Radical Shakespeare: Why do we get him so wrong?

By Pauline Kiernan

A timely study which restores the revolutionary message of Shakespeare's art.

Shakespeare’s Theatre as Political Dynamite

Imagine. A Western Power with no allies in Europe, under constant threat of war with the world’s greatest Superpower. A country bedevilled by a disastrous economic policy, mounting debt, nightmare inflation, and a monopolies system so unfair, it amounts to bureaucratic theft. A people subsisting at near starvation level, facing unprecedented mass unemployment, and devastating crop failures year after year. Widespread outbreaks of rioting are the only way they can make their voices heard.

Imagine a Head of State under constant threat of assassination, whose personal staff sell secrets to ambassadors and spies from foreign enemy states to the highest bidder. Dissidents of the state-enforced religion, backed by the world’s most powerful nation, are plotting the overthrow of the government. Even the Pope is urging your closet Catholics to murder you and sending troops to Ireland to invade your land.

whose personal staff sell secrets to ambassadors and spies from foreign enemy states to the highest bidder. Dissidents of the state-enforced religion, backed by the world’s most powerful nation, are plotting the overthrow of the government. Even the Pope is urging your closet Catholics to murder you and sending troops to Ireland to invade your land.

The number of homeless is increasing every day. They drift from town to town, sleeping rough, begging. The rich are getting richer on the back of an ever-increasing dependence on credit. Usury, outlawed for centuries as being against God’s law, becoming so rife, you’ve had to bring in a law to legalise it. You’re having to depend on money-lenders yourself.

What would you do if you had the government of such a state?

You have no standing army - only a small fleet for the Defence of the Realm. You have to rely solely on your geographical isolation for what is laughingly called your Defence Policy.

You have no organised police force for maintaining control over civil disorder and riots. A revolution is all too possible.

You have no formal method of collecting taxes. No government-biased mass circulation press. No televised political broadcasts and debates. No social media to reach out to millions.

Do you, in fact, have any power at all? Well, no. Or rather, no. and yes. You set up a ruthlessly efficient international spy network to monitor the Cold War with your enemies. Just now, your spymaster has brought news that 150 ships, 700 galleys with 30,000 landing soldiers, 20,000 from Rome with the Scottish King and his 40,000 men are about to attack your kingdom - because Spain is about ‘to settle the King of Scots in this realm.’ You set up a National Intelligence Service to root out militants and agitators and anyone who speaks out against the State.  

To fill up your depleted Treasury you send out some adventurous types across the seas to fertile lands and rich mines, starve the inhabitants into submission, or massacre them if necessary, force them into belief in a Protestant God, and steal their valuable resources.

In other words, you start to build an Empire.

But even that isn’t enough to restore your endlessly repleted coffers.       

You make sure the punishment of crime is made ghoulishly public. String up the traitors till they’re only half dead, rip out their bowels and slice off their heads,  to join the other traitors’ heads propped up on London’s Bridge.

Now that’s all very well. But what you need above all else, is the illusion of power. And your most valuable weapon is already there - in the Theatre. They’re throwing up playhouses all over your capital. 15 - 20,000 playgoers flock to the playhouses every week. The actors are fed up with being classed as vagrants, subject to arrest and punishment like any other homeless vagabond. You want them to perform their plays for you, but you don’t want your entertainment for your Christmas solace untried. They need to rehearse, to perfect their plays. Give them a respectable status. Get your tamed aristocrats to do most of the work for you. The ones who do you favours in return for a big house and a couple of hundred acres.  Give them the monopolies on lucrative retail goods, privileged positions in your government.

You get the actors to tour the provinces as well - you reach a nationwide audience.

But you have to be careful with the playwrights. Even bringing in tough censorship laws can’t ensure absolute control over what they write - or what the actors actually perform. They’ve started to find ways round the censors: setting their plays in earlier times and in foreign climes. What you are about to find out is that if you succeed in making the theatre the most important location for the representation and legitimation of your power, you must never forget that the theatre itself has an even greater power - to subvert the very authority you want it to sanction and legitimate.


In a world where a whisper against the State down the pub can get your balls chopped off then your head, a hot-shot playwright from the sticks dares to put a thinly-veiled attack on the Head of State on a public stage. It sends shock waves through London and beyond, and the Queen into a flame of fear.

 It is impossible for us to recover the cataclysmic shock to the original audience when they watched the enactment of a king humiliated, uncrowned, arrested, thrown in the Tower, and butchered before their eyes. Shakespeare had put the unthinkable on stage. Richard IIwas political dynamite. Military might has seized the sacred crown, usurped God’s divinely-ordained deputy on earth - and most dangerous of all, showed the audience how easily it’s done.

Shock was one of the most potent strategies of Shakespeare’s theatrical practice, and without being able to recover the full impact of his drama on the original audiences we often lose the sense of what was revolutionary about his works. And for obvious reasons. We’re not Elizabethans or Jacobeans. Because of our estrangement from the past we reshape his drama and audiences in our own image and impose our cultural, political and sexual attitudes onto the texts. Shakespeare, as his fellow dramatist Jonson said, ‘is not of an age, but for all time’. Except when we distort the playwright’s meaning. He abjured Marlowe’s sensationalism, rejected outright all Renaissance theories of art, empowered actors in ways they had never been before, satirised political corruption, interrogated the ethics of war, and, as we have seen, dared to challenge the authority of his Queen. None of it would have worked, of course, if he had not imbued his characters and their actions with what psychiatrists at Broadmoor, Britain’s high-security mental hospital, called his ‘paraclinical precision’; his ‘relentless impulse to reach the depths of the psyche’. [i]

What made Richard II literally spectacularly seditious was that Elizabeth was well aware of the widespread slander that ‘Richard II’ was one of her nicknames. To be a ‘King Richard II’s man’ was to be a duplicitous flatterer of the Queen. Like the earlier monarch, she surrounded herself with favourites on whom she bestowed gifts and monopolies on expensive goods. Elizabeth’s favourite, Essex - like Bolingbroke, the man of action who forced the divinely-ordained monarch to take off his sacred crown - was becoming dangerously popular.

But there was something else. She kept refusing to name an heir, and the fear that her death would plunge the country into yet another horrific civil war with factions fighting over the throne, meant that any play that depicted instability and disruption of the State would be seen as inciting rebellion. About three years earlier, Shakespeare had already offered Elizabeth and her subjects a vehement warning with his complex, blood-soaked Henry VI plays spanning ten years of the 15th century, the Wars of the Roses. The plays were monster hits with huge box-office takings. Part One opens with the funeral of Henry V whose son was too young to rule. The nobles are viciously fighting to take over power.  With an ageing, childless monarch on the throne, a drama depicting the consequences of refusing to name a successor was dangerously topical. Elizabeth had strictly forbidden anyone to even say the word ‘Succession’.

Elizabeth, then, didn’t see the play’s author as toadying to the Tudors and must have wished it had.  Whether she saw the play that has been cited with depressing regularity by too many who don’t bother to do their research, as ‘proof’ that Shakespeare was a Tudor propagandist is a nice question.

The audience would later be offered a barely disguised eulogy to Essex at the end of Henry V, where the Earl is described as coming home from his Irish campaign to be greeted by a tumultuous welcome from the crowds. It was a rallying cry for Essex’s fans, and the suggestion that he be seen as a King of England is clear. On Saturday, February 7th, 1601, a performance of Richard II was staged. Shakespeare and his company had agreed to a request by Essex’s faction to put on a special performance of the old play. It was a public statement of support for the Earl. The next day, Essex, with Shakespeare’s lover, the Earl of Southampton and a small group of followers, led the rebellion against the Queen. It failed. The performance of the play was tantamount to treason. How did Shakespeare get away with it?


He may have a hump for a back, ‘a foul lump of deformity’ for a body, a misshapen penis and just one ball (’half made up’), but Shakespeare’s Richard III certainly knows how to seduce an audience.

But which audience? Think about the actor who originally played this King. Richard Burbage was the sexiest man alive on stage in the most popular form of entertainment for aristocrats, the middle-class and the ‘groundlings’. The actor playing the ‘poisonous bunch-backed toad’ who says he’s sexually impotent, is the most glamorous star of the day.

So, what does Shakespeare do? He lays on the deformity, the physical repugnance, exploits the discrepancy between handsome actor and disfigured role for all its worth. Can you imagine being in that audience the moment Burbage limped onto the stage with his hump back and crooked frame? The powerful physical presence of that athletic body twisted into monstrous shape? And when Richard tells you he cannot be a lover, ‘I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,/Nor made to court an amorous looking glass,’ his adoring fans of all shapes in the audience were almost certainly cracking up with the rest of the audience. To then have this seductive creature draw you into his secret thoughts to become an accomplice to his evil plans would be to feel an irresistibly guilty thrill.       

But what was truly revolutionary about this opening scene was the language. Shakespeare gives Richard the most astonishing rhetorical tricks.

When Burbage came to the front of the stage and delivered that stunning first speech audiences had never heard a character talk to them with such intimacy.


[i] Murray Cox and Alice Theilgaard, Shakespeare as Prompter: The Amending Imagination & The Therapeutic Process (London and Bristol, Pennsylvania, 1994), 5; 206.


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