liberalism. The idea of being self-authored, or of writing your own script, is part of the terminology of our own times.

But Shakespeare does not intend us to sympathise with this attitude. It is clear from the text that natural bonds and loyalties, including the ties of kinship and patriotism, are rightly felt to be stronger than the merely personal will or desires (for revenge in this case) of an atomised individual.

Coriolanus, for instance, at the sight of his wife, is reminded of the “bond and privilege” of nature; at the sight of his son he declares that “my young boy / Hath an aspect of intercession which / Great Nature cries ‘Deny Not’”.

One writer on Shakespeare, Anthony Law, has summarised this passage from Shakespeare as follows:

Coriolanus most explicitly embodies the modernist desire for total autonomy ... Shakespeare has him deny his family and his country in the face of three generations of that family – mother, wife, and son – who beg him not to destroy Rome ...

Since the nineteenth century, the word “instinct” has had a particular scientific meaning, but for Coriolanus it means to be bound by an unselfconscious inward stain or tincture to the obligations of family, culture, citizenship, and tradition. Now Coriolanus will throw off all these instinctive restraints. He will become the “author of himself,” forget all other ties, and act from unnameable internal principles, which we now recognize as the underlying axioms of autonomous individualism.

In Shakespeare’s play the forces of autonomous individualism lose out. Coriolanus is reminded of his natural loyalties and brokers a peace. His nobility is restored. Unfortunately, in England and across the West, there was a radically different outcome and one, I think it is safe to say, which would not have pleased our most famous playwright.

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