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Shakespeare the Social Scientist

The Bard was an interdisciplinary thinker centuries before it was cool.

By Tom Jacobs


William Shakespeare. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Saturday marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, a milestone being marked around the world with readings, lectures and, of course, performances. Given Pacific Standard’s focus on the social sciences, we thought we’d commemorate the occasion by providing a few recent examples of how his researchers in a wide range of disciplines either claim him as one of their own, or cite his works as examples of timeless wisdom.

Shakespeare the Political Scientist

Just this week, a story in TheEconomist compared Bernie Sanders to Mark Antony, frenemy of the title character in Julius Caesar. “Mr. Sanders never fails to declare his admiration and respect for his worthy opponent, while subtly undermining her,” writes the author, identified only by the initials N.M. “Et tu, Bernie.”

Sanders and Donald Trump have been referred to as “populists,” politicians with a natural ability to play to a crowd. (Think of those large rallies.) Shakespeare is generally seen as being wary of mass opinion; in several plays, he portrays the populace as easily swayed by clever rhetoric.

In a 2013 essay published in the journal Literature Compass, Jeffrey Doty of West Texas A&M University makes a contrary argument. He writes that Shakespeare’s plays “acknowledge poverty, popular anger, and elite abuses of authority,” and argues that the theater — at least in Shakespeare’s time — was a place where common people learned how to be better understand the nature of power, and thus were more resistant to manipulation by the elite.

“Since most readers gravitate to the riot scenes and find the mobs frightening, they conclude that Shakespeare was conservative,” Doty writes. “But social history equips one to read Shakespeare’s crowds not as irrational lovers of violence, but rather as stewards of the commonwealth, and conscious agents of their own material interests.”

Shakespeare the Criminologist

Granted, this one sounds like a stretch. But in a 2014 paper published in the journal Crime, Media, Culture, Harvard University’s Jeffrey Wilson argues that Shakespeare’s plays “offer an embryonic version of criminology,” noting that “the criminal events depicted in his plays reflect complex philosophical debates about crime and justice.”

“The consistency with which Shakespeare represents crime, the depths he searches in the criminal mind, the connections he draws between culture and crime, and the skeptical attitude he displays when doing so all make his works particularly relevant to the criminologist,” he writes.

CSI: Clever Shakespearean Investigation?

Shakespeare the Leadership Training Scholar

Since at least the 1999 publication of Shakespeare on Management, the Bard’s plays have been mined for insights into smart corporate leadership. In 2014, Calcutta-based scholar Apoorva Bharadwaj asked whether those tips were truly relevant outside of the British culture he helped create.

Looking at the GLOBE project (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness), which analyzes leadership practices all over the world, Bharadwaj concludes that, indeed, many of Shakespeare’s insights are widely applicable, so long as they “are tailored to fit a given country’s cultural heritage.”

“Some of the GLOBE universal positive leader attributes are confidence builder, just, motivational, communicative, and intelligent, which Henry V personifies,” she writes in the Journal of Creative Communications. “Some of the GLOBE universal negative leader traits are loner, asocial, ruthless, dictatorial, egocentric, which correspond to the fatal flaws that Shakespeare depicts in his Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear, to name a few.”

Actually, Richard III’s pamphlet The Art of the Dirty Deal was pretty popular in its day.

Shakespeare the Psychologist

Researchers who study the mind tend to be the ones most enamored of Shakespeare, and for good reason: In a 2009 paper, the University of Toronto’s Keith Oatley refers to the playwright as “the psychologist of Avon.” Last year, the highly influential Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in The Atlantic that “the bard was one of our first and greatest psychologists.”

Pinker’s lovely essay focuses on Measure for Measure, in which a puritanical man who is temporarily put in charge of the city of Vienna begins enforcing a strict code of sexual conduct, with aberrant behavior punished by death.

“It’s a reminder that the horrors of the Islamic State are nothing new,” Pinker writes, noting that “puritanical legal codes and barbaric punishments” are part of our own cultural heritage, not just that of radical Islam.

His larger point is that, “in seven words, Shakespeare sums up a good portion of the findings of modern psychology: most ignorant of what he’s most assured.” Modern psychology has shown over and over again that “human beings are absurdly overconfident in their own knowledge, wisdom, and rectitude. Everyone thinks that he or she is right, and that the people they disagree with are stupid, stubborn, and ignorant.”

Pinker illuminates what is perhaps the deepest value of Shakespeare, even beyond the beauty of the poetry and the cathartic power of the tragedies: In his characters, we see reflections of ourselves, including aspects we would rather not acknowledge. Look, listen, learn.