THE PLAY IS THE THING

A review of Shakespeare’s Political Wisdom,
by Timothy Burns

THE PLAY IS THE THINGIn Shakespeare’s Political Wisdom Timothy Burns calls for a “naïve” reading of the Bard that doesn’t interpret his plays through the lens of modern political theory or contemporary social science. Instead, Burns attempts to recover—and uncover—the classical political thought within five plays: Julius CaesarMacbethThe Merchant of VeniceKing Lear, and The Tempest.
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By reading Shakespeare as political philosophy, Burns’s book recalls the innovative approach of Allan Bloom and Harry V. Jaffa in Shakesepare’s Politics (1964), which looked at The Merchant of Venice,OthelloJulius Caesar, and King Lear. Like Bloom and Jaffa, Burns sets out to understand the plays as Shakespeare intended them to be read and digested, without modern or postmodern assumptions: “[p]rior to the emergence of modern political philosophy,” political life was “a stage on which virtues and vices were made manifest” and Shakespeare “made human beings who lived that full political life the subject of many of his plays.” Because classical forms had been rediscovered during the Renaissance, Burns assumes that Shakespeare would have read, absorbed, re-imagined, and dramatized classical political thought. Hence Burns, a professor of government at Skidmore College, is comfortable making frequent and specific references to Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, and Machiavelli, whether or not there’s evidence that Shakespeare read them. We do at least know he not only read but also brilliantly reconceived Plutarch’s Parallel Lives into the most significant political plays of the Elizabethan age.

Read the complete review.
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A reminder that on April 27 we will be reading and discussing poetry and other literature about, or inspired by, Shakespeare, his works and characters. Please bring your own selection of this genre for discussion and, if you wish, post it first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections posted to-date.

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