Afterword: Shakespeare, the swing voter

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



English Language and Literature

Publication Title

Shakespeare and the 99%: Literary Studies, the Profession, and the Production of Inequity


Shakespeare, a Reagan Democrat? A Clinton conservative? The guy who voted for Obama, and then Trump? A Democrat who didn’t votefor Kennedy because he’s Catholic? We could probably go back even further with more examples. To call Shakespeare a swing voter is not as ludicrous as it sounds. There is a long history of Shakespeare’s own particular ambivalence in representing ethical controversies and different perspectives. A. P. Rossiter was one of the first modern critics to describe the radical ambivalence in Shakespeare’s works. His theory of Shakespeare’s plays working as an extreme ironic detachment is often discussed as an idealistic overvaluation of his drama, offering a poor man’s version of Keats’ idea of negative capability.2 Shakespeare, we are told, was able to identify with two opposing moral perspectives at the same time, a philosophical juggling of plates if not an ethical three-card monte. “Shakespeare’s intuitive way of thinking […] is dynamic,” Rossiter explains, “alterative, not tied to its age. It has that extra degree of freedom which is given only by what I call a constant ‘Doubleness’: a thoroughly English empiricism which recognizes the coextancy and juxtaposition of opposites, without submitting to urges…to obliterate or annihilate the one in the theoretic interests of the other” (62).

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