Shakespeare, Marx and Theatre: An Interview with Dominic Dromgoole

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Shakespeare, Marx and Theatre: An Interview with Dominic Dromgoole

By Christian Smith (University of Warwick


Dominic Dromgoole is Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe inLondon – photo by Sheila Burnet

Part 1: The tectonic plates of history and the democracy of multitudinous impulses

I know that I have a lot to learn from theatre, and it was with that purpose that I set off on a train toLondonto interview actor, director, and author Dominic Dromgoole about the relationship between Marxism and Shakespearean theatre.  My research topic–Shakespeare’s influence on Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud–causes me to spend much of my time ensconced in theory, sifting through threads of intertextuality stretched across centuries and languages.  It is easy for the theorist to forget that Shakespeare’s plays were written to be enjoyed in the theatre, not to be studied in the seminar room and that one of my target theorists, Karl Marx, was a lover of and frequent visitor to the theatre. 

In an interview and in one of his books,[i] Dromgoole, when describing some plays, referred to them as “Marxist”. I wondered what this meant in the theatre. Here is his answer:

“I think probably what I mean when I say that about Michael Bogdanov and his productions [English Shakespeare Company]is they were acutely aware, moment by moment, that all forms of class are in some way a reflection of violence and that class itself is an act of violence, and that the achievement of material or temporal power is a matter of struggle and a matter of oppression of others. It was the history cycle, so it’s kings and queens, and whereas often with kings and queens they sort of walk on as if they are part of the natural order of things or some sort of given medieval world order. In Bogdanov’s productions there was a constant sense that these people were enacting minor and major acts of oppression to get where they were and then to stay where they were, that it wasn’t something given; it was always a result of some degree of struggle, and that people suffered as a concomitant of other people doing well.

“With the other plays, Holding Firewas, broadly speaking a very Left-wing argument play about the Chartist movement, the early trades union movement. It was about degrees of reform/revolution and which is the healthier at any given moment and whether incrementalism and slowly nudging forward is the right way to achieve social change or whether violent revolution and taking to the streets and subverting things is the right method and whether it actually ends up being a balance of the two of them.  It was written by an acutely political writer and acutely politically knowledgeable man.

We, the People was written by an American author, Eric Schlosser…he certainly comes at things from a, broadly speaking, Marxist understanding of history. We, the Peoplewas about the creation of America and about the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and how they formed a constitution. It was one at the same time hopeful about this extraordinary collection of men who were very learned and philosophically open-minded, came together in a room to write what a country should be and what a country could be and at the same time critical and cynical about the fact that they were all land-grabbers, and that was a large part of what they were doing. They didn’t account for the black population and they didn’t account for women. And so it’s this funny mix of great social hope and the seeds of its own destruction.

“What I am saying with those three plays is that they are not about private psychological muttering. They are not about exhibitions of emotional pain. They are about viewing the world as a social entity in a permanent state of struggle and change and that private stories are a small part of that bigger landscape where the tectonic plates of history are shifting.”

Dromgoole then thought for a moment and continued with this:

“I think that in a very profound way, that is what Shakespeare is about throughout all of him, and in an equally profound way it’s what the Globe, as an architectural space, demands; Is that you need, underneath the plays, some sense of history on the move or history shifting or tectonic plates nudging against each other in aggressive ways for the play to have sufficient weight and ballast to survive in there…With Shakespeare, throughout, the tensions that are there between two different religious ideas, the post-reformation, the catholic, and the protestant, between a burgeoning growing mercantile middle class that was educated, ambitious and thoughtful and a conservative, neo-feudalist social order, and various other civil wars in the English spirit that have been there always and that will always be there. All of those tensions are under every phrase of Shakespeare and the bigger world picture. I think the Globe needs that sort of underpinning.”

The three plays that Dromgoole called “Marxist” depict three very central Marxist issues: the class struggle (the history cycles), the strategies of revolution (Holding Fire) and the economic underpinnings of any political movement (We, the People).  I also recognized the similarity between the constant historical struggle–the “tectonic plates nudging against each other in aggressive ways”–depicted by Shakespeare in his plays and that same struggle in Marx’s theory of historical materialism.  What fascinated me the most was Dromgoole’s notion that theatre itself needs this historical struggle “to have sufficient weight and ballast to survive”.  If this is so, then theatre and Marxism share the same aesthetic feel–the clash of opposing forces and the drama that ensues from that.

It seemed to me, before talking with Dromgoole, that both Shakespearean plays and Marxism share a dialectic view of the world.  They stage the struggle between two opposing forces and depict the interaction between the surface and the depth. (This notion of surface and depth in Shakespeare is the topic of the upcoming 2012 British Shakespeare Association conference).  I asked Dromgoole how this relationship between the surface and depth can be depicted on stage.  His answer deepened my understanding of theatre and possibly also of Marxism:

The same way that you do in life. You can’t make your way through a world on the presumption that people live with a single motivation, or with a single purpose, with a single objective. Which why often Stanislavski and acting methodology is very reductive and very simplified, because you try to give a single objective to everything, and often we don’t operate on a single objective. Often we operate on a whole noisy democracy of different objectives which is shouting in our head at ay one moment. If you are going to produce a performance which is genuinely alive you have to reflect that capacity for contrary impulses. So that Shylock can at one and the same moment be an immensely sympathetic grieving father who’s lost the most important thing to him that he didn’t know how to love or care for, which is his daughter. And at the same time he is pathological in his desire for vengeance and his anger which is completely destructive. It’s the only thing that is holding him together as a human being. You don’t just have surface and depth, you have breadth and you have different lighting and you have shades within that lighting and you have different sorts of matter. 

“If you stay on the moment in Shakespeare, and I suppose this is where Shakespeare might have influence Marx, you hold a whole collection of contraries within yourself, which is what he was writing, and you don’t necessarily resolve all of those disputes within a personality just as you don’t in life. The good impulse and the bad impulse are always at war within us.”

I then interjected: “Shakespeare is fundamentally dialectical.” And he replied:

I think that dialectical is a simplification, because dialectic implies a constant working out of opposites towards some sort of solution. I think Shakespeare’s fundamentally democratic. And that, just as in within every play, each person is of equal value, within each every personality in his plays, there are a democratic collection of different impulses, contexts, desires, which play out in random and often surprising ways.

 “Shylock is, in essence, the most noticeable example of that capacity for so many different interpretations getting on within one personality, which is what has always drawn audiences and actors especially towards him. Is that he is a fantastic stew and like any stew there’s an enormous amount of flavours going into it and an enormous amount of ways of responding to it.

 “I don’t think that Shakespeare constructed anything out of a deliberate intellectual understanding. I think that he was an improviser. He was an acute listener to people

He was a great jazzer. When he heard a tune he loved, he just went with it. He listened to people very well, so that he could reproduce them well, mimic them well, impersonate them well. But then, once he started playing that music in his own head, he went with the boldest music.

 “He wasn’t a philosopher. He didn’t have an intention. He heard a music and he set that music down. And it was a music based on an almost supernatural ability to hear people and see people clearly, and then to riff and to improvise on what he’d seen and what he’d heard…he was an amazingly absorbent sponge; he could pick up a book and grasp Montaigne and law or listen to a conversation about how ships were made and get a sense of how ships were made or talk to a gardener about the nature of plants between here and Stratford and just absorb masses of information quickly. He was just able to write with this astonishing breadth.


[i] Dromgoole, Dominic, Will and Me. London: Penguin. 2006. 157. Koenig, Rhoda. Dominic Dromgoole: Shakespeare’s Rule-breaker.  The Independent 1 May 2008.


Author:Nick Walton

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

    Dromgoole’s a gaping arsehole

  • Christian Smith

     Thanks Humphrey. More evidence of Shakespeare’s influence on popular culture. I’ll be posting a blog about my Shakespeare influence on Freud research soon.

  • IAGO
    Good my lord, pardon me:
    Though I am bound to every act of duty,
    I am not bound to that all slaves are free to.
    Utter my thoughts? Why, say they are vile and false;
    As where’s that palace whereinto foul things
    Sometimes intrude not? who has a breast so pure,
    But some uncleanly apprehensions
    Keep leets and law-days and in session sit
    With meditations lawful?

    -Othello Act III Scene III

    If you are interested in Freud and Shakespeare there is a book called ‘The Interpretation of Murder’, a typical fast-paced thriller that has a re-occuring focus on Hamlet and other Shakespearean plays throughout it’s narrative. Nothing special but good fun, I love a ripping yarn

  • Fviceconti

    It’s interesting to note that all the Marxist links and class references to Shakespeare work water down when Shylock is mentioned… As someone who has understanding of Marxism, it’s clear to me that Shakespeare is not only  portraying Shylock as the “grieving father who’s lost the most important thing to him that he didn’t know how to love or care for, which is his daughter”…; 
     but he is also referring to a character anchored in the social/class reality of that time; a character who happens to be Jewish. And then boxed in “analysts” cry anti-Semitic to Shakespeare..
    Besides, Marxism seems to go out of the window with the statement that “I think that dialectical is a simplification.”  And on the same breath “dialectic implies a constant working out of opposites towards some sort of solution.”    Admittedly, dialectics  implies a fighting out of contradictory forces within a complex society and the considering of many layers and class actors; nothing simplifying as Dominic Dromgoole wants.

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