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This Author: Paul Cantor
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Shakespeare and Politics: The Politics of Genre by Paul Cantor

Shakespeare and Politics: The Politics of Genre

by Paul Cantor

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In the first set of lectures, the organizing principle was history. In this second set of lectures, the organizing principle is genre. We sample each of the principal genres Shakespeare worked in: English history, comedy, tragedy, and the peculiar form of his last plays, whether called tragicomedy or romance. The aim is to draw out the political implications of the genres Shakespeare employed.

We begin with Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy of history plays: Richard II, Henry IV, Parts One and Two, and Henry V. Charting the movement from medieval to modern kingship, these plays offer one of Shakespeare's most sustained enquiries into the nature of politics and the tension between public and private life. With tragic figures such as Hotspur and comic figures such as Falstaff, these history plays also raise the question of the relation between tragedy and comedy in Shakespeare. Throughout these lectures, we remain mindful of the remarkable fact that, almost alone among great playwrights, Shakespeare was able to move effortlessly between tragedy and comedy (often in the same play) and to triumph in either genre. What does this tell us about his art? And are his comedies as worthy as his tragedies of serious political consideration?

To sharpen our understanding of the nature of tragedy and comedy, we pair Romeo and Juliet with A Midsummer Night's Dream. The two plays treat the same subject-young love-and their contrasting approaches to it highlight the differences between tragedy and comedy. In political terms, tragedy reunites a community only by excluding the characters who challenged its values, whereas comedy operates on inclusive principles, in the end reconciling all the characters to resuming their place in the community, even at the cost of abandoning their distinctive visions. We continue our examination of comedy with As You Like It and Twelfth Night and see how Shakespeare's portrayal of romantic love relates to his portrayal of chivalry in the history plays. Rooted in both basic bodily impulses and artificial poetic ideals, romantic love as a topic allows Shakespeare to deal with the tension between nature and convention in human life.

We return to tragedy with perhaps Shakespeare's greatest achievement in the genre: King Lear. Here the tension between nature and convention turns tragic, as Shakespeare poses the question: what is human nature and what is its relation to the political order? We conclude with one of Shakespeare's last plays, The Tempest, which offers a retrospective on his career as a dramatist, harking back to motifs and themes from both his comedies and tragedies. The Tempest attempts to move beyond tragedy to a more comprehensive and philosophic position that shares affinities with comedy, while still transcending the conventional comic perspective.


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