Troubador Shakespeare and Democracy

Released: 28/11/2015

ISBN: 9781784624248

Format: Paperback

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Shakespeare and Democracy

The Self-Renewing Politics of a Global Playwright


How we can relate Shakespeare to the politics of our time. Shakespeare moves towards a democratic concept of society over the course of his plays. His dramatisation of how societies hold together or break apart has fresh significance in an age when democracy faces new challenges at a global level. These are some of the conclusions of Gabriel Chanan’s illuminating new approach to Shakespeare’s plays. Chanan argues that even though Shakespeare could know nothing of modern democracy, he played a fundamental role in building the culture that underlies it. But democracy is still historically young, an incomplete global experiment, facing internal and external challenges and open to accusations of being misused to disguise exploitation. It needs continuing sustenance from Shakespeare’s critique of autocracy and models of open-ended thinking. Using abundant illustration from the plays, Chanan’s argument is accessible to those without specialist knowledge, yet throws new light on academic debates. He traces the political significance of Shakespeare in terms of development across his work. There are critical turning points: from depicting the external actions of kings to their dreams and nightmares; from critiquing individual reigns to questioning the institution of monarchy; from exposing the errors and evils of rulers to the question of how others can repair the damage. There are also contradictory elements, but ultimately it is Shakespeare’s method, even more than his subject matter, which is essential to democracy, showing that there is no fixed right perception of reality, which must be managed by the interaction of opposites. Teachers will find this book immensely useful in explaining to pupils why Shakespeare is relevant now, and where the political themes of an individual play fit into the wider pattern of his work. It gives the essential historical context succinctly and tackles theory with a light touch.

Reviews and notices of ‘Shakespeare and Democracy’

A pleasure to read... Chanan does a remarkable job of developing and defending his difficult thesis. Shakespeare and Democracy comes as a breath of fresh air in the unventilated atmosphere of contemporary Shakespearean scholarship. This is a book to stimulate a new interest in the old reader; it is a book to excite a first interest in the new reader.
- Christopher Mulvey, Emeritus Professor of English, University of Winchester, 2015

Really good analysis of Shakespeare's works, and a good summation of Shakespeare's stance on democracy. Chanan details what the meaning of democracy is, and points out how Shakespeare (a writer living under what we would today call a dictatorship) managed to manipulate his plays to show a glimpse of an alternative system.
- Goodreads, Nov 24 2015

A very valuable addition to the Shakespeare 'canon' - excellent reading for those who like to see the background from which the plays sprang, the tricky part Shakespeare had to play between the very touchy and dangerous Royal Court and the rapid changes taking place at ground level in late-Tudor England.
- Giulia , Amazon, 2 Dec 2015
I want to draw attention to powerful insights into the evolution of democracy, with reference to Gabriel Chanan’s marvelously lucid and readable book Shakespeare and Democracy. Gabriel explains how Shakespeare played a fundamental role in building the culture that underlies modern democracy: he also argues that that contribution ‘continues to be essential to its survival and further progress’. This point is well worth pondering on the day when Barrack Obama visited the Globe Theatre in London.
- Kevin Harris, blog, Local Level, 23 4 2016

In Shakespeare and Democracy: The Self-Renewing Politics of a Global Playwright, Gabriel Chanan writes intelligently on what Shakespeare has to teach a modern audience about participatory politics... Chanan offers a satisfying way to pose big-ticket political questions through Shakespeare’s plays.
- Kevin Curran, Recent studies in Tudor and Stuart Drama, Houston, Texas: Rice University, 2017

In Shakespeare and Democracy: The Self-Renewing Politics of a Global Playwright, Gabriel Chanan sifts through over half the plays in the canon asking a simple and direct question—What is Shakespeare’s attitude towards democracy?—meaning not so much a system of political representation as a just and egalitarian society and culture. Chanan’s main conclusions could be summarized as follows: that Shakespeare’s dialectical method, his way of showing both sides of an argument, in itself ‘aligns naturally with democracy’ (p. 197); that there are nevertheless ‘social blind-spots in the plays’, particularly in the treatment of Shylock and Caliban; and that reading the plays in the order of composition highlights a development in Shakespeare’s attitude, moments when his ‘trajectory’ towards democracy ‘goes into reverse’ (p. 189). This happens at those points in time when he is closest to the power structures of his day, that is, when he is writing the second historical tetralogy and the court is beginning to take note of this successful dramatist, and in late plays such as Henry VIII and The Tempest... On the other hand, The Winter’s Tale is presented in the conclusion as ‘an important stepping stone towards democracy’ (p. 208) thanks to the character of Paulina, who, like the servant who dies trying to prevent the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear (‘Shakespeare’s greatest hero’, p. 183), exemplifies the lower classes’ prerogative to mitigate the dangerous arbitrariness of power. This very readable book... offers a number of arresting insights.
- Elizabetta Tarantino, The Year’s Work in English Studies, VII, Shakespeare, Oxford Academic, 2017

I have just finished one of the best books on Shakespeare I have read in decades...Gabriel Chanan suggests that over the course of Will's working life his political views became more focused... Gradually, he became aware that the current system of rule by birthright, or rebellion, or by war, or by political fix, had so many inherent faults that the resulting misery of war and cruelty was unbearable. He did not offer a solution because he had none but he did analyse and display the fault lines... This is a terrific book. It helps if, like me, you have a smattering of knowledge of Shakespeare's plays but you certainly do not need to be expert. This book is a 'must read'.
- David Duff, ‘Let’s kill all the scholars’, Blog, 27 June 2017

Studies in English Language

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Gabriel Chanan

Gabriel is a social researcher and playwright. He directed research and policy at the Community Development Foundation from 1990 to 2005. From 2005-8 he advised UK government on policies to stimulate residents to be actively involved in their local communities. He carried out pioneering Europe-wide research on resident involvement in urban regeneration, and has written widely on strategies for community development.

His book for Troubador, Shakespeare and Democracy,has also provided the basis for two plays about Shakespeare.

See for more about both the book, the plays and Gabriel's work on community development.

For direct contact write to [email protected]

Photo by Noel Chanan

Portrait by Aurora Spain
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