Shakespeare, the Renaissance, and a Classical Mirror for Princes

One important way to read Shakespeare is as the full, popular flowering of Renaissance culture in Elizabethan England. With the Renaissance as a cultural movement having begun in Italy in the late 14th century—spurred on by Petrarch—it took time to move into northern Europe and then into England. Renaissance thought had certainly been a part of English life for the past century. In the scholarly and religious realms, this was best embodied by Sir Thomas More. His Utopia was a learned social satire, whether or not he intended it to be taken seriously as a reform proposal. These influences belonged to the Court, however. By contrast, Shakespeare, a commoner with minimal formal education, was able to interpret Renaissance culture and then communicate it in an accessible and entertaining way to the wide swath of the population that came to see performances at the Globe.

At the heart of Renaissance culture was the valuing of humanism. This literary movement (which, it should be noted, was easily compatible with Christianity) sought for cultural resources in the past—Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, and the Early Christian Church. These resources would help Europe revive after the horrors of the Black Death and subsequent cultural stagnation. Looking backward to the sources of culture provided the raw material to move forward. Renaissance humanism thus nurtured an active conversation about how to behave in the present and into the future. These were the conversations that Shakespeare absorbed and responded to in dramatic fashion.

Within those Renaissance discussions, politics and statecraft received serious consideration. Since the development of the Florentine republic, one stream of the conversation had traced a civic humanism, which supported self-determining republics. Another stream had taken monarchies for granted but had sought to bring humanist ideals and ethics to bear on the practice of monarchy, by holding up “mirrors for princes.” In the Renaissance, this approach was best exemplified by Erasmus, who described The Education of a Christian Prince. Erasmus didn’t just want competent rulers: he wanted moral and religious ones. The great contrast to both of these streams came from Niccolo Machiavelli in his book The Prince. Machiavelli rejected both his earlier civic humanism and the long tradition of moralistic advice to rulers. In The Prince, appearances of morality are fine, even advantageous, but should never get in the way of gaining and maintaining political power. Machiavelli’s advice was widely followed in the power politics of the sixteenth century.

These cultural layers and discussions come together in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

The work embodies Renaissance ideals in its form. Not only is it based on events from Roman history, but it grows from Shakespeare’s direct reading of Plutarch’s Lives. He synthesizes Plutarch’s biographies of both Julius Caesar and Brutus for the drama. These readings lead to the plethora of specific historic details that Shakespeare packs into the play: not only the actual assassination of Caesar but specific events that had preceded the deed and omens that foreshadowed a cataclysm. This also explains the very specific extra characters who accompany Brutus and Cassius through the play. Shakespeare identifies the exact individuals from Plutarch, even though that makes no difference to the audience.

At the same time, Shakespeare’s handling of the main characters reveals a deep understanding of human nature that responds to the political options advanced in Renaissance discussion. Readers are drawn to the character of Brutus. Brutus agonized over assassinating Caesar, but he concluded the threat to Rome’s liberties overshadowed Caesar’s previous deeds: “think [Caesar] as a serpent’s egg…and kill him in the shell” (II.1). At his death on the battlefield, Brutus’s enemy Antony eulogizes him as “the noblest Roman of them all” (V.5). But, through the play, we see idealistic Brutus undermine his own cause. His biggest lapse came in allowing Mark Antony not only to survive but to have free reign to address the Roman crowd. Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech (III.2) reveals a fully Machiavellian politician using rhetoric as a means of power which undermines the conspirators’ plans to renew the Roman republic. Later, with armies in the field, Brutus demonstrates his willingness to drive away his own allies by publicizing the corruption of one of his supporters (IV.3).  

Warning Brutus at each of these missteps is the other prime mover of the assassination, Cassius. Too often Cassius gets dismissed with Caesar’s assessment: he “has a lean and hungry look” (I.2). But, it was Cassius who pulled the assassins together, and he clearly tells Brutus of the danger of letting Antony go free and of demanding allies toe every line of propriety. In other words, Cassius sees the world clearly, more clearly than does Brutus.

If we can draw a conclusion from how Shakespeare treats his characters, it might be this: political ideals are good, but they are not sufficient. They must be linked to a realistic view of the world. Only with this combination can the truly great evils in the world be confronted. Embodied in the plot, we find an arrow pointing to the classical virtue of prudence. Prudence is necessary for the statesman to assess the world correctly, match means to ends, and wisely avoid the shoals that would destroy, not only individual political leaders, but the ship of state itself.

A note from the editor:

Shakespeare's birthday was Sunday, and last week we began the first in a series of Virtual Reading Groups that will read all of Shakespeare's plays. To mark these occasions, we will be running a series of posts on Shakespeare's plays over the next several months. Join us for some reading group sessions, contribute a post of your own, or just keep coming back to enjoy the Shakespeare content!