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English Course Outline

Political Legitimacy in the plays of William Shakespeare

Course description

This course explores questions political legitimacy—what makes the actions of political figures legitimate, which actions performed by such figures can be legitimate, and in what ways can people be led to believe that political actions are legitimate—in the plays of Shakespeare. It will consider different answers to these questions, such as the view that political figures are appointed by and answerable to God, the view that political actions are legitimate only insofar as they reflect the will of the people (however defined), and the view that rhetoric and display are ultimately more important in creating an appearance of legitimacy than reason and argument. As well as exploring these abstract political questions, the course will also consider how drama—and, in particular, drama written in a very different historical context from our own—can help us to engage with them.

The course is designed to give you a sense of what studying English as an undergraduate is like. In contrast to the study of Shakespeare in most UK secondary schools, which tends to focus on individual plays, the course will consider plays from across the Shakespearean canon and across the genres of history and tragedy. Secondary criticism and knowledge of the context in which the plays were written will also be drawn on.

Students are expected to read this document and at least skim the secondary texts listed below in advance of the course beginning.



You can access the extracts here:!AngnbBzI8Ubrhv9qZEtU5K_0qinlFw?e=hgGQMd

Essential reading:

  • This document (to be read in advance of the course)
  • The primary readings below (to be read in advance of the seminar which focuses on it)

Further reading

  • The secondary readings below
  • The books listed at the end of this document

Primary reading (all from plays by Shakespeare)

  • Antony and Cleopatra: Act I, scene iv; Act II, scene ii, lines 181-255[1]
  • Coriolanus: Act I, Scene i; Act II, Scene iii
  • Henry V: Act IV, scene i
  • Julius Caesar: Act III, Scene ii
  • King Lear: Act I, scene iv
  • Macbeth: Act I, scene vii; Act IV, scene iii
  • Richard II: Act III, scene ii

Secondary/critical reading:

  • Hattaway, Michael, ‘Tragedy and Political Authority’, in Claire McEachern (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp.110-31.
  • Press, 2011), pp.153-67
  • Hadfield, Andrew, ‘Republicanism’, in Arthur F. Kinney (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp.587-603
  • Hoenselaars, Tom, ‘Shakespeare’s English history plays’, in Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells (eds), The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp.137-51
  • James, Heather, ‘Shakespeare’s Classical Plays’, in Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells (eds), The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp.153-68.
  • Kahn, Coppélia, ‘Shakespeare’s Classical Tragedies’, in Claire McEachern (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp.218-39
  • Neill, Michael, ‘Shakespeare’s tragedies’, in Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells (eds), The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp.121-35


The Shakespearean Canon

The course will range across seven plays by Shakespeare and is designed to allow students to develop a knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays as a whole, which are sometimes known as ‘the Shakespearean canon’ (a canon being a group of literary works).

Shakespeare was active as a playwright roughly between 1590 and 1614. During this time, he wrote about forty plays. It is difficult, however, to say exactly how many plays he wrote, since some of his plays were written with other people and it is often difficult to know whether he wrote enough to be credited as the primary author. Additionally, there are some plays which are thought to have been written by Shakespeare which have not survived to the present day.

Shakespeare’s plays were written for performance on stage, although many of his plays were published as relatively affordable books during his lifetime, although, as far as we can tell, without his consent or authorisation. After his death in 1616, several of his friends collaborated to produce a de luxe edition of his plays. This was published in 1623 and is known as the First Folio (a folio being an expensive format of book; earlier printed versions of Shakespeare’s plays were published in quarto, which was a cheaper format). The First Folio, which is among the most famous books ever published, contained 36 plays in total, 18 of which had never been printed before. A few plays often ascribed to Shakespeare were not included.

In the First Folio, the plays were sorted into three genres (a genre being a category used for classifying works of literature, often according to their content and style). These were:

  • Histories (10 plays about British history between the late-12th and mid-16th centuries)
  • Comedies (14 plays, mostly with happy endings or a preponderance of humorous scenes or characters)
  • Tragedies (11 plays, mostly on sombre or fraught topics and often ending in death)

One play, Troilus and Cressida, was not placed in a genre.

Modern critics have debated the usefulness of these categorisations. Many of the histories and tragedies, for example, contain comic scenes and elements, and many of the comedies, such as Measure for Measure and All’s Well that Ends Well, have highly ambiguous endings. Shakespeare’s Roman plays—Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus—may also seem to form a distinct group.

The chronology of the plays is important too. Roughly speaking, Shakespeare progressed from writing comedies and histories in the 1590s (only four tragedies were begun before 1600), to tragedies in the early 1600s (he wrote six between 1603 and 1608), to writing more tonally ambiguous plays, many of which are classified as comedies in the First Folio, in the later 1600s and early 1610s. This has moved some critics to identify a group of ‘late plays’ which do not fit adequately in the genre categories in the First Folio.

Another reason for treating the generic classification of Shakespeare’s plays with caution is that themes run between the genres, and this is a consideration which is particularly relevant to this course. Questions concerning monarchy, royalty, patriotism, leadership, the relationship between political rulers and the masses are particularly concentrated in Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies— the genres which this course focuses on. A further reason for linking these groups of plays is that their different historical settings provided Shakespeare with different ways of coming at the same questions. To explore the relationship between rulers and the masses in an English historical context could have been controversial, since it could be seen to challenge the authority of the monarch at the time Shakespeare was writing. As a result, Shakespeare’s histories tend to treat this topic with caution. Conversely, in Shakespeare’s Roman plays, this topic is treated more fully because of the historical distance between ancient Rome and early modern England (‘early modern’ meaning the period between the end of the middle ages and the 18th century).


Reading Advice


When reading Shakespeare, always remember to make use of the notes at the bottom of the page. Also, the following tips may be useful:

  • If a sentence does not seem to make sense, try shuffling the word order.
  • What characters say in Shakespeare often implies what they do. Actions are necessarily always described in stage directions. An action may need to be inferred from the dialogue.
  • Shakespeare sometimes alludes to sources which are obscure today, many of them drawn from the classics (e.g. Greek and Roman culture) or the histories of Judaism and Christianity (especially the Bible). If it looks like he is making an allusion, it may help you to consult a Wikipedia or a reference book.
  • Shakespeare is a highly metaphorical author by modern standards. Often, the reader has to work out what the literal meaning of the metaphors is. It may help you to remember that metaphors are really comparisons between two things. To say ‘All the world’s a stage’ is really to say ‘the world is a like a stage in certain respects’.
  • Shakespeare uses many words which are not used in modern English. Some of these are obscure, but some recur. Try to spot the recurring words (e.g. ‘sirrah’ meaning ‘sir’ or ‘whence’ meaning ‘from where’ or ‘to where’).
  • Letters are often missed out of Shakespearean words and replaced with an apostrophe. These kinds of omissions were widely used to control the rhythm of the lines. Where you see an apostrophe, try to think what letter would most logically fill the space.
  • Shakespeare writes in verse (i.e. poetry, language with sustained rhythm) for formal scenes and prose (i.e. ordinary language) for comic or rude ones or ones involving characters from low down in the social hierarchy. Try to keep an eye on which he’s using.


When reading literary criticism, do not imagine that you need to understand everything or follow up every reference. Instead, read lightly to get an overall sense of the argument and the main points. You may also just want to read to see whether any particular ideas grab your attention.

Many authors of literary criticism will assume that readers are familiar with the names of famous writers and are aware of famous events and dates in history. This is partly because it would just take too long to explain everything. As you read more literary criticism, you will get used to the style or it and develop a frame of reference more like that of the people who write it. If it is a little confusing now, that is not problem. Looking up a few references and making a few notes will go a long way.

It is also important to remember that students and academics in the humanities rarely develop their subject knowledge by remembering everything they read. Instead, they read a lot, and slowly details from lots of different sources build up and form their subject knowledge. At school, there tends to be a greater focus on developing a very detailed knowledge of almost everything that it studied.


Reading Summaries


Anthony and Cleopatra

The year is around 40BCE. The Roman Empire rules over most the countries around Mediterranean Sea. Rome has been a Republic, ruled over by a senate of officials elected by citizens, but is in the process of becoming an Empire, ruled over by a single individual, ruling over numerous countries, without election. At the time the play is set, Rome is ruled by a triumvirate (that is, a group of three people), consisting of Mark Anthony, Octavius Caesar, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. In act 1, Caesar and Lepidus are in Rome, while Anthony is in Alexandria in Egypt, where he is pursuing a romantic relationship with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Caesar and Lepidus are frustrated that Anthony, who was a great military leader, seems to have lost his interest in politics. In act 2, Anthony has returned to Rome, with his close friend Domitius Enorbarbus. Enobarbus provides a vivid description for his Roman friends of the figure of Cleopatra.


The play is set at some point in the early 5th century BCE. Rome is a growing power. It was a monarchy (this is, a state ruled over by unelected, hereditary rulers) but has fairly recently become a Republic. When the play begins, the people of Rome are rioting because of shortages of grain and the ample food supplies enjoyed by the richest members of society. One of these, Menenius, tries to calm them down with logical and argument. The greatest military leader of the day, Caius Martius, then enters and expresses his contempt for them. Later in the play, Martius emerges as the protagonist (i.e. the main character) and is awarded the title Coriolanus after a stunning victory over the town of Corioli, which has been a rival to Rome. He is then persuaded to stand for election as consul, a senior position in the Republic. He easily wins the support of the Senate, a council of the most powerful figures in society, but fails to win the support of the citizens, who object to his contemptuous behaviour. As part of the election process, Coriolanus is required to wear a humble garment and show the wounds that he has acquired fighting for Rome to the people. He finds this process demeaning.

Henry V

The year is 1415. Henry V, the King of England, is engaged in a military campaign in northern France, officially to reclaim lands which are his by inheritance but which the French control. In Act 4, Henry fights the famous battle of Agincourt, in which the English win an extraordinary victory against a much larger French army. Before the battle, Henry disguises himself as an ordinary soldier in order to gauge the morale of his men. He also prays to God to grant him success in the battle, despite the fact that his father, Henry IV, stole the throne from the rightful king, Richard II.

Julius Caesar

The year is 44BCE. At the start of the play, the Roman general Julius Caesar, recently returned from successful campaigns in France, is widely rumoured to want to become king of Rome, thus bringing an end to the Republic. Partly to prevent this and partly out of jealousy for his success, a group of leading politicians conspire to murder him. After his death, two factions emerge, one led by his former friend Brutus and one led by the general and politician Mark Anthony. The split between the two factions emerges at Caesar’s funeral in Act 3 as Brutus and then Anthony try to win the support of the people of Rome.

King Lear

The play is set in dark-ages Britain, apparently before the arrival of Christianity from mainland Europe in 597AD. The English King Lear decides to retire from kingship, preserving the title and status of king for himself but handing responsibility for running the kingdom to his daughters, Goneril and Regan, and their husbands. His youngest daughter, Cordelia, would also have been given part of the responsibility, but she refuses to participate in the process, which involves Lear rewarding his daughters with regions of his kingdom in exchange for professions of their love for him. As the play progresses, Lear gradually loses all control of his kingdom and ends up effectively abandoned by his daughters. England descends into civil war. One of his few companions while this takes place is his personal fool or jester, who attempts, through wordplay and counterintuitive reasoning, to explain to Lear the errors he has made.


The play is set in mid-11th-century Scotland. The King of Scotland, Duncan, has recently fought off an invasion by the Norwegians and an internal challenge to the throne. In the aftermath of the fighting, one of his senior generals, Macbeth, hatches a plot to murder him and seize the throne. After wrestling with his conscience, Macbeth kills Duncan and realises his ambition. A reign of terror ensues, in which Macbeth, ever more racked by guilt about what he has done, murders more and more people in order to secure his position. While this is happening, Duncan’s son, Malcolm, flees to England where he works with the English and a refugee from Scotland, Macduff, to challenge Macbeth. In act 4, Malcolm and Macduff mourn the state that Scotland has fallen into under Macbeth’s rule and discuss the necessary qualities of a king. In the course of their discussion, Malcolm tests Macduff’s commitment to the cause by pretending to be an unsuitable candidate to replace Macbeth.

Richard II

The play is set in the 1390s. Richard II of England has kept an uncertain grip on the English throne and frustrated the nobility with his perverse decisions and fervent belief in his divine right to rule (meaning that he believes that he is appointed to be king by God and therefore has absolute authority over his subjects). After conducting a successful military campaign in Ireland, Richard returns to discover that a nobleman whom he banished to Europe, Henry Bolingbroke, has invaded England and is building an alliance against Richard. In act III, Richard begins to realise how serious the challenge by Bolingbroke is and begins to doubt his position as king.


Andrew Hadfield, ‘Shakespeare and Republicanism’

This book chapter considers the importance of republicanism, that is, the belief that states should be governed by a group of elected officials rather than a hereditary monarch, in the works of Shakespeare, focusing on Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello. To understand this topic, it is important to realise, first that ancient Rome was republican for a long period leading up to the assassination of Julius Caesar (an event which occurs in the plays Julius Caesar and forms the backdrop to the action of Antony and Cleopatra) and, second, that England was an hereditary monarchy for the whole of Shakespeare’s life (the only part of the early modern period when England was not an hereditary monarchy was after the English Civil War, from the execution of Charles I in 1649 to the coronation of his son Charles II in 1660). Hadfield points out that many figures in Shakespeare’s world were monarchists but were also deeply attracted to central figures in the Roman republic, such as the politician, lawyer, and writer Cicero. He also points out that many of them thought about the end of the Elizabethan period in 1603 in terms of the end of the Roman Republic.

Hadfield argues that Shakespeare did not express a clear opinion about republicanism but was clearly fascinated by it. He argues that Julius Caesar shows the failure of republican institutions like the senate (the Roman parliament) and move of those who feel betrayed by the state to seek solace in private friendship. Antony and Cleopatra, he argues, builds on this by showing how Octavius Caesar replaces a republican culture of debate among mutually respectful equals with an empire, centred on his own ruthlessly enforced power. Finally, Hadfield, the one example of a functioning republic in Shakespeare is not to be found in the Roman plays but Othello, which is set in Venice. Here the protagonist is able to defend himself from false allegations by speaking eloquently and producing evidence in a public court, yet this healthy political culture is threatened by Othello’s racist foes

Note: this is a relatively challenging source and may be best read selectively rather than end-to end.

Michael Hattaway, ‘Tragedy and Political Authority’

Here, Michael Hattaway argues that Shakespeare’s engagement with political ideas in his tragedies was politically destabilising. As he points out, almost all of Shakespeare’s tragedies involve someone acting violently against the official power in a state and some of them invite sympathy for the acts of rebellion that they depict. Theirs is historical evidence that the authorities in Shakespeare’s London—the crown (i.e. the monarchy), the Church (i.e., after the Reformation of the mid-16th century, the Church of England), and the City (i.e. the businessmen who managed the City of London)—found this dimension of early modern theatre unsettling. The connection between these authorities is important and complicated: on the one hand, many people in Shakespeare’s England saw obedience to magistrates as a religious duty; on the other, respected religious writers argued that rebellion against tyrants (i.e. monarchs who abuse their power) was legitimate.

In the second half of the chapter, Hattaway argues, first, that the idea of ‘divine right’ is complicated because monarchs might claim a divine right to rule but still allow that their actions had to be compatible with the law and, second, that early modern monarchs ruled through a system of display which was similar to the kind of display that was put on in English theatres.

Notes: in early modern England, the term ‘commonwealth’ could mean either ‘the common good’ or ‘a republican state’, ‘magistrate’ could mean any official appointed by and representing the monarch, ‘prince’ could mean any ruler or senior political official, and ‘subject’ meant someone who was required to obey or be answerable to someone else.

Tom Hoenselaars, ‘Shakespeare’s English history plays’

In this book chapter, Tom Hoenselaars attempts to characterise Shakespeare’s history plays, pointing out that they are difficult to classify in generic terms, have a wide geographical scope which encompasses the whole of the British Isles, and are not wholly concerned with faithfully representing what happened in the past. At the same time, Hoeneslaars suggests that Shakespeare was doing more than propping up the idea that the Tudor dynasty (the last of whose monarchs, Elizabeth I, was on the throne when he wrote most of his history plays) were legitimate inheritors of the throne and divinely appointed.

Hoeneselaars also compares Shakespeare with other writers of early modern history plays and notes that he was both less obviously anti-Catholic and more interested in rulers (that is, as opposed to subjects). He concludes by considering how Shakespeare’s history plays have been adapted and interpreted in the centuries after their first performance, emphasising their particular appeal at the height of the Cold War.

Notes: Heminges and Condell, who Hoenselaars refers to at several points, were two of the men involved in the publication of the First Folio in 1623.

Heather James, ‘Shakespeare’s Classical Plays’

In this book chapter, Heather James argues that Shakespeare’s classical heroes are animated more by a desire to be remembered in a certain way than his medieval and early modern ones. They desire not just power or stability but fame. They are also, she argues, less sympathetic, so that whereas a character like Macbeth can do dreadful things while creating sympathy for his plight, a character like Antony is more likely to appear ridiculous and remote. She suggests that one reason for this is that Shakespeare and his contemporaries saw their classical forebears as heathens, that is, adherents to the wrong religion. The core of the essay consists of a series of analyses of Shakespeare’s classical plays, complete with generous amounts of plot summary, emphasising the repeated importance in them of characters’ desire for fame.

Coppélia Kahn, ‘Shakespeare’s Classical Tragedies’

In this book chapter, Coppélia Kahn attempts to reconstruct what the classics were to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, emphasising that early modern perceptions of the classical world are different from what the classical world was actually like and different from how we perceive it today. For one thing, for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Rome, primarily associated in Shakespeare’s day with empire and Latin (which most educated people in early modern Europe spoke), was much more important than Greece, which is often thought about today in terms of literature, philosophy, and democracy. Nevertheless, Kahn argues, classicism was everywhere in early modern England, often taking the form of classical figures being held up as exemplars of virtuous or vicious behaviour.

Kahn provides an account of each of Shakespeare’s five classical plays, emphasising the importance in them of three principles, all closely connected to Roman notions of masculinity: emulation (meaning a squaring off between heroes); the showing of wounds as evidence of public service; and female chastity.

Michael Neill, ‘Shakespeare’s tragedies’

In this book chapter, Michael Neill argues that although several of Shakespeare’s plays are known as tragedies, a term borrowed from Greek literary theory, they were really a complex amalgamation of lots of different influences: some Greek and many Roman, medieval, or early modern, and some British and some continental. For instance, although many direct attention towards the nature of Greek and Roman civilisation, and challenges to it, they also contain comic scenes that owe something to the blurry generic distinctions of medieval Christian drama. Part of the reason or this is that, in the Christian worldview, many people, if not everyone, will ultimately be saved, a prospect which counts against the possibility of tragedy, if that means a truly catastrophic conclusion for a play’s protagonist and characters more generally. Towards the end of the chapter, Neill considers the importance of mortality and remembrance in Shakespeare’s tragedies, as many of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, such as Richard II and Othello, seem to grapple with the problem that, although they are great or have achieved great things, they will certainly die and almost certainly be forgotten.


Course Structure

Week 1

Monday: What can Shakespeare teach us about politics?

This seminar will discuss whether literature, and Shakespeare’s plays in particular, can be useful for thinking about politics, what parallels there might be between Shakespeare’s times and our own, and what difference there might be between using fictional and historical sources to inform our political thinking. It was also address the literary-theoretical question of whether Shakespeare’s intentions are recoverable and/or relevant.


Tuesday: the political context of Shakespeare’s plays.

This seminar will sketch the political context of Shakespeare’s writing and establish students’ prior knowledge of Shakespeare. Topics covered will include the classical inheritance, Judeo-Christian perspectives, monarchy and succession, the place of women and other disadvantaged groups in Shakespeare’s time, the relationship between England and other countries in the British Isles, and the relationship between Britain and Europe.


Wednesday: monarchy and responsibility part 1

This seminar will focus on a close analysis of Richard II, considering Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard’s attempts to legitimise his rule through appeals to divine right. Questions discussed will include whether the monarch is God’s representative on earth or an ordinary human being, whether might can make right, and how Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard may influence our answers to these questions.


Thursday: monarchy and responsibility part 2

This seminar will focus on a close analysis of Henry V. It will consider the relationship between monarchs and their subjects, how much responsibility a ruler should take for the indirect results of their actions, and how Shakespeare’s drama allows play-goers and readers to think about these questions from the monarch’s perspective.


Friday: The status of the monarch

This seminar will focus on a close analysis of King Lear. It will consider whether a monarch can only retain their status as monarch if they exercise power. It will also consider Shakespeare’s generation of pathos for the figure of Lear and how this may affect audiences’ and readers’ perceptions of his kingship.


Week 2

Monday: the character of the monarch

This seminar will focus on a close analysis of Macbeth but will also make reference to Anthony and Cleopatra. It will ask what qualities are needed for someone to be an effective ruler and will consider whether the presentation of Malcolm as a worthy successor to Macbeth is undermined by the sympathy that the play may generate for its protagonist.


Tuesday: the rulers and the masses part 1

This seminar will focus on a close analysis of Julius Caesar, focusing on how, in an elective system of government, the rulers must persuade the people to support them. It will consider what talents are needed to secure the support of the people and whether these the talents make for good rulers. The seminar will also consider the role of rhetoric and the relationship between the audience and the action of the play.


Wednesday: the rulers and the masses part 2

This seminar will focus on a close reading of Coriolanus and Shakespeare’s depiction of the psychology of the masses. It will consider questions of social equality and whether inequality can ever be justified. It will also consider Shakespeare’s use of contrast between the Roman people and the figures of Menenius and Caius Martius.


Thursday: the rulers and the masses part 3

This seminar will focus on a close reading of Coriolanus, focusing on what relationship exists (if any) between service to the state and love the people. It will also consider Shakespeare’s use of minor characters to represent the Roman people and the physical body of the actor playing Coriolanus.


Friday: the power of display and the display of power

This seminar with provide an opportunity to look back on all the texts covered. Beginning with a close analysis of Enobarbus’ famous description of Cleopatra from Anthony and Cleopatra, it will range across all the texts covered in the course, considering the different ways in which rulers attempt to convince others of their legitimacy to rule. The visual dimension of Shakespeare’s plays will receive particular attention.


Essay Questions:

Essay 1: In what ways and to what effects does Shakespeare depict political rulers?

Essay 2: Ultimately, Shakespeare is sympathetic towards rulers and contemptuous towards the masses. To what extent do you agree?


Where to go next:

If you want to learn more about Shakespeare, you may find the following useful:

  • Greenblatt, Stephen, Will in the World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005)
  • Kermode, Frank, Shakespeare's Language (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000)
  • McGuire, Laurie, and Emma Smith, 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
  • Shapiro, James, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (London: Faber and Faber, 2005)
  • Smith, Emma, This is Shakespeare (London: Pelican, 2019)
  • Wells, Stanley, Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)



[1] Line numbers are taken from the Arden 3 text, edited by John Wilders.