Marx and Revolutionary Shakespeare

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‘As his home town is increasingly colonised by tourists, whether or not they choose to visit the theatre which bears his name, the long-suffering son of Stratford is meanwhile being picked apart by historicists, feminists, Marxists, new historicists, post-feminists, deconstructionalists, anti-deconstructionalists, post-modernists, cultural imperialists and post-colonialists. Perhaps it is time someone tried to put him back together again.’

(Anthony Holden: William Shakespeare – His Life and Work)

A contemporary Chinese language text from Mainland China, states that both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (the founders of Scientific Socialism), thought very highly of the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616). furthermore, neither advocate of Communist Revolution would have a bad word said against this thoroughly bourgeois and land-owning bard, as Marx always said that although the bourgeois (middle) class was responsible for the repugnant capitalist system, nevertheless, many individuals within that class possessed an insight that transcended the limitations of their own socio-economic conditioning, and through expressing that insight in whatever format that was applicable to these ‘progressive’ individuals, were able to ferment revolution, and facilitate the eventual over-throw of their own class dominance for the universal benefit of the evolution of humanity. For Marx, Shakespeare possessed the mantle of ‘high art’ in an age were the bourgeois class had not yet secured political power for itself, but which was definitely heading in a direction that would end with the execution of King Charles I, and the permanent usurping of the aristocracy from political power. As a potential revolutionary, Shakespeare was an outstanding dramatist and poet of the European Renaissance era. Although Marx was well-read, and had studied the works of many poets and playwrights that had written in German, French and English, his considered opinion was that the work of William Shakespeare was not only original, but existed within a transcendent (and therefore revolutionary) category of its own, very similar to the genius philosophers and poets of ancient and classical Greece. Not only this, but Marx understood that Shakespeare’s work contained a highly ‘political’ central core of expression, that was disguised or camouflaged by veneers of drama and entertainment. William Shakespeare was a revolutionary subversive of such advanced ability that he not only continued to expose and undermine his contemporary socio-economic system, but became famous (and rich) in the process. Shakespeare, through his use of dramatised historical narratives, was able to ‘entertain’ and ‘move’ all those who witnessed his plays or heard his sonnets, at the first point of contact, whilst the underlying (deconstructive) elements of his true intentions, permeated the subconscious minds of his audience without conscious resistance, to re-emerge no doubt, at a later date throughout their disparate lives.

Although it is true that neither Marx nor Engels made a specific study of any of Shakespeare’s numerous plays or sonnets, modern Chinese scholarship (which has made a study of the influence of Shakespeare within the collected works of Marx and Engels), has revealed that the plays and characters of Shakespeare were often mentioned (or quoted) throughout the work of Marx and Engels. In fact, within the writings and letters of Marx, Shakespeare’s work is referenced as many as 147 separate times (as a means for Marx to positively elaborate this or that specific point he was making). Among the 37 works written by Shakespeare, Marx cites 21 titles throughout his main work (a number that does not include Shakespeare references contained within Marx’s personal correspondence). Throughout his main work, Marx mentions 47 Shakespearean characters by name, with the most frequent being Henry VI, and John Falstaff (from ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’), which appear 32 times. This is because Marx practised the habit of quoting extracts of Shakespeare’s plays – stating more than once that Shakespeare had a better understanding of money, than did a modern German philosopher (quoting from Timon of Athens). In March of 1857, Marx satired Palmerston in his article entitled ‘The Coming Election in England’, using references from Shakespeare’s Richard III and King John – ridiculing Palmerston for the British government’s forced importation of opium into China. In defence of China -Marx asserts that this despicable British imperialist policy is ‘turning heaven and earth upside down’. In a letter to La Salle in May, 1859, Engels stated that German drama would do well to learn from Shakespeare, who wrote with a perfect combination of history and vivid imagination.

Marx and Engels existed more than 250 years after Shakespeare, and yet still affirmed the significance and value of Shakespeare’s works. Not only because Shakespeare’s works played a progressive role in the Renaissance, but also in the then stage of proletarian development. Shakespeare’s writing played a progressive role within the bourgeoisie of his time, so that even in modern capitalist society, the existent bourgeois ideological is subtly undermined. This policy has dialectical value in the development of historical forces that lead to an eventual Socialist Revolution.  Marx and Engels, from the historical reality of class struggle and the social role of literature, have historically affirmed Shakespeare’s revolutionary position, possessing both the viewpoint and method of the proletariat. Shakespeare is the ‘soul of the times’, and ‘he does not belong to any single  era, but simultaneously belongs to all eras’. In three or four hundred years, Shakespeare’s works have crossed all geographical and linguistic boundaries, and have become the common wealth of the people in all times, and in all places. Below are included two extended examples of how Marx uses Shakespeare in a revolutionary manner:

The Grundrisse (1857-1858)

(4) PRODUCTION. MEANS OF PRODUCTION AND RELATIONS OF PRODUCTION. RELATIONS OF PRODUCTION AND RELATIONS OF CIRCULATION. FORMS OF THE STATE AND FORMS OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN RELATION TO RELATIONS OF PRODUCTION AND CIRCULATION. LEGAL RELATIONS. FAMILY RELATIONS.

Notabene in regard to points to be mentioned here and not to be forgotten:

(1) War developed earlier than peace; the way in which certain economic relations such as wage labour, machinery etc. develop earlier, owing to war and in the armies etc., than in the interior of bourgeois society. The relation of productive force and relations of exchange also especially vivid in the army.

(2) Relation of previous ideal historiography to the real. Namely of the so-called cultural histories, which are only histories of religions and of states. (On that occasion something can also be said about the various kinds of previous historiography. The so-called objective. Subjective (moral among others). The philosophical.)

(3) Secondary and tertiary matters; in general, derivative, inherited, not original relations of production. Influence here of international relations.

(4) Accusations about the materialism of this conception. Relation to naturalistic materialism.

(5) Dialectic of the concepts productive force (means of production) and relation of production, a dialectic whose boundaries are to be determined, and which does not suspend the real difference.

(6) The uneven development of material production relative to e.g. artistic development. In general, the concept of progress not to be conceived in the usual abstractness. Modern art etc. This disproportion not as important or so difficult to grasp as within practical-social relations themselves. E.g. the relation of education. Relation of the United States to Europe. But the really difficult point to discuss here is how relations of production develop unevenly as legal relations. Thus e.g. the relation of Roman private law (this less the case with criminal and public law) to modern production.

(7) This conception appears as necessary development. But legitimation of chance. How. (Of freedom also, among other things.) (Influence of means of communication. World history has not always existed; history as world history a result.)

(8) The point of departure obviously from the natural characteristic; subjectively and objectively. Tribes, races etc.

In the case of the arts, it is well known that certain periods of their flowering are out of all proportion to the general development of society, hence also to the material foundation, the skeletal structure as it were, of its organization. For example, the Greeks compared to the moderns or also Shakespeare. It is even recognized that certain forms of art, e.g. the epic, can no longer be produced in their world epoch-making, classical stature as soon as the production of art, as such, begins; that is, that certain significant forms within the realm of the arts are possible only at an undeveloped stage of artistic development. If this is the case with the relation between different kinds of art within the realm of the arts, it is already less puzzling that it is the case in the relation of the entire realm to the general development of society. The difficulty consists only in the general formulation of these contradictions. As soon as they have been specified, they are already clarified.

Let us take e.g. the relation of Greek art and then of Shakespeare to the present time. It is well known that Greek mythology is not only the arsenal of Greek art but also its foundation. Is the view of nature and of social relations on which the Greek imagination and hence Greek [mythology] is based possible with self-acting mule spindles and railways and locomotives and electrical telegraphs? What chance has Vulcan against Roberts and Co., Jupiter against the lightning-rod and Hermes against the Crédit Mobilier? All mythology overcomes and dominates and shapes the forces of nature in the imagination and by the imagination; it therefore vanishes with the advent of real mastery over them. What becomes of Fama alongside Printing House Square? Greek art presupposes Greek mythology, i.e. nature and the social forms already reworked in an unconsciously artistic way by the popular imagination. This is its material. Not any mythology whatever, i.e. not an arbitrarily chosen unconsciously artistic reworking of nature (here meaning everything objective, hence including society). Egyptian mythology could never have been the foundation or the womb of Greek art. But, in any case, a mythology. Hence, in no way a social development which excludes all mythological, all mythologizing relations to nature; which therefore demands of the artist an imagination not dependent on mythology.

From another side: is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine? Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer’s bar, hence do not the necessary conditions of epic poetry vanish?

But the difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and as an unattainable model.

A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naïvité, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm? There are unruly children and precocious children. Many of the old peoples belong in this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm of their art for us is not in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society on which it grew. [It] is its result, rather, and is inextricably bound up, rather, with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone arise, can never return.

An earlier example from Marx reads:

Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society (Third Manuscript)

If man’s feelings, passions, etc., are not merely anthropological phenomena in the (narrower) sense, but truly ontological [41] affirmations of being (of nature), and if they are only really affirmed because their object exists for them as a sensual object, then it is clear that:

1. They have by no means merely one mode of affirmation, but rather that the distinct character of their existence, of their life, is constituted by the distinct mode of their affirmation. In what manner the object exists for them, is the characteristic mode of their gratification.

2. Wherever the sensuous affirmation is the direct annulment of the object in its independent form (as in eating, drinking, working up of the object, etc.), this is the affirmation of the object.

3. Insofar as man, and hence also his feeling, etc., is human, the affirmation of the object by another is likewise his own gratification.

4. Only through developed industry – i.e., through the medium of private property – does the ontological essence of human passion come into being, in its totality as well as in its humanity; the science of man is therefore itself a product of man’s own practical activity.

5. The meaning of private property – apart from its estrangement – is the existence of essential objects for man, both as objects of enjoyment and as objects of activity.

By possessing the property of buying everything, by possessing the property of appropriating all objects, money is thus the object of eminent possession. The universality of its property is the omnipotence of its being. It is therefore regarded as an omnipotent being. Money is the procurer between man’s need and the object, between his life and his means of life. But that which mediates my life for me, also mediates the existence of other people for me. For me it is the other person.

“What, man! confound it, hands and feet
And head and backside, all are yours!
And what we take while life is sweet,
Is that to be declared not ours?

“Six stallions, say, I can afford,
Is not their strength my property?
I tear along, a sporting lord,
As if their legs belonged to me.”

Goethe: Faust (Mephistopheles)

Shakespeare in Timon of Athens:

“Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
No, Gods, I am no idle votarist! …
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.
… Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed;
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench: This is it
That makes the wappen’d widow wed again;
She, whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To the April day again. Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that put’st odds
Among the rout of nations.”

And also later:

“O thou sweet king-killer, and dear divorce
‘Twixt natural son and sire! thou bright defiler
Of Hymen’s purest bed! thou valiant Mars!
Thou ever young, fresh, loved and delicate wooer
Whose blush doth thaw the consecrated snow
That lies on Dian’s lap! Thou visible God!
That solder’st close impossibilities,
And makest them kiss! That speak’st with every tongue,
||XLII| To every purpose! O thou touch of hearts!
Think, thy slave man rebels, and by thy virtue
Set them into confounding odds, that beasts
May have the world in empire!”

Shakespeare excellently depicts the real nature of money. To understand him, let us begin, first of all, by expounding the passage from Goethe.

That which is for me through the medium of money – that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy) – that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has [In the manuscript: ‘is’. – Ed.] power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, connecting me with nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties? Is it not, therefore, also the universal agent of separation? It is the coin that really separates as well as the real binding agent – the […] [One word in the manuscript cannot be deciphered. – Ed.]chemical power of society.

Shakespeare stresses especially two properties of money:

1. It is the visible divinity – the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.

2. It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.

The distorting and confounding of all human and natural qualities, the fraternisation of impossibilities – the divine power of money – lies in its character as men’s estranged, alienating and self-disposing species-nature. Money is the alienated ability of mankind.

That which I am unable to do as a man, and of which therefore all my individual essential powers are incapable, I am able to do by means of money. Money thus turns each of these powers into something which in itself it is not – turns it, that is, into its contrary.

If I long for a particular dish or want to take the mail-coach because I am not strong enough to go by foot, money fetches me the dish and the mail-coach: that is, it converts my wishes from something in the realm of imagination, translates them from their meditated, imagined or desired existence into their sensuous, actual existence – from imagination to life, from imagined being into real being. In effecting this mediation, [money] is the truly creative power.

No doubt the demand also exists for him who has no money, but his demand is a mere thing of the imagination without effect or existence for me, for a third party, for the [others],||XLIII| and which therefore remains even for me unreal and objectless. The difference between effective demand based on money and ineffective demand based on my need, my passion, my wish, etc., is the difference between being and thinking, between that which exists within me merely as an idea and the idea which exists as a real object outside of me.

If I have no money for travel, I have no need – that is, no real and realisable need – to travel. If I have the vocation for study but no money for it, I have no vocation for study – that is, no effective, no true vocation. On the other hand, if I have really no vocation for study but have the will and the money for it, I have an effective vocation for it. Money as the external, universal medium and faculty (not springing from man as man or from human society as society) for turning an image into reality and reality into a mere image, transforms the real essential powers of man and nature into what are merely abstract notions and therefore imperfections and tormenting chimeras, just as it transforms real imperfections and chimeras – essential powers which are really impotent, which exist only in the imagination of the individual – into real powers and faculties. In the light of this characteristic alone, money is thus the general distorting of individualities which turns them into their opposite and confers contradictory attributes upon their attributes.

Money, then, appears as this distorting power both against the individual and against the bonds of society, etc., which claim to be entities in themselves. It transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence, and intelligence into idiocy.

Since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and confuses all things, it is the general confounding and confusing of all things – the world upside-down – the confounding and confusing of all natural and human qualities.

He who can buy bravery is brave, though he be a coward. As money is not exchanged for any one specific quality, for any one specific thing, or for any particular human essential power, but for the entire objective world of man and nature, from the standpoint of its possessor it therefore serves to exchange every quality for every other, even contradictory, quality and object: it is the fraternisation of impossibilities. It makes contradictions embrace.

Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return – that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a beloved one, then your love is impotent – a misfortune.

©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2017.

Chinese Language Reference:

http://wemedia.ifeng.com/282574490620879/wemedia.shtml

English Language References:

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch01.htm#loc3

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/power.htm

http://marxengels.public-archive.net/en/ME0998en.html#Pa

Tucker, Robert C, The Marx-Engels Reader, Norton, (1978), Pages 102-4, 254.

Holden, Anthony, William Shakespeare – His Life and Work, ABACUS, (1999), Page 1 (Prologue)

 

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