The Bard On Trial: Did Shakespeare Kill The Heroic Ideal?

The Stratford man’s thin biography unravels Professor Edmundson’s case against Shakespeare

Is Shakespeare an assassin? The answer is no.

In his book Self and Soul (2015), University of Virginia Professor Mark Edmundson charges Shakespeare with a murder of sorts: “Repeatedly Shakespeare kills the Homeric hero (or his descendent) on the stage. Then he revives that hero again . . . for one sacrifice more in another brilliant play.”

Mr. Edmundson describes two versions of the Western hero, one embodied in Achilles, the other in Hector:

“Homer’s Achilles wants to attain eternal life in the minds and hearts of other men, warriors in particular. What matters to him is his reputation as a fighter, and he will risk anything to enlarge it. […] Hector is the model for what later generations would call the citizen soldier. […] Though he is a formidable warrior, Hector is also an accomplished statesman and loving husband and father.”

Mr. Edmundson clearly laments the fading of the heroic ideal in contemporary culture: “There are still true warriors in our culture, still men and women who would emulate Hector or Achilles, but there are not many of them, and there are probably fewer all the time.”

Shakespeare, according to Mr. Edmundson, is largely to blame. The Bard’s crime was to help demolish the Homeric ideal and clear the way for “a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more.”

Enough Flaws to Go Around . . . and the Exceptional Exception

To back up his charge, Mr. Edmundson analyzes six Shakespeare tragedies in depth. Each one, he argues, is the playwright’s attempt to kill the heroic ideal by using a flawed martial hero as the protagonist.

For instance, he believes that Othello—a confident, successful soldier on the battlefield— falls victim to a maddening uncertainty over Desdemona’s love. Similarly, Macbeth, another warrior-hero, loses control as Lady Macbeth drives him to prove his manhood by murdering a king. For Mr. Edmundson Troilus and Cressida paints a demeaning portrait of Achilles (“a besotted fool”) and Hector (“a fraud”), as well as other heroes who appear in The Iliad. He draws similar conclusions about Titus Andronicus (“once valiant” hero becomes “mad, disfigured animal”), Julius Caesar (“a timid, superstitious, uxorious man, vain and befuddled”), and Coriolanus (“emotionally, a large child” whose mother “dominates and oppresses him”).

In Mr. Edmunson’s view, the courage shown by Shakespeare’s war heroes merely compensates for their psychological defects. According to the professor, “Shakespeare’s objective, one suspects, is not the destruction of an individual figure, like Othello. Shakespeare’s objective is the destruction of an ideal.”

In essence, the professor argues that Shakespeare attacks the heroic ideal by picking on battlefield champions and giving them deep psychological flaws.

Granted, Othello, Macbeth, Coriolanus, and other martial heroes in Shakespeare have such flaws, but so do other main characters who are not martial heroes.

For example, consider jealousy arising from a character’s misperceiving things and leaping to conclusions. In Othello, one of the plays Mr. Edmundson discusses in detail, the hero’s misunderstanding about a handkerchief feeds his jealousy that drives the tragedy. But Leontes in A Winter’s Tale suffers a similar flaw, and so does Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing. The consequences for them are less tragic yet nevertheless unpleasant. Leontes is a king and Claudio a lord, but neither is a soldier. Mr. Edmundson cites other examples of flawed characters who are not warriors (e.g. Polonius, Duke Theseus, Shylock, and the Duke of Milan).

In short, Shakespeare doesn’t single out heroes of war.

If one wishes to generalize, the better conclusion is that Shakespeare intended to show how humans, regardless of job category, misinterpret reality and jump to false conclusions, not that the heroic ideal must be discarded. In the world to which Shakespeare holds up a mirror, men can be martial heroes, but they’re still human. Why shouldn’t they have the same flaws exhibited by characters in Shakespeare’s comedies and romances?

And then there are the exceptions which Mr. Edmundson himself acknowledges do not support his charge that the Bard is the assassin of heroism.

The exceptional exception is Hamlet. Mr. Edmundson finds Hamlet to be “often a true thinker” and “a warrior, also, though a rather conflicted one,” and Hamlet’s tragedy as “the destruction of hope for humanity to live for principles larger than the given individual.” But if Mr. Edmundson is correct in his overall thesis, it would make no sense for Shakespeare to create Prince Hamlet—his greatest character, perhaps the greatest in all literature—if Shakespeare was intent on destroying noble ideals.

Shakespeare unabashedly promotes the heroic ideal, rather than destroys it, in Henry V. One need only recall Henry’s Saint Crispin Day speech, a brave call to arms that urges men to join him in sacrificing their lives for their country.

Mr. Edmundson’s answer? King Henry is only acting, faking the role of leader and hero. Personal gain is what motivates Henry, not the greater good. This interpretation, however, simply does not square with Henry’s actual words, which are a direct assault on materialism in favor of sacrifice for a noble cause:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow [enough]
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.

Shakespeare’s motive

Concerning Shakespeare the man, Mr. Edmundson is a Stratfordian. That means he believes that the Bard was a grain merchant from Stratford-upon-Avon. The name of that grain merchant, incidentally, was Shakspere, not Shakespeare, and doubts persist whether Shakspere was the great poet-playwright. The doubters include Pulitzer prize-winning historian David McCullough and former Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens. Such doubters believe ‘Shakespeare’ was the real author’s pseudonym.

To be clear, in this post I’ll refer to the man from Stratford as Shakspere, and the person who wrote the plays (whoever he was) as Shakespeare. Remember, Mr. Edmundson assumes Shakspere and Shakespeare are the same person, regardless of the name difference.

Mr. Edmundson finds Shakespeare’s motive for killing the heroic ideal in the biography of Shakspere, the man from Stratford. Citing Shakspere’s “career as an actor and a businessman,” Mr. Edmundson observes:

“[Shakspere/Shakespeare] writes so much and so well in part because he writes with the concentrated energy of a world-transforming movement. He expresses—in a sense he is—the power of a rising middle class, a class tired of the arrogance of nobility but still fascinated by what is (or what might be) noble. This is a class that disdains high heroic honor but delights to see it rendered—and undone. […] How could an upwardly aspiring merchant’s son from the provinces not sustain a measure of resentment for aristocrats and their pretensions? Or, more to the point, how could the middle class of London—rising, prospering—not take delight in watching one or another of their antagonists being undone?”

With his assumption that Shakspere was Shakespeare, Mr. Edmundson concludes that the playwright’s motive behind most of the tragedies was a desire to destroy the heroic ideal—and the arrogant, noble class to which it belongs—so the middle class could rise and flourish with its pragmatic, self-centered, materialistic culture. But just how strong is the evidence for that motive?

Shakspere’s biography

The professor’s argument rests fundamentally on two assumptions: first, that Shakspere was Shakespeare; and second, that Shakspere, a member of “the rising middle class,” had a proverbial axe to grind with the nobility. The first assumption is doubtful, but even if it’s accepted, the second assumption lacks what lawyers call a foundation for evidence.

The truth is, even if Shakspere was a “businessman,” we have no clue what he thought about the noble class.

Aside from six signatures, we have nothing written in Shakspere’s hand. We don’t know whether he attended any university, or even grammar school for that matter. Shakspere’s will makes no mention of books. We don’t know whether he read The Iliad—or any other book for that matter. If Mr. Edmundson has direct, tangible evidence that Shakspere wrote anything other than his own name (which he spelled Shakspere, never Shakespeare), or went to school, read books, or otherwise was familiar with Plutarch’s heroes, I would very much like to see that evidence. Otherwise, the motive he assigns to Shakespeare lacks a foundation, and his charge against Shakespeare should be dropped.

Shakespeare: Nobility’s Friend or Foe?

Mr. Edmundson seems to forget that, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, the Crown controlled the press. Freedom of expression, as we know, did not exist. If Shakespeare really was trying to undo the nobility, it is difficult to imagine nobles of Queen Elizabeth’s court tolerating their undoing in play after play, or not catching on to Shakespeare’s attacks while his “middle class” audience understood his motives perfectly well.

Shakespeare first won fame with his long poem, Venus and Adonis, which was followed by a second poem, The Rape of Lucrece. Both poems were dedicated to Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, a rising nobleman in Elizabeth’s court. Southampton is also widely regarded as the “lovely youth” of the Sonnets. If Shakespeare truly was bent on attacking the noble class, it would be extremely incongruous for him to dedicate poems to a nobleman and praise him in poetry, yet then assault the nobility in plays.

Mr. Edmundson argues that Shakespeare is writing for a rising middle class, but that’s difficult to see in the way he portrays commoners. Most often, commoners in Shakespeare are, in a word, silly. As Joseph Sobran observes: “Shakespeare typically makes his common characters buffoons. He presents them in an entirely different way from his noble characters. They are usually illiterate and illogical. They speak in malapropisms and mangled classical references. Their inmost thoughts are preposterous.” Following Mr. Edmundson’s way of thinking, Shakespeare takes aim at commoners as much as he targets nobles.

And if Shakespeare truly disdained nobles and wrote to support the interests of a rising middle class, why didn’t he ever write a play featuring a commoner as the hero, someone who overcomes obstacles nobles have put in his way? Shakespeare in fact did just the opposite: in the Induction scenes of Taming of the Shrew, a nobleman makes a total fool out of Sly, a commoner.

Seeing the plays through the lens of Shakspere of Stratford’s (scant) biography leads to distorted analyses about Shakespeare, such as the conclusion that King Henry the Fifth was faking his heroism. Such an approach demeans Shakespeare and does a disservice to his audience. Stratfordians would do better discussing what Shakespeare wrote leaving aside unfounded speculation about his socioeconomic motives.

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