David Lowenthal. Shakespeare and the Good Life: Ethics and Politics in Dramatic Form. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997. xii+271pp. ISBN 0 8476 8844 5 Cloth, 0 8476 8845 3 Paper.
Jeffrey Tessier
McMaster University

Tessier, Jeffrey. "Review of Shakespeare and the Good Life: Ethics and Politics in Dramatic Form." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.3 (January, 2000): 11.1-7 <URL:

  1. David Lowenthal's Shakespeare and the Good Life: Ethics and Politics in Dramatic Form is the latest contribution to Shakespeare scholarship by a member of the Straussian school, the group of political theorists intellectually descended from Leo Strauss. Grounded in Strauss' understanding of classical Greek and early modern philosophy, the work of the Straussian school ranges over the whole of Western philosophical and political thought, with a frequent focus on the works of Shakespeare. The central concerns of these scholars include the nature of philosophic thought, the relation between philosophy and politics, the quality of good political rule, and the relation between the political community and the individual. In Shakespeare and the Good Life, David Lowenthal examines these issues and others through interpretations of The Tempest, King Lear, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

  2. In his preface to this volume, Lowenthal states his affinity with those Straussians who have led "a revolution in Shakespeare interpretation," such as Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, and Howard White (xii). Lowenthal joins with these revolutionaries in studying Shakespeare as a serious philosophical and political poet, an interpretive strategy that is uncommon because of what he sees as the tendency of critics to view Shakespeare's works as pleasantly arranged pieces of entertainment, meant for the stage rather than the study. Lowenthal looks to early critics of Shakespeare -- Jonson, Dryden, and Pope -- to show that it was once possible and natural to speak publicly about Shakespeare's account of what is true. To speak in such terms today often makes one sound either quaint or irrelevant due to the common assumption that neither Shakespeare nor his critics are concerned with what is true or good. Lowenthal attempts to free himself and his subject from this assumption by simply revealing the philosophical riches of the plays themselves. If the plays are seriously understood as the vehicles of one man's understanding of the nature of things and of the human soul, they can be approached as philosophically educative: through the open engagement of Shakespeare's plays as mirrors of the human condition, the reader is led to develop a practical wisdom akin to the practical wisdom of their author. Lowenthal's description of the educative quality of The Tempest is indicative of his view of how the plays generally function: "the play is probably to be looked upon as philosophy's adjunct or helper, giving life to its themes, problems, solutions without being able to supply all the reasoning necessary" (64). The reasoning is to be supplied by the attentive and engaged reader as he or she is led by the dramatist.

  3. The philosophic education in Shakespeare's plays, according to Lowenthal, is most frequently directed toward political knowledge, understood broadly as the knowledge of the human being's life in a community and of the principles and activities that make that life good. Politics is "the single most salient interest in the plays" (xi). Lowenthal's interest in the Platonic and Aristotelian accounts of good political order is evident in his interpretations of The Tempest and King Lear, each of which is said to illumine truths about political problems first raised by the classical philosophers. In The Tempest, Shakespeare presents a philosopher-king in the character of Prospero, who has made the liberal arts "all [his] study" and who rules his island as a monarch. Lowenthal discusses Shakespeare's dramatisation of philosophic political rule and, following the interpretations of his fellow "revolutionaries" Howard White and Paul Cantor, addresses the ways in which Prospero both follows and departs from the role of the philosopher in Plato's Republic. The interpretation of King Lear also demonstrates how Shakespeare is engaged in a dialogue with the classical political philosophers. Central to Lowenthal's analysis of Lear is the question of whether political order and justice are natural or conventional. He carefully follows Lear's psychological development over the course of the play to discover the ways in which Shakespeare raises this question through the circumstances and meditations of his lead character. Faced with the manifest injustice in his realm, Lear turns first to the gods and, receiving no answer from them, to the natural order. By searching for the true source of justice, he finds that it has a natural basis in the human being's social nature, a conclusion much like that reached by Socrates in Plato's Gorgias.

  4. Lowenthal's chapters on Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice address other political concerns. In his analysis of Caesar, Lowenthal argues that Shakespeare navigates between the timocratic politics represented by Caesar and the republican form of government that was developed most fully in Rome and was being revived in early modern Italy. The tension between these two political alternatives is addressed through Lowenthal's creative use of the character of Cicero, who is used to represent the balanced coordination of honour-seeking politics and the life of reason that can flourish within a republic. While Caesar examines the effect of unbridled political ambition on political order, Merchant explores the effect of revelatory religion on the polity. Lowenthal argues that the action within Venice follows the precepts of the Biblical religions and that the play dramatises the political divisions that result from the conflict of revealed truths. Expanding on Allan Bloom's 1963 study of Merchant, Lowenthal argues in his analysis that Shakespeare uses the divisions within Venice to point to the "rational cosmology of Belmont" (172) as the best source of a stable polity.

  5. Lowenthal's reading of Shakespeare is remarkably subtle. The meticulous care with which he reads is the consequence of his view that there is nothing accidental or useless in Shakespeare's plays. The plays fulfill Plato's definition of good discourse: "every discourse must be organized, like a living being, with a body of its own, as it were, so as not to be headless or footless, but to have a middle and members, composed in fitting relation to each other and to the whole" (Phaedrus 264c; Lowenthal 13-14). Convinced that Shakespeare's plays contain as much intricacy and truth as a Platonic discourse, Lowenthal labours hard in analysing small details that often go unnoticed by other critics and his labour often leads to the revelation of important elements of a character or plot. His commitment to interpreting the text in all of its detail also brings with it an unwillingness to apply to the text any literary or hermeneutic theory, presumably on the grounds that most such theoretical readings will bring to Shakespeare terms and principles that are not Shakespeare's.

  6. Along with his close attention to detail, there is a certain suspicious quality to his reading that leads him to a depth in the plays untouched by many other critics. Lowenthal ponders whatever may be pondered. The interpretation of Julius Caesar, for instance, turns on Lowenthal's suspicion of Caesar's character, a suspicion provoked by the apparent inability of the greatest statesman to discern a conspiracy that was carelessly concealed by the conspirators. His answer to this problem, that Caesar did in fact know of the conspiracy and allowed its fulfillment in order to immortalise himself, opens up a rich psychological and political depth to the play that is unseen to a reader who does not plumb Caesar's character in Lowenthal's suspicious manner. The interpretive benefits of this suspicious method of reading are so obvious in Shakespeare and the Good Life that the greatest failing in the book is caused by the sudden credulity with which Lowenthal reads Measure for Measure; in the very play in which disguises and concealed motives figure most prominently, Lowenthal finds no reason to use the suspicion and psychological scrutiny which he uses so adeptly throughout the rest of his book.

  7. Shakespeare and the Good Life is a rich contribution to the field of philosophical political Shakespeare interpretation. Lowenthal observes that this field has been dominated by scholars affiliated with the political philosophy of Leo Strauss and his students, and that these scholars have "won few adherents among traditional Shakespeare specialists." He suggests that one reason for this insularity has been the tendency of Straussian commentators to ground their arguments in a starting point that is not "sufficiently clear to one and all" (xii). Unfortunately, Lowenthal makes little attempt to open his analyses to those who do not share his background and intellectual inclinations, and he declines to discuss the arguments of those scholars who challenge the Straussian reading of Shakespeare. The starting point or guiding assumption for Lowenthal's study of Shakespeare is often a philosophical question transposed without argument from Strauss' study of Western political philosophy, e.g. the philosopher's need to conceal his philosophising from others in The Tempest or the stark opposition between natural and theological visions of the world in King Lear. While many would agree that the use of specifically Straussian philosophy in the study of Shakespeare produces philosophically illuminating literary analyses, another result is surely the closure of that analysis to those who do not share the pre-text used so frequently by Lowenthal.

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© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)