Given that Shakespeare’s company enjoyed royal patronage, performed regularly at Court, and became known as the King’s Men upon the accession of James I in 1603, you’d be forgiven for assuming that his plays were bent on buttressing rather than subverting the status quo. That assumption certainly seems to be backed up in Troilus and Cressida by Ulysses’ apocalyptic vision of the anarchy that’s bound to ensue when “degree, priority and place” are not strictly observed: “Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows.” For those who take the conservative thrust of Shakespeare’s drama for granted, there’s no more eloquent proof of its commitment to the rigidly hierarchical regimes over which Elizabeth and James presided.
But splice Ulysses’ speech back into its dramatic context and it stands exposed as the devious ploy of a cynical politician rather than a front for his creator’s credo. In fact, if any character’s a shoo-in for Shakespeare’s mouthpiece in this terminally disenchanted play, it’s not the hero of Homer’s Odyssey but the scabrous, deformed slave Thersites. As the play’s caustic chorus, the “bitch-wolf’s son” exploits his intimacy with the audience to vent his contempt for leaders and lovers alike on both sides in the Trojan War. Undeterred by the thrashings he earns for his toxic abuse of his betters, Thersites persists in puncturing the illusions under which they blatantly labour. When he tells us that “All the argument is a whore and a cuckold,” there’s little doubt that the last word on the fabled siege of Troy has been given to a self-confessed “scurvy railing knave.”
That Shakespeare had a soft spot for slaves shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, if one thinks back to the Dromio twins in The Comedy of Errors at the dawn of his theatrical career and forward to Caliban in The Tempest in its twilight. Despite being beaten black and blue by their masters, the Dromios bamboozle them with their frivolous quibbling and insubordinate backchat. And it’s they who enshrine in the play’s closing lines the egalitarian spirit that drives Shakespeare’s drama from the outset: “We came into the world like brother and brother, / And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.” The same spirit impels Caliban, the “freckled whelp, hag-born” in thrall to Prospero, when he defiantly retorts, “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me,” and throws the legitimacy of sovereignty itself into question: “I am all the subjects that you have, / Which first was mine own king.”
Between the Dromios and Caliban a cavalcade of sharp-witted, quick-tongued commoners, born to labour for a living or to serve those born to command them, wisecracks its way through every type of play Shakespeare penned. Sometimes their task is to cut their superiors down to size by debunking their romantic postures or grandiose fantasies, an art at which Valentine’s servant Speed in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and the wise fool Touchstone in As You Like It excel. Sometimes it means braving their masters’ wrath by speaking the truth to power in the guise of jests, as the Fool does in King Lear. And sometimes they press equivocation beyond a joke, like the Gardener in Richard II, who instructs his workmate in the Queen’s hearing: “Go thou, and, like an executioner, / Cut off the heads of too fast-growing sprays / That look too lofty in our commonwealth. / All must be even in our government.” Or like the fisherman overheard by Pericles explaining to his mates that fish live in the sea “as men do a-land — the great ones eat up the little ones,” which is why, he concludes, “We would purge the land of these drones that rob the bee of her honey.”
Such seditious views might be dismissed as peculiar to disgruntled plebs in Shakespeare, were it not that such hostility to hierarchy turns out to be contagious. So contagious, indeed, that it refuses to confine itself to the lower echelons of the dramatis personae, breaks out in characters of every stamp, and finds its most powerful expression in a disaffected prince and a disabused king. The very notion of rank, on which their own royalty and the systemic injustice it sanctions depend, is nullified by the shattering transformation of consciousness Hamlet and Lear undergo. “The King is a thing (…) Of nothing,” observes Hamlet to the baffled Rosencrantz, before showing Claudius “how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar” and reminding him that death makes no distinction between beggars and kings. And in King Lear an autocratic monarch is robbed of his sovereignty, his sanity and the roof over his head, and forced to feel what the “Poor naked wretches” of his kingdom feel: hunger, cold, and despair. Not content with that, Shakespeare stages an encounter that compels the king to realize that beneath his royal robes and a mad beggar’s rags shivers the same “poor, bare, forked animal,” and to tear off the trappings of majesty that hide the simple proof of our innate equality.
What the autocratic King James thought of King Lear when his company performed it at court in 1606 is unknown. But it’s worth recalling that a few decades later in 1649 his son, Charles I, was put to death by Parliament and his kingdom replaced by a Commonwealth, thus fulfilling the rebel Jack Cade’s prophecy in 2 Henry VI that “All the realm shall be in common.” Perhaps it’s not entirely fanciful to think that the glove-maker’s lad from Stratford played his part in creating the climate that made that revolution possible.
Featured image credit: Robson & Crane in Shakespeare’s “Comedy of errors”. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.