In modern democracies, politics and popular culture are inseparable. While a small percentage of Americans know what was discussed on Capitol Hill this week, a significant number know who was booted from American Idol, and observing this tableau, a political mind may be repulsed. For the liberal philosopher, turning the minds of an apathetic or propagandized public seems an impossible hill to climb. Average people do not really care to read about the meaning of life, the unnecessary confines of their society, or the causes of human suffering. Average people do, however, enjoy a good show. Since the times of the American continent’s first presses and playhouses, in England and its American colonies, that show was Shakespeare. Long before the Beatles, the prolific poet from Stratford-upon-Avon may have posthumously been America’s first British pop sensation-and its most influential. Shakespeare’s attention to detail in the individual identities of his characters, and his intellect for relative moral standards, infused English and American cultures with an unprecedented appreciation for individual liberty, which led to the American Revolution and United States Constitution. Shakespeare’s cultural legacy is the defense of individualism that pervaded everywhere his work was popular, and in the ways that truly matter to society, Hitler was defeated not by the bomb-dropping Allies of World War II, but by a dead English poet wielding only a feather.
This realization came to me as I was reading The Federalist, the famed series of newspaper publications that circulated in the United States in 1787-88. The carefully constructed papers succeeded in persuading the American people to ratify the newly formed Constitution. In the second essay of the series, one of the mystery authors (later revealed as John Jay) refers to “the poet” without explanation, as if every reader should already know that “the poet” is Shakespeare. This is evidence that, to Jay and his intended audience, the American public of 1787, Shakespeare was an assumption that required no specific definition, like air, earth, moon, sun or divinity, or even humanity itself. There is no comparable figure in 2008. When we hear “the poet” today, we need an antecedent, so as not to be confused as to whether it is Dickinson, Frost, Shakespeare, Donne, Hughes, Eliot, Kipling, or Whitman-we do not conditionally assume one. The same can be said for our other modern influences. There is no modern actor, writer, comedian, singer, musician, pundit, et cetera, whose proper identity is an informal extension of common title, so Shakespeare’s influence on early U.S. culture is, by our standards, immeasurable.
The extent to which Shakespeare shaped America’s early cultural identity is a subject of debate among historians, and each critic brings a unique perspective to the argument, sometimes adding invention to observation. All agree that Shakespeare profoundly shaped England’s language and culture, and most believe the American identity was consequently Shakespearean. Few, however, will go so far as to say Shakespeare was a major factor in American independence. The argument that Shakespeare had little effect on America’s revolutionary founding is centered on the mystery of Shakespeare’s own politics. What Shakespeare’s characters believed was often abundantly clear, but the playwright’s own political opinions will always remain a mystery. It is true that Shakespeare contributed nothing concrete to political discourse. He was an artist. However, the mystery of his politics, along with the variety of characters he created, is actually central to my argument, because as soon as the public learns a writer’s opinions, a large sector of it will ignore his work. We learn, in Shakespeare’s world, that no one’s opinions are right. This realization is the essence of the United States’ liberal individualistic founding, and Shakespeare made it popular in England and the United States. In this way, Shakespeare founded the United States as we know it.
Historians give credit for the modern concept of the self to English philosopher John Locke, who argued that the infant’s mind is a blank slate shaped by experience, but he published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690, a century after Shakespeare penned his works containing more than one hundred main characters and thousands of developed side characters, each having unique identities. Locke, they claim, is one of American liberty’s founding philosophers, but Locke may have only been observing what Shakespeare revealed in England a century before. In Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human (1998), Harold Bloom argues that “personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention, and is not only Shakespeare’s greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness.” This seems accurate. We see a multitude of personalities in English, American and French cultures not often seen elsewhere. Distinctive personalities, seen in a positive light in our country, are in non-Shakespearean cultures considered a social obstacle. In talking to a Chinese exchange student, I discovered that in his culture, people have difficulty understanding why anyone would want to restrict the powers of the government. While Shakespeare’s cultures reject government coercion of the individual, collectivist cultures like China’s fear the potential chaos of individual freedoms.
Shakespeare’s influence in America has been taken to the extreme by more than one critic. In 1917, Charles Mills Gayley authored Shakespeare and the Founders of Liberty in America, which argues that Shakespeare had direct contact with liberal leaders in Virginia. Most of his argument is based on a single unpublished letter received by Shakespeare from William Strachey, a liberal member of the Virginia Company. Gayley claims Shakespeare was intimately and directly involved in the beginning of American liberty, but there is little evidence his claim is true. While his assessment that Shakespeare has left a heritage of liberty in England, France, and America is correct, Gayley has-whether imaginatively, vainly, or greedily-overstepped in attributing political beliefs to a political mirage.
The United States and England embraced Shakespeare throughout the nineteenth century, and until radio and television formats revolutionized media, Shakespeare remained dominant in American and British popular culture through print and performance. The individualism highlighted by Shakespeare’s characters remained on the consciousnesses of these nations well into the twentieth century. Early in the twentieth century, when other modern societies turned to combinations of socialism, nationalism, totalitarianism, or fascism-and did so with seeming success-England, France and the United States were, for yet unexplained reasons, unable to undo individualism, despite pleas from religious, scientific and interested communities. Germany was not so lucky. Before Hitler’s prominence, German culture had scientists, religions, artists, philosophers, and politicians-all arguably more refined than those of any other nation. For this reason, many intellectuals in England and the United States admired Germany’s Nazi socialism prior to the onset of war.
F.A. Hayek describes the evolution of Germany’s national socialist thought in The Road to Serfdom (1944), which is considered among the most important social criticisms ever written, and is a warning to politicians in all individualistic societies. In it, we learn Germans believed that in realizing the advantages of socialism, they had discovered an advantage over Anglo-American individualism. He quotes German Nobel Prize winner Wilhelm Ostwald saying, “I will explain to you now Germany’s great secret: we, or perhaps the German race, have discovered the significance of organization. While the other nations still live under the regime of individualism, we have already achieved that of organization.” This reveals the cultural difference between Germany and England during World War II: individualism. For some reason, English culture cherished individualism while German culture esteemed organization. Germany had an advanced scientific and artistic society; what German culture was missing was the Shakespeare effect. The underlying presence of Shakespeare explains the awareness that standards are relative to the individual (and not society as a whole), to which the inhabitants of England, France, and America so desperately clung during World War II.
Germans felt socialism was the answer to their economic woes. However, implementing socialism required the unscrupulous denial of certain individual rights, and Hitler was the only leader strong enough to make it work. It was not until after the outbreak of war that we became acutely aware of the dangers of Germany’s collectivist thought. Their patriotic socialism, though it may seem favorable in concept, becomes an uncontrollable and brutal beast in practice, because socialism can only be implemented by means most socialists detest. With its comfort in conformity, corporate interest in government, promises of safety, and mystical faith in the benevolence of power, socialism is more similar to the tyranny of the past than the prosperity of the future.
Although we did not formally recognize the evils of Nazi socialism until Hitler showed them to us, something in our culture told us it was wrong-and that something was Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s redefinition of the English language throws a wrench into the very notion of “organization” in society. It was Shakespeare’s personalized characters that instilled individualism, which made American independence seem so right. It was the same individualist lens through which socialism seemed so wrong. Everywhere his work is popular, individual liberty is Shakespeare’s legacy, and in the absence of his popularity in America today, we should realize we are at greater risk of internalizing collectivist ideals; in the spirit of Shakespeare, let us not be governed by them.