Shakespeare, the Man Who Served No One

It is our lack of knowledge about Shakespeare's heart that makes him incomparably enigmatic, more so than any other playwright or poet in history.


Robert White, professor of English, has recently reminded us how William Shakespeare influenced thinkers and leaders as disparate as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Nelson Mandela and Adolf Hitler.

One is not surprised, for, as the Romanian philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran writes in The Short History of Decay, “Shakespeare, by a stroke of luck, did not ‘serve’ anything.”

This is an exceptional judgement for any writer, about the seeming necessity of serving the audience an ideological point of view – but it is even more so for Shakespeare, who depended on live audiences to promote his plays. Rather than presenting his audiences with strictly-drawn battle-lines, he created complex historical settings and conflicts between his protagonists. It can be said that Shakespeare invented his audience as much as he invented a non-serving, non-partisan literature.

Not to put one’s writing (or thinking) at the service of a particular ideology is almost unimaginable in our era. Most of us will willy-nilly draw out covert ideology from the work of any writer, regardless of his or her claims on the matter. We use Marx, Freud, Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva to deduce the influences behind the writer’s words.

The difficulty with Shakespeare is that he never speaks – his characters do. You cannot pin Shakespeare down to suit your suspicions. His characters may have their political views and beliefs – but not Shakespeare.

Such a writer is perhaps unthinkable in our fiercely ideological times. Modernity disallows us the luxury of serving nothing and no one. We are victims of our own reading, haunted by the notions of class, caste, gender and race. Colonialism, and literatures supporting older structures of power, have made us critically hyper-aware, so that we are trapped by a constant alertness in our writings to never betray prejudices.

Today’s writers work constantly in the shadow of criticism, fearing in advance that the betrayal of this or that bias will have not only the critics but the reading public after them.

Does good literature have to be consciously clean of biases?

Do we need to write under the shadow of a moral critique masked as political correctness?

Is literature supposed to be a “correct” art?

Such suggestions would have shocked not just Shakespeare but also Dante, Cervantes and Rabelais. If their writings “served” anything, it was literature alone. They gave us unforgettably complex, comic and tragic figures and contexts. Gargantua, Pantagruel and Don Quixote charted unique and outrageous courses. But, it can be said, their creators towed no official line of morality and politics.

The birth of criticism in the modern era produced the idea of “committed” literature. Writers had to take sides – a point made not only by writers like Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre but also by the official diktats of “socialist realism” in the erstwhile USSR. Stalinist ideas of literature led Lenin to dismiss Dostoevsky as mediocre and Mao to ban Shakespeare in China during the Cultural Revolution. The man who did not serve anything was considered dangerous for Chinese communism. The irony is that Marx was engrossed in Timon of Athens and King Lear while writing Capital, Volume I.

Shakespeare’s worlds

The Marxist theorist and writer Walter Benjamin contends that Shakespeare’s works are allegorical. In Benjamin’s own definition, “allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.” The idea of ruins has a powerful and positive place in Benjamin’s “Arcade Project” and work as a whole, and is reproduced through his penchant for fragmentary writing. The poetic incompleteness of ruins could provocatively be identified as a Shakespearean quality, in the sense that reading Shakespeare always remains an incomplete critical exercise.

Of course, the “openness” of Shakespeare does not imply political “emptiness.” At the same time that it is hard to pin Shakespeare down, there is often satirical pithiness in the dialogues spoken by his characters  – and this is why their words have been infinitely interpreted and re-interpreted as conveying politics of one kind or the other, and in their complexity, have served to link the work of one thinker with another. Professor of English Ania Loomba once provocatively summed up Jacques Derrida’s work (during his lecture at JNU in January,1997) by referring to Caliban’s famous line in The Tempest: “You taught me language, and my profit on ’t / Is I know how to curse.”

The Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein makes another famous observation about Shakespeare in Culture and Value, “Was he perhaps a creator of language rather than a poet?”

The stunning number of everyday words and phrases used in the English language that Shakespeare coined leaves no doubt regarding the efficacy of this observation. But Wittgenstein does not pose his question admiringly. For he goes on to observe, “It seems to me that [Shakespeare’s] plays are like enormous sketches, not paintings; they are dashed off by one who could, so to speak, permit himself everything. And I understand how one can admire this and call it the highest art, but I don’t like it.”

Perhaps this characterisation of Shakespeare’s work as sketch – and not painting – like arises from the playwright’s refusal to shape his language according to pre-existing norms. Perhaps, as William Day has said, Wittgenstein’s “problem with Shakespeare” is that he misses a moral centre at the heart of the plays, points where he can locate the author’s empathies, blueprints against which to decipher the works. What he seems to suggest is that Shakespeare mimics life with broad brushstrokes rather than the pointed touches that made for conventional works of art. For Wittgenstein, Shakespeare’s characters don’t mirror the exterior world but rather, worlds of their own. They exist within the language that Shakespeare invents and to which they give voice.

Shakespeare leaves no such trace of himself in his works, to the annoyance of philosophers like Wittgenstein.

Shakespeare’s “political detachment” is an even more remarkable feat when one notes that he is not without debts or predecessors. Stephen Greenblatt, among other scholars, has discussed the influence on Shakespeare of the famous essayist of the French Renaissance Michel de Montaigne. But Montaigne’s personal observations of people in his essays took an altogether different shape when used by Shakespeare for his characters such as Caliban and King Lear. As Greenblatt observes, “Shakespeare’s borrowing… is an act not of homage but of aggression.”

It is our lack of knowledge about Shakespeare’s heart that makes him incomparably enigmatic, more so than any other playwright or poet in history.

But is the unknowability of a writer’s heart any proof of its lack?

That is an endlessly debatable question. But there is no doubt that the fluidity of Shakespeare’s truths, so to speak, is enough to irritate any philosopher, even one as linguistically inclined as Wittgenstein. The absence of truth is often construed as deception. But I shall let the matter rest by quoting Hamlet, “Doubt truth to be a liar; / But never doubt I love.”

Manash ‘Firaq’ Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.