Everyone wants a piece of Shakespeare, and recent critics have claimed him as a cryptorevolutionary. His plays have been seen as an "inscription of opposition" (Catherine Belsey), "the circulation of subversion" (Stephen Greenblatt), and a chapter in the Marxist history of class warfare (Jonathan Dollimore). Alvin Kernan acknowledges these new historicist claims. They are not his. For Kernan, Shakespeare is a patronage artist, whose plays reflect their frequent setting, the court.
The statistics underpin Kernan's argument. Between 1603 and 1613, Shakespeare's company played at court 138 times, an average of nearly 14 a year. The working pattern was for Shakespeare's plays to be produced at the Globe, polished and run in there, and then taken to Whitehall or Hampton Court for Christmas runs. Thus Shakespeare took his place among the great patronage playwrights of the era, Calderon and Moliere.
The demands of patronage meant an awareness of audience, rather than an open homage to the King. Aside from Henry VIII, only Macbeth is designed to advance the ideological claims of the regime. When the witches provide "a show of eight Kings, the last with a glass in his hand; Banquo following", Shakespeare stages a living family tree. James was supposedly descended from Banquo, and the stage king holds up a mirror to the watching monarch. True kings, from Malcolm's time on, were determined by primogeniture not murder. And the "earls" he creates are the foundation of Scots nobility. Macbeth is a timeless moral fable, but also propaganda serving the Stuart myth.
Oblique comment is the key to the court plays. It was out of bounds to represent a living monarch or his undisguised interests. In Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio has clear affinities with James, who also liked to control events from the sidelines. But the duke could not be seen as a direct portrait. The play opens up state justice and its links with private morality. Again, King Lear is not James. But the problems of managing a large state, a "Union" with divisive tendencies, are examined.
Less plausible is Kernan's contention that aspects of Octavius and Antony are visible in James. Octavius represented order and rationality, Antony generosity of spirit. Antony and Cleopatra translates court profligacy into magnificence. There is something to this, but the analogies are beginning to slip their moorings.
Still, the main thesis is in place. Shakespeare, the court playwright, offered plays that dealt obliquely and tactfully with issues of the day. Through analogy and suggestive likeness, the plays engaged but never alienated their audience. Kernan's Shakespeare is of the establishment, always alert to the boundaries that must not be transgressed. Shakespeare, The King's Playwright is distinguished, readable, and in its own way counter-revolutionary. It is a corrective to much recent criticism.
Ralph Berry is the author of Shakespeare in Performance: Castings and Metamorphoses.
Shakespeare, The King's Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court 1603-1613
Author - Alvin Kernan
ISBN - 0 300 06181 1
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 230