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Essay: Reclaiming Shakespeare was key to the Chartist pursuit for a radical literary canon

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The 1866 Parliamentary Select Committee on Theatrical Licenses and Regulations imagined Shakespeare as a cultural figure who represented, above all, unity. He inhabited ‘a realm that transcended class, faction or self-interest’ whilst his works acted as ‘the foundation of English culture and the source of its authority’ (Schoch, 2007: 236). However, the role of Shakespeare in the nineteenth century was often far removed from the ‘high-Victorian concepts of the nation’ represented by the Select Committee (Marshall, 2005: 3). Part of the period’s ‘living, expressive vocabulary’, Shakespeare was frequently adapted and appropriated, as was the case with the Chartist movement in the 1830s and 1840s (Marshall, 2005: 1). During this period, Chartism was the principal channel for radical activity in Britain, galvanising working-class political activists who were disappointed by the limited impact of the 1832 Reform Act and campaigned for more extensive change (Murphy, 2008: 138-139). Rather than him ‘transcend[ing]’ class and political faction, reclaiming Shakespeare was key to the Chartist pursuit for a radical literary canon, a goal set out in and attempted through periodical newspapers. I consider how the Chartists selectively quoted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1623), 2 Henry IV (1600) and Henry V (1600) to re-canonise him as a radical poet and, by highlighting the plays’ fragmentary resonances, emphasised the complex texture of the whole.

The literary culture of the nineteenth-century radical community has been much-studied and, as Antony Taylor summarises, ‘Their preference for Bunyan, Robert Burns, John Milton, and Shelley is now well established’ (2002: 358). This strand of England’s literary past became part of a ‘radical literary canon that dignified and elevated the struggle for reform’ as these authors acted as a historical foundation for the Chartists’ own writings, the movement prompting a broader ‘class-based literature’ by and for the people (Taylor, 2002: 358; Vicinus, 1974: 94). Radical leftist criticism of Shakespeare was, then, part of a broader effort to obtain mass influence through a ‘negotiation of the popular’, bolstering their radical politics with the authority of education (Ledger, 2002: 32). As Paul Murphy observes, these readings were sensitive to the idea that Shakespeare could be ‘made into a Chartist’, taking him off an ‘elevated sphere, untouched by argument’ (1994: 127; Greenslade, 2012: 229). This coincided with an explosion of cheap, mass-printed editions of Shakespeare aimed at working-class readers, in addition to radical periodicals taking an interest in literature (Murphy, 2003: 179; Holbrook, 2006: 205). The importance of cultural forms in ‘offering moral guidance to the people’ was reflected in the government-supported ideal of encouraging Shakespeare for all (Sillars, 2013: 51). However, the perceived universality of Shakespeare’s moral lessons did not simply enable passive absorption, but rather active repurposing.

Popular Shakespearean moments were borrowed and applied to current political affairs, as Act 4, Scene 1 of Macbeth was in an article titled ‘HELL BROTH!!!’ (Bowen, Northern Star, 02/17/1838: 3). The scene, where the three witches concoct a supernatural ‘hell-broth’ in their cauldron ‘For a charm of powerful trouble’, and summon apparitions who share their haunting prophecies (4.1.19; 4.1.18), is augmented to the actions of the Poor Law Commissioners. Bowen reports that the three Commissioners had insisted on gruel being fed to workhouse occupants, despite objections that it was causing sickness. He includes a shortened version of 4.1, the witches having been replaced by three wizards who ‘Round about the cauldron go, / In the rucking ‘gredients throw’; the second line replaces the more specific ‘In the poisoned entrails throw’ to maintain the idea that the concoction is a toxic gruel (4.1.5). This places his subsequent complaint into a recognisable cultural context, and obliterates the bureaucratic distance between the Commissioners’ decision to set and uphold the dietary guidelines, and the resultant ‘nauseous pestilence’. Kiernan Ryan’s discussion of modern presentist approaches to Shakespeare can be productively applied here, the ‘virtue of such flagrant acts of appropriation’ being their capacity to ‘reveal the plays’ resonance’, though this often comes at the cost of repressing less useful elements (2013: 106). Chartist hijackings of Shakespeare can ‘reveal [the] resonance’ the plays’ explorations of power and authority. The witches, outsiders to the aristocratic hierarchies surrounding Macbeth, have a more profound, prophetic sense of the future than the ephemeral royals grappling for power and fearing the future. In the same way, the rarely-seen commissioners who set the dietaries and released ambiguous statements to the press arguably controlled and observed the suffering in the workhouses more than local workforces did. The commissioners did not literally make the gruel but they did, so to speak, stir the pot.

Chartist readings were especially concerned with two interlinked assertions: that Shakespeare’s works were political, and that Shakespeare was ultimately on their side. The lack of hard details about his life and perceived radical messages in his plays allowed reformers to ‘project him as a ‘son of the soil,’’ and thus contest presentations of Shakespeare as an apolitical national poet, later crystallised in popular opposition to the Shakespeare Tercentenary of 1864 (Taylor, 2002: 357). This appraisal is at odds with the long critical tradition of seeing in Shakespeare an espousal of ‘conservative pessimism’, to quote Tom Paulin, placing him in the ‘monarchist’ and ‘hierarchical’ line of Dryden, Pope and Eliot rather than the republican one of Milton and Hazlitt (1996: 110, 112). Coleridge had argued in a similar vein during an 1818 lecture that Shakespeare was a ‘Philosophical Aristocrat’ [original italics]; though he ‘never promulgates any party tenets’ in his plays, he nonetheless presents a ‘profound veneration for all the established institutions of society’ (2016: 140). In the anonymously-authored ‘The Politics of Poets’, Shakespeare is invoked repeatedly as evidence of literature being political: ‘Are there no politics in “Hamlet[”]? Is not “Macbeth,”… and a hundred other works of great authors, sublime political treatises[?]’ (Chartist Circular, 11/07/1840: 170). The article concretises its arguments by ending on two quotations from Shakespeare’s 2H4, described as a ‘delineation of royalty’ which prompts the reader to wonder ‘who would envy the wearer of such a bauble as a crown’ (Chartist Circular, 11/07/1840: 170). In both, royals idolise the peaceful sleep of the common man whilst contrasting it to their anguished unrest: King Henry laments that ‘sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs’ and ‘loathsome beds’, forgoing his own ‘kingly couch’ (3.1.9; 3.1.16), whilst Prince Hal reflects on his father’s royal plight as he lies in his sickbed, the crown ‘upon his pillow, / Being so troublesome a bed-fellow’ (4.3.152-53). The article emphasises how the ‘perfumed chambers of the great’ (3.1.12) are sleepless to contend that climbing up a hierarchy is not something to aspire to. Instead, ‘he whose brow with homely biggen bound / Snores out the watch of night’ is favoured by ‘partial sleep’ (4.3.158-59; 3.1.26). This argument relies on unspoken interpretative strategies which are not applied afterwards but rather take on ‘the shape of reading… [giving] texts their shape’, the selective quotation pivoting on preconceived ideas about Shakespeare as a radical poet (Fish, 1976: 481). By contrasting the vanities of kingship with the peaceful sleep of the masses, there is a sense that the struggling working-class also have their own enviable privileges which should be embraced and perhaps mobilised, rather than envying restless rulers. If a power distribution makes everyone miserable through either too much responsibility or too little, it needs reforming.

Where Coleridge saw veneration for the monarchy, Chartist publications worked to uncover subversive undercurrents of disapproval. In ‘CHARTISM FROM THE POETS’, selective quotation from H5 suggest an alternative re-reading of the play which privileges and extends potentially subversive moments (Northern Star, 06/07/1840: 7). Andrew Murphy has commented that this method had the effect of ‘flattening’ the text, losing ‘the highly textured ambiguity of the original’ (2008: 140). Although they certainly remove ambiguity, I would suggest that, to borrow Michel de Certeau’s expression, it is an act of ‘poaching’, the reader travelling ‘across fields they did not write’ (2011: 174). The radical reader takes the plays, ‘combines their fragments, and creates something un-known in the space organized by their capacity for allowing an indefinite plurality of meanings’ (de Certeau, 2011: 169). More than a flattening, it is a self-conscious act of dissection, quite literally combining fragments to support a preconceived idea of Shakespeare as a poet of the people. Act 4, Scene 1 of H5 is quoted alongside notoriously political writers: John Milton, James Thomson, and Charles Churchill. The Chartists only quote King Henry when he disguises himself as one of his soldiers to hear more candidly what his soldiers think of his decision to take the country to war against France. Henry emphasises the lack of genuine difference between himself and his soldiers to defend himself against Williams’s criticisms: ‘The King is but a man, as I am; the violet smells to him as it doth to me”’(4.1.97). In its context, the line is defending the King by highlighting his vulnerability; out of context, it echoes the reformers questioning why ‘A man, fallible and erring as ourselves, is invested with hereditary powers… apt to forget that he is but a poor perishing wreck of humanity’ (‘The Politics of Poets. No. II’, Chartist Circular, 25/07/1840: 178). Though Henry is emphasising a fraternal relationship between the King and his soldiers, the statement in a Chartist context instead critiques the uneven dynamic that kingship necessitates.

The scene itself, in which Henry’s soldiers criticise his authority and motives, is structured to prompt Henry’s subsequent soliloquy on the emotional burden placed upon him, being ‘but a man’, by the crown. As Thomas Cartelli has observed, rather than working to ‘cancel or, at least, qualify’ the artificial divisions that ceremony enforces between men, this speech ‘eventuates in the king’s reconsecration of the same hierarchical ideology to which, he would lead us to believe, he is himself royally subjected’ (1986: 7). The lines therefore prompt Henry’s deconstruction, reaffirmation, and privileging of his royal burden, with the institution of monarchy interrogated but accepted. Instead of including Henry’s reflections on ceremony at the very end of the scene, the Northern Star places the idea that the King is just another ordinary man next to a quotation which emphasises the material and moral differences between him and the others, thus emphasising the responsibility the King holds for the pain of his subjects. The cynical voice of Williams, the soldier, interjects that ‘the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make’ if an unjust war costs lives (4.1.121-22). Cutting through Henry’s rhetoric to offer home truths about inequality and conflict, Williams deploys powerful imagery of the Day of Judgement to emphasise the ramifications of a broken body politic:

when all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, ‘We died at such a place’.

(H5, 4.1.122-24)

Attuned to the role of the popular voice in the play, the author joins these two moments to emphasise Williams’s realistic perspective on the privileges which separate the men. Whilst Henry reveals his emotional pain and envy of the common man at the close of 4.1, the Northern Star pointedly keeps the focus on the men who could pay for his actions with their life. The question of blame is central to 4.1 and to Henry V more broadly, and Henry grapples with his own responsibility whilst also placing it on others; this article isolates his culpability.

In 1888, the Radical Leader took issue with William Gladstone declaring at the Welsh National Eisteddfod that Shakespeare was ‘a loyal king and queen worshipper’, instead highlighting his ‘withering sarcasms on the pomp and vanity of kings’ (Taylor, 2002: 366). In their subversive appropriations of Shakespeare’s words, Chartist periodicals contributed to a strand of criticism lasting far longer than the movement itself. Taking liberty with textual context, their partial readings encouraged closer attention toward the implications of threads within Shakespeare’s highly textured depiction of power and hierarchies.


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