Shakespeare and the Good Life: Ethics and Pol
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
[email protected]

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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