Shakespeare’s Critique of the American Regime: A Response to John McGinnis


Since understanding political life is essential to understanding human nature, and revealing human nature is the mark of a masterful poet, great poetry like that of Shakespeare necessarily reflects political principles.

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In a recent debate between Professors Robert George and John McGinnis, the latter argued that our Constitution is adequate for the governance of an irreligious people. (Public Discourse published an essay from George, making the opposite argument, based on his opening statements, which you can read here.) “Instead of relying on religion . . . to elicit the virtues needed for civic life,” McGinnis said, “the Constitution creates a commercial republic to make sure the self-interest of man helps promote virtue.”

According to this line of reasoning, a commercial society fosters self-control, honest dealing, and self-reliance among its citizens. In turn, these values promote limited government and the growth of civic associations. But is commerce alone sufficient to promote civic virtue? More importantly, can a political community survive without widely shared beliefs about what constitutes civic virtue in the first place?

Shakespeare provides an answer in The Merchant of Venice. Just as Homer was a tutor for the ancient Greeks, shaping their notions of political community, courage, and the cosmos, Shakespeare has been and continues to be an essential teacher for English-speaking peoples. Since understanding political life is essential to understanding human nature, and revealing human nature is the mark of a masterful poet, great poetry necessarily reflects political principles. Indirectly, Shakespeare informs us about the qualities of good rulers, the fate of tyrants, the obligations of citizens, and even the nature of a just regime—insofar as one can be established given human frailty.

The Commercial Spirit of Venice

Venice was once a wealthy commercial republic, a dominant Mediterranean power that built its community by sublimating the differences among men through bonds of trade. It was generally thought of as a place where men who would never have shared a common way of life could mingle and live together in civility.

“It was not thought possible to educate men to a tolerant view or to overcome the power of the established religions by refuting them,” writes Allan Bloom in “On Christian and Jew,” a chapter of Shakespeare’s Politics that analyzes the political themes of The Merchant of Venice. “The only way was to substitute for the interest and concern of men’s passions another object as powerfully attractive as religion.” In this case, that substitute was the desire for material gain. This commercial spirit created a veneer of tolerance that made life in Venice possible—but only for a time.

Though they are both religious men, Antonio the Christian and Shylock the Jew draw upon vastly different first principles, and these principles inform the nature and extent of their membership within the political community. Shylock follows the Mosaic law, refusing to eat, drink, or pray with Gentiles. For him, justice means strict adherence to the law. Antonio, inspired by the generosity of the Christian God’s mercy, showers extravagant grace upon others and expects them to do the same for him. Virtue for the one is vice to the other.

Based on the fates of Shylock and Othello—the foreign-born subject of Shakespeare’s other Venetian drama—it seems reasonable to conclude that Shakespeare was pessimistic about the ability of a commercial republic to maintain long-term civic peace. As Bloom puts it, “laws are not sufficient; they must be accompanied by good dispositions on the parts of those who live under them.” Lacking any common vision of the Good, the diverse Venetians inevitably ran aground the ship of state.

Political Community in a Postmodern Age

When citizens do not share fundamental principles, in what sense do they constitute community? For a political community to succeed, its citizens must share a common understanding of what is noble or base.

In a postmodern age, the Western world faces even greater differences. We no longer share a common concept of what it means to be human, much less what marriage is, what it means to be male or female, how one becomes a virtuous human being. We cannot even agree that such concepts exist in any meaningful or shared reality.

This divide is not merely moral, but metaphysical. Postmodern people think of humanity and the material world as infinitely malleable, subject to individuals who fashion reality according to the objects of their will. Christians and other pre-moderns believe that every thing—including mankind—possesses an essential nature by virtue of what the thing is. In other words, reality isn’t optional, it’s objective. The result of this chasm is that American citizens not only fail to reach the same conclusions from what they observe, they do not even see the same things to begin with because of their presuppositions about the nature of reality.

Materialistic commercial traders perceive no need to engage in rigorous philosophical pondering; the received philosophy of cultural oracles from Drake to Disney seems sufficient for them. But the Declaration of Independence, in asserting that “all men are created equal,” implies that the brotherhood of man exists even unto the highest part of the soul, the nous. This is a political and philosophic statement, not merely a scientific statement about our shared species. Yet without a shared philosophical ground, brotherhood can only exist at the lowest common denominator.

This is precisely what Shylock piteously appeals to:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? (III.i)

This type of brotherhood extends no further than the bodily facts of our DNA. The higher parts of the soul—which form opinions about the Good, True, and Beautiful—diverge and conflict so forcefully that citizens within the republic must become not merely partisans, but political enemies.

This enmity is found across the culture war and its petty skirmishes. Anything less than rapturous celebration of “Caitlyn” Jenner, “marriage equality,” and “a woman’s right to choose” is considered anachronistic and bigoted in modern society. The cases of Barronelle Stutzmann and Sweet Cakes by Melissa show that postmodern progressivism permits no dissent. Opposing views—and those who hold them—must be hunted down and made to pay their pound of flesh. Clearly, America’s commercial spirit is insufficient to restrain license, safeguard freedom of belief, or create a common moral language.

Shakespeare’s Warning

Thankfully, in The Merchant of Venice, Portia is able to provide sound judgment, averting would-be tragedy. But Shakespeare’s warning for Venice—and by extension, the United States—is clear. Bloom writes:

In Venice and modern thought, there was an attempt to cut the Gordian knot and unite men, not on the level of their truly human sameness, but on that of the politically beneficial—a unity expressed in men’s universal desire for gain. The consequences of this must be either conflict or a bastardization of all that is noble and true in each of the separate points of view. Venice had the adorned beauty of a strumpet. Shakespeare was not willing to sacrifice for this illusion the only true beauty, which lies somewhere beyond the heavens for the happy few.

James Madison also understood that a Portia will not always be available to mediate such disputes between factions. He wrote in Federalist No. 10, “It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”

If that be the case, whence and whither the American republic? Shakespeare reveals the answer in Portia’s land of Belmont. There, Bloom writes, “the ultimate harmony of men is a harmony, not on the level of their daily lives, but on that of a transcendence of them, an indifference to them, an assimilation to the movements of the spheres.”

Such harmony cannot long be found among a nation of traders unless their outlook is elevated by religious and philosophic life. It must be refined and enlarged by wise statesmen such as Portia—or by great poets, such as Shakespeare. John Adams recognized that American governance could not contend against “human passions, unbridled by morality and religion.” This is why Adams said our Constitution would only effectively govern “a moral and religious people.”

Although Professor McGinnis is correct that commerce tends to promote particular civic goods and to coincide with limited government, commercial relationships alone are insufficient to long sustain national virtue. Without the restraining and uniting force of a shared moral language, the very concept of virtue is unintelligible, much less attainable. Religion—and the Christian religion in particular—is a useful, if not necessary, element for the cultivation and sustenance of civic virtue.

To be elevated to the level of Belmont, our political community must receive proper moral education. Only by learning from guides like Scripture and Shakespeare can the American people begin to reclaim the qualities that made them capable of self-governance in the first place.

Josh Craddock is a student at Harvard Law School. He lives in Cambridge with his wife and son.

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