In his essay on ‘Shakespeare’s presentation of evil in King Richard III, King Lear and Macbeth’ Parsram Singh argues that Shakespeare propagated the Tudor myth.
Does that mean that Shakespeare’s works were Tudor Propaganda!? Is Shakespeare truly any better than Nazi minister Joseph Goebbels? In this essay, I will unravel all this and more.
What was The Tudor Myth?
In 1485, Henry the VII defeated Richard the third at the battle of Bosworth Field and established a dynasty that would last for over a hundred years. The Tudor dynasty is one of the most famous in English history, but it was by no means secure. Henry the VII, Henry the VIII, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth all faced challenges to their rule and it should come as no surprise that they were eager to convince the masses to buy into their projects.
Enter William Shakespeare. For Royals such as the Tudors, art had the power to influence the masses. Being one of the most skilled of the dramatists, Shakespeare’s works could be used to propagate their message and it has been largely suggested, by numerous authors, that Shakespeare did, to some extent, use his art to legitimize their rule in the eyes of the public.
But was he to Elizabeth what Joseph Goebbels was to Hitler? Well, let’s examine the difference between art and propaganda and then dive into the debate.
What is propaganda?
In an article on ‘Propaganda vs Art’ Richard Bledsoe writes:
“There are important distinctions between art and propaganda. Although both are forms of visual communication, their aims are completely different…Great art explores the mysteries of human experience… [It] reaches universal, shared experience by honestly presenting the results of self-exploration.’
On the other hand, propaganda:
‘seeks to influence an intellectual decision by stirring up obscuring clouds of emotionalism.’
So are Shakespeare’s works propaganda? The case for
Parsram Singh argues that “Shakespeare’s principal aim in the two tetralogies is to propagate one aspect of the Tudor myth”.
For anyone who doesn’t know, a tetralogy is a group of four related literary or operatic works. Shakespeare’s first consists of Richard the II, Henry the IV parts one and two and Henry the V. His second includes Henry the VI parts 1, 2 and 3 and Richard the third.
His histories begin with the peasant’s revolt and the removal of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry the IV). According to Singh, Shakespeare presents this episode as one that arouses God’s wrath and entails divine retribution.
Between 1399 and 1485 England endures a period of darkness, ridden with retributive civil wars, rebellions, political chaos, the rise and fall of sovereigns, England’s loss of French territories and the sway of men’s passions over their reason.
This is foreshadowed in Richard the II when Carlisle denounces the rebel leader Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford:
My Lord of Hereford here, whom you call king, Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford’s king; And if you crown him, let me prophesy, The blood of English shall manure the ground And future ages groan for this foul act; Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels, And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound; Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny Shall here inhabit, and this land be called The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls. (IV.i.134-l44)
Shakespeare then affirms this by having Henry IV spend most of his short reign putting down rebellions. He is always conscious of his guilt in deposing Richard II, which he thus admits to Hal:
God knows, my son, By what bypaths and indirect crooked ways I met this crown, and I myself know well How troublesome it sat upon my head. (2 Henry IV, IV.v.183-186)
The theme of guilt is repeated in King Henry the Fifth. The heroic Henry V, mindful of the inherited guilt, prays to God before the Battle of Agincourt:
Not today, 0 Lord, o not today, think not upon the fault My father made in compassing the crown. (Henry V, IV.i.28S-287)
Some will counter this by claiming that Shakespeare dedicated his play to Henry’s glorification. However, while God grants Henry V victory over the French, he still scourges the land; Henry’s reign is brief and he is succeeded by his nine-month old son, Henry VI. A child-king certainly diminishes the likelihood of peace, and even more harrowing civil wars are now in the offing.
Henry the VI resides over one of the most destructive periods of English history and it’s only with the arrival of God’s emissary Henry the VII and the unification of the houses of York and Lancaster that England’s stability and prosperity is restored.
When one considers this grand arch then one could make the case for Shakespeare being a propagandist.
The case against
So long as there remains a distinction between art and propaganda, Shakespeare cannot be categorized as the latter. Art and propaganda are on a spectrum and Shakespeare is very much more on the artistic side than he is on the propagandist side.
I say this primarily because spreading a particular message isn’t what Shakespeare’s plays are about. Rather, he shows you real characters that undergo very trying ordeals and reveals the numerous consequences of their endeavor.
Take Henry the V for example. Sure, there are scenes that glorify the comradery that comes with war (a historical fact by the way) but there are also scenes that depict the troubles leaders face when instigating war, especially when its being waged for dubious motives.
In her essays on ‘Shakespeare’s history plays as propaganda’, Kathryn Janes writes “The scenes where the cloaked and unrecognized Henry talks to his soldiers the night before Agincourt raises profound questions about the responsibilities of leaders, not only for their soldiers’ lives but for their very souls.”
In an article titled ‘What made Shakespeare great’, Michael J Cummings writes that
“He dared to express his observations about humankind in plain truth, unadorned with political blandishment or obsequious flattery and unencumbered by the dictates of literary tradition.”
A. N Wilson of the Daily Mail backs this up when he remarks
“This probably explains why, in 1941, Joseph Stalin banned Hamlet. As the U.S. historian Arthur P. Mendel explained, the idea of a thoughtful, reflective hero who took nothing on faith, and who intently scrutinized life around him to try to separate truth from falsehood without prompting, seemed ‘criminal’ to the Soviet dictator and his thought police.”
And this is the thing, Shakespeare doesn’t make it his mission to push a political agenda. Rather, he is more interested in exploring the eternal truths surrounding the human experience.
Romeo and Juliet echoes eternal truths about those in love and is of tremendous value to anyone who finds themselves in such a position. Macbeth speaks of ambition and the potential risks that come with it, Othello comments on jealousy, Hamlet on sensitivity and all of them on so much more than I’ve just mentioned. Richard the third comments on how the state reflects the character of the ruler and Shakespeare is not alone in suggesting this (Footage of Peterson). His works are timeless and it’s because of his genius and the value that comes with such genius that these plays continue to be acted out and taught today.
So was Shakespeare a propagandist? If he is then he is, for me, the greatest propagandist of all time. The best propagandists are the ones that convince you they aren’t and the fact that people need to debate this is a testament to just how great Shakespeare was. For me, Shakespeare is more an artist and dramatist than anything else and I think his right to remain this is more than justified.