Shakespeare: bard of a rising class

What is the secret of Shakespeare’s enduring appeal, and why should workers today be interested in his writings?

Kathy Sharp

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Speaking on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, on 23 April 2016, Comrade Kathy Sharp explains the essence of William Shakespeare’s greatness, relevance and contemporary meaning, from a Marxist standpoint.

The first part of her presentation can be read here: Celebrating Shakespeare: a Marxist-Leninist perspective

It is interesting to note that Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, like much of literary history and thought, are often taught at our schools (if they are taught to them at all) in such a way as to make them incomprehensible to most working-class children, and apparently of relevance only to the elite.

Shakespeare is embraced as the ‘universal man’ by our ruling class, who see him as the epitome of Englishness and their ‘superior’ culture, while simultaneously placing him above place, time and class interest. He is simply a ‘national treasure’. In the USA, he is viewed by many as a symbol of Eurocentric supremacy.

Yet Kathy points out, using the brilliant Marxist analysis of Soviet citizen AA Smirnoff that his greatness lay in the fact that he was in reality very much a man of his time.

That time was the rise of the the English capitalist class in the last days of the absolute feudal monarchy, as it first finished off the remnants of the feudal nobility proper, and then braced itself for the confrontation with feudalism that was the English revolution (civil war).

Shakespeare was, in essence, the bard of a rising class – of a class in its period of ascendancy, revolutionary action and revolutionary optimism.

Shakespeare’s outlook was essentially humanist, putting the great tempestuous acts of human will at the centre of history, and elevating man from the stagnant feudal epoch to centre stage: powerful, and capable of great feats of daring and accomplishment.

Kathy outlines the key historical context of Shakespeare’s life and times, and in so doing elucidates the crucial materialist history of the rise of the English bourgeois class, which set the stage for its bourgeois revolution, the primitive accumulation of capital and the colonial epoch. This in turn set the stage for the modern world in which we live.

Placing Shakespeare in context both renews our appreciation and enjoyment of his work, and reaffirms the power of the materialist analysis of history as a tool for the empowerment and action of the working masses.

Shakespeare’s plays attest to his views that man is the shaper of his own destiny, and that the value of life lies in heroic struggle – even if that struggle may end in defeat.

This is an enlightening presentation with broad scope. Anyone studying English literature, Shakespeare’s plays, English history or the proletarian movement should watch the presentation and read Smirnoff’s brilliant work: Shakespeare: A Marxist Interpretation. (1936)