R.V. Young. Shakespeare and the Idea of Western Civilization. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2022.
How should we read Shakespeare? Some people say not at all. Others keep Shakespeare tightly sealed as an example of historic drama and writing, something to be studied for a standardized education but nothing more. That’s probably how most of us first encountered Shakespeare in high school English and Literature. The scholars of Shakespeare, mostly postmodernist in orientation, turn Shakespeare into the mouthpiece of all the ills of Western Civilization. R.V. Young, however, presents Shakespeare as a first-rate thinker of “aesthetic and moral” consideration, the preeminent “poet of Western civilization”—we should read Shakespeare because he teaches us the metaphysical life and the striving to the Good, True, and Beautiful.
Many people are aware of the concerted effort, mostly from inside academic halls and classrooms, to destroy the aesthetic, cultural, moral, and spiritual patrimony of the West—despite noxious apologists willfully lying about this reality as they gleefully cheer on this desecrating spirit. Shakespeare, as Young reminds us, isn’t free from the acidic filth of the Jacobins running amok in our bastions of cultural prominence. Just like at my alma mater, Yale, one can now study English without taking a single course on the man who is the finest expression of the drama of the English language. (Yale excuses this by saying Shakespeare is still available as “optional;” it’s like studying Greek philosophy without studying Plato.)
Against such butchery, Young enters the arena to offer a defense of Shakespeare. Not just a defense of Shakespeare. He offers a love letter about Shakespeare to other lovers of the Bard. Shakespeare and the Idea of Western Civilization, despite its title undoubtedly being easy cannon fodder for hateful critics and woke ideologues, presents a Shakespeare who both challenges and preserves the human condition and its multifaceted tensions in the form of drama (and poetry). Far from a complicit apologist for racism, imperialism, and colonialism—as has become the fashion of the day in teaching Shakespeare if he is taught at all—Shakespeare “embodies the distinctive principles of the Christian civilization of the Western world” with its “definitive account of human nature and the human condition…and its circumstances in the wider creation [of nature].”
The battles in education have to do with two competing visions, both are actually related to an understanding of human nature more than the panopticon of power that institutions of education manifest. The first school of education, broadly understood as being part of the liberal arts tradition, “seeks to develop men and women with sufficient virtue and wisdom to live decently in a fallen world.” The liberal arts ideal, a combination of Greek, Roman, and Christian outlooks, understands that the world and humans are beautiful but flawed creatures whose temperance, virtue, and wisdom allow the best of life to flourish despite the hardships, struggles, and vanities to weigh the world down. The second school of education, which can be broadly understood as progressive education and the now dominant spirit of education throughout the West and rapidly expanding globally, insist on “changing the world and human nature rather than inducting individual men and women to change themselves through moral effort.” Progressive education is a world in which socially engineering is the be-all-end-all, it is an ideology of malleable nature that is constantly fluid and self-creating and self-creating over and against power structures that try to prevent that fluid self-creation. Any works depicting timeless truths to inculcate virtue against a fallen condition and world must be dispensed with from the progressive ideological point of view. “[S]o it is not at all surprising that ‘Shakespeare’ is no longer a required course in most university and college literature programs.”
What the ancients understood about human nature and liberty—best understood as human flourishing and not mere choice—is that freedom from “sinful” temptations and the ability to actualize the divine imperative is what constitutes true liberty and this is inseparable from the moral life. Thus, from Aristotle to the Christians to even the Enlightenment philosophers, moral virtue and personal and social liberty were an “indissoluble union” in the words of George Washington. Shakespeare, in concentrating on these themes and the totality of the human condition, is the poet par excellence of the liberal arts, the preeminent poet of liberty, and the most exalted dramatist of the human condition. That’s why contemporary wokesters, despite their fancy pieces of paper, hate him.
Young reminds us that when we take a step back and do not read Shakespeare through the lens of the politicized zeitgeist, we discover:
[Shakespeare’s] comedies and tragedies dramatize from opposing angles the gap between the possibilities of human flourishing and the folly and pride that vitiate even our best efforts at fulfillment. His histories offer a remarkable vision of the contradiction and conflict that beset all efforts to found a just political community, and there is no more memorable rendering of the tensions between devotion and desire, aspiration and disappointment, sorrow and exultation than what is provided by his sonnets.
Because Shakespeare stands in the tradition of aesthetic, moral, and spiritual prudence instead of politicized soteriology, the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon is the enemy of tyrannical philosophers (and philosophers more generally who follow Plato’s imperative of political perfectionism which reaches its highest expression in the banal historicized philosophy of Karl Marx and all his pedantic swindlers and disciples) and the current progressive ideology which sees all problems as political and all solutions as equally political. Shakespeare’s political plays suggest otherwise. There is a tragedy in politics. Likewise, those who want perfect and unharming love must brush away Shakespeare’s tragedies which remind us of the limits and imperfections of love, however wonderful love can be (and it certainly is in various Shakespearean plays despite the hardships and struggles in pilgrimaging to the heaven of matrimony).
What R.V. Young gives us in this slim but powerful volume is an antidote to the mechanical teaching of Shakespeare that destroys love and imagination in high school and the desecrating spirit of iconoclasm that has most academic institutions in its stranglehold. Young charts over the breadth of Shakespeare’s writing to reveal a thinker of the highest stature, and a man who was wiser than most of our supposedly wise professors including those with 40 or more years of “experience” still trying to fix the world through totalitarian means. Perhaps reading Shakespeare would break the spell. Perhaps not, one only need look at the rot of contemporary Shakespeare scholarship to see the desecrating spirit of pollution running amok.
Nevertheless, Young also offers a defense of Western civilization through Shakespeare—that now disparaged term and idea that is supposedly responsible for all the evils of the world. Not only does Young demolish the ignoramuses who peddle such pure and utter nonsense, he shows why Western civilization is so precious and how Shakespeare doesn’t break with Western tradition but is its consummate fulfillment in dramatic form (contra Harold Bloom).
The best in Western civilization—its long artistic, literary, and intellectual gifts—has asserted that the complexity of life is not reducible to politics. While there have been many figures in the West who have asserted otherwise, the triumph and ingenuity of the West has been in those institutions and intellectuals who have held the politicized totalitarian impulse at bay which cultivated the space for aesthetic, artistic, erotic, spiritual, and plain simple living to flourish. Those who see their utopia threatened by these coursing spirits of human nature must necessarily destroy them for the political utopia to be achieved. This, of course, is the true genus of imperial bloodlust, genocide, and slavery which emanates from the people claiming to fight against these evils.
Shakespeare’s many plays and poems stand as an expression of the freedom of the aesthetic, artistic, erotic, spiritual, and simple life against the totalitarian machinations of universal politics: whether in its monarchical form, or now in its global “democratic” and Marxist variations. Moreover, Young articulates how Shakespeare destroys the spell of postmodern anti-Western sophistry that dominates the contemporary academy, the institutions of our cultural inheritance, and Shakespeare criticism which is aimed at belittling and dismissing Shakespeare as the grossest and vilest literary embodiment of all the ailments and ills of Western civilization.
Let us take three of the most acute examples: love, racism, and the politics of liberty and tyranny. “Nowhere,” Young writes, “is the alienation of contemporary men and women from the Christian traditions of the past—and hence from the moral vision embodied in Shakespeare’s plays—more manifest than in the realm of sexual morality.” In the twenty-first century we live in an era of free love, polyamory, and companionship feeling. To moderns, love is purely individualistic and predicated on feeling; love is now entirely divorced from the social and notions of metaphysical good.
Shakespeare, however, reminds us of a fuller, not narrower, picture and understanding of love. While postmodern critics assail the fuller portrait of love as tyrannical—because we must have other considerations than just the self so therefore anything that takes in those concerns must necessarily be deemed fascistic—the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon embodies feeling, companionship, friendship, social duties, filial responsibilities, and the good of the entire community as all having a place in the heart of what love is. Love is messy. But love is more than butterflies of the gut. Most importantly, Shakespeare’s dramas regularly remind us that “forgiveness is a necessary element of any conjugal relationship.” Though I am not a Shakespeare scholar in the way that Young is or the various postmodern critics of Shakespeare supposedly are, I too have written on the essential spirit of forgiveness in Shakespeare’s vision of love. That should be apparent to anyone who hasn’t had their mind colonized by postmodern drivel which aims to enslave minds while claiming to liberate them.
The cutting off of oneself from others, the removal of love into the purely private and away from the public and social, that leads to a deracinated version of the love that binds and heals wounded souls and a fallen world. The flourishing of the total human life in love requires more than mere sentiment. Young unleashes a demolishing broadside as Shakespearean critics who willfully mislead their reading audiences on this aspect of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare does not represent rank misogyny and sexism or the narrow views of love of the late Renaissance and early modern world. Rather, Shakespeare’s plays present us that full vision of love as social creatures, “Men and women find themselves and prosper only within a stable network of human relationships, which in turn constitute the larger community. A man or woman in the grip of lust is not a whole human being.” Postmodern critics, however, celebrate the deracinated human enslaved by lust and condemn anyone who dares challenges the truly narrow vision of love when it is overburdened by lust.
Shakespeare in love, as read by Young, is truly marvelous. Though he isn’t the only scholar of Shakespeare to see that happiness in love, as captured in Shakespeare’s dramas, “remind us that the happy, wholesome, and fruitful enjoyment of human sexuality requires a delicate balance between desire and duty, between self-fulfillment and social obligation, between our rights as individuals and our responsibilities as members of a community.” In this light, Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy precisely because our lovers fail to embody the wholeness of love and retreat into the diabolic individuality of lust. They tear themselves apart from the broader whole that love encapsulates; we mustn’t forget that diabolic, in Greek, means to tear asunder. Worse, those who should know better (like Fr. Lawrence and the parents of Rome and Juliet do nothing to stop this descent).
Beside sexual morality, “no issue has proven more vexatious than race in the assessment of the moral stature of Western civilization.” Charges of racism and racist oppression, that the West is nothing but a celebration of “an elite hegemony of white European males” that oppresses women, non-Christians, and racial minorities, is the foundational ideological tenet of contemporary western progressive politics. Look anywhere in the west and all progressive parties share that common feature. Those academics who are progressive leftists necessarily read Shakespeare in the same vein, thus distorting Shakespeare’s plays.
Just as Young critiques postmodernists in highlighting Shakespeare’s cosmic vision of love, so too does Young pushback on even “respected” scholars like Stephen Greenblatt (who is a rather poor scholar despite his accolades from an academy that rewards its sycophantic intellectuals) in examining The Merchant of Venice and Othello as they are instead of how postmodern “anti-racist” ideology demands. These two plays come under the charges of anti-Semitism and racism. Young shows how these charges are empty and peddled only by intellectual swindlers and enslaved ideologues, including Greenblatt.
Regarding Shylock, Young goes through the history of Renaissance depictions of Jewish characters and reveals what all serious scholars know: apart from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews in Renaissance literature are minimal. Medieval literature is not the same as the literature of the Renaissance that informed Shakespeare’s mind and imagination (and Renaissance literature, not medieval folklore, informed Shakespeare). Further, Shakespeare has Shylock “claim his common humanity” and has the play endorse the need for everyone’s “need for the grace of forgiveness.” Shylock is actually on the same level of his Venetian Christian counterparts. Young continues, “The Merchant of Venice sets a concept of justice tempered with mercy over against unbending legalism and self-righteousness.” That legalism and self-righteousness is equally applied to Christian hypocrisy as it is Shylock’s animosity. The Merchant of Venice exposes the pervasive institutional bankruptcy of the Christian ideal of justice that almost always falls short of its ideals but Shakespeare endorses that ideal of universal justice and mercy rather than serve, as the postmodernists would have, an apologist of the cruelties and hypocrisy’s of that justice system.
Likewise, Othello is far from a racist play in which—as Greenblatt and Karen Newsome reinterpret as the demands of postmodern anti-racism requires—Iago is a hero and Othello the villain needing extirpation by the drama’s conclusion. Only a postmodern sophist can come up with that interpretation contrary all the internal textual evidence. Othello is the tragic hero. Iago the villain. Othello, moreover, is the tragic hero because he embodies all that is ideal in Western imagination: duty, chivalry, courtly love. That these values so prized in early modern Europe are granted to an African is not to be missed but is missed, deliberately so, by our postmodern “geniuses.” Additionally, Othello was a very popular play, one of Shakespeare’s most popular, long after his death and the audience knew Othello was not a white European male and still retained its popularity despite its heroic protagonist being an African. “[Othello] commands respect and radiates authority as the drama begins [because he] embodies the values of aristocratic chivalry,” Young writes of Othello’s place in his eponymous play.
Only the demands of contemporary presuppositional ideology enslaves our readers and critics to miss the obvious. “Othello exemplifies the highest virtues of Western Christendom—fortitude, courtesy, devotion to duty, and sexual delicacy—in a character who seems, to some observers, their antithesis: a black African.” Far from a racist portrayal of Othello “as a helpless, psychologically crippled victim of Christian sexual morality” as Newman and Greenblatt read, Othello is an exemplar, in the Aristotelian tragic definition, of all that is ideal in Shakespeare’s Western-Christian culture. That this ideal hero is not a white Christian tells us more about Shakespeare and tells us a lot about our contemporary critics and teachers who cannot even read the self-evident. Shakespeare challenges persistent anti-Semitism and nascent racism in Western culture and calls for it to live up to its professed universalism and egalitarianism. The Merchant of Venice and Othello are clear representations of this fact.
Finally, the salient issue of liberty and tyranny—a perennial issue and one that is now more relevant in the early years of the 2020s—is also an integral part of Shakespeare’s dramatic canon.
Young reads Shakespeare’s assessment of tyranny as tragic, as I also do, principally in how the descent into tyranny strips the world and ourselves of friendship, the love that accompanies friendship, and even the love that would (without the tyrannic environment enveloping us) otherwise lead to a felicitous marriage. For that is what happens in Julius Caesar and Hamlet, which echo what I have also written about tyranny in the Roman plays.
The tyrannical political world also leads to a deterioration of personal virtue and integrity, “One of Shakespeare’s earliest and most straightforward representations of the ideological threat to personal integrity in the pursuit of power comes in Julius Caesar.” Likewise, the loss of friendship is a mark of unfree world, “By becoming a tyrant, Caesar has become incapable of friendship.” The pursuit of power is the very spirit of tyranny which ruptures all relationships, “Julius Caesar represents the spirit of tyranny—of illicit, unchecked political power—and his ghost speaks truly in Brutus’s tent when he identifies himself as ‘thy evil spirit.’” What is tragic between Brutus and Julius Caesar is that they were friends before the ascent of tyrannical ambition and the impossible demands of friendship in a politicized world.
The theme of losing friendship in the pursuit of power, revenge, and a world beset by tyranny is also manifest in Hamlet; after all, Hamlet’s childhood friends—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—turn on Hamlet and Hamlet turns on them. Hamlet also is incapable of consummating his love for Ophelia. Claudius, likewise, is Hamlet’s uncle and therefore a member of his immediate family. All the relations of friendship and family fall apart in the tyrannical rot of Denmark.
In our own world that worries about tyranny, we ought to see cautionary parallels. We are losing friends over politics—a sign of the encroachment of ideology and with it tyranny. We are losing our ability to love because of the pursuit of political power, the pursuit of our tyrannical lusts. Our moral laxity and decline in personal and social virtue and integrity make our country ripe for demagogues. Shakespeare’s warning on tyranny is that we should spot the symptoms before the sickness becomes rotten. Lastly, tyranny means the triumph of politics; or, rather, politicization has destroyed the spaces for aesthetic, artistic, erotic, moral, and spiritual play and life. The genius of Western liberty is in its separation of politics from all the other endeavors and meaningful manifestations of human life.
Young also reads Shakespeare as an interlocutor of moral philosophy and spiritual “readiness.” The failure of Brutus is in his non-spiritual outlook; though he cannot really be blamed for having lived before the incarnation of Christ. Brutus lives through the contradictions of the city of man and the insufficiency of Stoicism is laid bare in his downfall. Hamlet, by contrast, comes to a spiritual “readiness” in recognizing the “divinity that shapes our ends” and the “divine providence” that governs nature. The only real strength in combatting tyranny is spiritual maturity, which Hamlet comes to understand, a spiritual readiness that is Christian in character. Moral fortitude is important in life, but moral fortitude divorced from the Divine leads one down the futile path of Brutus. Brutus fails in his goals. Hamlet, though he dies, succeeds. Hamlet’s sacrificial death mirrors that of Christ in a political, dramatic, sense. He died so that others would live and be set free.
Contrary critics like Harold Bloom who romanticizes Shakespeare as someone who reinverts the Western tradition, Young’s book highlights what only a gnostic “genius” like Bloom couldn’t see: “Shakespeare drama achieves not a break with the Western literary and cultural tradition that has preceded him, but instead [is] its consummate expression.” Shakespeare is, according to Young, “the principal poet of the Western civilization.” That civilization, imperfect as it is, drives onward with a tension for improvement—not in novelty but in improving its ideals of liberty and equality, justice and mercy, a separation of politics from all the metaphysical and spiritual power and potential in life that would otherwise be snuffed out by tyrannizing politics. “Shakespeare reminds us that the essence of Western civilization is a matter of the mind and heart.” And only small-minded critics like the nauseating plethora of postmodern Shakespeare scholars miss the obvious and conjure up, like the witches of Macbeth, absurd interpretations which project the interpreter’s desires onto Shakespeare.
In an age of intellectual abuse and impoverishment, R.V. Young’s Shakespeare and the Idea of Western Civilization is a must-read that is enriching and honest. Young’s book is meant for a real reading audience and hearts of minds of love rather than hatred. Lovers of Shakespeare won’t be disappointed. It’s also a book that might just make you fall in love with the Shakespeare you were taught to hate.
Originally appeared on VoegelinView Read More