Of Philosophers and Kings: Political Philosophy in Shakespeare’s
Macbeth and King Lear
by Leon Harold Craig.
University of Toronto Press (Toronto, Canada),
406 pp., $29.95 paper, 2001.

Of Philosophers and Kings is an unfashionable book
in the best sense of the term. Unlike the vast majority of contemporary
critics of Shakespeare, Leon Craig is not obsessed with issues
of race, class, and gender in the plays. He is not even interested
in showing how Shakespeare was complicit in the nascent imperialism
of the Elizabethan regime. Rather than seeking to root Shakespeare
in the concerns of his own age, Craig looks for the timeless
element in the plays, the way they transcend their historical
moment. In fact, by the standards of contemporary criticism,
Craig’s book will strike many readers as old-fashioned
in its insistence that we might actually learn something about
profound and perennial philosophical issues by studying Shakespeare’s
plays carefully. As Craig himself puts it, “the premise
of this book [is] that Shakespeare is as great a philosopher
as he is a poet—that, indeed, his greatness as a poet derives
even more from his power as a thinker than from his genius for
linguistic expression, and that his continuing appeal and influence
is a reflection of his possessing great wisdom.” Since
Craig emphasizes Shakespeare’s political wisdom in particular,
his book is very much in the spirit of the essays published by
ISI in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John
Alvis and Thomas West. In his quest to reveal the wisdom of Shakespeare’s
plays, Craig analyzes two of them in depth and at length—Macbeth and King
—and offers briefer interpretations of three others—Othello,
The Winter’s Tale,
and Measure for Measure.
The result is one of the best books on Shakespeare to appear
in the past decade; it sheds new light on each of the plays it
discusses and provides a model of what the serious study of Shakespeare
necessarily entails.

For me, the highlight of the book is the long chapter on King
, one of the few discussions of this play I know that genuinely
does justice to the complexity of what is perhaps Shakespeare’s
greatest achievement as a dramatist. Starting from Harry Jaffa’s
pioneering and pathbreaking analysis of the opening scene of
the play (included in Allan Bloom, Shakespeare’s Politics),
Craig gives a detailed and convincing explanation of Lear’s
hidden plan for dividing his kingdom. Far from acting out of
foolishness or senility in his original division of the kingdom,
Lear, as Craig shows, had at least a viable plan for securing
the best part of his kingdom for the best of his daughters, Cordelia.
The bulk of Craig’s Lear chapter is devoted to analyzing
the understanding of the family as a social institution that
Shakespeare develops in the play. Concentrating on the issues
of primogeniture and the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy,
Craig offers a cogent defense of the sometimes obscure logic
underlying and justifying social conventions. He rejects the
view espoused in the play by the bastard Edmund that conventions
such as legitimacy are purely arbitrary and have no basis whatsoever
inthe nature of social existence. Most viewers and readers sense
that there must be something wrong with any position championed
by a villain like Edmund, but they would have a hard time identifying
the fallacies in his claims. Craig thus significantly advances
our understanding of King Lear by systematically articulating
the function served in society by distinguishing between legitimate
and illegitimate children. As he concludes:

Once one understands how basic, and central, the idea of legitimacy
is to the inner rationale of families, and thus to the larger
political order of which families truly are the primary atoms,
one can no longer see ‘legitimacy’ in the terms that
Edmund would prefer, as but one more “plague” of
irrational custom followed only out of blind habit, just another “curiosity
of nations” that could as easily be otherwise as not. From
the mere fact that the specific application of this distinction
to a particular time and place is established by positive law
and reinforced by an array of manners and mores and habits and
prejudices, one is not free to conclude that it has no underlying
reality, nor that all such ‘conventions’ are essentially
arbitrary, or no less arbitrary than weights and measures.

Craig’s analysis of the functionality of family customs
has broader implications and leads him to the most general philosophical
issue Shakespeare broaches in King Lear—the vexed question
of the relation of nature and convention. Many commentators are
attracted to the nihilism of Edmund, which sounds so strangely
modern to our ears, and choose to follow him in claiming that
nature and convention are simply opposed. But Craig argues convincingly
that this issue is more complicated than at first appears. As
Lear shows, man is a peculiar being—it is evidently in
his nature to create conventions for himself. What specific kind
of clothing he wears may be a matter of fashion, but that he
does choose to clothe himself seems to follow from his nature.
As Craig formulates the point in one of the most important passages
in his book:

Conventions are necessary for humans living fully human lives,
according to their nature. Granting this to be the case (as
by all the evidence we must), a valid idea of Nature, adequate
for encompassing human nature, similarly must encompass conventions.
Much about the particularities of how these or those people
live is due to ‘mere convention,’ but this human
capacity to frame and live in accordance with various conventions
is not itself conventional: it is natural.

This understanding of King Lear takes Shakespeare out of the
camp of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, as it were, and places
him squarely in the Socratic-Platonic-Aristotelian tradition,
in which man is a political animal, that is, a being who is by
nature fitted and destined to live in a community, with all the
creation of conventions that entails. In the course of investigating
the concept of nature Shakespeare develops in King
, Craig
traces Lear’s education, his remarkable transformation
from a king to a philosopher, or at least a man in quest of philosophical
education. In Craig’s words: “It is this logical-historical
trajectory from non-philosopher through natural philosopher to
political philosopher that we find illustrated in the several
phases of King Lear’s intellectual transformation.” Throughout
his book, Craig concentrates on Shakespeare’s interest
in the Platonic possibility of the philosopher-king, but the
section “A King Becomes Philosophical” in his Lear
chapter provides the kernel of his argument and the high point
of his analysis.

I have dwelled upon Craig’s Lear chapter and quoted at
length from it in order to try to convey a sense of the richness
and depth of his argument, but I want to stress that the whole
book is worth reading. And that includes the extensive (and perhaps
intimidating) endnotes, which amount to about a third of the
book (up until page 40 of the text, the pages of endnotes actually
outnumber the pages of text). One might be tempted to skip the
endnotes, but they contain some of the most acute observations
in the book, such as this comment on the villain of Othello: “Iago
has the soul of a pyromaniac, who lights fires just to watch
them burn.” Craig is also an excellent guide to Shakespeare
criticism, and especially to a number of older critics who are
in danger of being forgotten in an era when trendiness seems
to govern academia. Craig’s generous extracts from other
Shakespeare critics in his endnotes allow his readers to sample
some of the best writing on the plays he discusses. Moreover,
Craig uses the endnotes to carry on a number of valuable polemics
against other critics. In a move essential to his central thesis,
Craig does a particularly good job of demolishing T. S. Eliot’s
famous claim that Shakespeare was not a philosophical poet (developed
in his essay “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca,” in
which Eliot contrasts Shakespeare with Dante in this regard).
Craig points out that Eliot’s argument rests on a narrow
and in many respects anachronistic conception of philosophy.
With F. H. Bradley as his model of a philosopher, Eliot fails
to appreciate precisely the Socratic/Platonic (which is to say
dialogic) element in Shakespeare, that is, the undogmatic character
of his thinking. Craig shows exactly where Eliot went wrong:

In short, by identifying ‘being philosophical’ with
having a fully articulated metaphysical view, Eliot overlooks
the fact that philosophy is first of all, both logically and
psychologically, a self-conscious commitment to an activity,
to rigorous and persistent thinking, in the recognition that
the questions—not the answers—are primary. . . .
[O]n Eliot’s view (which is by no means unique to him),
the Sokrates of the Apology would not qualify as a philosopher.

If I had more space, I could quarrel with Craig at a number
of points in his argument. For example, I was not fully persuaded
by his claim that Othello is organized around a scheme involving
the four elements, and, although I was intrigued by his suggestion
that The Winter’s Tale is structured to reprise the contrast
between Plato’s Republic and his Symposium, I think that
the play can be more usefully understood by comparing it to Shakespeare’s
own works. In particular, I feel that Craig missed an opportunity
by not discussing Winter’s Tale in relation to its tragic
counterpart in Othello. Indeed the whole question of Winter’s
as tragicomedy can best be illuminated by contrasting it
with the Shakespeare tragedy to which it is most clearly linked
by virtue of the theme of jealousy. I also feel that Craig does
not sufficiently take into account the importance of Christianity
in his analysis of the Viennese regime in Measure
for Measure
Although the Platonic contexts Craig invokes in discussing the
play are no doubt valid, this is one case where the contemporary
historical context may genuinely be relevant to what Shakespeare
is doing. In Shakespeare’s day, Vienna was the center of
the Habsburg dynasty and hence the Holy Roman Empire; in particular,
it is difficult to believe that the abdication of the Habsburg
Emperor, Charles V—one of the most striking political events
of the sixteenth century in Europe—is not somehow reflected
in the story of Shakespeare’s Duke Vincentio.

But in dealing with such complicated issues, there is surely
room for disagreement in the interpretation of Shakespeare’s
plays, and my differences from Craig do not lessen my admiration
for his achievement in Of Philosophers and
. I wish I had
time to treat at length his subtle analysis of Macbeth, in which
he systematically uncovers a Machiavellian subtext in the play
by means of a discussion of the role of several seemingly minor
characters, especially the enigmatic figure of Ross. Craig does
an excellent job of characterizing the imaginative atmosphere
of Macbeth, and he is at his most eloquent in formulating the
complicated nature of the play’s protagonist:

Macbeth . . . has a surprising depth and complexity of mind.
He is much more than the furiously valiant, callous, thoughtless
butcher one might presume from either our first report of him
. . . or our last. . . . It would be an exaggeration, but useful,
to suggest that in the interim Macbeth shows himself to be
the very opposite of this: fearful, morally sensitive, and
above all pensive, ruminative. . . . With a mind toiling between
the intellectual lowlands where the great herds graze, and
the cold, lonely peaks favoured by goats and sages; and with
a poet’s
imagination that is at once his grace and his curse, he is more—much
more—than just another erring barbarian.

Craig’s book ends with an insightful analysis of Socrates’ critique
of the poets in Plato’s Republic and a suggestive discussion
of how Shakespeare may be said to respond to and in effect answer
these criticisms in his work as poet/dramatist. Craig’s
documentation of Shakespeare’s ability to avoid the defects
of conventional poetry as Socrates presents them puts the seal
on his larger claim that Shakespeare is the true philosophical
poet, indeed the kind of poet Plato has Socrates call for at
the end of the Symposium—one who could transcend the distinction
between tragedy and comedy and achieve a truly philosophical
perspective on his material. In helping us to recognize the philosophical
dimension of Shakespeare, Craig has performed a great service
to our appreciation of the central author of our literary tradition,
and indeed helped to explain why he justly occupies that position
of centrality.

A. Cantor
is the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English
at the University of Virginia.
The second edition of his book
on Hamlet has just been published by Cambridge University Press.