Politics of community in Shakespeare’s comic commonwealths
Beattie, Laura Isobel Helen
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This thesis explores the politics of community in five Shakespearean comedies: The Comedy of Errors (1594), The Merchant of Venice (1596-8), Measure for Measure (1603-4), The Tempest (1611) and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613). The idea of community addresses many issues usually thought to belong to ‘high politics’. Thinking about this topic therefore enables us to articulate a notion of the political firmly grounded within the functioning of the commonwealth at a local level and as a state of interpersonal relations. This thesis has three key aims. Firstly, it argues that the plays highlight the responsibility of all community members, no matter their gender or status, in shaping and contributing to their political environment by displaying civic virtue, working to obtain justice and influencing their ruler’s behaviour. By so doing, it focuses on the processes of civic engagement and the political implications of everyday life within a community which have often been neglected in readings of Shakespeare’s work thus far. Secondly, this thesis illustrates the inseparability of ethics and politics. It demonstrates throughout that relationships between individuals within a community can have widereaching implications, whether that be in terms of the existence of trust between friends, family members or fellow citizens; the importance of consent existing between subjects and ruler; or the ability of fellow-feeling to confer a sense of agency upon subjects. Lastly, it contends that Shakespeare’s assessment of the commonwealth in his comedies, with its emphasis on civic values and on the relationship between the community and the individual, remains attuned to Aristotelian and Ciceronian thought, in contrast to the Tacitean influences critics have detected in the darkness and scepticism of his tragedies and histories. Shakespeare’s comedies therefore question the commonly accepted paradigm in early modern intellectual history that Tacitus’ prominence increased greatly in the intellectual climate of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, while Aristotle’s and Cicero’s diminished. Moving away from the predominant focus on the tragedies and histories in analyses of Shakespeare’s political thought, this thesis foregrounds the significance of citizenship, the household and friendship and reassesses the role of the comedies in Shakespeare’s thinking about politics.