“All the world’s a stage” (no.7 in series)

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In the run-up to The Ninth World Shakespeare Congress in Prague I posted a selection of blogs from grant winners looking forward to that event. Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting a selection of blogs from some  more of those grant winners, giving a taste of the papers they presented at the conference.  This week’s contribution comes from Christian Smith, who is coming towards completing his PhD at the University of Warwick.

Shakespearean Marx /Marxist Shakespeare

A Life with Shakespeare

In 1834 Ludwig von Westphalen, a progressive city counsellor in the Prussian town of Trier, took his best friend’s teenage son for intellectual walks on trails in the woods by the river Mosel (such as the one pictured above).  He felt that it was important to imbue his young friend with a love for literature so he recited lines from Shakespeare to him.  The youth began reading the plays and took them with him when he left home for university where he studied literature with A. W. Schlegel and decided that he would become a poet himself.  He wrote many love poems to his girlfriend, von Westphalen’s daughter, Jenny.

The young man switched his university studies to philosophy, but kept his love of Shakespeare.  His essays about philosophy, which sought to radicalize G. W. F. Hegel’s theories, are filled with Shakespearean quotes, imagery and allusions.  By 1848 the young man had become one of the most electrifying intellectual forces inEuropeand his writings were a catalyst for the revolutions that spread across the continent.  He famously wrote that in capitalism “all that is solid melts into air,” an allusion to Hamlet’s lines. This young man, who matured his intellect in the light of Shakespeare’s plays, was Karl Marx.

Marx read the plays, first in the Schlegel/Tieck translation and then in English, every year for the rest of his life.  He learned entire scenes by heart and acted them out with his family and friends.  Biographers say that he learned English partly through his engagement with Shakespeare. While living in London, in the second half of his life, Marx was a frequent visitor to the Shakespearean theatre, and hosted a Shakespeare reading group, the Dogberry Club, at his house.  His wife, Jenny, wrote Shakespearean criticism and his daughters were key members of Furnivall’s New Shakespeare Society.  The Marx family’s favourite actor was Henry Irving.  When they lived on Maitland Park Road, the Marx clan would hike en masse up to Hampstead Heath singing German songs and reciting lines from Shakespeare.

Marx quotes from or alludes to twenty-nine of Shakespeare’s plays for a total of one hundred and sixty six instances during his forty-year writing career.  His intertextual engagement with Shakespeare can be seen as a formative influence on his writings because he makes use of the quotations at critical junctures in his writings, suggesting their role in the theoretical transformations that occur at those junctures.  He uses imagery, characterization, and plot turns from the plays to help fashion his developing theories about consciousness, economics, history and philosophy.  His reading is complex and works at multiple levels, as does Shakespeare’s original.  By mapping these multiple meanings over the contours of Marx’s theory, a formative influence becomes visible. Through his use of the precedent, Marx offers his readers a critical reading of Shakespeare that sees the plays through new eyes.  And it is these eyes that form the root of modern Marxist Shakespearean criticism.

I am curious to know how the history above affects your image of Karl Marx.  Does it fit the picture that you had of him? Have you ever noticed a Shakespearean influence in Marx’s writings?  Have you come across Shakespearean quotes in his work? What did you make of them? What plays do you think best depict the issues that Marx wrote about (albeit anachronistically)?

Karl Marx with his family and Friedrich Engels at Hampstead Heath

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (along with Charles University, Prague, and The International Shakespeare Association) sponsored individuals from Argentina, Romania, Hungary, India, Russia, Canada, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, and Chile to attend the World Shakespeare Congress 2011.  Make sure that you follow this series to hear from more of our award winners  who will be talking about the ways in which Shakespeare is a subject for research, performance, and conversation across the globe.

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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