Sunday, 3 November 2019

No Sovereignty: Shakespeare’s Anarchistic Idylls


There are around 37 plays attributed to William Shakespeare, written around 1590–1615, ranging through tragicomedy, comedies, tragedies and histories. They were produced at a time of absolute monarchy, where disloyalty to the monarch could mean death, and political censorship of the theatre was imposed by church and state. Yet within a generation, the conflicts of the English Civil War was challenging these ancient authorities, and by 1649 had deposed, tried and executed the King, disabling the monarchy for a short period.

Although Shakespeare's plays are peopled by kings and queens, dukes and nobles, they more often offer a critique of power, and particularly the flaws in hereditary rule.

The text of the plays, only published after Shakespeare's death, exists in different versions. For the purposes of this article, I shall refer to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (ISBN-0-86288-146-3) and in some cases to BBC Television's The Shakespeare Collection on DVD (2005).

Anarchy in tragicomedy: The Tempest

Ancient and trusted advisor Gonzalo, trying to distract and amuse his apparently-bereaved King Alonzo, launches into a vivid description of how he would settle the pleasant isle on which they are stranded.

I'the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things: for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be know; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none:
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil:
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too; but innocent and pure:
No sovereignty:—…
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foizon, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people…
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.
The Tempest, Act 1 scene 2

The apparent contradiction of ruling this land-without-sovereignty is not lost on his listening critics. Yet there is safety in not rejecting kingship completely when your words are carried to your monarch. Does Gonzalo (held in esteem by philosopher-king-like Prospero) make sensible points here?

We should be clear that Gonzalo's idyll is not colonialism: there is no dispossession of others, no force, no living sweetly off the sweat of others. Nature is the provider, and his innocent and pure subjects live uncommanded in a state of Nature. The enemies of their golden age appear to be agriculture, toil, law, property, violence, coercion, corrupting luxuries, trade, need. Gonzalo's idle sketch may be an unsatisfactory model of an eco-anarchistic commune, yet his musings lead to sharper questions. For example, how can you call Elizabeth I's reign a 'golden age' if people went hungry?


If humans are happiest in a state of Nature, are they above Nature or other animals? People are compared to animals throughout the plays, and in Two Gentlemen of Verona, servant Launce takes a whipping to spare his dog (Act 4 scene 4) (true love?) amongst other sacrifices. The forest bandits appear to be getting along fine without a leader, perhaps because they live as social animals.

But perhaps human societies should have culture to thrive, and norms of behaviour? There is a kind of levelling in the Merry Wives of Windsor, where an economy of dishonesty and errand places power in intermediaries, and the final fairy forest gathering is perhaps an anarchistic idyll of communal justice over the highest ranked but greatest offending member. Puritans seem to exclude themselves from these groups (John Rugby? Malvolio in Twelfth Night facing an anarchist group of tormentors?).

Looking at the problems of rule, Measure for Measure suggests that the corruptions of power lead inevitably to problems. A monarch cannot easily embody both terror and mercy, and the paradox of power is that false communications between ruler and ruled render unreliable worldviews. The Duke seems to achieve more by persuasion in his meddling monk guise than by command.

So here we might consider if the essence of Shakespearean drama, with human agency and responsibility, requires persuasion to move the plot and characters, rather than command. It would, after, be a dull play if people simply obeyed orders from those of higher ranks or offices.

Persuasion forms part of collective decision-making, and an essential decision is often about justice. The pro-Hero conspiracy in Much Ado About Nothing is joined by reason and compassion rather than ruled by rank or its allegiances. An interesting aspect of the play is that those elected to office by the populace seem dumber than average.

What upsets Nature in the forest of Midsummer-Night's Dream? Perhaps abuses of patriarchal power by Theseus, Egeus and Oberon. Post-ordeal, two forest couples reach a state of maturity away from oppressive Athenian law (yet still make fun of the rude mechanicals when they return, and rank and privilege are re-established).

What sets nobles above commoners? In Love's Labour's Lost, the nobles profess a meritocracy of wit, yet commoners may outwit nobles (yet we see the divisive nature of language(s)). A field-court may make up its own rules (from a Natural environment?). In their Renaissance humanities, the proper study of man is woman, and vice versa? There is equality in that.

What of the Prince of Arragon in Act 2 scene 9 of the Merchant of Venice, appearing to rail against the corrupt obtaining of estates, degrees and offices and supposing a meritocracy would raise many honourable peasants while stripping and lowering society commanders. How far might common humanity heal the divisions in the play?

What if, as Celia fantasises in As You Like It, Fortune's gifts were bestowed equally? But Nature gives and takes separately, Rosalind claims. Natural differences will have to be accommodated in society. Life in the Forest of Arden is away from the rat race (Act 2 scene 2), and provokes its banished refugees to consider the rights of animals, who they may seem to tyrannise. While there is no in-system redress against the tyrannies of Duke Frederick and Oliver, which makes the plays resolution (by strange conversion) an unsatisfactory failure to meet and match the mores of forest (Corin's Glad of other men's good) and court (Touchstone's I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways.).

In All's Well That Ends Well, the poorer born must shut up their wishes, hide their thoughts, while courtiers seem to need martial exploits or turn diseased. A hierarchical society disdains and bars merit, as even the King sees; yet he treats Bertram as a slave. The Clown thinks many rich are damned and courtiers are low-skilled. Yet the Patriarchy ends up on trial through the collaboration of women inspired by a young, title-less female doctor. Another way is possible.

Or is it? Does the Taming of the Shrew suggest that happiness must be bought with unfreedom?

Certainly patriarchal tyranny threatens happiness in Winter's Tale, although Paulina will not be ruled by husband in honourable actions. An (anarchistic) friendship group may have corrected Leontes; a healthy society must encourage making amends, turning to good.

Gender equality is raised by Adriana in Comedy of Errors (Act 2 scene 1) Why should their liberty than ours be more? yet servants must suffer unredressed beatings. The play raises some profound nature–nurture questions without, unfortunately, really addressing them.


The History plays are, on the face of it, concerned more with monarchical systems, although these vary (monarchs can achieve top spot by election, nomination, divine approval, right of conquest as well as primogeniture). Indeed, in Macbeth, Malcolm (Act 4 scene 3) tests Macduff with visions of appalling kingship based on precedent. Perhaps only the witches disdain hierarchies and property.

The King John play shows how, without a republican alternative, people turn to foreign monarchs, and opportunistic regicide.

An extreme monarchical position is shown in The Life and Death of King Richard the Second, where Richard loftily claims (during a momentary high) that:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king:
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord:
The Life and Death of King Richard the Second, Act 3 scene 2

Yet all is not quiet in the garden, where the Gardener says (Act 3 scene 4):

All must be even in our government.

To which the Queen responds with:

thou little better thing than earth

Effectively the aloof English royals appear to reject the Christian equality of soul whilst claiming divine appointment.

Yet when masters and servants keep each other's company, as in the King Henry the Fourth plays, their behaviours appear to copy and merge, even if people seek out 'inferiors' to content themselves superior.

Commoners have no redress against a monarch's wrongs in King Henry V.

Did commoners once have ancient freedoms, taken away by successive English monarchs? So says rebel John Cade in the Second Part of King Henry the Sixth, when he incites oppressed commoners to resist enclosures. The only idyll here is Iden's peaceful, level Eden which does not survive his reward for killing Cade. No rational alternative to kingship is on offer here.

Nor in The Life and Death of King Richard the Third, who seems too easily to beguile the masses.

Nor in the tyrannous King Henry VIII, for all he says:

We must not rend our subjects from our laws, and stick them in our will.

All in all, the Histories offer poor prospects for glimpsing anarchistic society, yet there is potentially an impression that a pre-monarchical society must have existed in England, or at least one where commoners had extensive rights. In other words, the Histories may be describing a long descent into tyranny, which projected far enough backwards may reach its opposite in a distant, suppressed past.

Perhaps Shakespeare's only 'good' king, Henry V (yet a scheming war criminal), relies on his ability to communicate with commoners for his success, gained from consorting with criminals and low-lifes while avoiding the corruption of the court.


The Shakespearean tragedies often focus on individuals standing against social pressures or norms, and pose questions for any kind of society. Only a few have anything to say about anarchism, and less about an idyllic form of it.

Timon of Athens is essentially a critique of capitalism. If everyone in Athens agreed with Timon's early contention We are born to do benefits then society may need little coercion. As shallow Timon gives benefits without receiving return on his social capital investments, he lurches from optimism into misanthropy, eventually holding that the Earth should be given to animals to save it from monstrous humans. But as philosopher Apemantus says (Act 4 scene 3):

the middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends

We can only infer that a life without the corruption of gold, with the innocence of animals, away from extremes depicted, hold out some hope for the good life.

Coriolanus suggests that, at least in ancient republican Rome, anarchy would fail because the many-headed multitude of democracy and the prideful, warmongering elite need each other. The play suggests that speech leads eventually to self-contradiction, confusion, persuasion (maybe only speech-less animals can be functional anarchists, then).

It is possible for humans, away from court and living in caves, to live in anarchy, suggests the play Cymbeline, but speech creates tensions, as Belarius' tales of great deeds creates dissatisfaction with their humdrum existence in his adoptive sons, however much Belarius insists it is nobler. Humans appear destined for greater things than living like speech-capable beasts, and greater than corrupt monarchy where the law protects not commoners. The balanced human, perhaps the only real hero, is servant Pisanio (and even he is foolish in accepting the Queen's cordial). At least soldiery appears meritocratic.

Yet good soldiers can be poor decision-makers for society, a picture-lesson Titus Andronicus paints in blood, as Titus' choice of Saturninus for emperor goes immediately and spectacularly wrong. Kings will enslave you, erode the rule of law, mock your traditions and values, act in haste, be led astray (which seems to have echoes of God's warning to the Israelites). Beginning as arch-authoritarian family patriarch, Titus' remaining family is levelled by grief, and they begin working as a team. The play is full of repudiations to people who see others as inferior. Perhaps you should treat your enemies as human beings too.

King Lear also contains such repudiations of worth, as when a servant mortally wounds Cornwall in just reprimand, inspiring other servants to revolt (Act 3 scene 7). It takes Lear's fall from power for him to see from a commoner's perspective what a bad job he has done for his people as King:

I have ta'en too little care of this
King Lear, Act 3 scene 4

The question of whether animals who have developed such complex speech as humans can ever rule themselves is taken up in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, a play all about communication and miscommunication. In many ways, Denmark at peace under talker Claudius may be better for the populace than Denmark at war under fighter Hamlet-senior. What kind of a world is it when corrupt and plotting diplomacy offers a better life than plain-talking warmongering? The escape from this false dichotomy may lie in the once-perfect communication between Ophelia and Hamlet, destroyed by the impositions of their differences in rank.

And there you have it. Animals without speech can live happily in a state of Nature, but humans with speech aspire to more. An aspiration to higher rank brings the abuses of hierarchy and divisive speech. But humans on equal level can achieve a more perfect form of communication, and tread a path between the savage and the corrupt, fulfilling themselves in the company of each other, and finally living to do benefits in harmony with Nature.


Shakespeare may have exploited anarchistic situations for dramatic reasons, but as a deep political thinker he may have been exploring alternate forms of social arrangement.

In some ways, his stages worked as alternative Parliaments, more interactive than the performances we generally see today.

Gonzalo's idle vision may have been too boring to succeed, but he may have a point about connecting with Nature, and a relaxed communal spirit that rejects the symbols and causes of division and coercion. He strongly implies equality between men and women, the importance of self-sufficiency and no-one going hungry.

The Comedies suggest an alternate lifestyle exists away from the hierarchies of the court, perhaps in one of many forests. The Histories suggest that social unity can only happen when we all speak the same language or at least communicate on a level. And the Tragedies suggest that if we do not perfect this communication we may be doomed.

It seems fair to say that the Shakespearean plays offer much political criticism but little in way of templates for success. In giving substantial roles to all ranks, anarchy is enacted rather than modelled. Yet glimpsing between the lines, peering into the negative space left by the failed social structures, we may see the faint glimmer of a community that escapes the dull living of dumb beasts and yet avoids the savage-martial/corrupt-courtierly/rank-ridden cultures exposed in the plays. A Natural leveller paradise, communication as perfect as before the Tower of Babel: an anarchist idyll, brought to you on stage.

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No Sovereignty: Shakespeare’s Anarchistic Idylls by Sleeping Dog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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