No writer enjoys as much recognition and acclaim as William Shakespeare, and perhaps that is rightfully so. Many famous works, such as Romeo & Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, owe their popularity to him – even if the stories were not entirely original. Nobody disputes those facts. Shakespeare’s motives, however, are seldom agreed upon. Some scholars postulate that he was a subversive liberal, attempting to effect change in Elizabethan society through messages hidden within his works. Other people believe Shakespeare was actually a conservative, working toward preserving and reaffirming the social order of the time. Both of those conclusions are flawed. Based on evidence within his writing, it is likely that Shakespeare was neither conservative nor radical, but rather that he walked down the middle of the road, concerned mainly about making money.
Shakespeare incorporates many conservative messages, mostly revolving around an idea that chaos is the result of interruption to divine order. People of the Elizabethan times did generally think everybody was chosen by God to play out their roles, be it as queen or as a peasant. Therefore, Shakespeare illustrates this principle in many of his plays (Converse, 2006).
In Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses, the Greek general, speaks of society’s need for a stable and firm order. Beginning on line 101 of the first scene in the first act, Ulysses says:
O, when degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows.”
In Coriolanus, Shakespeare compares the human body to society. He says every organ must stick to its job, or the whole body will die (Converse, 2006).
Some even argue that Shakespeare mean for his plays to act as a rebellion deterrence. Since many of his works depict people deviating from social norms, the audience is educated as to the consequences of taking such actions. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the audience sees that if you disobey your parents, you could end up dead. Most of Shakespeare’s plays, in fact, portray divine order. This could simply be a reflection of the times, but ‘conspiracy theorists’ may feel Shakespeare purposely incorporated such messages.
Many works of Shakespeare also have a radical element. First, Shakespeare showed kings being killed on stage. Other playwrights just did not do that. He may also have liked to reveal contradictions and cruelties within society. In plays such as The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, women are shown to be subordinated to the men around them. This can result in undesired consequences, from the men’s standpoint, such as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when plans for marriage go awry. Cruelties within society are shown in Romeo and Juliet. An obvious example is the death of two lovers because their families did not get along, to say the least (Converse, 2006).
Shakespeare’s Richard III shows how Elizabeth’s family only came to power after rising against the York dynasty and not through “divine order.” This is a strong argument that Shakespeare aimed to dispel society’s notion that God somehow meant for things to be as they are. Furthermore, the queen’s government tried to censor some of his plays – and governments do not generally censor materials favorable to the administration (Converse, 2006).
Perhaps the strongest argument to show that Shakespeare was a middle-of-the-road type of guy is simply that many of his plays feature characters from many different viewpoints, and more than a single possible interpretation. In The Taming of the Shrew, Katherina usually portrays the opposite viewpoint of her father Baptista. He believes she is subject to his wishes, and she believes she is subject to nobody’s wishes. Likewise, Romeo and Juliet feature characters of opposing views, notably Juliet and her parents, the Capulets. By showing many different viewpoints in each play, Shakespeare is likely not conveying a biased message to the audience, but rather a balanced one. Even though evidence exists that Shakespeare may have been a secretly-practicing Catholic in England (Lacayo, 2004), he did not disproportionately push one viewpoint. Though the outcome of each play may possibly indicate a bias, Shakespeare usually leaves the end somewhat open to interpretation, suggesting he is not trying to sway anybody, but rather he is simply trying to entertain.
Before Shakespeare’s time, Nicolo Machiavelli wrote several works supporting the idea that if rulers portray themselves as good, then the populace will follow. In Measure for Measure, the duke allows his deputy, Angelo, to do the unpopular tasks, freeing the duke to show the public how morally good he (the duke) is (SparkNotes, 2006). It is through this deception that the duke maintains popularity and gains power. Other examples of this tendency exist as well, suggesting that Shakespeare agreed with Machiavelli – an act that would have been quite radical at the time, since it is inherently anti-divine order.
All of these facts, derived from simply reading Shakespeare’s works, show the he portrayed many radical viewpoints, and many conservative ones as well. Therefore, Shakespeare was most likely trying to provide something for everyone. Every audience is diverse, in the Elizabethan era just as well as today, and Shakespeare provided characters and ideas for everyone to connect with. His main goal was writing a good story, ultimately to earn him money. After all, he needed to eat too. Some have disagreed, arguing that Shakespeare may not have been in for the money, since his writing career ended relatively early. This could have been, however, due to mercury poisoning after a syphilis treatment (Ross, 2005).
More evidence exists to support the viewpoint that he only cared about the money. Anybody who has read any of Shakespeare’s works knows that he rarely uses stage directions. This differentiates him from almost any other playwright. Perhaps this was part of his creative plan to allow each play to be open for interpretation as much as possible, but it could have simply been because he was in the business of making money. He probably wanted to “crank out” as many plays as he could. If he could get away with omitting stage directions, then he did. Another benefit of his doing this is that it would be more difficult for people to accuse Shakespeare of being either radical or conservative. Had he written exactly how every line was supposed to be read, he certainly would have been inserting bias into the work.
Overall, it is quite clear that Shakespeare was not a biased writer. He was neither liberal nor conservative in his works, but rather he was concerned with gratifying the audience and moving on to the next play.
Converse. (2006). Shakespeare the Radical. Retrieved April 30, 2006, from http://aspirations.english.cam.ac.uk
Lacayo, R. (2004, August). Shakespeare: the man behind the scenes. Time Canada, (164), 9, p. 57. Retrieved April 30, 2006, from http://www.epnet.com/ehost/login.html
Ross, J. (2005, February). Shakespeare’s chancre: did the bard have syphilis? Clinical Infectious Diseases, (40), 3, pp. 399-404. Retrieved April 30, 2006, from http://www.epnet.com/ehost/login.html
SparkNotes. (2006). Measure for Measure. Retrieved April 30, 2006, from